I suppose all capitals have a sense of self-importance, since they all inhale the essence of power that is their common ingredient, and Washington ranks high among them. Or, perhaps, among the world's ruling cities, it stands at the peak in that respect. Where else is the intoxication of power and continual puffing up of the mighty by the honorable mighty so nakedly on view?
One of the certain things you can say about this nation's capital is that it has earned a reputation for being unusually removed from the real-life concerns of the rest of the country. That's true in part, of course. We have more than our share of pomposity and notions of grandeur here. But mainly it's a libel on the real capital and its people.
Of Washington more than other great capitals such as London, Paris or Rome, the political side of the city, which inevitably receives the greatest public attention, obscures the other, in many ways more interesting, aspects of life. Only during the holiday periods when the political action ceases and the national players happily depart does that other Washington fully emerge. Then only do you see the city for what it is and what it represents.
At least that is my time-tested theory about this city.
A favorite memory of a sharp display of relative values in Washington came five years ago on Jimmy Carter's Inauguration Day.
Along Pennsylvania Avenue, where the bunting had been hung and viewing grandstands and police barricades erected, all in preparation for the celebration of another passing of power, hardly any crowds had assembled in the immediate hours before the Capitol ceremony to view the presidential procession. There was one exception. Close to the Capitol grounds, standing in long lines three abreast, a mass of people braved an Arctic wind sweeping over a capital city glistening with ice from a previous day's winter storm.
They had not turned out to witness the next president of the United States moving along in triumph on his way to the White House. They were there to buy tickets for a new exhibit that was to open at the National Gallery. King Tutankhamen's treasures had come to Washington, and its residents were determined not to miss them.
"Many more Tut than Jimmy," I remember scrawling in my reporter's notebook while passing by on my way to record the great event on the Capitol steps. What I didn't record was a stray thought that the people of Washington were showing a nice sense of proportion. When it came to deciding what really was important, they had their values straight.
Something of the same sense of proportion can be felt in the city now.
The Capitol sits deserted, and the city seems still, yet the crowds are gathering again to sample the treasures displayed throughout Washington.
I say this having just made the round of galleries, mingling with the throngs, while accompanied by a daughter down from college for the holidays. As in years past, Washington never seems so appealing as now when its politics subside and its appreciation of its art takes precedence in the city's life.
Of the many joys on display this season, two in particular are noteworthy.
At the Corcoran, a remarkable collection of photographs adorns the walls. They represent the work of August Sander and are assembled under the title, "Man of the Twentieth Century."
Sander spent his life, which began more than a century ago in a village near Cologne, drawing an incomparable portrait of German society as captured through the lens of his camera. The work exhibited covers the period from 1910 through World War II, and his black-and-white photographs are as fine and moving and timeless as any great painter's.
He shows us in splendid detail the faces of the Germany in which he lived: schoolchildren and waitresses, farmers and bankers, intellectuals and politicians, society matrons and clerks, Nazi officials and those labeled politically persecuted. One, of an unemployed young man standing forlornly on a street corner in 1929 during the Depression, is especially haunting in today's context.
Although Sander's work met with critical acclaim, it was banned when Hitler came to power. Many of his negatives were seized and his books and their printing blocks destroyed. It seems, according to a free brochure about his work available at the Corcoran, that his "uncompromising, realistic portrayal of what his fellow Germans looked like . . . opposed the Nazis' propaganda image of the pure Aryan."
During the war, Cologne was leveled by bombers, and yet 40,000 fragile glass negatives Sander had buried in packing cases in his basement survived. Many of these were destroyed in a fire set by looters after the war. Still, enough treasures remain to form this splendid exhibit, which can be seen through the first week in February.
The second memorable exhibit is at the National Gallery East, where magnificent 16th-century Italian maiolica are on display.
These ceramic pieces, plates, dishes, jars, bowls, vases, wine cisterns among them, gleaming with marvelous colors and scenes representing the height of Renaissance art, depict stories of ancient lust, rage, pillage, rape, love, faith, war, joy, famine and all the other experiences humans have borne over the centuries.
They, too, represent a miracle of survivorship and are a testament to man's capacity to endure and to create works of lasting beauty no matter how difficult the times. Perhaps that is not a bad reminder as a rather miserable year of hardships for many comes to an end and another of greater challenges begins.
And happy gallery-watching to you.