Is Washington Washed Up?

I’m writing this the day after the Michigan and Arizona primaries. All day yesterday I was on the phone buzzing with friends and colleagues about the exit poll results that were dribbling in. I had some other non-political stories to write, but I couldn’t concentrate on them; the news of the McCain surge was too fascinating. Then I went home and had dinner with some old friends who’d come to Washington to see the monuments and museums. I excused myself early because I had to go down to NPR for some Election Night punditry.

Punditry is usually fun; it’s satisfying to have your say. But on nights like last night, it was really fun. Something dramatic was happening. The McCain victory means that we’re going to have a competitive campaign for at least another several weeks. Plus nobody knows what is going to happen; we’re in uncharted waters. The studio had that concentrated energy that news outlets get when people are reporting on something live. There are judgments to be made—should outlying poll results be reported, or are they unreliable—and after it is all over reporters get a sense of elation because they’ve pulled it all together without falling down on their faces.

I was supposed to have drinks with my visiting friends at their hotel at 10 p.m., and I had 40 minutes to kill, so I drove around the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial listening to the radio. It was wonderful. As a journalist, I was happy because there was a story breaking, and I was happy as an American because, though I haven’t hesitated to say nasty things about him, I agree with a lot of the policies and ideas John McCain represents.

I started thinking about what it must feel like to work in a campaign or an administration on a victory night. This will never happen to me—I’m a journalist, not a politico—but just imagine how the Clinton people must have felt on Election Night of 1992. They must have been filled with a giddy sense of victory. Campaigns are brutal and gut-wrenching; it must feel wonderful to come out on top. But the victors must have also been seized with a sense of the awesome opportunity. Even the most shallow and cynical of them must have paused for a moment to look back across the great sweep of American history and its future possibilities. To know that you and your crowd are going to get your turn in the White House. To know that you’re going to get your chance to make history. That must be an awesome feeling.

In a sense, that feeling undergirds life in Washington and makes it more meaningful than life elsewhere. It touches the people in government directly, but it touches the rest of us who talk, write, lobby, and petition. We’re all scrambling to get ahead like people everywhere else, but we also have a sense that somehow we’re contributing our little bit of brainpower to the national well-being, a feeling that is not totally delusional. No, there aren’t massive issues like World War II or the Cold War, but even if you go down to some pathetic Finance Committee hearing and sit among the lobbyists, you still have the sense that billions of dollars are at stake and the issues that are decided will touch lots of people. (People in Silicon Valley get excited by such small numbers. They talk about a billion dollars as if it were a large amount of money, whereas during the annual budget process, the secretary of human services wouldn’t bother to pick up a billion dollars if she saw it lying in the street—in a trillion dollar budget, it wouldn’t be worth the effort.)

Washington has its rituals: black-tie dinners, White House conferences, Smithsonian lectures, National Trust for Historic Preservation slide shows, fund-raisers, and there are constant subtle or not-so-subtle reminders that we are in the capital city of the most powerful nation on earth, and there are opportunities to accomplish things not possible in Albany or Harrisburg or Brussels or Berlin.

And this unique quality attracts great people. I’d be bored to death on a college campus. I find most academic disputes otherworldly and arcane. But Washington, which attracts the most educated population in the world, also attracts many of the most interesting people. I’m not quite sure I can buy your line that World Bank parties are wonderful, but I do know that places like the World Bank, the embassies, the big media outlets, the National Institutes of Health, the think tanks, and the activist organizations are full of people who not only read books but have seen a fair bit of the real world.

Later in the day I’m going to sit on a panel to discuss John Judis’ book The Paradox of American Democracy at the Woodrow Wilson Center. We’re going to talk about the history of Progressivism and the role of elites in modern society and all that stuff. Our audience will probably be small because there are hundreds of similar panels taking place in Washington every day. People romanticize the Cold War era, but then there wasn’t much in the way of intellectual and cultural life. But now the town is stuffed with it. When I moved back here from Europe, I overheard two scientists in a playground discussing Isaac Newton—a sign of how Washington has evolved.

I want to get on to your point about the new versus the old Washington, those AOL types out in the burbs. But I’ve written too much already so maybe we can talk more about that in our third exchange.