ames Reston, the legendary New York Times columnist who retired in 1989 after 46 years at his post, achieved his legendary status for the usual reasons—longevity, productivity, the painstaking cultivation of the powerful, and the careful accumulation of devoted protégés. The thing about Reston I recall most fondly was what became known as his “The Mood of Washington” columns. Often, the phrase was not only the column’s headline but the opening words, too, so the reader got a double dose of mood.
“The mood of Washington is grim,” he might intone. Then things would brighten up a week or two later—you could never tell when!—“Suddenly there’s a buoyant mood in our nation’s capital . . . . ” The cherry blossoms could do wonders for the Mood.
Reston published so many of these columns that they became a kind of insider’s joke. Every one who writes about Washington ever since has dreaded becoming Restonized, guilty of inflating slender or random observations into diagnostic generalizations about an entire city. The columnist Steven Chapman once wrote sardonically about Reston’s “knack for succinctly capturing the innermost feelings of millions of people.” But the Washington Reston wrote about was official Washington, a conceptual burg that’s populated by no more than 15,000 people—pols, staffers, senior civil servants, lobbyists, journalists, and those who mysteriously call themselves “consultants.” The reason one can plausibly discern their collective mood is that most of them think exactly alike.
So what, you might ask, is the Mood of Washington these days, as we await the arrival of Donald Trump and watch the Obama era recede Brigadoon-like into the mists? I could try a Reston word like cautious, or perhaps unsettled. In fact, the Mood of Washington is pure, unrelenting horror.
Every administration since Jimmy Carter has come to office vowing to change the way Washington works. Carter’s reforms ranged from the trivial (eliminating car service for mid-level White House staffers) to the potentially colossal (zero-based budgeting). Typically, the trivial reforms endure and the colossal get whittled down, overturned, or abandoned altogether. The Reagan Revolution, while it lasted, aimed to disburse power away from the capital, but it drenched the Washington area with so much military spending that the city become a money town as much as a power town. Inadvertently, Reagan vastly expanded the number of vested interests in the status quo. And so it has gone, from Democrats to Republicans to Democrats, right up to Mr. Hope ’n’ Change himself. Washington always wins out over those who say they want to do it in.
Can it outwit Donald Trump, too? Politicians as unalike as Ronald Reagan and Nancy Pelosi have used the phrase “drain the swamp” to describe their efforts to disrupt the romance between lobbyists and legislators. Trump made the phrase a campaign slogan and repeated it with particular, not to say bone-chilling, vehemence. And as president-elect, he has taken aim at the lobbying-legislating nexus by saying he will forbid all his appointees from working as registered lobbyists for five years after they leave government.
This never works. President Obama signed a similar order with a two-year limit. His acolytes left the administration and immediately took jobs as lawyers, public-relations specialists, strategists—anything that would let them operate, more or less, as lobbyists without having to register as such.
Besides, influence peddling, unseemly as it is, long predates the flooding of the swamp. Lobbyists who love legislators and vice versa aren’t the premier cause of Washington dysfunction. Trump shows signs of understanding this. To judge by the way he has been conducting himself since his election, we can conclude that the metaphorical swamp he wants to drain is the entire Washington way of life—the tangle of habits, conventions, rituals, and other folkways that continue to exist simply because . . . well, because they continue to exist.
They can have their uses, these habits. For example, Trump’s decision to forgo daily intelligence briefings on the grounds that they’re boring and he’s “smart” suggests that the man who ran as a sociopath may yet govern as one.
But many of his other decisions suggest that Trump is actually the good kind of Disrupter all forward-lookers claim they admire…unless he’s a Republican. Consider Trump’s acceptance of a phone call from the president of Taiwan. (You can try to spell her name if you want to.) The reaction of Official Washington couldn’t have been more furious, or preposterous. Old China hands and fresh-faced think-tankers alike took to the airwaves to condemn Trump’s ignorance of a protocol that had been in place since 1979: The U.S. president shall not anger the Communist Chinese regime by uttering so much as a peep to anyone in the Taiwanese government.
Until Trump, nobody dared to ask, “Why the hell not?” And nobody had a good answer. The protocol is an artifact of a long-gone era, when the Chinese–U.S. relationship was much more fragile and strategically delicate. Taiwan is a sympathetic democracy badly treated by a neighboring behemoth. And China wasn’t terribly angry anyway. All at once, a treasured Washington shibboleth popped like a balloon.
Another violation of etiquette Trump committed one night in Manhattan: He went to dinner at “21” with his family, and the “protective pool” of reporters, which for two generations has trailed the president every time he leaves home, wasn’t alerted. No outraged member of the press could say why the pool should have been alerted. The president-elect, after all, hadn’t disappeared—he was sitting in the middle of the main dining room of one of the most famous restaurants in the world. The Secret Service was out in force. If for some reason an emergency transfer of power suddenly became necessary, the vice president wouldn’t have had to hear about it from the pool report.
If we’re lucky, the Washington press corps will continue to be offended, as one tradition after another is shown to exist solely for the benefit of the Washington press corps. Why, for instance, do we need formal presidential press conferences when more and better information can be elicited from one-on-one interviews? What’s the point of daily press briefings in the White House, aside from giving the reporters airtime? I could go on. How about the White House Correspondents’ dinner? Or the State of the Union address! An empty spectacle only a reporter and his editor could love.
And then there’s the federal government itself—an institution almost as powerful as the press corps. Official Washington’s bureaucratic ideal is the great British TV satire Yes, Minister, in which the intentions of a doddering political appointee are frustrated at every turn by a wily career civil servant. When the president of the United States is a loyal Democrat, the problem doesn’t arise, because the vast majority of bureaucrats are loyal Democrats, too. A Republican executive is another story.
Trump is again showing signs of taking a unique approach to the looming problem: If career civil servants are likely to thwart his rollback of Obama-era regulations, he will simply ask them to identify themselves. Trump’s aides sent existing Department of Energy employees a questionnaire about their work, their understanding of the department’s statutory authority, their future initiatives, their budget priorities, and other rude questions.
The questionnaire was instantly leaked to the press. Washington was appalled. Such things just are not done. The ranking Democrat on the energy committee said the questions violated the “rule of law.” “Demands fuel fear of Energy Department ‘witch hunt,’” Politico warned. “Questions Causes [sic] Concerns,” fretted NPR’s website.
Precisely whose fear was fueled, and whose concerns were raised, went unidentified. Bureaucrats do like their anonymity. But it may no longer be possible. When you drain a swamp, I guess, you discover all kinds of swamp creatures. And they’ll be in a rotten mood. The question now is whose mood will govern Washington—theirs or Trump’s.