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In a visit with his very lovely, athletic daughter the Hoya, our own esteemed and beloved Dr. Bastiat recently traveled to my old haunts in Georgetown, DC, whereupon he made some observations from which he drew some rather detailed inferences:
The people in Georgetown seem harmless enough. The men often start their sentences with ‘So…’ and end their sentences with a non-threatening upward lilt. And I’m sure they mean well. At least, they go to a lot of effort to publicly signal that they mean well.
But as I was watching people walk by in Georgetown, I was a little creeped out. I wanted to grab some random guy as ask him “You manage a $250 million hedge fund. You’re from Greenwich, Connecticut, and now you live in a $5 million townhouse in Georgetown. Why are you dressed like a beach bum? Ditch the Prius. Buy some new flip-flops, for Pete’s sake. What are you trying to prove? Who are you trying to impress? Who are you trying to be?”
First, the people one is likely to enter on Wisconsin Avenue when leaving one’s hotel are far more likely to be shoppers and other non-residents. Actual residents are more likely to shop at Tyson’s Corner, VA, or (for the handful of very rich) that row of absurdly upscale stores in Chevy Chase.
Second, unfortunately, the kinds of beta males Dr. Bastiat observed are endemic in all American cities. I can point him to sections of Dallas where such specimens can be found in appalling numbers.
And third, people who manage large hedge funds are not as common in DC as in major American finance centers elsewhere. And those involved in such high-end, purely private sector activities are far more likely to be residents of McLean or Potomac. Georgetown has always been about people whose business is government and politics.
My family moved to Georgetown in 1962. When we first rented on Reservoir Road and 34th in our first year in DC, I listened while my dad sometimes chatted with a neighbor, a young Indiana congressman named Rumsfeld. My mother’s nearby close friend’s husband was a senior figure in the CIA. He was a creep. The Redskins would sometimes practice on the field at Georgetown University in the preseason. I could ride my bike to watch and they were pretty friendly and accessible. The world seemed like a pretty level, equal place. It was nice to see a lot of famous, powerful people in everyday normal settings. You can’t easily caricature, demonize or stereotype some famous person who smiles and hands you something that fell off your bike or who shares the same pew on Sunday.
My parents bought a house in 1964 on Cambridge Place near Dumbarton Oaks. A group of smart, attractive women who worked on the Senate side of the Hill rented the house next door. They were friends and co-workers of Mary Jo Kopechne. They seemed as upset about her depiction as a sexual plaything of Ted Kennedy as by her death. They sometimes confided in my mom about life for a woman on Capitol Hill in that pre-MeToo era.
I had paper routes for the Evening Star, the Daily News, and (for one summer) the Washington Post. The widowed Jackie Kennedy’s house required that I hand the paper to the Secret Service guys. (She was never there anyway.) Katherine Graham (she owned the Post) got six copies daily and had to be the first delivery on the route. Famous columnists, politicians, and a few very rich people were often more likely to be bad tippers and make demands than were normal people.
The Jelleff Boys’ Club was a hangout. My 75-pound and under football coach ran maintenance crews at Georgetown University. The boys whose dads were plumbers, electricians, or worked at the hardware store mostly lived across Wisconsin Ave in Burleith—Georgetown was already pricing out a lot of people.
My brothers’ best buddy was from one of the residual black families that used to be the majority in southeast Georgetown. Epiphany Church on Dumbarton St. (our parish) was originally established by Josephites—an American Catholic order whose mission was in service to blacks. Mt. Zion Church on 29th St. still had a predominately black congregation for decades even though the neighborhood had long since become white. Georgetown is probably over 95% white now.
In the 1940s and 50s, Georgetown had a few big mansions, lots of working people, and some poorer sections. It was mostly not very fashionable. There were still docks along K Street but railroads and trucks had long since made the small port of Georgetown—the last stop on the Potomac before Great Falls– a relic. M street bars and restaurants were all dives. I recall a rendering plant or some other hideous industrial thing at the base of Wisconsin avenue right on the river. You could almost tell the temperature in the summer by the smell—the hotter and stiller it was, the farther north the stink reached (maxing out at Q street on really hot days).
The Kennedy Administration made Georgetown fashionable when so many Camelot denizens moved in and housing prices climbed thereafter. It also established the mystique.
I attended Georgetown University after the Army. Why not? My father, my mother’s father and brother were alumni. A Georgetown alumni connection in Miami was how my parents met.
I recall how a female classmate gushed at how cosmopolitan the place was. I looked around the classroom at the people I knew and noted the class was mostly ethnic Catholics from Boston, NY, or Philadelphia–Georgetown back then looked about as cosmopolitan as a Knights of Columbus convention. But it truly was a wonderful, vibrant place to study. Are there still places like that now?
Does any college population now look distinctive in any way? I don’t mean ethnically or racially but in terms of style, look and feel—is there a character, culture, or purpose to the place? Or does everybody dress, act, think and speak the same on every campus now?
Anyway, sorry for the ramble. The point is that America would be better off if old Georgetown cocktail party values were actually in place. The real Georgetown was bi-partisan, competent, accomplished, patriotic, and decent–a direct reflection of the caliber of the leadership class of America for two generations.
The present American decline has never solely been a matter of elitist decay spreading downward to the real America. The rot has been more like a COVID outbreak–simultaneous across many social and cultural sectors with no identifiable single starting point, as if everybody were already infected before conditions triggered something. The kinds of communities that produced Sergeant York are now far more likely to produce crystal meth. How did that happen? Self-indulgence, narcissism, sensuality, and a loss of purpose arrived on a tidal wave of new wealth. The real Gordon Gekkos (Madoff, Epstein, the Enron guys) were actually worse than the movie version. And we are now inexplicably turning an era of unparalleled economic success into a new Weimar, passively waiting for totalitarians to fight each other for possession of our benumbed national soul. That disaster did not originate at a Georgetown cocktail party nor from latter-day hipsters on Wisconsin Avenue.
Whatever the cause, we need to figure out where we go from here.Published in