A very different Washington awaits 1993's president

October 29, 1992|By Cox News Service

Washington -- If Bill Clinton is elected president, he'll move into a drastically different national capital than the last Democratic president left 12 years ago.

Crack cocaine, carjackings and drive-by shootings did not plague the city in early 1981 when Jimmy Carter went home from the White House to Plains, Ga. Amy Carter's public school classmates didn't wear T-shirts emblazoned with the image of a Magnum .357 or stash real pistols in their lockers.

Some current cultural icons were still concepts. There was no Vietnam Memorial. No makeshift homeless community across from the State Department. No Hard Rock Cafe behind the FBI headquarters. Metro trains did not yet whisk commuters past the Beltway to the Maryland and Virginia suburbs.

The Iran hostage siege frustrated the nation, but fears of international terrorism had not yet prompted the construction of concrete barriers around the White House and Capitol grounds.

The Redskins had a good young quarterback named Joe Theismann coming off a 1980 season where he made $140,000. Of course, the Redskins have a good young quarterback now, too, only Mark Rypien makes $3 million a year.

If Clinton wins, his arriving Arkansans will find a Washington that has changed in a myriad of ways -- some good, some bad -- since Carter's Georgians departed.

In the ensuing years, considerable conversation has been devoted to the area's dual escalations -- real estate prices and the murder rate.

The median price of a house in the metropolitan area has nearly doubled -- from about $86,000 to about $160,000 -- since 1980. However, today's mortgage interest rates of between 7 and 8 percent are only about half of what homebuyers paid then.

There were 200 murders here in 1980. By 1991, the annual homicide toll had more than doubled to 489 killings, turning Washington into the nation's murder capital.

Not only is it a costlier and deadlier city, but Washington has seemingly become a lonelier place to live. In the September 1980 issue of Washingtonian magazine, readers took out four pages of "in search of" personal ads. Twelve years later, there were 15 pages of these published pleas from people seeking friends and lovers.

In many ways, the changes here mirror those in other cities. There has been a continuing middle class migration -- especially the black middle class -- to the suburbs. Two landmark downtown department stores -- Garfinckel's and Raleigh's -- have closed.

Jobs have moved outside the Beltway, too. In 1980, nearly two-thirds of the employed people in Fairfax County, Va., commuted into the District to work. A decade later, half held jobs inside their home county. The trend held true for Washington's other so-called "bedroom communities."

Indeed, the federal government's pull on the area's economy weakened. While the population of metropolitan Washington grew from 3.2 million to 3.9 million over the past decade, the number of federal jobs remained about 350,000.

Washington watchers say the style of the place has gone through several phases since the last Democratic president.

Diana McLellan, who wrote the "Ear" column for the since-folded Washington Star in 1980 and is now a magazine society columnist, traced 12 years of socializing leading up to the Arkansas chic expected if Clinton is elected.

"During the Carter years, everybody had learned to drink beer from bottles without getting their tongues stuck inside, and the reporters all dressed tackier," she recalled.

That changed into eight years of glitz and glamour and conspicuous consumption under the Reagans. Then came four years of homey George and Barbara Bush.

"The Bush people are not quite so go-outy," she said. "They socialize mostly among their own tribe."

In a way, the recession has returned the social scene full circle.

"In the last couple of years, people have gone back to being cheaper like in the Carter years," said Ms. McLellan. For instance, "there are fewer of the really elegant, high-priced restaurants and more smaller ethnic restaurants."

Then and now, Duke Zeibert's restaurant served power lunches to lawyers and lobbyists. Power ties narrowed, yellowed and mellowed during much of the Reagan-Bush era, meanwhile, but are now wider and wilder than any time since the mid-1970s.

Even the streetscape is different. Along Pennsylvania Avenue's inaugural parade route, between the Capitol and White House, the Old Post Office Building has been renovated and a new Canadian Embassy has been built. The historic Union Station has been transformed into sort of a shopping mall with trains.

In 1980 and now, one thing that hasn't changed is the gripe heard most often by Washington sports fans -- the nation's capital has no major league baseball team.

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