Friday night, after a long week of worry and hassle, I selected a zany romantic comedy to help me chill. I chose (yet again) Bridget Jones’s Diary and settled down for some light relief. Instead of laughter—though there was plenty of that—I found myself welling up, full of emotion and sadness. I was overtaken by a feeling of loss and an ache for a time of simplicity, which seems almost too long ago to recall. The tug came mostly from the movie soundtrack—one of the best among the many of this genre.
Suddenly, “It’s Raining Men” made me want to get up and dance.
These days I find myself longing for the years when I first came to the nation’s capital, when friends and colleagues—especially those who worked on some of the toughest issues imaginable—would gather at parties and end up at discotheques in downtown Washington, DC, after dinner. Dancing once or twice a week was commonplace. We looked forward to it, even if we didn’t quite know how badly we needed it.
It did not matter whether someone could dance well—it was the motion, the excitement, the exhilaration. For songs from another era, though, the best partners were men skilled at leading. They were sensitive not just to the rhythm of the music, but also to their partners who were compelled to follow. Making that connection on the dance floor sometimes felt like a secret handshake. It was its own off-the-grid way to share something fun and frivolous. Such innocent interactions provided much of the glue that kept Washington, DC, together.
Then, as the 1980s turned into the early ‘90s, these dance spots began to close. Soon all were gone: Pisces on M Street, Desiree at the Georgetown Four Seasons, the rooftop at the Key Bridge Marriot—and eventually F. Scott’s, not far from Georgetown University, and the Third Edition, just off Prospect Street. All that was left for us dancers, aside from weddings, were charity events. But often the bands did not strike up in earnest until after a long night of speeches. By that time many people had already gone home.
Since then, I have often traced America’s biggest policy mistakes to the closing of those dance venues. With few ways to blow off steam, together, Washington policymakers became increasingly arrogant, belligerent, and ready to pounce—a tendency seen in our international and domestic relations. In the last decades, Washingtonians have been as tightly wound as spring-loaded switchblades.
The environment in DC often weighs heavily on people, even if they don’t realize it. It can color their judgment, disfigure their relationships, and threaten their health. Crucially such stress stands in the way of imagination, optimism and, yes, joy—all essential human activity for decision-making and artful implementation. Most of all, people making critical national security and domestic policy decisions often just need some empty-headed moments—out-of-body breaks from the unrelenting pressure. Too much adrenaline can bring on fatigue—chronic fatigue—which leads to poor choices.
Those who do not live in the highly charged capital have many reasons to struggle with similar stress. Economic hardship, closed schools, and political division are only the backdrop. As the situation grows more complicated in Afghanistan, and our country grapples with the aftermath of January 6, damaging hurricanes and wildfires and the COVID-19 spike, everyone is forced to think of our country in the context of these unexpected transformations. This has been a many decade struggle.
The challenges faced by the WWII generation were largely geopolitical and economic in nature. Relationships among Americans shifted only at a glacial pace. Those born after the war, however, have lived through rapid, whiplash change—as each political and societal assumption has been called into question. These include the defeat in Vietnam, the Kennedy assassination, the resignation of Richard Nixon, the advent of nuclear Mutual Assured Destruction, the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the attacks on September 11, 2001, the Great Recession 2008-2009, the now existential climate change crisis, the pandemic, and our recent loss in Afghanistan. During this time, we have also lived through the civil rights revolution, the “women’s liberation” and LGBTQ rights revolutions, the information and social media revolutions, and the digital revolution, including robotics and AI. All this while watching the unhinging of American democratic values and institutions with a January 6 assault on the United States capitol by American citizens. (It makes me feel tired just compiling this partial list.)
It is not surprising that we have evenings when we yearn, if not for some mythical age of simplicity, then at least for some fun. That’s why I plan to get my booster shot, wait for the COVID numbers to drop, and then call a few friends and say: “Shall we dance?”
I will be away over Labor Day weekend and will be with you again the following week.