Is Washington Washed Up?

There have been two strands to our discussion. First, is politics in decline? Second, is Washington dull? Now that we’re at the end of our little symposium, I’m more convinced than ever that both those propositions are false.

First, on politics. As I’m sure you know, people outside the Beltway are incredibly out of touch with reality. Only us Potomac-fever types have our fingers on the pulse. And one of the things we’re talking about is that while politics has indeed been small-scale since the Cold War, there has also been a turnout explosion in one primary state after another. More people turned out to vote in the Michigan Republican primary than ever before. In South Carolina, twice as many people turned out as last time. As we who work within a mile of the White House like to say, “there’s something happening out there.” It may not be a Teddy Roosevelt mobilization, as you say, but isn’t it possible that just as in 1900, and just as in 1960, people are moving up the hierarchy of needs? The pocketbook issues are not as pressing, so they are looking for a little idealism. It’s possible that politics is about to get interesting in unexpected ways.

Second, on the alleged dullness of Washington. The key to our disagreement on this score is over whether there is non-political life outside of Washington. One lousy Shakespeare theater. The Kennedy Center, which, it’s true, I haven’t been to in about six months (I have three small kids). But it’s outdated to think that Washington is anything like the town it was even a decade ago. What is the key to our age? It is that we live in an economy that, to an unprecedented extent, rewards education with money (this is one of the conditions I describe in my book, which you’ve kindly allowed me to drag into the discussion). What is Washington? The most highly educated metropolitan area in America. And I’m not only talking about lawyers, activists, and think-tankers. They are just a tiny fraction. There is the National Institutes of Health, which sprouts off biotech firms and the genome mappers. There is the Defense Department, which sprouts off technology companies of all shapes and sizes. That, in turn, has created a nucleus of tech geeks, who can hop from AOL to one of the other tech firms and back again. There are market-research firms that rely on brainpower, such as Claritas, telecom firms such as MCI, and squads of consultants from Arthur Andersen and such.

When you get such a concentration of highly educated people, you get culture. It isn’t so much traditional downtown culture—though there is much of that. We’re also seeing a sprouting of suburban culture of the sort totally unknown in places like London and Paris. Montgomery and Fairfax counties are dotted with new-style suburbs that are sophisticated and interesting.

Moreover, this highly cultivated population is reproducing itself. There are public schools in the suburbs where the average SAT scores are over 600 in both verbal and math. And these public schools are not even the magnet schools. In those schools, the average SAT score is over 700. These smart kids are going to thrive, and many of them will remain in Washington. Realtors tell me that you used to notice when administrations changed because there was more action in the real-estate market. Now the political world is such a small part of the economy that political cycles make no difference.

Washington, as I said, is already one of the richest areas in the country and one of the brainiest. Put money and brains together and you will get more culture.

Will it be like Paris and London at their peaks? Maybe not. America has never been structured that way. Will it be as exciting and powerful as it was in the 1950s and 1960s? Easily. Remember, Washington wasn’t as central then as we sometimes imagine. Think back to the 1950s. Do you think Washington or do you think suburbs? Think of the 1960s: Washington or Woodstock? Think of the 1970s: Washington or feminism? I’d say that in each decade, even at the height of the Cold War, cultural change was at least as important as or more important than political change. People like your politicians who were obsessed with politics were wackos, then just as now.

Finally, I return to the point I started with, on which I think we agree. Private commercial life is limited. People who have been successful tend to look to public life for meaning. I just did a story on a guy named Dan Snyder, who owns the Washington Redskins. He’s all of 35, but he lost interest in his direct-mail firm and just sold it for about $2 billion. He found meaning in owning the Redskins, which is practically a public office in Washington.

I’ve long admired your writing, and it’s been a pleasure to commune with you. When you’re not hopping about the globe, maybe we could explore the new Washington, or as I prefer to see it, the current Rome and the future Athens.