Is Washington Washed Up?

David Brooks is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard and author of the forthcoming book Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (click hereto buy it). Michael Elliott is the editor of Newsweek International.This week they debate whether Washington, D.C., has lost its vitality. 

A friend of mine who read the first of these exchanges said, with a world-weary tone, that he didn’t think he’d learn much from them—we agree on too much. And to an extent, that’s right. I agree with you, for example, that there’s far more intellectual stimulation in Washington than the conventional wisdom allows; and I know what you mean about the sheer thrill of Washington when a big political story breaks. Been there.

Still, there is an important difference between us, I think, and it does bear on the role that Washington plays and will play in the nation. Long ago, in another country, when I was first starting out as a writer on politics, an intelligent politician taught me a lesson that’s stayed with me ever since. For many of his colleagues, he said, politics was an all-encompassing passion—it was as if they were members of a soccer team, utterly bound up in the search for a victory. The problem was, he continued, that most normal people were only occasional spectators of the political contest; they concentrated on the game when something exciting happened, but for most of the time they went about their business, eating hot dogs and drinking coffee. If you thought that politics was the only—or even the most important—thing in life, in other words, you’d soon lose touch with what was really important. (If the wizards at Slate have their act together, they would now hotlink to the W.B.Yeats poem “Politics,” which makes the same point more elegantly.)

I think my friend was dead right, to coin a phrase. (Have you read David Frum’s book on the ‘70s, incidentally? Spectacularly good. Now looking forward to your opus.) It’s not a sign of a dysfunctional society to believe that politicians and those who wait on them are a little bit weird. In my experience, most of them are. But in Washington’s golden age—my 60 years of overlapping crises—that didn’t matter so much, because the game was being played for such high stakes that it was genuinely exciting. Yes, sure, fine, it will be again, one day—and then Washington will attract the best and brightest, and Slate will relocate lock, stock, and barrel from Seattle. But honestly, does anyone look at the prospect of this year’s election and seriously believe that any of the candidates are going to shake us up the way that a Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, or Reagan did? Not, surely, John McCain, a fine and brave man, doubtless, but hardly one who seems to have thought through what he would do with the office of president. And what, in truth, do McCain’s supporters want him to do, other than bring a much needed dignity back to the White House?

To bolster my case, I’d also argue that the shift of power and excitement away from political capitals is not a purely American phenomenon. British politics has lost its zest (the House of Commons is virtually empty most days), and much governmental power has been dispersed to Scotland, Wales, and the big cities—quite rightly, too. In Germany, even and spectacularly in France, the hot items of the zeitgeist now have nothing to do with politics or government—instead, the buzz is all about the Internet, the genome, the coolest mobile phone.

But here’s the difference. London and Paris aren’t diminished when politics takes a back seat—there’s enough other stuff there to make those cities vibrant, lively, compelling. But for what we have to come to understand as “Washington,” it’s politics or nothing, baby. The Shakespeare Theatre—great. (But that’s one theater.) The Kennedy Center—when did you last go there? Wolf Trap—please. Magazines, fashion, sports, business, finance, the great hum and drive of a city in action … none of those essentials are present in any quantity in Washington, and I see no pressing sign that they will be any time soon. Still love the place, though. Might retire there.