Normally, any time that President Bush holds one of his rare, full-length news conferences, that's the top news event of the day. But on Monday, Bush's answers on Iraq, Social Security and other topics were overshadowed by the 12-minute "summit" meeting between D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams and D.C. Council Chairman Linda Cropp.
Their topic was the future of major league baseball in the nation's capital. And my purpose is to explain to you why this is a matter of national import, not just of parochial interest.
Many theories have been offered about the causes of the increasingly bitter partisanship that has infected Washington. Things have reached such a sorry state that Bob Novak, the most garrulous of TV quarrelers, has advocated simply muzzling Senate Democrats by stripping them of the right to filibuster judicial nominees.
When a born contrarian such as Novak says the dissonance in the Capitol building has become so screechy that even he can't stand it, you know things have hit bottom.
What has been missed by most of the historians and political scientists is the fact that political conditions in Washington began to decline in 1971, the year the baseball Senators decamped for Texas and became the Rangers.
Baseball was the tonic that soothed Washington's nerves. After a hard day in the Senate, members on opposite sides of the foreign aid bill debate could repair to Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, 22 blocks away, knock back a few beers and watch Frank Howard pound the stuffing out of the ball. By the same token, disgruntled bureaucrats, bloody from fighting to save their pet programs from the fiscal surgeons in the Bureau of the Budget, could sit in the stands and enjoy the sight of Camilo Pascual baffling the Yankees with his curveball.
That tonic has been missing from Washington lo these many years, and look at the mess we are in. The city and its resident politicians now fixate on football's Redskins, who play only eight home games a year -- and in one of the ugliest stadiums ever constructed, with no certainty except that the traffic will be maddening on the way in and worse on the way out. And you wonder why the atmosphere is poisoned by anger and frustration.
Our dear friends, the Canadians, saw our suffering and graciously agreed a few months ago to send us the Montreal Expos. The news that they would open the season at RFK Stadium as the Washington Nationals and then move in a few years to a brand-new ballpark on the Anacostia River, even closer to the Capitol, was greeted with joy -- and thousands of season-ticket deposits.
(Full disclosure: I was part of a newsroom consortium of nine fans, with deposits on four seats, and could hardly wait for the season to start.) Then -- zap -- Cropp and her D.C. Council colleagues voted to scotch the deal for the new stadium unless half the money was raised privately. And baseball said: No deal.
Opinion in Washington was badly divided on what should happen. Pulitzer Prize-winning Post columnist Colbert I. King, seconded by the sports pages' Sally Jenkins, cheered Cropp and the other city council opponents for standing up to baseball and telling off "the suburbs, where most of the baseball fans make their home." The equally estimable Post sports columnist Thomas Boswell pointed out that those suburbanites will pour money into the city coffers when they come to the games and spark the economic revival of what is now a blighted section of the District.
In the end, the mayor, the council chairman and baseball executives agreed on a compromise, apparently saving the Washington franchise. The resolution is greatly in the nation's interest.
Baseball is the sovereign remedy for what ails our government. It teaches respect for the rules -- especially since the Expos/Nationals are National Leaguers, playing a game uncontaminated by the abomination known as the designated-hitter rule.
Furthermore, baseball is a slow game. A single contest lasts three hours, a season six months. It focuses your mind on long-term goals: the playoffs, the Series. It accustoms you to errors. It cushions the pain of losses. It provides heartwarming comebacks. It teaches patience. (Especially to those of us who have been Cubs fans.) All these lessons apply directly to politics.
Just think what it will mean when Republican Tom DeLay and Democrat Nancy Pelosi walk off the House floor after another marathon roll call, in which Republicans have squeezed out the narrowest of wins. Instead of sulking and scheming revenge, she turns to him and says, "Hey, Tom, let's go to the ballgame. I've got good seats and we can still see six innings!"
That way lies salvation.