BACK WHEN I WAS a really small kid, there was something called the Office of Price Administration that seemed to be blamed for everything. Something would happen or you could not get an item or the price would go up and people would say, "It's the OPA." Now there's something new. Now people say: "It's the District."
It's not quite the same thing. Not quite the same as blaming Bob Moses, as they used to do in New York, or dumb generals, as they do in the Army, of faceless bureaucrats, as they do in the Republican Party, but more and more you hear people simply talk about the city of Washington as if it were a person - the enemy.
I tell you this because I have just moved and because some of that moving involved people who deal routinely with the city of Washington. A lady for the title company, for instance, told me that I would have to leave quite a hunk of money in escrow because you never really know in the District what your water bill is. When I balked, she simply said, "It's the District," and everybody nodded his head in understanding.
A bit later on in the proceedings I was told there was a new exemption of sorts for title insurance because you never can tell if the information furnished by the District of Columbia to the title insurance company is up to date and accurate. I did not balk at this, but my lawyer did. He was told, "It's the District," and once again everyone acted as if this was an explanation.
There was another lawyer there, a lawyer for the party I was buying the house from, and when people started talking about the District he just listened and said nothing. Finally he spoke. He said he had to threaten the District with a lawsuit before he was able to get a death certificate for a client. He called the right office and he went down there and when he got there he was told that the office was closed. He came back the next day and he was told that he would have to write in his request and so he did that. He wrote and he waited and then he called again and then he went down again. Finally, he threatened to sue. He had an explanation for it all.
"It's the District," he said.
It's the District that's become something of a joke. Some of this is unfair. The school system is getting better, I think, and the billing for property taxes is finally on schedule and there is a pretty good chance that your water bill may reflect what you've used. The city as a whole is in good shape, the inner city is coming back strong, classy and nice stores are opening all over the place and you keep reading that the crime rate is down.
Some of it, also, is lingering or persistent racism. The expression "It's the District" embraces a whole range of attitudes but some of them, unmistakably, have to do with the fact that blacks run the place. It is another way of saying "What can you expect from those people?" and it is sometimes said, as it was to me by a congressman, with raised eyebrows and a shrug of the shoulders.
However, some of it is not only a matter of perception, but also a matter of reality. It really is a fact that the bureaucracy is beyond control. It really is a fact that lots of people who work for the city think they don't have to serve the people. It really is a fact that for some time the city has been so mismanaged that it couldn't read its own books. Ponder that one for a while.
There is no sense blaming anyone for this state of affairs, especially since some of the problems have been round for so long that the old commissioners would have to be hauled in the explanations. Congress is at fault and the city goverment is at fault and so, for that matter, are ordinary citizens who caught on early to how inept the city government was and didn't do things like pay their taxes.
But the fact of the matter is that it still does no good for the City Council to spend time debating a resolution condeming a television station for firing a reporter. Granted she was good and granted she was black and even granted that she did work in a segment of the community often ignored, she was still a reporter and there are more important problems than hers.
It does no good, either, for the City Council and the mayor to joust all the time, to play a constant game of political one-upmanship, for the City Council, for instance, to vie with the mayor in prohibiting the use of city funds in states that have not approved the Equal Rights Amendments when you can't even tell what the city is owed in water taxes. The fact of the matter is that somewhere along the line some city officials will spend the money where he shouldn't, explaining his action with one brief sentence.
"It's the District."