THE AUTHOR (L) CONFERS WITH MARION BARRY DURING A BASEBALL GAME
AT GUY MASON REC CENTER. BARRY WOULD LATER REFER TO THE AUTHOR AS A “CYNICAL CAT”
For some years now, most of the matter in the DC Gazette has not been about DC. The meat of this journal has been progressive politics and social issues of more than local interest. This shift was in part based on your editor’s desire not to be type-cast forever as the world’s leading authority on the Metro deficit, and in part on the hard reality that a once sizable market of locally-committed readers was noticeably drying up. As the city became more upscale, as they say in the advertising trade, and as croissants replaced Wonder Bread as the staff of local life, it became more and more difficult to find people with more than a passing interest in local politics of a progressive bent.
In fact, it became more and more difficult for such people to rent or buy a place to live in DC. I sometimes think Washington’s destiny is to become the capital of hustlers and beggers, with precious little in between. The process has been a slow one. I have railed against it as best I could. Despite it all, I retained enough knee-jerk optimism to keep plugging away, even going so far as to endorse Marion Barry for reelection despite his substantial contribution to the dubious social and economic changes in the city.
In the wake of that mistake I have spent a lot of time engaged in morose self-examination with which I will not bore you. But I did come to the realization that whatever is wrong with this city is not going to change in a hurry. The new political elite is involved in consolidating its mindless power and there is simply no meaningful opposition to this although there are still lots of lonely people doing what, they can. The local political scene can be fairly divided into three camps: the hustlers, the apathetic and the defeated. For a newspaper, this has implications beyond the philosophical and the last couple of years have been tough ones for the Gazette.
I thought, over the Christmas holidays, of closing the act. But then it occurred to me that if the problem was that too many good people were leaving town what the paper really should be doing is going after them. After all, the Gazette is one of the best sources of progressive political news you’ll find in the country. It’s not so much a matter of changing our image as of letting our image catch up with the reality. Over the next few months, with the gentle radicalism that is, I hope, a hallmark of this publication, the DC Gazette will be transmogrified into the Progressive Review, a name better fitting our editorial nature. This does not mean any change in editorial approach, which will continue to oscillate according to the whim of the editor as always.
You may refer to the publication in the manner of your choosing and you will not be corrected or belittled. You can even write angry letters about it, although I doubt seriously that they will do much good. The moment I decided on a name change I felt the bodily juices flowing again and I started whistling, “We’re off to see the Wizard, the’ wonderful Wizard of Oz.” Precious few things these days that can produce such a remarkable effect and I don’t want to lose it. . . One final point: checks made out to either the DC Gazette or the Progressive Review will be honored indefinitely.
[One of the more scholarly readers who did not like the idea was Lawrence G. Smith, who wrote from San Paulo, Brazil in 1984]
One of my reference books defines a progressive as a “member of a predominantly agrarian minor party split off from the Republicans in the early 20th century and advocating domestic reforms designed primarily to reduce the power of and eliminate abuses alleged to be perpetrated by the great industrial and financial interests.”
Now I ask you, Sam: minor party, OK, but agrarian? I know you wanted to be Secretary of Agriculture of the District of Columbia but this is going too far. Furthermore, while to follow in the footsteps of people like La Follette is wonderful, do you want to be known as the continuation of the intellectual tradition of Henry Wallace? I think you should consider carefully which progressive tradition you will be representing since I doubt that the grand La Follette would agree to a definition of progressive as a “member of a left-wing minor party split off from the Democrats and associated with essentially socialist domestic policies and a pro-Russian foreign policy.”
But don’t stop there. Are you aware of the progressive dunkers? They were “religious brethren who because of their desire for more stress on education, for church polity that was congregational, for less rigid rules regarding plain dress, left the Church of the Brethren in 1882 and formed the Brethren Church. Somehow I like that. Our editor breaking off from the establishment because of a belief in education, democracy and plain dress . . .
What is a progressive journal? Left wing? Right wing? Middle of the right? Middle of the left? Lost in a fog? Any tradition which can claim Theodore Roosevelt, Robert La Follette, Henry Wallace, Woodrow Wilson, William Jennings Bryan. Henry Cabot Lodge, and Albert Beveridge as constituents is clearly in need of better membership criteria. By the way, you ought to check the histories on the link between progressivism and the Wisconsin idea.” As one p———- historian has said, “Progressivism moved from local and state levels to national politics. It was in the state governments that the new agencies of regulation first went into operation and that a substantial place for experts in legislation was first created. The trial ground for the role of experts in political life was not Washington but the state capitals, particularly Madison, Wisconsin, which offered the first example of experts in the service of ‘the people’ and the state.” Are you aware of the role that classic progressivism has given to “experts” in politics? Yes, progressivism has emphasized the local as opposed to the state, and the state as opposed to the national, but progressives in Wisconsin and elsewhere also believed that “of necessity the functions of government would become more complex and as they did so, experts would be in greater demand. In the interests of democracy itself, the old Jacksonian suspicion of experts must be abated.
Now, Sam, I ask you again; is your suspicion of experts abated? Are you willing to trust the hundreds, nay, thousands of consultants, think-tank spokespeople, economists, and suchlike that are paraded to convince us of everything from the beneficial effects of agent orange to the value of fluoride in our toothpaste? Before declaring yourself the spokesvehicle of resurgent progressive thought you should really look at the background of the tradition you now propose to represent. It is, like most polyvocal.
If you are going to be midwife to a new progressive baby. at least determine its sex. If you ask me, what you really are is an unreconstructed Jacksonian. If there is one political tradition which fits you as comfortably as a good pair of sweats it is Jackson’s. In your saner moments you might be a Whig but in the end you’d go with Jackson rather than Biddle or Taylor. Tread carefully, my editor. In my opinion, better progressive jazz than most progressive politics. Them that blew were generally honest whereas them that railed were often not.
I am reminded of Tuli Kupfenberg’s observation that those who remember history are condemned to repeat it. Consider the Baltimore Orioles. They do not fly. Consider Ronald Reagan claiming to be of the same political party as Abraham Lincoln or Arthur Vandenberg or Wendell Wilkie. Find, if you will, the crest in Crest. Or the pot of gold at the end of the Rainbow Coalition. Over the past few years, the term “progressive,” with some assistance from this quarter, has been increasingly used by those who wished to separate themselves from traditional liberal, socialist or conservative thought and labeling. For all the pitfalls (I assume you listed them all), “progressive” carries relatively little ideological baggage, except in the minds of those like yourself who actually remember who Albert Beveridge was. One of the basic requirements of a good political label is that it not be too clear. Clarity may be an advantage to an historian; politicians tend to find it reduces the constituency. Progressive is a perfectly good word — if somewhat vague, that is finding yet another definition for itself — as good words should.
Dave Barry comes to town
[In 1980 your editor got a letter from Peter Menkin of the Features Associates syndicate saying that their columnist – a guy named Schwimmer – was no longer writing but that they had a new offering he thought I would like. I wrote back wondering if there were a backlog of Schwimmer columns we could draw upon and the following leisurely correspondence ensued.]
MARCH 20, 1980 – Dear Mr. Smith: My records show that you have more than enough Schwimmer to last a year. Schwimmer, code named “The Mad Bomber,” has disappeared. Not that we don’t know where he is, for that we do. Schwimmer vacated Manhattan for the Bronx. Next thing we heard, he’d gone legitimate. . . Phone calls won’t prod him to write his column, and for some reason we’ve decided it’s to no avail. We grant that we have some columns of his that you haven’t seen. But phoning New York to get Schwimmer to write isn’t worth the trouble. Not that he isn’t worth the trouble, just that it isn’t worth all the trouble when we now have David Barry.
Who might this be? You ask. Barry is living in Pennsylvania. What effect it has on his mind, we don’t know. The choice is yours: keep using Schwimmer, and ask for some columns you haven’t seen, or take someone alive, like the Pennsylvania fellow Barry. We haven’t code named him yet, but Mad Bomber doesn’t fit. We leave that honor to Schwimmer. – Regards, Peter
UNDATED – Dear Peter: What makes you think I saved the old Schwimmer columns? I thought he would go on forever and was careless enough to shitcan the unused ones. How about sending me the Schwimmer back file?. . . And how about some samples of David Barry? Frankly, I think you’re Schwimmer and decided to change your name. – Peace, Sam
APRIL 28, 1980 – Dear Sam: There is a real Schwimmer, hard as it may be to believe. . . We’ve dropped him, sad to say, but happy to report Dave Barry is the new man and he may not be a mad bomber but as a humorist he is. . . As for back copies of Schwimmer, if you want me to send those, we have. But I prefer not to, since Barry is the new man. – Best, Pete
[Menkin enclosed a Barry column in which it was alleged that “astrologers believe our lives are influenced by bodies far removed from us, such as the Federal Reserve Board. . . I think astrologers are too chicken to tell us what they really mean. . . When they say: ‘Attend to financial matters’ they mean: ‘Your son has stolen the police chief’s band-new Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme and run down a pregnant neurosurgeon.'”. . . There followed a lengthy silence, during which I was apparently still mourning Schwimmer, broken many months later by Menkin]
OCTOBER 15, 1981 – Dear Sam: Here’s a backlog of Barry’s ‘Life and Related Subjects’ which we syndicate each week. As before, let’s go with $3.00 a week plus 50 cents postage and handling. That’s a grand total of $3.50 per week. . . That should fit your tiny budget. . . Do what you can to give him top display. He’s tops with us. . . With good regards, Peter
UNDATED – Dear Peter; The price is right, the column funny, so away we go. Keep the faith, Sam
[Which is how readers in Washington DC were finally introduced to Dave Barry. Schwimmer is still missing.]
The first time I saw Peter Sturtevant he was lumbering up to the stage at Maret School to address the assembled new and old parents. An amalgam of Orson Welles and Rodney Dangerfield, the Maret headmaster leaned into the microphone and began to speak:
“Maret doesn’t have a dress code . . . [Pause] . . . Last week I sent two girls home for violating it . . . [Pause] . . . Let me tell you why Maret doesn’t have a dress code. I used to teach at the Landon School. One day the headmaster sent us a memo saying that the boys could not wear tight jeans . . . Some of us in the faculty sent him one back in which we asked, ‘How do you define tight jeans?’ He replied that tight jeans were those where a golf ball could not be dropped between the waistband and the body and have it fall out at the ankle. We wrote back: “An English or an American golf ball?” . . . [Pause] . . . That’s why Maret doesn’t have a dress code.”
Sturtevant then proceeded, unaided by notes, to introduce every teacher in the school, recount the high points of their curricula vitae and take a jibe at those he felt could take it or were too new to do anything about it. Leonard King, a humanities teacher and head of the upper school, would recall: “I remember one time, however, when he said nothing to embarrass me and I thought, perhaps, that Peter didn’t like me anymore.” In fact Sturtevant – Big Sky they sometimes called him – served as best man at the wedding of Leonard and Betty King, the latter also a teacher. The wedding was on Maret’s front lawn, although Sturtevant suggested that they do it during assembly period and “get it over with.”
I would soon learn that Sturtevant’s performance was business as usual at Maret, which — even as the rest of Washington sank into puerile, pompous predictability — was creating the magic that comprises a good education. Sturtevant and his extraordinary faculty – the latter sometimes because of and sometimes in spite of the former – had formed a cabal of competence, caring, and cheer.
Maret had been founded in 1911 as a French school for girls. By the time Sturtevant arrived on the scene in 1969 the place was a mess with huge debts and only 19 students. “When I took over,” he recalled, “there wasn’t a hell of a lot to correct It was already self-corrected. It was a shambles.” Sturtevant presented two plans for the school: one was to revive it, the other was to close it. The school was revived and, in a link to the past, its sports teams would be thereafter known as the Fighting Frogs.
“Headmasters,” said Churchill, “have powers at their disposal with which prime ministers have never yet been invested.” Sturd used every one of them. It didn’t always work out. He deployed the principles of affirmative action to his basketball team to the point of supererogation, but the school remained overwhelmingly white off the court. The owner of a then rare four-wheel drive vehicle, he kept the school open when everything else in DC was close in the snow. At the same time, kids that would have been expelled elsewhere got a second or third chance. Sturd’s reaction to trouble: “Now we can reach that kid. Now he might listen.”
“I’ve found,” he once said, “that a very inflexible, rule-oriented, quasi-conservative philosophy, which is not conservative at all, but basically laziness and reliance on rules, may be easier, but it doesn’t do any good. It doesn’t ultimately prove that you’re really at teacher at all, but just somebody trying to make it easy.”
His tolerance for variety extended to his faculty, which is how I found myself arguing about Commentary Magazine with my son’s 4th grade ancient history teacher five minutes after I met him. The teacher also used a 1920s textbook with none of the liberal virtues, but he told great stories and insisted that his students interrupt him if they didn’t understand a word that he had used.
Anyway, by 7th grade my son’s history teacher was Miss Davis, who held a mock trial of Columbus for having been so mean to the Indians. She also sent he students home with disgusting details of the Black Plague to be regurgitated with glee over dinner. I pointed this out to her later and she replied, “Yeah, the 7th grade boys love the Black Plague, so I always start off with that and then I hit them with Martin Luther.”
One of the Sturtevant’s most unusual, if sometimes incomprehensible, gifts to the school was his summer letter written from the shores of Maine. A not atypical example included:
“Four or five days of rain have dampened the woods and brought the wells back, at no considerable loss of spirit. The two best games to watch this summer are the Red Sox and the Presidential race . . . Our pocket parrot, Zinnia, has just chosen to climb up to the brass ring surmounting my desk lamp ~ and is trying to evaluate what I’m doing, the ring too small for a comfortable grip but getting heat from the funneled shade. My most tangible production to date is a new sauce for cold salmon: one cup of the bouillon from the poach of the fish added to . . . The District of Columbia is serious (and rightly so) about immunization and I expect that you will have done your pediatric business and completed our medical forms by Labor Day . . . We will continue to enforce our dicta regarding unexcused student absences and cuts (daily zero, no retests for credit) including those resulting from ignoring the school calendar. We believe a school day should not be blatantly cast aside for the purpose of elongating a vacation.” He ended with a long list of books he had read and a quote from Alfred Nock.
As it must to all headmasters, a capital fund drive eventually arrived on Big Sky’s doorstep. He took on the task bravely if typically idiosyncratically. One letter announced that a donor could become a Gold, Silver or Platinum Frog based on one’s contribution. I wrote Sturd that I found the distinctions tacky and reminded him that Emily Dickinson had written “How public like a Frog . . . To tell one’s name – the livelong June- To an admiring Bog!” He wrote back saying, “Dear Sam: Of course it’s tacky. On the other hand, another woman poet wrote. . ” and there followed an ode to a frog. Sturd took me to lunch to make the pitch, which we both avoided by discussing everything else we could think about. When the check arrived, he pulled out his credit card and said, “Well, Sam, how much is this lunch going to cost you?”
The last time I heard the since retired Sturd speak, evidence of Maret’s non-dress code was in full array as the graduating students each placed a paper lei over his head as he handed them his diploma. By the end he looked like a terrible ad for Hawaii. One of the students wore the outfit he had found in a used clothing shop: a pink suit, pink tie and pink fedora, thereafter handed down from class to class to the senior most likely to be caught dead wearing it.
Sturtevant started this speech by saying “The purpose of Maret is to teach its students how to educate themselves and I believe we have done our job.” Once again he was right. – Sam Smith
Flotsam & Jetsam
From the introduction to a collection of essays on the 15th anniversary of the Gazette:
The DC Gazette is now fifteen years old. As close as I can calculate, this is — for a small alternative journal — roughly the equivalent to our cat being forty-seven. The alternative and underground press that flourished during the sixties has come upon hard times; dozens of publications have gone to the big recycling center up yonder. The wheels of progress have spun long enough for radicals of fifteen years ago to have joined the system and already to have lost an election or been fired from their government posts.
I have, from time to time, tried to turn away from the crucial issues of our times, in part as a form of literary relief and in part out of a fear that if I did not, I might wake up some morning having forgotten what it is was we were fighting about. I have met too many people in this town who seem incapable of addressing any matter that has not been chosen for A section coverage by the editors of the Washington Post or The New York Times. They regard life as just one big op ed page. I didn’t want to join them.
What follows is a collection of my attempts to avoid the trap. Although the cold, clammy hand of politics and social import is felt from time to time on the pages that follow, I have tried to include only those items that a dedicated apathetic voter might enjoy.
The medium of the messages that follow is largely that antiquated form known as the essay. It is, by its nature, a violation of every contemporary literary standard. An essay is too long to be a column and too short to be a book; it rambles far too much to appease a newspaper editor, yet makes its points too succinctly to be be hardbound and sold for $14.95. Like popular songs longer than three minutes and movies shorter than ninety, there are few places for it in the time slots of commercial life anymore and thus is deemed unreadable and unsaleable.
Having discovered, however that many of the readers of the Gazette, are as eccentric as its editor, I have boldly collated these essays under one cover, confident that not even the most hardy subscriber will be foolish enough to charge through these matters at one sitting thereby risking acute indigestion, but will discreetly nibble at this fifteenth annual report from time to time as though it were leftover pie in the refrigerator — keeping in mind, as was pointed out in Tristam Shandy, that writing is “but a different name for conversation.”
THE AUTHOR PLAYING WITH THE NEW SUNSHINE JAZZ BAND AT A PARTY FOR WALTER MONDALE (STILL IN MORNING COAT) AFTER THE REAGAN INAUGURATION. FOR REASONS THAT REMAIN UNCLEAR, THIS WAS THE AUTHOR’S LAST GIG AS A DRUMMER. HE THEREUPON SWITCHED TO STRIDE PIANO.
Sam Smith, Washington Post, 1987 – Al Thompson is superintendent of roads in Freeport, Maine, with a population about one percent of that of the District. But what Maine lacks in people, it makes up in roads, so Al Thompson has about 12 percent of Washington’s asphalt mileage to look after.
Now Al doesn’t have anything like the equivalent of Connecticut and Wisconsin avenues in his charge, and the local politicians tend to realize that nature often is impervious to memos, directives and policy guidelines. On the other hand, he works without the benefit of Snow Command Centers, Computerized Cancellation Centers and Codes Yellow. What he does have is five trucks with 12-foot dustpans and 11-foot wings.
How long does it take his trucks to cover 130 miles? Says Al: “An hour and a half, an hour and three-quarters.” Then it takes another three hours for a second “cleanup” trip.
To put it in D.C. terms, that would mean, with the number of vehicles we’ve got (if properly equipped), you theoretically could sweep through the city in a couple of hours. Since it is clear our trucks are outmoded and not properly equipped, let’s look at it another way: 25 good snow plows could, using the Maine standard, run through every street in the city in nine hours. . .
Now, before someone at the District Building picks up the phone to tell The Post about “complex urban problems,” let me tell you about George Flaherty. He’s director of parks and public works for Portland, Maine. Portland is about one-tenth the size of D.C. but has nearly 30 percent of its street mileage. He uses about a quarter of D.C.’s equipment and expects to have the job done in 8 to 10 hours.
I asked if he could explain the logic of a not-uncommon Washington scene: two snow plows working directly behind each other, sometimes with a Department of Public Works pickup truck in the lead. He just laughed and said, “No.” Al Thompson agrees: “Doesn’t do any good to plow over ice. Got to use salt.”
And you don’t wait until four inches have piled up before you start plowing. You start when you’ve got an inch and a half, and you stay ahead of the storm. And you don’t leave it to the Almighty once ice-covered streets become mushy. You run the plows through and get the stuff off. Here, even downtown, we let the streets freeze again so the morning traffic reporters will have something to talk about.
“As soon as the storm starts, we salt all our major arterials,” Flaherty says. In cases of major storms, “we will salt our critical areas just before it begins to snow.”. . .
It will be argued that northern cities are willing to pay a high premium for clearing their streets because they get so much snow. But this year Portland budgeted, like most cities, for the best of all possible worlds: 25 inches, a winter roughly comparable to ours so far. With one-third the street mileage of D.C., Portland still planned to spend one-third more.
Why? Maybe because they know what bringing a city to a halt really costs. Here are some figures that will give you a rough idea of the costs of closing down D.C. for a day: the D.C. government spends $3 million a day on its payroll; the federal government spends close to $20 million a day for its D.C. payroll; private businesses spend another $30 million. What did D.C. budget for snow removal? Just under $1 million. Calculate the odds yourself.
Prayer in school
The past few weeks have given evidence to support Benjamin Whichcote’s aphorism that “among politicians the esteem of religion is profitable; the principles of it are troublesome.” Seldom has the Lord’s name been taken in vain with such consistency, length, sanctimony, hypocrisy and self-service as during the debate on the school prayer amendments. Obscured in this certainly ridiculous and possibly blasphemous performance was that leaders of the United Methodist church, the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church, the Lutheran churches, the Baptist Church, a number of Jewish groups and the Presbyterian Church USA indicated that they really didn’t need these amendments to carry out God’s work and, in some cases, argued that it would hurt more than help.
But the members of the Election Year Synod of the United Church of Capitol Hill knew better. If this were mere political posturing it would be only an aggravation. But this has been no abstract constitutional or theological debate. When you come right down to it, what at least some of these folks were up to was trying to establish an official religion for the United States. Led by that great theologian and very occasional parishioner in the White House, what a disturbing number of advocates really want is to spread their own pop theology across the land, to make God as simple and ubiquitous as pledging allegiance to the flag. This is why they don’t give a hoot about what the older sects think.
Their god is the god of the television evangelist, the god of the Redskins (some of whom lamentably lent their support to the project), the god of corporate Christianity as practiced at Kiwanis breakfasts, the god of the Reader’s Digest. It is certainly not, for example, the god of the World Council of Churches- for I overheard one of the leaders of the prayer amendment drive explaining to a constituent that that body was, after all, a leading communist front organization. It is not the god of the numerous churches that opposed the amendment. It is not a god any self-respecting agnostic or atheist would want to be converted to. It is the plastic dashboard divinity of the unctuous politician and self-justifying businessman. You won’t find them admitting it,but it’s there between the lines.
Give them a prayer amendment and the next thing you know you’ll have to sing “Jesus Loves Me” before you get to see the NFL in Christian combat. They’re not doing this for religious liberty; it’s plain old-fashioned evangelical proselytizing. Thus they prove the very danger that opponents have suggested. Even before they get their amendment, they know how and to whom we should pray. James Cardinal Gibbons, in ‘The Faith of Our Fathers,1 noted that “a civil ruler dabbling in religion is as reprehensensible as a clergyman dabbling in politics. Both render themselves odious as well as ridiculous.”
Mr. J. Christ, in his manner, had a milder suggestion: “When thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou has shut thy door pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.”
Washington Post 1981
Drawing by Vint Lawrence
Stop the renaissance; I want to get off
COULD YOU STOP the renaissance of Washington a minute? I want to get off. I have to run down to People’s and restock my ‘inventory of Rolaids before reading one more article about how the city is being reborn, revived and revitalized. This city – the Paris of prevarication, the London of dissemblance, the Florence of deceit -has outdone itself: It is telling itself and the world that it is getting better.
Without a doubt, there is a new Washington, but it does not follow, as The Washingtonian suggested recently, that the city is “coming of age.” And there certainly is no renaissance – for that you need ideas. This town hasn’t seen an idea of any magnitude since the anti-poverty program. To be sure, there is “cultural growth” but it is largely characterized by an artistic oligarchy, critical promiscuousness and growing indifference to indigenous creativity. The much touted physical changes of the city have produced little other than rampant displacement, creeping homogeneity and an overabundance of automatic teller machines. Washington’s “greater sophistication” is virtually indistinguishable from rampant cynicism and mindless profligacy, and its autoerotic fascination with power for its own sake threatens to prove that masturbation does cause insanity.
The real story of the new Washington is that the told story is a lie. Strip away the icons of progress – Metro, the East Wing, the Kennedy Center, Neiman-Marcus and Pisces – and you will find a new Washington that is not vibrant; it merely vibrates. A Washington that is not more sophisticated because it comprehends and considers less. A Washington whose interest in culture is marked more by acquisition than by appreciation. And a Washington whose power is, in truth, declining because it has lost the key component of respect. It used to be that if you came to Washington from Peoria you’d be embarrassed to say so. Now it’s the other way around.
The new Washington disdains nearly every contact with the city as a community and treats the place as part shopping mall and part Plato’s Retreat for the ego. The new city is the one you read about in Style and Washington Life (the old city is stuck in the ghetto of the District Weekly – a peculiar ghetto at that, since it is only open on Thursdays. It is the city of real estate dealers rather than merchants, the city where you damn well better not leave home without It, clone of Gotham, sire of scandal so tawdry that it has discredited political corruption, the city in which a day’s work can consist of a memorandum revised, a two-hour quiche lorraine and martini lunch and four phone calls to say you’re all tied up.
The city in which never had so many been paid so much to do so little. The city (to improve the cliché} which in just two short decades has changed from a sleepy southern village to a catatonic northern metropolis.
Fortunately, there is still an old Washington, a place with character, civility, creativity and common sense. I think of it as D.C., not Washington (new Washingtonians never call it “D.C.”). But this old Washington is :rapidly becoming an endangered species.
Many of the species see through the Gucci.-Pucci facade of the new Washington. Some are angered and “frustrated by it. Just when we seem to be making progress in.our tedious struggle toward political autonomy, economic and social forces are threatening to destroy what colonialism couldn’t. A black friend admits that what worries her about statehood is that she won’t be able to afford to live here when it happens. Voters in Ward 7 send an old line Washingtonian to the City Council because, implies a reporter for The Post, they distrusted and resented the new Washington style of his opponent. I meet a 1ong-time activist on the street and ask how it’s going. He practically yells at me: “I’m so f—ing mad at these Cleveland Park lawyers. All they want to do is deregulate energy.”
Occasionally, even someone who you might think would be a prime enthusiast of the ethos of the new Washington turns on it, as Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus did recently in an interview with the Associated Press. He said he was tired of the “silly games they play” in Washington and is going back to Idaho.
“When I was governor I could implement a decision quickly. I could even implement a poor decision. Here you can’t even implement a good decision in a timely fashion. It’s like playing 100 games of chess, and you’re one person playing against the other 100, and you have to run around and make all your moves,”
Of course, Andrus, like most federal officials, never got to know D.C. – only Washington. But his unhappiness reflects complaints of local residents who feel something happening to the city that leaves them disquieted. It’s not just the federal influence; that’s always been there. It’s the quality of the influence and the arrogance and relentlessness with which it is being pursued. The old city is not just being submerged; it’s under attack.
You can see the effects almost anywhere you look. The disappearance of eating and drinking places that cater to other than the expense account crowd. The eviction of neighborhood shops and services. The growing tumor of institutional architecture. A downtown designed for those .who work here but don’t live here;
You can see it in the business community. A few years back it was represented by people like John Hechinger, ‘Gilbert Hahn and Frank Rich. Their politics were not always the best, but they took a sincere and active part in ; the political and civic life of the city. There are no equivalents today among the new breed of commercial hustlers; They are too busy making money and turning their connections with city hall to personal benefit.
Or look at the old-line black establishment, Better yet, look for it. The Walter Washington/Sterling Tucker crowd has virtually disappeared from view in what appears to be a mass tacit surrender to the new Washington. On the other side, the last of the red hot black militants, Doug Moore, has left no forwarding address.
Look at the artists. Has the East Wing helped them? Of course not. Has the Kennedy Center helped 1ocal theater? Zelda Fichandler told the Star the other day that after 30 years of the Arena; “people are beginning to go back to the earliest syndrome we fought against – hit shopping.,
The truth is that the whole city has veered towards hit shoppmg. Spurred by an affluent and intrusive transient elite; the city’s values are being forced into transience as well. New has become a superlative form of good.
To be sure, much of the new Washington represents nothing more than the idiosyncrasies of a new elite. Elites come and go and if they stay maybe they change. As long ago as 1898, an observer noted that Washington’s smart set was “too much concerned with smartness to be interesting;” But a hundred years ago such elites could be ignored; today they can’t. Today elites bully their way into ordinary life.
Washington’s old society of cavedwellers was tolerable because it didn’t bother anyone: The buyer at Woodies would have been fired on the spot if he had proposed stocking a fall line modeled on the wardrobe of Mrs. Bliss or Mrs. Post: The denizens of the Metropolian, Cosmos or Sulgrave clubs would have dropped dead before they would have shared their chic.
But all this has changed, and it’s not just a local phenomenon. Today elitism is mass marketed; it is part of popular culture. It is no longer sufficient to consider oneself better than the rest of the world; it is crucial that the world recognize it. This need, once characteristic of only a few elites (such as movie stars), is now felt by even secretaries of stste and heads of the National Security Council. Further, the absolute mass of the elite and would-be elite has grown dramatically along with the city’s affluence. More and more people are among the potential elite, the media. has to constantly replenish its supply of people to recognize and industry needs more and more people who feel they can afford what the elite should have.
Elites are no longer a matter of secondary sociological concern. They determine what the place will look like, what we can or cannot buy and what we eat. Further, in a town with a high disposable income, a larger segment of the population can purchase the accoutrements of elite status. It’s what they call in the trade an up-demographic market. And in such a market, even if you don’t have status, you tend to pay to it.
Washington, we are constantly told, didn’t used to be like this. How it used to be is generally described in disparaging terms, but those who use them usually omit the two major things wrong with the old Washington: racism and heat. Civil rights and air conditioning created a new Washington long before anyone talked about it in such terms. Otherwise, the old Washington was a pretty nice place. It was southern and, as such, avoided the pointless freneticism associated with more northern concepts of the good life. It wasn’t sleepy, merely relaxed. It had power but also sufficient style not to flaunt it with obnoxious redundancy. True, it lacked some of today’s amenities but it compensated by having things it has now discarded in return for these amenities: character, community and a sense of purpose.
Sure, people used to come to Washington for the thrill and the power, but few came for money; if they came for power they also came with some reason for the use of that power. They came with a mission as well all to make out.
To have known a Washington which had purpose, integrity, conscience and creativity is to realize what a shoddy parody of substance the official city is today. And you don’t have to remember so far back. Just recall the ideal ism of the Kennedy administration or the productive pragmatism of the Johnson domestic efforts and then try to say that Washington is growing and better.
Washington’s new face job has emasculated its heart. The trouble, I think, began with John Kennedy who, in a spirit that mixed national imperialism with New England preppie chauvinism set out to make Washington he would be proud to live in. True the city gained some amenities but the tone he set also allowed such abominations as the neo-Mussolinian Pennsylvania Avenue plan. Other forces included the freeway and urban renewal programs, which not only would physically alter the city but introduce massive social change as well.
But Kennedy was killed, the freeway program was stopped and the “Worthy’ of a Nation” crowd ran full force into rising black power and consciousness. In April 1968, it was forcibly haled by the riots.
In the aftermath, it was again time for changes. The choice made by the then Commissioner/Mayor Walter Washingtn was a tricky and elaborate compromise between his black constituency and his white economic base. The theology was black and the economics white. If you looked at where the city was – through subsidy, rezoning, or encouragement – concentrating economic development, it was in the white or semi-white parts of town. The key to the survival of black Washington was seen as vastly increased tax productivity by white Washington.
Even then, it seemed to some a trap. There was no way that the developers and the land grabbers were going to stop at ethnic boundaries. Once Georgetown, Friendship Heights, downtown and the West End were used up, the pressure would not disappear. On the contrary, the containment policy created massive physical changes, inflation in the housing market, and displacement in every corner of the city. Walter Washington wanted the city to become just a little pregnant but it didn’t work out that way.
Contrary to widespread expectations, the policies did not produce a great influx of new white residents. Yet the town seemed to be more white. This apparent contradiction can be explained by a number of phenomena:
- The daytime population of the city was increasing. The so-called “pillow count” of residents such as taken by the US Census can be badly misleading in a city with heavy commuter traffic. Even. back .in 1970. the daytime Washington increased .by about .one-third owing to traffic and it was mainly white.
- White Washington – both commercial and residential – has taken more and more land for its activities, so that geographically black Washington has gotten smaller.
- To these changes must be added such other white daytime contributions to the city’s population as tourists, conventioneers and business visitors. As one out-of-town businessman told me following a Board of Trade tour of the city: “You got the impression that the only black people in town were on the City Council.”
- When you realize that ten years ago, DC residents made up only 38% of the downtown workforce and that today the figure must be significantly less, you wonder how any black politician could have placed much faith in “downtown revitalization.”
But the black politicians did and the net result was to increase the number of jobs available to non-resident whites by tens of thousands, to geographically restrict the land available for black entrepreneurial exploitation or residence and to promote a shift in the character of the local job market that is even more heavily weighted toward government and its economic parasites that was previously the case. To this one must add the structural changes in American cities as a whole toward profession and service employment and the increase in local employment by government.
There were other changes of dramatic proportions. There was a significant decline in the number of families as well as the number of children they had – reflected in the receding political interest in the public schools. Housing displacement and costs increased substantially. And Metro’s expansion created new nodes available for economic exploitation.
In sum the city during the 70s experienced a demographic, social and economic shift as significant in its own was as was the mass migration of blacks to DC in the ’50s. Only this time the immigrants got to start at the top instead of the bottom.
There is no easy was to change course that has been set towards a go-go, look-at-me, boom time Washington, but the first step would seem to be some resistance. Those who want to preserve Washington’s cultural heritage have to be as noisy as those trying to preserve its architectural heritage. Along with Don’t Tear It Down we need a group called Don’t Wear It Down, dedicated to preventing the destruction of the city’s soul by those who only take from it and give nothing in return.
We need to fight to regain control of our city so can start shaping it the way we would lie it, rather that the way day-trippers, power players, hit shoppers, consumes of change, and high style groupies would like.
In the meantime, let’s drink a toast to the renaissance of Washington: “May we live to see it.”
I lay claim to be the only person to get the word “fuck” into the Illustrated London News, which is the 2nd oldest continuously published magazine and which for more than 150 hundred years served the cause of empire and the better English classes. I was, during its declining era, its Washington correspondent as part of a futile effort to give rebirth to a publication so fusty that, according to my editor, the gardening correspondent had actually died in 1929, but the news had been successfully concealed from readers unaware that they were reading recycled columns well into the 1980s.
It wouldn’t have been the first time the ILN had lagged behind reality. For example, on Saturday, December 21, 1861, it declared:
“Last week it seemed difficult to obtain attention for any subject save that of the American crisis . . . President Lincoln’s Message, as a composition, is conceived in the same low moral tone and executed with the same maladroitness which have characterized the preceding State Papers of his Government . . . The North, in its excess of zeal for civilization, is also elaborately destroying harbours in the South, thus by savage acts giving the lie to the profession of belief that the territory to which the harbours belong will ever again be a portion of the Federal dominions.”
The ILN’s view of its readers was well stated in the July 22, 1848, edition and did not change markedly over the years:
“As a people, it may be truly said of us that we are pre-eminent among the nations of the earth. our spirit rules the world. Our wisdom enters into the composition of everyday life and half the globe. Our physical as well as intellectual presence is manifest in every climate under the sun. Our sailing ships and steam-vessels cover the seas and rivers. Wherever we conquer, we civilize and refine. Our arms, our arts, our literature are illustrious among the nations. We are a rich, a powerful, an intelligent, and a religious people.”
The top editor’s view of me fit this paradigm well. The closest he ever came to a compliment was when he told my boss, “I didn’t know Americans knew how to write.”
My view of “fuck” was that it was a word like all words, to be used in the proper place and the proper way, particularly not to be reduced to a hackneyed phrase. One of those proper occasions occurred in an article I had written for ILN, and to my pleasure the associate editor left it in.
The top editor did not discover the affront until after publication when he demanded of my boss, “how the fuck” the word had defaced his jewel in the crown.
It wasn’t the first time he had missed the boat. When a competing publication celebrated its 2,000th issue complete with a well publicized party and a program on the BBC, the editor told his associate that the ILN ought to consider something like that. “When’s our next big issue?” he asked. My boss said he wasn’t sure. The editor pulled out the current edition only to find it was number 5,000.
When my editor departed this strange corner of the empire, he left me with a year’s worth of assignments. On completion, I sent the editor-in-chief a dozen ideas for stories. He wrote that he would be back to me but never was. Sometime later, I mentioned this to my former editor. “You should never have sent him a dozen ideas,” he scolded. “It was clearly too much for him to handle. You should have sent him one good idea and one terrible idea and hoped he made the right choice.”
THE NEW SUNSHINE JAZZ BAND, for which your editor played drums got itself a regular gig in the early 1980s at Johnny Lang’s Restaurant in Arlington VA. Johnny Lang’s Restaurant was in a 1950s shopping center a few stores down from Johnny Lang’s Plumbing. We played ragtime and often highly obscure jazz tunes from the first couple of decades of American music, some of which — like a never recorded tune by Jelly Roll Morton — leader Tony Hagert had found on one of his trips. These tended to include a visit to the local musicians union to ferret out the oldest sidemen in town and whatever treasures of score or memory they might possess.
The band got its share of praise. It “rags up a storm in delightful fashion” said Variety; “Its music has a raunchy, lazy aura about” said TR Reid in the Washington Star.
Johnny liked us, too, and we liked him and things were going fine until Tony decided to improve them. One night Tony sat with Johnny and made three suggestions: (1) that he get a better menu, (2) that he improve his staff and (3) that he hire a manager. Johnny listened carefully, thanked Tony, and followed each of his instructions. Thereupon arrived new menu, a new staff, and, finally, a manager — who promptly fired us in favor of a country & western band.
Ethnicity and music
In an otherwise well-founded article on the Bo Derek hype, Dorothy Gilliam accuses Elvis Presley of ripping off black music. This is about as fair as saying that blacks ripped off European chord structure, tonal systems, marches, quadrilles and polkas to form jazz; that Duke Ellington ripped off Ravel; that Coleman Hawkins ripped off Body and Soul or that Elvis Presley ripped off country & western music; that the Beatles ripped off Elvis Presley; or that most jazz trumpet players ripped off Louis Armstrong. The strength of American music comes from its constant and healthy conglomeration and not from any mythical purity. Some theorists have proposed, for example, that the blue note resulted from an amalgam of the African and European scales. Musicians and other artists, to our good fortune, have shown a strong willingness to borrow and learn from other cultures. It should be a model for the rest of society rather than a cause for censure. – 1980
The father was trying to explain to his son why he shouldn’t button the bottom button of his new man’s style suit.
“But what’s it there for, if it’s not meant to buttoned?” The nine-year-old logic smashed over the net.
“Well it’s, er, decoration. Look at your lapels. They don’t do anything either. They just look nice.”
“Yeah, but the coat would look funny without these. The nine year old fingered his lapels. “This button just hangs out here. It looks stupid.”
“It’s the way people do it. But leave it buttoned if you want.” Some ten or eleven year old dandy would set him straight soon enough.
The father wondered why he had even bothered. He didn’t really care. No one had ever told hun why that third button was there.
The only reason he could figure was that maybe it was there for the purpose he had discovered long ago: to move it up a notch or two when the first or second popped and you were too lazy to find a match. He had gone all year with one button on his best blue suit and no one had said anything — to his face. Maybe it didn’t matter. But people said it did.
People say alot of things about clothes. And with them. The other day, with the snow on the ground, I watched a bedizened, agitated gentleman hailing a cab. He had, it appeared, just stepped out of Charles I’s salon; the hair spray was holding in the January wind; the expensive leather jacket and the long leather boots were so spotless I half expected to see the white plastic anti-theft clip from some Georgetown salon still tugging at them. A cab stopped, he rushed in and gave directions, and as he did so he gracefully swung into the taxi his cargo — a glazed bag from E.F. Sly. Was he returning something? Going back for more? Or off to some new place to find something that would look even more elegant in the winter slush? I probably do him wrong; maybe he was only late for work, but I was certain at the moment that his clothes and baggage betrayed his mission in life: the acquisition of apparel. He was the man described by Carlyle “whose trade, office, and existence consists in the wearing of clothes.”
I say it with a bit of envy, for if the truth be told, I wouldn’t mind being considered well dressed. I would love to be elegant if there were not other things I loved more which have a peculiar way of interfering with my efforts to put my best side towards the world. As far back as college, a roommate had me pegged: “You’re the only man I know who could make an English tailored suit look as though it came from Robert Hall’s.”
It was not that I was without taste. When my older brother bequeathed his entire set of early fifties bib-width ties ranging from peudo Picassos to a nude reclining on a red field, I accepted them modestly and hung them in my closet where they remained unworn, favoring instead the black knit that those of us who grew up in the fading of “Happy Days” knew was now the only right thing to wear, unless you belonged to A Club or A Fraternity. But I was not able, nor am I now, to adjust my life in such a way that there was adequate time to make endless small decisions that separate the exquisite from the rest of us. I will, in a sudden spurt of reform, buy a new suit, a complementary tie and shirt, and then find myself walking around in shoes that must not be raised on crossed knees less their minimal membrane of the sole spoil the effect.
There was a time when I thought I had solved the problem. Day after day I just wore the same thing. I went through a pink shirt period, a green suit period a black and blue period. One of the happiest moment of my life came upon reading David Ogilvy’s “Confessions of an Advertising Man.” David Ogilvy was the fellow who invented the eye-patched “Man in the Hathaway Shirt.” He designed the ad campaigns for Schweppes, Rolls Royce and Pepperidge Farms. He was an English New Yorker, the ultimate elegant ethnic combination. On page 61, this arbiter of excellence declared, “I always use my clients’ products … My shirts are by Hathaway, my candlesticks by Steuben. My car is a Rolls Royce, and its tank is always full of Super Shell. I have my suits made at Sears Roebuck…”
I went through a Sears Roebuck suit period.
It wasn’t a bad idea. Uniforms remove the doubt that fads and fancies inject into dress. They also identify: you are in the army, an Amtrak attendant, an announcer on “Wide World of Sports,” or, in my case,a disciple of Sears chic.
Still uniforms, largely because of the people who decree them, often intrude on good sense as much as Bill Blass. They tend to follow that basic principle: the less useful one’s function in society, the less useful one’s dress.
Check the streets this winter. They are filled with people who have decided that since it is impossible to be both fashionable and warm, they will sacrifice the latter virtue for the former. The same is true in summer. In a city like Washington people dress for the office. We think summer, like polio, has been conquered and we still don’t believe in winter.
The energy crisis may bring some changes. Last summer a local radio station engaged in a radical campaign: to make it acceptable for everyone to unbutton their shirts by declaring a tieless holiday. They broadcast the names of companies that had agreed to go along with their plan as though they were contributors to the United Way of energy conservation. It was an impressive effort, even more impressive to me was the thought that it was necessary.
But then I suffer under the delusion that I work better when I am comfortable. College students, mechanics, farmers all know that. But when you are a respectable urban officebound American it’s not supposed to be true. A friend who is a partner in a law firm here tells me that he caused a mild stir by arriving at the office one day in his normal conservative suit and a turtle neck. He deals in intemational law, his clients live thousands of miles away, but I guess you never know when one might drop in. Can a Washington lawyer be a good Washington lawyer in a turtleneck? The answer here in the better firms seems to be: only on Saturdays. Go to a law firm on a Saturday and you won’t find a pin-striped suit in the house. Slacks, sweaters, or even jeans are the style. What happens between Friday night and Saturday morning?
Now if you go down to the local police station you’ll find a notice listing variations in the dress code, too. But it’s keyed to the climate. In fact, with this directive in hand one can predict the weather for the day merely by looking at the nearest traffic cop. But why the shift in the lawyers’ apparel? Undoubtedly it is in part because on Saturdays there is little danger of the arrival of a client — who of course would be wearing a suit and tie to deal properly with the attorney. And so forth.
I wear a suit or tie so seldom that it often provokes comment. This pleases the, for I see “nice clothes” as a costume, to be worn to a party or event, which is different than working or doing something. I’m one of the few men in my neighborhood whocan wear a pinstripe suit and have it look unique. That’s why I bought it. Confused by the choices arrayed before me, my eye drifted towards the grey pin-stripe. For me it was the most daring choice in the store. I’ll take it.
But most of the time I want to be comfortable. I can’t write in a suit. The words come out pin-striped. I can’t stuff newsracks or dig through old records at city hall in a suit. And I don’t like to see well-dressed reporters. The decline of American journalism began when journalists stopped looking seedy. Their copy turned polyester and the worse for it.
I would wear jeans and a sweatshirt everyday if I were not such a coward. Baretta would be on my list of the ten best dressed men in America. And I love the pocket stuffers, like Charlie Mason, husband of the local city councilmember, who makes his clothes work for him. His shirt pocket overflows with pens, pencils, timetables and miscellaneous notes. Charlie is a man of missions, always doing something, and his pockets tell it. Empty pockets, empty mind.
I also admire the advocates of eccentric ornament, like Gazette cartoonist John Wiebenson, who sits in his architectural office with wool cap and scarf, a tweed jacket left by the final guest at the Willard Hotel and sneakers that were the last to leave Dunkirk.
To the conventional, John might be considered badly dressed; to those who know him, he is merely the foremost proponent of the Wiebenson look. If, Haiston stole it, he’d make millions.
But Halston hasn’t sent his scouts up Connecticut Avenue, so John and I remain sartorial outcasts. I would submit, however, our sin is not one of taste but daring to wear what we wish, letting our clothes reflect the oddments of our-minds rather than betraying them. Anyway, since one of the purposes of dress is to attract attention, our way is certainly cheaper. And besides, there’s always someone will look at usand have Jonathan Swift’s reaction: ” I have always had a sacred veneration for anyone I observed to be a little out of repair in his person, as supposing him either a poet or a phflosopher.”
So go ahead, kid, button that third button
I am not enthralled by the current tendency of journalists to write interminably of their troubles and illnesses, whether terminal or otherwise, but fate has intervened in the production of the Review with such bizarre consistency over the past year that I feel I should warn you that it in not unlikely that some forthcoming issue may be drastically delayed or disappear entirely on its way to your mailbox. That it hasn’t happened to date is purest luck which, judging from the way things have been going around here, is not my strong suit.
The trouble began in April when I pinched a nerve in my back while weightlifting. Thanks to my Radio Shack model 100 computer, which can be operated while prone, I was able to get the May, June and Summer issues out. I also found that my desktop computer could be operated on the floor if I wasn’t in a hurry and learned to read sideways.
Being something of a de facto Christian Scientist, I had self-diagnosed my trouble as a pulled hamstring and didn’t go see the doctor for two months. A couple of days before I as due to leave for a family visit to Chicago and Wisconsin, I finally submitted to secular science and was given a muscle relaxant that relaxed nothing except my sphincter muscle during the precise period when I was supposed to be pleasant to all my wife-s cousins in Chicago. As I churned back and forth from bathroom to living room I was certain I was confirming what Ronald Reagan had told them about people in Washington. Outside of a drive during a drive during a tornado watch through a town that had recently been evaporated by a twister, and a thunderstorm that lit up the fuse box in my Wisconsin cabin bedroom like RFK Stadium during the Michael Jackson concert, the rest of the trip was uneventful.
Upon my return, I had no sooner completed the last issue before the summer break when someone broke into the office and stole the aforementioned computers, their companion printers and the phone answering machine. Breaking into the office was no mean feat since it required access to tie roof and someone small enough to squeeze in betuaen an air conditioner and the window frame besiie it. The police arrived at the office of the Review, observed the editor excuse himself and take to the floor, and asked, “What sort of publication is this anyway?”
A detective later told me that someone they called Spiderman who could climb in anywhere had been working the neighborhood, but that he had been arrested and that the detective had a cousin in Boston who had taken laser treatment for his back and that seemed to be the way to go. “Back problems are the biggest thing in the police department,” he reassured me.
By this time I had discovered that approximately 87% of the American public had back problems and that 97% of the American public had cures for it — ranging from injecting oneself with the essence of avacado pit to the advice from a man seriously ill with cancer that “if you’ve got that siatica you might as well go out and shoot yourself.”
I closed up shop for August as usual and went off to Maine to recuperate. This worked reasonably well with the exception of the day that I found myself holding a 23 foot cruiser off the beach in the 40 knot winds of a surprise squall, waiting for my companions to return and watching the picnic flying down the beach, splattering taco sauce, Dorito chips and paper cups over the sands. This, so far as I’ve been able to determine, is not on anyone’s list of back cures.
Back in Washington, I put out the October and November issues without aid of a computer, recovered from my pinched nerve and generally put my life in order. There were bars on all the windows now and the insurance company had reimbursed me, so I went out and bought a new computer. One week later I walked into my office to find that a six foot by eight foot section of plaster ceiling had fallen. Christ, I thought, they’re coming through the ceiling now. But it wasn’t Spiderman or a terrorist action –although it certainly looked like what you would find when you followed the instruction, “For photos of the attack see page A3”– just fate back again. I spent a couple of days cleaning up the mess and when I returned to my computer found that some of my programs were sending me wierd messages, mostly encouraging me to “try another disc.” After a day of this, not even another disc worked.
Oh well, I told myself, one thing’s certain: my luck has got to change. I was still saying things like that to myself a few days later when I went to get the tire for my car which was being repaired after it had inexplicably gone flat (the fourth flat tire in a year). As I reached to put the tire in thecar, my back said in its own inimitable way, “I can take a joke as well as anyone but this is ridiculous” and out it went again. It chose to protest by a simple muscle seizure this time but for a day or so I could only have been moved by a fork lift truck.
So here I am, lying on my bed preparing yet another issue of the Review with a Radio Shack 100 propped against my knees and making plans for my forthcoming coffee table book, “Great ceilings of America.”
There is no moral here, I hope, and if there is a message, damned if I can find it. But I wanted you to know that if things are more erratic than usual around here there are some extenuating circumstances. As the Maine farmer said when his wife died, he smashed his thumb while making the coffin, the horse got loose from the wagon as he was driving to the church, the coffin bounced off and fell into a pond and the loose wagon rolled through the plate glass window of the post office with one pole ending up in the general delivery window and the other in the air mail slot, “my day’s been one long fizzle from beginning to end.” – 1984
Letter to Donald Graham
[I was invited to a community meeting called by Donald Graham, publisher of the Washington Post. I was unable to attend, but I wrote Graham a letter, part of which follows]:
Dear Don: I imagine that you could write down today a list of the major concerns that will be brought up at the meeting. These concerns haven’t changed much over the years; they need not so much discovery as response. I am of two minds on this matter. On the one hand I have come to accept the wisdom that one should never try to teach a pig to sing — it doesn’t work and it annoys the pig. On the other hand, I have sensed enough wistful desire on your part and enough frustration on the part of members of your staff to cling to the hope that there remains potential of change.
Let me suggest a slightly different way of looking at the problem that might help to free that potential:
The Post controls the opening minutes of each day in the lives of over a million Washingtonians. Barely removed from our sleep, we pick up our cup of coffee to read the Post. Spousal conversation at that point in the diurnal cycle is in no small part determined by the Post. Our children soon catch the spirit. My younger son, for example, has come to believe that asking for the sports pages is an adequate substitute for saying good morning to his parents. And what are we doing as we sit there glazing our fingers with your ink? At one level we believe we are educating ourselves. But at another, and very important level, we are developing an impression of the day and of our city that will affect our mood, our conversation and our actions for the hours to come.
And how does the Post serve us at this critical juncture? What sort of day and city does it prepare us for? Basically it says to the reader: you are about to go out in a city which has a wealth of problems that you can’t solve, pleasures which you’re not important enough to partake of, and people who, when they are not just being dull, are deceitful, avaricious or mean.
Some years ago I subscribed to the Philadelphia Daily News in order to select a column by Chuck Stone for reprinting. I discovered a curious thing happening to me. I began reading the paper for pleasure. It dawned on me that here was what I was missing in Washington as filtered by the Post: a real city with terrible, wonderful, funny and contentious things happening to real people. The obituarist ran long obituaries of ordinary but interesting people. The columnists fought with each other. The editorials displayed human emotion rather than the bureaucratic consensus of an editorial committee. Most of all, people in Philadelphia, one gathered from the Daily News, were meant to have fun. Further, they had rights that were not to be intruded upon by crime, bureaucratic idiocy or other forms of venality. In short, the paper, written from the reader’s perspective, projected a city that was worth facing, enjoying and fighting for.
In contrast, the Post seems at times almost maniacally determined to drain the life out of the city. The ghost of Harry Gabbitt has been thoroughly exorcised and what remains is a bureaucratic memo on the last 24 hours from the perspective of that small minority of people who wield power in this town.
So if I had been able to come to your meeting I would have accused you of being a wet blanket on my mornings and, by consequence, of the rest of the day. To my mind, this is as serious a charge as one can make against a daily newspaper.
I think this is so not because Post writers and editors are inherently dull, indifferent, or lack humor or emotion. Many, I have found, consider themselves more prisoners than collaborators. I think the problem stems from the fashion in which the Post attempts to rule, benignly and with noblesse oblige, from its monopoly position. Its methods, as I understand them, are not strikingly different from those of McDonald’s, that is to say they depend in no small part on quality control. This control, aimed at preventing bad things from happening, has the inevitable result of preventing a lot of good things from happening as well. You end up with a product not unlike Muzak, in which both the low and high pitches are removed leaving the listener with the bland middle range.
This may strike you as inevitable, but I would suggest a way out of the dilemma. Give up some control. If you insist on acting like gods, your task will inevitably be futile, contentious and ultimately unrewarding. The community will come periodically and dump magazines on your doorstep or plead earnestly and vainly at your dinners. And nothing will happen. You will remain read and disliked.
Imagine, however, a Post which did not take upon itself the god-like task of blending and compromising all the different views, currents and spirits of the city. A Post that decided instead to be a stage upon which the city acted out its own play. A Post in which columnists did not have to go running to Benjamin Bradlee to defend their right to say something controversial. A Post that found Style in people who earned less than six figures, or in people we could emulate rather than scorn. A Post in which politics was theatre as well as process. A Post in which what Benjamin Franklin referred to as the little felicities of every day were reported as well as the great strokes of the mighty. A Post that did not wait for the downfall of a mayor to report the other voices and other ideas in the city. A Post in which one could expect to find both the joy and danger that awaited when one left the house in the morning.
You could not describe such a Post in a memo because its direction would not come from management or editorial decisions but from the vitality of the city itself. The same million stories that were out there in Front Page days are still out there waiting for the Post to cover them.
It would not be orderly. But there is no objectivity in creating journalistic order out of the anarchy of a city. No fun or wisdom either.
In short, my advice would be to abdicate as priest, broker, mediator and civic Cuisinart. Just be in the news business. It’s a fine trade and all too few people practice it these days.
One of the saddest parts of your editor’s departure from Cleveland Park was that I wouldn’t be living next to Lou and Di Stovall anymore, which had gotten to be a 28 year habit for me. Lou and Di are both artists but they also serve as the magnetic north of the neighborhood. Follow a compass and that’s where you’ll end up. Our friendship has endured even though Lou, who has done silkscreen prints for over 70 artists, no longer asks my advice on art. That ended after I wandered into his studio while he was working on a print of a seascape and he recklessly asked me what I thought of it. I pointed to an empty piece of sky and suggested that a plane towing a banner would look nice there.
I did get into one of his prints, though. Outside his house one day, he explained that he was working on some prints for the Equal Opportunities Commission and needed some quotes to use on them. “Got any quotes, Sam?” he asked. “Look Lou,” I said, “writers write things and then they get quoted; they don’t just write quotes.” But for him, I thought of one anyway and he used it: “God is an equal opportunity employer.”
Lou and Di provided the neighborhood young with counsel, refuge, their own box of art supplies in the studio, laughs, food, and a badminton court. Back when the street wasn’t as busy as it now, Lou painted home plate in the middle of it for whiffle ball, the required afternoon activity for anyone between the ages of 6 and 16. Since there weren’t enough kids to staff two full teams, every game involved innumerable “ghost men,” imaginary creatures whose precise accomplishments and locations at any given moment were a matter of endless, loud debate after every play. Among other services, Lou and Di provided advice on anger management. One year, though, four of Sidwell Friend’s starting nine were graduates of the Newark Street field of screams.
Some years later, Lou and Di’s own son went to Sidwell and, faced with having both Chelsea Clinton and Al Gore Jr as schoolmates, rebelled in one of the few ways available to a 7th grader under such circumstances: he became a Republican. This revolt, mercifully brief, included playing golf and arranging to have me sent a membership in the GOP Gold Club complete with a welcoming letter from Haley Barber, as well posting a Dole-Kemp sign in his bedroom that looked directly down into our living room.
Lou and I conspired on a number of matters, including one of the city’s first neighborhood crime watches. Lou designed the signs and hosted meetings, while I served as crime statistician. Some of the watch’s efforts didn’t work out all that well. At one meeting, the late Bishop John Walker complained that a wanted poster drawn by a neighbor seemed racist to him. I told John that he just didn’t understand the difference between racism and bad art. John, bishop of the Washington National Cathedral, had a sense of humor good enough that Lou once loudly told him one of my recently transmitted jokes, from one crowded Giant food checkout line across to another, and John had the grace to laugh. The joke was that Moses had come down from the Mount and told the people, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is I’ve talked him down from 100 to ten. The bad news is that adultery is still one of them.”
On another occasion, someone called the police around ten pm to complain about someone shining flashlights into their house. It was the neighborhood watch on patrol, albeit a bit counterproductively. Then, on a pleasant Saturday afternoon, the alarm went off at the house on the other side of ours. The police responded, with Lou and I there to assist. Noting that the kitchen window was unlocked, the officer pulled his revolver and announced, with what struck me as excessive import and hubris, “Stand back, I’m going in.” He opened the window and crawled through, waving his revolver. A few minutes later, he reappeared, announcing with even great import, “Stand back, this could be dangerous.” In his right hand he still held his revolver, but in his left was a saucepan out of which all the water had boiled, leaving only one perilously overheated egg.
On another occasion, I returned to find Lou in his front yard. “Doesn’t that car look like the one they’re looking for in that rape case?” he asked, pointing to a decrepit vehicle up the street. We went to take a look, nodded thoughtfully at the decrepit contents, and then returned to call the police. Afterwards, we stayed on the sidewalk talking for about twenty minutes, until Lou said, “Let’s go take another look.” After our inspection, we returned to Lou’s fence and our conversations. Some while later, Lou said, “Where are those cops? I think I’ll call again.” When he returned outside, he reported that the officer on duty had told him, “We have the car under surveillance, sir, but it doesn’t help much if citizens keep looking in the window. Which one are you, the big white guy or the little short bald black guy?”
“I resent that,” said Lou. Replied the officer, “We’re paid to be observant.”
It’s going to be rough not having Lou close at hand to help in such matters. But then, maybe now he’ll be able to get more art done.
ONE OF LOU STOVALL’S WORKS.
It’s no place like home
City Paper, June 5, 1987
Sam Smith, City Paper, 1987 – Life in Washington’s slow lane is under siege. The culture of the more than half-million residents who don’t subscribe to the Washingtonian, who think of game plans only on fall weekends, and who eat at the 537th best restaurant in town and honestly believe they have had a good meal is threatened by in intrusive, presumptuous, and pompous elite so insecure it must remind us every day in every way that it is in town.
This elite is not content with the mere possession of money, power, and success; it feels compelled to plaster its icons and totems all over town, giving the place the oxymoronic aura of franchised trendiness, coincidentally destroying the places and symbols of indigenous Washington.
This latter Washington — the natural city, the generic culture, the slow lane — remains but is unnurtured, unnoted, and uncelebrated. This is the Washington of Burleith and Michigan Park, the city of clerks and secretaries, the city of volleyball on the Mall and fishing at East Potomac Park, the city of shopkeepers and their assistants, of sales representatives and moonlighting cab drivers, of women taking the last bus back to Anacostia after a long day at low pay. It is the city of people choosing not between better and best, but between having and doing without. It is the city of those who know that a dreamy afternoon watching baseball at Turkey Thicket does more to reveal God’s ways than reading George Will does.
It is a place of churches and PTAs, of people whose social life revolves around relatives and friends, of a lonely drink in a crowded bar, and of shifting around to find a warmer spot on the grate. Those in the slow lane are seldom in the press except when they die or tragedy comes to their neighborhood. They worry about their reputation rather than notoriety, and seek pleasure rather than power.
It is a city, in many respects like dozens of others, but with a big exception: Its virtues and its problems are hidden in the shadows of the unrelenting spotlight on the pageant of the grand . It is a city not even given the honor of derision; it is simply ignored.
In Third World countries they call it cultural imperialism, politicians become revolutionaries to fight against it, and the signs read: “Yankee, go home!” Here they call it the ‘New Washington, the mayor brags about it, and the signs read: “Ready for Occupancy, Fall 1987.”
The members of this elite think of themselves as in the fast lane, but like the Beltway that has become, sadly, one of the last symbols to unite us, their motion is ultimately circular and peripheral to the heart and soul of the city.
They think of themselves as having added style to Washington life, but it often is the style of those described by Carlyle, “whose trade, office, and existence consists in the wearing of clothes.” Instead of style being an outward sign of inner grace, it has become just another item to purchase.
They profess to have enlivened the arts, but rather then being critical enthusiasts or participants, they tend to be culture-shoppers looking for hits and investments. To them a painting is a BMW for the wall, a gallery is a place to be seen rather than to see, and if their theatrical tastes extend much beyond Neil Simon, the National Theatre hasn’t discovered it yet.
They claim to have improved the food at the city’s restaurants. For many residents not on expense accounts, the issue is moot. They can’t afford to go to them anymore. But certainly the quality of more than one of the city’s best restaurants has dramatically deteriorated with the temptation of easy money and easy cooking for alcohol-dazed big-spenders. Enjoyable atmosphere has been replaced with ersatz ambiance, and even the chicken salad has been doused with peculiar herbs that leave one with mild but costly dyspepsia.
They have come to be close to power, but because they have little purpose beyond power, they are loose cannons on the deck of the city. If they are real estate developers, they ruin our neighborhoods with their ugly workday mausoleums. If they am hip capitalists, they replace the useful shops of the city with endless boutiques purveying the unnecessary and the ostentatious. If they are lawyers, they spend their days serving the avaricious and spend their evenings boring us about it. If they are journalists, they fill our papers and our ears with the latest disinformation from government officials so carefully cultivated over lunch or drinks. If they are city planning officials, they proceed about the city enforcing their sterile neatness. If they are politicians, they deaden our evening news, and our morning reading with such disingenuousness, such tediousness, such gracelessness that one hopes for the next tampon commercial.
Collectively, they clog our roads and then honk at us for daring to turn left; they brutalize our language, they talk too loudly in the subway about excruciatingly uninteresting subjects and create excessive lines for increasingly marginal services and goods. Their bike-riding couriers, carrying their turgid memos and latest schemes for destroying the cityscape, run us down in the street. They don’t answer our phone calls. They so fill available aircraft on their puerile missions that we end up missing our grandmother’s funeral. They even put forth the absurd proposition that the 1980s version of the man (or woman) in the gray flannel suit is not only a role model but a sex symbol. And there’s hardly a smile or a laugh in the lot. They have overwhelmed the pleasant crazy-quilt pattern of a once vital city with the dull ritual of self-important bores.
They also consider themselves to have brought sophistication to Washington, and in this, at least, they may be right, since one of the meanings of the word in English, a language formerly spoken here, is “adulteration.” And another is “the use of sophistry.”
I know they have done their mischief not only on Washington. Part of the character of the fast-laners and the power addicts is their rootlessness. Since their values revolve around themselves and not a place, their ethic has been able to spread like social hydrilla throughout urban America. But Washington’s power and prominence has a special appeal, aid unfortunately the City is neither large enough in size nor strong enough in its own traditions to ignore them and go about its business. Further, Washington has become the capital of the insecure, and as New York marketing expert Peter Glen recently told Regardie’s, “You can’t market to the secure rich; you can only market to the insecure rich. If you’re marketing to the secure, there’s not much you can do because they don’t need your garbage. . . . Washington is the most insecure place in America, and therefore a perfect place for marketing to the rich.”
I, for one, would be happy to ignore the fast lane. But how can I when even the Hispanic carryout down the street offers its specialties on croissants? When the mayor cavorts with the cultural intruders like some official of Vichy France? When cab drivers can find the Four Seasons Hotel but not the District Building? When the superintendent of our public school system is asked whether she’s leaving for another job and says, “I’m seriously considering my career pattern?” And a ward candidate for the school board speaks of “isolating structures” and “modalities?” When waiters and clerks treat ordinary citizens as though they had a socially transmitted disease? When you get the feeling that any day now you may be bounced from your local supermarket for violating their dress code?
Other cities infected with the fast-lane mentality at least defend themselves with their sense of history, of ethnicity, and of place. But Washington, so long denied self-identity, its culture so long ignored by the local media and put down by the national one, is easy pickings for this domestic version of Euro-trash.
Lost among the glitz and the grotesque a sad but important fact.
Today, the cheap space is gone and with it those whose only sin was that they couldn’t afford the rent. The public-interest lawyers wear suits now. The Van Ness Safeway has become the Safeway Food Emporium and Goodwill Industries has become the headquarters of a huge law firm.
We have had growth, but it has been malignant, and it threatens to devour all that is healthy and natural in the city. Right on the heels of gaining a modicum of political self, we have thrown away our cultural identity for the privilege of serving and entertaining the powerful, profligate, and decadent of late 20th-century America. Our cultural symbol has become that of the $300 a night hotel doorman dressed in the servant’s garb of another imperial culture that once wanted it all but now has to mike do with the Falkland Islands.
In better times we might expect some help from local leaders in politics or the media.But the seriousness with which the city’s elite takes itself seems to have worn off on the whole city, and to an outsider we must come across as a city of worriers, complainers, and the hopelessly insecure.
It’s up to us in the broom closets of power to do something about it. We can if, in our minds and our actions, we draw a clear distinction between their Washington and ours. ‘We have to understand, as any New England shopkeeper could tell you, that you can take their money without becoming like them, and that there is a part of town for tourists and hustlers, and a part of town for people. We need to appreciate what is indigenous more than what is imposed. We need to expunge fast-track jargon from our conversations and stop “networking” when we should be having a good time. We need to eat more Chesapeake Bay crab meat and fewer over sized and undercooked chocolate chip cookie. We need to create a unity of feeling and understanding that goes beyond shared miseries of the Beltway or shared victories of the Redskins. We need, in short, a local cultural revolution that places the generic culture of Washington at the center of our lives go we can stop living vicariously through a world that most Washingtonians serve but do not own.
ONE OF THE HAZARDS of being a writer is that sometimes people take you literally when you’re just being metaphorical. Thus it was when I led off an article in Washington’s City Paper in 1987 with the following:
“Life in Washington’s slow lane is under siege. The culture of the more than half-million residents who don’t subscribe to the Washingtonian, who think of game plans only on fall weekends, and who eat at the 537th best restaurant in town and honestly believe they have had a good meal is threatened by in intrusive, presumptuous, and pompous elite so insecure it must remind us every day in every way that it is in town.”
Soon after the article appeared, the phone rang. It was Phyllis Richman, the food editor of the Washington Post. “Which,” she demanded, “is the 537th best restaurant in town?” She apparently saw my comment as a swipe at her and her profession, especially since her own ratings stopped at 100.
I had learned not to trifle with food columnists. We had one in the DC Gazette, although she apparently never went to a restaurants, wrote interminably of the virtues of soy and bean sprouts, and once interrupted a phone conversation to say, accusingly, “Sam, you’re breathing through your mouth.”
I ran quickly through most recent meals and finally, with as much casual certainty as I could muster, informed Phyllis that it was Hodge’s, a small carryout on New York Avenue.
She immediately went out and reviewed it. For a rush sound-bite I hadn’t done poorly on the ambiance side of the rating. Richman wrote, “Huddled between Lee’s Brake Service and Kim’s Auto Body Shop, Hodge’s is a self-service sandwich shop with a few shiny tables outside under the green plastic awning.” But the meal I had clearly underrated:
“If you’re sharp you’ll notice that nobody orders anything but the roast beef sandwich. And what a roast beef sandwich! A whole steamship round is being carved to order, in slices thick enough to leave some juices in them. And seeded Kaiser rolls are sliced – also to order – and quickly dipped in the pan juices ~ before they’re stuffed with the beef . . .
“537th? Hmmph. Even the City Paper voted this roast beef sandwich the best in Washington, says the framed certificate on the wall. And the coffee was better than at the lunch counter in my office, even when Hodge’s manager declined to charge for it because it wasn’t fresh enough . . .”
Which is why, these days, when I pick a metaphorical number out of the hat, I’m a bit more cautious that I once was.
Washington artist Lou Stovall called the Office of Emergency Preparedness the week before a scheduled block party to get a permit. A Mrs. Jones told him that it was absolutely out of the question as it took a month to get a permit. Lou argued with Mrs. Jones, pointing out that the community placed no burden on the city and handled all logistics itself. She was not moved. It was, she said, impossible.
“Well, I guess I’ll have to come down there, then,” he said.
“Why would you do that?”
“To throw myself on the mercy of the court.”
“I am the court. It wouldn’t do you any good.”
“Well I’m coming anyway.”
Upon arriving at the mayor’s office, Lou stepped into an elevator in which stood Sam Jordan, director of the Office of Emergency Preparedness. They exchanged pleasantries and then Sam asked him why he was downtown. Lou explained his problem. “What’s the use of this office,” replied Jordan, “if it can’t assist communities?” and he proceeded to smooth the way for the permit, including personally visiting Mrs. Jones and making it clear that Stovall was to have the approval before the scheduled event.
When Stovall returned to pick up the permit, he brought along a print for Jordan’s office. Jordan was in a conference, though, and couldn’t be disturbed.
When Lou showed the print to an aide, however, he was told to wait a moment and rushed into the conference with the print. The aide returned shortly with Jordan who expressed his delight.
Stovall returned home. An hour late, the phone rang. It was Mrs. Jones. “Mr. Stovall, this is Gladys Jones at the Office of Emergency Preparedness and I just want to make sure your got your permit all right.”
“Yes, I did, thank you.”
“That was a beautiful print you gave to Mr. Jordan.”
A pause and then: “You know, I was the one who did most of the work.”
Lou replied, “I am eternally grateful to Mr. Jordan and will be glad to assist your office in any way possible. Thank you, Mrs. Jones” and hung up.
THE AUTHOR’S BAND IN THE 1980s
Before the council
I recently testified before the city council. The subject was statehood and the bizarre manner in which our elected officials were approaching the matter. At the end of my statement I told a 19th century whaling story which concludes with a sailor saying to a tyrannical captain, “All I ask is a little decency and that of the most god damn common variety.”
David Clarke, the chair of the council was reading my prepared statement as I spoke. As I approached this harmless little tale, he raised his gavel and at the precise moment that I uttered the words “god damn,” he banged his gavel down and, with a ferocity unusual even for him, declared that such language would not be tolerated in the council chambers.
Startled by the sudden appearance of the ghost of Jonathan Edwards, I attempted to explain that the usage was not one of gratuitous profanity, that I had learned the story from a book printed by a highly respectable publisher and, besides, as a writer it seemed the words fit the context better than, say, “gosh darn.” It was, after all, a sailor and not George Bush who was speaking. All of this fell on deaf ears and it was some minutes before I could turn Clarke’s attention to statehood.
Clarke’s curious outburst could be considered in part, I suppose, an act of loyalty to that not insignificant portion of his constituency which is occupied in the ministry. But I think it more likely that the rule I had violated was not that of the Baptist Church as that of the Fifth Floor Chapel of the Holy Amendment over which Clarke himself presides. Even before I had testified, it had occurred to me how much council meetings had become like going to church.
This is unfortunate, because one of the important purposes of theological ritual is to provide continuity in an otherwise ephemeral world, whereas one of the important purposes of council meetings is to produce change in an otherwise stultified society. Yet there the thirteen politician-priests sit (when they bother to come), in front of a wall covered with deep blue velvet (or is it velour?) upon which is hung in the place of a cross, a huge seal of the city. The councilmembers are seated behind a long U-shaped altar-like desk raised high enough to allow them to be taller in their chairs than anyone standing below them. Sitting in the audience, the angle is so great that what one mostly sees are heads and shoulders propped behind name plaques, giving the impression of a row of bowling trophies.
The result is that one comes to testify in an atmosphere designed to make one feel a supplicant rather than a democratic peer. As I walked up to speak, I found myself saying to myself, “We do not presume to come this thy table trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold mercies …
Then I cleared my head, which is how I got into trouble. But others are more careful. As a friend notes, “Why do they always begin, ‘We deeply appreciate this opportunity to appear before you,” as if the council were doing them a favor by letting them testify?
The metaphor breaks down because there is no collection plate, but that is a mere doctrinal quibble. And besides, the plate is passed rather aggressively every April 15.
The injection of religious totems and atmosphere into the council proceedings is not accidental. It is designed to intimidate citizens, prevent issues from being discussed frankly, create a false impression of due process and elevate the councilmembers’ social status. None of this serves democracy, but it well serves the council, allowing it under the guise of pseudo-decorum to commit all sorts of political mayhem. The council, as it has increasingly withdrawn from the people, has increasingly hidden under the cover of ritual. So bad has it become that one councilmember recently even called in the police during a controversial hearing and told them to arrest anyone who laughed or was disrespectful.
Startled by Clarke, who is usually on the side of civil liberties, engaging in such petty bowdlerization, I quickly searched out one of the best resources available: H.L. Mencken’s remarkable The American Language, which discusses expletives like god damn at length. Here is some of what I found:
God damn is first recorded in English in 1633. It soon became a sobriquet that the French used for the English and later was applied, presumably with literal intent, by the Puritans Cavaliers. Nonetheless, two years after the death of the foul-mouthed Elizabeth I Parliament passed a ten pound fine against anyone in a “stage play, interlude, show, etc.” using blasphemy. Among the victims of this rule was Shakespeare, who was convinced by friends to censor his own plays that, as Mencken put it, “had been full of oaths and objurgations . . . The editors of the bard in later years had the exhilarating job of restoring the denaturized expletives.”
Mencken attributes a more tolerant attitude in the United States to the decay of the legal concept of blasphemy, a point with which attorney Clarke has not yet caught up. While the Puritans in New England did attempt to suppress the practice, it is clear from the number of offenses recorded in town records that they failed. Mencken continues:
“The Revolution, like any other general war, greatly prospered both obscenity and profanity. The admonitions of George Washington and John Adams against profanity and blasphemy in the Army and Navy had no effect, and at the end of the century an English visitor named Richard Parkinson was recording that the word damned was “a very familiar phrase” in the new Republic, and that even the clergy used language that was “extremely vulgar and profane.” Washington himself, despite his order to his men, used both damn and hell with considerable freedom, as have several other American officers since.”
By 1931, the use of hell was so common, despite efforts by the likes of the Holy Name Society, that L. W. Merryweather in American Speech prematurely worried that it might be soon worn out. He suggested that “clerical circles should take it upon themselves, as a public duty, to invest some other theological term with a shuddering fearsomeness that will qualify it as the successor to hell when the lamentable decease of the latter actually takes place.”
Incidentally, Mencken gives credit to publisher Joseph Pultizer, “a great master of profanity in three languages,” for inventing the insertion of profanity in the midst of a word as in his attack on an editor; “The trouble with you, Coates, is that you are too indegoddamnpendent.”
Thus, it would appear that Dave Clarke is on the losing end of history. Others, mostly of prudish and repressive ilk, have tried to eradicate god damn from the language and have failed, perhaps, in part, because they, like George Washington, have been known to use it too. If Dave wants to align himself with the Puritans and the Holy Name Society that is his business, but he should understand that he is flogging the dephlogisticated. And he may also be lending credence to a notion in other parts of the world that Americans are rather unimaginative and wimpish on this score. Writing about son of a bitch, Mencken notes that the phrase seems as pale and ineffectual to a Slav or Latin as fudge does to us: “The dumbest policeman in Palermo thinks up a dozen better [oaths] between breakfast and the noon whistle. Worse, it is frequently transmogrified into the childish son of a gun. The latter is so lacking in punch that the Italians among us have borrowed it as a satirical name for an American: a sanemagogna . . . In Standard Italian there are no less than forty congeners of son of a bitch and each and every one of them is more opprobrious, more brilliant, more effective.” –DC Gazette
Send in the clowns
When Philadelphia was in the midst of 69 years of Republican rule, they used to describe it as corrupt and contented. It’s a term that’s beginning to fit DC as the city finds itself with the most corrupt city administration since the days of Boss Shepherd and seems hardly bothered by it at all. The mayor’s ex-wife, ex-girlfriend, ex-buddy and deputy mayor all go to jail, a current deputy mayor is under investigation and resigns, death certificates are fiddled with, contracts are routinely handed out to political cronies, the federal government finds a $1.6 million discrepancy in a low income housing account, a key witness in one scandal ends up in hiding in the federal protective custody program and everyone acts as though it’s just business as usual.
To be sure, DC still isn’t up to the past or present sophisticated corruption of such cities as Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston and New York but for a town that didn’t even have an elected government slightly more than a decade ago, it is learning awfully fast.
One of the things the rest of us can discover from the experiences of these other cities is that corruption doesn’t flourish just because of the venality of a few public officials. It flourishes in no small part because of its acceptance by a large number of honest and upright people who may not approve of what is going on but who come to treat it as a normal part of doing business. As long as they are not the ones giving bribes, embezzling public funds, or cheating the public trust in other ways, they can carry out their relationships with the city government as though nothing were amiss.
Besides they need the job, they need the appointment, they need the contract, they need the mayor’s support, they need to repay the mayor for past favors.
Thus it was recently that five thousand righteous and decent citizens of the city gathered to pay homage to the mayor on his birthday. You asked some of them; they told you that was why they were there. They were the good burghers of Washington: doctors, lawyers community activists, real estate developers, ministers, gay leaders, progressive councilmembers, statehood people, concerned, honest and fine citizens.
There was a jazz band, a Brazilian samba group, clowns, jugglers and stilt walkers. It was estimated to cost $100,000 which will not be reported as a campaign expenditure since the Office of Campaign Finance says it was not a political event.
As federal investigators combed through city records and interviewed witnesses, as years of political sleaze slowly unraveled in the public prints, Marion Barry brought in the clowns and 5000 good citizens paid money to say thank you.
Some of these citizens were there because they thought their presence might help a good cause. Some of them were there as victims of a sort of political graymail, the heavy-handed enforcement of quid pro quo at which Barry is so adept. Some of them were there because the one part of government in which they were mainly interested had done something right.
All good or practical reasons and yet in aggregate they unintentionally contribute to the impression that his town sanctions the behavior of the Barry administration, that it buys the Barry line of personal non-accountability for what goes on in his administration, that deep corruption, extending even to stealing money budgeted for the poor, is acceptable as part of our newly won home-rule.
And it is this impression, as much as the individual sins of government officials, that encourages further corruption and, worse, a corruption of the city’s spirit. That Barry administration has soiled the reputation of the city and has hurt our drive for further self-government. There may be little we can do about this at the present, but at the very least, those who would wish otherwise must try not to cheer when the mayor sends in the clowns. — Progressive Review
Hail to the chief
The US Capitol Police force was once comprised mainly of young men benefiting from the patronage granted their fathers by various members of Congress. It was a fairly pleasant crowd and you knew you were not just dealing with a law enforcement officer but perhaps a grad student whose dad was a buddy of the majority leader.My favorite Hill cop story from that period involves a friend who was a bagpipe playing Lebanese Catholic from Boston who knew everyone in the Demcratic Party and worked for a number of them including Massachusetts governor Foster Furcolo and, later, Ted Kennedy. She was on her way to an LBJ State of the Union from Boston but was late and arrived from the plane still carrying her bagpipe case in which rested not only the instrument but some pita bread her sister had made.In a hall crowded with some of America’s most powerful, my friend was told by a Capitol police officer to open the bagpipe case. The officer was disturbed by what he found inside. “Don’t worry,” said my friend. “It’s just a bagpipe and some pita bread. . . Call your chief and tell him Terri Haddad is here with her bagpipes. He knows me.”The officer did and at the other end the Capitol Hill police chief issued one blunt order: “Tell her to play ‘Danny Boy.’And so for the chief and many of America’s most powerful, she did and then was allowed to repack her instrument and go hear the speech.
Five years of failure
I was asked to give a toast at the fifth anniversary celebration of the DC Community Humanities Council. Here is what I said:
Five years ago the DC Community Humanities Council was formed, charged with the diffusion of ideas, the encouragement of thought and the inspiration of rational discourse within this our nation’s capital. This was a little like trying to sell Bibles in a brothel, and I think that any fair assessment of what has occurred around us since we began would indicate that we have failed miserably. The best efforts of the council and its sainted staff have failed to halt a national and local stampede towards what is perhaps the most anti-humanistic era of our lifetimes.
It is an era, to be sure, not without ideas and a sense of history but what ideas and what history. It’s as if the worst of the past had been resyndicated and put on Channel 20, with none of the other stations working. We draw from the economics of Morgan, Mellon and the British East India Company, the morality of Comstock, the civil liberties of Palmer and McCarthy, the civil rights of Tara, the lifestyle of Babbitt and Gatsby, the religion of Gantry, the political ethics of Teapot Dome, the business ethics of Ponzi, the gentleness of Nietzsche, the altruism of Ayn Rand, the ecological sensitivity of General Sherman, the spiritualism of Warren Gameliel Harding, the imagination of Rutherford Hayes the brilliance of Franklin Pierce, the expressiveness of Calvin Coolidge and the evolutionary theories of William Jennings Bryan.
It is an era when we propose to devise the most complex weapons system ever created, but when we go to explain it to people, our government feels compelled to use comic book stick figures on television. We have become the first society to know more about the external world than we do about ourselves. And now we even seem to be losing the ability to talk or write about the problem.
It is an era in which, like the fifties, the man in the gray flannel suit is in the ascendancy, but unlike the fifties, when he was viewed with the ambivalence that economics forces upon us, he or she is now a cultural role model, and, unbelievably, even considered hip, charismatic and sexy.
And it is an era in which we know how to promote, facilitate merge, network, manage, integrate, finalize and bottom line, but are losing the ability to make or to create. I have a nightmare that one day the country will awake and discover that there is nothing to manage, finalize and facilitate. There will be no one left to build anything.
So we have failed — here in the jaws of the lion — but I would argue that given the powers arrayed against the humanistic ideal, failure has been the only sane and honorable course. And the failure, one hopes, is only temporary. Long ago, John Locke warned of the constant decay of ideas, and how they must be “renewed by repeated exercises of the senses.” If not, “the print wears out, and at last there remains nothing to be seen.”
The print is fading, but, thanks in part to this band of happy humanistic warriors, it could have been a lot worse. It has engaged in repeated exercise of the senses with an integrity, decency, fairness, sensitivity and good humor rarely seen in this town anymore. In a city that is obsessed with style, it is one of the few real class acts. So a toast to the Council for all it has done and will do and to the humanistic spirit. May we live to see it once more