Company Town: Frank Rich and Adam Moss on Dysfunctional D.C.

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The Washington, D.C. skyline Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Adam: Hi, Frank. So for the last several weeks in Washington, as Congress and the President raced toward the debt-ceiling deadline, we've seen walkouts, hissy fits, phony votes, pouting, and vitriol — the complete "three-ring circus," as the President called it last night (using everybody's favorite cliché about Washington.) "But do you know what people are fed up with most of all?" Obama asked rhetorically. "They're fed up with a town where compromise has become a dirty word."

Well, you grew up in that town, which is what we'll talk about today. 'Twas ever thus?

Frank: Hi Adam. I guess 'twas ever thus, but not with this instant public dissemination of all the hissy fits. In the Washington I grew up in, from Ike in childhood to the last gasps of LBJ by the time I graduated high school, almost everything went on behind closed doors, rarely penetrated by journalists in real time — let alone visible on TV except during the ferocious partisanship of political campaigns. A behind-the-scenes, on-the-Hill potboiler, like the (wonderful) 1959 Allen Drury novel Advise and Consent, was a best seller in part because it was such an eye-opener to a rather innocent public.

Adam: These days a lot is made of the virtues of transparency. Yet wasn't it better when the histrionics happened behind closed doors? I would think the cameras only encourage politicians to play to their respective audiences. But perhaps it's also useful to see them throw their tantrums so we at least have the opportunity to judge them for it?

Frank: What we have now is faux transparency — we see all the theatrical posturing, but the real story still remains behind closed doors when the crunch comes. (Remember Obama's broken promise to put federal horse-trading on C-Span?) The politicians' worst selves may even be worse than what's seen on TV — which is saying something. What we do see, particularly in the current debate, may well make Americans of all persuasions dismiss our political system as clownish and hopeless. Then again, that may be the most transparent revelation of all!

Adam: I'd imagine the feeling of the capital changed quite a bit from Ike to LBJ. And are these changes mostly a function of who's in power — or is Washington really like any other city, with its own organic rhythms?

Frank: There are two cities — the official city and the real D.C., and I largely grew up in the latter, which is a whole other town. As for political Washington, my childhood was bifurcated by the 1963 double feature of Martin Luther King's march**  and JFK's assassination.**  After that, the fight for power spilled into the streets — completely changing the city's organic rhythms — with more and angrier protest marches for civil rights and against the Vietnam War,**  and finally, chaos. When I returned for spring break in my freshman year at college, King was shot and Washington had erupted into flames. I'm curious — as someone who could never have a tourist's view of D.C. — what were your earliest impressions of it? And did you visit it as a kid?

Adam: I didn't get to D.C. until after college and my first impressions were that it was gorgeous and tiny: a toy town. Later, I was struck by how southern it seemed, and still later, by how dull. This had no doubt to do with the people I met, mostly professionally, but the one-company nature of the town — the conversational preoccupations with the minutiae of government — seemed difficult to transcend. This is a very New-York-provincial attitude (also cheap and easy, not to mention ignorant since I was exposed to a skewed version of the place — for instance, a very white one), but there you have it. In spite of its democratic politics, and no matter which party was in power, Washington always seemed to me an essentially republican place. That is, very "small c" conservative. No doubt I'm being unfair. I'm always overwhelmed by the historical majesty of the town. And I do love going there for a demonstration**  — it doesn't matter what I'm screaming about; there's something about a giant mass of people gathering in the shadow of the Capitol that makes me feel almost high with patriotism. Anyway, I haven't been in a while, and I hear it's a looser place — that all those Obama kids have changed the culture of the town. (Well, at least that the food is better.) How does it seem to you now?

Frank: Your first impression was right: a beautiful, southern, provincial company town, with none of the urban bandwidth of capitals like London and Paris. It does have far better food and many more cultural offerings than it once had (though for music, opera, dance, and arguably theater, let alone fashion, it's still second tier — not just compared to New York and Chicago, but also, in many of these fields, to Boston, Philadelphia, L.A., Miami and San Francisco.) The recent censorship of the gay-themed portraiture show by the Smithsonian was a devastating setback to D.C.'s efforts to project a national cultural image — and so the city's signature artistic event will remain the cheesy-looking annual CBS special billed as the Kennedy Center Honors**  (and reminiscent of the network's old Ed Sullivan Show.) Or at least that's white Washington. Black Washingtonians — for the first time in a half-century, not a majority of the population (by a hair) — still have to contend with second-class American citizenship, extreme poverty, and a city government whose corruption is all but mandated by its subservience to Congress. Until Washington gets full congressional representation, this unreconstructed plantation-era injustice will blight D.C.'s status as a city, and no White House occupant can dispel it, Obama included.

Adam: Of course, Washington has also become a metaphor — circus, swamp, sewer. Politicians of both parties run as fast as they can against the place. (Must be great for civic pride.) It seems as if the metaphoric image of Washington has only gotten worse over time. What would it take for people to start seeing the capital as a force for good instead of horror? Can you ever imagine a time when people will view Washington in a more positive light?

Frank: Not likely in our lifetimes, even assuming remarkable longevity. To me, by far the most romantic time in the city's modern history, albeit before I was born, was its huge expansion during World War II, when there was a patriotic purpose uniting everyone and transcending petty partisan politics. That's when the city went from being a tiny backwater to being an engine — of war. That period also produced two of the best and most stirring portraits of the city: David Brinkley's memoir Washington Goes to War, published in 1988 (and never out of print), which is a portrait of the dynamic D.C. emerging from slumber during wartime, when he was a young reporter; and George Stevens's funny, sexy and touching romantic-comedy film The More the Merrier (1943), in which Jean Arthur (a federal bureaucrat), Joel McCrea (a somewhat mysterious military guy awaiting orders that will send him overseas), and Charles Coburn (as what we'd now call a K -Street fixer) are forced to shack up in the same overcrowded quarters because of the wartime housing shortage. You can find it on Netflix, and it's so powerful; it makes even me fall in love with Washington, at least for the movie's duration.

Adam: I’m always into Washington as a dramatic setting — The West Wing, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Salt (2010), that wacky movie Dick (1999), plus all those films where the world is coming to an end and some kid is saving it and the President is cowering in the Oval Office — it really doesn’t matter whether the thing is good or bad to me — D.C. always makes a compelling character. It’s an especially great backdrop for thrillers. And All the President's Men (1976) — I saw it again recently and I was delighted that it holds up. Speaking of which, we have a cover story by Seth Mnookin out this week about the New York Times, which makes the case that the Times is now the last great American newspaper. For years, the Times and the Washington Post have been viewed as rivals. What do you think of the Washington Post now?

Frank: All terrific movies, especially The Manchurian Candidate, and don't forget Otto Preminger's film version of Advise and Consent (1962), which had an unusual amount of actual location shooting in D.C. (With some fellow 12-year-olds, I snuck into the bushes flanking an outdoor party scene.) As for the Post, it makes me sad, and I say this as someone with such a sentimental attachment to it that I must be one of three people in New York who pays for home delivery of the print edition. Though it has a smattering of new young talent (like the policy columnist Ezra Klein), its political reportage has been cannibalized by Politico (created by departed Post staffers) and many other top writers have left either for the Times (among them Mark Leibovich and David Segal) or elsewhere (Robin Wright, Tom Ricks), its Style section is hollowed out, Book World is gone, and there's no longer even a New York bureau. This is more like the provincial Post of my childhood (then an also-ran to the Star), before Ben Bradlee and Kay Graham transformed it.

Adam: All right, time to wrap this thing up. We've been dancing around the whole pretext for this conversation — this apocalyptic debt-ceiling fight — but we can't conclude without hitting it head-on. Is there anything surprising to you at all about this charade? What's your best guess as to how it's going to play out — this week, and if you're willing to go there, in the campaign next year?

Frank: No dysfunction in Washington surprises me anymore, but this is a marathon of dithering for the Guinness Book of World Records. It's a lose-lose for everyone, starting with the country, whose image and economic standing have been tarnished no matter the outcome. What all the budget-cutting deals on the table have in common is that none of them address unemployment and all of them risk a second recession. That's not good for Obama in 2012. It says a lot about where we are that a "happy" ending to this standoff is one where the only victory is that our government doesn't have its first default!

Adam: Many thanks. Readers, if you want to read more of Frank on Washington, you should check out his wonderful memoir Ghost Light. Meanwhile, as usual, please send your questions to AskFrankRich@nymag.com.