New York Times Book Review
A national bestseller and a timeless classic on the ways and mores of our nation's capitol
New York Times Book Review
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Group Two: Washington people who try to handle the pressures of the place by continually slipping in and out of dual selves. There is the blah-blah-blah-I'm-glad-you-asked-that-question, public person and the other one, living in the same skin, who acknowledges in a hundred different ways to a multiplicity of large and small Washington audiences every day what a crock he knows the blah-blah-blah to be.
I am not talking about a handful of unusually jaded pols here. Far from it. This kind of two-track existence has been a given of Washington life as long as I can remember and surely goes back way before my time here. It is exposed and actually celebrated in some of our most famous tribal rituals, such as the annual Gridiron Club dinner in the early spring. At this white-tie event, well over a thousand people, including the President, Vice President, Cabinet members, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, a couple of Supreme Court Justices, the Congressional leadership and hundreds more from government, business, military and the press, watch some of their leaders and representatives deliver speeches or participate in skits that more or less trash what they have been doing and saying for the record all year.
The feeling of inside-the-Beltway solidarity this betrays is bolstered by the idea--naturally, not very successfully enforced--that the mammoth gathering is "off the record." The proceedings, which can sometimes be hilarious, are meant, in other words, as a fun secret to be shared and kept by the fifteen hundred or so people present who truly understand the two-track life because, in truth, we all live it. The very term "off the record," when you think about it (along with "off the record's" kin, such as "background," "deep background" and "not for attribution") is evidence of an institutionalized way of life in which we have one gear for speaking what we think and another for speaking what we really think. If I were asked to guess the most frequently used words with which sentences begin in political/governmental Washington, my answer would be: "You mustn't quote me on this, but..."
Many people outside Washington are repelled by the custom. Within the place, on the other hand, it has become so automatic, so ingrained and effortless that it can even be managed by fall-down drunks. When I first came to Washington, I remember being astounded when a TV-correspondent friend told me that he sometimes had legislators come to the press gallery for scheduled broadcast interviews who were absolutely slobbery incoherent with booze.
But this circumstance didn't alarm him any more, he said, as it had the first time. That was because he had seen these fellows, again and again, perk right up into seeming sobriety when the little red "on" light flashed, and launch into all manner of well-articulated gravities they wished to share with the American people. The instant the light went out again, as he told it, so unfortunately did they, sinking back into slurred nonsense and weaving their unsteady way out through the gallery doors. Others who conduct TV and radio interviews have confirmed the phenomenon to me. I should not have been so surprised. The two-track conversation is as close as the capital comes to having its own language. Basic two-track: that's what we speak. In time and with daily immersion, as with any language, you become adept in its subtleties.
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The way I see it, if Meg Greenfield says that the atmosphere of Washington DC is like High School, then that is enough to convince me that this book is worth taking a look at. Before I ever heard of this book, I made that same comparison myself. I was flipping through this book today, and am going to start to read it as soon as I start work on Monday. Politicians and High Schoolers unite!