Ward Just and The Federal City

July 11, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: A Gergen dialogue. Tonight David Gergen, editor-at-large of “U.S. News & World Report,” talks to a novelist, Ward Just, whose most recent work is Echo House.

DAVID GERGEN: Ward, the critics have praised your new novel not only for its literary qualities but also for its insights into Washington, D.C.. Tell us about the culture of Washington.

WARD JUST, Author, Echo House: Washington is an interesting city. It’s interesting because it’s –it’s only a capital. That’s all it is. Unlike Berlin, unlike Rome, unlike Paris, or London, the larger culture is not surrounding it, about all it’s got in common with these other great capitals is a river. Washington is just the three branches of government in this huge federal bureaucracy.

In Paris, for example, where I lived for a while, the government of France is the minor part of Paris. It isn’t–that isn’t something that you think about very much. And when you go by the tube stop to the chamber of deputies, in fact, it’s mostly empty. Nobody’s getting on. Nobody’s getting off. The effect that this has had on Washington is to isolate it very much, I think, from the larger culture in the United States, that coupled with the fact that we have such an enormous country the provinces are not crowded and upon it, as they are in other capitals.

It makes it a peculiarly interesting place, and, therefore, one that it’s worthwhile writing about, though it’s fair to say that none of what we like to think of–of our greatest writers–with the exception of Mark Twain and Henry Adams–ever went near Washington, D.C., as a venue for their novels, not Melville, not James, not Hemingway, not Faulkner, not Fitzgerald, none of them. And that’s a curiosity.

DAVID GERGEN: But you say in your book that it would actually be a very–we’d have a very different kind of government, a very different kind of country if Washington–if the capital had been in New York or Philadelphia, where it once was, for example.

WARD JUST: I think it would indubitably. It would, among other things, this tremendous self-regard that seems to have been built up in Washington–not to say arrogance over the–over particularly the last 20 years–would be really impossible in a place like New York or Chicago or Philadelphia.

Too much else of consequence is going around, going on around it–the universities, writers, playwrights, musicians, artists, all of the national–all parts of the national life, other than just the government, the government in politic. This is a city of government and politics and very little else, just one little tiny fact that helps to pin that–the largest private employer in the District of Columbia is the “Washington Post” newspaper. It’s got its own zip code.

DAVID GERGEN: I loved your line in your book that there’s a secular religion in Washington and everybody belongs to it. They’re called feds.

WARD JUST: Feds. It ought to be–I mean, it ought to be something that we’re talking essentially about, the higher slopes of Northwest Washington. There is a huge, mostly under class, as we all know, in this city from the government. It’s sort of an irrelevance. It has no meaning for the much, you know, kind of one way and another, but to the extent that Washington gets into the headlines, it’s the Congress, the President, the Supreme Court.

DAVID GERGEN: And the press.

WARD JUST: And the press.

DAVID GERGEN: Now, you write about a generational fault line in America in the 20th century in Washington. And tell us about that fault line.

WARD JUST: I set up in the last chapter–I’ve got a group of men who–who begin the book as very young men and end it as very, very old men. And I called them the venerables. And I have them looking over this vast party at which the President of the United States and his wife are present, Supreme Court Justices and Senators, and mean little faces looking around, and of course, they’re holding martinis.

All the younger people, you know, have got little, you know, wine seltzers in their hands, and they’re thinking of the city has a city of stupefying vulgarity, arrogance, and greed, where, you know, where once the important work was done in the shadows, was done outside. The more anonymous you were, the more you could get done.

The situation is now the reverse. Where the coin that you had in the bank was celebrity coin, the more–the better you were known–the more people could see you, the more power you had, and then finally finding one of these venerables, and he said, cheap Charlies; all they want to do is balance the budget and not spend any money, keep things close to the vest so they can get elected once again.

DAVID GERGEN: But you seem sympathetic with the venerables. They have a larger purpose, you thought.

WARD JUST: I do. I am sympathetic with the venerables, but in this dialogue between the two I tried to deal–I did try to deal the cards as fairly as I could. And so I have one of the younger people there thinking, well, yes, well, that’s all well and good, but who was it that brought us the Cold War, who was it that brought us–I think there’s a line about first off Vietnam and fighting foolish on winnable wars and dubious insurgency, and what did all–what was the consequence of that, especially the Vietnam War? They broke the country. The country was bankrupt. There isn’t any money in the Treasury. And so, therefore, you have to–do you have to do a lot less with a lot less.

DAVID GERGEN: When do you think that fault line occurred in politics? When did one generation sort of begin to leave off and the next one start, sometime in the 60′s?

WARD JUST: Yes. I–I think after 1968 things were different. I think you might almost be able to pinpoint the minute, which is when Lyndon Johnson went on the television screen and announced that he was not going to run for office. And everybody knew that he had been driven from office. That directly paved the way, I think, for Richard Nixon.

Watergate came, which was an event not quite like any other, I think, in our–in our history. And we are still in some strange way trying to feel our way. And that’s what the back half of Echo House is trying to do. It really is trying to feel its way, I mean, with these–all these fictional characters, trying to see where it is that we’ve come particularly since 1968, and the dramatically changing culture, what I see as a dramatically changing culture in Washington, D.C..

DAVID GERGEN: And where do you think we’ve come? Final question.

WARD JUST: I don’t think we quite know yet. I believe that things are on this sort of odd level, this strange level path, and you look down it and you say, well, what are the landmarks? It’s very difficult for me to see a landmark.

I don’t think we’re in a period where you can say, well, this has changed that, where you can see clearly some kind of path, and in the future, in a way the ship still drifts since 1968. No land in sight.

DAVID GERGEN: Ward Just, thank you very much for joining us.

WARD JUST: Thank you, David.