WASHINGTON DINNER TALK

SAM SMITH, 2007 – In the 1990s, the Washington establishment simply closed down the marketplace of ideas. This involved not merely Democratic lawyer-lobbyists now pursuing openly the cynical abuse of government they had discreetly enjoyed during the Republican years. It included not merely journalists whose sycophancy towards the powerful was now promiscuously out of the closet. It also included the professional liberal establishment of Washington — labor, feminist, and environmental leaders whose heady new access to government blinded them to how distant what they had once advocated was from what they were now willing to accept over — or even in return for — lunch.

For mainstream Washington, there was no longer any politics, only deals. No victories, only leveraged buyouts. No ideology; only brand loyalty. No conservative and liberal, only Coke and Pepsi.

The city’s social life reflected the smog of grim, pallid process that settled in over the town. The New York Times reported that in the capital many men of power no longer even wished a social life. A former White House social secretary told the Times that her lawyer husband barely wanted to go out at all: “He whines. He says it’s a school night. And if it’s a seated dinner, he’s dead, because he can’t control the time at which you leave.” It would have been one thing if these men were doing something imaginative, daring or, god forbid, useful. In fact their lives were as boiler-plate as the contracts they rushed off to revise. And the city turned gray with their souls.

I had been trained to become one of the gray souls. I attended college with them, had reported their profoundly predictable and tedious rituals, and had argued with them at cocktail and dinner parties. I had learned what caused your host and hostess to squirm and others to avoid you. I had learned that no matter how righteous your views, the evening is reserved for confirmation and not revelation. Over time, if you don’t follow this rule, you find yourself not only bowling, but also dining, alone.

My own invitations to such events, never sumptuous, became even rarer over time. Among the last prototypical Washington dinner parties I attended was during one of those episodes of military excess against a country roughly one-fiftieth our size in which we killed roughly fifty times more people than is necessary to accomplish roughly two percent of our stated goal.

It was a civil evening attended by several well-known Washington journalists, two of whom entertained us at length with cliches they obviously planned to launch against a broader audience in the near future. Their point was to impress upon us the magnitude of American geo-political responsibilities in Iraq and the similar dimensions of their own minds. In such ways do Washington journalists establish their reliability. Their support of power is often not really ideological at all, but rather just another form of social climbing.

I listened quietly as long as I could and then asked gently a question: “Well, how many more civilians do you think we need to kill in order to make our point?”

The room seized up. I parried a bit and then retreated, realizing that no good was going to come of all this.

On the other hand, something interesting did. Sitting next to me was the wife of one of the killer scribes, herself a noted journalist. She had said nothing but after I asked my question, she patted my arm and whispered “Good.”. This nationally known reporter was ever so gently and civilly egging me on.

When it was time to leave, the wife of the other journalist — a guy by the name of Tim Russert — took me aside and remarked, “I’m glad you said what you did. My husband is such a hawk and I get so tired of it.”

The hostess, standing with us, added, “Did you notice how all the men supported the war and all the women opposed it?”

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