IN THE SPRING OF 1968, I came to Washington to work for The Washington Post. Like most new Washingtonians, I knew very little about the city and I could not have cared less. I had moved to Washington to work for a great newspaper and to cover the national capital -- the White House or the State Department or, maybe, a whole country as a foreign correspondent. To me, Washington the city, as opposed to Washington The Capital of The Free World, was necessary, like a bathroom or a closet -- utilitarian, but hardly glamorous. The Post, appreciating none of this, assigned me to cover the District Building, the Washington equivalent of city hall. This is how I came to appreciate home rule.
There was no home rule then. Instead, the City Council and something called the mayor-commissioner were appointed by the president. But home rule was talked about, whispered,longed for. It was Washington's political promised land: Next year, home rule. PresidentLyndon Johnson favored it and most people thought it was just a matter of time until itcame to pass. In the meantime, though, there was something else. Call it insult added toinjury.
The injury was the riots that had occurred in April following the killing of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Parts of the city burned and they did so telegenically -- with the White House or the Washington Monument or some such recognizable landmark in either the foreground or the background. Troops stood on the Capitol steps and jeeps zoomed up Pennsylvania Avenue and all of this was captured on film. Washington became synonymous with crime and civil insurrection, with urban unrest and with a whole lot of other terms that are circumlocutions for the word race. Washington, you see, was more than a city or a capital -- it was an object lesson for the nation. It was the unhappy convergence of both blacks and liberalism, something that could happen in your town, in your neighborhood, to your children and your women . . . or so said the Republican presidential candidate, Richard Nixon. He called Washington the crime capital of the United States. That was the insult.
It was not true. There was more crime in Detroit and more murder -- you want to talk murder? -- in Phoenix or Houston. Even the Washington riots had been no big deal. Twelve people had died, but all of them perished in fire. None had been shot and while the riot had been bad, a searing and traumatic experience for the city, it had not been a true race riot. Blacks and whiteshad not gone at it in the streets.
But Richard Nixon was not talking facts, he was talking code. He was talking blacks andcrime and liberalism and blacks and crime and drugs and blacks and liberalism and Democrats and blacks and crime and Hubert Humphrey and crime and blacks andliberalism and all those pictures with the soldiers standing on the steps of the Capitol. Richard Nixon, in other words, was talking garbage. And while he could swear on a stack ofBibles that he was saying nothing of the sort, we all knew otherwise. So when we -- thereporters in the District Building -- used to spot the mayor, Walter Washington, in the hallway we would fly out of the press room and try to corner him: Mr. Mayor, Nixon hascalled Washington the crime capital of the country. What do you say to that?
Why, I say nothing, the mayor would say. And then he would joke and kid and try towend his way to his office without our getting the better of him. We knew the mayor was ina difficult position. He could not just blast Nixon because the man could be the nextpresident of the United States and it was presidents who appointed Washington's mayors.Walter Washington was in a real fix, a virtual conflict of interest -- caught between his pride and his constituency of one. He could do little but smile and kid and try to keep his temper under control. As for me, I was a reporter, not a Washingtonian, and it was my job to produce a story. I wanted the mayor to answer Nixon, to tell him to get his facts straight, to stop demagoguing about Washington and to stop talking in code and be a proper and up-front racist. I had never seen anything like it. Anywhere else, a mayor or any politician would come to the defense of his city and his constituents because Tip O'Neill is right: All politics is local. But Walter Washington could not.
After a while the mayor's silence started to anger me. I don't know whether it was because I was becoming a Washingtonian or whether I simply hated to see Richard Nixon get away with saying something false, but whatever the reason I was the one who used to run out into the hallway and stick it to Walter Washington: Say something! Tell off Nixon! Stand up for Washington! Stand up for yourself! Nothing. Silence. Ad the mayor would walk on.
IN 1975, HOME RULE CAME TO WASHINGTON, and some mark the Washington renaissance from that moment. That's nonsense. On such a continuum, homerule would be just another blip. Give the opening of the Kennedy Center a blip and thesubway a blip and the formation of the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp. yetanother blip and recognize, too, that all of these things either were planned before homerule or happened independent of it. You could say the same for most of the buildings that have marched up K Street and should, in the name of esthetics, keep on going straight into the river. Washington -- at least that Washington -- is not a political creation, but an economic one; and the forces that were under way -- greed, profit -- are beyond any government's power to control. No government could have created it and probably no government, at least in America, could have stopped it, but to a degree home rule has been the developer's best friend. It's important that decisions are now made at the District Building and not on the Hill, but it's even more important that commitments and policy do not change with the results of an election in Kentucky. If the mayor and his administration encourage development on the 14th Street porn strip, then you can bet that every city agency, including the police, will be enlisted in the effort to clean up the area. In fact, if you want a graphic example of what home rule can mean, come to 14th Street. It was once the place where a new congressman assigned to the District Committee came to have his picture taken so he could send a press release home on how he was going to clean up Washington, D.C. No congressman ever laid a glove on the strip, though. The developers are the ones who have the pimps and strippers on the run, proving once again what everyone already knows about Washington: The lust for real estate is greater than the lust for lust. And, if anything, Mayor Marion Barry is as pro-developer as any mayor in the country. Had an appointed mayor been as enamored of brick as the current mayor, Washington's activists would have yelled and screamed. The same people who came out and battled the freeways would have taken on the developers. But because Barry is elected, and black, and comes up from the civil rights movement, few seem to care that he is, at least when it comes to development, indistinguishable from either the late Richard Daley of Chicago or, on an even grander scale, the late Nelson Rockefeller. Marion Barry loves development. There is the tendency to say, anyway, that the building, the growth, the culture, the restaurants, the condominiums and the cooperatives are not the real Washington, but are something else, something false -- something, well, mostly white. In this argument, the real Washington is black and it ought to be poor as well. If that is the case, then how has home rule changed life for these people? The answer is easy. Almost not at all. But so what? New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Kalamazoo and Rockville all have home rule and they have poverty and despair, too -- not to mention, in some cases, corruption, venality and lousy weather.There is no reason to think that the arrival of home rule would mean a difference to Washington's poor. Freedom did not make the slaves rich, the civil rights revolution of the 1960s did not level the ghetto, and home rule wasn't about to do any of those things, either.
SO WHAT HAS CHANGED? Well, in the first place the names of winners and losers. There's a new crop of developers and bankers, builders and fixers and lawyers and PR men and -- given the odds -- outright crooks. They have replaced the old crop, and so now a different group of people is getting rich. This is nice, but hardly socialism, since by tradition membership in these groups is kept small. If you happen to be among the new winners, home rule has been good for you. And in a good government sort of way, home rule has succeeded. I know this contradicts the strongly held notion that since home rule everything about city government has gotten worse and that down at the Municipal Center nothing works anymore. Maybe. The facts show otherwise: it is simply more efficient for the city to govern itself for the most part than for Congress to do the job. Congress is incredibly inefficient and away on recess much of the time, and even when it's in session its members work something like a three-day week. To have to rely on the Congress of the United States to close an alley is ridiculous. That, though, was the situation before home rule. But the efficiency of home rule is either unmeasurable or for someone else to measure. Before home rule, there were two trash pickups a week; now there's only one. Before home rule, the traffic signals worked; now they do not. But before home rule, your water bill could be 23 cents one year, $3,408 the next -- for the same amount of water. And if you did not want to squander your life standing in line and then have to face a city worker armed to the teeth with lethal rubber stamps, you paid whatever was asked. But so what? The ultimate importance of home rule is not in efficiency, but in pride. It is being able to say, in some fashion, that you -- you and me and everyone else in the city -- are responsible for the city and the way it's governed. It means being able to go into the voting booth, take that computer card and reject -- getting even. It means that no mayor will ever again have to smile and kid while another politician, even the president, does a number on the city of Washington, D.C. It means that Mayor Barry could support Jesse Jackson and, after the convention, Walter Mondale and not have to worry about Ronald Reagan lifting the phone and telling him he was out of a job. And it means something more, but maybe I am not the right one to express it. I will try anyway. Washington is a black town -- 75 percent black -- and for all but the last 10 years it has been governed by whites. They have been white commissioners or white congressmen who chose black commissioners; or even white presidents who chose black City Council members and black mayor-commissioners. Race should not matter, but it does and because it does it matters that those with power were always white and those without were always black.
Home rule changed that and not only because the mayor is black and most of the City Council is, too. With all of that comes something else, something special, and that is a celebration of the ordinariness of being black, the pervasiveness of it -- the notion that being black in Washington is like being white most other places. Since I am not black, I can only guess at this, make an approximation, and relate it to something in my own life. Growing up Jewish in New York must be similar. There, parking regulations are suspended for the Jewish holidays and even though you or your father could not get certain jobs or belong to certain clubs or even live in certain buildings, the fact remained that if you were Jewish, you knew that New York was your city. Your people helped control it. Your people helped run it and even though most of the time this meant nothing -- my father, for instance, got no cut of no real estate deals -- there were times when this control, this importance, resonated in a reassuring fashion. They closed the schools for the Jewish holidays and the politicians visited Israel just so they could say they had been there. But before home rule in Washington blacks had to ask whites if they could please -- please! -- take the day off to mourn the death of Martin Luther King. But no longer. And now the mayor goes to Africa and while from time to time some mean columnist might kid him for such a trip, I, for one, know the reason for his going. Now the schools celebrate the exploits of black Americans and pause for black history month and squeal and scream over black entertainers. This, in the end, is the importance of home rule. It means that Washington can be black and it means that if you happen to be black, then Washington happens to be your town. It is like bonding -- as simple and as complicated as that.
I am white and so I cannot totally share that emotion, but I think I can feel a piece of it. One night years ago when my wife and I were looking for someone to watch our son while we worked, I went to Virginia to pick up an applicant and interview her at our home. She was staying with a friend who was the housekeeper for a congressman. I went to the house twice and on the last occasion got invited in. The congressman asked where I lived. When I said the District, he made a face: "We used to live in that jungle."
I wish I had responded with something smart, something cutting, but I didn't. Instead, I drove home fuming, but thankful that congressmen like that no longer ruled Washington. You want to know what home rule means? I'll tell you. Most of the time it means nothing at all, but every once in a while it means everything. Those are the times it means respect. It's the least a city can ask of those who govern it. Up to 10 years ago, though, it's more than Washington ever got.