A Letter from the Wasteland

Richard Nixon
Richard Nixon; drawing by David Levine

Washington, D.C.

We are not being fair when we blame Mr. Nixon for what Washington has always been. The common experience is to come here looking forward to so much and to depart looking back on so little. H. G. Wells found the same detached deadness in the Washington of Theodore Roosevelt, who made every one of those claims on the imagination this president so determinedly avoids. This has almost always been Wells’s city of “sightseers instead of thoughts going to and fro,” its tone permanently set by persons more conscious of life’s perils than of its adventures. Since Mr. Nixon is the epitome of that tone, we should hardly be surprised to find him untroubled by the resistance of such a population.

Any bit of color in this conscientious monochrome serves only to remind us that what Mr. Nixon represents is the enduring spirit of the city. One Thursday early in September, Secor D. Browne, the new chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board, was introduced to the White House reporters. His first effect was of surprise that one should come upon a trace of ornament in a dig where the spade hardly ever rewards the aesthetic sense. Chairman Browne turned out indeed very like Arthur Schlesinger at his most amiable, when he mixes the assurance of superiority with the welcome of any stranger as fellow among the superior. So, then, America can still produce a mandarin whose first job was as engineering salesman in Rockford, Illinois. It took only a few quaint measures of self-mockery to evoke for us a departed style and make us half-believe that there had been another, fundamentally different time. And then Chairman Browne pronounced the formula “We of the aviation community‚Ķ.”

Now the Chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board is commissioned to regulate the aircraft industry; anywhere else but in Washington, it would be curious to encounter a judge whose first remarks upon assuming the robe were an expression of identification with the community of defendants. What is peculiar to the city is that it almost never suggests to us the sense of the nation as a community but continually sets before us its image of a conglomeration of licensed franchise holders.

Senator Edward Kennedy, in opening an investigation of the federal regulatory agencies, sent out a questionnaire to their commissioners and got back replies entirely unconscious of the implications of their philosophy:

We hire a few people from broadcast entities, common carriers and equipment manufacturers. I think this is generally advantageous, because these people often have backgrounds that we could not obtain in any way. To a much greater extent we lose staff members to the regulated industries and to legal and engineering firms that represent them. This often poses problems for us, because it is the abler people who are hired away. However I take some consolation in the fact that…

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