When I moved from New York to Washington 14 years ago, the Old World compact was still in place: New York was about money. Washington was about power. And never the twain should be confused, particularly by Washingtonians. Like 16th-century Paduans, New Yorkers believed themselves to be the center of the universe. Anywhere else, including the nation’s capital, was out of town.
Where New York was a shiny new pair of Manolo Blahniks, Washington was a brace of comfortable old laceups. New York worshipped style, Washington worshipped content. New Yorkers believed that the chic shall inherit the earth; Washington warily eyed any enterprise that required buying new clothes.
Money became a potentate whose power is greater even than that of the president, controlling and outlasting any political fortune.
Over the past few years, I watched wonky Washington change as money flowed here in a steady stream, and woke it up to the joys and sorrows of too much being not enough.
When social life heats up, its chroniclers are never far behind. Partying for partying’s sake isn’t fully rewarding unless others see what they’re missing. The delicious torment of exclusion is most effectively practiced through pictures that show who was included, and who got left out. In the New Yorkified Washington, several glossy magazines sprang up to record the charity events, the museum and theatre openings, the embassy functions that now lit up the sleepy capital. A younger, glitzier crowd did not exactly replace the old Georgetown set, but rendered it a relic of a past time, when exclusive gatherings were covered more for substance than form.
Letting the photographers in on nightlife ruined the mystery, but heightened the demand to participate. A row of international boutiques sprang up in Chevy Chase, Maryland, to accommodate a younger, more fashionable crowd. High-powered women in politics decided that looking good was the best revenge. Conspicuous wealth arrived like an important ambassador from the court of New York, where Emperor Money reigned supreme. Money became a potentate whose power is greater even than that of the president, controlling and outlasting any political fortune.
Washington’s New Yorkification began manifesting itself in myriad ways: Real-estate values soared. Philanthropy reached epic proportions. Big donors and celebrities got better seats than senators. A new arts center was built. The Kennedy Center bristled with first-rate productions and its appointed chairman was a famous Wall Street billionaire.
Nonetheless, New York still viewed Washington as a dowdy country cousin, not quite up to the Big Money show. The unspoken view in New York: Presidents may come and go, but basically all politicians must sit at the table set by Emperor Money.
Until now. Lo and behold, the past year has revealed that the Emperor has no clothes—and many of his devout followers are naked, too! They trail behind him, an army of disgraced mercenaries, as he beats a thorny path to Washington, shouting “We repent our sins! Now save us, Mr. President! Please!”
Suddenly, Washington has become the decision-making center of global capitalism. The bankers and executives crawl down here, their bonuses between their legs, their fiefdoms in ruins, courting the Treasury wonks they once looked down on as poor relations. The President of Wonkville is suddenly the People’s Prince, the man who stands between Emperor Money and the mob.
For New Yorkers, the good news is that Washington will never be New York no matter how many businesses it controls because New York is as durable and Washington is, by its changing political fortunes, transient. The bad news is that New York may never be New York again even if real-estate values do rebound to their black tulip highs.
But is that such bad news? The New York I grew up in was not all about money, but rather about life, like London—the best and the worst of it. New Yorkers are known for their resilience. The response to the 9/11 attacks proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt. There is a noble camaraderie in disaster. We have survived a lot worse than this. Yes, the recent New York state of mind has been eclipsed by a Washington head of state. But that may eventually be a good thing. In any case, this is a tale of two cities now inextricably bound by what had always kept them apart: money and power. There’s a perverse comfort in knowing that we are all, finally, in the same boat.
Jane Stanton Hitchcock is a playwright and a novelist. Her new novel about Washington society, Mortal Friends,will be published in June.