Llewellyn King: The causes of nearly incurable 'Potomac Fever'

  Looking toward the Potomac and Washington, D.C., with the Pentagon in the foreground.

Looking toward the Potomac and Washington, D.C., with the Pentagon in the foreground.

You are part of the new administration, or want to be part of the administration, or your company thinks it will gain favor if it moves its headquarters to Washington. One way or another, a lot of people are on the move to the nation's capital.

It is part of the Washington mystique that more come than go. Once you get in the Washington whirlpool, you don’t simply swim back to where you came from.

Members of the diplomatic corps yearn to come back to Washington. And members of the Washington press corps seldom leave Washington, although they may change employers.

Explaining the power that Washington exerts over its migrants isn’t easy, but it is there. Part of it, as Martin Walker, who covered Washington for Britain’s Guardian, told me when I met him in Brussels, where he had been sent by the newspaper, that he longed to get back to Washington – and he did, later, with UPI. “I like living somewhere where the head of government can send in a battle fleet,” he explained.

Journalists love Washington because it is one-stop shopping. There are innumerable stories and many places of employment, from the multifaceted world of trade journalism to the throes of political journalism.

Others, who don’t cover the White House or write for a major international newspaper, are also smitten. Maybe, I should say infected because an unnatural attraction to our nation’s capital is more often referred to as “Potomac Fever.”

There is no therapy for the malady, or known cure. People say, “I love Washington” and they mean it. Writers say, “I love writing.” But author Susan Seliger told me it means, “I love having finished writing.”

A common diagnosis of Washington’s peculiar sickness is that it is about power. But most people in Washington have precious little power and do ordinary jobs. It could be argued that, for the most part, investment banks on Wall Street or software shops in Silicon Valley have more power.

The president has real power, but even he is restrained, as President-elect Donald Trump is about to learn. Most power in Washington is derivative: Your wife’s best friend is married to the chairman of an influential Senate committee. Letting this be known gives you a sense of power.

One man I knew for years impressed people with his “White House contact.” He let it be known that he was “well-connected at the White House.” Beyond bragging, it did him no good.

Access is the currency most sought after. It, too, is dubious. If you have a telephone or an e-mail account, well, you have access. People in Washington get back to you, just in case you’re important.

Lobbyists work on access, raising money, providing tickets to sports events, and ingratiating themselves with members of Congress and their staffs.

This isn’t as hard as it seems. Members of Congress enjoy the attention which multiplies the sense that they are important, therefore, powerful.

Washington schools are important. As Frederic Reamer, professor at Rhode Island College and an expert on prisons, told me in a television interview: “Washington has the best and worst schools in the country.”

The best schools are the private ones -- Sidwell Friends and St. Albans stand out – and they are part of the power structure in Washington. Presidents, members of Congress, diplomats and other power people send their children to these schools. School functions are where the elite meet. It’s heady, it's Washington. The better suburban schools are also part of the game.

The downside of Washington is that it gets more expensive daily, particularly housing. Affordable housing is available in less-savory areas of the city or in the suburbs that spread out 40 miles into neighboring Maryland and Virginia. Washington traffic is second only to Los Angeles. If you have close friends, better live close to them because they won’t be dropping in on a whim.

The spring and fall are beautiful, but summer hot humid and hellish. When it snows, everything shuts down. Enjoy!

Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of White House Chronicle,  on PBS. His e-mail is llewellynking1@gmail.com