Washington the Blest
DEEP SNOW PLANTATION
March 20, 1939
DEAR ELISAVETA ANDRIEVNA: -
Your letter saying you are going to Washington makes me homesick for the town. I’m glad you are going, because you will see with your own eyes how this city gives the lie to the foreign critic’s libel that all our cities are as alike as packing-house hams. Actually Washington is sui generis, incomparable, and strangely blest.
Our national passion for uniformity has never been able to take hold of the town, and out of this failure arise the paradoxes that set Washington apart. For, from the day when it began to take Graeco-Roman shape under the hands of the French architect L’Enfant until now, it has been anything but American in the sense of the vigor, color, and lustiness that the word implies. And a long line of frontiersmen from Andrew Jackson to Huey Long, aided by a host of loud-talking, cussing, whiskey-drinking, spittoon-filling Senators, failed dismally in their eff orts to make it of a piece with the rest of the United States.
Look at it now. It is governed socially by a rigid, Graustarkian etiquette in a country of breezy, shirt-sleeve informality; its citizens depression-proof in a depression-ridden land; its workers economically secure in an era of economic insecurity; its sole business government among a people who have always held that the less government, the more business. There it stands, this unique
city: white, hermaphroditic, ceremonious, aloof from the roar of the market place; the capital of a colorful, vigorous, informal, slang-slinging, pugnaciously competitive people.
I had never been in Washington for more than a short stay until a few years ago when I joined a delegation that went up to dig — you actually had to dig in that unhappy time — some money out of Uncle Sam to keep the Mississippi away from our door. I remained then three months. Up to that time I had had about the usual contacts of the citizen with his Government. Once I had wired our Congressman please to cable our London Embassy to call on Aunt Nina, who was making the Grand Tour; she was visiting the Tower and had sprained her ankle in a false-alarm rush to see the Prince of Wales, who was supposed to be in the building. Once I shot a banded teal and sent the band to the Biological Survey, who wrote me such a flattering note of thanks I felt I was beginning where Audubon had left off.
On another occasion I received a note from the Bureau of Internal Revenue inquiring, with a display of etymological learning that would have delighted Dr. Johnson, into my private interpretation of the word ‘miscellaneous,’ which I had scattered with fine frenzy through my expense accounts. And from time to time some anonymous friend lost in the shadows of bureaucracy sends me booklets: How to Destroy Field Mice; Legumes for Profits; How to HangWallpaper in Damp Climates. Good booklets they are, too.
Ours, in fact, is rather a nice and comfortable Government. It is much like a distant fourth cousin who keeps the family spirit alive by occasionally sending you a box of oranges from his Florida grove, or an announcement of the marriage of his (to you) vague daughter, Isabel; but who doesn’t kill it by suddenly appearing at your door with Isabel in tow. Detached, dignified, but withal friendly.
Well, I didn’t see much of the Government during my stay because we transacted most of our business at the Mayflower bar when we could push our way in through the lobbyists. But I did see something of Washington, and what I saw makes me long to return.
The city, as you know, is more than one city, although the division is not so simple as whether one lives on the right or the wrong side of the tracks. Ah, no.
There is, to begin, Old Washington. This is a colony of vintage Saint Anthonys dwelling in a private desert, their eyes filled with lush visions invisible to the vulgar. They ruled Georgetown when George Washington played around as a boy across the river in Alexandria, and have remained to see the day when John L. Lewis plots God knows what in a colonial home of the same — but alas how changed — Alexandria. Their life work is keeping Tradition alive. The A & P, for example, found it couldn’t sell a rutabaga to Old Washington until it had dressed up its store fronts in false Colonial whiskers.
In order to nestle among their antimacassars you must have arrived in Washington not later than the days when President John Quincy Adams used to take his daily dip tout nu in the Potomac all alone save for God, the little wrens, and his valet doubling as watchman. Parvenus who came in Grant’s entourage were put on probation in 1899, and, pending good behavior, may expect an invitation to tea when the federal budget is balanced. Those who arrived with McKinley might as well be dead, and need not assume they are viable merely because an Ancient nods with distant courtesy amid the ladylike confusion of one of Mrs. Townsend’s Morning Musicales. New Dealers, sprawling shoeless on sofas in rented Georgetown houses discussing economics half the night, might as well expect a Congressman to forgo franking and pay his own postage as for Old Washington even to admit their physical presence on earth.
Then there are the people who keep the Government going and, because they are merely useful, are unsung. They are clerks and bureau chiefs. Many of the bureau heads are uncommonly able men doing distinguished work for small salaries in a country that is pretty much unconscious of them, their work, or their worth. But what the country ignores corporations prize. They have lured some of these men away from their offices with high salaries; dozens of them are subjected to this temptation; but most of them remain and form the backbone of what must become an able and devoted civil service if our Government is to function efficiently.
Washington’s myriad clerks lead lives as strange and mysterious as migratory eels. They come from all over the country because Congressmen come from all over the country, and the pathway to the heaven of federal security is through the pearly gates of patronage. Mostly they are women. A girl of twenty goes to work for the first time in the Department of Commerce on the morning Admiral Dewey returns from the Spanish War. Day after day she gathers the statistics of codfish. For forty years — 12,000 working days — she counts codfish dried, salted, shredded, smoked, consumed at home or shipped abroad, where caught and where sold. At the end of this period, now a woman of sixty with a pension and a few years of living before her, she is freed of codfish for the first time in her adult life. But what else has she been doing in the long interval? How did she amuse herself? Why didn’t she marry? How did she live? What is the effect on the mind of endless schools of codfish swimming through it, of seas of codfish weaving in and out of the meshes of a calculating machine? Nobody knows. Apparently nobody cares. More indeed is known about the love life of the codfish than about the life of this clerk. Yet our nosy anthropologists at this very moment are measuring the skulls of Andaman Islanders; studying the effects of limited diet on the bicuspids of the people of Tristan da Cunha.
Other women spend their days tabulating the statistics of tame hay in Delaware; angora hair in Texas; garnets for abrasive purposes; or the rate of mortality among delicatessen stores. Lost in the endless halls of cavernous buildings, wandering amid forests of files, bending over business machines, measuring earthly existence by the rigid rules of bureaucracy and the bimonthly pay check, so engrossed in their tiny tasks they don’t know what the girl at the next desk is doing or how the parts fit into the whole, bereft of suitors because there are not enough men in town to go round, doubling up in kitchenette apartments with two or three other girls for economy and companionship, finding escape but rarely and then at the picture show or the annual State Society Ball, marrying sometimes but just as often plodding with leaden feet into spins ter hood, thousands of clerks pass their lives. Of their bones is Government made.
There is still another city within a city: here-today-and-gone-tomorrow Washington. At its head are the President, the Cabinet, and the Congress; at its foot are the camp followers of politics snatching crumbs fallen from the tables of the mighty, or forever running along the road to a Susa which they never reach; in between is a diverse group of persons who have been, who may be, or hope to be, useful to the Administration in power. The official lives of all these, and their hopes, hang upon the turn of the political dice.
Now I come to a group who are really important in Washington life — the lobbyists. You must not fail to see something of them while you are in town, else you will depart knowing no more of the essential Washington than you would know of Paris if you spent your mornings there waiting for mail at the American Express and your evenings at Harry’s Bar. I was so enchanted by the lobbyists when I was in Washington that I spent as much time with them as they would give me out of their busy lives, and afterwards wrote a little piece by way of celebrating these lusty frontiersmen. Maybe it will be helpful to you — it certainly will be to me because I’ll get to bed earlier — if I quote a bit of it.
‘What the gondoliers are to Venice, the beggars to Peking, the Negroes to Memphis, and the fleas to Amecameca, the lobbyist is to Washington. He is a characteristic and unfailing feature of the scene. He is everywhere and with everybody. He gives the best dinners in town, serves the best liquor, tells the most amusing stories, and is the most jovial host. Sometimes he goes in disguise and sometimes shining plain. Presidents die or fail of reelection. Sessions of the Congress come and go. Senators are retired to the obscurity from which they emerged, and other Senators emerge from obscurity. The major political parties succeed one another in control of the government. Panic and prosperity alternate with the years. But in Washington the lobbyist goes on forever. Whenever you come back to the nation’s capital, and however long you may have been away, you are sure to find two things serene, intact, and immortal: the lobbyist and the great monument.’
There is a general impression among our people that all lobbyists are harmful; that lobbying is inimical to the American way. This, I think, is a mistake, All lobbyists are not harmful any more than all mosquitoes are harmful. Many of them are merely pests with whited souls fighting in the American way for characteristically American causes such as the compulsory planting of japonica bushes along federal highways, the compulsory serving of raw carrots on dining cars in interstate commerce, or — and this is fantastic — the payment of bonds repudiated by American states and now held by guileless foreigners. These advocates represent a distorted expression of a force which has always run deep in the current of our being and which has been so fruitful of both good and evil in our national life: evangelism. There are, however, other lobbyists in Washington who are less of a pest, — many of them, indeed, are of the utmost charm, — but who are also less innocuous than the Crusaders for Good.
These are the boys (and girls) whose business it is to persuade legislators — who shall say by what means? — to See Things in the Right Light. And you’d be amazed to know how often the scales have fallen from the eyes of some of our lawmakers beneath the skilled ministrations of these extralegal physicians.
Who are they? Many are ex-Congressmen and Senators. Large numbers of them are lawyers. It is a paradox of American life that in a country where the farmer is still regarded as a Cincinnatus in mail-order overalls, ever ready to leave the plough and repel the foreign invader, a majority of the farmer’s Congressional lawmakers are lawyers. These men, having once tasted the excitement of political life in Washington, had their magisterial locks shorn free of charge in the Senate barber shop, franked their speeches on the nobility of womanhood and the sanctity of the home, lunched with the President, junketed to the Philippines, and been interviewed by the metropolitan press, cannot when defeated at the polls bear the agony of returning to the Boggs Bluffs of the land and spending the remainder of their days bringing replevin actions to recover stolen cows.
Their wives, too, prefer Washington to the Bluff, for all that it is the town of ‘Live Folks under the Live Oaks.’ In the Capital your nostrils are titillated by the pungent perfumes that emanate from the great and the famous; you go places; you see, even if you don’t know, People Who Do Things. Almost any day Alice Longworth might be getting a permanent in the cubicle next to yours; or your operator who served her yesterday tells you what she said, and that night you sweep the dinner boards by repeating the devastating things Alice told you but once removed. You drop cards at the White House; give your hand to be kissed by the Second Secretary of the Bulgarian Legation; play bridge with Senators’ wives. When friends from the Bluff come to town you entertain them with folksy hominess spiced with the most delicate touch of official hauteur. And, if you are lucky, you even attend one of Mrs. Evalyn Walsh McLean’s exclusive and intimate New Year’s parties at which sparkle the Hope Diamond and a thousand distinguished guests. Trade all this for the old home town? Never.
The ex-legislator and his family remain in Washington. As Congressman he had got to know a great many men who could now be useful to him, and the country is filled with corporations and individuals hankering for the services of lawyers bearing rods that make sweet waters gush in the desert of officialdom. So the pride of the Bluff puts out his shingle in the Fidelity Building, hangs an autographed photograph of Senator Vandenberg keeping attackers of the Constitution at bay, and sits down to wait for clients. Soon they appear. But they are not looking for a lawyer to draw documents filled with circumlocutory whereases and the party of the first part; nor do they want one to address ‘this intelligent jury of freeborn men.’ One client, The Eternal Triangle Diaper Company, is seeking discreet counsel who can head off Senator Doubledecker in his fight to put diapers on the tariff Free List for the sake of the country’s true ruler, the American Baby. Another has the best post-office site in Mahalyville, Missouri, and is willing to let it go cheap just because it’s the Government, if only the Fourth Assistant Postmaster General could be brought around to the proper view; and a third would like a federal loan to enlarge his bird-cage factory and put more men to work — that’s what America needs. Always there is someone who wants . . . or doesn’t want . . .
Fees roll in. Junior enters Georgetown University; Betty Lou takes creative art at the Cathedral School; Mama rides in Rock Creek Park. Papa, in great demand as a speaker, lectures as far away as Wheeling, West Virginia, on the subject, ‘Democracy: What Is It?’
Thus Washington grows as the exCongressman and many more like him settle in the city; as the number of federal employees rises with prosperity’s fall; as taxpayer-tourists pour in by thousands to see what they are getting for their money, and other thousands of prospectors arrive to stake out claims on ore land that makes the Mother Lode look like an abandoned coal pit. And as the population increases, the Capital spills over into Virginia and Maryland; a Washington newspaper leads all others in the country in volume of retail display advertising; and Washington’s merchants become the envy of their lean brethren struggling elsewhere.
Maybe you can stand a few figures that point the moral? Last year about 140,000 federal workers in Washington — a group nearly three times larger than Mississippi’s largest city — drew $300,000,000 from the Treasury. Private payrolls, born of the public payroll, were about $200,000,000 — a total of almost half a billion dollars turned loose in one year in a town that isn’t much bigger than this plantation. And Washington — Democratic administration or not — subsists on anything but hog and hominy. Far from it. Last year, it is estimated, District of Columbia families had an effective buying income of $3782, contrasted with the national average of $2000. The Capital, in fact, is now living on the scale of that much-discussed future period when the national income shall be 80 or 100 billions, and, as an admirable example of a forward-looking American city, is well worth the price we pay for it.
Social Washington fives on a diet of white calling cards. You spend your days dropping or retrieving them. At dawn you begin the rounds by leaving cards anywhere and everywhere: at the White House, the homes of Senators, Cabinet members, Supreme Court Justices, the Bureau of Lighthouses, Goldenberg’s Department Store, and the Nicaraguan Legation. It doesn’t matter where you drop them, because Washingtonians think it bad luck not to pick up a card wherever they find one, and consequently you are certain to be invited to something by somebody. Soon you automatically shed a card whenever you pass a silver bowl, and are thus identified as one of the initiate.
After a card-dropping morning you come home for lunch and brace yourself for an afternoon of rousing fun at one of the ‘At Homes’ that star everj’ day except Saturday and Sunday in the Washington week. These arc run on schedule: Mondays, Supreme Court Justices; Tuesdays, Representatives; Wednesdays, the Cabinet; Thursdays, Senators; Fridays, diplomats; week-ends, getting ready for the At Homes of the next week. At these gatherings your name is announced by a Negro butler, and the same butler wherever and whenever you go, because he is the only person in town who knows everybody. Then, having edged your way in to the arm of a chair, you drink tea, munch cookies, cast a whilom pearl, and, the ordered ten minutes having elapsed, go out into the air.
At night there are dinners. Ah, the bravura dinners of Washington! As a guest, yours is not to reason why, but as a host you wrestle with the fiend of rank. Back home in Minnesota everybody (practically) was as good as everybody else, provided a man didn’t beat his wife or violate the most elementary rules of personal sanitation, and the host had only to avoid the taboo of seating husband and wife next to one another. But not in Washington. There rank comes first, and the lower end of the table takes the hindmost. Thus, in the absence of the President, the Vice President leads all the rest, and that is easy enough to remember. When Mr. Farley appears, however, he sits nearer the salt than Mr. Swanson; Mr. Morgenthau nearer than these gentlemen; and Madame Secretary of Labor, although a lady, goes to the foot of the class. On t he other hand, the Cabinet must give way to Mr. Justice Black, the Chilean Ambassador, or the Minister of Siam.
The Navy gets more money from Congress than the Army, but by way of compensation the Army — officers being of equal rank — gets a better place at table than the Navy. This seemingly unfair discrimination arises from the fact that we had a Continental Army at Valley Forge but only a French Navy off Yorktown, and you had better know your history when you ask the military to dine. If you invite two Senators to dinner, the one who began to hold office in 1896 precedes the one who came in 1904, and it is the host’s business to know when his guests took the oath. But suppose you ask at the same time the Senator from Virginia and the Senator from Utah, and both were sworn in on March 4, 1896? In this case the Virginian precedes the Utah Senator because Virginia came first into the Union — a fact of importance in Washington life.
There is one question of etiquette, however, that nobody has been able to solve, and Washington, with characteristic lack of dash and verve in the presence of a tough one, shies away from it as though it were a cottonmouth moccasin. It is this. What to do if by an evil chance Mr. Chief Justice Hughes and, say, Sir Ronald Lindsay, His Britannic Majesty’s Ambassador, should turn up at the same dinner. Who should precede whom? Does an Ambassador outrank the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court? Down here and all over the country the people would answer without hesitation: Hell, no. But the people’s representatives in Washington are timid about it, and won’t even put the case to the test. The mere thought of such a nightmare causes Anne Squire, the Emily Post of the Capital, to flutter in genteel alarm. ‘This is a question of real magnitude,’ she cries de profundis, ‘and not a social molehill to be lightly surmounted.’
But enough of this. I ask you only to remember, as you see shirtsleeve Americans treading the mazes of unaccustomed ritual, that not so long ago Washington was but the simple capital of a nation of front iersmen. In 1851, President Fillmore installed the first running-water bathtub in the White House and was soundly trounced by our vigilant newspapers for ‘importing a monarchical innovation unbecoming the President of a democratic country.’
Government clerks, admirals, generals, lobbyists, and tourists, are not the only persons who give Washington its strange flavor. There is another group twittery as the starlings who nest in the caves of the Treasury, omnipresent as tourists at the Monument. These are widow ladies — all on diets; all rich. As I have told you before, it is the rare American who survives his wife, and the rarer they become as the income-tax bracket ascends. These relicts in their forties to sixties, with ferocious energies untouched by living in the Reedsburgs of the land, hop a train for Washington as soon as Papa has been put away in Pleasant View, and the inheritance salted down in Government 2’s. Determined to make one more kill in the last moments of their hunting season, they rush on arrival to buy equipment from that veteran safari supplier, Elizabeth Arden, and then are off to the chase. Most of them want an antlered, shaggy specimen of Senator, and occasionally one is bagged. But Senators are rare game. Some, therefore, will take a well-fleshed Member of the House, a Governor of Puerto Rico, or even, if the going is hard, an Interstate Commerce Commissioner. No amount of desperation, however, will drive a hunter into bringing home a Bureau Chief. I don’t know the reason, but there seems to be something definitely anaphrodisiac about a Chief Entomologist, a Geodetic Surveyor, or a Printer and Engraver.
Marriage failing, the ladies stay in town just the same. They take up and put down Causes, give and go to dinners and teas, attend lectures, debates, musicales, exhibits of peasant arts, and, in general, lead genteel tax-exempt lives. Finally, after a number of hopefully probationary years of living in hotels, they buy homes on Massachusetts Avenue, put Papa’s photograph on the piano as symbol of devotion and surrender, go off their diets joyously, and at long last invite their grandchildren to come and play in their gardens.
Please, my dear friend, go to the White House. It is, to my mind, America at its best, and I would have you see the best of America. It is almost starkly simple, as befits the official residence of the President of a republic. It is friendly, unostentatious, and utterly lacking in the pomp, the gold braid, the guardian soldiers, of the residences of European heads of nations. It is the symbol of the American dream, and Americans, I assure you, for all their hard-boiled attitudes, do not live by bread alone. And you —or anybody else — may enter without let or hindrance.
Now, in closing, ‘I want to leave this thought with you,’ as the President of the Tri-State Bottlers said at their convention near here last week. Washington, it seems to me, is the least typical and the most typical of all our cities — least typical in the aspects I have mentioned, most typical in that it represents the national passion for specialization in its thousands of workers and miles of buildings. What other people in the world give over a whole city to the business of government alone? In London, Paris, Athens, La Paz, you aren’t conscious of government unless you trip over it. In Washington you can’t avoid it, because there’s nothing else. And this is American to the core. It is the ultimate extension of the principle of specializing that runs through our national life — the principle that finds its complete expression in medicine, where the doctor who looks up your nose doesn’t know how to look down your eye.
I haven’t the remotest notion whether the theory of extreme specialization is sound or faulty, but it makes Washington a fascinating city for that rare person, like you, who visits it with open eyes and alert ears, for no reason at all. Isn’t it Petrarch who is said to have been the first civilized man because he was the first to toil up a mountain solely for the sake of the view?