When people outside the Beltway talk about "Washington," they don't mean the whole city, a predominantly black company town that makes paperwork instead of steel.
Instead they mean what the natives sometimes call "official Washington," or Capitol Hill, a collection of big, white buildings where a gaggle of dubious politicians join forces with bureaucrats and consultants to spend the citizens' money, do their bidding and, every few years, bore them senseless with an election.
Yes, my fellow Americans, there is a Washington. And here, many people look forward to a presidential debate like Kentucky looks forward to the Derby.
Tuesday night, RightNow! -- an organization that encourages young career women to come out of the closet as Republicans -- threw a debate pep rally in honor of George W. Bush at a tastefully nondescript Washington restaurant. The televised match between what the group called "the inventor of the Internet and the next president of the United States" would have been free at home, but several dozen Bush babes -- and an equal number of Bush boys -- anted up $20 to watch it together.
Then again, that's not a bad price for the young, gifted and right to pay for a safe harbor in this partisan town. According to organization president Marlene Colucci, it's about time that Gen X GOP ladies got a league of their own. "There's really a need for a group that tracks young Republican women, that lets these women feel comfortable exchanging ideas," Colucci said. "It's really exciting that we're getting such grass-roots support."
It was hard to see anyone at the debate party as part of the "grass roots." The young ladies came in work clothes, mostly modest business suits and low heels. With that talent for understated accessorizing that is part of the Republican female genetic code, several women sported a single strand of pearls, or a scarf, perfectly matched to their outfits, perfectly knotted around their necks. Here and there, a gold chain bracelet dangled from a dainty wrist and glinted off a glass of white wine.
As for the men, most never took off their jackets, and fewer still loosened their tight power ties, even when the wall-to-wall bodies warmed up the room.
These might have been the bright new faces of Republicanism, but they were better suited philosophically to the Grand Old Party, calling to mind the yuppie dreams of the Reagan years. They want tax cuts, small government and tough love on social issues. And forget Bush's photo-op diversity at the Republican Convention in Philadelphia: All but a handful of the guests here were white.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. It was actually refreshing to encounter Republicans who weren't self-conscious about diversity, especially after a summer of the GOP's turning a camera on every black or brown face it could find. At this party, cameras were turned on California Rep. Mary Bono, the poster girl for the new, new right and honorary chairwoman of RightNow! The congresswoman arrived fashionably late and slipped into a booth, where her admirers lined up for an audience.
Bono didn't mind the spotlight, saying she has gotten used to it since taking over her late husband's seat in the House. "I've been under scrutiny from Day 1," Bono said. Though she was the marquee star of the event, Bono didn't do much circulating. Ten minutes after she arrived, the debate began, and no one's eyes moved off the screen.
Anyone who came just to hear the debate went away with an earful -- yes, probably just one earful. Each time Bush began to speak, the crowd responded with hearty cheers, followed by shushes from those who didn't want to miss a syllable from their man. Everything Bush said was wonderful, from his stated desire to drill for oil in nature reserves to his outright mistake about Russia's position on Serbia. Likewise, his oft-repeated line about "fuzzy math" never failed to amuse.
But boos drowned out most of Al Gore's answers, except for the instances when the vice president's rambling outlasted the attention of the hecklers. People shouted "liar" whenever he attacked Bush, and a chorus of communal groans arose each time Gore interrupted moderator Jim Lehrer. Only when Bush faltered in the final rounds did a few of the faithful engage in low but steady chatter. But they snapped to attention again whenever Gore's face filled the screen so they could make sure he got all the booing he deserved.
When the candidates took their bows, people were already grabbing their coats and heading for the exits. After all, it was Washington on a school night, and even some good-natured gloating wouldn't delay a good night's rest. Everyone was sure that Bush had won the debate hands down. Maybe it was the heat, or the shouting, or the cigar smoke that filled the room more and more as the night went on, but by the end, so was I.