Not long ago, the wife of a public official approached me at a reception and extended her hand. She gave me her name, told me who her husband was and proceeded to tell me that a column of mine had insulted her husband, damaged him, held him up to contempt and ridicule and ruined what up to then had been a happy and fulfilling life. With that, she dropped her hand and, uncharacteristically pulling a punch, said goodbye. She meant good riddance.
The blood rushed to my face. This was a clear violation of The Washington Rule. The rule holds that no one is ever to be held accountable for anything done in the course of business. You can, for instance, attempt to murder a foreign leader by day and make small talk with his ambassador at night. People who do this are either called "sophisticated" or "civilized."
Now it appears that there are even more people who do not understand the rules, and they have left the House minority leader, Robert Michel (R-Ill.), reeling with indignation and cultural vertigo. The Very Powerful Michel is, appropriately enough, the owner of two Cadillacs, for which he would like a garage built behind his townhouse. That takes a variance, a matter on which the relevant Advisory Neighborhood Commission makes a recommendation. The neighborhood commission voted against it, citing, among other things, Michel's voting record on District of Columbia matters.
"Some of the commissioners have been on the phone discussing (Michel's) lack of support for the District," said one of the commissioners. "He did not support the (D.C.) Voting Rights (Amendment). . . . He is not for anything for the District of Columbia." To which Michel responded: "Can you tell me what that possibly has to do with my wanting to build a garage for my own safety? If we did that on the Hill, (the press) would crucify us."
Let us dispose of one issue real quickly. Michel is right. His voting record on anything, even bills concerning Washington, D.C., should have no bearing on whether he does or does not get a variance. He is either entitled to it or he is not, and his record as a public official should have noth do with the decision. If the city really wanted to play hardball, after all, it could threaten not to pick up the garbage of congressmen who vote the "wrong" way or, even worse, actually ticket their cars like anyone else's for illegal parking.
But having said that, let us also concede that something wonderful has happened. Here are some people, Washingtonians yet, who actually think that the things done here count. They actually believe that what the government does has an impact on the way people live -- quality of life, if you'll pardon the expression -- and that the people who run the government ought to be accountable in every way for what they do. You can actually get mad at them.
Of course, the city could not function if this rule substituted for The Washington Rule. The very poor, for instance, might storm Michel's house, demanding to know why he has supported the Reagan administration's program to make their lives even harder. God knows what would happen if, say, some members of the Hispanic community approached administration officials on the street and asked them to justify the killing of Nicaraguans within Nicaragua. What if a local abortion clinic barred the wives or daughters of congressmen who vociferously oppose abortion (want names?) and what would cocktail parties be like if journalists were held accountable by politicians for what they wrote?
In the end, Michel will probably get what Michel wants. Washington is not yet Berkeley. But once Michel's indignation subsides, he will understand that he has been paid a compliment. This, anyway, is what I concluded moments after that woman at the reception took out after me. In a town where nothing seems to matter, she was proclaiming that both she and her husband did -- and so did my writing.
It is the same with Michel and his garage, and it's why he cannot lose. Either he'll get it because of who he is or he won't get it because of what he's done. If he has to park on the street and walk home in the rain, he can think of himself as a latter-day Descartes, the French philosopher. He said, "I think, therefore I am." Michel can say, "I'm wet, therefore I matter."