Henry Allen is a former Post editor and reporter.
Washington vs. New York — the resentful bewilderment continues on both sides.
Cats and dogs, Hatfields and McCoys, India and Pakistan, coyote and roadrunner, Cowboys and Redskins: We’re seeing it now in the White House, where New Yorker Donald Trump has taken up his awkward Washington residence.
President Trump gets it backward, to Washington ears. He boasts of his riches and calls the media “the enemy of the American people.” But as veteran columnist Walter Shapiro has said of Washington: “It’s a city where being rich counts for less than anywhere else, and being a journalist counts for more.”
The medium of exchange in New York is money brokered by Wall Street. In Washington, it’s power brokered by the media.
You can buy the Empire State Building, which has no particular power, but you can’t buy the Supreme Court, which does.
Money gets you somewhere in Congress, but it has its limits.
How do you buy Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) vote on the health-care bill? Or consider the recent scrap between Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who called her to complain about her no vote on debating the repeal of Obamacare. Trump had already tweeted his disappointment. Zinke and Trump didn’t understand how power works here.
The odd thing was that the Interior Department has nothing to do with the health-care plan, but it has a lot to do with ongoing public-works projects in Alaska. Zinke, the career SEAL, and Trump, the career New Yorker, were trying to wield power.
They seem to have forgotten that Murkowski oversees the confirmation process for Interior Department nominees — a process she announced would be delayed after the Zinke phone call (while denying the call had anything to do with it). Had they noted that Murkowski doesn’t face reelection until 2022? She has power over them — them over her, not so much.
Washington understands New York better than New York understands Washington, much as the South understands the North better than the North understands the South. In the same way, out in flyover country, America’s working class understands dinner-party liberals better than the liberals understand the working class, if they even know it exists.
“Deplorables,” Hillary Clinton called them — with their regrettable guns and religion, as Barack Obama said.
Clinton and Obama thought they had the power to dismiss the biggest piece of the electorate. Democrats had been doing it for decades, after all. Finally, the blue collars spotted a messiah in Trump, thinking for some reason that he had the power to save them. So far it hasn’t happened, but he’s a New Yorker, and New Yorkers have a tough time doing things for people in Washington.
The difference can come down to the most trivial details. Washingtonians noticed when Ivanka Trump, his daughter and assistant, wore an off-the-shoulder dress with what looked like a black bra strap to her father’s speech to Congress. Dear Ivanka, Washington is not a black-bra-strap kind of town.
Jared Kushner, Ivanka’s immensely rich New York husband and another top adviser, seems to regard filling out security clearance forms the way the late Leona Helmsley, New York’s Queen of Mean, regarded taxes: “Only the little people pay taxes.”
Kushner didn’t bother including a lot of the required information on his forms, thereby attracting the attention of Washington’s intelligence community and various departments and committees of law enforcement and investigation.
But why would a New Yorker worry about these people? Trump had dismissed them as incompetent leakers, never seeming to realize that the intelligence community has no money but does have immense power. It has something on everyone. Didn’t Trump ever wonder how J. Edgar Hoover held power as FBI director for all those decades?
For half a century since I came down from New York myself, I’ve watched New Yorkers arrive. They think they have all the answers. (I thought I did, too, for a while.) You never hear them ask: “When you’ve had this problem before, how have you solved it?” After a while they begin to sense they don’t have the power they thought they’d have, the way Northerners are appalled to discover that those big Southern smiles aren’t inviting them in.
When Trump tweeted his surprise ban on transgender people serving in the military, he must have thought he was on safe ground. (Indeed, Trump voters don’t have Ivy League liberals’ sympathy for the LGBT world.) But Trump voters don’t run Washington, and that tweet provoked wrath even from conservative Republicans in Congress.
Trump didn’t and couldn’t understand that in Washington, you have to clear things with the right people, whether they agree or not. The rule is: No surprises. You give a heads up to the powerful people, using your power to add to their power, and vice versa. He didn’t do that. Even the military, of which he is commander in chief, shrugged him off, doing a variation on the old trick the sergeant plays on the lieutenant when he says “Yessir, we’ll get right on it, sir,” and then does absolutely nothing.
It didn’t start with Trump. New Yorkers have been this way for a long time. In August 1774, before Washington even existed, John Adams visited New York and observed in his diary, “With all the opulence and splendor of this city, there is very little good breeding to be found . . . there is no modesty, no attention to one another. . . . They talk very loud, very fast, and all together. If they ask you a question, before you can utter three words of your answer they will break out upon you again, and talk away.”
And they so often fail to fit in, here in Washington.
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