One finds in every age some peculiar and predominating element controlling all the rest. This element almost always engenders some primal thought or ruling passion which in the end drags all other feelings and ideas in its course .

Thus writes De Tocqueville; and while one suspects that these words may hold true for us, too, it is difficult to name that primal, controlling idea, so slippery and so close, in which we all dart about as tadpoles do in water. For while we have heard it suggested that Washington, in the way it thinks, is basically liberial or conservative or bureaucratic, these characterizations do not satisfy. Because one has the sense of a certain dominant mind-set, a regnant assumption out of which all sorts of opinions tend to proceed.

Formulated, then -- for why not attempt it? -- the prime axiom of Washington's thought would go something like this: All ideas are merely the weapons of political struggle . And from that proceed a host of corollaries:

-- There is no such thing as truth.

-- Anyone who deals in general ideas is merely pushing the interests of his class, or of whoever's paying.

--There are no such things as right and wrong.

-- No one is capable of speaking to the general good.

Then, laboring over all of this, logic brings forth operative theorum No.1, which is what our city lives by. Namely, that the highest form of thought is rat-calculus.

Now, "rat-calculus" is a private term I use, and means merely a feverish and obsessive figuring-out of where power, money and influence are to be found. Thus a practitioner of same would be intensely interested in how many votes the Negroes, Middle-American WASPs or pro-life people might have, but would fall asleep on your living-room floor were you to talk about social justice, domestic tranquility or the sanctity of human life. For your rat-calculator has had it fed to him with his mother's milk -- or more likely, with his college education -- that there can be no arriving at truth about these things and that ideas are but the crude fishing scows of those underlings who're paid to cast word-nets for votes.

Awake or asleep, however, these people rule, and we accept that. We have long ago accustomed ourselves to the notion that a politician is a kind of abacus-toting rodent who has been taught to do electoral math and who takes its results as the gospel. But what is less easy to understand is why our most conspicuous intellectuals tend to live and by the same creed.

Self-interest plays a role in this, perhaps, because articulating the greed of large constituencies is a well-paying job. But it is too cynical to blame the banal predictability of Washington's "thought" only on that. Because our public philosophers do tend to be sincere in their fascination with the intricacies of mindless events, as anyone who has ever been to a media party knows.

In fact, there is a warm, drowsy consentingness in all this, and our public discourse, as a result, has all the amiability of a Jacuzzi, wherein it is pretty widely agreed that this is not the place to argue. In fact, it is difficult to remember any newspaper columnist in our town ever bothering to argue (in print) with another one. Thus instead of public debate, we tend to have random pronouncements. And these go unanswered, for it is widely assumed that "all ideas are merely the weapons of political struggle" -- a doctrine attributable not to John Dewey, but to Karl Marx.

The primal thought around here, then -- and this goes for conservatives, too -- isn't "pragmatic" so much as it is Marxist. And Washington in this sense, is no less a Marxist town than Moscow; although, of course, the results are different, as what led to totalitarianism over there fuels anarchy here. For we, too, see ideas merely as guns: useful for zapping the other guy, but of no general use.

And since we despair of ever coming to conclusions about anything, we allot our highest respect to thinkers who are in those of computational frenzy. How will the Florida straw poll affect the Iowa caucuses? Or will Kennedy have to move toward the center after all, if the real issue is leadership? While the prosperous ideologues merely bellow out the logical consequences of whatever public stance they've chosen. Thus with them, given any question, you know in advance who is going to say what. And there are exceptions of course; for one is speaking here not of unanimity, but general tendencies.

Moreover, this is not to knock the splendid sport of politics, whose jolts and scrabblings are a hell of a lot of fun. Although, on the other hand, what Ali does to Spinks is not exactly a unifying public debate. Nor is any such thing possible in a town where rat-calculus is the high philosophy -- "that which drags all other feelings and ideas in its course." For Washington exists only to reflect what is, and not to prescribe what ought to be, and is the last place to look for some sense of direction.