After I finish writing this column, I will, with some trepidation, begin packing my bags to go from Washington to Manhattan. I say with some trepidation not because one is frightened, these days, of being mugged in Central Park, or because one fears being tempted by the sin parlors that once clustered around Times Square. Whatever else can be said about Rudy Giuliani, he gave New York City a different profile in the 1990s, and now people who would never even have dared to visit Manhattan flock there to live. But this is the point: In fact, what makes me nervous about Manhattan nowadays is not the criminals, who have faded back into the Bronx, but the people who replaced them: clever people, accomplished people, well-educated people — and people who agree about almost everything.
I first became aware of this phenomenon some years ago when in New York at a dinner party given by a publisher. Seated around the table was a cluster of minor literary and publishing types, chatting about this and that, all making light fun of that summer’s Republican convention, which had just ended. A European visitor at the table was listening, brows knitted. Finally he spoke up. “But what’s wrong with Bob Dole?” he asked. “He seems like a perfectly nice man to me.”
What’s wrong with Bob Dole?: All conversation stopped (and I am not making this up). Everyone stared at the clueless European, who was too naive to know that it isn’t polite to say anything positive about any Republican, even a moderate Republican — even a moderate Republican heading for a massive defeat at the hands of a Democrat.
It wouldn’t happen in Washington, or at least it wouldn’t happen quite that way. Washington is partisan, there’s no denying it. But part of the partisanship comes from the awareness, even the hyper-awareness, of the existence of another point of view. The memoirs of Sidney Blumenthal and Hillary Clinton are fiercely defensive precisely because they know what the other side is going to say in response. Republican rhetoric gets sharper here than it does anywhere else, precisely because the rhetoricians know exactly what the response is going to be. Of course you can go to a dinner party in Washington and hear people profess shock and horror at the words of an out-of-place Republican, or indeed a lone Democrat. But that’s because they disagree, not because they’ve never met one of the other species in polite company.
For a long time I thought my impression of this New York monoculture was mine alone, derived from my idiosyncratic acquaintances and my subscriptions to various publications with “New York” in the title. But a few weeks ago The Post published an article by Bill Bishop, a Texas journalist, and Richard Florida, author of a book called “The Rise of the Creative Class,” statistically proving the same point. Florida and Bishop pointed out that young people move nowadays not only to find interesting high-tech jobs but in order to live somewhere they find politically and culturally congenial. They look not only for neighborhoods with decent coffee bars, in other words, but for neighborhoods with appealing political attitudes. Increasingly, this country is segregated not by race or class but by politics.
Since then, I’ve drawn a further conclusion, namely, that whatever the national trend, Washington is and will remain different. This, after all, is the one city that can never sustain a monoculture, however much Hillary Clinton or Karl Rove would like it. Of course Washington is packed with young liberals, eager to change the world by working for Democrats. But many of them live next door to equally young, equally eager conservatives. As they grow older, it is true, the Democrats tend to move to the Maryland suburbs and the Republicans to Virginia. But even then, they still have to travel to work on Capitol Hill, where the culture remains relentlessly bipartisan.
Irritating though this bipartisanship may be for ideologues and dinner party hostesses, it has also made Washington an interesting city to inhabit, possibly the most interesting in the country. At least some of the time, real arguments take place here, both within the think tanks, institutes and government departments and among them. The bitterness of the arguments makes even the dullest topics fascinating — which is why, after nine months living here, I am still bemused by the gap between Washington’s image of itself as a small, provincial town and Washington’s image abroad, where the city is perceived as a true imperial capital. “It must be like living in ancient Rome,” a British acquaintance said to me wistfully.
He was right — except I doubt very much that ancient Romans spent all their time wishing they lived in Gaul. For too long, Washingtonians have had an inferiority complex about New York, a “real” city, supposedly, where the theater is so much better and there are so many more places to eat. It’s time to face the truth: In Washington, we wouldn’t have time to go to the theater even if it were better, and we’d usually eat lunch at our desks, even if we had somewhere better to go. Not only are we busy running the free world, we are equally busy arguing about it — and that’s something they don’t stoop to do in New York.