AOL's Gone, and a Dream About D.C. Leaves With It

When AOL announced last week that it was relocating its top brass from northern Virginia to new digs in Manhattan, it didn't quite feel like the end of an era. For most folks, after all, the firm's moment had ended long ago, in the wake of its disastrous merger with Time Warner in 2000. Then known as America Online, the Dulles-based Internet titan bought out the pillar of old media, promising new fortunes via the magic of synergy. It didn't quite work out that way, to the dismay of shareholders, employees, and the now-cashiered executives behind the deal. But if AOL is already well-established as a byword for Internet-related hubris, its move nonetheless signals the passing of a more humble aspiration: That Washington D.C., more than 200 years after its founding, was finally becoming just another part of the United States.

It's hard to remember now, but there was a time not so long ago when people (plausibly!) argued that the capital city's goings-on just weren't that important. Before 9/11, before the Iraq war, before the Bush-era explosion in government hiring, the importance of federal Washington seemed to shrink right along with the payroll. Bill Clinton's micro initiatives seemed a lot less important than Bill Gates' macro-endeavors. "I'm sorry that we have to have a Washington presence," the world's richest man said in 1995. "We thrived during our first 16 years without any of this." Voters, said then-Senator Fred Thompson, "longed for the day when Washington would be irrelevant, and now they've finally reached that Nirvana."

You'd think the capital's elite would have resented being tarred as pushers of increasingly anachronistic paper. But firms like AOL helped them embrace their alleged irrelevance. There was no reason to feel marooned in this new age of American capitalism--rather, the local chattering class discovered, greater Washington was home to a lot of the action. The area around Dulles airport, named after the ultimate pinstriped government insider, was now home to numerous firms that had little to do with the business of electing politicians or administering bureaucracies: MCI, Lucent, Nextel, Alcatel, AT%amp%T, Roadrunner, and Network Solutions, among others, had either headquarters or major facilities there. Washington's exurban counties began to mirror sprawlvilles all over the sunbelt and into Silicon Valley, with McMansions and office parks and breadwinners whose employment future depended more on the stock market than on the next election.

"Washington is being transformed from a company town into a diverse and complex corporate community," wrote Jonathan Yardley in 2000 in the Washington Post. "The old company--the government of the United States--may still be the 800-pound gorilla, but it's outside rather than inside the Beltway that the real action is now: along the Dulles Access Road and other suburban highways, in the offices of the high-tech companies that have completely transformed the local and regional economy." The rest of the media followed suit, gushing with amazement: Dig the guy who gave up a powerhouse Capitol Hill job for a high-tech career! See the most important new nonstop from Dulles--it flies to Silicon Valley, not Moscow! When The Palm opened a Tyson's Corner outpost, its walls festooned with drawings of AOL chieftains instead of big-name lobbyists, it proved a perfect metaphor. "You want before and after pictures of the tech revolution?" wrote Post local columnist Marc Fisher. "The Palm downtown: ties, suits, meaty hands, steaks and chops, midday drinks, lunches that linger till 2:30, 3. Tysons: open collars, golf shirts, gym-toned bodies, sparkling water, lunches that start at 11:30 and finish fast."

In one way, the excitement was just a typical embrace of 1990s hype. But in Washington's case, the warmth of that embrace was driven by a more unique phenomenon: The population's desperate desire to see themselves as ordinary Americans, engaged in the same capitalism as the rest of the country. For generations, the nation's political speechwriters--many of them D.C. residents--have helped their bosses excoriate the capital, contrasting its jaded locals with the regular folks back home. The city's legion of reporters are regularly exhorted by their bosses to get out beyond the Beltway and interview some of those fabled regular people whose days don't begin and end with political poll numbers. I grew up in D.C., part of a generation whose parents came for the Great Society and stayed for the dental benefits. In those pre-Internet years, I only recall one classmate whose family was actually involved in the ordinary American business of, like, business. How amazing it was that the region was now generating its own examples of such people--and that the moguls among them, like Ted Leonsis, the AOL exec who bought the Washington Capitals, were doing typically mogul things like buying sports teams.

The celebration of the local tech elite reached its apotheosis in David Brooks' 1999 The New York Times Magazine profile of Dan Snyder, the non-politico who had recently bought the Washington Redskins. Brooks contrasted the self-made Snyder with his 1960s predecessor Edward Bennett Williams, the D.C. superlawyer who turned the owners' box into a rolling party for cabinet secretaries, Senators, and other political heavyweights. On the other hand, Brooks declared, Snyder is "not interested in power; he's interested in sales. It's not that he hates politics. It's worse. He's largely indifferent ... Dan Snyder seems like a person who doesn't even read David Broder!" To Brooks, this was good news. "The energy these days is out in the office parks, among the business types who think politics is for petty parasites," he concluded.

Alas, events conspired to refocus our attention on those petty parasites--who, after 9/11, revealed their power to start wars, provoke constitutional crises, and otherwise demonstrate their irreducibility. The northern Virginia juggernaut, meanwhile, lost some of its cachet. Early in 2000, the AOL-Time Warner merger set in motion the slow-moving train wreck that led to the firm's departure from the region. That same year, MicroStrategy CEO Michael Saylor--dubbed "the seven billion dollar man" in Washingtonian magazine--lost at least $6 billion of his fortune in a single day, sparking concern about whether the region's richest mogul was, in fact, sufficiently rich. While the Internet collapse made fools of boosters everywhere, the feeling around D.C. was a little different. All that talk of permanent transformation left the supposedly sophisticated region's boosters looking like utter yokels when the bubble burst. A few years later, MCI, namesake of the basketball stadium, was gone, too.

Of course, tens of thousands of people still work in tech around D.C. But the idea of an alternative--and less government-focused--base of regional power and prestige has lost its cachet. On the highways around Dulles, the signs that jump out from the office parks are those like Lockheed Martin and BAE, firms that do much of their business in federal contracting.

Still, you don't need to scour government technology contracts to see the region's traditional tropism toward Uncle Sam reappear. Just check out Snyder's box at FedEx Field. If Sally Quinn was correct when she declared in 2000 that "money is competing with political influence as the going currency in the area," the guest list makes it clear that politics won in a walkover. Over the past year, according to the Post's "Reliable Source" column, the non-Broder-reading Redskins owner played host to such Beltway worthies as Peter Pace, Robert Novak, Sam Donaldson, Jack Kemp, Bernard Shaw, John Glenn, Chris and Kathleen Matthews, Al Hunt, Andrea Mitchell, and Alan Greenspan. There was no mention of any guests from AOL.

By Michael Currie Schaffer