Washington, D.C., is a city of paradoxes. It teems with ambitious career-climbers, yet maintains a laid-back Southern vibe. The federal government is based here, yet local residents have no vote in Congress. People are keenly aware of the power of schmoozing, yet parties end by 11 p.m., and the streets are deserted by midnight.
No one had a better vantage point from which to observe the unique world that is Washington than former <I>Washington Post</I> publisher Katharine Graham, whose autobiography, <I>Personal History</I>, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998. Before her death in 2001, Graham compiled a collection of essays on Washington. The result is <B>Katharine Graham's Washington</B>, a pitch-perfect anthology that captures the nuances of life in the nation's capital.
Obviously, the book will interest Washingtonians, but whether others will read it is another matter. They should. Although some pieces are clearly reserved for D.C. residents only the most ardent Washington devotee will read a three-page essay on local trees most are humorous or insightful enough to be entertaining wherever you live.
Graham's selections yield a rich blend of viewpoints. Historian David McCullough's piece, "I Love Washington," is a sublime ode to the city. Other essays chronicle inaugurations, life as a congressman's daughter, employment as the "presidential kennel keeper."Some pieces are hopelessly outdated, and one assumes Graham included them simply for their humorous archaic appeal. "The Private Lives of Washington Girls" in particular is a cringe-worthy 1950s essay on female federal workers in which author Eleanor Early informs the reader for no apparent reason that "four out of five Government Girls are destined to be old maids."But other light-hearted pieces are fascinating. Liz Carpenter, who worked as Lady Bird Johnson's press secretary, recalls preparing for Luci Baines Johnson's 1966 wedding. It was the first White House wedding in 50 years, and Carpenter had the unenviable task of keeping a rabid press at bay.
When United Airlines sent air-conditioning equipment to cool down the church, a frantic Department of Labor official reminded Carpenter that the airline was on strike and using their coolers would be a public relations nightmare. A scramble ensued to intercept the coolers en route.
Although the writing is consistently vibrant, the real treats in this book are Graham's vignettes introducing each piece. An observer of D.C. life for decades (she even refers to herself in the introduction as the Forrest Gump of Washington always managing to be ringside for historical events), Graham's comments add considerable zing to the volume. In "Dining Out Washington," reporter Joseph Alsop recalls eating turtle stew and Virginia ham with various Washington luminaries. A hilarious piece on its own, Graham writes an introduction that further enhances the essay, revealing Alsop as a brilliant, charming and "enormously fat" man with whom she remained close friends for years.
Many pieces are poignant in light of September 11, after which the Washington tourism industry suffered enormously. An essay by W.M. Kiplinger titled "Tourists See the Sights" is from 1942, but it could just as easily have been written today. "Washington is the greatest sight-seeing city in the world," Kiplinger writes. "In normal times, four million people come every year to the capital." These aren't normal times, but here's hoping that this vibrant, affecting book lures people back to Washington.
<I>Amy Scribner lives and writes in Washington, D.C.</I>