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GP 25 October 2006: Washington’s Marginalia

“Nothing of importance happened today.” - Diary entry of King George III, 4 July 1776

White House Fellows.  The two last administrations—Clintonville and Bush II—so marginalized themselves that nothing of positive consequence takes place in the White House or on Capitol Hill anymore.  Significant matters that fill our cups with honor and our dialogues with substance take place out of sight, somewhere else in Washington, usually without any of the anointed power brokers in attendance.

For instance, the White House Fellows held their annual meeting at the tail end of last week (October 19-21), ‘civility’ its key theme.  LBJ established the White House Fellows program back in 1964 as a way to expose talented people to the workings of the White House and, at the same time, to put their energy and intelligence to work for our country.  They’re only there a year, but the hope is to create a new breed of leaders.  An awesome collection of people—550 or so—have done a stint on Pennsylvania Avenue.  This year the Alumni Association decided to honor Tom Johnson, who served way back in 1965-1966 and, by some accounts, was the biggest star in this luminous firmament.  There are a few stinkers amongst the alumni, but, by and large, we can happily salute these people who have gone on to distinguish themselves in society.

Johnson gave a first-class speech, about both civility and mental depression.  He himself had a meteoric career, but he burned himself out, and descended into deep despondency.  There were points at which he hid himself under his desk to get away from people and everything else.  Along the way, he concealed his depression from one and all, but now shares it openly with America, in hopes of helping his 19 million fellow sufferers in these United States.  Unfortunately, we have had a lot to say about depression on the Global Province.  For instance, you can catch up on writer’s ache in “On Writing Well.” 

In part Johnson would attribute his descent into worry and dread to the dizzying life we now lead in these United States, the treadmill lifestyle which we talked about in “Dejeuner Sur L’Herb (Herbe).”  But, as well, he suggests that mental health suffers in a fractious society where civility is not the norm.  We would guess that open, measured talk about mental illness and civility will move these issues to center stage.

Dumbarton Oaks.  Even before World War II’s end, the United Nations was put together between August and October 1944 at the Dumbarton Oaks Conference, a restful outpost secreted away in Georgetown, apart from the complex of Government buildings downtown.  A 19th-century estate, its gardens were designed by Beatrix Farrand.  It’s a place where things once got done, because it’s well removed from all the frantic bureaucracies.

In Georgetown you want to make sure you migrate to the sidestreets, quickly moving to the margins.  Both M Street and Wisconsin are a bit seedy, afflicted with the usual flotsam jetsam of any touristville.  But then there’s Dumbarton Oaks, still lovely, even though it is now possessed by Harvard.  Way up Wisconsin, almost to Book Hill and the Georgetown Public Library where you can catch up on local history in the Peabody Room, there is a nook coffee house called The Bean Counter which serves a modified Cubano that is decent, although the bread is all wrong.  The espresso, as well, is pleasant, and the young ladies who serve are quite cheery.  Further down the street things are simply a little grimy, but here things are charming.

Eden Center.  This ain’t Eden, but it’s still a nice surprise.  It’s over in Arlington and Falls Church on Wilson Boulevard where Georgetown people don’t deign to go if they can avoid it.  Out near Seven Corners, it’s a huge, neon-lit Ho Chi Minh complex, full of Vietnamese restaurants.  We recently visited to honor the late Johnny Apple (R.W.), who recently took up residence in that great restaurant in the sky where they only serve heavenly ambrosia.  Apparently he was willing to cross the Francis Scott Key Bridge in search of a new delectable, as recounted in “Crossing the Potomac to Southeast Asia,” New York Times, January 19, 2005.  We ate at Huong Que or the Four Sisters, and Apple got it right: you should eat the “mixture of mined pork and sautéed baby clams.”  We also identified some other delectable appetizers, but the main courses were a bit humdrum.  Apple, we think, had the shrewd thought: one wants to move around the various establishments, cherry picking an item here and an item there.  No one place has got it all.  The decorum here is not as mannered as we usually encounter in Vietnamese restaurants in other states.  Washington’s Little Saigon has been evolving for quite a few years; Apple says that the Vietnamese account for some 2% of the local population and have formed “the strongest culinary colony in the region.”

There are other such enclaves as you get outside the District.  For instance, not so far away, is a section housing Mexican, Salvadorian, and other Latin American merchants.  Washington in the 21st has become a polyglot city that belies the sterility at its center.

Energy Savers.  A visit to Falls Church could bring you as well into contact with a Virginia State Senator who drives a Prius (perhaps 55 miles to the gallon) and uses new-fangled energy saving lights bulbs at home.  (We’ll be writing about these breakthrough bulbs in future letters.)  The further you get from Congress the more likely you are to meet solid citizens who are good government employees trying to move along on tomorrow’s priorities—in their own lives.  Lo and behold, the Senator’s relatives are at the same time writing about the energy crisis, driving home our need to become less gasgantuan.  They believe that our oil supply truly has peaked out, a subject discussed many places on the Global Province: you can learn more about it, for instance, in our essay about nuclear fusion.

Going Down 95.  Should you head down Interstate 95 from D.C. on a Sunday night in search of Richmond, you will find that things have not changed much since the days of Abraham Lincoln, who, in the early days of the war, could not get his generals moving to carry the fight to the enemy in the South.  Well, you will get stuck, too.  Some say that Washington’s traffic congestion is only second to that of Los Angeles, and it surely symbolizes the impotence of government that cannot keep things moving and that sports a capital city that is permanently beset by urban problems that defy the imagination.  But out of sight of government, some dynamic things are happening and some good-hearted people are going about their business.  Away from the prying eyes of the madding crowd.  Anything important is not where you think it should be.

King George said, “Nothing of importance happened today.”  Little did he know.  The problem then as now is to get yourself to where things are truly happening.

P.S.  Washington D.C. was wrongly conceived and grew up poorly.  Its creation stemmed from one of the compromises that was hammered out in the Constitution: the South got the capital, which would otherwise have gone to Philadelphia or New York up North.  So it did not grow up organically.  It was planned by Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a French engineer who became an aide to Washington during the Revolution, and it suffers from the manner of its creation.  We think this explains why it’s so out of kilter.  Georgetown was separate until 1871 but then was merged into the Federal City, and so it retains a charm that the rest of the District has never achieved, although it has small spots here and there that are distinctive.  Enfant died broke, metaphorically done in by his creation.

P.P.S.  We are just in receipt of Eugene Schlanger’s “September 11: Wall Street Sonnets.”  He is also known as the Wall Street Poet.  He ends his “In God We Trust”:

Congress assures us now of its vigilance,
Lacking nothing but intelligence.  Pray.

Now many Americans are not asking what government can do for them, but what it will do to them.

P.P.P.S.  Charlie Rose did a retrospective on R. W. Apple a few evenings past.  Rose thought his political writing took the cake, but we can assure you he was much more deft on life and restaurants.  He was much too ambivalent about his subject matter to cut to the quick in politics.  Posthumously, his last story has now been published: “An Epicurean Pilgrimage: Meals Worth the Price of a Plane Ticket,” New York Times, October 22, 2006, The Travel Section.  Well, what does Rose know about food anyway?

P.P.P.P.S.  George Washington, out of modesty, did not refer to it as Washington, calling it the Federal City instead.  He hardly ever came to town—a wise policy as we have implied in this letter.  Bad air.

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