If you want a friend in Washington, the saying goes, get a dog. In summer I devote most of my un-air-conditioned hours to Daisy, who is a Portuguese water dog. We take long walks along Rock Creek, which runs through the big national park that bisects the city. No cars, no leash, no plastic baggies. For me it is the Just-William-and-Jumble childhood I never had. For Daisy it is a joyous hour of swimming, chasing deer, scaring horse-riders and consuming plum-sized balls of horseshit, after which she is ready to walk home and fall asleep on top of the air-conditioning vent.
Portuguese water dogs became a chic breed once the Kennedys began acquiring them. But when president Obama decided to get one for his daughters, it became impossible to walk mine without getting stopped by gawkers. For politics-obsessed Washingtonians, a car is never just a car (there are ‘conservative’ SUVs and ‘liberal’ Priuses), a sport is never just a sport (there is ‘conservative’ football and ‘liberal’ baseball) and the same goes for dogs. The woods are usually a refuge from this way of thinking, but the other day we bumped into the wife of a conservative journalist who has appeared often in these pages. She was walking with an editor friend of hers.
‘Is that a Portuguese water dog?’ she said. ‘Watch your back around your conservative friends.’ ‘He’s a conservative?’ said her friend. ‘He’s like ———,’ she said, mentioning her husband’s name and casting a glance at Daisy. ‘He just pretends to be conservative.’
What did they expect? A Rottweiler?
It has been 100 degrees in Washington, DC, for the last few days. Driving back through Delaware after a weekend at the beach, we passed a crew of men doing road work in the rippling heat. There were a dozen of them, in peacock-blue jumpsuits, with an official-looking car rolling 20 yards behind them at walking speed. This was what used to be called a chain gang, except that the inmates weren’t in chains. It made me wonder what Solzhenitsyn would have thought.
A couple of years ago I got wrapped up in the unabridged edition of The Gulag Archipelago. Solzhenitsyn’s indictment of communism is that makes the gulag inevitable. The gulag is communism’s natural outcome. People are in labour camps not because criminals require punishment but because the government requires labour. I feel certain that that prison crew would have piqued Solzhenitsyn’s curiosity. He would have asked why, over the last few decades, western countries have seen both high structural unemployment and mass immigration, why the ‘war on drugs’ has raised US prison populations to a multiple of what they were in the late 1960s even as drug use has fallen, and why these men were walking around in a modern-day chain gang although none of them were dangerous enough to chain.
This afternoon I crowded hip to hip in the heat with other parents under a small tree that offers the only shade in the local ballpark. People were watching their children — and occasionally leaping up when one of began to wobble with heatstroke. I have not spent so much time around Little League baseball since I played it, in Massachusetts in the 1970s. There were lots of parents watching then, too. They were not as organised as today’s Washington parents. Some of them smelled of gin at 11 a.m. games. They were the people that Ronald Reagan was elected to clean up after.
But say this for those old-school New England parents — they were mad partisans for their kids. Of course, partisanship can be taken to excess, and usually was. When an ice-hockey parent outside of Boston shot dead one of his son’s friends’ parents after a game a few years back, I confess I gave the article an extra once-over to make sure none of my friends had been involved.
The father of a running back on my first football team — we were about 11 at the time — would take a seat in the back of the bleachers and whenever any kid other than his son touched the ball, he’d shout: ‘Give the borrel to rub it!’ I assumed this was one of those pieces of folk wisdom that endure after their vocabulary has fallen out of daily use — along the lines of Cobbler, stick to thy last, or Plough a straight furrow. Maybe ‘borrel’ was 1930s radio slang for ‘old college try’, I thought. Maybe ‘giving the borrel’ was what vassals did when their lords felt like rubbing something. It surprised me to see the look of impatience that passed across the faces of the other parents when he stood up. It was a while before I realised he was blaming the team’s problems on giving the ball to anyone other than his son Robert. He would have thrived in Washington.