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?"
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