WASHINGTON AND NEW YORK: To compare or contrast them -- your emphasis will depend on where you are standing -- has become quite a game.

New Yorkers, on the whole, contrast -- arguing that New York offers what nowhere else can; Washingtonians, on the whole, compare, arguing that Washington is now doing just that. That the game is meaningless does not make it any less enjoyable to play.

To draw up a balance sheet between the Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center, or the Metropolitan Museum and the National Gallery, is rther like playing a game of Monopoly with pices of cultural real estate. The directors of these institutions in fact do play this game, as they compete for ever more grandiose touring art exhibitions or performing companies. This only makes their institutions all more lifeless.

What in Washington compares with Central Park? What in New York compares with the Mall? Can one weigh the Statue of Liberty atainst the Washington Monument? Washington loses on rivers: The Potomac and the Anacostia do not define the city as do the East River and the Hudson. New York loses on public monuments: Martin Luther King Jr. would not have proclaimed his dream in front of Grant's Tomb.

But none of this is my point. What baffles me as much now as when I first visited the United States is what it means that America has no capital which is the center of the political and cultural and commercial life of the country. American and foreign observers have both tried to tackle this question. I have never read any answer which is satisfactory; I do not pretend that I will do much better.

The first thing worth saying is that it is hard to imagine America with only one capital in this sense. Washington was established to avoid establishing the federal capital in the already established cities of any state or region. The nation is now much larger, more populous and diverse; and if anything, it is even harder today to think of its regions and states tolerating a single capital which is the center of all its life.

It is true that the great European capitals have always been distrusted by the provinces which they govern. Yet their cultural and commercial, as well as political, dominance has always been ultimately accepted. The reason is obvious. That is where the monarch was; not only the monarch, therefore, but also the court. It was the court that was the magnet; and Washington has never had such a court.

Monarchs reigned as well as ruled from their capitals. Presidents do not reign from Washington. Britain has just offered an illustration. Perhaps because I am now used to America, I was continually struck, as I watched the royal wedding, by what a London occasion it was. The Americans to whom I gave a running commentary must have noticed how often I said: "There's the London crowd."

Unmistakably, as the great roar went up outside St. Paul's Cathedral, they were Londoners! However many the tourists, the roar came from Londoners. The pageantry was London's own pageantry. The Life Guards are in London, where the Queen's life is to guard; The Household Calvalry is where the Queen's household is established. The processional route is London's route. The national shrine is London's cathedral.

None of this is true of Washington. The National Cathedral is not truly a national shrine. Pennsylvania Avenue, even on Inauguration Day, is not London's Mall. Washington's barracks are not, as are London's, of the royal regiments. No president among Washingtonians is like the sovereign among Londoners. Alice Roosevelt did not marry from the White House quite like the Prince of Wales from Buckingham Palace.

If Londoners were on the streets, the court was in St. Paul's. This also points to the contrast. One need only recall John Kennedy. From the celebrations surrounding his inauguration, there was an atmosphere of a court in Washington. But it was his own creation; it evaporated with his death. Like any court, it attracted the arts. But it was artificial. If a monarch does not reign as well as rule in the nation, he will not reign even in the capital where he rules.

It is important to establish this. It is often said of the cultural dominance of New York that art always goes where the court is; and in turn it helps to create the court. The atmosphere of the arts in New York -- even down to the spitefulness and scandal -- is that of a court that has no monarch. That is one reason why it always defers to celebrity.

This court even moves about in a body like the old royal courts of Europe. Especially at this time of year, its various retinues trudge to the Hamptons and the Cape and the Vineyard, baggage carts piled high. There they greet everyone whom they have been seeing all year in New York. Come Labor Day, they trudge back to New York, where they greet everyone whom they have been seeing on vacation all summer.

The difference is that the old courts did not only reign with the monarch, they also did much of the actual ruling with him and on his behalf. They were at the head of the great departments of state. They were in the upper houses of the parliaments, and in the lower houses were their sons. Other sons commanded the army; yet other sons governed the church. The courts were political.

But the court in New York is not political. Artists and writers and intellectuals in New York are extraordinarily naive about politics. By politics I mean here the day-to-day management of affairs. How things actually work. How a decision is reached. What Congress does. Even what the president does. The court in New York thinks either that what Washington does is far more unintelligible than it actually is or that is far more deliberate and even conspiratorial.

Either Washington is up to nothing, according to the court, or more probably it is up to no good. That the business of Washington is compromise does not occur to it. Artists and writers and intellectuals are not engaged in compromise in their own work. They find it hard to believe that most of what Washington does is intended by no one, because it is the result of compromise among everyone.

Since it is the court in New York which controls the media, we ought not to be surprised at the picture of Washington which it presents. In novels, on television, or in movies, Washington is either bumbling, a city of incompetents; or it is irretrievably corrupt where votes are sold for money, and the money is then used to purchase cheap sex at vast prices; or it is simply engaged in conspiracies to blow up the world.

But there is another side to the whole question. Since Washington is divorced from the court, its own activities have to compete with no other. This must be the only capital in the world where hostesses exert themselves to get David Stockman to come to their dinner tables. It is inconceivable that in London or Paris he would receive an invitation from anyone higher than the editor of the Washington Monthly or at best of the Congressional Quarterly.

Where there is only one capital, the politicians have to compete for favors with the courtiers: with the artists and writers who notoriously sing for their supper anywhere. The result is that the political world in Washington has only a dim notion of what an idea is. Therefore when it thinks that it has seen an idea -- even if one has never seen a camel, after all, one knows that it is an animal with a hump -- it tends to be overimpressed by it.

Washington is at present suffering from the arrival in its midst of institutes which claim that they are in the business of ideas. Never having had a good university, it is bowled over by the new think tanks. Ben Wattenberg is curiously described as a scholar, Jeanne Kirkpatrick is sent by Washington to New York as an ambassador of our new intellectual life. The political capital believes that it now is intellectually alive. But it's no more the one than New York is the other.

The most obvious result of the division between the political and cultural capital is the rarity in American public life of the cultivated man-of-affairs, who is a product of the single capitals. The imitation of him will be found still father north; for this is why Harvard had to be invented. But when dispatched to Cambridge, he is doubly isolated, from both the political and cultural worlds. Whenever he returns to Washington, to serve another administration, he seems more deformed.

So the activity which in a country with only one capital is naturally joined is in America linked only by the Eastern shuttle. One may see them from the three cities any day -- the political and the cultural and the academic -- milling in pens at the three airports. Treated like dirt on overcrowded and filthy planes, they nonetheless accept it as their duty. Butween them, they rule and reign: At least they think they do.