The media kiss that was planted on Michael Jordan last week on the occasion of his Second Coming was loud, wet and--in a word-- yecch! It was a useful albeit unintentional reminder that though the press can turn on its victims with unwonted ferocity, its most persistent and disagreeable trait is obsequiousness: playing press agent for stars and celebrities, basking in their reflected glory.
Still, it cannot be denied that Jordan's decision to offer his services to the owners of the Washington Wizards basketball team--and to become a minority owner himself--is interesting on its face and important as well. The District of Columbia gives every evidence of being in the early stages of a period of dramatic and, perhaps, positive change, and Jordan's arrival is likely to affect and accelerate the process. Exactly how it all will play out is impossible to guess, but the bet here is that it will provide much better spectator sport than anything presented by the Washington Wizards.
As was pointed out by Marc Fisher of The Washington Post in a comprehensive examination of the larger import of Jordan's affiliation with Abe Pollin, Ted Leonsis and the other owners of the team, Washington is being transformed from a company town into a diverse and complex corporate community. The old company--the government of the United States--may still be the 800-pound gorilla, but it's outside rather than inside the Beltway that the real action is now: along the Dulles Access Road and other suburban highways, in the offices of the high-tech companies that have completely transformed the local and regional economy.
The people at these companies may work outside the Beltway, but they are drawn inside it by the various attractions offered in the old city that remains the region's heart. Several weeks ago The Post reported that younger workers at high-tech outfits may live, for convenience's sake, in the suburbs, but on weekends many of them nest at hotels in the District or in the guest rooms of friends here. They regard the suburbs as safe but sterile, the District as edgy and alive.
At a higher and more expensive level, the involvement of Leonsis with the Wizards and Daniel Snyder with the Redskins reflects the same trend: rich techies bringing their money out of the suburbs and into the city. As Fisher put it: "People who made millions at America Online and other local high-tech companies are taking over key institutions such as the city's sports teams and joining the boards of Washington's most important cultural, educational and charitable institutions."
The change, as became apparent last fall, could be tracked in the owner's box at Redskins games. The two previous owners of the team, Edward Bennett Williams and Jack Kent Cooke, used that box to curry favor with political and journalistic bigfoots; Snyder surrounds himself with fellow techies. The Old Guard--the Cave Dwellers of Northwest Washington, the salon-keepers of Georgetown--is giving way to a new power structure to which the Byzantine maneuverings of politics are of little or no interest.
It's far too early to say whether this is a good thing. Though much has been made of Jordan's symbolic presence as a powerful and charismatic African American, there are no guarantees that his ascent will have trickle-down democratizing effects. The Old Guard was pretty much lily-white and so too is the New Guard; it simply draws its wealth and its power from different sources. One may hope that ordinary citizens of the District will benefit from the arrival of this new leadership class, but Share the Wealth was a pie in the sky when Huey Long tried to sell it in the 1930s and it likely remains one unto this day.
Still, there is some reason to hope that the New Guard will provide stabilizing and localizing influences that the Old Guard did not. In the first two centuries of its existence, Washington was notable chiefly for its transience; politicians, journalists and others came and went, their strongest ties always being to the places they came from rather than to the District, and even those who stayed to join the Cave Dwellers had an odd kind of impermanence to them. The one really indigenous and permanent local presence was the African American community, and not until the past quarter-century did it have any genuine opportunity to play on a stage larger than its own.
But the techies seem to be here for the duration. Snyder is a child of the Maryland suburbs who loved the Redskins as a boy, a love far deeper and more lasting than that offered by someone passing through on a six-year Senate ticket. The techies identify not with the fluid political community but with the business community of which they are a part, and that community is putting down roots.
This is cause for optimism, but one had best be guarded about it. The techies tend to be young, which often is good, and callow, which is not. Is it the evanescent glitz and glamour of Washington that entice them, or are they here--the city as well as the suburbs--for the long haul? Time will tell. Jordan himself seems to be hedging his bets: He'll commute between Washington, where he now works, and Chicago, where he still lives. His commitment to Washington, like the techies', is a work in progress. Cross your fingers, but don't bet the rent on it.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is email@example.com.