The Washington, D.C. that encountered the nation’s Second Pearl Harbor would have been unrecognizable to anyone who had known it fifty years before. The White House, the Capitol, the Washington Mall now stood as a narrow historic corridor amid a forest skyscrapers of the most progressive and innovative designs that had turned what was once simply the seat of government into an architectural, intellectual, and cultural powerhouse.
The turning point came in 2035 when Congress finally lifted the outmoded restriction that said no building could be built taller than the Washington Monument. In a flash, the giant structures that had hovered on the Virginia and Maryland borders peering at the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials now came stampeding across the border like a herd of antelope granted new pasture. For more than a decade the skyline was etched with construction cranes as the new city sprang up around them until the cranes themselves pirouetting precariously atop 50 and 60 story structures.
Up they went, the Department of Big Business, the Department of Small Business, the Department of Multicultural Affairs, the Department of Multilingualism, the Bureau of Nutrition, the Commission on Contraception, the Board of Bullying, the Bureau of Self-Esteem. The old Department of Health had been divided and subdivided so that each certified disease now had its own wing — divided by class, race, and gender as well — all fighting furiously for inclusion in federal insurance policies and grappling for research appropriations so that if a staffer from the Division of African-American Asthma were to encounter someone from the Division of Varicose Veins Among Working Women there was bound to be a confrontation.
But the building that defined the New Washington was the Department of Gender, constructed in 2040 right on the edge of the Capitol Mall opposite the Washington Monument and overlooking the White House. An architectural and cultural watershed, it had been designed in the shape of a huge vagina extending 40 stories in the air. Puritans and purists, those that still remained, had raised the predictable objections over public prurience but were immediately stifled by the argument that if George Washington could have his giant phallic symbol at the center of the Historic District, then women should be entitled to equal representation as well. Next the argument had arisen whether the exterior should be white or black or something in between. It had been happily resolved by an ingenious new technology that allowed the building to change color — white in the summer to reflect the heat, black in the dead of winter to absorb it — so that it became an environmental landmark as well. When it was over, of course, the inevitable jokes had begun to circulate about how George Washington was standing up even straighter these days now that “Martha” — the nickname for the DOG — was in plain view.
Far back in the 1930s, the young Gore Vidal had walked beside his grandfather down Constitution Avenue as the first wave of federal monoliths began going up around the Mall. The elder Thomas Gore, a former Senator, had wondered where they would ever find enough people to fill them. No more. Every year a veritable army of college graduates flocked into the Capital waving their newly minted diplomas in government studies, regional planning, and behavioral incentivizing, heading for the slots reserved for them on the Government Outreach websites. They constituted a veritable rainbow of colors — African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Indian- American, Mexican-Americans, Arab-Americans, Israeli-Americans, Russian-Americans, Latvian-Americans, all four genders and the transgenders represented — although somehow the ranks of wispy white males with receding hairlines and Fu Manchu mustaches never seemed to diminish either. They came from all across the country, sporting their Ivy League and Big Ten sweatshirts as they jogged the Mall, joining the softball teams that were now forced to play on specially illuminated fields at 3 in the morning because fields were in such demand.
And there was so much to do. Deciding whether a field of corn in Iowa should be taken out of cultivation because migrating ducks landed on it a couple of days a year, deciding whether a YMCA in Albuquerque should be allowed to repair its roof without rebuilding the entire structure while it was in violation of federal building codes, setting the water standards for urinals in highway truck stops, deciding whether observant Muslims and people allergic to dogs who were blind should be allowed to enter restaurants with miniature horses instead of guide dogs — it was almost too much responsibility.
The whole thing might have collapsed and brought the country to a standstill were it not for the technology, which fortunately always managed to stay ahead of the game. With VR it was now possible for a staffer in the Federal Department of Building Safety to attend those meetings of the Albuquerque Planning Board to provide Federal input on the decision-making. And of course it was the Federal input that usually prevailed. Artificial Intelligence at the Department of Justice could provide staffers with a complete review of state and local statutes and there was always a precedent somewhere to decide the case in the government’s favor. “We’ve got them by the balls,” was the most common expression of a young college graduate after a quick search of DOJ.GOV turned up an obscure lower court ruling that would force a small town somewhere in Idaho to build a sewer system before allowing any new commercial buildings on its Main Street. The Department of Gender had heard of the practice and was diligently trying to substitute “We have control of their reproductive organs” in the official Federal Speech Code but hadn’t had much success yet.
Once Washington had been consumed by partisan bickering and petty politics. Those days were now gone. The key had been the triumphant ascent of The Party, once known as “The Democratic Party,” now shortened since it had achieved demographic triumph and taken control of the country. The turning point had been the 2012 election when the old Democrats had gone into Ohio — then considered as the pivotal state — and organized a ground game four years in advance. By the time the Presidential contest rolled around, The Party had assembled a database that included the predilections of almost every Democratic voter in the state. After achieving an unprecedented turnout — winning more handily than expected — Party members had asked the obvious question: “Why stop here?” The same ground game had quickly been extended to other battleground states and then to the rest of the country. Soon the old days of “busing voters to the polls” were history. With early electronic voting, it was now possible to achieve a winning majority weeks in advance. Where people had once assembled on Election Night to “watch the returns coming in,” the winner could now be declared by mid-October. Of course the system was easily hacked and people often showed up on Election Day only to be told that they had already voted two months before, but these were minor glitches. The important thing was that the system was becoming more and more democratic every year.
The Other Party, as the old Republicans had come to be called, trailed along in the usual way, trying to catch up, but the game was already lost. They had never had that many voters to marshal anyway. Except in a few backwaters rural outposts, the country was now completely in the hands of The Party. In retrospect, it seemed inevitable. The nation had simply taken on the characteristics of those powerful urban machines of 20th century New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago where everybody belonged to The Party and only primaries counted. True, there was often fierce infighting and every once in a while a disgruntled candidate who felt unjustly excluded by The Party would declare himself a member of The Other Party and run on its line. And occasionally — very occasionally — they would win. But for the most part, like the Neanderthals making their last stand on the Rock of Gibraltar, The Other Party had retreated to a few isolated pockets where voters still elected Republican Senators and Representatives who railed endlessly about the growth of the government, although by now no one really understood what they were talking about.
And so Washington had at last broken out of the straightjacket of being a narrow political oasis — “this town” as its denizens had called it — and taken its place among the world’s great cities. Paris was the model and visitors often remarked how the belle monde atmosphere of the streets and sidewalks must resemble Vienna of the late 19th century or even New York in the 1960s. When the New York Metropolitan Opera finally moved to Washington in 2045, people in fact began referring to it as “New New York” — and it was true. Music and art flourished everywhere. The city’s sports franchises, once distant also-rans, now gobbled up all the premium players and dominated their leagues the way the old New York Yankees had once done. The city even had its own avant-garde. There were nude ballets on the Mall and performance artists were forever constructed mock memorials such as “Equestrian Statue of a Congressman from Lower Wichita” and the “Tomb of the Unknown Bureaucrat.” Bourgeois values were mocked everywhere — although in truth this newfound cynicism was the most reliable symptom of bourgeois success.
Although only historians remembered it, Wall Street had once marked the outer perimeter of Old Dutch Manhattan. So too the demarcation of The Beltway had become an historical artifact with the concept of “Beyond the Beltway” losing all meaning as the Federal nerve center spread past Manassas and out to the suburbs of Baltimore. Instead, the idea that there was a land that stretched beyond the reach of Washington was concentrated into the simple phrase, “Out There.” There was indeed an Out There, although it was sometimes hard to remember. It was all readily accessible on VR and that was all that mattered. A representative from the Department of Education could easily attend a meeting of the Sioux Falls School Board to help them decide whether failing to provide a separate locker room for gay and lesbian students constituted sexual discrimination.
People ventured Out There to go home for Thanksgiving and Christmas or to attend high school reunions and there were the inevitable junkets to solar forests in the Arizona desert or visits to remote corners of Alaska now threatened with contamination by traces of radioactive fallout from the atomic testing in the century before. But for the most part, Out There remained a VR experience, the raw material that was to be pushed and pulled by algorithms and regression analysis until the problem had been identified and the need for federal intervention came into focus.
The one thing no one in Washington could ever quite comprehend was why things Out There remained so bland and dispirited. Racial and gender bias had been completely eradicated. The environment had been scrubbed clean so that the Environmental Protection Agency had to concern itself with regulating the disposal of household garbage, deciding whether bacteria on toothbrushes constituted a health hazard, and tracking down those few outlaws who were still trying to peddle incandescent bulbs. The election of the nation’s first transgendered President had passed so smoothly that the unemployed Arizona real estate agent whom the Other Party had selected as their candidate barely got 15 percent of the vote. The entire nation was now joined in a social network that included food stamps, free health insurance, educational vouchers (although good only at the neighborhood public school), four-year job training, career counseling, child care, legal representation, grief counseling, midlife crisis therapy, disability and old age pensions and funeral planning. What more could people possibly want?
Yet somehow a sense of lethargy still hung over the country. People who visited Out There reported it unanimously. Everyone seemed dispirited. Small towns were boarding up their shopping malls, farming was in the hands of impersonal corporations that were beginning to import Senegalese farm hands (registering them with The Party, of course). The family farm was fading so that people speculated which was likely to disappear first, the farm or the family. The 15 percent unemployment rate was ameliorated by five-year benefits that included college tuition, but this only seemed to breed a population of scholar-gypsies who migrated from one institution to the next, collecting degrees in art history and holistic medicine while complaining there were no jobs available in their field. The Bureau of Skills Adjustment had been set up to deal with the problem.
Dozens of studies, some of them stretching over decades, had been commissioned to try to build algorithms explaining what was going on Out There but no one seemed able to put a finger on it. Then a very subversive theory took hold. At first it circulated only privately, whispered up and down the halls of the Senate and House office buildings, since no one really wanted it to get out. A study conducted at the University of Maryland had revealed that there was now a 15-point IQ gap between residents of the Washington Metropolitan Area and the rest of the country. “Intelligence generates happiness,” the author had concluded, “and residents of Washington have become a self-selected, self-perpetuating sub-population whose capacity for satisfaction in life appears to exceed that of the rest of the country.” The study had not been published but pirated copies circulated so that Washington residents were soon nodding their heads knowingly as they chatted in the lobby at world premieres or engaged in cocktail conversation on spacious verandas overlooking the Potomac.
If the population of the Capital sometimes felt alienated from the rest of the country, this was more than compensated by rising feelings of congeniality from abroad. Europe in particular had welcomed the transformation, especially after the EU had to be bailed out by the New Marshall Plan in 2025 (with China footing the bill, of course). But all over the world nations celebrated the New American Enlightenment. Even countries that regularly executed homosexuals or sentenced them to life in prison celebrated the new spirit of tolerance emanating from the United States.
China had become a particular friend. Coming to the rescue several times when the bond market refused to lend any more money, the Chinese had even gone to the point of suggesting the Yuan might relieve the dollar of its burden as the currency of international exchange. True, there had been tensions when the Chinese claimed naval control of the Western Pacific in 2035 but they had allowed complete access to Wake Island and American Samoa and, despite objections from the military, it seemed to make little difference whose ships patrolled the world’s major sea-lanes as long as they were kept open for commerce. As the world’s leading trading nation, the Chinese obviously intended to do so. As a hotbed of innovation, China was constantly lending a hand to American progress. The windmill experiment had failed but they had resolved the carbon problem with the Travelling Wave — which some people still insisted had been invented in America — and word was that household versions would soon be available at Wal-Mart.
Altogether, then, the two nations seemed to be drawing together, even coming to mirror each other. The Chinese still didn’t allow elections but it was often said their system of grooming and promoting leaders within the Communist Party wasn’t all that different from the way things had evolved in America. In fact. people often said that that the coterie of bureaucrats and diplomats assembled in Washington resembled nothing so much as the old Nomenklatura of the long-forgotten Soviet Union. But this was ridiculous. America was and would always be a democracy, which people proved over and over by choosing their leaders, election year after election year, decade after decade, even now turning out in unprecedented numbers to verify The Party’s choice.
It was with more than a sense of shock, then — even disbelief — that Washington awoke to find the Chinese Navy had made an unexpected entry into Pearl Harbor. In fact there was a genuine sense of damaged emotions, a betrayal of trust. “How could they do this after we had built such a perfect system?” said one Washingtonian to another. “I thought humanity had left this sort of thing behind.”