The Real Secret of Washington, D.C.

It’s not all about politics, and in fact it’s an extraordinary city.

Visitors walk along the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C.  (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

What do Donald Trump and the French ambassador to the United States have in common? Both dislike “Washington.” And, of course, they are not alone. Many share the view that the U.S. capital is a dismal place dominated by narrow-minded, often dishonest politicians playing self-serving politics. A place, perhaps, full of ambitious and conniving people like Frank and Claire Underwood of the hit D.C.-centric television series House of Cards. The Underwood power couple, with their determination to get and keep power at all costs, is only the latest popular symbol of the ruthless ambition and the dysfunction that characterize “Washington” for people around the world. Indeed, since Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the 1939 film starring James Stewart, bashing Washington on film has been a recurrent and lucrative enterprise.

Meanwhile, the Washington-outsider posture is as profitable a gambit for politicians on the campaign trail as the Washington-bashing genre is for Hollywood. Even politicians who have been an immutable part of the American capital’s political scene for decades routinely criticize “Washington’s dysfunction,” as if they have never spent time in the city nor contributed to the dysfunction.

The open season on Washington has even spread to the foreign diplomatic corps. Gerard Araud, the French ambassador to the United States, has said, in the words of the Financial Times, that Washington “is mostly about ‘PR’” and that he feels like a prisoner in the city. The ambassador also mocked Washington’s men and the city’s mores. He feels, in the FT’s words, that in D.C. “men wear suits three sizes too large for them, and dinners always start too early. Socializing with Washington’s politicians, journalists and ‘think-tankers’ takes more out of him than bargaining with adversaries.”

Surely this is a new kind of bold diplo-speak. But boldness among diplomats seems somehow permissible when referring to “Washington.” What would happen if the U.S. ambassador to France publicly referred to Paris as a frivolous, parochial, and self-absorbed city? It is easy to imagine Le Monde’s headline and the French government’s reaction. Instead, the full-page disdain of the French ambassador in Washington had no repercussions at all. Why would it? After all, badmouthing Washington seems to be the norm among the city’s residents; there was nothing special or newsy in Araud’s contempt.

He complains that he feels asphyxiated by the city’s rarefied atmosphere. This is surprising given that Washington is among the American cities with the most parkland as a percentage of its area, and one of the country’s top bike-friendly cities. A stroll or a bike ride in one of the magnificent parks next to his residence might help the ambassador get some air.

But maybe what the French diplomat was really complaining about was a sort of Washington-induced intellectual suffocation. That too is surprising; for that, the city offers many world-class remedies. A visit to the Library of Congress, the largest library in the world, or to one of the many dozens of museums in the city can surely open one’s mind. Washington has the biggest museum complex in the world (which in 2014 was visited by three times as many people as the Louvre) and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts offers weekly opera, ballet, and music productions of international caliber. To quench any thirst he may have for ideas and debates, Arnaud could participate in one of the dozens of talks, conferences, and panel discussions held daily at the 393 think tanks that are just minutes away from his embassy (no other city in the world has this many such institutions). Or he could talk with any number of experts at the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, or any other of the many international organizations headquartered in the U.S. capital. In fact, Araud says that he already taps into the enormous intellectual capital of the city, often convening intellectuals and notable authors to his residence for wide-ranging discussions. Unfortunately, his salon conversations don’t seem to fulfill his needs for intellectual stimulation. But that is not because Washington is a stifling intellectual desert. To the contrary, the city has one of the world’s largest concentrations of scientists and experts in an incredibly broad range of disciplines.

Here comes the revelation that will likely surprise the ambassador and others: The real secret of Washington, D.C., is that it is an extraordinary city. The harsh caricatures with which its critics commonly describe it have little in common with reality. Of course, the U.S. capital is a city where politics, with its intrigue, vanity, manipulation, misery, and greatness is important and very visible. And yes, political gridlock and dysfunction are rife. But Washington is much more than that.

For instance, Washington is home to the biggest center for biomedical research in the world, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), with nearly 6,000 scientists; 148 current and former NIH-supported researchers have received Nobel Prizes. The NIH’s annual budget exceeds $30 billion, an amount larger than the total budget of many nation states. It is also one of the most educated cities in the United States.

Relatedly, the D.C. metropolitan area is one of the richest in the country. In 2013, the median household income for the inhabitants of the area (which includes the district’s suburbs in northern Virginia and Maryland) was the highest in the nation. Surprisingly, that figure surpassed by 20 the second-wealthiest area in Silicon Valley, which is famously home to an entire class of millionaires and billionaires spawned by Google, Apple, Facebook and other tech titans. The median income of the D.C. metro area also surpassed that of cities like New York, Los Angeles, or Houston. Between 2006 and 2010, the area’s economy grew at a Chinese-style rate of 7.4 percent a year, though it has slowed since then—the growth rate was one of the fastest in the United States at the time.

Finally, another of Washington’s assets is its diversity; more than 20 percent of the city’s population was born outside of the U.S. as of 2011, with 35 percent of them coming from Asia, and about half (41 percent) coming from the Americas.

None of this means that the federal government, Congress, the thousands of lobbyists that try to influence both, and the enormous number of media outlets from all over the world that cover political Washington aren’t an important part of the city. But they are only one part of it and, for a lot of the population, not even the most important part. Many other exceptional characteristics make non-political Washington the exceptional city that it actually is.

In fact, Washington’s less-publicized positive attributes have been known to cause what long-time residents call “Potomac Fever”—the contagious condition that afflicts many new arrivals who come with the manifest intention of “just staying for a couple of years” but who then never leave. This condition is common among members of Congress and politicians who come to work in government. Much like what happened to the Underwood family.