One of the mixed blessings of living in Washington is the fact that most people who don't live here assume that the very fact that you reside in the nation's capital makes you privy to all sorts of inside information involving the affairs of state. Many out-of-towners, I'm convinced, believe that the president and his top advisers are as available to us locals as the corner drugstore, which itself is no longer available to most of us.
When I first came to Washington many years ago, and still had a shred of intellectual honesty about me, I would always answer what's-going-on-in-Washington questions by expressing surprise that I was asked, and follow up with the forthright assertion that I really wasn't in any better position to answer than the one who asked me.
I soon found, however, that my truthful response was considered totally unsatisfactory, if not downright rude. Instead of appreciating, or even acknowledging, the frankness of my answer, people would react to it in either of two ways. Some would assume that I was a simpleton incapable of absorbing the mass of inside information that any local citizen with an ounce of intelligence could pick up just by keeping his eyes and ears open. Others--and these were the ones who bothered me--assumed much worse: that I did in fact have access to and knowledge of the information they sought, but that for some reason (cosiness, smugness or just plain orneriness on my part) I wasn't willing to share it with them.
I gradually, and almost without realizing it, adopted the attitude that the only way to avoid being considered an idiot and/or wiseacre in answering what's-going-on questions was by giving responsive answers in an authoritive manner. I'm happy to say that over the years I've developed a method of responding to the point where I am considered a pundit in certain (uninformed) circles throughout the nation.
When, for example, someone inquired as to the state of President Eisenhower's or President Johnson's health, I would find myself paraphrasing what I had read in the newspapers that morning. I wouldn't identify my source, and in fact I'd often camouflage it by remarking that you can't believe what you read in the newspapers these days.
I soon found that such responses on my part were obviously satisfactory to, and always treated with respect by, the one who asked the question. He was delighted that someone who lived here was furnishing him with information. That he could get the identical, or maybe even better, information from his hometown newspaper didn't make the slightest difference, because now he was in a position to say, "A friend of mine in Washington told me that the president (never looked better) (is beginning to show the wear and tear of the office) (looks like death warmed over)."
I have found, moreover, that the intelligence and sophistication of the people who ask these questions has little bearing on the manner in which they gratefully accept the information I furnish. Nor is the difficulty of the question itself. Today's favorite question, for example, "What's going to happen to the economy?" is certainly one that seems to be stumping even the experts, but it doesn't bother me at all.
What I do with this one could be called selective or focused response. Each morning when I pick up the newspaper, I know that I'm going to find at least one indicator of what's happening to the economy. One day it could be the lowering of the prime rate by a bank. Another might be the drop in the cost-of-living index for the prior month, and yet another might be an increase in the purchase of machine tools by manufacturers.
Any of these facts standing alone would be considered an insufficient indicator for a responsible economist in predicting the future of the economy. But, as I don't happen to be a responsible economist, and indeed seriously doubt the existence of any, I always seize on the most recently announced indicator as "the key" to the puzzle.
"The prime rate is coming down," I will say in a voice that might well resemble the Oracle of Delphi's. "That's the key. It means that money will soon be available at a rate low enough to enable builders to start building houses again, and with more people employed in the construction industry that means they'll be able to buy cars, and . . ."
Or "The key factor in all this is, of course, the CLI (initials always help). When prices come down, people will start buying again, and this w
Or "My sources tell me that the most significant indicator is the increase in the purchase of machine tools during the last quarter. This means that business is gearing up again, and . . ."
While there are no simple answers to what's going-on-in-Washington questions, there are plenty of readily available simplistic answers, and, believe me, they make people happier than truthful ones. When I talk, people listen.