LATELY, THE PAPERS have been filled with poignant accounts of Washington's displaced persons who want very much to stay in town. For the dispossessed congressmen and their aides, for the Plum Book outcasts, the prospect of returning to the provinces has all the appeal of being banished from the Moscow politburo to operate a generator in Omsk.
I left town two years ago.
I had been working as executive director of a smallish presidential commission, where I lost a nasty little war with my chairman. I had a book I wanted to write, and the offer of an academic fellowship. I made for a dignified exit. So off we went -- self, wife, kids and springer spaniel. We had been meaning for some time to "get out of Washington for a while," but something told me we were moving away for keeps.
Once, Republicans and Democrats came and went with electoral fortunes. But if recent history is a guide, most of today's dispossessed will find a way to stay. Among recently retired senators, even such men with deep regional roots as Fullbright, McIntyre, Brooke, Haskell, Abourezk chose not to go home again. And for many aides, Washington is the only home.
I hope this year's defeated Democrats will break with recent tradition and leave Washington to the Republicans. First of all, life in the provinces has much to commend it. People outside Washington don't wear plastic laminated cards as totems. Nobody cares much about regs. The boss is likely to be called Max or Maureen, not The Chairman or The Deputy. Nobody ever is directed to Addfare. People are not forever rushing off to late afternoon meetings with Stu. The rest of the country is a bit shabbier and a lot less self-important.
The money isn't as good, but consider this: Most of America is in a different currency zone, where $2.50 buys lunch and $85,000 buys a nice home. Let some foolish Republican pay $200,000 for your small rowhouse. Take the money and run. If Reagan really does dismantle the bureaucracy, the bottom will fall out of the real estate market. Should the Democrats ever return, you could buy back in for a song.
It was my wife who first suspected that something was slightly peculiar about D.C. In 1971, after a short stint in New York, I brought my betrothed back to Washington. She prepared for the worst, and she got it. At the very first dinner party (a diverse one with both lawyers and economists), the talk turned to the low quality of the Congress.
The real problem, one of the attorneys declaimed, is that you just can't attract top people for "forty-two five." My wife, a top person then making about eight, laughed impolitely.
"Wait till you have kids," snarled the lawyer.
"Let's get out of her," said my bride.
By the time we got out of here, we had kids, and I was making a shade less than "forty-two five," though in inflation-ravaged dollars.
After a couple of years in the provinces, I have complex, contradictory feelings about my decade in Washington. I had a very good time, first as a journalist and then as a Senate investigator. I felt like I was performing good works, for which I was nicely paid. Best of all, the adrenalin flowed. There is nothing quite like a good dogfight involving House and Senate conferees, rival Cabinet departments, crafty trade associations, White House phone calls and hovering reporters.
But as Joan Didion observed upon departing the New York publishing whirl, it's quite possible to stay too long at the fair. The victories don't stick to your ribs. Half an hour later, you're hungry.
There may be more real satisfaction at the highest reaches, but at my level the skills most highly prized were those of minor princeling -- stacking an agenda, leaking a memo, slipping a code word into a policy address to please a constituency, carving out a private exemption for a client, padding a budget, mousetrapping a witness, writing report language to cover a hole in the bill -- skills, essentially, of petty deception.
Washington also breeds prodigious self-deception about money and career. In Manhattan, Dallas or L.A., those who pursue wealth seek it with zest and candor. Washington is full of lost souls who float upward into dubious trade associations, consulting deals and law firms, convinced that it's for the public good and that ideals are intact.
What is most corrosive about Washington, though, is not the obvious seductions of money and power, but the numbing abstraction. Washington is a place where it is possible to spend your entire career trafficking in health, education or welfare, and never have to personally encounter the halt, the lame, or the down-and-out. I suppose the same is true of the more remote corners of any local bureaucracy. But in Washington, it is the norm.
Like the princess who had dozens of mattresses between her person and the pea, Washington's policymakers experience life's rough edges through ample downy padding. To study slums, Washington need not go slumming. The slum comes to you, right in the hearing room, nicely denatured. When a beggerman or a thief appears before a congressional committee, the experience for the policymaker is safely circumscribed -- by the setting, the clock and the arcane ritual. After the downtrodden (or up-trodden) consume their allotted hour, they are tidily removed from the chamber and the committee may go on to other business. It is remarkably like television: The medium tends to elevate the humdrum and trivialize the significant, and it is too easy to change the channel.
Even the inspired Joseph Heller, in his "Good As Gold," did not manage to get Washington right. The battlefield, in its grimness, was far easier to lampoon. Numbness numbs even the satirist.
When behemoth agencies tilt with other behemoths, nobody gets his hands very dirty. Nothing is personal. That, perhaps, is why the election came as such a shock. Like little else in Washington, it hits people where they live. You lose your job. They make you move out of your office.
Elsewhere, policy is something we encounter as citizens: The garbage isn't collected, the schools stink, the mayor is stealing us blind. Washingtonians may face similar frustrations, but the big news is the policy we do at our office. And policy is defined as something that affects other people. The point is not that big government is bad, but that nobody should spend too many consecutive years in a world delineated by the Federal Register.
I hope lots of the dispossessed will resist the siren call of K Street and move all the way out of town. It would be healthy for them and for the country.
Fear not, there is life after Washington.
I can report the precise moment of my recovery from Potomac Fever. Not long ago, I was absent-mindedly eavesdropping on a conversation about a piece of legislation. Somebody mentioned the word "markup," and it triggered a vivid memory. I was delighted to realize that my mind suddenly flashed, not to my heady days fielding questions at the staff table in a Senate hearing room, but to the back room of my mother's store where I worked after school sticking labels on merchandise.