The Washington Post

A story that changed how I saw Washington

The home proposed for the site of Ted Kennedy’s old house in McLean. (The Building Group, Inc)

Editor’s note: At Storyline, we’re harnessing the power of stories to help you understand complex policy topics. This is one in a series of introductory posts from our team members, about how stories have helped us see things more clearly in our own lives.

During my first summer in Washington, while interning at a newswire on the Hill after my sophomore year of college, I stayed with friends of the family in a Northern Virginia suburb called McLean. After growing up in a funky Seattle neighborhood that called itself the center of the universe, and going to public schools that regularly got locked down for bomb threats, McLean — and in particular, my hosts’ massive house in a subdivision called The Reserve — made me feel like a savage in a court of kings.

This is the kind of place where you lived if your home needed to double as an entertainment venue for the rich and powerful. The driveways are long enough for many visitors to park their coupes and compact SUVs. The formal dining rooms aren’t touched unless a Treasury secretary or fundraising heavy comes to call. And they do: Walking around during the evening, it wasn’t uncommon to hear the music of a chamber quartet wafting from some backyard soiree, while Secret Service agents prowled the perimeter.

I didn’t understand why, though, until I read a piece from the previous year in The New Republic by Michael Crowley, which explained just what had happened to McLean over the previous decade. It opens with a scene of power-lobbyist Edwina Rogers, whose carefully staged family Christmas card sat in a basket of mail at the house where I was staying, showing off gifts she and her husband Ed had received while representing foreign governments. It expands from there into the firmament of Republican stars who’d clustered around them, eschewing the capitol’s historic brownstones for northern Virginia’s more rarefied air, and creating a new conservative power center as concrete in its geography as it was in its beliefs.

“Georgetown—and the establishment that resided there—faded from importance long ago,” Crowley wrote. “Over the last decade of growing Republican dominance in the capital, a new establishment has risen up to replace it. In a sense, McLean is the new Georgetown.”

This is a story that, rather than describing the impact of policy on people, demonstrates the folkways of the people the policy comes from — the Iraq war, the Contract with America, trickle down tax cuts, oil drilling in wildlife refuges. Because the McLean migration wasn’t just a case of people huddling in red areas to avoid mixing with blue. It’s also a story of cultural preferences, neatly encapsulating how conservatives oriented themselves as an outside-of-Washington force, the suburban antipode to Georgetown’s Ivy-educated urban sophisticates.

“Georgetown is more for the social elite, the intellectual elite,” Edwina Rogers told Crowley. “The people in McLean are more from humble backgrounds, state universities, not coming in from Yale or Harvard. It’s middle-American nouveau riche.” 

Years later, as a land use reporter for the Washington City Paper, I came to love using real estate as a window into a city’s sociology — cities are shaped by who moves where and why. In this particular city, those neighborhoods can also explain why the government runs how it does.

Of course, before reading Crowley’s piece, it’s not like I thought that liberals and conservatives did their dance on the Hill and then went home to their families, leaving politics behind. But it was the beginning of a process by which I’d come to understand just how tribal the capital can be, how deep its disagreements run, how even the most acculturated creature of Washington reflects some element of conditions on the ground where they came from — and how those who come to Washington to make a difference (even the liberal West Coast non-profit types I lived with!) so often end up playing the same tired game.

Lydia DePillis is a reporter focusing on labor, business, and housing. She previously worked at The New Republic and the Washington City Paper. She's from Seattle.



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Lydia DePillis · July 28, 2014