This essay on the Ages of Man in Washington begins not with a man, but with a woman, and not even in Washington, but in Cleveland. It was there in 1972 that I dropped off George McGovern's campaign plane to do some writing in the press room. There I met a woman, a gofer of sorts, whose job it was to keep the coffee fresh, make sure there was paper for reporters and fetch information if any was needed. That was in the spring. By summer, she was living in Washington and a very important person. By winter, she was gone. She had compressed a Washington lifetime into three seasons and left with a season to spare. She is a Washington success story.
The woman had worked at some job which she described as boring. When the campaign came to Cleveland like a contemporary version of the circus, she had run away with it. At first she was a volunteer, but soon she was in Washington and working for the Democratic National Committee in the press section. I found that out when she denied my request to interview the party chairman. It was time for me to bring her coffee.
Over the summer and into the fall I saw her from time to time, sometimes at parties. People gathered around her because she had information, which is as important as money in Washington (or the same thing, I forget which). There was always the chance McGovern would win, making the woman one of those people you would have to know, a name you could drop to your editor. And because she was important, you and your editor were important-- all of you connected in some ephemeral way to George McGovern, who was soon not to be important at all.
And that is what happened. As November approached and McGovern headed for an electoral mugging, the woman from Cleveland waned in importance. I have not seen her since the election.
Of course, all this business about the Ages of Man is nothing more than a literary device. It is like speaking of the '60s or the '70s, as if history or, more important, historical forces, divide into arbitrary decades. But that being said, it is nevertheless true that there is something about Washington that lends itself to dividing lives into stages. And that "something" is what Washington is short on --money. Almost anywhere else, it is the standard of success and failure. Washington, though, measures success differently, so differently that someone who comes here brimming with idealism and who stays merely to become rich, is deemed a failure. It is then that people take out the conversational knife and slice up his life, talking of how he went from idealism to expertise to pragmatism--or from, say, McGovern volunteer to Senate staffer to lawyer for anyone who can pay the bills. The last, which is all that is asked of success elsewhere, is considered failure in Washington. This is no town in which to grow old.
You can, of course, blame the press for this state of affairs. Ever young, ever above the fray, it plays the role of Marley's Ghost, always pointing the nagging finger at the profit-seekers. But the standards the press upholds are not its own, but the town's. Since no one ever came to Washington to get rich, since they came to do good, to make the country or the world a better place, wealth becomes not a measure of success, but of failure. You merely have to bring out the old newspaper clippings, cite the early idealism, the bold statements, the programs launched and then abandoned, to chart a life that began adventurously and ended merely comfortably. It is all there in the clippings. Washington never forgets.
There is one way to avoid such judgments and that is to get out of town. Henry Kissinger, brilliant in so much, is characteristically brilliant in this, too. He moved to New York and makes the most of his money there. In this way, he shows Washington that he does not need it, that he comes here purely for idealism. For this reason, he remains valued, an exotic, and so he gets called back time and time again.
Washington does not forgive getting old. The town is tied to renewal, specifically political renewal. No one ever campaigns on a platform of incremental improvement, of streamlining the Department of Commerce. There is always the whiff of revolutionary change in the air. In this sense, this old city is young and so is its ethic.
You have only to remain always young and always idealistic to succeed. If you fail to do that or if your candidate loses, you must make accommodations and then people begin to talk about the phases of your life. It is all so public, all so impossible. But realizing this is an advantage. You can sit back and enjoy the game--as long as you do not play. You can watch the newcomers put themselves on the line, and wait for most of them to fail. Never forget that Washington is full of people who rise only to one occasion and that is to say, "I told you so."
Washingtonians, after all, are the mere handymen of government. The real power is elsewhere. No Washingtonian has ever been president. The town has not a single senator or congressman. The people who run the country, who set policy, are elected elsewhere and they come to Washington, as summer people do to a resort town, to hire what help they need. You cannot hit the top in Washington. You hit the top somewhere else--and then come to Washington.
Four years after the woman from Cleveland went home, the Jimmy Carter people arrived. One of them, a lawyer on the new White House staff, had a dinner at The Palm restaurant. He was from Atlanta and he had brought his family to the restaurant, mother and father, wife and children, and he sat proud at the table, knowing --just knowing--that the town was his. He would do grand and wonderful things. The president would rely on him,,the press would quote him, his children would look up to him and The Palm would always have a table for him.
I did not tell him that the odds were against him or that the town was lousy in presidential aides or even that I envied him his uncynical dream. We talked mostly of two cities--Washington and Atlanta--but I thought of a third. Cleveland.