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Like the notables assembled under the king’s roof at Versailles, official Washington divides the known world into only two parts. First there is Washington, and then there is every place else. The planes arriving and departing National Airport cross the only frontier of any consequence–the one between the inside and the outside–and all the truly momentous topics of conversation center on only one question, which is always and unfailingly the same: Who’s in and who’s out? The court might seem to be talking about something else–about war or peace or racial hatred or the deficit–but the words serve a decorative or theatrical purpose, and they are meant to be admired for their polished surfaces, as if they were mirrors or gilded chairs. What’s important is what happens in Washington. Yes, it might be interesting to know that the United States now must pay $292 billion a year in interest on the national debt, and yes, the poor blacks in the slums of Los Angeles obviously have their reasons to riot, but their suffering is far away and in another country, and what matters is the way in which the story plays tomorrow morning at the White House or the Department of Defense. Who will come, and who will go? Who will occupy the office overlooking the lawn? Who will ride in the secretary’s limousine, and who will carry the president’s messages? Court ritual obliges all present to wear the masks of grave concern and utter the standard phrases of alarm (“year of maximum danger,” “America at the crossroads,” “the crisis of the cities”), but behind the façade of solemn euphemism, the accomplished courtier conceals the far more urgent question, What, please God, is going to happen to me?
The masks come loose when the possession of the White House passes from one political party to the other and the would-be servants of the New World Order parade their ambition in plain sight. The spectacle is marvelous to behold, and in the days and weeks following the election of Bill Clinton the news from Washington might as well have been extracted from an eighteenth-century book of court etiquette. On the Wednesday after the election the important columnists in town began making their bows and curtsies by comparing the new president with the young Jack Kennedy, and the more gracious members of the troupe professed to see rising from the mists of the Arkansas River the fabled towers of Camelot.
Mo Sussman’s, a restaurant much frequented by the city’s principal careerists, added Arkansas Stew to its menu, and at the better markets in Georgetown the salesclerks murmured their appreciation of fried green tomatoes and sweet potato pie. The Securities Industry Association obligingly replaced its executive director, a Republican, with a Democrat who had known Bill Clinton at Oxford. Similarly abrupt exits and entrances took place in the executive offices of Hill and Knowlton, a consortium of prominent influence peddlers, and at the American Bankers Association.
On Thursday afternoon, less than thirty-six hours after the polls had closed in California, Jack Kent Cooke, the owner of the Washington Redskins, discovered that he was acquainted with a surprisingly large number of Democrats. An invitation to sit in his box at RFK Stadium counts as one of the most visible proofs of rank within the Washington nobility, and during the fat years of the Reagan triumph and the Bush succession the sixty-four seats were comfortably stuffed with personages as grand as Edwin Meese, George Will, and Robert Mosbacher. But on that Thursday, in answer to a question from a correspondent for The New York Times, Mr. Cooke remembered that time passes and fashions change: “I’m a Republican, but strangely I have a great many Democrat friends. Dodd. Brzezinski. Greenspan–he’s of indeterminate lineage. Sam Donaldson–what’s he? Gene McCarthy and George McGovern.”