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The “cursus honorum” to the Capitol: Nearly everyone in Washington DC works for or with the US government (© SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)


I live and work in the Washington, DC  metropolitan region. I drive to my office down 16th Street, the White House visible through my windshield. In my job I meet four-star generals in the Pentagon and Senators in the Capitol. I dine with foreign ambassadors. I have been briefed in the Roosevelt Room, across from the Oval Office in the White House, and lunched in the ornate Franklin Room on the seventh floor of the State Department, just down from the Secretary’s office. On my way home, I often drive up Massachusetts Avenue, passing Beaux Arts mansions and modernist architecture housing the embassies of every country on earth.

I pass by and through these portals, each time a bit more blasé, but never without a flash of awe and appreciation. I think this is what it must have felt like to walk through Hadrian’s Rome, at the empire’s height, or London circa 1900, when the sun never set on the Union Jack. Though Washington is not a financial or cultural centre like other world capitals, the overwhelming power of the United States means that its magnetic pull draws in anyone who matters from around the globe.

Many Washingtonians cannot imagine living anywhere but “inside the Beltway”, referring to the ring road around the city. Washington attracts the brightest, most idealistic, most ambitious, and often most ruthless people from around the country. Nearly every public issue of interest is dealt with in some way in Washington. The city may not rise to the level of Dr Johnson’s London, but if one tires of all the different topics discussed in Washington, then one surely has tired of life.

Yet passing the mansions and monuments, I can’t help but think as the academic historian I once was. One day, the mansions will be shuttered and the monuments empty, because Washington will no longer be the capital of the world. Surrounded by such wealth, power and arrogance, it seems impossible to believe that such a time may be coming sooner than we think. It is inconceivable to consider that the time to live off the fat of the land is now; and that those charged with passing along to their heirs a country stronger and a government better than what they themselves inherited, are instead draining it dry and fatally undermining the supports needed for a free people to govern themselves. And yet, all one needs is a dose of modesty and historical perspective to see warning signs amidst the pomp and glamour.

Washington is a regal court. For all Americans’ reverence for democracy, inside the boundaries of the District of Columbia, there is only one, universally recognised apex: the Oval Office. Everything radiates downward from there. There is an absolute clarity about one’s relative standing in Washington. The closer one works to the Oval Office, the frequency with which one is called by cabinet officials or congressional leaders, the number of news shows one appears on all determine one’s standing on the Washington ladder. Unlike in New York, status in Washington comes not from money; it comes from political power and influence. It is why men and women are willing to spend nearly a billion dollars to become President, and others are willing to devote their lives to serving those who may one day sit behind the grand desk made from the timbers of HMS Resolute.

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