“Too many have had to suffer at the hands of a political and economic elite who have shaped decisions and never had to account for mistakes nor to suffer from injustice. When unemployment prevails, they never stand in line looking for a job. When deprivation results from a confused welfare system, they never do without food or clothing or a place to sleep. When the public schools are inferior or torn by strife, their children go to exclusive private schools. And when the bureaucracy is bloated and confused the powerful always manage to discover and occupy niches of special influence and privilege.”

That is what Jimmy Carter says he’s going to change in Washington, and God bless him for it. But as one surveys the wreckage of all the bright idealists who came to the capital determined to change it and never left because they had been seduced, one fears that there may be a few more obstacles than Carter has considered.

Some of them are obvious. But one of the most important, and least frequently discussed, is the power of social class.

In a nation nominally free of hereditary rank and privilege, the power of class rests on a kind of voluntary bondage. It is the power of those on the top to prey on the social and intellectual insecurities of those on the bottom; its goal is to make the lower orders believe in their own inferiority.

In Washington, the process is somewhat more delicate, since it is a minuet performed among different layers of the national upper class. But over the years, the city’s upper crust has proved itself marvelously adept at using this weapon.

We need look no farther back than the reign of Lyndon Johnson to see the devastation wrought by intellectual snobbery—or rather, by snobbery about intellectual styles and Ivy League pedigrees. As Doris Kearns says in Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, “The sad and poignant thing was not his anti-intellectualism itself, but his need to be accepted by the very people he scorned. . . . The man’s feelings toward Culture [were] subdued awe and blatant bitterness, a sense that he, unlike the Eastern intellectuals, had none of those ridiculous and precious tokens, an Ivy League education and a facility for words. ‘They’ came into the world fully clothed; he remained essentially naked, no matter how much power he acquired. ‘My daddy always told me,’ Johnson once remarked, ‘that if I brushed up against the grindstone of life I’d come away with far more polish than I could ever get at Harvard or Yale. I wanted to believe him, but somehow I never could.’ ”

If Johnson had known his enemy better, he would have realized that he had it slightly wrong. Southwest Texas State was not really the fatal flaw. Bill Moyers, after all, had been a member of the North Texas State class of 1956, and now, barely 15 years after his arrival in the capital, he is as pure a member of the intellectual upper class as you could ever hope to find. Johnson didn’t realize that there had to be a little mobility into the intellectual and cultural elite, because its whole reason for being was to circumvent the old-line aristocracy of birth, money, and name, which admitted no new members after the moment of conception. It was just a little mobility, of course, and progress was much harder for sons of the Bible Belt than for those who had sat at the tables down at Morey’s. Also, the cultural elite wasted no time distinguishing itself from the great unwashed, using phrases such as the currently fashionable “tacky” to identify those of inferior taste. But it was still easier to become a cultural mandarin than to get away with changing your name to Saltonstall from Schwartz.

It was the Jews who first saw the light. The values of the WASP aristocracy had always included a generous portion of anti-Semitism, and Jews who hoped for social parity saw that educational, cultural, artistic, and intellectual power might be their route to the top. There was no religious test for membership in the cultural upper class that flowered after World War II —the Baptist Willie Morris and the Jewish Norman Podhoretz followed essentially similar paths to success. Richard Nixon, who in his moments of bitter jealousy could be an acute social critic, caught the spirit of the thing when he talked about “The arts, you know—they’re Jews, they’re leftwing—in other words, stay away.”

It was not for nothing that Johnson and Nixon thought the intellectuals scorned them. They did— sometimes for good reasons, quite often for bad. A sneer from the mandarins brought out Johnson’s worst side, and made sure that, if there was such a thing as a good side to Nixon, we never saw it at all.

But these intellectual insecurities are only half the story. Although the Astors and Cabots have seen more glorious days, old-fashioned class snobbery is far from dead. Nowhere is it better illustrated than in the proudest hero of our liberal imaginations; John Bartlow Martin’s new biography of Adlai Stevenson provides a rich portrait of the snob at work and play.

Stevenson was the grandson of a Vice President and the son of an upper-class dilettante. In his youth he was a gadabout dandy who got gentleman’s Cs, flunked out of Harvard Law School, and thought that going to Princeton was the most marvelous thing that could happen to a fellow. As he wrote to his mother after his first days on campus, “Yesterday was quite a gala day here for the freshmen. But before explaining it all you must remember that all the fellows who are here in the freshman class are not freshmen, but only those that entered by examinations, as I did. In other words, all the fellows that came in on certificate, etc., to join the military organizations are not ranked as Princeton men and are not included in, the class of 1922. I certainly am glad that I came in by exams and am a real Princeton man. Although it is very difficult to maintain all the old college customs, etc., the difference between the regular Princeton men and the others is very obvious. For instance whenever ‘Old Nassau’ or any of the other Princeton songs are sung, the non-regular men are not allowed to sing and have to stand at attention.”

Class, Politics, and Condescension

As part of the whole package, Stevenson engaged in casual anti-Semitism. After reporting one of his subject’s many anti-Semitic wisecracks, Martin says, “The remark about Jews just noted was not an isolated instance. It flawed Stevenson’s attitudes for years. In considering it, one must remember that Stevenson was, like us all, a product of his time and his place. His place was the Midwest, plus Eastern schools attended largely by the sons of the wealthy, white, Protestant, and well-born; during those years and in those places and among those people, such utterances were simply made heedlessly.”

When he deigned to enter the world of politics, Stevenson did it with the same barely veiled condescension with which Averell Harriman presented himself to the voters of New York. Through an intermediary who had one foot in the rich society of Chicago’s Gold Coast and another in the Democratic machine, Stevenson proposed a deal. He would organize the Democratic voters in the Gold Coast, all six of them, if the party boss, Matthias “Paddy” Bauler, would give him a place in the delegation to the 1936 convention.

Bauler dismissed him with a snort, which caused Stevenson to lick his wounds in a letter to his go-between: “You more than did your part, and I appreciate it. Bauler’s reply is, I presume, a characteristic commentary on our current municipal politics. While, insofar as it affects me personally, I am disappointed in his complete indifference, I am far more concerned with the implication of thoughtless disregard of long-range party welfare.

“The attitude of to hell with him and the east end of the ward is a brief and eloquent answer to the familiar question as to why more men like yourself [and myself, he might as well have said] don’t take an active part in our municipal politics.”

In his later years, Stevenson was too kind a man to scorn Johnson and Truman for having been to bad colleges or lacking a middle name, and his anti-Semitism was brought under tight control. But he wore his Oxford honorary-degree robe whenever he could, and never seemed to forget that neither Truman nor Johnson possessed a Princeton necktie. In the charming acronym of society ladies, they were NOCD (Not Our Class, Dearie).

Of course, no one really cares about the Social Register any more— no one, that is, except those who are not in it. And when one solid, respectable, Social Register name is put under the same yoke with a member of the intellectual creme, you have a team that can outpull anyone else around. The career of Frances FitzGerald has always seemed a marvelous demonstration of this point. She began life as aristocrat, heiress of the Massachusetts Peabodies, daughter of Marietta Tree (who was herself one of Adlai Stevenson’s aristocratic intimate friends). These days she is, on the strength of Fire in the Lake, a widely respected leader of her trade. But long before that book appeared, when her collected oeuvre consisted of one or two magazine articles, she was being hailed as one of the great journalists of the day. At this point in her career, we may agree or disagree with that judgment—we at The Washington Monthly gave her book our annual Political Book Award. But the acclaim that greeted Frances FitzGerald when her first words saw print seemed inexplicable in any normal way. In the dark recesses of the heart, one suspected that something else was going on. Much as the Public Broadcasting System bowed down in embarrassing adoration when Queen Elizabeth paid a visit to President Ford, much as the “intellectual” programs like Civilisation required the plummy accent of Kenneth Clark rather than Howard Cosell’s, much as every classical music station in the country has an announcer who learned to speak somewhere between Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Cambridge, England, the intellectual world gave its heart to Good Breeding once again. The hard-boiled men of the lit-biz were eager to see sparkles around this princess in its midst.

Fame and Mutual Flattery

Our current princess is Lally Weymouth, the daughter of Katharine Graham. In the last two years, she has edited one book of essays about Thomas Jefferson and put together another collection about life in 1876. The books are perfectly respectable, the building blocks of a professional career. But in the case of Lally Weymouth they have been a pre-fab mansion of success. The latest one is an alternate selection of the Book of the Month Club; Lally Weymouth is featured as a Famous Author in People magazine.

(In the introduction to her book, Lally Weymouth shows that she knows her Ps from her Qs. She gives her generous thanks to Mr. John Winthop Aldrich, Mrs. Vincent Astor, Mr. Averell Harriman, Mr. Paul Mellon, and Mr. Louis Auchincloss, and then turns to plain old Jason Epstein and a score of other non-Mr. and Mrs.

Washington has its own combinations, even more subtle in admixture. One real life example may serve: a lawyer for a corporate firm holds salons, where the distinguished from several walks of life get together. At a typical gathering there might be one member of the White House staff, a liberal Democratic congressman, the editors of two respected magazines, a film director, and representatives of the city’s old-rich and rich-rich elements. It is the many worlds of culture all in one place, and how mutually flattering it is to everyone involved.

Every member of such a group gets a little and gives a little as he rubs elbows with the wonderful. The White House staffers—the Jody Powells and Hamilton Jordans of the future—give the most, in terms of power and prestige, but they also get the most, in fulfillment of long-smothered dreams. There is no doubt no insecurity so painful, so deep, that someone in the group cannot at least temporarily assuage it. Was your wife frozen out by the Junior League in Atlanta? Well come right here, and meet the directors of the Washington Junior League. Have you silently chafed because your accent is bad and your college degree worse? Here are six famous professors, who are obviously flattered to be talking to you. Have you dreamed of being an intellectual and an author? Here is the editor of the magazine that used to leave you cowed, now asking your considered judgment about Carter’s new populism. Have you lived in the valley and yearned for the house on the hill? Mr. Wellborn, who happens to own a bank, may help you out with your mortgage. Whatever impediments of ambition or insecurity that the Carter men bring into Washington, there are those in town who can give them relief.

It is possible that Jimmy Carter is immune to all blandishments. The man who ran for President because he lost his awe for the competition is not the one to need reassurance and flattery. It is possible, too, that his aides will work 20 hours a day for his cause and have no time left over for frivolity or socializing.

But if history and common sense are any guide, the Carter aides may find that they need some of the things that Washington’s higher society can provide. At the convention, they trooped around with Hunter Thompson; they celebrated at 21. Hamilton Jordan has already tried (and as of the convention had failed), to get a book contract and extend his fame to the world of the intellect. Margot Hahn, a prominent local hostess, gave Rosalyn Carter hints on where to find the right dresses in New York, so that she would not run the risk of being embarrassed at the convention.

Perilous Friends

If Carter’s people do embrace the social groups, there are several dangers at hand. One is that they lose interest in challenging the group that offers them so much. It has happened to good men before; one first-rate reporter got a publisher’s advance for a book about Washington’s mighty figures, and several years later had to mail it back because the subjects had become his friends. It is both a matter of civility and a question of status; one is judged, often enough, by the quality of one’s friends, and with friends that are the best in town, there is small reason to offend gratuitously.

There is a further delicious subtlety, which is that many of these new friends will be genuinely loyal. They are the people who will not let you down, when the dark hour arrives and it is time to go home again. Four years, eight years, may seem like forever when the administration is new, but all around are reminders that this glory too will pass. There, at the corner table, is the man who was a big shot in the Truman years. That man, holding his glasses and massaging the bridge of his nose, had the town at his feet when Kennedy was in the White House. They thought it would last too.

But it did not last, and when it was over they did not want it to end for them. California and Missouri and Texas might have been enough before, but not now. Friends were in Washington; the action was in Washington; the sense of belonging to the class that caused events, rather than reacting to them, could only be found here, or in the metropolis stretching north to Boston. Walter Jenkins went home, and so did Bob Finch, but they were the exceptions. The Carter men will learn that it is a much longer trip from Washington to Georgia than it seemed on the way up.

Learning this, prudent men look for safety nets. They realize that a group of well-connected friends can keep them in town. Their friends will help them find the berths—in the good law firms, on the Hill, at the World Bank, with Brookings—that enable them to hang on. Without friends they might be left in the cold.

As they learn, the White House men step carefully. They are less willing to upset the applecart of the group. And there is a second danger, which is that exchanges are being made. Most of them are intangible— your political power for my intellectual prestige—but some involve hard trading as well. The basic pattern is one dear to our culture, in the form of the small town Rotary Club. You buy from the Rotarian druggist, he goes to the Rotarian lawyer, the lawyer comes to your Rotarian store. You all overcharge each other a little, but the group helps ensure the survival of each member. The problem that arises when the pattern is transferred to Washington is that some of the Rotarians are public servants. What they have to exchange is not theirs but the public’s. The banker offers his preferential mortgages, and the lawyer his services, but only the men from the White House and the Hill have the public favors to dispense.

Frailties of the Spirit

What hope, then, for the Carter men? One rule is that they should not allow it to become important to them to get invited back, to the Harrimans or the Fritcheys or the Grahams. They should not shut themselves off from social intercourse, in the fashion of H. R. (Bob) Haldeman or I.F. (Izzy) Stone; there is too much they lose in the process, it becomes too hard to know what other people think. But they must be wary of the IOUs they are running up and the commitments they are making. The only gift they should let themselves give is their presence—and even that only with caution and control. Some Washingtonians are perfectly capable of parlaying that presence into the appearance of influence that they can then peddle, sometimes with such discretion that only another cynical Washingtonian will recognize what’s going on.

These temptations are hard to own up to, let alone to control. In my first years at college I wasted a lot of money and even more time on a luncheon society for the more “creative” students. As soon as decency allowed, old members angling for your initiation fee pointed out that T.S. Eliot had been a member in his undergraduate days. The rest was left to Aristotelian syllogism: T.S. Eliot was a member; I am a member; therefore . . . . The same thing, of course, applies to the dinner parties that the luncheon society was meant to prepare me for, and to which Carter’s people will no doubt be invited: Why, Averell Harriman’s here, the thought will run, and Jackie Onassis is here, and over across the way is John Kenneth Galbraith, so that must mean that I. . . .

The reason for dwelling on these frailties of the spirit is that they do hold much of the key to Carter’s success. If his men don’t deal with these problems, they will become part of the “Washington” their leader wants to change. Once that happens, they are helpless to produce their reforms.

To end on a bright note, we might point out that so far the Carter staff has shown the right spirit. Richard Reeves has reported on an incident that, if its philosophy persists, will keep the newcomers out of trouble:

“Ann Pincus, a Washington hostess of some note, met Hamilton Jordan for the first time in an elevator at the Americana Hotel during the first day of the Democratic National Convention. ‘We’ll be getting to know each other much better in Washington, ‘ she said. ‘By the way, are you called Jordan or Jerdan?’

“‘My friends call me Jerdan,’ he said, smiling. ‘But you can call me Jordan.'”

James Fallows

James Fallows began his magazine career at the Washington Monthly in the 1970s, later serving as editor of U.S. News & World Report and as a White House speechwriter. He has written 12 books, the most recent being Our Towns, coauthored with his wife, Deborah Fallows, which was a national best-seller and the basis of a 2021 HBO documentary.