How the suits took over the last small town in America: Washington, D. C.
WASHINGTON IS THE CITY THAT people scrape and claw to get to, and then make a career of disparaging. In no other city that I know of, do people--important people at least--feel so superior to the place that they themselves comprise. Members of Congress conduct a nonstop beg-a-thon for campaign funds so that they can stay in this awful place that they revile. Southern drawls deepen, and regional costuming becomes more pronounced the longer they are here.
Beltway pundits meanwhile sneer about the Beltway pundits, as if they weren't just such pundits themselves. The major players here accuse one another of being that which they themselves are; and this Dostoevskyian undertone reached its peak, or nadir, in the Clinton impeachment farce, when one after another of the President's accusers turned out to be accusing him of things that they themselves had done--or were doing still. Dan Burton, the Republican of Indiana who called Clinton a "sleaze," had been the Lothario of the Indiana state legislature with a secret illegitimate offspring. Newt Gingrich, of course, was doing it with a young lady in the church choir.
They all feel a need to attack some part of what they are--to separate themselves from the city that they crave to be a part of. At one level they say to the public, "See, I'm not like the others in this degenerate place" At another level, perhaps, they chastise themselves for the knowledge that they are.
But before the rest of us get too huffy, we might pause and consider whether we all aren't implicated to some degree. The Washington that Americans love to disparage bears more than a little resemblance to the America that they inhabit. There's a certain pandering quality to the Beltway bashing, after all. The politician does not just say, "I'm not like the shmucks" He or she also says, "You voters aren't like them either?" Yes, Washington has peculiarities and tics aplenty. Yet in the end, it's the way it is because America is the way it is. It is a distillate of a trait that DeToqueville noted long ago--the narrow self-seeking, and the commercial culture that amplifies and reinforces this quality at every turn.
You've read that Washington today is dominated by money, obsessed with media and image, driven by manipulative and intrusive advertising, in the thrall of self-interest and the short-term view. Gee, does that sound a little like a country that I know--like a "New Economy" that I know? In fact, the best aspects of Washington--the ones that are disappearing--were a form of resistance to the dominant trends in the U.S. today, rather than an acquiescence to them. In some respects, the more Washington comes to resemble the rest of America, the worse it gets.
My friends says it started with the suits.
He was back in D.C. after four years in San Francisco, where he had worn dungarees every day, and could have been taken for an IPO millionaire. Now he was on an errand to the Hart Senate Office Building, the new one with the big mobile in the atrium. He was wearing khaki pants and a blazer, which for him is dressed up. But here on Capitol Hill he felt like a schlepp. Everyone was wearing suits--not just suits, but power suits, the kind the majority of men in the Bay Area probably don't even own. He expected a Capitol police officer to nab him for insufficient attire.
I've noticed this too. There have been suits on Capitol Hill--in both senses of the word--ever since there has been a Capitol Hill. What's different now, I think, is how pervasive they have become. Not that long ago, clothing served to reinforce the Congressional caste system. Dark suits for senators, lighter ones for chiefs of staff, jackets and flannel slacks for legislative assistants, the khaki and blue blazer uniform for interns. Now, it seems that dress up has moved down the scale. You see interns wearing suits and white shirts as they sort the mail. (Whether by acculturation or good sense, female interns still sometimes show up in dungarees.) It's as though everyone is going to inter views, which in a sense they are.
This is typically the cue for a pundit rant. Washington is dressing up at a time when the real producers in the economy, the hearty yeomen with the IPO rakings and nonexistent profits, are dressing down. How out of touch. How Beltway. It is true that the Washington power corridor can feel like a college campus on which everyone is trying to impress one another. Yet the power centers in most major cities are besuited too. And anyway, the question is not what they are wearing in Washington, but why.
Follow Bill Gates or other high tech billionaires through the halls of Congress these days and you get a clue. Those voices you hear are the sounds of powerful people fawning. Redmond and Mountain View may be a continent from Washington, but they revolve upon the same axis: the money culture that affects us all.
Politics follows commerce at virtually every turn. TV ads, demographic targeting, focus groups, and polls--most of the scummy apparatus of modern politics started in the business world. As commerce has engulfed the culture--as just about every state and stage of human experience has turned into something to buy--it should not be surprising that it has engulfed politics too. As commerce panders to an ever-lower denominator of self-absorption and desire, it should not be surprising that politics does too. Washington is where we permit ourselves to see these things most clearly, because we say that it is not ourselves. Who dresses down, if not people who want to show that they are not the kind of people who dress up?
Besides, whom do you think the suits are representing, anyway?
The End of Time
Not long ago I had occasion to peruse the record of Congressional hearings from the early 1930s. The committee chairman was Senator Robert LaFollette Jr., the Republican of Wisconsin, and the subject was the senator's proposal for a National Economic Commission to map a path out of the Depression. LaFollette sought comment from leading economic experts, captains of industry, labor leaders, and the like. The thing that is impressive today--staggering is a better word--is the depth of the discussion, and how thoroughly the senator knew the subject at hand.
With virtually no staff, LaFollette led the representative of the Federal Reserve through testimony that alone occupies more than forty small-print pages in the hearing record. It was a virtuoso performance, and he repeats it over and over. The entire Senate staff fit into one building back then (now there are three, plus the Capitol itself). The hot new information technology in town was the telephone.
Yet it is hard to envision hearings like that today--probing basic...