Books: Flying Visits: Postcard from Washington |
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Postcard from Washington

British Airways Flight 191 to Washington was a Boeing 747 called John Donne. It will be recalled that Donne advised his congregation not to send to know for whom the bell tolls. This admonition crept into my mind when Flight 191 showed signs of developing a nervous twitch. ‘We have one passenger too many,’ said the public address system. ‘Would any passenger who is not going to Washington please make himself known to the cabin staff.’ Luckily Flight 191 had not yet left Heathrow, so the extra passenger, once identified, was able to leave the plane at a comparatively low altitude. She was an Indian dwarf nun from Tel Aviv.

Once John Donne was at a cruising altitude the public address system got back into action. ‘The film we will be showing is Kramer versus Kramer. The story of a marriage breaking up this award… The story of a marriage breaking up, this award-winning movie stars Dustin Hoffman and Muriel Stirrup.’ Having seen the movie already, I decided to read my schools edition of Cicero’s Pro Murena, as part of a self-imposed extension course designed to prove that there is nothing new under the sun. The Senate and the People of Rome, I had deduced in advance, would be worth bearing in mind when I gazed for the first time on the white dome of a more recent Capitol.

By the time of our final approach to Washington the man on the public address system was definitely out to lunch. ‘The temperature in Washington is twelve minutes past three in the afternoon.’ When he said ‘Next stop Dallas’ I panicked completely, but this time it was my fault. I had misheard. What he had said was ‘Next stop Dulles.’ Washington’s international airport is named after John Foster Dulles, a busy style-setter in America’s post-war foreign policy who retired to an honoured grave and eventually metamorphosed into an airport.

Washington, when you finally get to it after a long drive through the woods, immediately strikes you as a beautiful city. On the way in you pass CIA headquarters but you don’t notice, even though it is an eleven-story building. This is because the building goes down into the ground instead of up into the sky. Washington proper happily reverses this tendency although not by much. Strict laws keep the buildings low. Yet the effect of the central public area is genuinely monumental, which tells you that monumentality has more to do with proportion than with sheer size.

My hotel was a few steps from the White House, so I dumped my bags and went walking. Even in the late afternoon the heat was crushing. But as always happens, no matter how often one visits America, the really overwhelming thing was the affluence. A black lady who is no doubt leading a deprived life went past in a dented car. But the car was a Cadillac and the dent was not very big. A delinquent-looking youth on roller skates hissed by, snapping his fingers in time to whatever was happening in his stereo headphones. The roller-skates were multi-coloured works of art. The streets, at least in this part of town, seemed impossibly clean in comparison to London. The public telephones were unvandalised. For a London telephone booth to look like that it would have to be guarded round the clock by the SAS.

My eyes quickly filled with sweat but luckily the lay-out of the central area is easy to grasp. It is like a kite, with the White House at the northern end of the cross-bar and the Jefferson Memorial at the southern end. At the nose of the kite, in the west, is the Lincoln Memorial, and at the tail end in the east, on a small hill known universally as the Hill, is the Capitol.

Displaced slightly from where the spine and cross-bar join, the Washington Monument spears straight up. It is not especially tall but because of the surrounding space it looks heroic. The same applies to the Capitol: the top of the Hill is only 88 feet above the Potomac but it is enough to give the building wings as well as weight.

The lay-out was planned by a French major of engineering called Pierre Charles L’Enfant after what he called ‘much menutial search for an eligible situation’. The word ‘menutial’ is not to be found in any dictionary but it probably just means that he tried hard. Nowadays he lies buried in Arlington cemetery just across the river, doubtless brooding on how often his fair plan was fatally injured in the carrying out.

The monumental buildings each had separate architects — some of them more than one. Pennsylvania Avenue, L’Enfant’s great projected road from the White House to the Capitol along the top long edge of the kite, was cluttered up from an early date and is only today being given the attention due to it. On each side of the Mall — the long grass boulevard between the Capitol and the Monument — there is a row of public buildings united only in their eclecticism.

Also the surrounding residential districts are not all as prosperous as Georgetown in the north-west. More than half the voting population are black people and where they live still bears the scars of the riots that followed the murder of Martin Luther King. On 14th Street at night there are enough whores, pimps and drug pushers to remind you that this is not Paradise.

Yet L’Enfant’s original clarity of mind shines through, creating an impression of dignity matched by few other purpose-built capital cities on earth. Not even in Leningrad does the prospect before you give such a feeling of reasoned gravity, even though Leningrad is entirely free of joggers.

In Washington there are joggers everywhere. The working day starts early — the President and his staff are at their desks by eight in the morning, all set, some say, to do the wrong thing — but it is mandatory to jog beforehand. There is more jogging during the short lunch-break and then a really solid, vein-bursting jog at the end of the day.

Joggers come pounding towards you from every angle. It is not like New York, where, according to Dick Cavett, everyone jogs in the same direction around Central Park reservoir except Jackie Kennedy, who jogs in the other direction in order to avoid publicity. In Washington the jogging is more individualistic, if that is the right word for something everybody does. As I walked among the trees near the Lincoln Memorial, a jogger burst out of the shrubbery, swerved on to the road, and started hurdling a row of barriers warning about men at work. The men were not actually working at the time because it was their lunch-hour and they were all away jogging.

President Carter jogs in the Rose Garden of the White House, away from the public eye, which has anyway already been sated with the vision of the Chief Executive collapsing from exhaustion during a mass jog and being carried off at the trot by a brace of Secret Service operatives. As I walked very slowly along through the heat, intermittently rocked in alternate directions by the slipstream of passing joggers, I wondered whether even de Tocqueville would have been capable of explaining present-day America. Is there any other country, even Japan, which places such emphasis on symbolic activity? Where else would middle-aged men run until their hearts gave out in the pursuit of health?

But it is usually a mistake to look for a secret before you have ruled out the possibility that there might be no secret. Washington lives for politics — indeed, it has no other manufacture of any importance. It is a company town. Political life in Washington is notoriously a matter of all-consuming complexity. Residents of Washington are even keener than anybody else to believe that the real action happens behind closed doors.

And yet by Whitehall standards an astonishing amount takes place in public. After a night spent listening to the air-conditioning unit doing a brilliantly successful imitation of a dishwasher, I took a cab out to the Hill. Cabs in Washington are cheap but you might have to share. You meet a lot of people that way and there is no problem about finding a topic of conversation. Invariably it is politics.

On the Hill I wandered into a sitting of a House Committee on Energy, chaired by a Democrat Congressman called Toby Moffett. An ex-Nader’s Raider, Moffett is widely regarded as a coming boy. He is also widely regarded as Edward Kennedy’s man. His committee’s main aim, apparently, is to establish that the Carter administration’s recommendations to the States about conserving energy have had no effect.

Such a hearing, if it ever took place in Whitehall, would not be open to the public, and even if it were it would be called off immediately once it was revealed that the investigators were pursuing their inquiries with the aid of internal memos secured from the department concerned by means unstated. But the automatic assumption here is that the public has the right to know, so nobody feels guilty about obtaining private memos from ‘sources’.

In my position as visiting interpreter with a few hours’ experience, it also occurred to me that Moffett’s committee must be a large embarrassment to the President. Moffett belongs to the same party as Carter but his allegiance is to Kennedy, and if Moffett’s committee manages to uncover yet another story of amiable bumbling by the boys from Georgia it will be of considerable help to Kennedy should he decide to run in 1984.

‘It’s a question of leadership,’ Moffett kept saying. Whenever a Democrat mentions ‘leadership’ he is really talking about what Kennedy has that Carter hasn’t. Was Moffett campaigning for Kennedy as well as pursuing the truth? I asked him this during a short break in the hearings and received a very nice smile about four inches across and an inch high.

The Sans Souci is where all the President’s men hatched the Watergate cover-up. The menu is tastier than the food but there is a lot of ambiance, much of it generated by the waiters, who have worked hard on their French accents. There were frequent mentions of the vine Liszt, which turned out to be the wine list. But nothing could blunt the tang of history. At my very table Haldeman and Ehrlichman had sat with German haircuts locked together and worked at the task of subverting the United States Constitution, which states that a Presidential Party shall not be formed. The Founding Fathers were rigorous on that point. Always a Senate but never a Caesar.

Many European observers found it difficult at the time to realise why there was so much fuss in America about Nixon’s petty crimes. In Russia or China, they correctly pointed out, such things happen every day. But one of the central points of the Constitution is that the administration’s power shall not be exercised unwatched. Such concepts as Checks and Balances and the Separation of Powers are actualities, not shams. There is a limit to what the government of the day can do, and even then the Republican party is permanently dedicated to the proposition that the Government should do even less. Ronald Reagan, who lies down instead of jogging, thus fits the Republican presidential ideal rather better than one might imagine.

Heading back to the Hill that afternoon, I almost collided with the President’s motorcade. He was back in town after a hard week on the campaign trail. I left the House Committees to get on with their various tasks and tried my luck with a Senate Committee. The first one I walked into was dealing with the issue now known to the world as Billygate.

In the famous Caucus Room, where both John and Robert Kennedy declared their intention to run for President, the Attorney-General of the United States was being grilled by Strom Thurmond of South Carolina while lights blazed down and a score of TV cameras looked on. Thurmond kept referring to a man called Mr Tairney Jonnell. I spent some time wondering who Tairney Jonnell was before I realised that he meant the Attorney-General. ‘Mister Tairney Jonnell, wha did yew make that phone coll?’

Mr Civiletti put up a spirited defence but plainly the whole affair had been mismanaged. Also plain was that Mr Brzezinski would eventually have to put in an appearance and that when he did he would have to listen to several things he didn’t want to hear, prominent among which would be Strom Thurmond’s pronunciation of his name. Whether politics ought to be like a television programme is a moot point, but nothing beats such scenes for making a television critic feel like a political reporter. It was getting easier to see why Washington journalists suffer such a high incidence of terminal head expansion. They are needed. The whole place thrives on publicity.

That evening I flew up to New York on the shuttle for dinner with the editors of the New York Review of Books. It was like leaving a small town for the big city. As the dipping sun lit the water silver we flew close to the West Side of Manhattan at the same height as the tops of the tall buildings and made a diving turn into LaGuardia. With the marble dust of the Caucus Room still on my shoes I was in a cab on Park Avenue before dark. At dinner there was only one possible topic of conversation. The 43-year-old Youth Culture hero Abbie Hoffman, after six and a half years on the run, had decided to give himself up to ABC roving reporter Barbara Walters.

Nobody questioned that Barbara had the right to interview Abbie before the cops got him. The big interview was scheduled for that night. We saw Barbara journeying by speedboat to the pickup point. ‘Hi Barbara.’ ‘Hi Abbie.’ Abbie’s face had been altered by plastic surgery but his mouth was still occupied with its favourite subject. ‘I hear the name Abbie,’ said Abbie, ‘and I…’ Barbara nodded wisely.

A phone call to Alfred Friendly, Brzezinski’s press secretary, yielded prompt results. Friendly, born and bred in Washington, told me to get the 7 a.m. shuttle back to town and meet him at the White House. ‘Being on the 7 a.m. shuttle,’ said Friendly in a friendly fashion, ‘shows you’re really serious about Washington.’ I dropped red-eyed out of the sky and Friendly ushered me inside. Behind closed doors at last!

Down underground where Brzezinski lives it looks exactly like the sets of Blind Ambition except that there are Russian theatre posters on the walls, betokening the fact that Zbig and his staff have high intellectual qualifications for the job. And indeed Friendly, though he had made me promise in advance to stay off grand issues, was inexorably drawn into a discussion of the world, America’s place in it, and the place of the Carter administration in the history of modern US foreign policy.

In many ways, he argued, people are complaining about having been given what they asked for. Watergate has made it harder than ever for the President to get anything done, even supposing that there were an amenable coalition on the Hill, which there is not, and hasn’t been since Johnson. Nevertheless there has been, in recent years, a clear improvement in the standard of information available to the President, even if he can’t act on it. Washington is stiff with research institutes. This is some compensation for how security-conscious everyone has become. ‘I grew up here when Dean Acheson and Felix Frankfurter walked to work from Georgetown. Harry Truman would leave the White House and walk around Washington, and journalists would sometimes get a story. Now it’s a story if some Senator runs to work.’

The morning having worn on, it is now time for the President to take off for Camp David. Friendly waves me out to the back lawn, upon which a large helicopter sits whistling. Out of the White House strides the President, his walk as weird as Nixon’s but his hairstyle unimpaired. Rosalynn is beside him and a team of aides is carrying golf clubs and fishing rods. This could be a way of telling the waiting hordes of media people that the President plans to spend the weekend playing golf and fishing.

The President’s hairstyle safely inside, the helicopter spins its rotors. A mighty wind smites the lawn. Up he goes, and all our prayers go with him, for here truly is an act of faith, when you consider what happened to all those helicopters on the Iran mission.

The State Department occupies a large building called Foggy Bottom. With every new administration there is a mass influx of brilliant appointees, accompanied by a mass exodus of the old ones, who wave goodbye to the rented furniture in their Georgetown houses and go back to the universities. In fashionable Washington only the hostesses and the journalists are permanent.

Foggy Bottom is haunted by a particularly in-the-know species of journalist whose chief glory is to be first-named at daily briefings. I went to a daily briefing. Assistant Secretary of State George Tratner was answering, or rather not answering, questions. ‘Are these reports about the Cubans in Afghanistan internal reports?’ ‘I wouldn’t want to characterise them, Bernie. Let’s call them reports.’ ‘Have PLO people gone to Nicaragua to train Nicaraguans on Eastern bloc weapons?’ ‘I don’t have any information on that, John.’ Bernie and John looked satisfied.

The Carter administration is unpopular with the Washington hostesses because the boys from Georgia can’t find the time to attend dinner parties. But the hostesses can wait. They have always been there. In Lincoln’s time their pretty daughters toured the Virginia battlefields and posed for photographs with the young officers. The average Washington hostess can still muster a dazzling table even if Hamilton Jordan’s feet are not on it. The table tends to be beside a swimming pool on the back lawn of a Georgetown house that looks small from the front, but unfolds into a tastefully appointed mansion inside.

In just such a house I had the great privilege of watching the Miss America Pageant on television. Sponsored by Silkience Self-Adjusting Shampoo (‘It beats the grease without beating the ends’), the contest was won by a small-town girl who convincingly sang a Menotti aria. ‘For me,’ she told the world, ‘success is important, and can only be attained by keeping my feet firmly on the ground while reaching for the stars.’ Some of our beauty queens have longer legs but fewer qualifications as opera singers. The show was hosted by the latest Tarzan. A very tall man with even shorter legs than the winner, he managed to smile and talk at the same time, a feat of strength which caused hair-line cracks to appear in his sun-tan. Nevertheless I was impressed with the air of striving which the programme exuded. The productivity of America never ceases to amaze.

Some of the results are in the Air and Space Museum, which I infested on Sunday afternoon. The Bell X-1 that Chuck Yeager flew through the sound barrier is hanging from the roof, and up there beside it is the Douglas Skyrocket that Scott Crossfield flew to Mach 2. In 1953 I used to collect photographs of the Skyrocket and paste them on my bedroom wall, so that I could lie there and imagine what it would be like to fly in something so beautiful. Seeing the actual machine nearly thirty years later gave me the same thrill. We should always remember that when the Americans talk about being in a slump, they mean a slump by their standards. For the visitor, the sheer wealth of the country must always remain the abiding impression.

And how all that energy should be governed remains the abiding question. The best event of my trip happened on the last day when I met I.F. Stone, the greatest journalist ever to make Washington his beat. Still in fighting form at seventy-four, Stone has been for a good part of his life the conscience of America. He got at the truth not through being first-named by politicians or hanging around hostesses but by reading the Congressional Record. ‘The virtue arose from necessity,’ he explained. ‘I’m so deaf I can’t hear what anybody says.’

Stone is a perpetual autodidact of staggering prowess. Delighted to find me reading Cicero, he took me through his classics library book by book — the most educational two hours I have ever spent. ‘The biggest difference between ancient Rome and the USA,’ Stone contended, ‘is that in Rome the common man was treated like a dog. In America he sets the tone. This is the first country where the common man could stand erect. I prefer it that way, even though we have a leadership crisis right now. The country was in far worse economic shape in the Thirties, but the reason we didn’t have Carter’s famous malaise under Roosevelt was that we had more leadership.’

So there it is. If even such an acute analyst as I.F. Stone thinks the problem lies with Carter, the problem lies with Carter. But supposing a strong leader were something to be wished for, where would he come from? It is doubtful if Abraham Lincoln would submit himself to the modern electoral process. I went to visit him in the Lincoln Memorial. He wasn’t saying anything, but two of his speeches were up on the walls: the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address.

It is impossible to read such unadorned eloquence without a tightening of the throat. But some of his most penetrating remarks have never been carved in stone. One of them is the Reply to a Serenade of November 10, 1864. ‘It has long been a grave question whether any government not too strong for the liberties of its people, can be strong enough to maintain its existence in great emergencies.’ Lincoln thought the trick could be worked, but he was a great man. With less great men in charge it begins to look as if we want more from America than it can give: we want it to be the embodiment of freedom, and we also want it to be firmly led, so that it will not frighten us with its unpredictability.

With only a few hours left I had barely enough time to begin being stunned by the National Gallery, which just on its own would have made the trip worth while. Then I walked down the Mall to the Washington Monument and turned north towards the White House. As the joggers steamed past me in the heat, the first big cold front of the fall was moving east across Montana. Soon the leaves would be browning southward at twelve miles a day. My plane and the first football of the new season left the ground at the same time. The Washington Redskins were at home to the Dallas Cowboys. Dallas, not Dulles.

— September 28, 1980