Washington ponders its purpose as political circus shuts down

America Letter: The name-dropping and handshakes now seem redundant, vacuous

The Reflecting Pool in front of the Washington Monument in Washington, DC. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty

The Reflecting Pool in front of the Washington Monument in Washington, DC. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty

 

The US confronted a new normal this week as the reality of coronavirus set in. The economy, which had been shutting down little by little, state by state, shook to a halt. Restaurants, businesses and cafes closed their doors, hunkering down until the emergency passes.

Like elsewhere, residents of Washington DC rediscovered the charms of the outdoors.

Washington has always been a walker’s city, its big, bold public spaces and outdoor national monuments a magnet for tourists and dog-walkers.

In a sad irony, the crisis has coincided with the most beautiful time of the year in the nation’s capital. Edged along the rim of the city’s famous tidal basin is a necklace of cherry blossom trees, their soft blush almost touching the water.

The trees were a gift from the mayor of Tokyo in 1912. They are a symbol of international solidarity and connection whose original meaning has no doubt been lost on the current leader of the country, who talks of borders and boundaries in the face of a virus that has raced across the world.

Across the city, evidence of this new normal is discernible in the changed urban landscape

Residents have flocked to see the annual bloom, prompting stern warnings about social distancing from Washington’s mayor. Organisers of the cherry blossom festival have instead created a live internet stream capturing the trees during “peak bloom”. But still the people come, keeping an acceptable distant apart as they walk along the paths drenched with petals and foliage.

Across the city, evidence of this new normal is discernible in the changed urban landscape.

A new crop of joggers has spilled out on to the streets, having been exiled from the ubiquitous fitness studios of Washington DC. Some run along the centre of the streets, now emptied of cars as commerce shuts down. 

The city’s chirpiest residents, the grey squirrels, are still hopping along the national mall and the leafy streets near Dupont Circle. Some Washington residents have taken to sitting outdoors. Along one street in Georgetown, neighbours pass the hours perched on their front stoops. One elderly woman, pencil grasped in hand, is lost in concentration completing a crossword puzzle. Another strums a guitar.

Open businesses

The shutdown has not affected all businesses equally. Some have managed to stay open.

Down at the wharf along the Potomac river, the fish market is still in full swing, vendors shouting the daily catch and prices. The oldest continuously operating open-air seafood market in the United States, its dazzling selection of Chesapeake oysters and soft shell crab, North Carolina shrimp and red snapper, offer a bounty of delectable delights to eager customers rediscovering the joys of home cooking.

For most people in Washington DC, the shutdown has struck at the heart of what makes Washington

Bookshops are also managing to adapt and survive. One of Washington’s most-loved institutions, Kramer’s Books, was still open on Wednesday, allowing customers to enter one at a time, and providing gloves and hand sanitiser at the door.

Though the store was empty of customers, the shop assistant was fielding continuous phone and internet orders. Customers received their deliveries through Postmates, an online delivery service that has come into its own during the coronavirus crisis.

But for most people in Washington DC, the shutdown has struck at the heart of what makes Washington.

As the political centre of the United States, the city is built around social interaction, running on a constant diet of cocktail parties, power breakfasts and ambassadorial dinners. Based on a delicately balanced and highly political nexus of personal and professional connections, these social gatherings are the pulse of Washington life, generating their own sub-industries of the $150 blow-dry and chauffeur car services.

Dinner burned

This week the White House correspondents’ dinner – the apex of the Washington DC social calendar for this correspondent and others – bowed to the inevitable and called off its April 24th event. More significantly the cluster of exclusive parties that occur in the days before and after the dinner look doomed, as sponsors reconsider.

These strange times are likely to pass

The recalibration of life in Washington gives food for thought. As political staffers retreat to their apartments – some political campaigns working on November’s elections have taken to holding virtual “happy hours” – the coronavirus crisis has prompted introspection about the purpose and meaning of this town.

The vanities, the name-dropping, the knowing handshakes that oil the political system, all appear somewhat redundant, vacuous, unnecessary. But these strange times are likely to pass. When the political system restarts in this all-important election year, Washington DC will be back with a bang, and the circus will begin once more.

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