Finding refuge from Washington’s quotidian intrigues — and how to get close to the political spectacle.
On a chilly Friday afternoon about a month before the White House was due to receive the nation’s 45th president, I paid a visit to the other residence in Washington where several presidents once lived during the hotter months of the year. Previously known as the Soldiers’ Home and nowadays referred to as President Lincoln’s Cottage, after its most illustrious occupant, the stucco villa sits on a 250-acre tract that, since the 1850s, has served as a retirement community for war veterans. Sequestered high above most of the city, the living memorial today constitutes a hushed and evocative refuge from Washington’s quotidian intrigues.
The cottage itself has been open to the public since 2008. It is a tall and austere spectacle, like Lincoln, who penned the first drafts of the Emancipation Proclamation here as the evening sky crackled with cannon fire. In the morning the president would mount his gray horse or climb into a carriage and commence the daily commute to his office at the White House. During the three-mile journey, the capital city’s wartime panorama — wagonloads of wounded Union soldiers, the grave-digging laborers at the first national cemetery, the voices of escaped slaves singing spirituals from their makeshift camps — imbued in America’s 16th president the harrowing stakes of his stewardship.
Though Lincoln’s Cottage happens to be just a couple of miles from where I live, I had learned of its existence only recently. After spending most of my life in Texas, I moved to Washington in 2005 to write a book about America’s 43rd president, George W. Bush. The first time I paid a visit to the more well-established presidential residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, I remember being struck by the ahistorical plainness of the West Wing.
The offices themselves — objects of blind lust for nearly every political hack in town — could have passed for the headquarters of a mid-market corporate law firm. The inhabitants, mostly white men in dark suits, glowered in silence behind their desktop computers. The corridor walls were festooned with framed images of President Bush mingling with the troops or chunking a baseball at Yankee Stadium. The TV beside the front door of the West Wing lobby blared out Fox News. (By 2009, the same TV would be tuned to MSNBC.)
Historic Congressional Cemetery, where some of the nation’s first statesmen are buried.
Still, a keen intensity oxygenated the building. Meetings were clipped; havoc, routine; graying hairlines, a melancholy performance bonus. Yet those inside the West Wing comported themselves as if everything they did mattered more than anything else anywhere. As I stepped outside onto the White House lawn (where the president’s dog, Barney, grumpily ambled, and where men and women of the TV media stood squarely before the cameras, their faux-baritones booming and their faces lacquered with makeup), the sensation was akin to being regurgitated from a frothing slipstream and into a plodding river. I felt lightheaded, sponge-kneed. And yes, I couldn’t wait to go back in, back to where the action was.
These dual, and often dueling, native elements of ambition and statesmanship will soon engulf President Donald J. Trump and his unorthodox cadre. The wealthy New Yorker, who earned a grand total of 4.1 percent of the District of Columbia electorate’s vote, has proclaimed that he will “drain the swamp.” Washington has heard this pledge before: by House minority leader Nancy Pelosi in 2006, by President Ronald Reagan in 1982, and in the early 19th century by developers whose failed efforts to literally empty out the marshes of the new capital city would compel Lincoln and other presidents to spend their summers and autumns in the less boggy climes of the Soldiers’ Home.
Suffice it to say that draining at no time eventuated. For all his bravado, Mr. Trump is about to encounter something even more immutable than himself. To paraphrase V. S. Naipaul, Washington is what it is.
Indeed, by early accounts, Washington is poised to become even swampier under the new regime. “I’m already picking up tons of new clients,” a lobbyist friend recently told me, his eyes alight at the prospect of unprecedented deal-cutting, presided over by a pragmatic executive possessing a handful of big ideas and no small ones, and largely unchecked by a broken Democratic minority. Still: How can the man who gave the world “The Apprentice” not change Washington?
Over dinner the other night at a not quite year-old Adams Morgan restaurant called Tail Up Goat, one of those casually urbane yet self-assured upscale spots that simply did not exist here 15 years ago, a liberal friend fretted that such places might lose their cultural foothold in a Trumpled ecosystem. “We’ll be back to steakhouses again,” she lamented over bialy with onion jam and trout roe and whole stuffed porgy with pistachio rice, both well prepared if overly ample.
I strained to imagine the Tail Up Goat’s groovy young customers defecting en masse to Morton’s on Connecticut Avenue, a clubby haunt of Republican establishment types where, almost exactly two years earlier, a veteran conservative journalist munched on a cigar and scoffed while two D.C. nobodies named Corey Lewandowski and Hope Hicks sought to convince him that their new boss, Donald Trump, really was going to run for president this time. Mr. Lewandowski is now a Washington political consultant offering direct access to the Trump administration; Ms. Hicks is the White House deputy director for strategic communications; and the reporter, an unsuccessful candidate for a high post in the Trump administration.
So goes the churn in America’s swamp. It may be that Morton’s will now see more triumphalist cigar smoke, while the Obama staffer enclaves like the brasserie Le Diplomate — sorry, I meant to say “Le Dip” — recede in self-importance. Still, it was in the private room of a well-known Washington steakhouse, the Caucus Room, that (as I reported in my 2012 book “Do Not Ask What Good We Do”) about 15 leading Republicans met on Obama’s inauguration night and laid out a plan to obstruct the new president’s entire agenda. Perhaps Democratic dissidents will start their own counterrevolution over orange wine and sardine sourdough bread at Tail Up Goat.
Before I learned of Lincoln’s Cottage, my favorite sanctuary in Washington had long been the 35-acre Historic Congressional Cemetery, where I would walk my dog, Bill, twice daily during the years that we lived as bachelors a 15-minute stroll away on Capitol Hill. Some of the nation’s first statesmen are buried there, along with sundry Washington celebrities, ranging from the F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover to the rascally Washington Mayor Marion Barry to Mary Ann Hall, who ran an esteemed brothel four blocks southwest of the Capitol during Mr. Lincoln’s time.
A statue outside President Lincoln’s Cottage, where he found some refuge during the Civil War.
As a slice of Washington arcana, the cemetery is well worth a visit. It’s also an endearingly odd neighborhood mainstay where, depending on the hour of your visit, you might encounter other political writers with their dogs, or a dignitary’s funeral, or a family of red foxes tearing at the carcass of a lesser critter.
I have no plans to be buried at the Congressional Cemetery, or anywhere in the city for that matter. To resign myself to such a fate would be to admit once and for all that I’m a Washingtonian. My resistance doesn’t owe itself to an abhorrence of politics per se. The art of the possible is, like journalism, a distinctly human endeavor.
Anyone with a government-issued ID can sit in the House gallery and watch as a recalcitrant congressman fends off a cajoling member of the whip team. Anyone can wander the underground tunnels connecting the Capitol with the six House and Senate office buildings and see Speaker Paul Ryan stride with furious locomotion while his thumbs stab away at his smartphone.
Or — one of my favorite pastimes during this postelection season — anyone can navigate the hallways of the above-mentioned House and Senate office buildings and observe the dozens of offices now vacated, the name plaques stripped from the doors, and the government-issued furniture pushed out into the corridors, all to signify the humbling fact that the people have spoken and the old must make way for the new, in the manner of democracy’s churn.
The Red Hen restaurant in the Bloomingdale neighborhood of Washington.
The mortal frailty of human politics — deals being cut and deals falling apart, arrogant lifers being driven out and upstarts being ushered in — is what attracted me to Washington to begin with. I make it a point each year to meet someone for drinks at Quill, the bar in the Jefferson Hotel, an enduring power alley not far from the White House. Its dark and muscular wood and leather interior recalls an era of masculine insularity, though these days at least as many of its patrons are female.
Sitting with my back to the wall, I invariably recall the spring of 1974, when, as Houston teenagers, my younger brother, John, and I spent a week visiting our grandfather Leon Jaworski, who was living upstairs in a suite at the Jefferson while serving as the Watergate special prosecutor.
I had read that Nixon’s men originally counted on my grandfather being a patsy of the establishment. But by the time of our visit, that smug notion had evaporated, and Nixon’s doom was little more than four months away. We ate one night at the iconic Trader Vic’s, a Polynesian restaurant in the old Statler Hilton a few blocks from the White House, and favored by A-listers from Nixon on down — or in any event we tried to eat: Our table was swarmed by reporters and various well-wishing titans of the town. I remember studying my grandfather’s expression to see how he was taking all of this. He did not seem at all giddy, as I was for him. A burden had fallen on him, one that no one else could share. At that moment, the nation depended on his integrity.
I think of that when I visit the Jefferson these days. Like the red wheelbarrow in the William Carlos Williams poem, so much depends on solitary Americans rising above their own puniness. The grandeur of Washington lies not in its marble, but in the grimy miracle of everyday politics that reveals itself in the shadows of the Jefferson’s bar, in the bowels of the Capitol and in the furtive comings and goings of visitors traversing the White House lawn.
The United States Capitol.
No, my (wholly unoriginal) quarrel with Washington concerns the preening insularity of its political class. This, too, is a pervasive spectacle. Whether on barstools in the hyper-exclusive “speakeasy” clubs, or standing in a three-hour queue for a table at Rose’s Luxury, or tittering like adolescents at the celebrities who annually grace the White House Correspondents’ Dinner with their godly presence, or gazing as one into the Narcissus pool of Twitter feeds, the Washington elite with its undisguised self-absorption provides a bounty for “Veep” and other TV satires. You can decide for yourself whether the joke is funny in the end.
Meanwhile, the travails of Real America are in plain sight for those who care to look. Consider, for example, the aforementioned Congressional Cemetery. Looming over the graveyard’s northeastern flank is an armada of dull-colored buildings comprising the federal prison commonly referred to as the D.C. Jail. Its inhabitants are overwhelmingly black, just as the cemetery’s eternal residents are mostly white.
The stark juxtaposition of This Town and That Town echoes Washington’s enduring heritage as the compromise capital between those states that held slaves and those that did not. It’s also a reminder that the plurality of Washington’s residents — about 45 percent — are African-American. That number is steadily decreasing, however, in inverse proportion to D.C.’s soaring property values. Thus does the swamp recede further from the nation it purports to serve.
After visiting President Lincoln’s Cottage, I drove late in the afternoon to the city’s southeastern quadrant and took in the impressive view of Washington’s monuments from the peak known as Cedar Hill. It’s a summit I’d visited a few times in the recent past while researching a book about the city’s enduring racial divide. The locale symbolizes the possibility, if only that, of divisions erased.
The Frederick Douglass home in Anacostia. He had, by 1877, enough money to buy this 21-room Victorian mansion and its 15 acres.
The house on this lawn, now a historic site owned by the Department of the Interior, previously belonged to Frederick Douglass. Born into slavery in 1818 on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Douglass escaped at the age of 21 and thereafter came to be regarded as one of the nation’s foremost intellectuals, writers and abolitionists. Though he criticized President Lincoln’s incremental approach to emancipation, the latter often sought out the former’s counsel. In the years following the Civil War, Presidents Hayes and Garfield appointed him, respectively, to the posts of U.S. Marshal and Recorder of Deeds, the first African-American to hold either position.
Meanwhile, Douglass had by 1877 attained sufficient wealth to buy this 21-room Victorian mansion and its accompanying 15 acres. The original owner, a white man named John Welsh VanHook, was one of the many Washington developers of the time to be bankrupted by ambition. VanHook had poured all of his money into the city’s first planned subdivision, known as Uniontown, which today is called Anacostia, the most prominent of Washington’s predominantly black neighborhoods, and where Cedar Hill is situated.
In his final years, Douglass would come to be known as the Lion of Anacostia. Up until his death in 1895 at the age of 77, he began each morning by performing calisthenics on his front lawn. Standing where he exercised, I considered the image of the former slave reveling in his vigor, atop a city of endless promise — and then a different spectacle, three decades earlier and eight miles to the northwest, beyond the Potomac River and the dome of the Capitol: that of a president on horseback, descending from his own hallowed peak into the awful wartime responsibilities awaiting him in the White House.
We can cynically conjecture that the Washington of today is not exactly what either man devoted their lives to preserving. But it remains, for all its infestations, a city hospitable to greatness.
Give it your best shot, Mr. Trump.