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.