WASHINGTON--The capital of the United States is flooded with visitors for the presidential inauguration. Mention of this city sometimes evokes the wildest prejudices (including the ridiculous notion that America's Founding Fathers were cannibals, courtesy of the "Masters of Horror" TV series!). So, what is life really like here?
Before I came to live in Washington, I was convinced that since more than one in four residents work for the government, the District of Columbia was a socialist republic. I am not entirely sure it is not, but my personal impression is that nothing makes people more cynical about government than working for it. I have never heard a libertarian speak about the futility of most government departments the way American and foreign officials often do in restaurants or bars on Capitol Hill, on K Street--the center of the lobbying industry--in Georgetown or even at the Fish Wharf.
This is the one silver lining in the gathering storm of increased government power caused by the current recession. In the wake of the collapse of collateralized debt obligations and credit-default swaps, the government basically nationalized part of the financial services industry. A running joke in Washington used to be that the separation of powers was not the balance between the three branches of government but between Wall Street, where securities were traded, and Washington, where laws were traded. Now both are traded in Washington. As the money supply and fiscal expenditure expand astronomically in response to the recession, the one mitigating circumstance is that Washingtonians, who will implement many of the policies, seem to me to be deep down mistrustful of their main industry--the government.
I also believed, before coming to D.C., that Washington was a cultural bubble. Actually, it is a cultural flux. Even fierce nationalists are open-minded in Washington: They trade with the rest of the world, interact with immigrants, dine in ethnic restaurants, watch foreign films and occasionally say words in European languages. If Joe the Plumber--the ambassador of conservative, small-town America--came to Washington, he would probably volunteer for the French Foreign Legion!
Another misconception about Washington is that it is secretive. We all know, of course, how much official information is leaked in this city. But until my first encounter with a CIA spook in a hotel across the Potomac, I had no idea that the real business of Washington's intelligence community is boasting, not hiding. As for the presence of spies on every street corner, for most of us the CIA is a highway directional sign we pass on the way to shop at a suburban mall (when we could afford to shop, that is).
Washington's layout--a reflection of Pierre L'Enfant's Baroque style--also helps to dilute the effect of the bureaucracy on the local population. The open spaces, the long avenues and the grid-like order might be the result of central planning, but everything is spread out in such a way that one can breathe comfortably. George Washington's choice of farmland and hills filled with trees bordering the Potomac proved prescient: D.C.'s rural-like aura helps mitigate its political gravitas.
Foreigners think of America as a country without history. The charge is absurd since the colonizers were themselves children of the ages. And Washington, of course, is infused with history. Here the past is not only an architectural presence in the form of monuments, or an industry that thrives on tourism and the memory of political and judicial decisions that shaped the nation. It is also a spirit. One is forever expecting to meet Thomas Jefferson around the corner, perhaps coming out of Bartleby's used-book store on 29th Street NW.
Washington was the brainchild of the Founding Fathers, the greatest generation of political minds the world has known. The result of an intense negotiation between Northerners and Southerners, D.C. was always at the heart of the racial question. Slavery was abolished here earlier than in the Southern states, it welcomed freed slaves from the South, and desegregation happened here before it did in neighboring Virginia-- although white flight was an unfortunate response. Washington was also a theater of the civil rights conflict. At Ben's Chili Bowl in the U Street corridor, where Barack Obama visited last weekend, one can hear people reminisce about the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
Let's hope that the visitors who are flocking to D.C. for Obama's inauguration take some of this culture and history away with them when they leave town.
Alvaro Vargas Llosa is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and the editor of "Lessons from the Poor."
By Alvaro Vargas Llosa