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Culture Camp

Washington Diarist

"It is going to be impossible to defeat you in the Senate, because you have a way with words," Orrin Hatch told Sheldon Hackney during his confirmation hearings to head the National Endowment for the Humanities. Hatch was putting it mildly. Hackney's sins are not limited to his sophisms about the conflict between "openness and diversity" at the University of Pennsylvania. He should also be held accountable for defending speech codes a full year after the Supreme Court made clear that they are unconstitutional. When lower courts began to strike down the codes in 1990, Penn initially maintained that, as a private university, it was not bound by the First Amendment. Although legally undeniable, this position is morally embarrassing; and when Hackney was asked at a faculty meeting in 1991 whether students at Penn were to enjoy fewer First Amendment liberties than students at Penn State, he replied, indignantly, no. He then proceeded to draft a new code that the local chapter of the ACLU called "one of the worst" in the nation. If there were any lingering doubts about the legal status of speech codes, Antonin Scalia removed them a year ago in his sweeping RAV decision, which held that even unprotected speech, such as fighting words, cannot be regulated selectively. Like most other presidents of private universities, Hackney simply ignored the Court's view of the First Amendment. As late as April 28, he reaffirmed his position that the freedom of speech of minority groups is somehow abridged by the slurs of others. The words "confirmation conversion," therefore, came to mind when Hackney unexpectedly told the Senate that the Penn speech code 'Just doesn't work very well," although he hastened to add that the "procedures" should be allowed to run their course. The senators, who took no more notice of the nay decision than Hackney did, failed to note the "procedures" are not only unwise but wildly unconstitutional. This tends to reinforce my hunch that the Court's real significance, increasingly, is academic rather than political.

At the giddy dawn of the Clinton era, The New York Times detected a "seismic shift in the ethos of the capital... a younger, looser, hipper and more inclusive crowd than any since the heyday of the Kennedy administration." It is now clear that the Times was being hyperbolic; and that the gamin Clintonites are no "looser" than their Republican predecessors (if "loose" is defined as leaving your desk before 11 p.m.). But the best evidence of the immutably bland quality of life in the capital is the smattering of new restaurants that cater, very self-consciously, to those who crave attitude. In the past few months, a sad pizza joint around the corner from the office was converted into a campy beer hall called The Big Hunt, with 1950s safari posters, fake buffalo antlers on the wall sconces and green tarantula fuzz on the chandeliers. An Ethiopian dive on U Street became State of the Union, a Bolshevik canteen with huge murals copied from a book on Russian constructivism and Leninist flags hanging from trumpets above the bar. Across the street, workers are finishing the marquee of The Andalusian Dog, where three melting clocks, after Dali's The Persistence of Memory, are framed by the words that define surrealism, according to André Breton: AS BEAUTIFUL AS A CHANCE MEETING OF A SEWING, MACHINE AND AN UMBRELLA ON A DISSECTING TABLE. I Was on the verge of mistaking all this for a spontaneous eruption of Clintonian diversity when The Washington Post revealed last week that all three establishments are, in fact, designed and owned by the same person: a 32-year-old promoter named Joe Englert, who runs most of Washington's trendiest nightclubs as well. (Englert's creed: "You can convince people of anything if you repeat it enough.") Englert is the perfect emblem for Bill Clinton's Washington, in which cultural and political diversity are equally contrived, and both are choreographed by central planners.

The synthetic surrealism of Joe Englert seems even thinner after you've experienced the real thing. At the Roma Restaurant and Garden in Cleveland Park, all the animals on the wall were once alive. As you enter, a molting Bengal tiger and a grimy white polar bear lunge at you menacingly with outstretched paws. Mounted animal heads surround the room--zebra, water buffalo, moose and impala, and, above the bar, two maniacally snarling African baboons. All the animals were shot by Frank Abbo, who started the restaurant in the Harding era. (Mr. Abbo himself was killed in the '70s while crossing Connecticut Avenue after a haircut.) A black bear crouches on the upright piano; and a blind pianist named Genevieve sings popular arias from Verdi, as well as lighter selections such as "Funiculi, Funicula." After passing through the Venetian room, with its elaborately painted mural of the San Angelo prison, you reach the beautiful Roma garden. Lush grape vines climb the green wooden trellises that separate one table from another; and in the center of the garden a circular fountain--speckled by gold, purple and orange lights--is surrounded by aromatic mint plants. There is nothing self-conscious about Roma, from the monthly Kiwanis Club meetings to Mrs. Anna Abbo, Frank's widow, regally eating beef gelatin at a corner table. To my mind, it's the most stylish place in D.C.

The Washington City Council recently debated a bill that would change the culture of the capital more radically than anything the Clinton administration could desire. To address complaints about noise and overcrowding, the bill would require group houses rented to five or more unrelated people to be licensed as boarding houses. For a generation of underpaid interns, couriers, public interest types and journalists, the group house has been Washington's most democratic social arrangement. I shared one with five people during my first summer in Washington after college, and still have friends whose living quarters are straight out of Balzac's Père Goriot. But the ascendancy of the group house over the boarding house is a fairly recent phenomenon in D.C. From the beginning of the Republic until the Civil War, most members of Congress and Supreme Court justices lived in boarding houses, paired off two to a room, according to party and region. ("Those who keep the Congressional boarders, even females, are a savage, fierce looking people," says an 1828 pamphlet at the Washington Historical Society.) Well after the turn of the century, resident proprietresses continued to provide common meals for boarders, who were often seated in order of social status. By 1917 six TNR associates, including Walter Lippmann and Felix Frankfurter, felt communal enough to start one of Washington's first group houses, "The House of Truth." The resurrection of formal boarding houses, with their morass of regulations governing the number of people in the beds, food in the bedrooms and other petty tyrannies, would revive one of the capital's most oppressive traditions. Compulsory meals, presumably, would follow, and Joe Englert would try to cater them with spiders.