Over the air the other night came the disturbing news that Jim Brady was undergoing surgery to close a passage allowing air into his brain. I went to bed troubled, and awoke early to hear a broadcaster say Brady's five-hour operation had ended after 1 o'clock in the morning.
The operation was "not an emergency," the newscaster said, quoting a doctor.Further reassuring details from the hospital were provided on page one of the morning paper lying on the front stoop. The operation was "not urgent," the hospital spokesman said.
I'll wager hardly anyone hearing that news believed it.We wanted to, but didn't.
That isn't to fault the hospital's motives; surely they were of the best, and intended to dampen undue alarms. But the way that news was handled fits a familiar pattern. Of late, we've had a run of bad news announcements instantly followed by "all's well" proclamations.
The president was shot, but, it seemed, he brushed off the bullet like a mosquito bite. He'd be back in full command, and traveling no less -- even out of the country -- in a matter of weeks, we were assured. Now we know his condition was more serious than initially disclosed, and his recovery understandably will take longer than at first anticipated.
Poland teetered on the brink of war, and the world held its breath while Soviet divisions were poised on its borders. Now that crisis has receded from attention as swiftly as it arose.
At home, we were told the American economy was in the worst mess in at least two generations, if not longer. Drastic, even radical, action was required. Now we get reports that the economy shows surprising strength; it surges ahead with unexpected force, leading to fears of even greater inflation and higher interest rates, and doubts about the ability of the president's economic plan to deal effectively with them.
And while all this confusing ebb and flow of news has been occurring in so short a span of time, an even more than usual air of unreality has been pervading Washington. Here, in the "news capital of the world," supposedly the place where the action is, where we claim to have our fingers on the pulse of both the nation and the earth, we have been in a state of suspended amination.
In these recent days, when Congress stands in recess and the president continues his recuperation in the seclusion of the White House, seldom has the capital seemed more distant from the country it represents.
Those who stayed behind in Washington over the traditional congressional Easter break have seen the city at its finest. Spring, always special here, never has been lovelier. The parks and neighborhoods are ablaze with contrasting colors, subtle and vivid -- of azaleas and dogwood and tulips and flowering crabapple in all their glory. Traffic slows, the pace of the city becomes more manageable, the cultural attractions beckon. The plays and concerts are sellouts. The expensive restaurants -- more and more of them, and better and better -- are filled. You need a reservation, it seems, everywhere. The speciality shops are crowded, the fine clothing stores are doing a brisk business with their latest spring fashions.
If there's any doubt that Washington remains a favored, affluent, professional, upper-income, highly atypical city, just look around you. To see it now is to recall the remark of the British journalist Jan Morris: "Nowhere in the world, I think, do people take themselves more seriously than they do in Washington, or seem so indifferent to other perceptions than their own. Whether they are granite reactionaries or raging revolutionaries, they find it hard to see beyond."
What problems exist elsewhere barely seem to intrude on our consciousness. We hear reports of troubles -- Brady's operation, Reagan's recollections of his paralyzing pain and initial panic after being shot -- and quickly put them aside amid new reassurances. Yet despite this lulling sense of normality, every now anad then something pierces the comfortable facade and forces you to face, albeit momentarily, unpleasant realities from afar.
I had three such experiences the same day Brady underwent his latest operation.
Before lunch, I received a letter from a friend in the Midwest whose views I pass on here from time to time. She had experienced the Depression, and found herself reliving those memories because of some recent events.
"Dust is blowing in Minnesota," Mildred Holcomb writes, "and the magazines and papers are full of For Sale ads for boats, campers, large cars. We had our living room walls repapered, and the young man (T-shirt, dark beard) who did the work had been in computers and was now doing redecorating. And young mothers are avid for menus that are filling and cheap. They are coming to the right person. I remember the winter of 1936, when we lived on fish brought up by ice cutters and honey found in a cut-down tree. Surprisingly, our children have no memory of ever having been in a hard way for food. I guess we just did not talk about it."
After lunch, a copy of the latest ABC News/Washington Post Poll crossed by desk. It began:
"Americans are cutting back sharply to accommodate inflation's bite, and some groups, representing literally millions of people, are severely affected to the point of skipping meals, moving up to cheaper housing and selling cars."
It sounded, in less personal style, exactly like the experiences cited by Mildred Holcomb in Minnesota.
An hour later, I was talking with a senator who had traveled throughout his western state during the Easter recess. He said something arresting. It wouldn't surprise him, he said, if before long young people weren't forced to house and feed their grandparents permanently. Things were getting that tough out there. Inflation was eroding the savings of the old and destroying their ability to finish out their years without extra assistance.
The hiatus ends. Congress returns tomorrow, fresh from its overseas junkets, its televised Hollywood investigations, and its sample of real-life in all those disparate districts away from Washington. Hard problems exist and are now before it. Even in this season of false security and drift, in this capital of illusions, no amount of comforting news, official or otherwise, will make them disappear. The only question is, will they be faced?