Two stories, one perhaps apocryphal and the other a matter of record, underscore the difficult crosscurrents flowing through the capital during these golden, yet sad, days.
The first involves a prominent Democrat often mentioned as a strong presidential possibility. His reason for not running, he is supposed to have said privately, is that he is unwilling to become the hapless Herbert Hoover of the 1990s, cleaning up after Ronald Reagan's do-nothing, let-the- problems-accumulate, Calvin Coolidge act of the 1980s.
The other came two days ago in congressional testimony from David S. Ruder, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Even though more than two weeks had passed since the stock market crash, Ruder told incredulous members of Congress that he had yet to brief the president of the United States about it or even have a detailed conversation with him.
These kinds of revelations, real or fancied, reinforce the sense that things are seriously out of sync in Washington and oddly so, given the prevailing sense of physical ease and well-being.
Seldom has the capital been lovelier; one perfect fall day follows another. Seldom has it seemed more entrapped by forces beyond its control as each day brings further evidence of inability to deal decisively with events. The result is drift and uncertainty and an undercurrent of bitterness and recrimination.
In Congress, partisan wrangling erupts. Boos and catcalls are heard. Members call for the sergeant at arms to arrest absent members. Privately, some speak with open contempt of the process.
Here, too, as on Wall Street, cries for forceful leadership are voiced. None seems forthcoming but not because there are no leaders. Serious, thoughtful people in political parties are attempting to forge a consensus on deficit reduction and long-term economic planning. So far, they are stymied.
That is so because the White House, specifically the president, and congressional leaders have not been able to reach agreement on a course of unified action, or even general strategy. The president, it is said reliably, has been told to his face -- and "eloquently," according to one Republican witness -- that his failure to act on deficit reduction could forever tarnish his presidential legacy. But he does nothing. Thus, in the face of a national need for reassurance, the signals sent not only are mixed but also discordant.
All of this reinforces the worst fears of Wall Street.
In the financial capital, there is much talk about the "wealth shock" stemming from the market collapse and great money loss of October 1987. But the real concern is over another, potentially greater, shock to come. That is the specter of recession, possibly a severe one, stemming from failure to put the nation's fiscal house in order.
The comments of one senior Wall Street executive were illustrative of what seems to be a widely shared point of view.
"We've had a fiscal crisis," he said, in the midst of a long conversation. "We've had a political crisis. What we haven't had is an economic crisis . . . . Is this an isolated event, or does it link into other things in the economy? All history would say you cannot have a major contraction without reaching into the economy.
"So I think most economists are going to end up concluding real growth is going to be less, you might have a minus quarter and, if you don't really do things, it might be a recession. And you run the risk that, if you don't do things, it could be a very, very bad recession. So we're at the stage where we've had that one-time shock, and it's very easy to say, 'Well, that's that. It's over and gone'. . . .
"And what has Washington done? The evidence is they're sitting back and saying, 'The stock market is a spectator sport just like football or anything else. It is not a surprise that stocks came down; it is a surprise they went up so much.'
"What they are missing is that the stock market is down 30 percent plus plus plus. It's no longer a spectactor sport. It's linked to the economy. It's linked to society. It's linked to allies. It's linked to the military. All these things get linked with different degrees of intensity depending upon how long you go without political leadership and, the longer you go without political leadership, the linkage to the economy intensifies, which then intensifies that linkage to other things. And I think they're making a mistake by not understanding the linkages and acting while the acting is easier."
That's the act Washington has been unable to put together.