EACH DAY along K Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, you can see an army of dark blue and gray pin-stripe suits, men and women in lock-step fashion, hair neat but not obvious, their jaws rigid, eyes like punctuation points, five-year plans in their souls. They roll into Duke Zeibert's, Joe & Mo's, McPherson Grill, carrying their briefcases and computerized day books. "It's like watching black-and-white TV," says Washingtonian gossip columnist Rudy Maxa.
Washington, you realize, is in trouble and it's not the budget or the end of the Cold War.
It's much worse than that.
Washington has lost its sex drive. Or, to put it more precisely, the city's governing elite has repressed the sexual urge to the point of non-existence. As political repression begins to lift in the communist world, an iron curtain of sexual repression has blanketed the Potomac.
What, you will ask, about the fallen heros of recent scandals? What about the courtroom revelations concerning Marion Barry's after-hours sex life? These are, in fact, the exceptions. As with the case of former American University President Richard Berendzen, such stories are tinged with crime, arrogance or illness.
Otherwise, say goodbye to the giddy superpower days of yore when Washingtonians took seriously the slogan "Make Love, Not War." Today they make neither. Instead they work and work and work and perhaps after work, they work out.
Welcome to the Neo-Puritan Era of Thin Lips and Thin Waists, where sensuality is shunned like the plague, fitness is high fashion and work is embraced as the sacrament of Power. The result is a culture of long memos, dark suits, low heart rates and big calf muscles.
It starts in the White House. George (Read-My-Thin-Lips) Bush is the archetypal Neo-Puritan. He starts work at 7 a.m. and is such a fitness fanatic that he has an Airdyne bicycle machine installed outside the Oval Office. What does he do for fun? Go fishing.
But if it starts there, it seems to have no end; in the past 10 years, Washington has gone flat.
"The city is a 100 percent more boring," says Sally Quinn, author of "Regrets Only" and chronicler of Washington folkways. "This administration is boring. The men are just very boring. The women are afraid they won't be taken seriously. Everyone gets locked into this heaviness. No one dares to laugh. There's no merry-making, no frivolity. There's just a determined grimness."
And an epidemic of chronic fatigue syndrome -- "when you work 18 hours a day, there's not enough energy in the batteries to light up the radar screen," observes Maxa. Or among that subspecies of over-educated Neo-Puritan snobs, it's the "I'm too important to be bothered with the life force" kind of attitude, says Maxa.
As for flirting for flirting's sake -- it's a lost art form found only rarely among Cave Dwellers who remember the New Deal. Says one 18-year-old woman who has lived in Europe and South America: "People here have no idea how to play the 'game.' When it comes to flirting, it is one extreme to the other. You flirt, you jump into bed -- or you don't flirt at all."
Neo-Pures don't like to waste time whether it's a power lunch or a game of squash.
Washington, of course, has always been an out-patient setting for workaholics. People come here to make it. That's the draw: people on the make in a nation on the make. Beaver bureaucrats to big-gun policy commandos: the top 10-percenters from everywhere. By the time they make it into the different power cages -- a congressional subcommittee, a White House task force, a lobby law firm -- these 10-percenters have become certifiable obsessive-compulsive achievers.
That's okay. Someone has to run the world and it's an overtime kind of job. But could it be that the puritan work ethic carries too stiff a price? Could it be that it's not global warming that threatens the environment but the dramatic decline in pheromones -- the precious chemicals released by men and women that make the world go round.
Some Neo-Pures are simply too tired and tense for sex and suppress the urge altogether. Others wrestle with those devil impulses and repress them. The best way to do that is sublimate, sublimate, sublimate.
In other words, they make policy. That's the potential danger for taxpayers: Legions of repressed bureaucrats writing regulations for Medicare, serving up war games, matching funds for low-cost housing. The trouble with sublimation is that it often confuses sex with power. Which is why experts in various fields talk about super-colliders and big bang theories. Or surgical strikes, "incursions" and more powerful missiles. Kind of makes you want to stand up and shout: Give me a libertine or give me death!
There is, however, one aspect of Neo-Puritanism that is politically correct. It is an equal-opportunity trend. When it comes to the Sex-Drive Deficit, men and women have achieved complete equality. The Power Lunch From 12 to 2, every Washington Power Pusher hits the pavement for the Power Lunch. "You look out and see a sea of blue suits, red ties and white shirts," says Jennifer T. Newby, Cafe Espresso manager at the Willard InterContinental Hotel. "It's very fast, very stressed, in and out in a half an hour. There's no flirting, no romance."
Gone with the libido is the three-martini lunch. Iced tea or designer water with lime are the standard libations. For the really secure, usually large-framed executives, there is perhaps the occasional glass of white wine. But most Neo-Pures don't drink at lunch. After all, it's inefficient, unhealthy -- an unjustified expenditure. At Charley's Crab on Connecticut Avene, waiter Danny Tozzolo hasn't served a cocktail at lunch in 10 days. He comes from Ft. Lauderdale, where his customers would routinely spend a whole afternoon in Marguerritaville.
Not in Washington. At the Willard's Cafe Espresso, Newby says she can't even give away a drink. It's even hard to get a Power Pusher to eat an appetizer.
"In Paris, it's so different," says Newby who lived there for three years before coming to D.C. two years ago. "There a man would come up to you in the street and say: 'I will throw myself off the Eiffel Tower if you don't have a cup of coffee with me.'
"That would never happen in Washington." The Workout Where it happens is at the gym -- and the it is exercise, not sex.
Neo-Puritans are as fanatic about muscle tone as the French are about wine.
A visit to any health class can tell you where all that repressed sexual energy is going. Here you find the grinding, banging, hissing, groaning, heaving, sweating, sighing, seething pleasure of, well, working out. As the poster says: "Sweat in Places You Never Thought You Would."
The high-tech warren of exercise rooms, squash courts, jogging tracks and basketball gyms is a kind of aerobic bordello for the fit and chic. Each room has an array of glistening metal contraptions right out of some horror movie -- the S&M gynecologist's office, the Transylvanian torture chamber.
Whether you choose the Gravitron or the Stairmaster, there's a musk of coed pheromones and the hint of danger in pushing yourself to the edge of endurance.
But most of all, going to the gym is good for you, the ne plus ultra value for Neo-Pures in making personal decisions. Body gurus have been shrieking at deadbeat couch potatoes for years about how regular exercises builds up bones and muscle and promotes cardiovascular umph so that you can maintain the thrill of the pitter-pat.
But in an emotional sense, working out is super narcissistic: Love your body, love yourself.
In one exercise room, a woman in snakeskin tights and black leather girdle is writhing on the mat in a way to get her arrested in any other city. But here, no one pays attention. All the men are staring at their biceps.
"I've been a member of the 'Y' for 10 years and I've never seen a single heterosexual pickup take place," says Maxa. "I've never seen a ploy, a feint, a 'do you have the time?' -- nothing."
"I just go there to work out," explains a Washington professional woman. "A lot more business gets done there than flirting."
Not everyone has such a grim experience in a fitness club. Health spas have always had a reputation for being meet markets. But people say they have better luck in laundromats or at church.
What's more, the real aerobic thrill for Neo-Puritans may not even be repressed sex, but repressed power. The giveaway is in the names on the logo of all the raquets for squash and racketball. Names like: The Aggressor, The Boron Dominator. The Avenger. The Bandido. The Boss. The Intimidator. The Master. The Blaster. Prestige. Optimum Size.
In other words, the equipment for the type that orders iced tea at lunch. Dating by Memo Of course, it cannot be denied that some men and women still want to get together. Libido is down but not out. All this work and working out makes it hard to meet someone let alone get struck by the big-bang coup de foudre or even engage in wild, wicked giggles across a crowded room.
So it makes sense in a memo-writing town that when men and women finally get to the business of dating, they do it by re'sume'. Forget the bike paths -- post the job and let your fingers do the walking. Thus the popularity of ISO -- In Search Of -- ads. In recent years, Washingtonian magazine has become the mother lode of the high-class ISO mate mart.
Real example: "A 50 y/o, 6' divorced male physician desires a highly educated, very intelligent, slim, athletic 35-55 year-old lady. . . . You should be confident and able to interest a Harvard man who has competed at a national level in sports, and risen to the top of his chosen profession." No zaftig dummies need apply.
For diehard romantics, this may seem like ordering carry-out egg rolls. But it makes perfect sense in Washington -- concise statements of sexual policy easily understandable to those who do mark-ups in Congress or liaison work with the Pentagon.
"Through an ad, you can really isolate whether you're a good match," says a 39-year-old professional woman who has worked in Washington for 20 years and tried it twice. "The one thing that is missing is the chemistry issue. You don't have any idea."
Each time, she placed an ISO ad, she received about 50 letters. She immediately discarded about half and then narrowed the list down to three candidates. The next step in ISO dating is for the initiator of the ad to call the candidates and set up a long telephone interview "It's such a nerve-wracking experience to have a first date on the phone," she says. In the end she had important relationships with two of the men who responded to her ad.
The point is that for many Neo-Puritans, ISOs save time.
"People do it for efficiency," said the professional woman. "Partners in law firm, journalists with well known bylines. Meeting people is like a job interview. One man said to me: Give me your resume. Fill me in on your life. The ads save time." The Pheromone Decline Washington apparently is not alone in its loss of libido. "Too tired and tense for sex?" asks this month's Redbook cover. "12 aphrodisiacs that work!" A recent poll by Louis Harris & Associates commissioned by Men's Health magazine found that "a satisfying sex life" ranked last on a list of essential factors in a man's life. "Have we become afraid of sex in the '90s? No, probably just too tired and stressed out for it," commented executive editor Michael Lafovore.
In Washington, professional observers have long known the perils of the Pheromone Decline. "This is not a town for great love affairs," says Harvey L. Rich, a Washington psychiatrist and director of the Washington Psychoanalytic Institute. "That's definitely counter-culture. You see a lot of restraint here, a lot of looking over the shoulder. There's conformity even to having fun."
The typical Neo-Pure comes to Washington and for the first five years, never puts his or her head up. The next 10 years are the roller-coaster ride to success. All the while, 80-hour weeks. Et voila: a city of funless aging work addicts. "They're on this treadmill of accomplishment and have not made a successful attachment. They get scared, anxious, depressed," says Rich. "The men are having as much trouble as the women."
It's easy to blame the Republicans. These are not "here's looking at you, kid" kind of people. In fact, the president's favorite word is "prudent." The vice president is the administration's Dumb Blonde. Georgette Mosbacher is the only sex symbol -- and she works, stimulating the economy with her cosmetic business and fulfilling the Neo-Puritan concept of utility.
Of course, the Republicans have always been more interested in money than sex. It's fitting that the really grand scandals of the '80s have been financial: The savings and loan debacle, the grab-in at HUD. For many Washingtonians, there haven't been any pure-fun sex scandals in Washington since Fanne Fox dipped into the Tidal Basin. Barry, Berendzen, Gary Hart and the rest not only broke the rules of Neo-Puritan behavior, but crossed over into tragedy.
So there's a dull sadness in the air this summer. Romance is a line item in a Neo-Pure's budget: an expenditure of time and energy. Flirting with a dinner partner is worth two memos or 10 push-ups. You can guess what these New Age Roger Chillingsworths would choose.
Perhaps the problem is the absence of any over-riding issue to galvanize the passions of the city. All the giants -- Nelson Mandela, Mikhail Gorbachev -- seem to be foreigners.
So it may take some time to shake this Cotton Mather Malaise -- but in the spirit of budget reconciliation, there's no reason Neo-Pures can't restore some libido to the city. What better use of the "peace dividend" than to stockpile those elusive pheromones?
That's the agenda for August. Loosen that red tie. Order a Creme Brule'. Ban all conversation about European economic unity. Threaten to jump off the Washington Monument for a cup of coffee. Relax. And get your heart pounding the old-fashioned way.
Abigail Trafford is Health editor of The Washington Post and the author of "Crazy Time: Surviving Divorce."