If you want to be keen observer in this town, you have got to do your homework. And the other day I was in the library, doing mine, industriously turning the crank of the microfilm reading machine, with the print whizzing by as fast as doom, when the dizzy spell hit, the room itself seemed to be spinning, and it became necessary to hold tight to the table. It was like that sense of unsteadiness one sometimes gets at Great Falls, where, if you gaze down into that swift-moving cataract too intently, and then look up at the granite cliffs, those, too, seem to be moving.
Anyway, it was as good an excuse as any to quit, especially since confronting a microfilm reader when the thing is in high gear gives other kinds of vertigo, too; as the whole Sunday edition of some forgotten newspaper goes by in two flicks of the wrist and, in the process, makes one's vocation -- dreaming up more words to throw into that machine's omnivorous maw -- seem absurd. So I went outside to where the pinkish branches on the trees and bushes were already thick with sap that wanted to express itself as blossoms. There, on a bench in the sunshine, an old man sat dozing over a newspaper that lay open on his lap. And i took my place beside him and waited for whatever warmth there was to sink in.
As it happened, I had been doing some research on Henry Adams, prince of all keen observers in our town, who'd lived here contemporaneously with Walt Whitman and Mark Twain without so much as doffing his hat to them; a library-dwelling scholar who'd come down from Boston to try to understand this government, both from reading about it in old documents and from studying it in action.
Such an interest was in the family tradition, because his father had been Lincoln's ambassador to England, and his grandfather and great-grandfather had been presidents of the United States. What he had in mind, probably, was fitting himself for that line of work. And so, at about this time, a century ago, he had a big house on Lafayette Square, an intelligent, companionable wife, and the means to do as he pleased.
He learned some lessons that astonished him; those ancient lessons that Washington teaches to more people than just scholars: that not all the reform movements in the world could make the slightest dent in the intertwined corporate and governmental thievery that were the life of this town; that what lay behind some national leaders' craving for power was . . . nothing at all; and that even the best of presidents, working to full capacity, had no noticeable effect on the gray thundering cataract of mindless events. And he even went so far as to compare Jefferson and Madison, whose historian he was, to grasshoppers kicking and raging out in the main flood of the Mississippi River.
This is not, however, to suggest that Adams was unhappy in Washington, because this was, and is, a town where observers can have a fine old time even when their conclusions are gloomy, especially when they live by the same social credo some politicans and lobbyist do -- which, if concisely expressed, would amount to something like, "The hell with you, Jack; I'll get mine!"
There was, after all, a sense of superiority to be gained from such elegant detachment and amusement to be had in expressing, in conversation or print, what one had learned by study. Adams enjoyed all that; came to the blackest of conclusions in beautiful, supple prose; and would express all his pessimism in taut epigrams delivered like rapier thrusts across his dining room table: Civilization was doomed, he said, life was meaninggless, and there was no God. And all his friends admired him for his frankness and his wit.
Then, too, he had an uncanny gift for prophecy and predicted, more than a century ago, global wars, space satellites and the atomic bomb. And wrote prolifically, putting his historical pessimism into a nine-volume history of the Jefferson and Adams administrations, and his pessimistic view of human nature into novels that he published under an assumed name.
But his wife, who, like his readers, was obliged to endure the gloom of his opinions without having shared the delight of those process by which he'd arrived at them, grew restive and alarmed. Wasn't there any hope? she asked her husband. Not even in God? But Adams only smiled lightly, ironically and, clipping the end off an expensive cigar, assured her smoothly that there was no hope in anything; not in a rough-neck nation that hadn't the good sense to follow the leadership of the Adames; and least of all in God. Then he retired to his study to delight himself by composing a novel wherein the heroine, based on his wife, could not face the truth of things and became suicidal.
God, now he loved the role of commentator! It was an even sharper knife than politics or any of the other, grosser forms of malice. During breaks in the elegant prose, he would gaze out at the shining, slow-sliding Potomac and (at this time) make little notes to himself on when the flowers would begin to bloom. For scientific purposes, of course. o
His grandfather and great-granfather had swum in that bright river down there. But gazing down from the study window of his stately house on H Street, Henry felt himself far above all such coarseness; was an obsever, not a participant; above even guilt, he must have imagined. Most of us observers in Washington think that about ourselves; nor seem to care whether the insights we're paid to deliver are keen enough to lacerate anything: as Henry's own observations had fatally lacerated his wife, who went to her room and drank poisonous chemicals after one of Henry's charming lunch-table monologues one day, and was buried in Rock Creek cemetery, where the Saint-Gaudens statue, "Grief," broods over her tomb to this day, in memory of one who was not a keen observer and wanted only to be told that there was little hope.
And I sat there beside the old man on the bench outside the library, warned by the sunshine that would bring the purple, yellow, chartreus and pink of crocuses, forsythia, weeping willow and japonica into bright profusion around her grave, and his, and did not care what day the blossoms came, so long as they came soon.
The old man was awake. "Can I interest you in the newspaper?" he asked.
"No thanks," I said. And together we watched the gray river of winter traffic rolling by like microfilm.