HOLLYWOOD NEEDS Washington more than Washington needs Hollywood."
My host at a dinner party in a lovely D.C. townhouse was a young liberal journalist. Among the other guests was a young conservative political operative and sometime-novelist. And the liberal was offering an uncontroversial summary of the unique relationship between the fantasy capitals of the two coasts. At least, nobody at the table thought he had it wrong.
These two cities--or their more powerful inhabitants--gaze at each other with a mixture of envy, longing and nostalgia for a lost body part. You have to get outside this country to realize how odd it is that a nation's cultural life is run 3,000 miles away from where its political buttons get pushed. Yes, we're a big country, but politics was separated out from the mainstream of our cities back when most of this continent was still Indian territory. Like Las Vegas, Washington represents an urge to isolate a contaminating influence from "real life."
But the split still festers like a wound. Washington and Hollywood regard each other across the intervening land mass as long-separated Siamese twins. And it's not easy to calculate which needs the other more. Certainly, Warren Beatty didn't wreck his career trying to be Gary Hart.
I had gone to Washington to fulfill certain needs of my own. A friend had been invited to a White House Christmas party and offered me the chance to be her escort. The notion of exchanging wishes for peace on earth with the man who, at that moment, was building up a huge armed force half a world away held a certain goofy charm for me. Also, I was told that the White House Christmas parties serve the best filet mignon around.
That much, at least, is true. Sliced and delicately arrayed on platters by the very black older men who used to be Pullman porters, virtually the only African-Americans in attendance, the filet is an excellent advertisement for American beef--unless it happens to be imported from Japan.
And, although the photographic proof is not yet in my possession, I did have the opportunity to share thoughts with the most powerful man on earth. After discarding several "smart" possibilities ("Jim Garrison sends his regards" was a finalist), I settled on a simple formulation during our handshake. "Merry Christmas," I observed. "Hey," the President revealed, "Merry Christmas to you." The Chief Executive was using this exchange, I believe, to send a signal: He did not intend to be bested in the wishing of holiday cheer. That's my instant analysis. More detailed thought may tease out hidden meanings.
Washington's need for Hollywood seemed more obvious, though, when I later visited another capital landmark--Studio One at NBC's suburban television spread, where every Friday afternoon "The McLaughlin Group" is taped. Here, the obligatory cheeriness of the season was leavened by the internecine sniping that makes "The Group" at least D.C.'s loudest talk show. This week, each of the regulars cast aspersions on the tendency of the others to be in the thrall of those who pay them outrageous speaking fees.
But John McLaughlin, the former Nixon staffer and ex-Catholic priest who has made blustery conservatism strangely telegenic, betrayed the need that transcends the miles when, on learning of my association with a popular TV cartoon program, he bored in with the questions. "Do you think I should interview Bart Simpson? Would I have to be animated?"
Official Washington comes out here to pry open the show-business money spigot. We go back there to--what? Wax profound? Rub elbows with the people we curse on the news? Watch, as I did, a roomful of NPR correspondents sing the dreidel song?
But we need Washington for the sheer absurdity of the place. On the way out of the White House, an aide gave my friend and me a brief tour of the Rose Garden and environs, after which the aide excused herself, and my friend and I retired to our respective restrooms. The anteroom of the men's facility constitutes a mini-library, and I wondered what books had been shelved just by the entrance to porcelain-land. They turned out to be the public papers of Richard Nixon.
I pulled down the 1974 volume to see what the last entry might be. Just then, a man in a black suit came out of the men's room and asked me what I was reading. Quoting from the page, I said, "Nobody'll ever write a book about my mother. But she was a saint." He laughed and said good night.
Moments later, when I rejoined my friend, she asked, with some concern, "What did you do in there?" She had heard Secret Service men confer about the guy who had been with the aide. Agent No. 1 said I was now with my friend. OK, said Agent No. 2, "then we'll let it slide." The Bushes are all for literacy, it seems, as long as the books aren't actually opened.
Hollywood needed that.