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Smart, Oui! Fun, Non!
Comments () | Published April 1, 2009

What did you learn about America?

Washington is America and is not America. The whole presidential campaign was predicated on the fact that we must get rid of Washington, we must change Washington, the source of evil is Washington—whether it was Obama or McCain. And the truth is that Washington is America. This is the only place where people from California, South Carolina, et cetera, get together and work out their differences, their conflicts, their issues and contradictions. There is this kind of romantic idea that, well, America is not like European nations, which have a center from which everything emanates—in America everything’s very decentralized. That’s BS. Of course, California is a world unto itself. Of course, Illinois has its own life, but where America really comes together and really starts acting as America is Washington.

Each time there’s been war and crisis—the war against the British, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, the Depression, the Second World War, the Cold War—each time, Washington gets bigger, gets more powerful, and America becomes more and more a nation like the others. So, in fact, Washington is America.

What was most interesting for you?

What was for me the most enthralling was that I was working at the same time with Nancy Jacobson, Mark Penn’s wife, who was at the heart of the Hillary Clinton campaign, and with Melody Barnes, then a vice president at the Center for American Progress, who was very near to the center of the Obama campaign. That was Democratic Washington. Following the battle—the civil war, sort of—within the Democratic Party was fascinating. That was really very, very deep Washington stuff. In Nancy Jacobson’s profile, I recount the inner struggle between the old new Democrats, the Clinton Democrats, and the new new Democrats, the Obama Democrats. And now everybody is very happy that the Democrats are back in power and Hillary is the Secretary of State, and life goes on. The show goes on.

Any funny anecdotes in the book?

Washington is not really a city where you have fun. You need to have a high interest in politics, foreign diplomacy, to enjoy it. It’s a very intellectual city where you meet a lot of very interesting people, where all the major issues of the day are discussed, but it’s not really a fun city.

What does it need?

The cultural part. When I say culture, I mean everything. The opportunity to talk about books or about art is still very limited compared to New York, compared to Paris, Berlin, or London. Washington has these tremendous cultural institutions, beautiful museums, but it’s not generating or producing anything in terms of culture.

In the book I interview Michael Kahn, artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre. You have one of the top Shakespeare theaters in the world. You have the second-liveliest theater scene after New York, equal to Chicago. But what is staged here is very low-grade compared to what you can see in Berlin, in Paris, in London, or in any capital. So in that sense, it’s not yet a global city. It is America. It is not yet the world.

We were invited to fundraisers, private dinners, fairly high-grade, including some that the former vice president attended. And what was amazing is that the only discussion was politics. There was not much cultural give and take, intellectual give and take, between the people.

And that would be different in Paris?

Very. People would talk about politics—they would argue about politics. But they would as well argue about sex, about the latest film, the latest scandal in the literary world.

So you didn’t get to argue about sex in Washington?

Well, only because of Mark Foley, because of Larry Craig and the “DC madam.” But it’s pathetic—no fun compared to Britain or France. The DC madam commits suicide, which would never happen in France. There is a deep moralistic thread still in the US in general and in DC in particular.

Are there misconceptions about Washington in Europe?

Oh, yeah. People do not understand how the city works, how the system works. It’s very difficult for the French to understand that even when a president says something, it may not be made into law. In France, the majority of the Parliament is in the hands of the president. So the idea that the Democrats could derail something that their own president put forth, like Clinton’s healthcare reform, that’s incomprehensible in Europe. Ambassadors here have a hard time making their capitals understand that the White House is not the most important institution. It’s just first among equals.

People abroad tend to think that you have only not very bright people, basically bureaucrats, in Washington. People don’t realize that you have the highest concentration of brainpower here. People think Washington is a sleepy, stuffy city where nothing happens but petty politics. For outsiders, Washington is not the place to be in the US. Now, in the last six months, you see that changing. People are beginning to see Washington as El Dorado and understand that the real economic and financial power is not on Wall Street but in Washington. More important than Microsoft was Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the Federal Reserve. 

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Posted at 05:00 PM/ET, 04/01/2009 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles