Politics & Policy

TUESDAYS WITH JAY: A Snowy City

And a flaky mayor.

PUBLISHER’S NOTE: National Review is bringing out Here, There & Everywhere: Collected Writings of Jay Nordlinger. You may order the book here. It has eight chapters — and, for the next eight weeks, we will publish one piece per chapter, every Tuesday. Hence, “Tuesdays with Jay.” The chapters are Society, Politics, People, The World, Cuba and China, Golf, Music, and Personal. Today’s piece is from Society. It was originally published in The Weekly Standard, February 26, 1996. And, in this new collection, Jay has included an introductory note.

“A Snowy City: And a flaky mayor”

A blizzard is a rare thing in Washington, D.C., and when one hits — the city is almost comically unprepared. Especially when it is governed by Marion Barry. Remember him? He was mayor of our nation’s capital, four times elected.

The thaw has begun here in Washington, D.C., and it looks like we can resume lollygagging through life. We had another snowstorm a couple of weeks back. Well, not a storm exactly — more like seven inches of pretty, powdery snow, barely enough to keep a third-grader in Duluth from skateboarding to school. But it was a big deal in the nation’s capital, leading to semi-paralysis.

It was not as big a deal, however, as the Blizzard of Our Times, which struck in mid-January. This was the genuine article, the most severe snowstorm since 1922, when President Harding was endeavoring to give the nation “not nostrums but normalcy,” and a teapot of scandal was brewing. Snow, in any amount, affects the District more harshly than it does other places. Washingtonians are amusingly skittish at the slightest drop of precipitation. And the city government! Joke about it if you like, but you can’t really know it until you’ve lived under it — particularly with two feet of snow on the ground.

At first, it was kind of fun. Everyone likes a break from the routine. And there’s something satisfying about a tiny dose of hardship. (“Gee, I’d really like to report to work or visit my aunt in Gaithersburg, but I’m forced to sit in my recliner wrapped in a blanket, watching Sally Jessy.”) Adventure was in the air. Out for a walk on Day One, I encountered a Grizzly Adams–like man with a television camera and a microphone, freelancing for the local news. “What the heck are you doing out here?” he asked. Being naturally shy, I delivered a five-minute monologue into the camera: “This is nothing compared with my boyhood in Michigan”; “I refuse to permit Nature’s furies to confine me to my room”; “Isn’t the city tranquil and lovely?”

Neighbor was helping neighbor, and it seemed that civil society was in bloom. I took pleasure in pushing one car after another out of its predicament. Provisions were being purchased for the elderly, and pregnant women were being rushed to hospitals in the Jeeps of strangers. “It brings out the best in us,” or so the anchormen told us, repeatedly.

In time, the novelty faded. Patience wore thin and tempers grew short. I began to resent those stuck cars, squealing and smoking. They should never have been taken out in the first place. Their owners were being greedy and selfish, imposing unnecessary burdens on passersby. We are of course happy to help the distressed; but we also expect people not to be so thoughtless and witless as to place themselves in positions demanding the heroism of a weary cavalry.

The fault, truth to tell, lay with the city’s government. It was almost malicious in its incompetence. Streets were unplowed, and subway service was drastically curtailed. Unable to drive, people took to the underground — Calcutta-like masses of them — glaring and shoving, snarling and cursing. The social situation was chaotic and tense; for a few days, it seemed on the verge of dangerous.

And Mayor Marion S. Barry: He was on television, speechifying, pacifying, lying. He could boast that, despite everything, the city was still handing out parking tickets left and right. Those who habitually reelect the mayor might have realized that we pay a price for awarding the top job to a convicted cocaine user and self-professed sex addict. Everyone likes a little flair in the mayor’s office, sure; but there comes a time when you appreciate a little Robert Taft to go with your Earl Long. (Cracked a colleague of mine, “If anyone should know about ‘snow,’ it’s Marion Barry.”) (“Cracked”?)

My street was never plowed. By the city, that is. The exasperated Dutch embassy down the block finally hired a private contractor to do it. (Hey, there’s something: I’m bailed out by a foreign socialist government in the face of inaction by my local socialist government.) The mail wasn’t delivered for a week, either, giving the lie to that fabled old creed. You needn’t have had a portrait of Milton Friedman on your wall to cry out for some privatization.

Can we live in a civil society presided over by a government demonstrably uncivil? As I neared maybe the fifth stuck car of one morning’s walk, I thought briefly of turning away, in reproachful disgust. (“Kill the lights and draw the shades, Ma! Dumb Charlie’s got his rig stuck in the mud again.”) But conscience pricked, and a good thing. The driver was a young, bewildered foreign woman, fearful of my approach. When she saw that I meant to assist, she was touchingly grateful, and the power of Good Samaritanism was affirmed again.

A truism reasserts itself and is relearned: Government in a liberal republic should fulfill its elementary responsibilities: protect citizens from crime; pick up the trash; put out the fires; shovel the snow. A city that will not perform these functions soon returns its inhabitants to that state of nature from which, Hobbes tells us, the race escaped only through the agency of civil society in the first place.

NR senior editor Jay Nordlinger’s new collection, a beautiful 528-page hardcover, is a must for your personal library, and also makes a great gift. We’re making Here, There & Everywhere available for the special low NRO Bookstore price of $21.95 — you save $3, and shipping and handling is free. Click here to order. You can also have Jay’s signature and personal inscription, if you like.

Here’s what eminent historian Paul Johnson has to say about Jay’s remarkable talents, and this long-awaited, wonderful collection of his essays, reports, speeches, and ruminations: “Jay Nordlinger is one of America’s most versatile and pungent writers. He is at home in geopolitics and sociology, in sport and music and literature, and to all these topics he brings an inquiring mind, deep knowledge, and an engaging style. This collection shows him at his wide-ranging best.”

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