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Yet even in dealing with Congress, Brinkley seeks to be evenhanded. “It was not the system,” he says, “that made the wartime Congresses unruly, politicized, argumentative, unresponsive and occasionally vulgar. It was the course of American history.”
THE WAR, OF COURSE, WAS LARGELY responsible for the phenomenal growth of Washington in the 1940s. But with it came a new factor that has helped make government a growth industry ever since: income tax withholding. It was passed after much wrangling and took effect in July 1943. It was, says Brinkley, “a revolution in American public finance. When people became accustomed to paying taxes as they had always paid for automobiles — on the installment plan — Congress and the president learned, to their pleasure, what automobile salesmen had learned long before: that installment buyers could be induced to pay more because they looked not at the total debt but only at the monthly payments.… The term ‘take-home-pay’ now entered the language.”
Throughout all this, the war, the shortages of housing and, during rationing, of nearly everything else, there was one surprising constant: an endless round of Washington parties that were extravagant even by the gaudy standards of today. When Cissy Patterson, empress of the Roosevelt-hating Washington Times-Herald, went out to dinner one night at Evalyn Walsh McLean’s Georgetown house, Brinkley reports that she arrived just after a little custom had been observed in the McLean household. “Thomas Saltz drove out from his men’s store downtown to do for the McLeans what they were unable or unwilling to do for themselves, tie the men’s neckties.” Mrs. McLean, of course, had no need of neckwear. She wore “the Hope diamond dangling down the front of a Hattie Carnegie dress.”
Brinkley relates such details with evident relish and seeming ease. So it’s surprising that this book came close to never being written. At the height of the popularity of “The Huntley-Brinkley Report” twenty-five years ago, Brinkley was besieged by publishers wanting a book from the famous anchorman. “I had almost a stock answer,” Brinkley says. “I told them I didn’t need the money, didn’t need the notoriety, and didn’t want to do the work.” But as many of those who lived and worked in Washington during the war began to die off, Brinkley felt he was among the last who might be able to write such an account. “It seemed to me that there was nobody really competent to do that left, and I thought it was worth doing,” he says. After starting it in 1972, though, Brinkley says he nearly abandoned the project many times, finally finishing it with the help of an IBM personal computer, which, he says, took much of the pain out of revision.
Brinkley describes Washington Goes to War as “less a work of history than of personal reminiscence and reflection.” That gives Brinkley too much credit, and too little. Its framework and some of the detail may spring from the author’s memory, but this book is plainly the product of extensive research — some of it done by Brinkley, but, as he acknowledges in the book, much of it done for him. And despite the author’s protestations, it is an informative and unique history of what the book’s subtitle calls “the transformation of a city and a nation.” There is one inexplicable oversight: no index. Brinkley says he has no idea why, that he expected the publisher to provide one and was unpleasantly surprised to find otherwise. He should be. And the publisher, the esteemed Alfred A. Knopf & Co., should be ashamed.
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