WASHINGTON -- It was Arthur Hoppe of the San Francisco Chronicle who said, 20 years ago, that Washington was a city about as high as the Washington Monument and surrounded on all sides by reality.
Times change. Washington is still the same height, but now it is surrounded on all sides by money. I don't mean campaign finance or even lobbyists' fees. That is pocket change in America these days. Politicians are the best buy there is. In some venues, a campaign for the U.S. Senate costs less than a house now costs around here.
The big money here now is electronic money, software money, communications money -- same as the other new rich places in the United States. If Washington was once different, and I think it was, it is becoming more like everyplace else -- for better or worse.
This is my third tour in the capital. The first was as a young reporter during Watergate in the middle 1970s, the second as an older columnist in the late 1980s. When I first came here, money did not matter as much as position. What you did mattered more than where and how you lived. Happiness was being, say, a bright staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, or a correspondent for Time or Newsweek. It was an odd place that way, like a college town where professors were almost required to live in houses that were a bit tattered, with books and papers in piles everywhere -- that proved they were serious people.
Forget that. For one thing, many correspondents are making a good deal more money, relatively, than they did before they became multimedia content providers. But that is not the main thing, which is that many of the people who hire content providers are now living in and around Washington. The new-money types seem to prefer Northern Virginia, which is a very pretty place that still has land left for a certain kind of bloated mansion life. Michael Saylor of MicroStrategy, the guy who lost $5 billion on paper last week, is building a home modeled after Versailles on 50 acres at Great Falls on the Potomac -- estimates of the price go from $28 million to $50 million.
One sign of the times is that at must-go events here, the new rich have sweepers who bring people to them, in exactly the same way presidential candidates do. "Hi, Dick, have you met Steve ...?" That is Steve as in Case as in AOL -- or whatever the company is named this week. People were elbowing aside senators to get a look at him.
"I want it to be like the White House," said Michael Saylor of his new digs, though he says he plans to put in a football field, which the White Houses does not have. That quote is from a Washington Post story last week by Sally Quinn, the arbiter of establishments old and new in the capital. In the the old days, the '70s, she was the star of the Post's Style section, putting politicians in their place week after week. She married the boss, Post editor Ben Bradlee, and is now a kind of emeritus, writing whatever she feels like writing. The last splash she made was with a piece about why old Washington despised the Clintons.
"Old Washington Meets Wired Washington" was the headline over her latest effort, which covered just about two pages of Wednesday's paper. Her point: "For the first time, more people here are working in technology than in the government. And for the first time, money is competing with political influence as the going currency in the area."
There goes the neighborhood. But wait, maybe not. Quinn, who has always had a gift for getting people to say a bit more than they should, has Saylor saying:
"We can't afford to be invisible. Technology CEOs are politicians as much as they are entertainers. That's why they call us rock stars -- because we have to be exciting. And if we're not exciting, then people won't cover us. And then we won't succeed."
Oh! Well, maybe things aren't going to be so different after all. Another crew of hustlers is in town. God Bless America!
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