Washington is in an August mood


Washington -- THE EIGHTH month of the year is named after Caesar Augustus, a Roman emperor who used his powers with a great deal of skill. Augustus dubbed himself the "first citizen" and had the Senate do his bidding in ways that President Clinton would envy.

August is also the month in which World War I began and World War II ended. But most folks see the eighth month as a time to rest up and get the kids ready for school. By and large, we could care less about the buzz on Capitol Hill as Congress argues over how best to spend our money.

Bill Clinton tells reporters that the lawmakers are headed down the wrong track. The erratic track of Hurricane Erin yields a far bigger story. Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., tells senators they can't leave unless they get cracking. Yet the talk goes on.

Some cities survive through the summer by the grace of the machines that keep them cool. Washington's political class takes full advantage of this technology even as more sensible types flee for the resorts.

It was not always so. Once, this city would all but shut itself down between Memorial Day and Labor Day. The Republic survived. In an earlier era, President Grover Cleveland would take it easy for weeks upon end in a wooded glen no more than four miles from the White House until the heat finally broke.

Nowadays, this area, now known as Cleveland Park, is home to many top bureaucrats. Early joggers watch them being driven off in their government limos as the sun rises. More often than not, they return late at night, having made the rounds of the political cocktail parties and diplomatic receptions.

Amid all this bustle, the local government is fast running out of money. It will soon be broke, the victim of both poor demographics and poor management.

The Republican solution calls for turning the 69 square miles that make up the District of Columbia into a tax-free zone, on the order of Hong Kong or the Cayman Islands. The idea is the people would then flock here, rather than continuing to flee, and not just for the summer.

Unlike other major world capitals -- London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Tokyo -- Washington is going down the tubes. Whatever their other concerns, political leaders know something must be done.

The other evening, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., went to a local high school for a "town meeting." He told a skeptical crowd of community activists that they should strive jointly "to have the best capital city in the world and make that real."

But for that to happen, you would first have to change the culture, as Mr. Gingrich might put it. For example, the city now spends more, on a per-pupil basis, on public education than any of the 50 states, and it gets just about the worst results in the land.

Mr. Gingrich, having forged an unlikely alliance with Mayor Marion Barry, wants to change all that. There is talk of vouchers to permit a shift to private schools. Experts will be hired to train teachers and revamp the curriculum.

Meantime, Mr. Gingrich presents himself to a crowd in the capital high school as a "revolutionary." Mr. Barry and Jesse Jackson beam back at him. In our own dim age, it was a scene that would have made Caesar Augustus proud.

Andrew J. Glass is chief of the Cox Newspapers Washington Bureau.

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