During the entire four years my husband served as attorney general, I worried about my lonely 93-year-old mother back in California. "Thank goodness you're back," she said when I came home. "Now you can do my grocery shopping." From the corridors of power to the aisles of Safeway.
When Thomas Wolfe said, "You can't go home again," he didn't mean that home as you knew it is no longer there. It's there, all right, and so is the supermarket. The key word is you: you are not the same. I'm five pounds heavier than when I left California, four years older, and wiser, I think. Those of us who return home after a stint of government service are sometimes stereotyped as sad souls doomed to suffer from some form of Potomac Fever. Not necessarily so. There are compensations in returning to one's own turf.
One of these has to do with ending a problem that my friend Sondra Gotlieb refers to as "wife of." I'm thinking of the majority of us who go to Washington as part of a team, or so we thought. At home, we behaved in ways that some people were nice enough to say contributed to our husbands' success. We were equals, at least in a social sense.
The onset of the "wife of" effect begins when we attend our first Washington party. We've polished our make-up, put on our best dress, practiced our most sparkling smile and read up on the achievements of the guest of honor. To our surprise, the newspaper accounts of the party note the attendance of the secretary of state, the attorney general and other notables. No mention is made of their little teammates, who evidently stayed home. Be advised, however, that this invisibility does not confer immunity if we happen to say something silly in public.
If there is an official trip, the government pays the fares and expenses for the high official's secretary and necessary staff, but not for his wife. It's not that the wife doesn't play a role on the trip; she does, and it can be arduous. What's with our government? Ozzie didn't traipse around without Harriet. Roy doesn't ride off into the sunset without Dale. Isn't everybody talking about the importance of the family unit? Back home in California, I'm no longer "wife of." With my mother, son and husband, I'm part of a family unit again. I like it.
Other home compensations: the sudden reappearance of parking places, the strict observance of the pedestrian's right of way, lunch menus listing a whole column of salads, taxi drivers who know where they're going and, of course, joining old friends. Only momentarily did I entertain the mistaken notion that the conversation of old friends might be a little dull after the ferment of Washington. Perhaps they are not up to the minute on Washington gossip, but they still enjoy gossip. (Who doesn't?) I've learned that an earth-shaking event in Washington is like a seismic tremor: its force diminishes in proportion to its distance from the epicenter. In California, we sleep better at night.
I read the newpapers more thoroughly now. This means that instead of a daily confrontation with The Washington Post, it's a daily confrontation with The Los Angeles Times. Will I ever get these newspaper people to think right -- as I do, that is?
In Washington, I wrote countless letters to the editor: on the deficit, the Bob Jones matter, the use of government drivers by Cabinet wives for semiofficial business, and so on. In each instance, wiser heads prevailed, and my letters found their way to the wastebasket. In retrospect, I think this was an appropriate resting place.
On the other hand, there are people holding responsible positions in Washington who have valid comments to make, yet who hesitate to make them. No doubt they well understand that the press always has the last word. That is true, but it should not quell the expression of contrary opinions. The press might be wrong. Sometimes there is neither a right nor a wrong way to attack a problem, merely different ways. If someone has a good idea about an issue, we need to hear it. We are watching, out here in the world beyond Washington.
My daughter notes that when I'm away on a trip, my letters tend to dwell on what I've eaten. I neglect the vignettes for the viands. I'm surprised there is any food left in Washington. I ate it all, from the couscous at the Moroccan Embassy to pasta at the Italian Embassy to a "proper English breakfast" at the British Embassy, and on. I loved every bite. I'm only surprised that I could waddle home.
I miss the daily contacts with my Washington friends; despite astronomical phone bills, that void can't be filled. I miss the physica charms of Washington, not so much the stately monuments as the little restaurants on Connecticut Avenue and in Adams Morgan, the small shops, and the old houses with their wrought-iron lacework. I shall miss the dogwood in the spring, the autumn foliage and the first snow of winter. I shall not miss the summer at all.
I never planned on carrying away from Washington the really heady stuff, such as the sense of self-importance that comes from occupying a high rung on the protocol ladder, or the social flattery under which one's self-esteem swells, or the excitement of frequent face-to-face meetings with hitherto fabled individuals. And it's a good thing that I didn't plan on it. On my first shopping trip in Los Angeles, a saleswoman greeted me ever so cordially with, "How nice to see you! Say, have you been out of town?"
Those who deal with the business of the nation may not be omniscient. They share the same frailties as the rest of us. They do, however, work far harder than the public generally perceives. With few exceptions, they are neither "feeding at the public trough" nor catering to special interests, nor abusing their privileges. They are just as thrilled as any of us by the roll of the drums when the Star Spangled Banner appears, and just as interested in the preservation of what it stands for.
By virtue of my husband's job, I was closely acquainted with a number of FBI agents. Initially I was incredulous at their dedication, bravery, esprit de corps and competence. I still am.
Columnist Ellen Goodman once wrote, "We own what we learned back there." I own these past four years and I'm grateful. Moreover, I've not really left Washington after all; I joke that I am "forgotten but not gone." And it's nice to know that I was missed at home. At least by my mother.