Against the backdrop of the war in Iraq and the furious political battles that it has rightfully provoked at home, it's difficult of think of Washington as anything other than a partisan war zone. When you factor in the fierce summer heat, the straitjacket humidity and our oppressive preoccupation with politics, it would not be unreasonable to conclude that Washington in August may be one of the most hellish places on earth.
You would be wrong, because this is a city of subtle charms. It's hard to beat August when Congress is gone and the crape myrtles are in full bloom, flashing deep pinks and purples on the Mall, along Rock Creek, or in one row-house neighborhood after the other. The sudden burst of color gives the city the feel of a faded, old beauty provoked into an uncontrolled blush. There is an innocence in flowering trees that resists even the most rigorous cynicism. And on some days we are the world headquarters for cynicism.
This week Republicans, capitalizing on their minority status in the Congress, charged the majority with ineffectiveness and returned to their fundamental strategy of accusing the Democrats of raising taxes. "I think it's pretty clear to all of us that the Democrats are running the Congress exactly the way we thought they would," said House Minority Leader John Boehner. "They want higher taxes and they want bigger government." He said it with a straight-face, though it was with the help of the Republican-led Congress that President Bush presided over the largest expansion in government spending in 30 years. In Bush's first term, the GOP Congress spent $91billion more on domestic than the administration asked for. So cynicism is not dead in Washington, but that's not all we are here.
In August, we will watch our Nationals do battle with Cincinnati and St. Louis, and with division rivals Philadelphia and the Mets. We will lose more than we will win, and our name will be engraved at the bottom of the National League East standings, but that reminds us of the importance of hope.
We know that come September, we have to deal with a new round of fighting over the war; we may be looking at confirmation hearings for a new attorney general, because, despite the president's confidence, this one is on course to crash and burn. In August we will stop and focus on the distractions: For a city without a real skyline -- an urban bias I admit -- there are views in Washington that take your breath away. There is, along the George Washington Parkway, a spot where you can see the Potomac from above as it flows under the Francis Scott Key Bridge, past Georgetown and Roosevelt Island, past the Kennedy Center and the Lincoln Memorial headed for the Chesapeake Bay. In the right light, the bridges and the monuments can put you in mind of some medieval European city, but in truth, there is nothing quite like it anywhere.
Despite the all the mythology of the dog days of summer and the hardships of living in a city built on a swamp, Washington in August is something of a celebration. Congress will leave town next week and the partisan guns will fall silent, briefly. The Capitol, abandoned to the hordes of tourists, will radiate white heat in the midday sun, and turn a soft glowing pink at twilight in full contradiction of the boisterousness that courses through its veins every day.
And as one of the last outposts of the suit-required culture, we will take them off in August to eat crabs and drink beer. There are some Washingtonians who could not survive anywhere else, outside the realm of noon-time seminars on grassroots effort to democratize the Western Seychelles, or cloture votes on the motion to proceed to bill S-whatever. Their lungs are likely to collapse if they strayed too far outside the orbit of the subcommittee markups and calls for the previous question. These are people who get chills when they hear the words "On final passage."
But in August we'll hang out of rooftop and marvel at the gothic majesty of the National Cathedral in the distance, sitting like a modern-day Elsinore skirted in trees above the city, and indeed, like Hamlet observes after the ghost reveals the secret of the King's murder, "The time is out of joint..." And never more so than now.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the other day that Republicans were going to have to do something about Iraq because of public pressure. "The majority of the public has decided that the Iraq effort is not worth it.," he said. "That put a lot of pressure on Congress to act because public opinion in a Democracy is not irrelevant."
I repeat: "….public opinion in a Democracy is not irrelevant."
In this city of many imponderable, this is not an insight universally shared by everyone. The president himself is one of the great imponderables: He went to Philadelphia on Thursday to address a convention of state legislators, where he pledged to stand by his firm conviction, despite public opinion. "...Part of making good decisions in a complex world and in a complex environment is to make decisions based upon basic principles," he said. "If you don't stand for something, you don't believe in anything."
This he claimed this was an old Texas adage, which I seriously doubt, but he may have been joking. The adage, not at all specific to Texas, is "If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything." The origin of the aphorism in ambiguous, but it is often attributed to Malcolm X. So ponder this: George W. Bush quoting Malcolm X.
This is why we need August.