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What Your Country Can Do For You

When staring out the window of our offices here on Nineteenth Street in the nation's capital, we have the privilege of overlooking the entrance to the Washington Palm restaurant. Of the apparently endless number of expensive restaurants that have opened around Washington over the past few years, the Palm is especially notable for its delicatessen decor, mediocre food and absurd prices. Nevertheless, the Palm Is a great success with the Washington restaurant crowd’s varied but hermetically sealed mixture of politicians, lawyers, lobbyists, journalists and occasional sports and entertainment figures. Two notorious incidents in the Palm's brief life have only increased its popularity with these people, occasionally identified together as "opinion leaders," A couple of years ago a New Deal lawyer who became rich representing corporations in front of the agencies the New Deal spawned choked to death on a piece of lobster. Then earlier this year the ma it re d' was arrested for dealing cocaine on the premises. Represented by the law firm of Edward Bennett Williams and (until recently) Joseph Califano, he was acquitted.

We sometimes wonder while observing this spectacle, why do Washingtonians, who consume with such zest, do it so ineptly? Why are the restaurants so bad? Why is the entire fashionable population hostage to whatever trend is declared by the Washingtonian or the Style section of the Post! Why do Washingtonians, residents of the most prosperous urban area in the country, exercise so little independent judgment about how they spend their money? In the best educated metropolis in the country, why is there so much vulgarity and so little cultural diversity? One explanation is that intelligent consumption takes more than just money—it takes energy and thought; and in Washington the ruling passion to which energy and thought are devoted remains not "lifestyle" (as they say in California, where it is the ruling passion), but power.

  A more interesting theory is that many Washingtonians don't really appreciate the value of money, having done nothing productive to earn it. Well, let us be kinder. Most Washingtonians probably think the work they do is valuable, and many may be right. But Washingtonians live outside the world of supply and demand, in a culture where there almost never is an objective measure of the value of one's work as in tons of coal shovelled, or number of hamburgers sold. So it is hard for them to connect the money they are paid with the work they are doing. If they work hard, it is for internal satisfaction. The money simply comes.

 This Washington culture has a public and a private sector, just like the real world, but there the similarity ends. Both sectors depend on the federal government and both sectors operate several levels of abstraction removed from the production of the goods and services they consume with such vigor. This culture was created, with the best will in the world, by liberals such as the writers and readers of this journal, who believe that a large and powerful federal government can contribute to solving the ills of society. The public sector consists of civil servants and politicians whose jobs are secure and whose salaries can keep rising because nobody expects the government to break even. The private sector consists of two subgroups. One is what some conservatives see as a vast protection racket; lawyers and consultants and lobbyists and other hustlers maintained in high style by private corporations convinced that these people can explain the federal government to them or vice versa. The second group contains more consultants, experts and "fellows" paid by both the government and private industry to just sit and think or perhaps to study something and produce a report.

 Of course there is a constant shuffle among these categories, especially at the highest levels. Almost nobody who comes to Washington ever leaves. Even Republicans, celebrators of private enterprise and anathemizers of the bureaucracy, arrive to govern but stay to consult. The old saying that "Democrats buy, Republicans rent" no longer applies, which is why the dominant subject of conversation everywhere in town these days is not politics but real estate. The constant shuffle—more often referred to as the 'revolving door"—is what makes "comparability" arguments for federal pay raises so absurd. Just because private enterprise will pay someone far more than he's worth because of his connections with or understanding of the government is no reason why the government itself should have to match this "deferred bribe" (Ralph Nader's term) in advance. The typical revolving door type gets a pay raise both when he enters the government and when he leaves it.

 So happy Independence Day to all of you from all of us here in the imperial city. Thanks to the exertions of your federal government, you remain independent of the British, and of the Russians, and of the most abject forms of poverty and disease. Thanks to those same exertions, we here in Washington are independent as well of the ebb and flow of the private economy, including those two most terrifying modern scourges, unemployment and inflation. Indeed the vision of generations of liberals has created a prosperous and preposterous city whose population is completely isolated from the people they represent and immune from the problems they're supposed to solve. They are a new privileged class—of high salaries and guaranteed security rather than wealth or birth—and they reflect their class values in the way they choose to live. How can they fail to reflect these values in the way they do their jobs as well?

 Jimmy Carter's broad-brush populism rhetoric during last year's campaign occasionally touched on themes similar to today's sermon. At one point Carter said,

 Too many have had to suffer at the hands of a political and economic elite who have shaped decisions and never had to account for mistakes . . . . When unemployment prevails, they never stand in line looking for a job. When deprivation results from a confused welfare system, they never do without food or clothing or a place to sleep. When public schools are inferior or torn by strife, their children go to exclusive private schools.

 Et cetera. But in the six months since Carter's band of outsiders came to town, they already have learned how to play the inside game.

 Item: Much show was made of the dispensing of a few limousines. But the invaluable Style section of the Post reported breathlessly last week that the newest status symbol in town is "call your office" radio bleepers, which have been issued to 49 members of the White House staff. By the end of summer, no doubt, entire blocks of Georgetown will be bleeping in harmony. Is our nation more secure, more prosperous, happier as a result of this new presidential policy?

 Item from Washington Dossier, a local society magazine of astonishing vulgarity and financial success: "Carter people warming up Washington social scene now that they've discovered we're important action for them . . They're on the embassy, cultural, charity and social circuit en masse and happy to find we're human . . . so are they, we've found . . . "

 Item from the Post's newly instituted gossip column: Following the recent Democratic fundraising dinner in New York, "the REAL party" composed of "the Carter crew . . , just couldn't wait to get to Regine's to boogie and booze Which they did to the tune of about $500." Regine's, you'll be relieved to hear, is opening a Washington branch soon.

 The salaries Carter is paying his staff hardly are calculated to keep them humble and in touch with the people. Many of them are making more than double what they made before entering the public service, and almost none are making less. Rosalynn Carter's press secretary gets $45,000 a year, compared to $31,000 paid to Betty Ford's. Carter's deputy press secretary, 26 years old, makes $48,500. Like most logical candidates for his job, he previously was a journalist. There is no "comparability" whatsoever between $48,500 and what most journalists—even top ones—get paid. In all 49 White House aides, several still in their 20s, make over $40,000 a year.

 Cash on the barrelhead really is a small part of it. The Carter people already have realized, if they areas smart as they'd better be for that kind of money, that as a result of their service to their country they have entered the wonderful world of Washington and never will have to do productive work again for the rest of their lives. As a local wag put it, "They've grown all the peanuts they're going to grow." Whether they choose law, lobbying, corporate boards or more refined hustles such as consultancies and "fellowships," they never will have to think again—except in the abstract—about the problems they will deal with in their professional capacities.

 Look at Joe Califano. That is to say, look at him next time his picture is in the paper. He came to Washington in the early 1960s, hungry and ambitious and presumably idealistic. He started out at the Pentagon and soon he was working for LBJ in the White House. Through the Nixon era he practiced Washington law so successfully that he was making $500,000 a year by the time he re-entered the government. Now our Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare  presumably still is idealistic, but he looks like he's about to burst from sheer prosperity, and he's got a full-time chef (like other Cabinet members) to tend his appetite, Califano should go on a diet. So should this whole city. 

This article originally ran in the July 9, 1977, issue of the magazine