Welcome to Washington

A primer for the Obama family.

As a U.S. senator, President-elect Barack Obama has been a part-time Washingtonian for four years. But Washington remains largely terra incognita to Obama’s Chicago-raised wife, Michelle; to his two young daughters, Malia and Sasha; and to his mother-in-law, Marian Robinson, who will move to D.C. to be near the family. To introduce the Obama family to the eccentricities of the federal city, Slate excerpts the following primer from Reputation: Portraits in Power, a new anthology of profiles by Marjorie Williams. Williams, a frequent contributorto Slate, died in 2005. The book is edited by her husband, Slate senior writer Timothy Noah, who also edited an earlier collection of Williams’ work, The Woman at the Washington Zoo: Writings on Politics, Family, and Fate.

The essay that follows was written in 1993 as another Democratic president—Bill Clinton—was settling into the White House. Glaringly dated references have been edited out, but it’s still remarkable how little of the city’s character has changed.

“Washington City is the poorest place in the United States from which to judge the temper of the nation,” wrote a columnist named Frank Carpenter in 1882. “Its citizens have a different outlook on life than those of the individual states, and the atmosphere is artificial and enervating.”

Two centuries after the city’s founding, Carpenter’s observation makes a good starting point for a tour of the capital’s soul. For Washington is a much-maligned city, butt of a thousand campaign slurs and target of resentment by the legions of Americans who feel estranged from their government. And no one dumps on the city more than the people who live here. This is not, we tell ourselves guiltily, the real America. The population is too transient, we say, too obsessively focused on government. The city is provincial, we add. The theater is still second-rate at best, the food—despite the ethnic enclaves and a small if growing number of inspired restaurants—a pale shade of the diversity that New York or Chicago can offer.

The wise defender of Washington knows that you will get nowhere by trying to refute the common criticisms; you must begin by embracing them. To love Washington is to champion its amateur status as a city. Washington is unfashionable, and God bless it. Despite the grandly conceived boulevards and circles, laid out by Pierre L’Enfant in 1791, the city feels more suburban than urban—in design, in atmosphere, in ethos. Gore Vidal wrote, correctly, of the “calculated dowdiness” of old-line Washington society. This is a town of the comfortably, proudly unchic—of the grosgrain hair band, the plaid skirt, and the boiled-wool jacket. When Washington does feint in the direction of trendiness, it comes across like a man in midlife crisis sporting bell-bottoms and a bolo tie. The city’s priorities are simply different from those of other cities. Although there are a great many six-figure salaries here, the superrich are almost absent, and along with them the need for plumage. Washington is less about money than—exactly as the flabby clichés insist—about power. Its credit system is proximity; its currency, information.

There are two distinct Washingtons—the local city and the national capital. The former is the actual community made up of the District of Columbia and its booming suburbs. It is one of America’s youngest great cities and one of its most paradoxical stories of urban success and failure. Supported by the steady engine of federal spending, greater Washington is one of the richest metropolitan areas in America, measured by education level and household income. Washington also has one of the highest per capita murder rates in the country. Race relations follow the same pattern. The area is home to a huge proportion of middle- and upper-income blacks, but the city itself retains a depressing level of informal segregation. Washington proper is a mecca for African-Americans, with a thriving black culture, but white Washingtonians know little about this side of the city. To the hordes who are drawn to the city by ambition, it is Washington’s other life—its role as the national capital—that has the most vivid reality. This split personality is the continuing legacy of Washington’s birth, for it was a capital before it was a city, selected by George Washington in 1791 on behalf of a bickering Congress. Only after the location was chosen, for its ambidextrous appeal to both the North and the South, was Pierre L’Enfant commissioned to make it real.

How far apart the two Washingtons lie was rather poignantly suggested in 1990, when federal authorities set up an undercover drug purchase in Lafayette Park, just across the street from the White House, in order to provide a prop—a seized bag of crack cocaine—for a televised speech by President George H.W. Bush. (The president intended to hold up the bag of crack and intone sadly that drugs were sold everywhere—even across the street from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.) Alas, when the order went forth to find the evidence, it turned out that crack arrests were unknown in the heavily policed blocks surrounding the president’s home. In the end, someone had to be induced to sell crack across the street from the White House. When the Drug Enforcement Administration instructed its mark, a local dealer, that the buy would take place in Lafayette Park, he said, “Uh, where?”

Across the street from the White House, the agents explained.

“Where the fuck is the White House?” asked the dealer, who had grown up in southeast D.C.

To the city’s striving political class, of course, the White House is and always will be the center of the universe. This state of mind is summed up, for me, by the view from the Presidential Suite of the Hay-Adams Hotel, where Bill Clinton spent his first night in Washington as president-elect. If you gaze out the south-facing window in the sitting room, across petite Lafayette Park, the White House is a thing of marzipan, improbably near and intimate in scale. To the initiated, Washington is a place where power seems just this seductively close at hand. I spent my wedding night in the same suite at the Hay-Adams and keep a rich memory of it. I like to imagine that late at night, after meeting with the outgoing president and fending off the press and dining with a few dozen ambitious strangers, Bill and Hillary turned out all the lights and stole over to the window in their bathrobes to assimilate at last the awesome turn in their lives.

The fables of power in Washington are, of course, 95 percent hooey; the truth is far more prosaic. Policy is made by a thousand tiny engines. A Cabinet secretary has social firepower, but it’s the analysts who report to the deputy assistant secretaries who are really writing the rules, along with certain staff members on certain Senate and House subcommittees—the men and women who live for the day the Washington Post will describe them as “key staffers.” And they aren’t out at Hollywood’s idea of a Glittering Washington Party; they’re back at their scrungy government-issue desks, scarfing down a Domino’s pizza over another late-night assignment. Under either party, late-night revelry is unknown to “official” Washington. It’s been suggested that one reason sex scandals have such an explosive impact on Washington is that there is so little sex going on here in the first place.

A different kind of myth obscures Washington’s charm for the casual visitor, who may find that the city’s most renowned features are some of its most overrated. The cherry blossoms may be beautiful, yes, but the area around the Tidal Basin is always mobbed while they are in flower, and the glory lasts for only a few days before the scene disintegrates into what looks like bare trees banked in patches of wadded Kleenex. (Far better to spend an afternoon in the gardens of Georgetown’s glorious Dumbarton Oaks.) The Museum of American History at the Smithsonian surprises you with the feel of a crowded attic. (Try, instead, a Sunday afternoon at the Phillips Collection.) Of the city’s monuments and public spaces, the best are those that have been transformed by the visible use others have made of them. The Mall, which forms the great spine of L’Enfant’s original plan for the city, is in fact a rather dull, naked rectangle—until you reach the Reflecting Pool and your mind’s eye summons the sea of humanity that crowded around it to hear Martin Luther King describe his dream. This is why the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is the single mandatory stop on any visitor’s trip. The sense of action there, of being embraced by a live event, is unexpectedly powerful—especially for the visitor who pays attention to the tributes left daily by mothers and buddies and sons and strangers at the foot of the black granite wall.

The membrane between society and Washington’s power crowd is a porous one. Some new presidents, like George H.W. Bush, are already creatures of Washington when they move into the White House. Others, such as Ronald Reagan, must court the locals like the ambitious son of a banker wooing the daughter of old aristocracy. He badly wants her cachet to take the edge off his raw money; her secret is that she wants his money just as badly. Every rung of the social ladder has its counterpart on the power ladder: The president first, of course. Below him the White House chief of staff (who has only delegated power, to be sure, but remember, proximity is all) and the top three Cabinet members—the secretaries of State, Defense, and Treasury. A senior senator who chairs a powerful committee ranks near the top (though a more junior senator can transcend an unsexy committee assignment with charm), as does a justice of the Supreme Court.

Though a common complaint is over the city’s transience—no one who figures in official Washington is from here, after all—the truth is, many newcomers stay forever, secretly at home in the city everyone loves to hate. As each administration departs, it leaves behind a layer of flotsam on the shore—lobbyists, lawyers, public relations people—all now too smitten or too connected ever to move away. The city happily absorbs its quadrennial infusions of new blood. But Washington always does more to change its newcomers than the newcomers do to change it.