Foreign visitors to Washington have a hard time understanding our nation's capital. "They always ask me the same thing," says my cousin Caroline. "They want to know where the city is."
Real cities have high-rise buildings, and important cities have soaring skyscrapers designed by famous architects — look at New York, Beijing, Shanghai or Seoul. Surely there's more to D.C. than scores of dismal, low-rise, neo-classical buildings fronted by bronze equestrian statues!
That's one of Washington's many charms. Thousands of power players live there, yet it seems curiously provincial, like Natchez or Memphis ... or Colorado Springs. Also like our city, Washington can seem transient. Elected officials and staffs arrive, fret their hours upon the stage and depart, to be heard from no more. New administrations come and leave, just as Intel came to Colorado Springs in the 1990s, hired thousands and abruptly left.
Yet both cities have strong, permanent, almost-invisible governing classes. In Colorado Springs, a few dozen serve as de facto city directors, exerting leadership through philanthropy, wisdom, institutional power and sheer force of personality. If you don't know them, stick around — you'll figure it out.
In Washington, power is so diffused as to be invisible. Congress may have it, but members are too quarrelsome to exercise it. President Barack Obama has immense power, but not enough to tame recalcitrant Republicans.
Manufactured crises have the effect of transferring power to the much-maligned bureaucracy, D.C.'s permanent governing class. Not a bad idea.
Between 1950 and 1990, American foreign policy was executed, shaped and often created by the quiet, professional diplomatic corps. They failed to dissuade Lyndon Johnson from leading the country into a meaningless war, but they successfully managed many crises and prevented hundreds more.
I was in Washington last weekend for the funeral of one of those quiet Americans, Caroline's father, Christopher Van Hollen. Born in 1922, Van Hollen went to work for then-Secretary of State Dean Acheson in 1951, devoting most of his career to the Near East and South Asia. As deputy assistant secretary of state in 1971, he butted heads with Henry Kissinger over the Bangladesh crisis, and later served as ambassador to Sri Lanka.
The wooden benches of the Friends Meeting House were packed with family, friends and colleagues, including many aging survivors of a golden age of diplomacy. A post-funeral reception at the Cosmos Club gave this consummate outsider a glimpse of the once (and hopefully future) D.C. establishment.
The Cosmos Club, says its website, "is a private social club, incorporated in Washington, D.C. in 1878 by men distinguished in science, literature and the arts. ... Among its members, over the years, have been three Presidents, two Vice Presidents, a dozen Supreme Court justices, 32 Nobel Prize winners, 56 Pulitzer Prize winners and 45 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom."
Want to join? To be considered for membership in the Cosmos Club, an individual must be a person of "distinction, character and sociability" who has done meritorious original work in science, literature, or the arts; is well known in another field, or is recognized as distinguished in a learned profession or in public service.
Getting elected to Congress doesn't count. You have to do something.
The club occupies a grand Beaux-Arts mansion on Massachusetts Avenue and maintains a strict dress code. If ever there were a place where power, wisdom and intelligence could be deployed for the country's benefit, it would be within those walls.
Are we represented at that table? Would any right-wing ideologue feel comfortable in the august precincts of the Cosmos Club? Conversely, would traditional conservative Republicans such as Bill Hybl or Kathy Loo be uncomfortable there?
The bipartisan establishment of the latter 20th century underpinned American greatness. We've helped shatter that consensus by electing as our representative in Congress a man who despises compromise.
Fellow Republicans: In 2014, let's replace our D.C. incumbent with a person of "distinction, character, and sociability." I know one Democrat who would work with him or her: U.S. Rep. Christopher Van Hollen Jr., D-Md.