Our Town

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Carolyn Kaster/AP Images
White House correspondent for Time Michael Scherer, comedian Conan O’Brien, Michelle Obama, executive vice president of Fox News Michael Clemente, and President Barack Obama during the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, Washington, D.C., April 27, 2013

The completely unforeseen announcement that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos will be buying The Washington Post for $250 million has unleashed a tremendous amount of speculation, again, about the future of the newspaper business. What could Bezos have up his sleeve? Print romantics, looking past the fact that Bezos’s company has largely destroyed the brick-and-mortar bookstore, seem to believe or at least hope that this whiz of contemporary capitalism surely knows something the rest of the world doesn’t and will light the path toward resurrection.

There are side issues that many find only slightly less interesting. What are his motives? Does he privately entertain fantasies of himself as having the political success that eluded Charles Foster Kane? What are his own politics, and to what degree will he seek to impose them on the editorial page when it comes time, say, for presidential endorsements? From political donations and reported past comments, we glean that he is fairly liberal on some social issues, notably same-sex marriage; but when it comes to his money, he gives signs of being a passionate economic libertarian. He contributed a hefty $100,000 to an effort (ultimately successful) to defeat a 2010 ballot initiative in Washington state that would have raised income taxes on the top 1 percent, Bezos of course among them, to fund schools and public health programs.

Finally, there is the question—admittedly of concern to a smaller audience—of what impact this incursion will have on the social anthropology of the nation’s capital. The Graham family, which has owned the paper since the year Franklin Roosevelt took office, will no longer control it. For those who think about such things, it’s unthinkable. In a written statement to Post employees at the time of his purchase, Bezos said, “I am happily living in ‘the other Washington’ where I have a day job that I love.” This was intended to reassure the staff that he won’t be a meddler. But it also means that the new owner of the Post, the institution so central to Washington for so many decades, is someone who isn’t a part of Washington culture and has no desire to join it; whose interest in politics is dwarfed by his passions for low-cost human space travel and a clock that will keep time for 10,000 years, two ventures into which he has plowed many millions of dollars.

The idea of a “Washington establishment” can be traced back at least as far as Henry Adams, who moved to the city with his wife, Marian, in 1877. The capital, Adams told a friend, “is the only place in America where society amuses me.” Marian, or “Clover,” ran a literary salon, advancing a range of …

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