Peggy Noonan: Washington DC, half a century ago

Roundup: Talking About History

Robert Novak's new memoir of 50 years in journalism, "The Prince of Darkness," is 638 pages of storytelling and score settling by a Washington institution who paints himself, convincingly, as churlish, brave, resilient, petty and indefatigable. I got it as soon as it came out and found it entertaining and, in spite of the usual pitfalls of such books--a rote "When Clinton came in second in New Hampshire I was not surprised" unspooling of year-by-year events--human, and frank. It's not a big book, but it tells you, or reminds you of, a few things, and those new to Washington might learn things from it. As in:

Washington in the 1950s was a pretty wonderful place to be. It seems in almost everyone's memoirs, certainly this one, to have been the last time Washington was fun. It was "shabbier and less pretentious" than today, but it was also an easier place, a more human one, in part, apparently, because everyone in the White House, on the Hill, and in the newspaper bureaus was drunk. (In fact, that would explain the '50s, wouldn't it?) In the Washington young Mr. Novak enters, senators plot over whiskey and cigars; reporters knock back scotches while trading tidbits at the press-club bar; lunches with sources begin with doubles; the Senate majority leader is soused in the lobby, singing to himself. Beehived women chain-smoke with the boys and listen to their tales of woe.

Members of Congress had real accents and actually varied backgrounds. These were the last days when it mattered if you came from California as opposed to North Carolina. It meant you had different experiences growing up, you brought those differences to the Capitol, and they made it richer in human terms....

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