Henry Adams, Democracy (1880). More of Washington has been dredged out of the Potomac River and more money has flowed into town in the 130 years since Adams wrote his seminal satire of the capital, but the town’s character hasn’t changed a whit. The novel’s heroine is something of an intern herself, wintering in Washington to get a sense of how political power works. Her flirtation with a powerful, corrupt senator and the eclectic circle of friends she gathers around her prove that Washington may be a manufactured city, but that doesn’t mean it lacks an essential character. And speaking of that character . . .
Joe Klein, The Running Mate (2000). Klein is justly famous for Primary Colors, his scathing portrait of the Bill Clinton campaign. But this novel, about a candidate who lost to the Clinton stand-in in that earlier book, is an aching, funny look at a group of friends who came to Washington after Vietnam and rose to power in a new Democratic administration just before a wave congressional election. The current political climate makes The Running Mate particularly relevant reading, and its scenes in congressional offices and Washington dining rooms provide a tough but affectionate look at the city’s political classes. Even tougher than Klein is . . .
Marjorie Williams, The Woman at the Washington Zoo (2006) and Reputation (2009). During her lifetime, being the subject of a Marjorie Williams profile was a sign you’d arrived in official Washington, but it was no guarantee you’d like the result of her reporting. Her stinging portraits of everyone from the elder Barbara Bush to James Carville not only told the truth behind individuals’ self-presentation, but they provided archetypal examples of how Washington affects marriages, ambitions, characters, and manners. And while Williams looked outward in her profiles . . .
Katharine Graham, Personal History (1998). Graham’s memoir is a masterpiece of the genre—not simply a great book about Washington. But it’s also that. While New York’s publishing history may be flashier, Graham’s exploration of her rise to head a family business called the Washington Post reveals that Washington’s journalism past is equally important. As a portrait of Washington society, a history of the changing roles of Washington women, and a look at the journalism business from the printing presses to the executives, Personal History provides a refreshing break from the constant focus on federal-level politics that so often dominates Washington writing. As does . . .
Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood, Dream City (1994). Even if Jaffe didn’t work for The Washingtonian, this book would be an essential part of this list. Dream City is a forceful reminder that becoming a Washingtonian requires far more than simply landing a political or government job—it means becoming a true citizen of one of the city’s diverse neighborhoods and mastering its complex, often-troubled politics. A dual biography of Washington under home rule and former mayor Marion Barry, the book reveals the homegrown leaders, businessmen, political castes, and problems that lie below the waters, crowned by the Capitol above the surface.