On December 12, 1985, the President of the United States, returning from his summit meeting in Geneva with Soviet leader Gorbachev, went straight from the airfield to report to Congress. His helicopter was bathed in a corolla of many-colored spotlights as it swooped down upon what the designer of Washington, Pierre L’Enfant, in his plan for the capital, knew as Jenkin’s Hill.
The millions watching the presidential helicopter on television bearing its important passenger down to the halls of Congress might well have associated the sight with something out of classical mythology, Zeus coming down to earth. The scene brilliantly concentrated by so many lights and cameras no doubt looked like just another photo opportunity or media event, as Americans calloused by so much publicity and advertising say these days. I for one was deeply impressed. It made me think again how showy and theatrical, all-focused on externals (especially in the television age), official Washington—the first city created exclusively as a center of government—has always been by comparison with America’s other power centers. In Washington public ceremony and the rituals of state take on a created, performance-like quality. By comparison with our slovenly mass cities these days, all business when they are not in pursuit of entertainment, Washington shows a touch of the transcendent, which in America is equivalent to the unfamiliar.
Not all great American cities these days show what a success story America has proved in the history of nations. Washington certainly does. It reflects as never before the richness, the world influence, the political continuity, and above all the everlasting magnetism to Americans themselves of what the eighteenth-century founders modestly called an “experiment.”
For a country whose most famous entrepreneur in the 1920s declared that “History is bunk,” the traditionalism of Washington, the white Roman fronts assembled street after street, give sanction to the past, yet more than ever permit Washington to remain the city of compromise, the place to deal. Without Washington’s unique Romanitas along sacred-looking centers of government, American life would seem unbearably strident. But Washington, at least from the outside (for visitors looking on, the outside is all they think themselves fit for, thank you), is a territorial version of an old-fashioned Sunday: a reminder that somewhere tradition still exists, with its hint of another world.
Of course it is a little sad to watch the crowds humbly lined up at the National Archives to stare at our sacred documents, so hemmed in by uniformed guards watching their every step. Washington is another American city internally under siege. Those uniforms remind me of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s complaint, early in the Civil War, that “we filed out of the station between lines of soldiers…putting us in mind of similar spectacles at the gates of European cities. It was not without sorrow that we saw the free circulation of the nation’s life blood (at the very heart, moreover) clogged with such structures as these.”
If you don’t live here, there is something inherent to Washington that keeps one an observer, always on the outside, long after he has ceased to be a pilgrim.
I first knew Washington as a boy in the late Twenties, visiting an uncle amazingly able to keep a grocery store not far from the Capitol. I knew it in Depression and war, when it was excited, wildly distracted. Far from the unbroken sleekness it now shows at first glance, it was humble in places because of the lines of “temporary” shacks hastily put up for offices in the First World War. I knew it especially well during President Kennedy’s administration, when so many liberal intellectuals—as they were then—felt, even as Vietnam was creeping up behind them, that they were witnessing a rebirth of American intellect fathered by Harvard and dedicated to the proposition that there is nothing wrong with having fun while you are shoring up the free world. When Robert Frost was meeting with his old friend Sherman Adams in the White House, he was astonished to find that President Eisenhower had no interest in meeting him. No sooner did the New Frontier name itself than Robert Frost remembered that he had once been a Democrat and heralded “an Augustan age of poetry and power, with the emphasis on power.”
But Washington then was not as splendid, as regal, as haughtily sure of support, as it is now. Even the groups shakily gathering at the Vietnam memorial, almost in sight of Father Abraham forever brooding over this increasingly divided society, show that Americans really have no other center, nowhere else to turn for the necessary icon. Washington in its officialdom represents the showcase, the ordained and sacramental meeting place of Americans who—never was this more true than now—have nothing in common but their being Americans. Even the statues to mostly forgettable generals, the statues that no other American city supplies in abundance, plus the museums, the libraries, universities, the national offices that give trade unions and professional organizations a touch of official sanction, present Washington as the home of our civic religion. Here the United States is not just a country but the embodiment of its legendary aspirations as the first deliberately created nation in modern history and the first officially to declare that its legitimacy rests on the consent of the governed.
Today’s sumptuous, noticeably chic Washington seems the most finished, the most complete of American landscapes. The Washington Monument encircled by a sea of fifty flags reminds me of what a provincial Greek once said—“I have never been in a city so gorged with icons as your Athens.” This great absract sculpture was more impressive by itself. But these days we stamp everything “USA! All the Way! USA!” I am grateful for the pressure from the home folks that put the effigies of so many local celebrities into the rotunda of the Capitol. What if some of them remind me of the wax-works at Madame Tussaud’s? We need a little provincialism to mellow the slightly overbearing face of superpower. These days young congressmen with blow-dried hair draped across their foreheads all look as if they have taken a screen test. External Washington reflects a sense of its world importance in every chic restaurant, glittery new shop, and perfect little museum. It was always more famous for pomposity than fashion or art, and now it has all three, plus the most varied museums in America.
The top-heavy importance of Washington to itself used to be disguised more modestly. Yet even in the late Sixties, despite the turmoil raging around Lyndon Johnson, he made his presidency immortal. A nervous young reporter had obtained an interview but was too nervous to make good use of it. Rising in exasperation to his full six feet three and a half inches, the President demanded: “How can you ask a chicken-shit question like that of THE HEAD OF THE FREE WORLD??!”
Washington is the most visible sign of America’s continuity and relative consistency as a political system. Society in America, as all our literature says, is always in flux, often in eruption, tense with race and class conflicts. Our big cities present the greatest wealth in the world, the most daring architecture, side by side with beggary, open degradation, homelessness. There is not enough public spirit to conceal America’s many losers. But Washington presents on the surface, for official purposes, a show of national stability that is warranted enough when you consider the revolutions and counter-revolutions that have yanked so many nation-states from their roots.
Here there were no roots, just the political instinct for a center that would hold together so many antagonistic states and interests. A place for government totally apart would also give a special meaning and authority to the unprecedented “experiment.” Of course the actual site was the result of a compromise between North and South that got the southern representatives finally to withdraw their opposition to Hamilton’s Assumption Bill taking over the states’ debts. President Washington, who picked the site himself, faced considerable embarrassment because of his land holdings in the area. His choice, typical of all far-seeing Virginians at the time, was based on the conviction that the Potomac would be a main highway into the West. Washington as a center for national transportation and the site of a great national university was the dream of the eighteenth-century founders as late as the administration of John Quincy Adams.
President Adams failed to see his dreams realized, as he failed in general to find acceptance from rival politicians for the brilliant intellectual authority he hoped to direct on and from this city. But the imagination of power, what the raw new place cut out of swamps and forest was all about, was supplied by the classical style, which thought in noble perspective, great vistas, traditionally awesome columns, great flights of steps meant to subdue and impress.
Classical style expressed the influence of the expected. You have only to cross to the East Wing from the National Gallery, all rotundas and columns and symmetrical divisions, to feel the effect of high modernism, all sharp angles and sections divided contrary to your well-schooled expectations. The classical style linked itself to the past in order to project a grandeur essentially timeless. Pierre L’Enfant was thinking big and was encouraged to do so when Thomas Jefferson lent him the plans of Frankfurt, Karlsruhe, Amsterdam, Strasbourg, Paris, Orleans, Bordeaux, Lyon, Montpellier, Turin, and Milan. Paris, of course, remained the main influence on L’Enfant; the British architectural historian Mark Girouard notes in his book Cities and People that L’Enfant’s sketch plan (1791) was a synthesis of the Champs Elysées and other elements from Paris along with colonial Williamsburg and Christopher Wren’s plan for rebuilding London after the great fire, combined with inspired use of the topography of the site.
Mark Girouard says that L’Enfant’s plan (engraved and made public in 1792) “is arguably the most brilliant town plan ever conceived…. It was based on a grid, for convenience of laying out lots for sale, and a web of diagonals…. The two main monuments, the president’s house and the Capitol, were…linked indirectly in a way clearly suggested by the relationship of Capitol and governor’s house at Williamsburg.”
The Capitol, to dominate from Jenkin’s Hill, the highest point in the district, “was to look down the grand avenue and across the river.” The president’s house was to have “a clear view along the river reach, towards the neighbouring town of Alexandria, by way of a promontory of land on which L’Enfant suggested erecting a ‘Majestic Column or a grand Perysemid,’ which would ‘completely finish the landscape.’ ” L’Enfant told President Washington that he was aiming at “a sense of the real grand and truly beautiful only to be met with where nature contributes with art and diversify the objects.”
L’Enfant dreamed of the Mall as a public walk, not road; one that in his broken English he prophesied would give Washington “a superiority of agreements [amenities] over most of the city of the world.” The Mall never became the parade ground he envisaged, and by the early twentieth century there was cleared away even the naturalistic park which had taken over L’Enfant’s Mall. Daniel Burnham, the too-ambitious Chicago World’s Fair architect, re-created it as a broad formal vista line with grand public buildings.
L’Enfant, insisting on his original vision, was soon discharged from his mighty project as insubordinate. Conceived but for many decades not quite born, Washington on the drawing board was easily ridiculed. As late as 1842 Dickens laughed in American Notes:
It is sometimes called the City of Magnificent Distances, but it might with greater propriety be termed the City of Magnificent Intentions; for it is only on taking a bird’s-eye view of it from the top of the Capitol, that one can at all comprehend the vast designs of its projector, an aspiring Frenchman. Spacious avenues, that begin in nothing, and lead nowhere; streets, mile-long, that, only want houses, roads and inhabitants; public buildings that need but a public to be complete; and ornaments of great thoroughfares, which only lack great thoroughfares to ornament—are its leading features…a pleasant field for the imagination to rove in; a monument raised to a deceased project, with not even a legible inscription to record its departed greatness.
L’Enfant’s projection of the future still awes me when I read that President John Adams was the first to occupy the White House, but his wife Abigail, coming down later to join him, was unable to locate the supposed city of Washington.
Having lost my way in the woods on Saturday in going from Baltimore, we took the road to Frederick and got nine miles out of our road. You find nothing but a Forest and woods on the way, for 16 and 18 miles not a village…. My intention was to have reached Washington on Saturday…. I set out early, expecting to make my 36 miles if possible; not travelling, however but by daylight. We took a direction as we supposed right, but in the first turn went wrong, and were wandering more in the woods in different paths, holding down and breaking bows of trees which we could not pass…. I arrived about one o’clock at this place known by the name of the city, and the name is all that you can call so. As I expected to find it a new country, with houses scattered over a space of ten miles, and trees and stumps in plenty with a castle of a House—so I found it—The President’s House is in a beautiful situation in front of which is the Potomac with a view of Alexandria. The country around is romantic but a wild, a wilderness at present.
Abigail’s great-grandson Henry was to spend the last forty years of his life in a great house on H Street just across Lafayette Park from what used to be called the Executive Mansion, sneering at all its occupants, including his just barely conceivable social equal Theodore Roosevelt, whom he called “His Accidency.” He described Roosevelt after another dinner at the White House letting no one else talk, going on and on “like a buffalo.”
Henry Adams thought Washington amusing because pretentious. It was not the fulcrum, the fated power center that his grandfather John Quincy had dreamed of; Wall Street was. But Washington was full of significant people, meaning not the politicians but observers from the worlds of diplomacy and science. His closest friend was the sometime poet, ambassador, and secretary of state John Hay, whom he served (Adams let it be known) as a brain trust. His favorite people were government scientists at the Smithsonian like the great pioneer of aviation Samuel Pierpont Langley, and physicists at the Naval Observatory whose mechanistic theories encouraged him to fantasize history as a science.
No one has described Washington in its greatest growth, from before the Civil War to America in the First World War, better than Henry Adams. As a boy of twelve he was revolted by slavery in the capital’s streets; in 1918, eighty years old, he had lived long enough to see “a new universe of winged bipeds…British airplanes sailing up and down under my windows at all hours.” Adams is the Gibbon, the Voltaire, the Proust, and even, alas, the doom-filled Oswald Spengler of Washington society. His letters, with which one must couple the equally acid if less prophetic letters of his tragic wife Marian, are an extended commentary on the Washington scene, and on the emergence and destiny of America as a world power. They are without parallel in our literature, and as brilliant in their way as the greatest novels of society.
The third chapter of The Education of Henry Adams, “Washington (1850–1854),” describes his being taken by his father to visit President Zachary Taylor at the White House. Ah, the modesty of important Americans in 1850! “Outside, in a paddock in front, ‘Old Whitey,’ the President’s charger, was grazing, as they entered; and inside, the President was receiving callers as simply as if he were in the paddock too.” Washington then was slovenly in the old southern country style, and still hardly built up. The city was ragged and unkempt to an extreme, and Adams “in truth, had never seen a finished landscape.” Slaves were everywhere, “but Maryland was raggedness of a new kind,” with “unfenced fields and woods…village streets, among a haphazard variety of pigs, cows, and negro babies, who might all have used the cabins for pens and styes, had the Southern pig required styes, but who never showed a sign of care. This was the boy’s impression of what slavery caused, and, for him, was all it taught.”
Coming down in the early morning from his bedroom in his grandmother’s house—still called the Adams Building—in F Street and venturing outside into the air reeking with the thick odor of the catalpa trees, he found himself on an earth-road, or village street, with wheel-tracks meandering from the colonnade of the Treasury hard by, to the white marble columns and fronts of the Post Office and Patent Office which faced each other in the distance, like white Greek temples in the abandoned gravel-pits of a deserted Syrian city. Here and there low wooden houses were scattered along the streets, as in other Southern villages, but he was chiefly attracted by an unfinished square marble shaft, half-a-mile below, and he walked down to inspect it before breakfast. His aunt drily remarked that, at this rate, he would soon get through all the sights; but she could not guess—having lived always in Washington—how little the sights of Washington had to do with its interest.
Adams was already looking for signs of a meaningful national identity. The famous Adams family was his tradition, as was the centripetal thinking of the two Adams presidents, father and son united by a prickly sense of superiority but dedicated to America as a new proposition among the nations of the world. But where in this nation’s own capital was there a sense, except in wartime, of this special purpose and authority? Henry Adams was in London during the Civil War as private secretary to his father the American minister. No one reading the Education can forget the description Adams gives of himself returning to America and overcome as he sits in the Senate gallery by the names of the mediocrities President Grant nominated for his cabinet.
By 1880 Adams published anonymously his satiric novel on Washington in the Gilded Age, Democracy. The Nation protested that the book’s emphasis on corruption was misleading: “The reader…will wonder how such a government can exist in the world, to say nothing of thriving.” The real problem with the novel is that the socialite heroine Mrs. Lightfoot Lee from New York, who foolishly falls in love with a corrupt senator supposed to be modeled on James G. Blaine, and then leaves the capital a sadder and wiser woman, is not brilliant and complex enough to support the central quest of Henry Adams himself. “She wanted to see with her own eyes the action of primary forces; to touch with her own hand the massive machinery of society; to measure with her own mind the capacity of the motive power.” Her sister at one point sardonically asks, “Haven’t you got to the heart of your great American mystery yet?” That was the first question Henry Adams put to himself and to everyone else in what was nominally America’s head and font. One answer, by no means conclusive in Henry Adams’s thinking about the place of Washington in world affairs, but sufficient to the miserable Grant administration, is given in the novel by the cynical Bulgarian ambassador Baron Jacobi:
You Americans believe yourselves to be excepted from the operation of general laws. You care not for experience. I have lived seventy-five years, and all that time in the midst of corruption. I am corrupt myself, only I do have courage to proclaim it, and you others have it not. Rome, Paris, Vienna, Petersburg, London, all are corrupt; only Washington is pure! Well, I declare to you that in all my experience I have found no society which has had elements of corruption like the United States. The children in the street are corrupt, and know how to cheat me. The cities are all corrupt, and also the towns and the counties and the States’ legislatures and the judges. Everywhere men betray trusts both public and private, steal money, run away with public funds. Only in the Senate men take no money. And you gentlemen in the Senate very well declare that your great United States, which is the head of the civilized world, can never learn anything from the example of corrupt Europe. You are right—quite right! The great United States needs not an example.
American exceptionalism then meant virtuousness. By the time the nineteenth century worked itself out on the mind and character of Henry Adams, the difference he saw between America and all rival powers was that America was the greater power. The difference between Henry Adams and his forefathers was that prime intellect was nowhere in power, not even interested, just historical and analytic. The real prize was not government but the science of physics. Government, for all the splendors of a more and more finished and finishable Washington, was all too obviously beyond the control of the best minds. The progress and destiny of nations could only be studied, Henry Adams concluded in the last chapters of the Education, as natural forces were measured in the laboratory.
But what was Washington in such a climate of ideas? Answer: It was the privileged place where certain interesting minds could meet and exchange information, it was a unique observation post. However, unlike the fleeting pundits, columnists, think tanks, Washington know-it-alls, and government parrots of the future, Henry Adams really lived Washington. The riotous physical beauty of Washington after the Civil War Adams describes in his memory of spring in Rock Creek:
The Potomac and its tributaries squandered beauty. Rock Creek was as wild as the Rocky Mountains, Here and there a negro log cabin alone disturbed the dogwood and the judas-tree, the azalea and the laurel. The tulip and the chestnut gave no sense of struggle against a stingy nature. The soft, full outlines of the landscape carried no hidden horror of glaciers in its bosom. The brooding heat of the profligate vegetation; the cool charm of the running water; the terrific splendor of the June thunder-gust in the deep and solitary woods, were all sensual, animal, elemental. No European spring had shown him the same intermixture of delicate grace and passionate depravity that marked the Maryland May. He loved it too much, as though it were Greek and half human. He could not leave it, but loitered on into July, falling into the Southern ways of the summer village about La Fayette Square, as one whose rights of inheritance could not be questioned.
Someone so conscious of “inheritance”—Adams felt as much doomed by this as supported—of course could not enter into the crowd, the spirit of popular democracy. Only Whitman did that during the Civil War when he came down to look for his brother George, reported missing after the Battle of Fredericksburg, and stayed on as a volunteer in the hospitals, caught up in what Lincoln’s secretary John Hay was to recall as the fascination of wartime Washington—“There was never such a strange multitude, jumbled and incongruous…. Through it all the plot of the world drama worked itself out.”
There is no account of wartime Washington by a major writer so immediate, direct, so saturated in the daily life and anxieties of the besieged city, as Whitman’s diary of the period, Specimen Days. Poor Herman Melville, looking for a consulship, described himself in a letter to his wife as getting nowhere and sitting alone in Lafayette Park sunning himself. But he was bemused by the sight of Lincoln at a White House reception shaking hands “like a good fellow—working hard at it like a man sawing wood at so much per cord.” He was impressed with the new wings of the Capitol, “noble buildings, by far the richest in marble of any on the continent…the marble of the interior—staircases &c. They are in short palatial…the whole structure taken together is truly immense.”
Emerson, Hawthorne, and plenty of others could not describe the awkward figure Lincoln made without a touch of derision. Whitman waits in the street to see the President returning from the Soldiers’ Home where he slept on hot summer nights:
Mr. Lincoln…is dress’d in plain black, somewhat rusty and dusty, wears a black stiff hat, and looks about as ordinary in attire, etc. as the commonest man. A lieutenant, with yellow straps, rides at his left, and following behind, two by two, come the cavalry men, in their yellow-striped jackets…. The sabres and accoutrements clank, and the entirely unornamental cortège as it trots towards Lafayette square arouses no sensation, only some curious stranger stops and gazes.
Of course we smile at Whitman’s admission that the President returned his bow. But almost alone among the writers visiting Washington, Whitman recognized political necessities, was alarmed by the man’s physical exhaustion, but rejoiced in Lincoln’s so-called commonness. This inherent identification with the mass is most blazingly displayed in Whitman’s description of the wounded after Bull Run lying in the streets, and after Fredericksburg, taken up into what is now the National Portrait Gallery and was then the Patent Office.
February 23 …. A few weeks ago the vast area of the second story of that noblest of Washington buildings was crowded close with rows of sick, badly wounded and dying soldiers…. It was a strange, solemn, and, with all its features of suffering and death, a sort of fascinating sight…. Two of the immense apartments are fill’d with high and ponderous glass cases, crowded with models in miniature of every kind of utensil, machine or invention, it ever enter’d into the mind of man to conceive…. Between these cases are lateral openings, perhaps eight feet wide and quite deep, and in these were placed the sick, besides a great long double row of them up and down through the middle of the hall…. It was, indeed, a curious scene, especially at night when lit up.
Everywhere in Specimen Days Whitman is one with the country, one with the soldiers, and because of his rapture in democracy’s sacred cause, one with himself. What followed in Washington writing, with rare exceptions in the middle of the twentieth century, when the troubled self-awareness of the United States brought a renewal of imaginative energy, was that political commentators took over. The observations of daily life in Washington by the last patricians are uniformly genial, cynical, indifferent. By 1869 Henry Adams was writing to a friend:
From what I see here I suspect that our people may properly be divided into two classes, one which steals, the other which is stolen from…. The whole root of the evil is political corruption; theory has really not much to do with it.
In the new century Adams could not cross the park to have dinner with President Roosevelt without expressing his disgust that the fare was so poor, only a little Apollinaris to drink, while the President talked and talked and talked. Adams had nothing to say about Woodrow Wilson’s accession in 1913, when the New Freedom, as it was called, exuberant with the accession of southern Democrats, made Washington more a Jim Crow town than it had ever been before. As late as the 1960s, Alice Roosevelt Longworth summed up a lifetime in Washington by saying she had had a lot of fun. “Washington is a small, cozy town, global in scope. It suits me.”
The resident pundit, the only American sage after Henry Adams who lived in Washington in order not to miss anything at the center, the supposed center, was Walter Lippmann. He moved there in 1938 and did not return to his birthplace of New York until 1967. Lippmann thought the power was still in Washington, or at least the inner knowledge of who had power. He had no doubt that he had the intelligence to accommodate them all, the “contacts” to make the best use of such. To read Lippmann’s letters to world notables, people of “station and influence” as his editor, Professor John Morton Blum, describes his correspondents, is to remember Henry Adams’s wry description of himself as a “stable companion to statesmen.”
One big difference between Adams and Lippmann is that Adams did not seek to be influential and had no respect for politicians whether in Washington, Paris, or St. Petersburg. Lippmann helped to write the Fourteen Points for Woodrow Wilson and to soften the belligerency of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech; in his eighty-five years he was all over the place, from the Harvard student who impressed William James to the nationally famous columnist who drove Lyndon Johnson crazy by refuting him on Vietnam. But Lippmann—always in the know, always in contact with the powerful, always the cool, superlatively well-ordered insider, always on top of events—left in his columns just the legacy of a thousand subtle remarks. Events even in Washington can be too much for mere intelligence. Nobody is as much in control as Walter Lippmann assumed he always would be. His well-ordered life radiating from Washington has always been a model for journalists who envied his acuteness but could not account for his familiarity with the great. They are so absorbed in the political game that history, the life of culture, especially the crisis of society at large, escape their attention. Only Walter Lippmann could have addressed himself to “Dear Frank” before FDR became president and so quickly dismissed him when he was about to be nominated.
March 4, 1937. It rained all day on Roosevelt’s second inauguration. Thinking of how he presided over the Depression and war that stamped my generation, it seems strange to me that I saw him only that day as he left the White House for the Capitol. Fifty years later it may be impossible to explain that for some of us the New Deal was Franklin Roosevelt. Our skepticism about it was irrelevant to our fascinated tie to the man whom Justice Holmes called “a second class mind but a first class temperament.” The temperament gave assurance that the Republic would survive.
The reason for his magnetism was obvious to us. At twenty-one, struggling to keep alive as a writer, I had no confidence in myself; he was all confidence. The authority he radiated was unbelievable; it would not be confused with what I saw in feisty Truman, openly neurotic Johnson (as a young congressman he called FDR his “daddy”), the sweatily complicated Nixon, the only man to whom the White House added not one inch. Even the thoroughly honest and sobering Eisenhower had a tendency to cede authority—and not only to John Foster Dulles—in a way that would have been unthinkable for Roosevelt, who lectured De Gaulle the way the squire of Hyde Park explained things to Henry Morgenthau.
As for Kennedy’s “patrician” makeup, a myth fawningly advanced by academics because of Kennedy’s charm, money, and intolerance of rival academic advisers as not being “entertaining” enough (which is where Kissinger redoubled his allegiance to Nelson Rockefeller), who can now believe that Kennedy enjoyed or imparted a sense of authority anything like Roosevelt’s?
Roosevelt was not of the business world, nor of any world where that improbable accent and ringingly secure voice could be identified with by most other Americans. The writers and intellectuals did not need his actual words to flock to him; and in fact most of the words, the fireside chats and the rest, were just morale builders, often composed by Judge Sam Rosenman. Kennedy, on the other hand, with the Harvard competitiveness of his day (it was certainly not FDR’s, who indifferently took his “gentleman’s C”), had pretensions to being an intellectual, and impressed Norman Mailer no end by referring to the then scandalous The Deer Park rather than The Naked and the Dead. But literary talk had not the slightest effect on Kennedy’s difficult presidency. As Jay Gatsby said in another context, it was “just personal.” And in fact the relation of “poetry” to “power,” as Robert Frost grandly called it, was getting more and more personal, on every president’s part, as Vietnam heated up. When the poet Robert Lowell declined an invitation to the White House, while other writers picketed outside, Lyndon Johnson growled, “Some of them insults me by coming and some insults me by not coming.” What a pity it was that LBJ was never as much himself in public as he was in private! Still, it will be remembered that as things became more and more stormy he had the honesty to wear his glasses in public.
The famous revolt of the Sixties, based mainly on an unacceptable war, now seems the clearest demonstration of the loss of authority in Washington. But if the center did not hold, the revolt was equally transient, became political theater. In Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night, on the 1967 anti-Vietnam march to the very steps of the Pentagon, he insisted on the subtitle “History as a Novel, The Novel as History.” This wish to have it both ways is typical of the so-called nonfiction novel which in the hands of talented novelists wanting to dress up journalism or popular history as art, usually emphasizes the writer at the expense of the situation. In fact Mailer’s political indignation is usually less pronounced in the book than the personal flamboyance he is the first to mock. Mailer is of course not in the same world as the stuff that is credited in news-weeklies and other sources of popular knowledge to division of labor and apparently written by committee. All this overdramatized, heavily rewritten journalism, proudly called not article but “story,” is proof how little readers and television viewers demand objectivity, how much truth is confused with stray facts.
The Armies of the Night was published in 1968, the product of a writer magnificently spoiled by American life. But Mailer’s shrewdness recognized that in the absence of any real moral authority, a highly literary sense of drama, topical as all get-out, could seem to fill the political void. As a running description of the two-day demonstration that became the main Washington event, the book is exciting in its use of detail. That is what good writers are good at. But it is significantly without respect for Mailer’s fellow demonstrators. In that sense the book is typical of the ever more jeering tone that from all sides Washington now endures, suffers, enjoys, and that led one wit to say that Watergate was the only successful television drama produced in this city.
Of course Mailer’s book comes out of his acute sense of national crisis, his particular gift—which made him famous with The Naked and the Dead—for detecting political deterioration, his professional feeling that the American scene may actually be too involving to be left to journalists. It is his excited obsession with American disorder, on which he has lavished all the resources of his style, that is behind his personal tract on the unprecedented demonstration of October 21 and 22, 1967, when thousands, by no means all on the New Left, fell into brief but bloody skirmishes with armed guards, and a thousand people were arrested—among them, Norman Mailer.
Mailer was drawn to the scene because he could not stop dreaming of himself as a novelist and has never been sure whether the times are against this or whether he can serve up a novel as the spirit of the age. But only a born novelist could have written a piece of history so acute, mischievous, penetrating, and alive, so vivid with crowds, the great stage that is American democracy, the Washington streets and bridges, the Lincoln Memorial, the students, hippies, blacks, academic liberals, and marching women who personified the American opposition. The Armies of the Night was actually more about that opposition than about the authority it confronted—thinking that this was the same as insurgency. The book is really about political and human awkwardness, not the intrinsic reality of power. And if the book seems too full of Mailer himself, the man’s ego betrays the writer’s deepest political anxieties. In his books of the 1960s Mailer showed that while things were coming to a crisis, the forces of protest assembled before the Pentagon seemed to him limited in everything except courage. And how right he was.
Mailer’s attempt at political grandiosity now seems frivolous. He wrote of that Saturday afternoon in October that “he felt as if he had stepped through some crossing in the reaches of space between this moment, the French Revolution, and the Civil War, as if the ghosts of the Union Dead accompanied then now to the Bastille.” Not drinking or eating a thing all day, he knew
they were going to face the symbol, the embodiment, no, call it the true and high church of the military-industrial complex, the Pentagon, blind five-sided eye of a subtle oppression which had come to America out of the very air of the century…smug, enclosed, morally blind Pentagon, destroying the future of its own nation with each day it augmented its strength.
But who can forget that on that Saturday, when arrested Mailer found himself in the paddy wagon with an American Nazi shrieking hate at him, he was thinking mostly of the party in New York that night he might have to miss? Or that he had to confess about his young associates on the march that “these mad middle-class children with their lobotomies from sin” were much too facile in their thinking, spoiled by American affluence, indifferent to waste, too quick to hush “the complexities of our situation by drugs and pills”? A real problem: they were not so cool as JFK, then Mailer’s model for style, wit, and intellectual grace.
To write about Washington today is to find oneself enmeshed in a search not for the center of power but for a way out of a governmental medium that exudes lies, propaganda, misinformation, plain ignorance. If by a center we mean not legal authority but an old-fashioned regard for truth, there is no center. In the 1930s the collapse of political order in Europe was marked by an official contempt for truth. A visitor to the Soviet Union who knows anything about its history is shocked by the effortless lying even about the smallest personal matters, that government servants—which means almost everyone—pick up from the routine lying from the top down about the smallest affairs of state.
Words in Washington now. Experienced propagandists from the extreme right fill presidential speeches and directives with fictions that are smiled at as “whoppers” when they are corrected next day by an official agency. Just a little inattention to fine points of fact, don’t you know? The President of the United States informs an audience that he was “told” there is no word for “freedom” in the Russian language. A conservative senator informs his colleagues that “there is no hunger in the United States, only poor eating habits.” The fanatical magazine editor who brought Jeane J. Kirkpatrick to the attention of the White House denounces a brilliant soldier, General Edward Meyer, retiring Army Chief of Staff, as a “defeatist” because General Meyer doubted the practicality of sending our troops into Central America. A UN resolution condemning South Africa’s regular slaughter of its own people is vetoed by the then representative of the United States because it contains “an excess of language.” Nixon’s secretary of state mocks the cables from the American ambassador in Chile documenting the torture of political prisoners: “Don’t give me any poli sci lectures.”
Trend spotters and opinion molders. Little conduits spraying the ignorant, often apathetic public with confidential leaks from politicians who are equally drugged by the so-called media, the tube, with its supposed access to the people not as citizens but as audience. Vessels and vassals of power—reporters and photographers—never afraid to move in on the moribund and the helpless. But always asking the most banal questions of the Great White Father, who has melted them by addressing them by first name, even nickname, before ending every speech with “God bless us all.” Just one big American family, the national reporters become strangely timid when an official lie or absurdity calls for real question or correction; this they are strangely unable to find in their usually busy mouths.
And as the politicians are all hypnotized by the press, so the leading columnists are themselves politicians and many are ideologists of the most pompous kind. Truly, we are living in terrible times—journalists who live intellectually on other journalists. What is it about the mad topicality of American life—our being wired into the news twenty-four hours a day—that gives these little Caesars such confidence in their own opinions? And what in the excitement of incessant crisis government grants them so much attention from the rest of us? Our passivity, our political anxiety, our own forebodings in the one big country that has not yet been bombed, that has not undergone the pain that we from time to time inflict on others.
The atmosphere on high is one of studious, contemptuous Realpolitik. Not altogether in power, not altogether out of it, an army of ideologists, many of them converts from extreme left to extreme right, disseminate political cruelty in words that suggest, as contemporary extremism often does, religious activism, fundamentalism applied not just to the liberties of Americans but to the most elementary humanity we take for granted.
Words in Washington. Words from on high. Words that recur to a writer in Washington, always a tourist here, as he walks the streets on a bitter cold night. The President of the United States when nominated for a second term in Dallas: “Let’s go for growth, and let’s go for the gold…. We poison our society when we remove its theological underpinnings.” The writer, as always when in Washington, drags himself up the Mall to look at Father Abraham in his chair brooding over the country he more than anyone else kept together. On his way to Washington for his first inauguration, he stopped in Philadelphia on February 22, 1861.
I have never had a feeling, politically, that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence…. I have often inquired of myself what great principle or idea it was that kept this Confederacy so long together. It was not the mere matter of separation of the colonies from the motherland, but that sentiment in the Declaration of Independence which gave liberty not alone to the people of the country, but hope to all the world for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights would be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance. This is the sentiment embodied in the Declaration of Independence…. I would rather be assassinated on this spot than surrender it.
Covering Washington November 20, 1986