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Washington Diarist: Power and Money

It is hard to remind people who do not know Washington that it is also just a city, which carries on its own life even as “the elect and the elected” come here, stay for a time, and mostly then depart.

“The smell of power hangs over the city like cordite,” says Harry McPherson, one of the most intelligent and literate of the assistants to Lyndon Johnson; and now we are told that the scent of money clings round the city, as it never has before, like the heavy fragrance of the tulip trees in bloom.

Both no doubt are true. Yet although I am interested in politics, most of my friends and acquaintances are not. They have no connection with it, and certainly are not wealthy: a painter, a literary critic, a sculptor, a short-story writer, an architect, another painter, a priest, an astrophysicist, a historian at the Smithsonian, an actress, even someone who for a time rewove old tapestries at the National Gallery. Most of these have been in Washington for many years, and regard it as their town. If they sniff cordite in the air, they put it down to the pollution that day. Power? Money?

The real secret of the new affluence in Washington is credit. The salaries of most people may not be all that high but, since they are employed by the government, their jobs are regarded as secure, and so credit is easily had.

A realtor told me the other day that one of the reasons for the boom in real estate in Washington in recent years is that “the average credit rating in this city is now probably higher than in any other city in the country.” He added with a smile, “I suppose the banks think that every employee of the government has been so thoroughly checked by the FBI that he or she must be a safe bet.”

This is especially true of the young professional men and women who now infest the city. When both members of a young couple are working in some government post or other, even if their joint salaries do not amount to much, their credit rating soars. But they have to be married. In fact, it is the banks that are making marriage once more the accepted way of life for young middleclass couples. It is not enough to “hang out” together: Get to the altar, and you will get the credit.

There is another source of jobs, and therefore of money, for the young in Washington. The non-profit “public interest” lobby or organization has become a fruitful way of manufacturing employment for the graduates who are now being spilled out of the universities. Their credit may not be as high as those who are employed by the government, but there is a lot that can be done with an organization that has a “non-profit” status.

There are some buildings in Washington that are rabbit warrens of such organizations, and at least they supply a job, some status, and a salary. Those who work in them can easily be distinguished from their friends in government: it is not so much of an advantage for them to get married, so they still only “hang out” as couples.

But the important fact is that, once the young cottoned on to what could be worked through an organization with a “non-profit” tax status, it has become in Washington a massive form of outdoor relief from the federal government to the huge class of “unemployable graduates.”

What of the established, middle-aged, wealthy in Washington? Apart from the fact that most of them are ineffably boring — they come to Washington “bright as dimes,” as Robert Lowell once said, and stay until they are “soft and disheveled”—what is most astonishing about them is what they will tolerate. They sustain two of the worst and most expensive food stores in Washington—Neame’s in Georgetown and Larimer's on Connecticut Avenue—and in the restaurants that are described elsewhere in this issue, they allow themselves to be bullied and robbed as they are badly fed; and will eat in any discomfort if it is the right place to be seen.

When Malcolm Muggeridge once arrived early for a luncheon engagement at the Sans Souci, he was told that he could go to the reserved table only if and when his host arrived. Muggeridge asked for a chair on which to sit while he waited, but it also was denied. At this his voice rose to its highest pitch of indignation “Greed!” he said to the owner, “That is why you overcrowd your restaurant like this. Greed!” But the owner, seeing no need to deny so obvious a motive, turned to show Art Buchwald to his table, and left Muggeridge standing at the entrance.

But in twelve years, off-and-on, of watching the prosperous in Washington, the occasion I remember best was the party that Truman Capote gave in 1968 in New York in honor of Kay Graham. Their abjectness in New York in honor of Kay Graham. Their abjectness was complete. Those who did not at first receive invitations scrambled for them. Weeks and small fortunes were spent in choosing dresses and designing the masks which Capote demanded that they wear.

Then on a bleak and wet day, the wealthy evacuated Washington, again scrambling for trains because the planes were uncertain. Of course they each spent more to get to New York than it cost Capote to entertain them, and by every account the event was the horror that could have been predicted.

The following day, they returned bedraggled to Washington, trailing their masks, looking for all the world like the retreat of the Grand Army from Moscow. Why had they gone? To be seen where they thought they must be seen. Meanwhile the brilliant Washington-area black-and-white artist, Mitchell Jaimeson, added to his series of coruscating drawings done in Vietnam a second series on Capote's party that was as savage as Hogarth or Daumier. That’s the Washington to remember.

This article originally ran in the July 9, 1977 issue of the magazine