DOG DAYS D.C.

Cheers to You, August

By Jeffrey Frank
Sunday, August 19, 2007

I was very fond of August when I lived in Washington and, while recognizing that it might be an illusion, I liked the way everything seemed to slow down in a hazy way -- how you might be able to catch your breath even if the air was foul and the weather unrelentingly swampy.

There was certainly the corresponding impulse to flee, which many manage to do. The men and women of Congress are gone now (a little later than usual), and this unloved branch of government is joined in its retreat by the president, who's off to his spread in Crawford, Tex. What's left is not precisely a power vacuum -- after all, everyone can hurry back if they're actually needed, and Karl Rove's work is not quite done -- but nevertheless an emptiness of sorts. The streets appear deserted and everything looks a little barer than it did in June and July. That can be appealing.

When I lived in the city (much of my life, but most recently in the 1980s and '90s) and August came along, it was hard sometimes to believe that anyone was staying put; people announced (bragged even) that they were going to be in better places -- the Vineyard! the Hamptons! -- and yet of course someone was still in town. Anyone could see that by the cars streaming in from Maryland and Virginia, and rushing along Rock Creek Parkway and merging onto the Beltway. All of this gave me the corresponding impulse to stick around, a sense that something important might be happening even if everyone moved a little sluggishly.

Recent Augusts have had grim moments: Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, President Bill Clinton confessed to an "improper relationship" with a White House intern in August 1998 and Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast in August 2005. But we've also had our share of traditional silly-season Augusts, such as the Augustof 2001. Part of my novel "Trudy Hopedale" takes place in that month of shark attacks and killer mosquitoes, and what turned out to be the sad story of a vanished intern and a California congressman -- a time when my heroine could say that "it's hard to see what George W. Bush wants to accomplish despite all his talk about education and cutting taxes and how he's against growing human beings from spare body parts." The book ends before Sept. 11, but I've come to think that what happened then somehow cast a backward shadow over the rather narrowly focused lives of Trudy and her friends.

Then there are those Augusts that recur every four years, when the presidential races get underway and campaign workers and consultants settle in. In another age, their separate efforts would just be revving up about now, but as everyone knows, the 2008 race began so long ago that few of us can even remember its beginning. For me, at about this time, I sometimes regret that I never worked on a real campaign, and recall how I might have come close once, in August 1983, when a friend put me in touch with the Walter Mondale organization.

It was a time when I was between jobs; my newspaper (the Buffalo Courier) had folded in the fall of 1982, but I had gotten a severance deal that kept me on the payroll for a while longer. Although I imagined that I'd get back to newspaper work eventually, I was ready to try something different.

My chief problem with this new venture was that I was not particularly enthusiastic about Mondale, no matter how accomplished he'd been as a vice president. My favorite possible candidate that summer was John Glenn, the Ohio senator and former astronaut, who seemed to be the embodiment of an Eisenhower Democrat, an amalgam of decency and courage and generous values. One August night I was in a restaurant in the Van Ness neighborhood and heard people at a nearby table declaring their happiness at working for Glenn. My wife nudged me, and I thought about what might happen if I walked over and introduced myself and declared my fandom. I would not, I sensed, have been welcomed, and so I didn't do that. I sometimes wondered whether those strangers stuck with the wobbly Glenn campaign until its end the following March.

The Mondale campaign offices were on upper Wisconsin Avenue, and I met with someone whose name I've forgotten, a chubby intense man, probably in his early 40s -- and no doubt still in the game if he's alive -- who believed so deeply in Mondale that it was as though he belonged to a church I couldn't possibly join. When he asked what I most wanted to bring to their endeavor, I mentioned speechwriting -- my connection, after all, had been to a former speechwriter, a good fellow who informed me that the trick of it was not to include too many ideas. I believed that writing about policy was one of my specialties.

The conversation went along politely and desultorily until I let slip that my enthusiasm for Mondale was, to be perfectly honest, a wee bit limited. I was happy to work for him; I was sure he'd be a very good president -- much better than Ronald Reagan, the incumbent -- and even if he wasn't my first choice, he was certainly acceptable. Furthermore, when would I get started and what sort of salary were they offering?

No one actually told me that I'd managed to flunk the interview and wreck any chance of ever working for Mondale, but I sensed that it had not gone well even before everyone I passed on my way out avoided eye contact. When I called my friend who'd sent me there and he asked how it had gone and what I'd be doing, I said that we never actually got to that. We both realized that I'd be doing something else when I returned to the workforce, as I would have to do when my severance ran out, which would not be long after August ran out.

The aspect of return -- the imminence of September -- makes August, despite its lazy pace, a stressful time, too. If Labor Day is like a depressive New Year's Eve, August is when you consider how your life will be and how it ought to be when it speeds up again. When I was a child in D.C., we saw it coming in the early part of the month with the first advertisements for school supplies. As the cicadas got louder later in the month, it was (and is) a signal of pressures just ahead. All those perfect parking spots in Georgetown vanish, restaurants and movie theaters fill up, and offices where work is a little slow are transformed. Dress codes return and you start to answer the phone on the first ring.

Yet even as the days hurry by -- the slower the faster -- and even with the wretched weather that we all complain about, it is a month to savor. If you are not working for Hillary or Barack or Rudy or Mitt or one of the others, it is still possible in this late summer to imagine the city as it was in an era when abandonment and desolation were a joy. Anyone who lives or who has ever lived in Washington will understand my meaning when I say, as if raising a glass: We'll always have August.

frankjeff1@gmail.com

Jeffrey Frank, a native of Washington, is an editor at the New Yorker. His latest novel, "Trudy Hopedale," was published last month.


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