Leaving Capitol Hill

 

When Denis Stauntonbecame Washington Correspondent four years ago, George W Bush’s popularity was on the wane and Hurricane Katrina was about to strike. Now, as he prepares to move on, he reflects on what has changed – and what hasn’t

WASHINGTON IN August feels like a city in the South, hot and hazy, laid-back and so quiet that the trees seem to roar with birdsong and the chatter of cicadas.

The streets downtown are almost empty and the biggest crowds are on the National Mall, where tourists drift between the museums and monuments, stopping from time to time for a cold soda or a lukewarm hot dog.

Up on Capitol Hill, a handful of staffers, often dressed in T-shirts and cargo shorts, lounge around their offices, the congressmen and senators far away in their districts listening to the complaints of constituents.

These sluggish August days usually carry a small edge of anxiety, however, as the city anticipates the potential political upheavals of the months ahead. This year, the speculation is about the future of President Barack Obama’s plan to overhaul the American health care system, the strength and durability of the economic recovery and the future of politics without the liberal lion of the senate, Teddy Kennedy.

When I arrived in Washington in August 2005, George Bush was just a few months into his second term as president but the country was already turning sour on his administration. The war in Iraq had become unpopular as Americans saw a long and deadly occupation follow the swift invasion of 2003.

At home, Bush had alienated moderate public opinion by flying back to Washington from his vacation to sign a bill designed to keep Terri Schiavo, a woman in a persistent vegetative state, alive. Schiavo’s husband had sought for seven years to have his wife disconnected from a feeding tube and Bush’s action was widely viewed as a cheap sop to Republican supporters on the religious right.

All of Washington’s worries about war and religion were forgotten, however, when one of the deadliest hurricanes in American history struck the Gulf coast. Hurricane Katrina killed dozens of people and destroyed millions of dollars worth of property as it ripped along the coast, but the greatest loss of life came when the levees protecting New Orleans broke, flooding much of the city.

I went down to New Orleans with my friend Madeleine, a perennially unemployed film producer from New York. By the time we arrived, the National Guard were on the streets and a curfew was in force as they tried to evacuate the city’s population.

Every hotel within three hours’ drive was full, mostly with Katrina evacuees under the care of the American Red Cross. Most reporters left the city at 6pm each evening to avoid the curfew and drive to Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Lake Charles or even Port Arthur, across the border in Texas.

Madeleine and I got lucky when we made friends with the staff at Molly’s on the Market, one of only two bars in the French Quarter that stayed open throughout the storm. The bar had no electricity or running water but it had a room upstairs that we could rent for a couple of weeks, dining by candlelight every evening while the bartender stayed close to the gun he kept under the counter to frighten away the looters.

Horrified by the lack of hygiene, Madeleine insisted that we drive out of the city every three nights to find a hotel with hot water and clean sheets. On some of these trips, we took people who were stranded in New Orleans, dropping them off wherever they had friends to give them shelter.

On the way back into the city, we brought fuel, water, food and the moist baby-wipes that everyone used to stay clean in the sweltering heat.

As we were leaving one day, a regular at Molly’s asked shyly if we could take him with us. Juan, a New Orleans native who worked at a local record store, had been trying to get out of the city for a week but, like thousands of others, had given up waiting for evacuation buses that the authorities had promised but failed to deliver.

I sensed a familiar vibration in the air as we drove off to a town about two hours away where one of our passengers had friends who would put us up for the night. My suspicions were confirmed the following morning when Madeleine and Juan emerged grinning to breakfast and spent the rest of the morning giggling, apparently about nothing at all.

Juan went to stay with friends in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for a few months, but when he returned to New Orleans, Madeleine joined him. She called from there this week, telling me that they’re still together, both struggling to find steady work but pretty happy.

The storm and the flooding that followed Katrina killed almost 1,500 people in New Orleans, most of them poor and black. Thousands more were stranded far from home for months, sometimes separated from loved ones whose whereabouts they didn’t know for weeks.

The hurricane doomed the rest of Bush’s presidency as Americans watched in horror the incompetence and apparent indifference of his administration to the suffering of the country’s weakest citizens.

Hip-hop star Kanye West famously declared that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”, but Senator Edward Kennedy put it more eloquently.

“The suffering has been disproportionately borne by the weak, the poor, the elderly and the infirm, and largely African Americans, who were forced by poverty, illness and unequal opportunity to stay behind and bear the brunt of the storm’s winds and floods,” he said. “I believe that kind of disparate impact is morally wrong in this, the richest country in the world. One question we must consider today is how we can take action to unify our nation, heal racial division, end poverty and give real-life meaning to the constitutional mandate that there be equal protection under law.”

Race relations have improved dramatically since the civil rights legislation of the 1960s as the black middle class has grown, helped by affirmative action programmes. Barack Obama’s election last year persuaded many within the US and abroad that the “colour line” that the black intellectual, WEB Du Bois, identified as “the problem of the 20th century” would be erased in the early years of the 21st.

A glance at the statistics offers a sobering corrective to such optimism: African Americans are twice as likely as whites to be unemployed, three times more likely to live in poverty, and more than six times as likely to be in prison.

According to a 2005 equality study, the median wealth of black households was around one-tenth of that of whites.

Living in the US, what’s most striking is the lack of social contact between blacks and whites outside the workplace. In Washington, where 56 per cent of the population is black, almost all the whites live in the affluent northwest quadrant, which also houses all the city’s universities and most of its hospitals.

Blacks and whites not only live in separate neighbourhoods but usually worship in different churches and often patronise different restaurants, bars and clubs.

Few whites are overtly racist, but many have expressed to me a sense of unease if they’re in the minority in a social setting. Some fear that they’ll be unwelcome in a predominantly black environment, though my experience over the past four years suggests the opposite.

Often the only white face at African American clubs, parties and occasionally funerals, I’ve only met warmth and easy friendliness. It’s true that black friends have occasionally offered tips on correct behaviour and when my friend Tino offered to take me to his church one Sunday, he did so on two conditions. “You’ve got to dress properly in a suit and tie,” he said. “And if anybody stands up and starts getting happy, don’t even think about joining in.”

DURING THE 20 years before I came to Washington, when I lived in Berlin, London and Brussels, I had been in church only a handful of times. Like many Europeans, I took a sceptical view of the conservative evangelical Christianity that appeared to be in the ascendant in the US and had such a powerful influence on the Bush administration.

A few weeks after I arrived in the US, I was surprised to overhear two young patrons in a gay bar discuss where they were going to church the following day. A few days later, I was at a dinner party with a group of very liberal Democrats where the host delivered a lengthy grace that ended with the words “and God bless our troops”.

Travelling across the US since then, particularly during last year’s election campaign, a clearer picture of American religious life emerged. Unlike Europeans, who tend to remain in the denomination of their parents, Americans shop around for the church that best suits their outlook, temperament and social position. A gifted pastor can build a congregation quickly and, in a highly mobile society, churches offer a ready-made, like-minded community for newcomers.

Whatever you think about the influence of religion on US social policy, the high level of religious observance means that Americans are much better versed in scripture than their European counterparts. This can produce impressive and unlikely results, as I found recently when two young friends were discussing a feud between Jay-Z and another rapper. Jay-Z was like Jacob, one of them explained, having failed to win properly the blessing of Biggie Smalls, the father of East Coast hip hop, who died in 1997, aged 24. The other rapper was, of course, Esau.

LAST YEAR’S PRESIDENTIAL election was the most open in many years, with neither a sitting president nor a vice-president in the running. Nobody could have predicted, however, the drama of the contest between Obama and his rivals, first Hillary Clinton and later John McCain.

I had met Clinton several times before she announced that she was running and knew some of her senior staff well. Her campaign sought to convey a sense of inevitability as the biggest brand name in Democratic politics swung back into action. Some of her aides were wary of this strategy, however, not least because, as one top adviser told me, “there’s a certain lack of enthusiasm for the restoration”.

Obama had been drawing huge crowds everywhere he spoke since he joined the senate in 2005, but nobody was sure how that enthusiasm would translate into votes. Clinton had the support of much of the Democratic establishment and many African Americans were wary of backing Obama because they doubted that the US was ready to elect a black president. Obama’s fundraising success was the first sign that he was a serious threat to the Clinton restoration, but it was his superior organisation that secured the Iowa victory that began his triumphant progress to the White House.

Throughout the campaign, Obama spoke about the injustice and inequality that blights the US, where almost 46 million people (18 per cent of the population) have no health insurance and millions of poor children are trapped in substandard, underfunded schools.

Talking to supporters at his rallies, however, I noticed that few could remember any specific policy prescriptions he had outlined. Instead, they were impressed by the optimism of his message, his call for an end to ethnic, class and gender divisions, and his extraordinary personal magnetism.

The president’s initial sky-high approval ratings have subsided in recent months as the battle over health care intensifies, and a few commentators have started comparing him to Lyndon B Johnson and Jimmy Carter. Such gloomy comparisons are certainly premature and, regardless of the legislative setbacks that may lie ahead, Obama has already changed the US for the better.

He has started the work of restoring his country’s image abroad and brought the quest for social justice back on to the agenda at home. Above all, Americans have shown by electing a black president that, despite enduring racial inequality and injustice, they are capable of moving beyond the colour line and, as Obama puts it, creating a more perfect union.

CURIOUS DIFFERENCES

COCKTAILSin the US are dangerously potent and two or three are enough to render the average Irish drinker helpless and foolish. Natives, on the other hand, will cheerfully down a couple at Happy Hour and swallow a few more with dinner. Then they’ll drive home.

DATINGis a minefield for European imports, most of whom have long ago abandoned the rituals of courtship. Americans are often dating a number of potential partners at the same time, gently testing each one for evidence of financial solvency, social status and personal compatibility. There are no strict rules about when to go home with your date, but be warned: things can move very swiftly after you make your choice. As a recent headline in the satirical weekly, the Onion, put it: “Nation’s Girlfriends Unveil New Economic Plan: ‘Let’s Move in Together.’ ”

DINNER PARTIESin Washington start on time, often with a little speech by the host, and end with miraculous precision. Nobody looks at their watch, but at a certain moment all the guests will rise as one and announce that they must be off. If you check the time, it’s always 10.30pm on the dot. Irish-born hosts are exempt from this rule.

LOBBYISTSare the new pariahs in the US capital, banned from holding any office in the Obama administration and forbidden to buy lunch for elected officials or their staff. They are also the most charming people in the city, full of scurrilous gossip and unburdened by the self-importance that afflicts most of official Washington. And because they can’t give anyone else lunch, they might buy you one.