O Little Town of Washington

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U.S. Persident Richard Nixon poses in the White House after his announcement to the nation April 30, 1970 that American ground troops have attacked, at his order, a Communist complex in Cambodia. Nixon points to area of Vietnam and Cambodia in which the action is taking place. (AP Photo)
President Richard Nixon poses in the White House after his announcement to the nation April 30, 1970, that American ground troops have attacked, at his order, a Communist complex in Cambodia. Nixon points to area of Vietnam and Cambodia in which the action is taking place. (AP Photo)

In the wake of all the talk surrounding Mark Leibovich’s controversial book about Washington, This Town, I was asked how that city has changed since I first lived there nearly 45 years ago. The question makes me feel a little like Grandpa Simpson, with an urge to shout in old person non-sequiturs: “We didn’t have airplanes or an airport then. We lassoed swarms of bees and let them take us wherever they wanted to go. Orchards, mostly. And the Capitol dome was made entirely of beef tallow. The Lincoln Memorial was nothing but five pennies and a fake beard!”

Washington has changed a lot. For one thing, we don’t have Richard Nixon to kick around anymore, although he just popped up again in recent days with the release of the last batch of conversations he secretly taped in the White House. The Russians “slobber at flattery,” he pronounces; he describes West German Chancellor Willy Brandt as a “jerk;” and tells special counsel Chuck Colson to clam up about the Watergate plumbers: “You say we were protecting the security of this country.” That’s our boy. I have often said that back in the day, we didn’t have cable TV in Washington, but we did have Nixon and for sheer entertainment value, he was hard to beat.

Nixon had only been president for about eight months when I first became a resident in the fall of 1969 as a freshman at Georgetown University. Coming from a small town in upstate New York, Washington was a good choice. I had thought about going to school in Manhattan, but the culture shock of a big city might have been too much; I could have come down with the bends or something. Washington was a good middle alternative back then, small enough, but still urban , and besides, I was fascinated by politics and DC seemed like the place to be.

Nixon's plan for the White House guards' new uniforms.

Nixon hadn’t yet entered full Watergate weirdness mode but there were moments: he briefly tried to dress White House guards in Ruritanian-style uniforms that made them look like extras in “The Student Prince.” And in an effort to reach out to us kids and prove he could take criticism, he publicly responded to a letter from a Georgetown student named Randall James Dicks who opposed Nixon’s policy in Vietnam. One problem: of all the correspondents Nixon could have chosen, reporters soon sussed out that Randy Dicks was a closet teen royalist who believed that “a monarchy is a superior form of government because a king is above partisan politics and can therefore be responsive to the people.” Cue the Ruritanian guards.

In truth, Vietnam was much on our minds. That first fall I was at Georgetown was the time of a big anti-war demonstration at the Washington Monument in November. The following spring saw the illegal invasion of Cambodia, the killings at Kent State in Ohio and Jackson State in Mississippi, and a nationwide student strike that once more had thousands marching on Washington. It wasn’t unusual to come back to your dorm room late at night and find six strangers sleeping on the floor.

Most of us had student deferments from the draft, but once you were out of school, the numbers from the dreaded national lottery kicked in and mine, incredibly, was “1.” Dumb luck and a quickly acquired knowledge of the Selective Service bureaucracy kept me out of the Army. Maneuvering through the machinery of government was much easier and people-friendly then, possible even for a feckless (admittedly white) college kid with barely five bucks in his pocket. No big campaign contribution or other thinly veiled form of bribe was necessary.

But the town was slow. As John Kennedy famously noted, “Somebody once said that Washington was a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm.” There still were “temporary” white clapboard structures on the Mall, like barracks, built during the Second World War as offices to handle staff overflow from the Pentagon. Many city blocks remained ravaged and abandoned in the aftermath of the rioting and looting that followed Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in 1968.

Hitchhiking was still an acceptable and fairly safe mode of transportation for a student – Judge John Sirica, a few years before he became famous sentencing Watergate miscreants, used to see my thumb out and give me a lift to the Smithsonian, where I had a film class. There was no Metro subway then and damn few taxis; the buses were privately owned by a gentleman named O. Roy Chalk, whose other holdings included Trans Caribbean Airways (its orange and green palm tree logo adorned the buses) and a railroad that hauled bananas across Central America. As a security measure, the government was fond of parking the buses nose to tail all around the White House whenever one of the big demonstrations was held.

“People talk about the size of the federal government,” my brother noted, “and yet that hasn’t changed enormously. Instead, it’s the emergence of all the ancillaries to government — law firms, lobbyists, communications companies, government service providers — that have flooded the city with people and money.”
And yet, in those days, decades before 9/11, you could walk into the Capitol and congressional office buildings with impunity, then buttonhole senators and representatives in the hallways or drop into their offices unannounced, attend hearings at random, even ride unescorted the cool little trains that connect those offices underground . No magnetometers at the entrances, no pat downs, no passes except to enter the galleries of the actual House and Senate chambers.

Back then, my brother Jim was living in Washington, too, attending Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. After many years in the academic world he has moved back to DC with his family and is working as senior correspondent for Diplomatic Connections magazine. These days, he said, there’s an “ever expanding consciousness of security concerns. You and I both remember a time when traffic moved freely in front of the White House…. [Now] even routine doctor’s visits require signing in and out of seemingly innocuous office buildings downtown.”

But the biggest difference between then and now, as the great Washington journalist Bob Kaiser titled a book not too long ago, is that there’s “So Damn Much Money,” with lobbyists spending almost three times what they did a dozen years ago and an ever-increasing number of ex-members of Congress, staffers and regulators running full tilt through the revolving door and joining the ranks of the extravagantly paid.

“People talk about the size of the federal government,” my brother noted, “and yet that hasn’t changed enormously. Instead, it’s the emergence of all the ancillaries to government — law firms, lobbyists, communications companies, government service providers — that have flooded the city with people and money.” What’s more, there’s “the explosion of the permanent military-industrial complex, which Eisenhower warned about and the Cold War made real. The post 9/11 world has just mushroomed this corporate impact, aided and abetted by the penchant for outsourcing that has essentially created contractor-led defense and security establishments that parallel/shadow (and profit from) their government counterparts.”

Washington has become the most affluent metropolitan area in the country. A 2012 Gallup poll rated it the most economically confident region of the United States. And with so damn much money has come a building boom: a once dying downtown has turned into office buildings, restaurants, stores and luxury apartments, forcing others out of the way. African Americans were as much as 71 percent of the District’s population when I lived there in the seventies; today that number has fallen to a little less than half, with many having to move outside the city.

As was said of Philadelphia’s founding Quakers, many may have come to Washington to do good but did well. Very well indeed.
I left Washington as I came in, with Nixon. In 1974, I had gone to work for public television at a company that produced news and public affairs programs, including live coverage of the Senate Watergate and House impeachment hearings. I was offered a good job in New York but made as a condition of employment that I would not start until after Labor Day or Nixon’s impeachment trial, whichever came last.

His August resignation freed me to make my way north. Had I stayed in Washington, it would have been easy to slowly become part of The Club that Mark Leibovich describes so well in This Town; I knew people, had worked in media and politics, had a girlfriend keyed into DC society. A soft slide into the machine would have been effortless. But like my brush with the draft, I escaped.

“They are not one-dimensional and certainly not bad people,” Leibovich writes. “They come with varied backgrounds, intentions, and, in many cases – maybe most cases – for the right reasons. As they become entrenched, maybe their hearts get a bit muddled and their motives, too…” Too often, the game becomes more important than those for whom government should exist to help.

As was said of Philadelphia’s founding Quakers, many may have come to Washington to do good but did well. Very well indeed. Yet with many of them, Leibovich claims, it comes “with a desperation that, to me, is the most compelling part of the Washington story, whether now or before: it is a spinning stew of human need.”

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  • Marine’s wife

    Mr. Winship, you seem very proud of your ‘escape’ from the draft during the Vietnam war. I hope you appreciate that others without your ‘dumb luck’ and knowledge of the Selective Service bureaucracy went in your place. One of those others might have been my husband, who when he was classified 1-A, enlisted in the Marines, served honorably in Vietnam in 1967/68 and came home a decorated Marine, albeit to a country who spit on him in his uniform and called him a baby killer. He was one of the lucky ones, however, as many of the ‘other’ who took your place did not.
    So when recounting your lucky escape in the future, please do it without the smugness you employed in this otherwise excellent article. Do it in honor of those who went and perhaps died in your place.

  • Michael Winship

    Marine’s wife:

    I appreciate your comment and by no means intended any discredit to your husband or anyone else who served in Vietnam or serves today. Nor do I believe that what I’ve written was smug. I simply refer to my own situation and that I did not fight in a specific war which I personally believe to have been wrong. In fact, I am actively involved with Wounded Warriors and a veterans writing group and have traveled in the United States and Europe to help that program. What’s more I have written and co-produced several programs in which the military have been treated with the respect and honor. they deserve.

    Michael Winship

  • Jake

    Money influence in politics is one of my biggest pet peeves. When I saw the title I was looking forward to reading the article and probably sharing on Facebook. It was an interesting article but as Marine’s wife pointed out the author’s attitude about getting around the draft is too cavalier for me to want to share this piece. I have friends that served who would be offended by it. I usually like the articles here but this one gets two thumbs down!

  • Mary Whisler Maxwell

    Interesting article. I went to Illinois State University in the fall of 1969. One of my 45 high school classmates was a Vietnam War casualty in May 1970. My husband is a Vietnam-era Navy veteran, and we were part of the economic casualties wreaked by Reagan and all the wealth and power that ate up the baby boomers, as expendable results of the prosperity enjoyed by their “great generation.” D.C. now has a new generation of lambs to slaughter, to feed their royal expensive tastes. Did you count the number of homeless people, including veterans, lining those gold-paved streets? It will be appalling in our last years on this earth, to find out what new tortures they have devised for our grandchildten, to further entertain the disgusting political despots of this once beautiful nation.

  • Marine’s wife

    Mt. Winship: Thanks for your reply. I am pleased to know that you support veterans’ and Wounded Warriors programs. However, I think you might review your comments regarding your draft situation if you don’t see that they are not only smug but self-satisfied that you were able to outwit the government. For your information, my husband and I both considered the war to be a ‘wrong’ war. However, my husband as an able bodied man, felt it his duty to go when his country called, even though he certainly wanted to stay in college. He did his duty and no one went in his place. He suffers yet today from his injuries and PTSD, but never regrets that he did the right and honorable thing.
    He and I went on to lead very rewarding and prosperous lives and do not for one moment regret his service to our country.

  • Anonymous

    Federal Elections Commission Act 1974 followed by the court case Buckley vs Valeo really sealed the money back into politics. The act may have regulated political contributions, but it took us back to the Robber Baron Era. It handed politics to the ones with the money, under cover of some kind of anti-fraud act. By 1980, corporate interests were already outspending unions by 3:1. It is now about 7:1. And, we know how concentrated income and wealth is. Very few have discretionary money to throw away on politicians. FIRE and law sectors have been the biggest spenders on behalf of their clients. Media laws also changed over the last 30 years which hand political information over to a few corporate owners. Now this violation of “one man one vote” and equal rights for representation in government is turbo-charged since SuperPACs have been legalized by Roberts’ SCOTUS Citizen’s United. So, is it any wonder that wage earners and the middle class are disappearing? The article describes symptoms, but there were some significant law changes that shaped that culture. We need to understand the law changes that got us into this mess, so that we can reverse those laws and try to rebuild. We need focus on this. It is getting really dangerous now.

  • Arthur Brooks

    All those ‘chicken hawks’ that invaded Iraq were draft age during Viet-Nam another invasion started by lies. Bush, Cheney all of them none went. Even a Defense Secretary of the era claimed Viet-Nam was a mistake.

    58,000 troops killed. Millions physically and mentally maimed.

    And the carpet bombing killed how many Veitnamese (gooks) by this mother of all lies?

  • Anonymous

    Economic casualty of Reagan? I guess you were an air traffic controller because everyone else did better

  • Anonymous
  • Ed

    The Bureau of Education for the Handicapped was housed in the Regional Office Bldg of the GSA, a converted warehouse, at 7th and D SW and security guards had just been installed. My colleague, Harvey, brought some raw oysters in for lunch and was stopped and frisked, almost turned away. He said, “when are you going to stop this nonsense?” The guard, looking at Harvey’s longish hair, said, “When you stop blowing up buildings.” Harv, never at a loss for words said, “We would never blow up the Office of Education, no one would know it was gone.” The guards from this Nixon era memory, never have left.

  • Was there then

    No one who describes himself as being “feckless” and having “dumb luck” is being smug. Your making that interpretation, Marine’s wife, is most likely due to your distaste for the choice Michael Winship made.

  • Facebook User

    FUN POLITICAL SONG: “Politicians’ Polka”,
    on utube.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XY4rllpwiVQ.

  • Anonymous

    The stories of war protesters spitting on vets returning from Vietnam are pure bunk. Myth. Urban legend. Zero evidence that it ever happened, despite thousands of vets who later claimed it happened to them. Any vet not in a wheelchair would have decked a protester had such spitting ever really occurred, and that would indeed have been news.