The nation's capital may be hazardous to your mental health, its detractors say. But is there life beyond here? From Boston to San Francisco Bay, Washington dropouts answer, "Yes."
Washington had everything.
Power, intrigue, wealth, sophistication, and the heady sensation of living in the eye of the storm. Which is why he bailed out.
"To some extent, I was Washingtoned-out," said Hoyt Purvis, 40-year-old former adviser to Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.). Purvis left Washington last month after 11 years on Capitol Hill and now is a professor at the University of Texas. "I think there really is 'Potomac Fever' and I think it's unhealthy for many people," he said. "I think Washington has to be taken in small doses."
"Washington was fun," said another D.C. dropout, "but it was like living in an amusement park."
To Boston and Austin, Milwaukee and Malibu, Washingtonians are escaping. More than the usual four-year turnover of political appointees, this exodus reflects partly a national trend away from larger cities and partly negative feelings about the nation's capital itself.
The new migrants -- mostly in their mid-30s -- cite "quality of life" as their reason for fleeing the federal city. Willing to take salary cuts, they are now returning home, resettling into smaller towns and cities where they can buy a house for less than $100,000, enjoy a better climate, raise children and put down roots.
"A lot of us are pulling out," said Thomas R. Bright, 28-year-old former press secretary to Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Maine), who left Washington last year to work for the family shoe business in Hingham, Mass. (pop. 20,000). "My private theory is that people who were active in the late '60s and early '70s are almost sedentary now. Washington doesn't seem as exciting as it once was. I'm glad I left. Every time I watch the evening news, I'm even more glad."
While the best and the brightest in the rest of the country contemplate a career in the nation's capital, some of their predecessors have been finding the reality less glittering than the promise.
"Something was missing," said Judy Dobkin, a 37-year-old Justice Department lawyer who recently transferred back to Chicago after 15 years in Washington. "I just wanted something more. People have been calling me all month saying, 'Gee, I want to do that, too.' My family thinks Washington is a real weird city. All people do is talk about their jobs."
Secretary of the Interior Cecil Andrus said this week that he was fed up with Washington and is going back to Idaho.Sam Brown, former Eugene McCarthy activist who is the director of ACTION, said he is leaving Washington and returning to Colorado, where there has been speculation that he may go back into politics. Lawyers, State Department aides, Capitol Hill staffers and others already have taken the plunge.
"Washington has lost some of its zest," Purvis said. "We've all gone through Vietnam and Watergate, which was very draining on everyone. It's taken a lost of the vitality out of the political and governmental life. It's just not the same."
According to recent studies, the number of people who left the Washington metropolitan area from 1970 to 1978 exceeded by 98,000 the number who moved in. The U.S. Census Bureau announced this week that the figures were even greater: since 1970, Washington has experienced a population drop of 16.1 percent, a loss of more than 121,000 residents.
"It's definitely a national trend," said Tom Muller of the Urban Institute. Muller cited recent studies showing that the overwhelming migratory trend is away from large metropolitan areas like Washington to smaller locales. Studies also show that one out of every four moves in this country is a "return" move -- back to their original home.
"Washington in the 1960s was a very exciting place to be," said George Grier, a private consultant and demographic researcher. "It was less so in the 1970s. As for the 1980s, well, there's just not much excitement any more."
Washington long has been seen as a pit stop for political figures. Every few years, with elected officials packing and unpacking, the city receives a massive transfusion -- out with the old blood, in with the new. ("Everyone in Washington has a home that's somewhere else," said Thomas Bright). But there are signs that, during the last decade at least, Washington has become a rite of passage for other professionals as well.
"I think of it as kind of a maturing place," said Ellen Blumenthal, a 33-year-old child psychistrist who recently moved back to Weston, Mass. (population 11,000 with her husband after nearly three years in Washington.
"It's seen as the pinnacle," said Ann Robertson, a 35-year-old psychologist who, with her lawyer husband, left Washington for Milwaukee after four years."If you can make it in Washington, you've really made it." a
Said Peter Morrison, population expert with the Rand Corporation, "Washington is really a unique town in many respects. It's an excellent example of an adult-oriented society.The nature of Washington's economy demands a high proportion of two-career families postponing childbearing."
David Blumenthal couldn't agree more. "I feel more comfortable raising our child here, rather than in Washington," said Blumenthal, a physician and former staff member for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) who returned to the Boston area with his wife, Ellen. "There's a greater sense of community here, more a sense of roots. Washington just didn't have what I needed over a long-term basis. I found it stimulating, but I just didn't want it as a steady diet.
"If you're not a lawyer or a journalist," he said, "Washington is a very hard place to make a life in."
Even lawyers and journalists aren't immune to the myopia that many say makes Washington. a great place to work, but not live.
"It wasn't so much that I had gotten fed up with Washington," said Connie Chung, former CBS correspondent who left four years ago for an anchor position at KNXT in Los Angeles. "I just wanted to live and work somewhere else. I feared that if I stayed, I might become stagnant and/or not diversified enough. For me, it was time to leave."
Don Smiegiel, a 34-year-old former Commerce Department special assistant and lawyer, returned to San Francisco last April after four years in Washington. "I wonder why it took me so long," Smiegiel said. "Washington is a Disneyland town for a lawyer. It's so easy to hop from one agency to another, putting off the question, 'What am I going to do when I grow up?'"
Smiegiel said he now realizes how frustrating his work was. "It takes so long to get anything done there. I worked on the Product Liability Risk Retention Act, which I started in 1978. It passed the House of Representatives, and is pending in the Senate. That was two years of work for something that isn't even a law yet. I think I need more immediate gratification."
Smiegiel returns to Washington occasionally, and says the city depresses him: "All those gray buildings filled with people who haven't done a hard day's work in years."
Isn't there anything they miss about Washington?
"Movies, good cheese and good bread," said Dorothy McGhee, 35-year-old former publisher of the failed "alternative" newspaper "Newsworks." McGhee fled Washington for Charles Town, W.Va., two years ago. "It's a real corny place," she said. "I love it. Three years ago, I never thought there was life outside of Washington. It was like stepping off the end of the world to move beyond Gaithersburg."
"I miss the political talk," said Chung. "Unless you go to Norman Lear's house, you're not going to run into political talk. I miss Washington lots of times when there are good [news] stories."
Hoyt Purvis misses "being in the midst of all the activity, but I'm happy to be away at the same time. I like being able to read the newspaper in the morning. This is a more relaxed pace. It's quite a change."
Other D.C. dropouts say they miss the museums, the Kennedy Center, the subway, their friends. "What I don't miss," said Ann Robertson, "is the materialistic emphasis, the self-importance of people, the greed. Also, my husband wanted to get out because everywhere he went, there were other lawyers."
Thomas Bright is a lot calmer now. "I had a nasty skin condition in Washington," he said. "The doctor told me it was from tension. It's all but cleared up now." Washington, he said, is a city of "considerable charm. But when you project into the future, you say, 'OK, am I going to be happy here 20 years from now?'"