I'm flying out of L.A. last week, and as I see the Hollywood sign diminish to the size of a classified ad, I'm thinking, gee, how great to get away for a while from a town where self-obsessed navel-gazing counts as a form of exercise.
So where does my plane land? Washington, D.C., one of the few places where navel-gazing is even more absorbed, if possible -- and a sight easier to accomplish, I must say, what with the swelling, well-fed bellies of Area Code 202, versus the professionally tended concave abs of Area Code 310.
It's 22 degrees in Washington and 72 degrees in L.A., but it's really the same season in both places: It's the season of "Aren't we doing great?"
In Hollywood the trade papers are full of speculative stories and insider handicapping and "for your consideration" plugs for the Oscars -- and in Washington the trade papers (which is just about anything published here) are full of speculative stories and insider handicapping and "for your consideration" plugs for the White House's agenda that gets its hometown premiere tonight.
Each town loves rolling its tongue around its own jargon. On the warm end of the country, "gross points" really means you can get rich, "net points" really means you can get fleeced. At the frozen-tundra end of the country, they say "revenue" when they mean taxes, and "appropriations" when they really mean spending.
Both places like to invest a statement with the gravitas of holy writ by preceding it with, "Well, in this town.... "
Both are security-obsessed; a Japanese millionaire isn't stalking Dennis Hastert, and Al Qaeda isn't gunning for Britney Spears, but the same principles apply. "Self-guided tours" of the Capitol have ceased to exist, meaning Americans can't just stroll through Congress anymore. Americans can't just show up early for bleacher seats at the Oscars either -- they must submit applications, with recent photos (8-by-10 head shots?).
If you've ever lived in a company town, you know that, no matter what the company makes -- lumber, coal, movies, a new world order -- the town is always the same buzzing, milling hive. You don't spend much thought on the people you're making lumber or coal or movies or a new world order for; rather, you spend your workweek nuancing, calculating, posturing, strategizing hive-climbing techniques, and your weekend gossiping about what happened during the workweek.
Hollywood's centers of power are several; you can up your muscle-meter rating with a meeting with Steven or a conference-call with Julia.
In D.C., in State-of-the-Union week, you're hard-pressed to remember there are three branches of government when the buzz twirls around POTUS, the Sun King of the moment, George Bush as Louis XIV in a cowboy hat, surrounded by those whose own status lies in how big their role is in the symbolic levee of power: "I handed him his Tampa Bay Buccaneers cap." "That's nothing, I get to hand him his 'Don't Mess With Texas' jockstrap.' "
Show up at some Hollywood movie sets and the tangible sense of self-importance leads you to think that they're crafting world peace here, when in fact they're only making a movie. Show up in D.C. and you may get the worrying sense that its functionaries sometimes play just to its own closed set, the Beltway, as if they're making a movie, when in fact they are indeed crafting world peace -- or war.
Truth be told, each "town" is probably just a bit jealous of the other. Even in this country, where movies are taken more seriously than politics, Hollywood wants to be important, and Washington wants to be liked.
A mock movie poster floating around on the Internet depicts a "Star Wars" sendup film called "Gulf Wars II ... Clone of the Attacks," produced by the Bush administration in association with "the other Bush administration."
Actress and comedian Janeane Garofalo has been putting her face out front against the prospect of an Iraqi war, and in Monday's Washington Post she complains that talk shows have booked her and other actors as guests "so they can marginalize the movement ... as some bizarre, unintelligent special interest group."
Pair this with last week's L.A. Times, wherein former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and a coauthor argued that it's what they do in Hollywood, not what they do in Washington, that's to blame for a world that can't stand Americans. It's MTV and "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City" that are why foreign teenagers surveyed by Boston University professors think Americans are "violent, prone to criminal activity and sexually immoral" -- not the State Department, the White House and the Pentagon. (And here I always thought people objected more to being subjected to real bombs, not movie and TV bombs; you can always just switch off "The Sopranos.") And if the study included under "violent" the shoot-'em-up films of John Wayne and Sylvester Stallone -- whose body count, unlike "The Sopranos," numbers more foreigners than Americans -- Gingrich didn't mention it.
The Academy Awards ceremony, America's prom night, is in March. The State of the Union speech, America's power powwow, is tonight. Both are orchestrated, rehearsed and set-designed to a fare-thee-well. Both are watched by the nation and the world.
Hollywood needs to remember "it's just a movie." And Washington needs to remember that it's not.