Even before I packed my belongings in January to take a gig with The American Spectator, I knew Washington, D.C., was a peculiar place. To be fair, I’m unaccustomed to city life. I was raised on a farm outside Fargo, North Dakota. Our nearest neighbors—some will scoff at calling them that—lived on a homestead about a mile away.
Relative desolation has its drawbacks. Few magazines these days are hiring Fargo correspondents, for instance. Winter hazards include snow, ice, and marauding packs of polar bears that descend from the Canadian hinterlands in search of Coca-Cola. But there are perks, too. Summer nights are beautiful. Walk a few hundred feet from the farm, past the point where darkness fades into black oblivion, and you can bask in the twinkling of innumerable stars. Here in D.C., the cosmos is drowned out by unmarked helicopters beelining toward undisclosed locations, and 737-fuls of besuited executives gliding into Reagan National Airport.
That said, I interned in D.C. for a few months as an undergraduate, so it’s not simply the whiff of civilization that gives me pause. Rather, it’s the little oddities I’ve begun to notice. Everything is nuanced and sophisticated. Eighty percent of people wear suits to casual networking events, and I begin to feel self-conscious that I don’t own a pair of cufflinks. In the plaza outside the Spectator’s Arlington office, food carts sell not just the usual fare, but also…“bistro-quality” crepes, made to order by a real, live Frenchman and topped with feta cheese or Nutella hazelnut spread. One of my first mornings, my usual weatherman said his forecast was so complicated, he would have to unpack it like a Kafka novel. (Luckily, he did not predict a drizzle of giant human-sized cockroaches.)
I suppose there’s nothing inherently wrong with snazzy dress, clever newsmen, or little Parisian pancakes. The difference is that other cities’ pretensions are undergirded by finance, or movies, or silicon; Washington—which has surpassed San Jose to become the nation’s wealthiest metropolitan area, according to a Bloomberg analysis of Census Bureau data—is built on the 16th Amendment.
As such, politics marinates nearly every aspect of life. On Friday night in an uptown Irish pub, one wall of TVs shows college basketball, while the other wall shows C-SPAN. There’s an entire AM talk station, Federal News Radio, targeted toward government employees: 50,000 watts of signal-power devoted to anchors who say things like—I’m paraphrasing, but not exaggerating—“Next we’re going to talk about something near and dear to our hearts, and that’s procurement policy.” Young congressional staffers scurry down Capitol Hill streets, speaking in eager tones about legislative minutiae, such as whether the Joint Committee on Inanity, Poppycock, and Twaddle will vote to pass H.R. 6309, which, for safety’s sake, regulates the number of people allowed in any given clown car (because the clowns obviously have failed to self-regulate).
This isn’t quite how I idealized our nation’s capital. A decade ago, my parents brought their teenagers here for vacation, sort of like a hajj for a family that owned a small business and subscribed to National Review. I spent the entire trip in awe of the Republic. As my father drove us through the city, cursing Pierre L’Enfant for building so many unconnected D Streets (this was back when GPS guided mainly missiles, not rented minivans), I gazed in wonder at towering granite monuments and huge, monolithic office buildings.
Now I’m more in awe of how many federal employees fill those offices. (About 300,000. Fifteen percent of the federal government’s 2 million civilian, non-postal workforce is in and around Washington.) These days, I play a game when I walk down D.C.’s tree-lined streets. As I pass each federal building, I try to imagine what business of mine—what business of any citizen’s—engages the workers within. If I’m on the right side of town, it’s easy: “Oh, the Bureau of Engraving; they’re printing Hamiltons.” Other times, not so much: “Hmm…The Administration on Aging?”
Perhaps I’m being obtuse. Or maybe Washington is like Disneyworld: served best with a healthy dose of naivete. For a kid, the magic is palpable. For a grownup, the most amazing part is that a conniving mouse can charge $85 for a one-day pass.