Upfront: Inside the Belly of the Beast


I once lived in Washington, D.C., and worked for a prominent Democratic politician. It was great fun for a couple of years, till I had a falling out with the state. But thanks to my James Dean-influenced youth, I had always been uneasy having the status of an "insider." Speculation over whether Congress could "pass the continuing 'res' before recess" bored me senseless, and hearing suppliant lobbyists whisper knowingly over tiny portions of fish about "key players" (a term used only by non-key players) drove me into reveries the contents of which are best not revealed in this family publication.

Now I have returned to this place to man a Washington office of a magazine that takes the radically American position that each individual possesses certain inalienable rights, among them the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that any government that interferes with these rights is to be subjected to the severest criticism. That, as you might guess, leaves me an outsider here.

But that's where all the fun is. One of REASON's strengths is that we are beholden to no party or power-brokers. If a guy is a crook or a moron, we call him a crook or a moron. This sort of feisty, dukes-up journalism is disappearing in the sea of Establishment media mush (ever listen to a John Chancellor TV commentary?); we hope that our expanded East Coast presence will help revive it.

"Watch the faces of families touring Washington," instructs conservative columnist George Will, who sees in the visitors' eyes a rebuke to those of us who have a "crabbed and dispiriting attitude toward the central government." Better yet, George, take a look at the typical tourist itinerary. For if citizens come to D.C. to pay homage to strong government, they choose peculiar venues for worship.

The two political landmarks topping every visitor's list are the Capitol and the White House. The regal pretensions of recent occupants notwithstanding, these buildings are venerated because they represent the noble 18th-century dream of our forefathers: that in a republic of self-governing freemen, the power resides in the people.

Next our tourist will visit the Smithsonian museums, which constitute an extravagant tribute to the ingenuity of the American breed. He'll probably stop by the memorials to presidents Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, demigods who in American mythology have assumed the righteous characters of Independence, Liberty, and Brotherhood.

Finally, at the end of the Mall, our friend may walk reverently past the Vietnam Wall, perhaps searching for the name of a neighbor or a relative who was killed thousands of miles from his home. The Wall is stark, simple, and beautiful. It commands respectful silence and achieves an admirable effect: it honors the brave men who died in Vietnam, but it does not honor the government that sent them to the slaughter.

Of course, the symbols of the American ideal are far outnumbered by the bricks and mortar embodiments of the modern American state. For every Jefferson Memorial, there are 50 obscure government agencies where decent and well-meaning men and women are employed to waste our money and violate our liberties. Tourists, with their native common sense, seldom visit the Federal Trade Commission, the Drug Enforcement Administration, or the Pentagon. There is nothing inspiring about these places, nothing at all.

The next time you are in Washington, go to the National Archives building, on Constitution Avenue, and strain to read the faded yellow parchment of the original Declaration of Independence. This revolutionary affirmation of the rights of man is nearly illegible today. A brochure that you are handed upon entering the building blames the Declaration's fading on the fact that "for many years" the document "was often carelessly handled." When you walk out of the Archives, into the brilliant sunlight, take a right. You will walk past the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Reserve headquarters, the ironically named Justice Department. You may think that "carelessly handled" is an awfully polite way to put it.

Not everything in this bastion of statism is politicized, and that is D.C.'s saving grace. The city boasts perhaps the finest high-school basketball in the country. There is a wonderful low-rent theater company, the Source, that performs everything from Faust to Sam Shepard in a downtown alley, complete with Thunderbird-soaked bums who act as an unpredictable street chorus. City nightclubs have spawned an indigenous form of soul-funk music known as "go-go," while suburban kids with cheap guitars and apocalyptic poetry give the area a thriving punk scene.

Folks often fret that politics is Washington's only industry, its sole reason for being. Yet if the government presence in this city were excised tomorrow, as one would remove a massive and malignant tumor, the real Washington would endure. The bureaucrats and power-seekers of left and right would scatter to the winds, willy-nilly in search of productive employment. But the kids would still dance till dawn to the go-go beat, families would still walk hand-in-hand to church on Sunday morning, crowds of friendly strangers would still gather in taverns to cheer on their beloved Redskins. Those are the permanent things, the things that make our lives worth living, and they are more resilient than we imagine, even in the seat of the most powerful government in the world.