American Versailles

I first saw Washington, DC in 1974. I was astonished with the Greek vision of architecture on Capitol Hill. I could not get over my admiration for the beauty of the congressional buildings, the Thomas Jefferson building of the Library of Congress, and the Supreme Court.

I visited each building as if it were a museum, taking my time to understand and appreciate the cultural taste and grandeur of those who built the foundations of America. All the while, it did not escape me this Capitol Hill neighborhood was the Athens of America. Or, at least, politicians like Thomas Jefferson thought in such terms. I even visualized the real Athens simply by fixing my gaze on the Supreme Court building.

I lived in Alexandria, Virginia for more than thirty years. I chose Alexandria because of its name. If I could not live in Greece, I decided, I would at least live in a Greece-like town. Alexandria, Virginia, and Capitol Hill had the magic of a time machine.

I worked on Capitol Hill for a couple years and then I joined the US EPA, headquartered in Washington, DC. Thus I slowly moved into the inner circles of power and influence. Not that I personally had any power or influence, but I experienced those intangibles and the brutality of how America’s political class works.

I remember the madness in the office of Congressman Clarence Long (D-MD) where I worked. Several staff talking on the phone in the same room created a pandemonium. Then you had to handle the lobbyists, asking the staff and the Congressman for meetings and lunch.

Once, I was at a meeting with Congressman Long and the Cypriot ambassador. The ambassador was paying his respects to Congressman Long because Long was chairman of an appropriations subcommittee with power over foreign aid. The ambassador described the horror of the Turkish invasion of his country. He urged assistance from the US. This was early 1978, just four years after the Turks had grabbed almost forty percent of Cyprus.

I spoke to Long in favor of aid for Cyprus. I told him one way to understand the tragedy in Cyprus was to imagine a third of Americans suddenly becoming refugees. That’s what happened to Cyprus after the American-blessed Turkish invasion of the island. A third of the Greek population became refugees. For that, Congressman Long branded me a “Greek” agent. And with such branding my career on Capitol Hill came to an end.

Nevertheless, I was hooked on Capitol Hill where for several years I went regularly to hearings, meetings and parties. My favorite restaurant was the Greek tavern (Taverna the Greek Islands on Pennsylvania avenue SE). Indeed, the two brothers who owned the tavern were from Kephalonia, the Greek island of my birth. So the Greek tavern became much more than a tavern to me. It was my second home where I took my friends.

But Capitol Hill and Washington, DC have been more than the center of American power. They are also a hub of corruption dragging America to decline and fall.

The worst influence emanates from a tribe of entrepreneurs known as lobbyists. They are the voice of concentrated wealth that is making America in its own image.

The lobbyists endanger our democracy and government. Pleasing their paymasters comes before country, law, ethics and civilization.

Washington, DC caters to these amoral legions. They swarm congressional and government offices every day of the year. They craft legislation. They bribe and buy politicians and government officials.

Most lobbyists come from the revolving door between the government and business. Unless we dismantle the revolving door, lobbying, and money in elections, industry will take over the government. The result will be formal authoritarianism. Plutocracy, the rule of money, replaces our endangered democracy.

The palace of Versailles remains the symbol of French royal authoritarianism. While the rich ate and danced in Versailles, the vast majority of the French people ate little or nothing. In 1789, the French Revolution did away with the excesses of the French ruling class.

The Capitol Hill of Washington, DC is building its own Versailles. Its countless dancing rooms and hotels are full of perpetually minted members of the ruling class. These insidious characters earn too much and care not at all about the rest of us. They are Democrats and Republicans. They play and dance in the crystal rooms of the American Versailles, scheming personal advancement and security.

President Barack Obama is now king Louis XVI.

Mark Leibovich, chief national correspondent for “The New York Times Magazine,” brings the story of imperial Washington, DC up to date in “This Town” (Blue Rider Press, 2013). The stories Leibovich tells are well written, hilarious, deadly serious, and urgent. His stories also confirm my uneasiness with the corruption in the American Versailles.

Leibovich knows most of the key actors in the Capitol Hill tragedy. He was a member of the Club. The actors he highlights include members of Congress, businessmen, members of the media and Hollywood – all embedded in a system of decadence duplicating the French Versailles to a dangerous degree.

These royals, Leibovich says, suck money from corporations to assure their primacy. They never want to go home. They are members of an inbred, feudal class. They stay in DC earning millions by selling their knowledge of how “This Town” works. Then, he says, they can “dine out for years.”

Which explains why the business of lobbyists and Washington, DC is for “things not getting done.” Problems in “This Town,” says Leibovich, is money to be made.