Leaving DC

Sam Smith

Sometime this year the Review will be moving fulltime to its New England regional headquarters in Freeport, Maine, previously home only for the estivatory editions of summer.

I have deep ties to Maine, going back more than six decades. I have long lived as a geographical split personality, with the phrase bi-coastal meaning in my case Casco Bay and the Potomac River. Wherever my physical presence, part of me was in another place, symbolized by the day when I was quoted in both the Washington Post about Marion Barry and on a Portland TV station about alternative agriculture. My views of the city have always had a touch of tide and pasture in them.

Based on past experience, there is no evidence that this change will in anyway alter the journal’s content or its editor’s irascibility, so readers have nothing to fear. But as your editor has now covered Washington for all or part of ten of America’s presidencies, it seems a good time to try something a little different.

The stories of federal Washington involve power, intrigue and associated conflicts that, dramatic as they may be at one moment, are easily replaced by others a few moments later. The stories of local Washington are stories of real people and places living and struggling in a center of power, intrigue and associated conflicts. These stories survive because they come from heart, culture and community rather than depending on the transitory misadventures of ambition.

My writings about the nation’s capital have been grounded in what the theologian Martin Marty described as the need to have a place from which to view the world. Too much of what is written about this city lacks such a place.

I am leaving my birthplace, a town I have loved but also a place in which I have felt increasingly an exile as local values, culture and community faded – not because they lacked merit but because they did not produce enough power or profit for someone.

It is a city of magnificent views and dismal viewpoints, wonderful communities and dubious egos, natural spaces and artificial words. It is a city that too often can’t tell the difference between intelligence and wisdom or, as Russell Baker once noted, between being serious and being somber.

It is also a city in which all politics becomes office politics, and where imagination and free thought are restricted to thirty minutes on weekdays and violators will be towed.

Still, Washington has always been an unsortable amalgam of decadence and decency, undeserved profit and unrequited purpose, subterranean conspiracies and high ideals.

Walt Whitman found himself “amid all this huge mess of traitors, loafers, hospitals, axe-grinders, & incompetencies & officials that goes by the name of Washington.” Even earlier, Captain Frederick Marry noted, “Here are assembled from every state in the union, what ought to be the collected talent, intelligence, and high principles of a free and enlightened nation. Of talent and intelligence there is a very fair supply, but principle is not so much in demand; and in everything, and everywhere, by the demand the supply is regulated.”

One of the things that affects these crosscurrents of felicity and felony is what is happening elsewhere in the nation. As a weak colony filled with professional migrants, DC is a beta edition of both the good and the bad. Just as Washington was once deep into the civil rights and peace movements, today it accurately reflects national values sown in during the Reagan-Clinton-Bush era that caused the disintegration of the republic’s economy, its global status and its constitution.

I was born in Washington during the New Deal, for which my father worked. I also went to a segregated public elementary school and lived a segregated life as a child. Thus, from the beginning, I was introduced to the painful contradictions of American democracy.

We left Washington when I was ten but there was an idealism among their friends from that era that I always admired. Years later, my wife and I joined my then widowed mother at a 50th anniversary of the New Deal at the Mayflower Hotel. The median age was probably 75 but I have seldom been in a room with so much energy and enthusiasm. Even the guest speaker, Hubert Humphrey, had a hard time keeping up with his audience.

In all my years in this town, there has only been one other period that has come close: the Great Society. Like the segregated city into which I was born, there were huge inconsistencies, headlined by the Vietnam War, but it was also true that Lyndon Johnson got more good legislation passed in less time than any president in our history. And Washington was once again filled with those who truly cared.

Such moments, however, are not only rare; they are typically born not in Washington but in what is happening elsewhere – such as a depression, civil rights movement, riots or the rise of the 60s counterculture.

It’s one reason I don’t worry about leaving Washington: most of the time Washington doesn’t make news; it only reacts to it.

And slowly. As Phil Hart once put it, the Senate is a place that does things twenty years after it should have.

Which is why for some three decades, Washington has contributed so little to the nation other than to endorse, codify and promote policies leading to the collapse of the First American Republic. Since 1976 Congress has passed more laws than it did in the previous two centuries. And to what end? To place us in the dismal condition in which we now find ourselves.

I sometimes find myself reciting the lines of Tennessee Williams in Camino Real: “Turn back stranger, for the well of humanity has gone dry in this place. And the only birds that sing are kept in cages.”

Those of us who have fought for alternative approaches have constantly been met with contempt and disinterest by those in power, whether in politics or the media. The Review, however, has been around long enough for there to be a scorecard and if you go back 20, 30, 40 years you’ll find that those seeking other ways were far ahead of the curve on such issues as civil rights, education, self-government, foreign policy, civil liberties and the environment. It was the capital’s elite, and not us, who were extreme and radical – extremely slow and radically wrong. Yet one of the privileges of power is to set standards, even if they are the standards of the slowest kids in the class. Another privilege is never having to say you’re sorry. Which is why, beginning in the 1980s, we began to lose the struggle and have been doing so ever since.

Then why have I stayed so long? My fascination an affection for the local city aside, I was spurred by Chancellor Willy Brandt, who fled Germany as a young man in the 1930s, became a Norwegian citizen but returned to his homeland after the war. Asked why he had come back, Brandt said because it was more important to be a democrat in Germany than in Norway. I have long felt, lonely as it often has been, the same way about staying in Washington.

I sometimes describe what I do as drawing pictures on the walls of the Lascaux Caves of our times. Leaving sketches of what democracy and constitutional government once looked like as they galloped through the countryside.

As in Orwell’s 1984, it was mainly in cities like Washington that we lost our way. Only ten percent of the people in his book lived in the capital he described. The rest, the proles, still lived largely free of the dismal, cruel dysevolution of which he wrote.

Eric Paul Gros-Dubois of Southern Methodist University described Orwell’s countryside this way:

“The proles were the poorest of the groups, but in most regards were the most cheerful and optimistic. The proles were also the freest of all the groups. Proles could do as they pleased. They could come and go, and talk openly about whatever they felt like without having to worry about the Thought Police. . .

“[Orwell] also concluded that the hope for the future was contained within this group. At several points in the book, Winston, the hero, made a point of mentioning that the proles were the hope for the future and the only ones who could end Big Brother’s tyranny, since they were the only group still allowed to have feelings and opinions. . . “

Similarly, you can still find a noticeably freer America simply by leaving the major centers of our post-constitutional society – away from those places where the most honored have done us the most damage.

The geographical parochialism of those who have made this mess leaves vast acres of our land still hospitable to dreams and perhaps even to the eventual eviction of those who have done us such wrong.

Further, the difficulty that large cities will have adapting to a dramatically different economy and ecology adds to the appeal of places like Maine – places skilled in survival, kinder to the environment and still appreciative of freedom.

One also finds in such places not only a deep culture of the past but one increasingly invigorated by those – in the best tradition of immigrants – courageous and imaginative enough to have moved there. In such ways such places offer not only a recovery of what one may have thought had disappeared forever but the possibility of another beginning in a land that has badly gone astray.

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