Marjorie Williams

A weeklong electronic journal.
Jan. 21 1999 10:00 PM

Marjorie Williams

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Los Angeles always makes me feel like a little brown wren, a sobersides, a woman from an especially poky Anita Brookner novel. All those pretty people, including the men. All those mysterious status signifiers. All those fashion statements that are indecipherable to the Right Coast eye but that are by definition cooler than anything I might put on. We came out here for a visit when I was about six months pregnant with Alice and, what with prenatal dementia and all, I had managed to persuade myself that even in my maternity overall shorts I was a pretty happening matron. I even had a pedicure, on the advice of a friend who used to live here, involving more than one nail color. (Using my friend's name as a talisman, I was able to get an appointment with her desirable foot artiste in under a month.) Then one night my husband took me out to dinner at a little trattoria in Beverly Hills, and the waitress came over to us, cocked her head, and in the nicest possible way said six words more devastating than any I could have imagined: "You're not from here, are you?" I burst into tears--not because I really meant to pass as a local, but because it was brutally clear that my not-from-here-ness was so vivid as to incite comment from strangers. Later I forced my husband to go skinny-dipping with me in my in-laws' pool, just to show myself that I still had a lively impulse or two.

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In Washington, on the other hand, I've always felt right at home. There, I have the pleasure of falling toward the raffish end of the fashion spectrum. (Trust me, it isn't hard.) It's an easy city--small, leafy, navigable; a place where you can have a green backyard just a 10 or 15 minute drive from downtown. Of course it's a hive of conformity and caution, but that's part of what I like about it--about covering it, anyway. The mixture of that brittle, conservative set of social conventions and all the messy human stuff that goes on inside and among the people who try to climb to the top of the heap makes for such rich material. A lot of my stories (chiefly, my work is writing long, intensive profiles of people in government and politics) are really about what Washington admires, and why, and what it says about the political culture. Why Washington needed to believe that Clark Clifford--a canny old fixer who wove his own legend out of vanity and a sonorous voice--was the personification of Cold War statesmanship. Why pols and reporters promoted the idea that James Baker--the chilliest deal maker to come along in years--was also a visionary and a wonderful human being. I love working this seam between the accepted narrative, usually hammered out between the Washington press corps and its sources, and the grubby human nature stuff that is nearly always as plain as the nose on your face. Washington's status codes are charmingly straightforward: An assistant secretary is better than a deputy assistant secretary, but sitting next to a deputy assistant secretary is better than sitting next to a Cabinet member's wife. As in a Jane Austen novel, it is this very hierarchical, preordained quality that throws the city's strivings into high relief; no one gets distracted by wondering if they got the right pedicure.

I wonder if one of the byproducts of Clinton's presidency will be an end to the predictable rhythm of Washington's social rituals and hypocrisies. If so, I may need to find a new parsonage.

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