Well known for his wry and sardonic wit as a television reporter and commentator, David Brinkley here describes how a small company town of bureaucrats became known as a combination of “Moscow, Paris, Wichita, and Hell"--for its paranoia, its various levels of social sophistication, and its climate. Washington before the war had been a town where Eleanor “Cissy” Patterson, publisher of the TIMES-HERALD, could lead a band of women to tie themselves to cherry trees scheduled to be removed for construction of the new Jefferson Memorial. The assistant secretary of the interior graciously provided the women with lunch and “cup after cup of coffee.” Soon they had to “unlock their chains and leave for the rest rooms.” The bulldozers moved in to finish the job without hazard.
Much more would change in the years to come. Brinkley spent the war years in Washington as a young reporter, and he draws upon his own experiences freely, though in the third person rather than, as younger reporters might, in the egotistical first. One vignette is particularly touching and funny: A lonely young woman with an apartment to rent told him that it would be fifty dollars a month for complete privacy, but twenty-five dollars--"and I’ll give you breakfast"--if he would leave the door open and be friendly. Her husband would not be home for years from the front. Envisioning an unexpectedly returning hero, angry and armed, the author prudently declined the offer and lived to write this entertaining account.
The book is, however, much less an autobiography than an objective reporter’s summary and re-creation, based on the books, papers, and memories of other participants. The result is a persuasively detailed account of selected aspects of life in Washington before and during the war. The booming bureaucracy with its notorious acronyms and “gobbledygook,” the battles for patronage and ration cards, the racist Senators Theodore Bilbo and Kenneth McKellar, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s contempt for the press lords, the construction of the Pentagon, the decision to “allow” Americans to pay their taxes on the installment plan instead of at year’s end--required withholding--all these and much more are artfully woven together, providing future novelists with a rich lode of material--sans index and bibliography, unfortunately, but with a fine collection of photographs, including one of an anti-aircraft fixture atop the main post office building.