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A lightness of countenance has fallen on Washington. I kid you not. Strangers were talking to each other in elevators, smiles in the street made walking a pleasure.
Even President Obama lightened up. At his midweek press conference, the president seemed in an unusually good mood: helping NBC’s Chuck Todd sort out his questions, referring cheerfully to the work ethics of his daughters (and his own), and lampooning the corporate jet set.
Had peace broken out somewhere? On Capitol Hill, in Libya or Afghanistan, between Los Angeles Superior Court judge Stephanie Sautner and Lindsay Lohan — her honor dropping by for a few belts?
No. It all comes down to the prospect of a four-day weekend. It should be three days, but many are able to stretch it to four. Heapings of happiness!
By the joy this little perturbation in routine has wrought, it’s clear that Americans are overstretched, overworked, overstressed and badly in need of R&R — even just a syllable of it — over the Fourth of July weekend.
Also it’s a birthday bash. Uncle Sam has made it through another year and the dollar is still worth having; the barbecue worth lighting; and the hamburger, America’s great contribution to cuisine, worth eating. Even though Budweiser — like so much else nowadays — belongs to a foreign company, millions of us still find it worth drinking.
Hooray! Happy Birthday! For he’s a jolly good fellow! (Uncle Sam, that is).
Unlike many others of the British persuasion, as I once was, I agree with my colleague Martin Walker that Brits shouldn’t feel loss on the Fourth of July, but should be leading the celebration.
Walker, who knows a thing or two about celebrating, says: “I’m not downcast by the victory of honest British colonial farmers over a German king and his German mercenaries.”
That’s right, Americans love the Brits. Otherwise, why would a country that threw off the imperial yoke on July 4, 1776, go bats for the wedding of Prince Harry, heir to the despised throne once occupied by George III?
One thing the Brits do have over us: their vacations. A worker averages about a month a year of vacation.
Of course, it would never work here — especially not in Washington. Think of the anxiety. Oh the fear of being left out, losing your job or just being bored. Americans on long vacations get surly, marriages creak and desperate couples hunch over lunch in faraway places, trying to decide where to have dinner.
No. No. No. Our special genius has been the creation of the long weekend. We have more of them than most countries; they are envied even by the French who talk about — I kid you not again — le long weekend.
We have something here. Instead of pining for more vacation , we should build on the Fourth of July, Labor Day and Memorial Day by working only a four-day week.
I don’t like to point fingers, but there are those in the bureaucracy who are pioneering the new order for us. Around Washington, in the aisles of the supermarket and the sporting-goods emporium, you can hear it every Friday: Some person of impeccable rectitude about other things, declaring, “I’m working from my home office today.”
At the commuter rail station I use, parking is a big problem every day of the week except Fridays, when more than half the spaces are open. Well, not casting aspersions, I have to advise that 80 percent of the riders are government employees. Ah, the lure of the “home office” on Friday.
Here’s my proposal: Increase the workday to 10 hours and have three-day weekends every week. Once again America will be the envy of the world, even if we have to prohibit home-office work by civil servants on Thursdays. This way we’ll be a happier people. We’ll have given ourselves a present that keeps on giving.
Happy Birthday, America. And spare a kind thought for the Brits, who lost the best piece of real estate on Earth. Poor dears. – For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate
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Llewellyn King, the British-born host of “White House Chronicle,” stands on a sidewalk in Georgetown, a green and pleasant neighborhood located in northwest Washington, D.C., along the Potomac River waterfront. On Thursday, Georgetown was festooned with flags and filled with pre-Fourth of July revelers.
Georgetown was founded in 1751, well before the establishment of the city of Washington and the District of Columbia, when the Maryland legislature purchased 60 acres of land for the town from George Gordon and George Beall at the price of 280 pounds.
Some believe that Georgetown was named after those two wealthy landowners. Others believe that its name has royal origins, since it was founded during the reign of George II of Great Britain.
Certainly, it wasn’t named after the Father of Our Country. But George Washington frequented Georgetown, including a long-gone watering hole, Suter’s Tavern, which was the site of land deals involved in establishing Washington as the “Federal City.”
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That great sucking sound you hear is the annual evacuation of Washingtonians. Tired and weary, but nonetheless self-important, they snatch a little beach time and act like other people.
The upper tier — including President Obama and his family — flock to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. A few — most notably storied editor Ben Bradlee and his fabled party giving-wife, Sally Quinn — enjoy the delights of Long Island and the Hamptons. Alas, Washington incomes aren’t commensurate with Washington egos; hence the Hamptons are only for the few, and those with super-rich friends.
A little pity, please, for members of Congress at this time of year. While bureaucrats, senior civil servants, lobbyists and journalists have boardwalk splinters in their feet and spilled beer on their T-shirts, legislators have to face the voters. Ugh!
This year, that’s an especially nasty experience.
All the polls say only about 11 percent of the country approve of the job Congress is doing. That’s tough enough, but this year there are the unemployed–the same unemployed as last year, but now they are more bitter and angry.
Legislators have forgotten the platitudes used to calm the unemployed last year. But the unemployed have not; and worse, the local TV stations can pull up clips as fast as a member of Congress can say “my record shows.”
If you’ve made a point of denouncing the deficit, it’s hard to explain why you haven’t been more diligent in bringing home the bacon to your constituency. If it’s your summer boondoggle, it’s hard to explain that it’s an entitlement.
You get a holiday in an election year? Get off it. When comfortably re-elected, you can contemplate a little time with you feet up. Unless you want to join the unemployed, better campaign; and campaign some more when fatigue has gripped you by the soft parts. Hit the phones and beg for money.
To stay in Washington, you need to be able to denounce Washington in brutal terms, while yearning for the members’ dining room, the simpering of the staff, and the adulation of the cable television network that agrees with you.
Every day you must praise the wonders of America and your fabulous constituency, while you long for a congressional fact-finding trip to London, Paris or Rome. After all, you’ve been stuffed with barbecue since you got back to the voters: the God-fearing, family-loving, hard-working, ignorant pain-in-the-butt hicks.
What do voters know of the burden of office?
What do they know of you being cajoled in the White House while the TV cameras are lining the driveway, waiting just for you? What do they know of representing our country at dinner at 10 Downing Street or the Elysee Palace? Have they ever had an audience with the Pope?
What do the voters know of the thrill of dropping in on our troops in Afghanistan with a TV crew? If you do that, you can almost book yourself on a Sunday morning talk show. Heck you can feel thrilled on “Meet the Press,” even if David Gregory reads aloud an encyclopedic list of your gaffes, votes, and friends of the opposite sex.
Actually, the worker bees of the nation’s capital just hate to be away. If you are a member of Congress, you’re reminded that there are nasty people with clever advertising agencies, trying to get into Washington and make you part of that unemployment statistic.
Even those who don’t have to run for office feel the burden of free-floating anxiety. Who’s after my job? I make out to be the most important job in the most important city in the world, even if I know in my heart I’m a clerk.
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Nineteen sixty-eight was, as they say, a year to remember.
Many extraordinary events were crammed into 1968, including the launching of the Tet Offensive by the North Vietnamese; U.S. ground troops from Charlie Company rampaging through the South Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai, killing more than 500 civilians; President Johnson’s announcing of his decision not to seek re-election; the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; student rioting in Paris; the assassination of Robert Kennedy; the “Prague Spring” uprising against communism in Czechoslovakia; and the tumultuous Democratic Convention in Chicago.
As an editor at The Washington Daily News, an evening newspaper, the enormity of King’s assassination was hard to get my mind around. And the riots that ensued left scars on the infrastructure of the nation’s capital that would never quite heal. Only now, two generations later, is the Shaw neighborhood, which grew out of freed slave encampments in Northwest Washington, returning to normal urban vitality. Much of Shaw was engulfed in flames in1968, and it fell into the worst kind of decay; its hollowed-out buildings housing crack addicts, feral animals and rats.
As in other cities, fire did the damage, but politics and litigation delayed the recovery. There may be something informative here for those who think Baghdad will spring back to life, or that Zimbabwe will return to the status quo ante. Recovery is hard and slow.
Little did we know it, but The Washington Daily News was to be a victim of the riots. Looters and rioters destroyed the newspaper kiosks that were a feature in Washington and essential to selling our afternoon tabloid. The Daily News began to fail because it depended on street sales, and the infrastructure for that was destroyed. The city’s other two newspapers, The Washington Post and The Washington Evening Star, fared better because they had a larger percentage of their circulation home-delivered.
After the fires were extinguished, the smell of smoke hung over the city, a curfew was in effect, and troops were deployed on street corners. Those of us with press credentials were able to drive around, and we were constantly speculating how eerily similar this must have been to events behind the Iron Curtain.
Over time, the riots of 1968 have been referred to more and more as “race riots.” But at the time we just called them “the riots,” because one of the consequences was a period of elaborate politeness between whites and blacks. This was noted by two of the best chroniclers of the time: Richard Starnes of the Scripps-Howard News Service and Richard Harwood of The Washington Post. One of them beautifully encapsulated the calm after the storm, when he referred to black drivers yielding to white drivers at street intersections. After one such incident, Harwood said that “both thought they had done something significant.”
The rioters’ anger seemed to be directed more toward property than to people: It seemed to be black rioters against white-owned property than blacks against whites. In the worst of the rioting, on April 5, I walked up the Shaw-U Street corridor without any sense of trepidation. Looters–their arms full of appliances–were everywhere. When they banged into you, they apologized. One looter even suggested that I walk on top of a wall for safety. “That way the brothers will see you, and you will be safe,” he said.
It was after the riots that fear gripped the city. White flight to the suburbs began and continued for many years.
Washington’s suburbs boomed, and the inner-city decayed. A somewhat unconsciously integrated city became a segregated one that pretended otherwise. Large corporations added blacks to their boards of directors, television stations added black anchors, and the newspapers searched high and low to beef up their core of black writers. Tokenism became an industry.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s message advanced in some ways–mostly because there was a recognition that black grievances were well-founded and deeply seated. But some of the remedies have been as harmful as the disease–excesses of affirmative action and reverse racism.
Of course, civil rights was only one of the issues roiling the nation in 1968. There was also the women’s liberation movement; the environmental movement; and underlying it all, the Vietnam War.
The war touched every aspect of national life. And as people turned against it, they did so with anger, often fueled by the drafting of a family member. Some institutions were torn apart by the division. The Reporter magazine, a liberal alternative to The National Review, was destroyed by contention. Washington columnist Joseph Alsop lost the confidence of editors across the country. And Paul Harvey, the conservative radio commentator, reversed his position on the war because his son was facing the draft.
Nineteen sixty-eight tested loyalties and caused many people to re-examine their politics and to think through their predispositions. A majority of Americans were well on their journey from right to left because of the war.
The assassination of King, followed shortly after by the assassination of Robert Kennedy, convinced many people that the nation had lost its way. Unfortunately, it chose Richard Nixon to lead it out of the darkness.
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