Christopher Caldwell

Diary - 17 January 2013

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Washington DC: My elegant and sociable mother-in-law received an email this week warning that, should she wander on to her balcony to smoke on Monday, somebody might shoot her. The Secret Service is eager that nothing should go awry when our president is inaugurated for his second term. The inaugural parade route stretches a dozen city blocks along Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol, where the president gets sworn in, to the White House. The route is lined with office buildings and museums. There are few apartments with a view of the street, and my mother-in-law lives in one of them. When my father-in-law was alive, they’d throw a big party on inauguration day for friends, journalistic colleagues and a few politicians. There would be cocktails and cigars at the balcony railing and an atmosphere split between gaiety (for those who liked the incoming president) and grumbling (for those who did not). The emails from building authorities stress that, although a man’s home is his castle, it might be wise to follow ‘common-sense guidelines, such as no glass containers or no lit smoking material over the railing. In other words, nothing in the hands that could cause the sharpshooters across the street to become nervous.’ That’s what I call a party atmosphere.

Not in living memory has Washington been so drowsy on the eve of a new presidential term. Police are estimating only half as many people will attend this inauguration as the last one. This time feels ho-hum because last time was historic. Barack Obama was the first black president, which is great, but not the kind of achievement you can build on. It recalls Thomas Love Peacock’s Headlong Hall: ‘I distinguish the picturesque and the beautiful,’  says the critic and landscaper Mr Gall, ‘and I add to them, in the laying out of grounds, a third and distinct character, which I call unexpectedness.’ His companion Mr Milestone replies, ‘By what name do you distinguish this character when a person walks round the grounds for the second time?’

Four years ago the inaugural was an extravaganza, like a ball out of Tolstoy crossed with a folk procession out of Gabriel García Márquez. Christopher Hitchens threw a party on the eve of it. All sorts of exotic people were there. Christopher was in the lobby of his building when we arrived and he brought over a beautiful middle-aged blonde woman, saying, ‘You know the lovely Bo Derek, don’t you?’ Sure, I knew Bo Derek, but only in the way I knew Bo Diddley and Bojangles. I have been surprised that in the many reminiscences of Hitchens that have appeared since his death, so few have mentioned his exquisite manners. He had a genius for making others comfortable — by offering drinks promptly or, at a dinner table, chatting up the friendless person — but the gift was so well developed that it could make people uncomfortable. Did he think so highly of his friends as to assume they would be on good terms with Hollywood sex symbols or was he having a chuckle at them because they couldn’t possibly be? It’s a thin line!

An obnoxious piece of American cant is the verb ‘to kick-start’. Politicians promise to kick-start everything they touch. The New York Times recently reported that a Vermont entrepreneur would ‘kick-start’ the local economy by encouraging rich people to immigrate to the US. Why is metaphorical kick-starting a good thing? In real life, after all, kick-starting is what you do when you’re angry and impatient and don’t know what you’re doing. It’s what you do when a Coke machine or a parking meter has swallowed your coin. When kick-starting is going on, it’s the business of those standing nearby to shut up and get out of the way. That is why politicians like it. It is a euphemism for dispensing with democracy and consultation.

Officials in Washington and nearby Maryland are endangering pedestrians with an experiment in cosmopolitanism. Traditional American crosswalks have two parallel lines between which a pedestrian may walk when the traffic light shows ‘Walk’. Now city authorities are putting British-style zebra crossings at intersections with traffic lights, doubtless from the same self-loathing impulse that leads certain young Americans to cross their 7s, like French people. But there is a problem. Pedestrians have the right of way in a zebra crossing. Well-travelled people know this. You see them shuffling heedlessly into four lanes of traffic, punching text messages as they go. The US motorist, however, looks at a zebra crossing as a prettied-up crosswalk — why shouldn’t he blow through it at 40mph? So an absolute right to the same space has been promised to two groups with incompatible interests. It is a metaphor for the federal budget. The results in both cases will be similar.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard and a columnist for the Financial Times.