Tourists swarm the capital at this time of year, armed with AAA Guidebooks and Smithsonian maps. They climb the Washington Monument ("555 feet, 5 1/8 inches tall"), tour the White House ("132 rooms, 20 baths"), sit in the visitors galleries of Congress ("bronze portico doors weighing 10 tons eacn"), and go home thinking they have "seen" Washington.
They would be better off with this book. As handy-size as a tour book at just 135 pages, it offers an escorted tour of Westhington that is more illuminating than the Gray Line's -- if decidedly less awe-inspiring.
It is the Washington of a suite-wise insider whose 19 years in the capital have seasoned him from an idealistic New Frontiersman (at Peace Corps headquarters) to a sardonic magazine editor (of The Washington Monthly).
His thesis: " . . . Most of what the government appears to do is make believe carried on for the benefit of those in office, not the rest of us." With most everyone in government "primarily concerned with his own survival," the main work that goes on a Washington is building "survival networks."
Hence presidents become insulated from reality amid a fawning staff in an iron-fenced White House. Congressmen spend more time running errands for constituents than legislating. courts function for the convenience of lawyers, not clients or the public. Bureaucrats prefer memos and meetings to problem-solving that could put their agencies out of business.
Military officers concentrate on getting their "tickets punched" at all the right assignments for advancement. Foreign Service personnel "look inward and upward rather than outward to the people they are serving." And the press dutifully reports the make-believe events of presidential pronouncements and trips made by the secretary of state.
It will come as no surprise to any Washington tourist or more distant observer of the capital -- in this illusionless post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, budget-cutting era -- that mance of heroic proportions.
Inspiring national leadership can trigger bursts of purposeful activity, as glimpsed during Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency, the early days of the Kennedy administration, and the formative years of the Johnsonian Great Society.
National anger can arouse action, as the Watergate scandals unleashed a government-wide wave ethical reform.
Now, however, there is no gripping national crisis (only those everyday "crises" that presidents and the press are forever proclaiming). There is little inspiring national leadership. And there is a national cynicism toward Washington -- the world itself uttered almost as an epithet -- of which Washington is all too dispiritingly aware.
The author proposes a set of remedies: reintroducing political patronage (and , presumably, accountability) into the bureaucracy; reacquainting Congress with legislatve; assigning the press to cover systemic problems; persuading all in Washington "to renounce our own roles in the game of make believe."
But making Washington "work" once again, as it has shown in the past that it can, may be achieved less by such structural tinkering than by those great intangible forces that sporadically galvanize a people -- and their government.