Old Ebbitt, icon of “spirit”-assisted bipartisanship
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Back in “the day,” the place was a symbol.
On TV and in the newspapers you would see these political firebrands, senators, congressmen, resonating with the regional passions of their constituents, telling you how misguided and doomed to failure were the policies of the other party.
Tip O’Neill (Dem) would tell you how wrong-headed Silvio Conte (Rep) was. Conte would return the condemnation. And across the nation we would all nod in agreement, approving “Here, here” and comforted that our representatives were fighting the good fight on our behalf.
And then the TV cameras would turn off. And the representatives that appeared so diametrically opposed to one another, they would retire to places like Old Ebbitt Grill.
And just get plowed.
By which manner they would form the relationships necessary to actually come to resolution on the issues over which they had just, on TV, positioned against one another for the benefit of their constituents back home.
It’s how the business of the country actually got done. As O’Neill once told an aid, with respect to his friendship with Gerald Ford (Rep), “This is all part of the game.”
Old Ebbitt Grill was DC’s oldest known saloon. It stood as a symbol that things did actually get done in DC; in a once-out-of-the-spotlight, bipartisan way, among leaders who respected one another. And who were — not surprisingly — more agreeable while relaxing with a drink than when stressed out under the watchful eye of C-SPAN.
This bipartisan mutual respect filtered down from the leadership through their staffs to the very lowest interns on the Hill, who had just graduated from college and come to DC with their idealistic self-certainty but who, upon arrival, encountered Joey or Jane, the intern for that other congressman across the aisle.
And Joey/Jane was “hawt.”
So they opened their mind to having a friend/hook-up who thought differently, and in so doing learned that people who think differently aren’t by definition objectionable. And you had to actually thoughtfully defend your viewpoint with them; you couldn’t just dismiss them as “that other party” to your like-minded friends, who would then collectively nod, knowing they were evil. You had to persuade them, or you would feel, yourself, that you were the one with the indefensible viewpoint. And you had to listen to them, or they wouldn’t listen to you. You couldn’t just blindly hate them and have that be sufficient.
Because the “Union” needed to function.
Last week I had dinner with some friends I lived with in DC back in that day. And I asked them, “Is it still this way? Is this contempt and dysfunction we see on TV, is it still just for show? Do the congressmen still get slammed at Old Ebbitt? Are the interns still flirting across the aisle?”
Sadly, they replied, “no.” The division we see on TV is how it really is here today, they reported.
Perhaps they don’t really know. None of them, right now, work on the Hill (nor have hooked-up with interns recently). I will dig further and find out. But at the moment I’m inclined toward the cynicism of believing them.
Which is to say, we have our work cut out for us.
When I woke my final morning in DC, I resolved to lunch at Old Ebbitt.
I considered, “If it’s still there and thriving, it will remind me that we’re capable of working together; that we’ve done it before; that it worked then, and — aghast! — we actually enjoyed it. That perhaps humanity and our republic, like an iconic watering hole, do outlast cyclical political short-sightedness.”
So as I came up out of the DC Metro, I was cautiously hopeful.
At the corner of 14th and G, what had once been there was demolished. Replaced by the construction of a new office building.
However … you know me. Not a quitter.
Sometimes, in the face of doubt and discouragement, you just gotta press on. Or realize we’ve forgotten how to get where we need to go.
So, rationalizing that perhaps I was pessimistically giving up just one block too early, I determined to push forward to the next.
And as I rounded 15th, sure enough, there it was.
Jammed with patrons, as ever.
Still dressed in suits.
Francis Scott Key … our flag is still there.
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