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New York and Washington

November 1, 2008

Against seemingly towering odds, New York and Washington remain, alone among the major cities, dominated by the old school. While our political and financial power is not what it once was, WASPs and our people’s ways continue to set the tone for the life of these two towns, even in this day. These are places where the Social Register remains in currency (or, in Washington, the “Green Book”), where girls of good family still come out, and where good families remain, at least somewhat, in evidence among the local elite.

In these places, one will note that the old families have abided (however unwillingly and unconsciously) Digby Baltzell’s insistence that the Protestant Establishment take in fresh blood in order to stave off irrelevancy. In New York the new talent intermingles with the old money where the two meet, while in Washington, despite a certain amount of State Department gutting during the latter Bush presidency, a consistent class of old-school professionals maintain both the government and the non-profit sector. Brookings and the Council on Foreign Relations, for example, remain old money strongholds.

This is undoubtedly due to the provenance and continuing prominence of certain foundational WASP institutions in these places. In New York, the older men’s and women’s clubs continue along as arbiters of class and power, as do the better museum and library boards and some corporate boards. In Washington, where good schools frequently unlock access to power in the capital, and where diplomacy and polished communication still have meaning, the possession of some background makes a difference. Nevermind the fact that the choicest junior government staff positions pay next to nothing, virtually ensuring that they remain in the hands of young people whose parents can pay their Georgetown rents (in this demographic, an honorable mention must go to certain among the institutions that uphold some standard of community).

It is particularly heartening to this Episcopalian that St. John’s, Lafayette Square, remains the “church of the presidents,” and that Morning Prayer is maintained here during the month, as it is at Christ Church in Georgetown (see essay here on the link between Morning Prayer and the conservative impulse). And, of course, let us not forget that our National Cathedral is an Episcopal foundation, and that St. John’s in Georgetown runs the indomitable Georgetown House Tour.

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