L’Enfant Terrible, or, The Politics of Youth in DC


1. DC IS LIKE an ugly Paris, low flat oozing, and bad fashion. Women still wear scrunchy socks with aerobic shoes and ill-fitting suits. The traffic circles, designed by L’Enfant to slow an attack, slow traffic. Everything is granite. The city’s tallest monument looks like a penis. Or a pencil. The subway looks like 2001. It was featured in Minority Report. It’s a weird place to grow up. It’s a company town.

2. I grew up there. My dad was convinced to move there from Upstate New York (not far from where I live) by a former congressman to be a lobbyist. Official title: “legislative assistant,” that is, a lobbyist.

3. He wasn’t one for long.

4. My parents’ phones were tapped, well phone. They only had one line. This was in the 1950s. For years I grew up believing they were blacklisted or about to be. I’d heard mumblings of the story, and it sounded glamorous, dangerous. It wasn’t. Not even close. This was part of a security check. My dad was about to get a Q Clearance, yes Q. Which sounds Like Bond to me.

The clearance is basically the civilian version of the Defense Department’s Top Secret clearance and means you have access to the nuclear secrets. When my dad told me he had this Q rating (he called it a rating), well, I doubted him. But he did and Charleston Heston once had it too. Both had to be vetted by the FBI. The agency looked back a decade into my dad’s life, and there was a file on him from college that said he was a radical, a communist. He wasn’t. I don’t know how he convinced them of this in McCarthy-era DC. Apparently though there were all sorts of “Bond-style alarms” on his office (his words this time, not mine).

5. I asked my mom recently for more information and she was vague. I’m convinced the secrets were: A) Duck and cover was a lie – just a way to laugh at kids under school desks or make parents feel safe. B) The Lunar landing was a myth (oh that’s later, but in my mind as part of the “secrets” it was already planned in 1950s). C) That the special relationship with Britain really, really special. It involved sex and maybe money, some debt forgiven after the War. And maybe something about Bond.  D) That bikinis came before the Bikini Atoll and the atom bomb.

And the office alarms? I picture them like something from Get Smart. Or maybe The Prisoner. Probably The Prisoner, like that ball “Rover” that bounced on the estuary off the Welsh coast chasing you back if you tried to swim away. Or, in this case to break into my dad’s office on New Hampshire Avenue, NW in a safe.

6. I would like to ask my dad more on the nature of these alarms, but I can’t. He is dead. At his funeral – memorial service (he was cremated, not buried and now rests in a condo, as I call the little stacked marble cubicles in Arlington Cemetery) – a US Senator (R) extemporized to great effect about my dad and his life and career (no mention of nuclear secrets). He tied together the late-era Johnny Cash’s version of “Field of Diamonds” we’d used as processional music and my dad’s work in rural communities. That day I suddenly understood what it is to be a politician. It is the skill to stand there and talk engagingly at a podium about your neighbor without prompting, without planning, without even being asked or included in the order of service.

In the Oval Office with Kennedy

7. I have pictures of my father with Kennedy and LBJ where they’re signing things in the White House. My dad is the one staring at the camera while everyone looks dotingly at Kennedy.

8. In 1972 or 3 – who knows which now – my Uncle Ed gave me a stuffed Watergate Bug (see below). I don’t quite know what the crafty quilty look of the “bug” had to do with Watergate or if the face printed on it is Nixon’s. Over the years (I still have the bug) friends have said that the two stubs of antennae at the top are Nixon’s fingers in the peace / victory sign. Others have tried to interpret the wings. I just love that growing up in DC a “Watergate Bug” is considered an appropriate toy for a liberal-lefty kid.

Do you see Tricky Dick in that face? Are the stripes supposed to suggest prison? The stubs of ears/antennae a reference to his V for Victory sign?

9. My earliest TV memory was the Ford Inauguration. I barely remember the event, just the hush over the living room as my mother and her best friend watched. It was momentous for that quiet and that there was a dog in the house, the friend’s aging poodle. We’d just gotten our first color TV. Light caught in the curtains pulled against the midday sun, and standing behind the sofa, I had this sense that the world changed but didn’t understand anything about why.

10. He was sworn in in another room that was draped in gold (blame that early 70s penchant for shades like marigold and avocado). Ford spoke of truth, honesty, pain and nightmares. He promised that “our long national nightmare is over,” and that “truth is the glue that holds government together.” He talked of binding up the internal wounds of Watergate and restoring the golden rule to political process and purging our hearts of suspicion and hate. He asked for “prayers” for Richard Nixon even, so he could find peace for himself. All this in a speech he said wasn’t a speech: “Not an inaugural address, not a fireside chat, not campaign speech – just a little straight talk among friends.”

The Ford Inaugural. We didn't have C-Span back then though.

Now to think about it, I wonder how Ford must have felt that day after Nixon, LBJ and Kennedy. He talked about “the tragedies that befell three presidents.” His three immediate predecessors had all had scarred presidencies. One forced to resign for criminal acts, another decided not to run again because of the Vietnam War and national strife, and the first had been assassinated. President Ford Inaugural Ceremony – C-Span Video Library

11. When I was little, just after I wanted to be a stewardess and before settling on ballerina, I decided to be a lawyer-lobbyist. I was six. I must have liked the alliteration. I had no idea what the job was, not really. Or that they were reviled, more hated than lawyers, worse than lobbyists. The lawyer-lobbyist, that was going to be me.

12. Two years later I campaigned for Carter. I handed out fliers at the polling station on Election Day and smiled and begged people to vote for him. The neighbors all called my mom, not to complain. They said it was cute. I still have my gold peanut pin.

13. I still remember what my mother wore to Carter’s Inauguration. I have the skirt, long, blue, quilted. She wore it with a high cream-colored lace blouse. I love the 70s. And Carter, he’s still my favorite president. I just can’t remember which Inaugural Ball my parents went to, though I remember Amy. She and I both had glasses and buck teeth. She ended up married to a programmer with a ponytail. She wore a dress from the 20s. She had a small wedding, me too. My husband? No ponytail but Birkenstocks at the wedding. He now has a beard, and I could pretty much write an ode to Jimmy Carter and his sweaters and energy policy and his need to lust in his heart or, at least, to say he had in an interview with Playboy. How things have changed that a deeply religious man had to feign an interest in sex to get elected. Now women get reviled as sluts.

Amy and Rosalynn Carter at the Inauguration

Clearly Amy is my style icon:

Me and Amy Carter, separated at birth and in this picture by less than seven miles.


14. Between the risers on the stairs to my parents’ basement (they had a modern house, with floating open-riser stairs, convenient for all sorts of games including “jail”) I played “bank.” Wherein my friends and I would pretend to be bank tellers and customers and push checks through the steps. The checks were leftover from the McGovern campaign. My mom had ledgers full of un-cashed checks. She was the campaign’s accountant in Northern Virginia. I still hold Thomas Eagleton responsible for just about everything. Ever. Though, I do like a president who is pro: “Amnesty, Abortion and Acid.” Apparently Eagleton said this anonymously about McGovern before being picked for the ticket. Clearly off his meds.

15. My older cousins who lived in Northwest, DC did drugs with the Mondale kids. The VP’s mansion was three blocks away. That says much about the era – no one cared – and shows how little power the Veep has – no one cared. Or bothered to catch them.

16. By the time I was in high school Senator McCain’s daughter (not blondie-blonde Megan but Sidney, the older one with brown hair, freckles and round face, by wife number one) got kicked out of my school for mooning the math teacher Mr. Nemetz. Recently on ratemyteachers.com he was called “a mean and angry man.” I can’t remember if he was mean or angry. I remember sweaters and broad shoulders. She was in 10th grade. I was in 9th. It was the last day of school. The next year she went to boarding school in North Carolina.

17. Ed Meese’s daughter also went to my school. Also a year ahead of me. There was a scandal when Dana came out a year too early in New York. Gossip columns describe her “flanked by a Rockefeller and naval cadet” and how her family wanted her to go to school out East and not in Califronia, where she wanted to go. She’s now a realtor in Sacramento. We have one friend in common on Facebook.

In my punk years I thought it would be cool to color in the dragon ladies. My dad got upset.

18. When I was a teen, I babysat for the children of the senator who spoke at my dad’s funeral. He was not a senator yet. He is a Republican. My father had an ability to get along with those he wouldn’t agree with politically. He was pragmatic. This used to be how politics worked. I have a picture of Pat Nixon and Imelda Marcos inscribed to my pops. He travelled around with the two of them to Manassas. He was pleased when the Marcoses were deposed. He was also pleased when Imelda gave him an ornate (and hideous) silver shell basket. It’s a perpetual family joke and tacky centerpiece. We brought it out for my dad’s service. I own a lot of shoes.

Thanks for the memories, Imelda.

19. Lynne Cheney spoke at my high school graduation.

20. Tipper Gore also went to my school years before me. While there she played drums  in an all girl group called “The Wildcats.” It was 1964, the band was named after her mom’s Buick. At a local democratic rally they played a song called “Barry’s Boys” about Goldwater. I’m sure those girls didn’t need the Tipper Sticker.

Parental advisory indeed, Tipper.

21. Today political pragmatism isn’t so okay. No one knows how to bend. Or compromise, not to mention talking to the other side and crossing the proverbial aisle. Everyone listens to the news they’re convinced is right and the pundits with whom they already agree. My dad and his neighbor are anachronisms (literally given that my dad is dead), and I wonder what Romney believes? As a governor he was pragmatic and moderate and got along with others and was shaped by the Kennedys. Like my dad. I can’t tell if Romney’s pragmatism was or is real or just what he does to get elected? Is all the rhetoric he’s spouting these days, being anti-women and anti-abortion and down on Obamacare even if it was modeled after Romney’s own, real? Does it matter? That is an academic question perhaps. Perhaps.

22. During Kerry’s campaign my dad and I went door to door in his district campaigning. My dad needed a cane and was frail as we climbed steps in the Virginia humidity. It was important to me to go out with him. Politics and Washington had shaped everything for us. I knew it might be his last presidential campaign; it wasn’t. He got to vote for Obama and see him inaugurated. Just.

23. Needless to say I miss my father. Not Washington.



About Jennifer Kabat

A recent finalist for Notting Hill Editions’ Essay Prize, Jennifer Kabat (@jenkabat) is working on a book called Growing Up Modern, exploring art, ideology and the landscape from the modernist suburb where she grew up to the Western Catskills where she lives now. She’s been awarded a Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant for her criticism and teaches at NYU. She contributes to BOMB, The Believer and Frieze and was once an editor at the legendary style magazine The Face in London.
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