Every year about this time, members of Congress pack up their rhetoric, run the incriminating papers through the shredders, practice their hometown boy/girl accents, memorize names and faces of significant contributors and leave town.
Traditionally, in Washington Augusts, not only Congress but most people who have the price of a ticket out of town take off. Only mad dogs and Englishmen (evidence: the British invasion of Aug. 24, 1814) normally choose to stay in Washington when they can afford to go somewhere cooler and drier. Until the invention of air conditioning, no president or member of Congress would stay in town past Lent, much less through July.
The tradition was set in the early days of the Republic when everyone cleared out to avoid the deadly miasma rising from the swamp capital. George Washington fled town for Mount Vernon and the river breezes of the Potomac. Thomas Jefferson rode off to the mountain air of Monticello. John Adams headed home to the more salubrious climate of Massachusetts.
For those too poverty stricken to have single -- much less multiple -- summer estates, in August 1990, there are considerable enticements to stay around and see what's going to happen. What will happen to Marion Barry? Who will raise (Betty Ann) Kane to be the shadow senator? All those other names and faces must be learned. In the repertory theater called Washington, the members of the company will shift their roles. The auditions -- primaries and elections -- will do the casting.
Entertaining is usually quite different in August in Washington. This is the time when people actually invite over those they want to see -- not those they wish to instruct in the way in which they should vote. Some keep separate August lists of their few friends who have no need to ask anything of them. The multi-courses of formal dinners are reduced to whatever is in the refrigerator that isn't moldy. Drinks revert to the proper Southern beverages: ice tea, ice tea and ice tea. Unless of course you grow mint, in which case mint juleps are allowed if your air conditioning is working.
However, with the impending local governmental upheaval, it will be difficult to go to a party without encountering a candidate for local office. Those who had planned to skip the pre-party ritual of reading their newspaper no longer can do so. Plans not to trouble your little head as to what to be done about the property assessments, taxes or city employee furloughs have to be rethought. Otherwise how will you get your money out of the political fund-raising parties by congratulating or castigating the legislators?
Surely, however, the press of campaigning will not affect Augustonians' practice of letting their hair grow while their beauty salons are closed and sending their black ties and party dresses to the dry cleaner. Not only are men permitted to quit wearing black ties, they are entitled to totally give up the ties that bind. Women with well-shaped legs and lenient office dress codes this year have adopted the shorts answer to fashion. (Shorts are the more modest mode to short skirts, a thought to ponder when sitting on a platform worrying about modesty.) Of course, all hosts, of whatever political persuasion, are required by strict etiquette to ceremonially require their male guests to remove their coats. Southern women, brought up in the belief that the summer sun should never shine on their skin, are encouraged to affect large hats, in the hopes of looking devastating instead of devastated.
One sad evidence of the fall of civilization is the shortage of white suits, caused by the decline of the old Washington cleaners who took them apart at the seams, cleaned the crevices, and sewed them back up again -- at least according to Allen Appel's new novel, "Til the End of Time."
Even so, some faint decorum in dress will be required of candidates -- though this being a Southern town, no applicant for office will wish to dress up too much.
Well, the political push shouldn't totally remove all the guilty pleasures of Washington August. Some rebellious souls will sneak their cars in the Congress or Diplomat Only parking at airports and around the Capitol (risking being ticketed by sun-maddened cops). Others, on company time, in the absence of the necessity for writing thank-you-for-inviting-us-to-the-party notes, will write letters to their loved ones -- except when using the WATS lines to do their genealogical studies.
And many will enjoy the supreme pleasure of a Washington August -- taking off all your clothes, sitting under the air conditioning jet and drinking ice tea, while longing for the fatted calf of the parties when the prodigal congressional sons and daughters come home.