October 6, 2002 The De Facto Capital By FRANK RICH The New York Times
They got it right the first time. New York was the capital of the nation at its birth. The first presidential inauguration, in 1789, wasn’t far from ground zero, and the first presidential residence, at 3 Cherry Street, was on a spot now occupied by one of the supports for the Brooklyn Bridge. George Washington slept there, but not for long. In a political deal purportedly made on a downtown sidewalk, Alexander Hamilton traded away the location of the capital to Thomas Jefferson to entice the South to give the federal government power to assume state debts. A year later, Congress and the president decamped to Philadelphia, and a decade after that, they settled into a new federal city next to which the City of Brotherly Love seems like Shangri-La. As Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer, two New York tabloid reporters of a later day, would assess the fateful final choice of a national capital in their 1951 best seller, ”Washington Confidential”: ”The founding fathers, whose infinite wisdom gave us a Constitution and form of government well nigh perfect, located the seat of that government in a stinking, steaming swamp.”
The country’s seat may still be mired in that swamp, but its heart, soul and brains are more evident than ever in its first capital, 200 miles to the north. While New York has long been the nation’s center of culture, finance, fashion and media, the city in the aftermath of Sept. 11 cohered into something more than the sum of its perennially celebrated parts. After its highest towers were taken down, New York rose from its initial shock to illustrate in real time what America actually is, a huge and resilient democracy animated by citizens of every conceivable stripe, pursuit and ethic (from those who gave their lives for others at the World Trade Center to those who looted its shopping mall). Instead of seeming, as it often had, like an eccentric island adrift from the rest of the country, the city found itself valued instead as a concentrated representation of the whole. That outsiders would regard it as the true American capital was proof that Americans now define themselves far more by their cultural choices, most of which are tweaked and marketed by the information factories of Manhattan, than by their choice (if any) of political party. Not that New York is shy about offering political leadership if it spots a vacuum. When the White House’s occupant was nowhere to be found on the day the country needed him most, New York went so far as to offer up its own chief executive as the nation’s paterfamilias. America is still grateful.
Even at the literal level, New York is more representative of American political values than the official capital. Washington, where I grew up and where my family has lived since the Civil War, is still a colony where the voters are denied the full rights of self-determination. Its citizens and public officials alike remain in thrall to a federal government over which they have virtually no say, in the shadow of a president who serves as the de facto prince regent of the tourist precincts, the only part of the city most Americans see. Washington is less an exemplar of democracy than an agglomeration of marble facades paying unctuous tribute to that aspiration. George W. Bush, and he is hardly the first president to do so, treats it as a politically obligatory diorama that he can flee any and every chance he gets.
New York doesn’t think of itself as competing with Washington — the same cannot be said of the reverse — but periodically it does so, if only to let the world know who’s really boss. After World War II, suburban Virginia tried to lure the fledgling United Nations to metropolitan Washington, until someone belatedly realized that an international citizenry would not take kindly to segregated schools. In 1959, the Washington Board of Trade mounted an elaborate campaign to make the ”Capital of the Free World” the site of the 1964 World’s Fair. According to one account, the D.C. advocates’ hard sell leaned heavily on the annual cherry-blossom festivals, the ”colorful parades constantly held when distinguished foreign guests visit the city” and ”the elaborate and dignified presidential inauguration celebrations.” That was all it took to persuade the World’s Fair Commission to reach unanimity in awarding the plum to Robert Moses’s posse from New York.
This year brought the Olympics bake-off. To increase its odds as a site for the 2012 summer games, Washington entered into a shotgun marriage with the more plausibly urban Baltimore. The capital’s confidence was such that it took for granted a Washington Post report in July that D.C. and San Francisco were ”the apparent front-runners,” beating out New York and Houston. The next month brought the shocking news that it was Washington that had been eliminated along with Houston (the only other city that can match both its toxic summer weather and complement of former Enron executives). After this defeat, there was much local muttering that ”politics” was the culprit and that Washington might have been punished because of the unpopularity abroad of the incipient war on Iraq.
How much easier for Washingtonians to blame Saddam than to take a hard look at their own city. D.C. may have talked a good game about sports to the U.S. Olympic Committee, but for three decades it has lacked a major-league team in the most American sport of them all. It purports to be as up to date as the new economy, but the signature digital-era companies to put down roots there, AOL and MicroStrategy, are synonymous with the dot-com bust. The capital’s Maryland and Virginia suburban enclaves are famous for having some of the country’s most over-the-top houses as measured by square footage but none of the most imaginative architecture.
Such is Washington’s appeal to tourists that it did not make the list of the Top 10 North American cities in this year’s Travel and Leisure magazine readers’ poll. (New York came in first.) The capital’s restaurants can’t compete with those of Vegas, let alone New York, Chicago and the Seattle-to-Los Angeles culinary axis of the West. Its taxicabs have a suspect fee structure as gerrymandered as the map of Congressional voting districts. While New York has contributed to the American language such joyous words as ”whoopee” and ”hot dog,” Washington has coined ”inside the Beltway” and ”Department of Homeland Security.” America’s songwriters and poets have repeatedly celebrated Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island too — not to mention San Francisco, Chicago and St. Louis — but where is that romantic lyric about the capital? ”Hail to the Redskins” will have to do.
First appearances can be deceptive to new visitors to D.C. Edmund Wilson once observed that Washington, ”after other American cities, seems at first such a relief, so agreeable,” but ”turns out, when one has stayed there any length of time, to have little personality of its own and to come to taste rather flat.” Or as Cindy Adams wrote this year: ”Even folks who live in Washington don’t want to be there. The high point for a visitor? Catching a glimpse of Trent Lott in Person? I mean, please.”
By contrast, you have to pry people away from New York. The gaping wound only deepened the citizenry’s already intimate connection to their city. In the poignant opening episode of the post-9/11 season of ”Sex and the City,” Carrie went so far as to choose the city over sex, spurning the advances of a Fleet Week sailor after he committed the sin of knocking her town. It was the patriotic thing to do.
New Yorkers who were out of town on 9/11 felt desperate to return. Since then, we seem inexorably drawn to the watering holes and restaurants and merchants downtown, as if to fill in the shadow of death with the lubricious glow and laughter of irrepressible life. We are more aware of our neighbors than before: not just the firemen and the cops and the family that lost someone, but the guy who lost his business in the undertow, the guy who is trying to rebuild, the all-American Sikh cabbie who bedecks his windshield with flags lest he be victimized (as in New York he has generally not been) by guilt-by-turban. The fate of ground zero is, inevitably, a noisy political and aesthetic debate, but whatever acrimony may attend it, it is also a classic American project: a battle between money and values, between commerce and art, between powerful interests and upstart citizenry, between past and future, all staged on an open 16-acre expanse that is urban America’s largest frontier.
Not only were the dire predictions of a mass exodus wrong, but the reverse may be happening. A New York Times/CBS News poll in August found that the number of inhabitants who think that New York will be a better place to live in 10 or 15 years is the same as it was the month before the attack. Manhattan’s residential real-estate values were clocked this summer at 15 percent higher than they had been pre-Sept. 11; signed contracts on apartments were up this July over last, too, reflecting the possibility that more people are arriving than leaving, even during an economic downturn. Neighborhoods reinvent themselves faster than anyone can keep count, from Harlem to the Lower East Side. Queens, generally an also-ran in any five-borough hipness sweepstakes, shows signs of becoming the new Brooklyn (though it still lacks its own Zagat). The Museum of Modern Art lives in Queens now, and so do a disproportionate number of artists, writers, dancers and musicians — including the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, who is only the latest in a long list of Washington-spawned talents (from Duke Ellington to Paul Taylor) who fled the capital’s culturally parched environment to reach full bloom in the enriching concrete of New York.
In Washington, there is far more culture than there used to be, but spectacle, in keeping with the town’s own bombastic aesthetics, tends to be the hottest ticket — blockbuster shows at the National Gallery, Disney musicals and the Bolshoi on tour. Cities as small as Minneapolis and Seattle have a more lively indigenous arts scene than Washington. The plight of culture in the capital is symbolized by the Kennedy Center, an afterthought not even deemed worthy of its own stop on the city’s part-time Metro system. A world-class impresario, Michael Kaiser, has at last been imported to revive the place, and this summer he performed a Heimlich maneuver in the form of the well-received Sondheim Celebration. But half the weekend audience was New Yorkers, to whom Kaiser may have to continue to cater. The low-slung performing arts barn on the Potomac has for so long been isolated from the best American culture, high, middle and pop, that its annual low-rated televised honors have of late been reduced to bestowing some of their medallions on Brits rather than native genius. (This year’s Kennedy Center knight, Paul McCartney, has taken a rain check.) Such is President Bush’s respect for the capital’s temple of culture that among his first appointments to its board was Bo Derek.
With the exception of the B-list Hollywood names who get all dressed up (once, anyway) for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, artists turn up in the city en masse only when Congress is posturing about the arts and humanities endowments. As for what American pop culture thinks of Washington as a city, as opposed to a government, one need only look at ”Minority Report,” in which the capital’s defining trait, even years in the future, is its historically high crime rate. The movie’s point seems to be that nothing short of the ability to arrest suspects before they commit a crime would have enabled D.C.’s benighted police force to crack a case like Chandra Levy’s.
New York is hardly without crime, but it also has the positive side of urban friction: the manifest humanity that results when millions of people of all kinds are packed together to make a go of it. The fundamental DNA of the city has never changed. It has always been a gateway for immigrants as well as an arena for big money. Its crowds have been large and raucous from the start. That ”culture of congestion,” in the phrase of the architect Rem Koolhaas, leads to a nonstop chain reaction of serendipitous human fusion, creative and sexual and economic, that is as American as you can get. The byproducts include hyphenated talents, melting-pot families, a constant, bubbling hands-on laboratory for social, political and cultural change in which the experiments alternately succeed big and fail catastrophically, in full public view.
At some point, Washington had its own dreams of being a sizzling capital. In ”Political Terrain,” Carl Abbott writes of how in the late 19th century it was still hoped that D.C. ”could aspire to be the Rome of America in the arts, the Berlin of America in education and the Paris of America as a city of beauty and pleasure.” But the city stood still while those roles were respectively claimed by New York, Boston and San Francisco. (Though George Washington had offered to help endow a major university for the new capital, few of its grandees seconded his enthusiasm.) Despite early hopes that the federal district might be an economic hub, it was as hard for capitalism to take root as culture. As Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace write in ”Gotham,” it became apparent early in the 19th century that the United States ”would have two centers, one governmental, the other economic.” It was a ”separation of powers as emphatic as anything in the Constitution” with ”no parallel in the Western world.” The American capital that emerged was, in John Kennedy’s famous formulation, a city of ”southern efficiency and northern charm” — a rare point of agreement between him and Richard Nixon, who pronounced Washington ”a city without identity” and voted with his feet to spend most of his political exile in New York prior to his 1968 comeback.
If Washington has an indistinct identity, it does have its own DNA — that of a town of transients. When legislative sessions were far briefer than they are now, Congress and the Supreme Court took residence in temporary quarters, then fled to better climes (as they still do when in recess). ”The greatest and most respectable business that is done in Washington is keeping boarding houses,” said an 1829 handbook for new arrivals. It wasn’t until well into the 20th century, as the federal government expanded during the New Deal (with its hefty infusion of F.D.R. New Yorkers) and World War II, that the city’s population did as well. By then it had long since missed out on the great wave of turn-of-the-century immigration that gave New York and every other East Coast metropolis their human and cultural variety. Even now, the capital lacks the ethnic spectrum of other major American cities. In the 2000 census, the Asian population of New York — almost 10 percent of the city’s eight million inhabitants — was substantially larger than the entire population of D.C., where the Asian population is only 2.6 percent. Though the number of Hispanics is rising in Washington as elsewhere, in 2000 they still made up, at most, 9 percent of the city, as opposed to a quarter of New York.
When the W.P.A. assembled its guidebook to the capital during the Depression, the authors seemed almost desperate to imbue their subject with distinction. One wistful accolade paid tribute to the city’s ”profusion of shade trees.” When the book was revised in 1942, the district’s most distinctive aspect was played down — the references to the second-class citizenship of its black residents, who like all Washingtonians had no right to vote, even in presidential elections, but who also continued to suffer many of the deprivations of slavery, from discrimination to poor public health and schools. In a 1983 reissue, a new editor set the record straight, but noted as compensation that ”it is easier to find one’s bearings in Washington than in other American cities.” (So true, and so what?)
Though opponents of full home rule for the District then and now can give all sorts of highfalutin constitutional arguments for their position, the perennial sub rosa reason for its substatus remains the same as it was before anyone had heard of Marion Barry’s coke bust or of the hapless current mayor, Anthony Williams, whose fraudulent nominating petitions contained ”signatures” from New York celebrities like Martha Stewart and Billy Joel. In 1965, Washington became the first major American city in which blacks outnumbered whites by more than 10 percent. Given the Republican Party’s inability to attract large numbers of black voters, it has hardly been in any rush to empower more of them at the price of likely handing the Democrats two voting seats in the Senate and one in the House.
The only time the capital’s residents had true self-rule was during a short-lived biracial governance experiment during Reconstruction, soon ended by white resistance. Though Washingtonians can now vote for president (since 1961), they have but a single nonvoting member of Congress. Under their limited form of home rule, in place only since the early 1970’s, the City Council, the mayor, the budget and even citizen-passed ballot initiatives can all be overruled by congressmen from states whose constituents’ firsthand knowledge of the capital may be limited to the compulsory school trip. It could be argued that nowhere in the country is the plantation mentality still more embedded in civic life than in an African-American city whose citizens lack the full rights of citizenship, even as their Army National Guard units are called on active duty for the war on terrorism. This antediluvian, or at least antebellum, state of affairs makes D.C. a strikingly anachronistic capital of America in the 21st century, whatever its validity as a capital before the passage of the 13th Amendment. Indeed, America’s capital has less democratic autonomy than President Bush this year demanded of the Palestinians.
Whatever Washington lacks in actual democracy, it makes up, of course, in monuments. But what represents the spirit of modern America more than the Statue of Liberty? The view of Lait and Mortimer, Washington’s churlish chroniclers of the 1950’s, still holds. They likened the city’s tourist appeal to that of Hollywood’s Forest Lawn cemetery, where busloads of Americans come to visit the movie stars’ graves. ”Its gleaming public buildings of white marble are like so many mausoleums,” they wrote. ”Where it doesn’t look like a cemetery it resembles a movie set. It has a feel of unreality.” But if politics is show business for ugly people, as the old joke has it, you can’t push the Hollywood analogy too far. ”Washington is dominated by elected and appointed functionaries who are schooled to believe they must never be caught having fun,” Lait and Mortimer wrote. ”Therefore, after dark, it is more like Paducah than Paris.” Unlike New York, which has winked at mayoral girlfriends from Jimmy Walker’s to Rudolph Giuliani’s (and doesn’t care where its current bachelor mayor spends his weekends), Washington was the last to discover John Kennedy’s sex life and is still as open-mouthed as an Edvard Munch screamer when contemplating Bill Clinton’s.
Washington’s idea of a Hollywood sex symbol is a cast member in ”The West Wing” — no matter whom — because what could be more erotic than a powerful government bureaucrat? The city’s idea of an intellectual is a Sunday-morning talking head; its literary apotheosis is the trade journal. Its loudest academic posturing emanates from the so-called university without students, the think tank, invented by the Brookings Institution in 1927 and a major Washington growth industry since the 1970’s. The think tanks’ tenured ”professors,” with grandiose titles that might have been lifted from the Marx Brothers’ ”Duck Soup,” are often out-of-office ideologues with more position papers than books to their credit. Only in this heady environment could William Bennett be mistaken for Harold Bloom and CNN’s ”Capital Gang” for the Algonquin Round Table. Unlike decision makers in other capitals, Washington’s power elite don’t routinely commingle with top-rung scholars, scientists, novelists, artists and musicians who might broaden their thinking beyond the parameters set by the city’s army of lobbyists and single-issue advocates.
Though Washington suffered its own grievous wound on Sept. 11, it remains as insular as it was before the attack. As the country’s official capital, it is to New York as Ankara is to Istanbul, Canberra is to Sydney, Brasilia is to Rio. Strolling through downtown and past the alabaster public buildings on a beautiful afternoon, you find that the sparse pedestrian traffic is often limited to government workers in cookie-cutter garb and cadres of tourists hoping to find some semblance of urban brio after having had their fill of the National Air and Space Museum. (They’d be better advised to hightail it to the city’s black or gay enclaves or even the suburbs.)
Take a similar walk through the central commercial districts of New York, whatever the borough, and you’ll find not just animated sidewalks packed with locals but also signs of a city in perpetual renewal, pursuing creation and demolition with equal abandon, always testing the limits. That hope, that drive, that hunger to keep moving no matter what, is America at its highest throttle. Should the Olympians come to the true capital, they won’t automatically own the town, as they would if they had landed in Washington. In New York, they’ll find that no sooner do the games begin than they are locked into the even tougher competition of winning the city’s favor, just like every other newcomer who has ever come here with dreams of going for the gold.
Frank Rich is a Times columnist and a senior writer for the magazine.