Peter McKay revisits old haunts in a city that combines power, grandeur – and Old South sleepiness
The thing about Washington is that it’s in Dixie, ie the South. Although the most powerful nation in history is run from there, it’s a drowsy place, lacking New York’s frantic, jackhammer pace.
Rednecks park up their pick-ups in swish Georgetown to buy booze-to-go in DC, avoiding the bureaucratic state-controlled liquor stores in neighbouring Virginia. And you’re never more than an hour or so’s drive from men who distil their own liquor to sell illegally in stone jars. When I worked there — in the 1980s, covering Ronald Reagan et al — my golfing friends in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains, about an hour’s drive west, would sometimes order a jar of ‘white lightning’ for Saturday evening.
DC’s most popular radio station played non-stop bluegrass music, although the district’s population was about 80 per cent black. Its disc jockeys either pretended to be rednecks, or were the genuine article. They did not always seem to take into account the racial heritage of their audience.
I remember a woman ringing in one day to complain that a remark she’d heard on air was insulting to black people. ‘Sir, you don’t sound as if you ever met any black folks,’ she told the DJ. Who replied, if memory serves: ‘Ma’am, you are mistaken. I once met an EEth-I-opian riding on the ’ole City of New Orleans. He shone my daddy’s shoes.’ He was fired by lunchtime and the station apologised publicly.
The other thing about Washington — and I suppose it’s rather obvious — is that it’s a city of transients. Legislators, and the executive — including of course the President — are out-of-staters. It’s a bone of contention among natives that the District of Columbia is not fully represented in Congress. Nor has any President ever hailed from the district. ‘Taxation without representation,’ is the grumble on DC car licence plates, or ‘tags’ as they’re known.
But this onlyness about Washington imparts a unique character, I think. It’s full of smart, ambitious people, making the most of their time there. Most utilities there work well, from the subway to the buses, the railway and the two airports (Ronald Reagan National, for domestic; Dulles and Washington-Baltimore, for international).
Cabs are easy and relatively cheap, although the drivers aren’t always au fait with a city not much larger than Luton. A friend and his wife, being taken from Dupont Circle the three miles to National Airport, realised they were headed in the opposite direction. After various stops and starts, the cab arrived at National, my friend in the driver’s seat and the sobbing Somalian driver being comforted by the customer’s wife in the back seat.
When we’re talking about Washington for visitors, and those who work in politics, law and the media, we mean NW, the North West quadrant. Heroic Christopher Hitchens amazed us when he bought a house deep in SE, which includes the Capitol but also, within a few streets, the machine-gun-alley domain of crack-dealing gangs. I too bought a house on The Hill, SE, but safely inside an area patrolled 24/ 7 by congressional security.
Even so, I soon relocated to O and 30th Street, deep in leafy Georgetown. Hitchens and I would sometimes convene at a nearby joint on Wisconsin Avenue, Pied du Cochon, which offered ‘free champagne’ (made in New York state) with its Sunday brunch. It’s still there, as is nearby Blues Alley, from which we were ejected one night after laughing uncontrollably at the thought that the modern jazz being listened to so respectfully by others was in a sense (as Kirsty Wark might say) modern democracy expressed as music.
Old Ebbitt Grill, near the White House, is still there — or, rather, near where it used to be. Once a rackety old bar patronised by White House scribblers, now it’s a huge brasserie, full not of West Wing movers and shakers but people out for a fun night in the company of others they imagine to be so. So is Kramer’s Bookshop on Dupont Circle, where you can buy political magazines and books, international papers, small-circulation magazines — and breakfast to eat while you try to decode what the Washington Post is saying about politics.
The White House, since 9/ 11, has become more of a stockade than a mansion. In its cop-infested environs, you’d better ‘walk right’ as bluesman Huddie Ledbetter sang of Houston, Texas. It’s said that if any incoming airliner deviates from its course into Reagan National, which takes it close to the President’s home, it’s likely to be shot down. If so, the surface-to-air missiles necessary aren’t visible, unless they’re mini-missiles carried by the figures you sometimes see on the White House roof.
For me, the best thing about Washington, then as now, is its spacious beauty, its great avenues named after states; the Mall, the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials (particularly the latter) and the lazy Potomac River drifting through. With sensible shoes, and weather permitting, you can walk to practically every place of interest. Otherwise, as I’ve mentioned, cabs are reasonably priced.
Don’t be tempted to hire a car, unless you plan out-of-town forays. The White House blockage of Pennsylvania Avenue between 15th and 16th Street has made congestion much worse than it was when I lived there. If you like an easy drive, head out up to Gettysburg and the impressive battlefield monument.
Or head to haunting Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers meet and the anti-slavery campaigner John Brown — with five blacks and 16 whites — famously broke into a federal armoury in 1859 in the hope that he could lead a slave insurrection. Prior to his hanging he said presciently: ‘I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with blood. I had, as I now think vainly, flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.’ He got that right.
Eat soft-shell crab, a local speciality, and walk, or cycle, in the Rock Creek Parkway. Breakfast like a king in Union Station. If you only have time for one memorial visit, make it the impressive but oddly moving Lincoln, especially effective at night. For churches, make it the neo-gothic Cathedral, started in 1907 and finished in 1990. Have a drink in Bullfeathers, close to the Capitol, a habitué of Congressional aides. See a show at the Kennedy Centre, or mosey around Georgetown’s chic shops and restaurants.
Americans are conflicted about Washington. They resent its power and glitter but are proud of its great buildings, monuments and thoroughfares. It has had its ups and downs as a city, bedevilled at times by racial conflicts and municipal corruption. Some of its presidents — Lincoln and Kennedy in particular — have left their marks on it. Others, like Democrat Jimmy Carter and Republican George W Bush, didn’t care for it — and Washingtonians reciprocated that feeling.
Barack Obama, according to Hitchens — whom I visited recently — is having fun there. He and his wife Michelle often have their ‘date nights’ at the Newseum, which has a fine restaurant. Obama also has several small restaurants and bars he visits with ‘metrosexual’ chums, says the Hitch, who knows a thing or two about such joints. But the President has sent his re-election team back to his old Chicago political ’hood, lest their wits be dulled in sleepy, Old South Washington.