Welcome to Washington
A primer for the Obama family.
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.
Marjorie Williams (1958-2005) was a Washington Post op-ed columnist and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.
Excerpt fromReputation: Portraits in Power, PublicAffairs, © 2008 Timothy Noah.