Let me explain: Meg Greenfield, who for many years edited the Washington Post's editorial page, died a couple of years ago. She left behind a nearly completed book called WASHINGTON, which has now been published by PublicAffairs. WASHINGTON is Greenfield's summing up of political and journalistic life in the city she observed with an eye that was wise, elegant, and astringent.
"Every derogatory comparison you can think of has been invoked to show how political Washington works," Greenfield wrote. "The city and its inhabitants have been compared to a boring, elitist men's club; [to] a recklessly run business....The analogy I favor is to high school."
It's an amusing formulation. Washington, like high school, is "psychologically fenced off from the larger community within which it makes its home, freelike irresponsible youthof all but the minimal obligations of citizenship...and absorbed to the exclusion of all else in its own eccentric aims and competitions."
As in high school, politicians in Washington are only passing through. First-year congressmen are called "freshmen," and identified as a "class"the "Class of 2001," for example. There are Christmas, spring and summer vacations: "Washington conducts its business on a political variation of the school year."
Most important: "Political/governmental Washington is an adult community made up largely of people who were extremely successful children." Washington gets "the hall monitors...the teachers' pets, the most likely to succeed, the ones who got excellent grades, the ones who were especially good-looking in an old clothing-ad way...the ones who got the Chamber of Commerce Boy or Girl of the Year Award; or the ones who figured out how to fake it and still make itthat whole range of smiling but empty-faced youth leaders who were universally admired, though no one could have told your for exactly what."
In Washington, the successful ex-children tend to come unmoored from reality, and to lead a "preponderantly virtual lifesimulated life, fabricated life" in which concern about image engulfs everything else.
Washington, where I grew up, has always struck me as a curiously unsexual, or asexual, town. The game is power, with sex as an amateurish sideline. The high school game also is about power, which expresses itself in coteries, and in sometimes savage rituals of bullying. Sex in Washington, in any case, has an adolescent, high school quality: the Big-Man-on-Campus-Hits-on-Intern motif, the stolen feels in the White House, as if the Oval Office were the front seat of Dad's borrowed Grand Marquis...
The Condit-Levy sexual affairwhich the Congressman has at last admitted, confirming what the audience already knew and bringing this miniseries-in-progress up to datesavored of many of those high school touches that Greenfield noticed. With Chandra's disappearance, the affair has taken on a contemporary American adolescent's dimension of the dangerous, brushing up against evil possibilities (think of Colombine and other shootings, for example) that would have seemed impossible when I was a high school student in Washington years ago.
As Greenfield says, "...practically all scandal these days...is cover-upless about what someone did in the first place than about the frantic, insane steps he took to preserve Mr. Image."
In that regard, I think Representative Condit's behavior perhaps should not be understood too quickly. On the surface, it looks as if Condit has been guilty of disastrously bad public relationsconcealing himself for so long from the press, seeming evasive, looking guilty etc etc. But think, if only for the sake of speculation: a deftly sinister and manipulative Machiavellian, if he were guilty of something far worse than adultery, might behave exactly as Condit has. That is, he might use an apparent ineptness at public relations, combined with grudging revelation of the affair with an intern (tacky, but comparatively innocent, under the circumstances) to mask an infinitely uglier offense. This would be misdirection of the kind Dwight Eisenhower practiced almost half a century ago, when he addressed his press conferences in fuddled syntax that allowed reporters and other great intellectuals to go away joking about what an idiot Eisenhower was. Ike wanted them to think that; he wanted to confuse them. He thought THEY were idiots.
No one gossiping about the case knows the truth of what happened to Chandra Levy. The Washington police say emphatically that Condit is not a suspect in her disappearance. He deserves forbearance. But SOMETHING happened. The case harbors a wicked mystery, like the forbidden room in Bluebeard's castle.
If only Condit had had the benefit of my Jesuit high school education in Washington. In those days, the Jesuits told us that when we found ourselves thinking about sex, as adolescent boys will, we should go out and play basketball.