An epic work of history ... the story of the American capital told through the lives of three families that each symbolize a different aspect of the city and the nation it embodies
The Washington Century tells the captivating history of the nation's capital during the last century, made vivid through the struggles of three very different families, each representing an essential aspect of Washington. Veteran journalist Burt Solomon uses these families to explore everything from the customs of Washington's grand hostesses to the surge in the federal bureaucracy to the critical roles that politicking and lobbying have played as the capital has grown more truly democratic.
Each family's story forms a strand of the city's single history. Their lives were entwined with those of other Washington notables -- from Eleanor Roosevelt to Lady Bird Johnson, Perle Mesta, Stokely Carmichael, J. Edgar Hoover, Tip O'Neill, Jesse Jackson, John F. Kennedy, and even a twenty-six-year-old Bill Clinton.
The Washington Century is also the behind-the-scenes biography of an intricate and ever-changing city, once a gracious capital that has become a money-driven and partisan place. Solomon's ingenious narrative, written with the pace and sense of a novel, is full of quirky moments and unforgettable characters, both familiar and unfamiliar to the American public, who made a sleepy, southern town into the soul of a nation. Compulsively readable, as enlightening as it is entertaining, here is a fascinating chapter of living history.
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Burt Solomon is a contributing editor for National Journal, where he has covered the White House and many other aspects of Washington life. In 1991 he won the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on the Presidency. He is also the author of the acclaimed Where They Ain't, a history of baseball in the 1890s. He lives with his wife and children inside the Beltway.From The Washington Post:
As Margaret Leech convincingly demonstrated in her exemplary Reveille in Washington (1941), the Civil War transformed the District of Columbia from "a Southern town, without the picturesqueness, but with the indolence, the disorder and the want of sanitation" into "the axis of the Union." In those four hard years Washington ceased to be "a country town, reserved for the business of government," and became a true city, albeit one, as John F. Kennedy so wittily said nearly a century later, "of Southern efficiency and Northern charm."
It was during Kennedy's lifetime, and during his brief presidency, that Washington was transformed once again: from a sleepy city into a world capital, a place obsessed with influence and power, a place where people would do "anything for money," as Burt Solomon puts it, where "money had become the medium of common exchange, the engine of persuasion, the measure of desire." How this came to pass is Solomon's subject in The Washington Century, a book that by its very nature will be of much interest here, but that satisfies this interest only in the most limited way.
Take note of Solomon's subtitle: "Three Families and the Shaping of the Nation's Capital." It echoes the subtitle of what may well be the best book ever written about an American city, J. Anthony Lukas's Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families. It is likely that Solomon has taken Lukas as his (unacknowledged) inspiration and model, so it is scarcely unfair to weigh his book against Lukas's and to judge that it comes up far short. Lukas dug deep below the surface of Boston's complex social and institutional structure; Solomon mostly skims along the top of Washington's. Lukas focused on three unknown families whose stories gained drama from their unfamiliarity; Solomon has chosen three well-known families whose stories long ago lost their drama. Lukas created a strong narrative line, following the three families as they and their city suffered through a wrenching decade of court-ordered school desegregation; Solomon lurches along from chapter to chapter, without ever giving the reader a clear sense of where he, and thus the reader, is going.
It's not that The Washington Century is a bad book -- the stories of the Cafritz, Hobson and Boggs families are interesting, if familiar to most people who are likely to read the book, and Solomon has a fairly clear understanding of how this city changed during the 20th century -- but that it could have been so much better. The transformation of the nation's capital between 1900 and 2000 was dramatic, with reverberations within the city limits, the region, the country and the world. Yet Solomon passes only lightly over significant developments: a mere four paragraphs about the Beltway and astonishingly little about the rise of the suburbs; almost nothing about the battle to build and maintain Metro; a bit more about the separate and unequal conditions of the city's schools; a nod to Marion Barry's prodigious political gifts but almost nothing about his corrupt, destructive mayoralty; a good deal about the rise of the lobbying industry but only a hint of its debasing influence on the city and the country; only a peek, and that almost entirely through the prism provided by Cokie Roberts, about the decline of what once passed for serious Washington journalism and the rise of tinhorn media celebrities and the Gong Shows wherein their reputations are made.
Instead Solomon settles for superficial portraits of his three families and the three men who headed them: Morris Cafritz, the most influential real-estate developer in the District's history and the man who almost singlehandedly created that monster of architectural ugliness and cynical influence-peddling, K Street; Julius Hobson, the passionate, stubborn, obsessive fighter for civil rights who led the boycotts of downtown merchants in the 1960s that broke the old segregationist monopoly; and Hale Boggs, the Democratic congressman from Louisiana who danced along a fine line between the prejudices of his constituents and his own ambitions to be a national, as opposed to merely Southern, Democrat.
There are, of course, many other characters: Gwen Cafritz, Morris's wife, who achieved the dubious distinction of being the "top hostess" of Washington "society"; the Cafritzes' three sons, all of whom struggled in different ways with their parents' private and public legacy; Peggy Cooper Cafritz, Morris's daughter-in-law, the high-octane activist with a penchant for controversy and publicity; Julius Hobson Jr., who shares his late father's inclination toward the public arena and is now a lobbyist for the American Medical Association, on the other side of the fence; Lindy Boggs, widowed in 1972 when her husband's plane disappeared during a flight over Alaska, who took over his seat and served in Congress for nearly two decades; their son Tommy, who as partner in Patton Boggs LLP is one of the most visible and limelight-loving lobbyists in the city; and their daughter Cokie, who translated television renown into lucrative speaking engagements around the country and now writes "feel-good" books that routinely get on the bestseller lists.
Obviously the lives of these people suggest broader patterns in the life of the city, and to some extent Solomon explores these larger ramifications, but the whole enterprise has a tentative, perfunctory air. His portraits of Cafritz, Hobson and Boggs are fairly well-rounded and nuanced, but all three men are safely dead. Reading between the lines, one can sense a measure of disapproval of some of the ways in which younger members of the cast of characters have led their lives and amassed not-inconsiderable wealth, but for the most part Solomon bends far backward in order to be understanding of and generous to them. This, as many another author could testify, is part of the price one pays for interviews, access to documents and cooperation in other forms, but it casts a polite, deferential pall over a story that should be bristling with energy.
Thus, for example, the Boggs family's move from a house in the District to one in Maryland could have provided an opportunity to examine the ways in which the suburbs have changed the city -- its economy, its land-use patterns, its highway system, its culture -- but Solomon makes little more than a nod in that direction. The careers of the Hobsons, senior and junior, as well as that of Peggy Cooper Cafritz, do permit him to look into home rule and local politics, but the District's incredibly complex and often bitter racial dynamics get nothing close to the deep exploration they deserve. By contrast with Lukas, who devotes an entire chapter to the Boston Globe, Solomon has almost nothing to say about The Washington Post and the ways it has exercised its influence in the city's growth and development. There is, as mentioned, a quick look at the city's school system, but primarily because of Julius Hobson's role in a successful 1967 lawsuit charging de facto segregation. There's little about the decline of the public schools, the flight to better suburban schools by whites and blacks alike, or the debilitating effects this decline has had throughout the city -- and there's nothing at all about higher education in the District and its outskirts. The city's subservient relationship with major-league baseball might have inspired other reporters to dig into the vast array of issues raised by professional sports and the cities they hold hostage, but Solomon declines the opportunity, which is all the more surprising since his previous book was a well-received history of the original Baltimore Orioles.
Et cetera. Various readers doubtless will find various things of interest to them in The Washington Century, and many are likely to agree (as I do) with Solomon's rather doleful conclusion that "the rise of permanent Washington" -- lobbyists, journalists, revolving-door special-interest pleaders -- has had a "tawdry" effect on the capital. But appearing as it does in a brief epilogue, that judgment seems almost an afterthought, an attempt to inject some gravitas into what had been, up to then, mostly a string of puffish profiles of powerful people. There's a good story here, but Solomon falls way short of the possibilities it offers.
Copyright 2004, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.
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