For decades this was a place where people proclaimed what was happening somewhere else.
They announced unemployment statistics--around the nation. They bemoaned the collapse of the aerospace industry--in the West. Their hearts went out to hurricane victims--in the South.
But last week something was actually happening here. Overnight, reality had pierced the Beltway.
For the first time since 1945, the voters handed Republicans control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate, giving the GOP domain over everything from the deficit to who delivers fresh eggs in the Rayburn Building.
Last week, nobody knew who would deliver those eggs or wash the senators' cars or run the Capitol elevators--or for that matter, chair the House Foreign Relations Committee.
Nobody knew anything. Except this: The Republicans were in charge and long-term Democrats who believed they were as permanent as the Lincoln Memorial had been banished.
This is not the first time in recent years that Washington has been upended. It happened in 1980 when Ronald Reagan came to town and Republicans took over the Senate, and as recently as 1992 when Bill Clinton moved into the White House, securing the Democrats' lock on government.
But never has the nation's capital felt quite like it felt last week.
Perhaps that was because the change was historic and this is a city that reveres history. Or, perhaps it was because so many people were losing jobs after having them forever.
It felt as if Washington had become Detroit and the Japanese had just bought all three auto makers.
"I feel like I've been practicing one religion all my life and overnight I've been converted," said an editorial writer.
Even the dress code was altered, if only temporarily.
For a long time the uniform of power has been bipartisan: gray or pin-stripe blue, three-piece or knee-length. Democrats and Republicans dressed the same as they purposefully marched the long marble tunnels en route to serve their country and the taxpayers.
But, again, last week was different.
Democrats were in flannel shirts and Topsiders with holes, wheeling Dumpsters of old newspaper clippings and audits through the hallways of the Longworth Building and hailing each other with comments such as: "Hey, you going to the Resumes R Us seminar?"
The Republicans were the giddy ones--in new gray and pin-stripe blue suits, hair combed, carrying resumes in their attache cases and sporting "Speaker Gingrich" stickers on their lapels.
The quake also rumbled in the offices of lobbyists and think tanks and K Street law firms, where fax machines spewed resumes incessantly.
Of course, if anyone is going to get work from all this, it will be the painters, spacklers, telephone re-routers, carpenters, curtain and carpet suppliers. Consider: Only a few months ago Democrat David Obey, the then-new chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, had the seal of the State of Wisconsin painted on his new office wall. Certainly, that will have to be replaced.
A lot of grand plans will have to be scuttled. Hoped-for judicial appointments will have to be tossed out the White House windows. Last week, at the departments of Justice and Health and Human Services, people seemed simply to be waiting--to have meetings to decide on agendas for conferences about what to do next.
All over this Washington, lives were changed. Here are some of the stories.
Pete Stockton has been booted off Capitol Hill five times in 25 years but never for very long. If he was fired on a Monday, excised from some congressman's staff for one reason or another, he usually had a new job with another Democrat by Friday.
For most of his career on the Hill, Stockton has been an investigator on Michigan Rep. John Dingell's powerhouse Energy and Commerce Committee.
Dingell's whistle-blowers went after corporate America and government too. By using subpoenas and disclosing secret memos, his cowboys snuffed big shots out of the boardroom and held them accountable to taxpayers. The ritual humiliation of executives at public hearings made Dingell look mighty before the cameras--and sometimes got taxpayers a better deal.
But Dingell's cowboys lost their lassos on Election Day.
The Republicans have vowed to cut all committee staffs, which means Dingell's staff is likely to be ground down from 130 to seven.
And, at the time of this interview, it had been more than a week since Stockton realized this ride was over and he still didn't have a new job.
"We were a bunch of wild men, but we did a heck of a job," said Stockton, quaffing a beer at the Tune Inn, one of the few non-Yuppie bars left on Capitol Hill.
Stockton would have liked another 10 or 15 years on the federal payroll to secure the best retirement perks. But it's just as well he got out now, he added, rather than stick around and watch "the political hacks, the lawyers and the Heritage Foundation guys extract their pound of flesh from the Democrats."
He'll put together something else, he said.
"I don't feel sorry for myself, not for a minute."
Charlie Boesel's boss is likely to take over Dingell's domain, and although Thomas J. Bliley Jr., a bow-tied Republican from Virginia, is not a household name just yet, he will be.
"Suddenly everybody wants to know about his 'vision,' " said Boesel, Bliley's press secretary. "I keep telling reporters if they want to know about his vision, he's been here 14 years. 'Go look it up.' "
Bliley is considered a lot less likely to hassle corporate America than Dingell. "He always says the government that governs best governs least," Boesel said.
Sitting in his tiny cubicle of an office, Boesel displays all the signs of a young Republican eager for this change: There is a bumper sticker on the wall reading "Clean House: Vote Republican," and a small photo of GOP super-spinner Mary Matalin. Boesel looked exhausted but couldn't stop delivering a sort of euphoric riff about his boss.
"Bliley has gone home to Richmond every weekend since he came to Washington and that's not going to change if he becomes chairman of Energy and Commerce," Boesel said.
After a few more accolades, Boesel petered out and sighed: "The day after sure is different."
Before the election, Bliley was swamped if--on the same day--he had calls from the Richmond Times-Dispatch and the Culpeper Star-Exponent.
Now, not only did Boesel have 47 messages to return, but the New York Times was demanding full access to do a profile and the "Today" show had left an open invitation.
But he doesn't want to sound ungrateful. The boss, he said, is looking forward to working with everybody--reporters, taxpayers, businessmen, even Democrats.
"My boss worked hard for 14 years to build bridges to Democrats because that was the only way to get things done," Boesel said.
What about his fellow Republicans, the ones who want to whittle away at Bliley's new fiefdom, Energy and Commerce, so it doesn't have jurisdiction over banking or environmental issues or Medicare?
"Listen, I'm not a political prognosticator. I'm just a schmucky staff guy, but those Republicans who had their knives out for Mr. Dingell better not put them out for my boss.
"But," Boesel added, "you know I just can't see him becoming some sort of kingmaker. . . ."
Democratic Rep. Neal Smith must have felt like Zorba the Greek on his death bed surrounded by people who couldn't wait until he drew his last breath so they could steal his belongings.
Looking worn and grayer than his 74 years, Smith, an Iowa farmer, sat behind his desk on the third floor of the Rayburn Building sorting papers. The office was such a jumble of junk you could imagine him picking a 1962 Washington Star out of one of those pile. And, of course, he keeps an ear of corn encased in Lucite.
"I've always kept a corn on my desk cause that's where I come from," Smith said.
As he picked through the mess, three young aides to Republican Rep. Jerry Lewis of California politely excused themselves and looked around the office. They paced the rooms, checked out the shelves and peered over the congressman's shoulder through a 12-foot high window. The view was breathtaking--the Capitol Dome at an angle, pure white against blue sky.
With so many senior Democrats like Smith leaving town, many veteran congressmen of both parties get a shot at bigger offices with better views closer to their committee hearing rooms.
Smith, a member of the Appropriations committee, had a second office not far from the committee hearing room.
"The annex is great for my boss because he's also on Appropriations," said Dave LesStrange, a Lewis aide.
Smith didn't even seem to notice the interlopers.
"I don't even know what I've got here," he said shoving a sheet of stationery at another visitor. "Here--here's a letter from the President. I haven't even read it yet."
"You can take great pride in your remarkable career over 36 years," Bill Clinton wrote to Smith, who was ousted by a plastic surgeon who campaigned in a 1958 DeSoto, built the year Smith came to Washington.
Smith talked bitterly of his defeat.
"They're getting so dirty and using demagoguery and attacking people personally in those 30-second spots," he said. "Politics has gone to hell."
Smith insisted that he wouldn't have put himself through the '94 campaign if not for the 1995 farm bill. "I knew I could make a contribution," he said.
Soon the three Lewis aides thanked Smith and left. He responded with a perfunctory wave. He would leave in a few days to go back to Iowa and the farm with his $96,462-a-year pension and his ear of corn.
There certainly has been debate over term limits for the politicians here. But last week the politicians would have liked to institute term limits for Washington correspondents.
"I wouldn't want to offend the Fourth Estate," said an influential Republican, laughing heartily at his own suggestion but refusing to allow his name in print. "But wouldn't it be funny: send the loud mouths back to the home office."
On the evening after Republican Jerry Solomon of New York became chairman of the key House Rules Committee, he ended up at a party surrounded by eager reporters holding white wine, not notebooks, but mentally recording his every word.
"Well, let me tell you," bellowed Solomon, holding court at the party for the 80th Anniversary of the New Republic, "for now on, 'in the loop' will mean reading the Washington Times!"
This sound bite clenched more than a few jaws.
The Moonie-owned Washington Times has often been marginalized because of its conservative point of view. To think that it now would get all the good leaks from Capitol Hill was cold comfort to some Washington reporters, many of whom don't have a Republican source on the Hill.
"There's a certain unconscious annoyance (among reporters) that a bunch of Republican House members who we have never heard of will be running all these committees," said Howard Kurtz, who covers the media for the Washington Post, in a telephone interview. "We've known Sens. (Bob) Packwood, (Bob) Dole and Jesse Helms for a long time. But how many reporters have a relationship with Bill Archer?"
More to the point, though it shouldn't matter, many reporters have a visceral dislike of the new breed of leaders, particularly Speaker-in-waiting Newt Gingrich and his brand of arch-conservatism. And they're having a hard time keeping their feelings to themselves.
The New Republic Editor Andrew Sullivan, wearing a new brown tweed suit from London to the anniversary party, didn't bother trying.
"All this is all so great for journalists," he said. "Newt Gingrich is the biggest, fastest, ripest target we've had in a long time. A lot of people at the New Republic feel liberated because defending Bill Clinton was so excruciating and Newt is an accident waiting to happen. . . ."
Americans have long been told by the futurists that from now until forever there is going to be ceaseless, unrelenting change. Washington always seemed immune to this and to the kind of news it was delivering about people--somewhere else.
Well, Washington met the future last week, and while Americans may not remember the names of a single person involved in the upheaval, they will remember the poets whom Shelley called, "the unacknowledged legislators of the world."
It just may not be a freak of history that last week while some people were pushing recycling carts around Washington and others were proclaiming a new civilization, Bob Dylan, a poet and real revolutionary, was in New York performing a song from his past as if it were a prophecy of Washington's future:
The line it is drawn/the curse it is cast/The slow one now will later be fast/As the present now will later pass, the order is rapidly fadin'/ And the first one now will later be last/For the times, they are a changin'.