When inveterate political observers refer to the collapse of civility in Washington D.C., one event that's frequently invoked is the battle to bring down Robert Bork in 1987.
The then-60-year-old (he died in 2012) was sitting on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit when President Reagan announced that he was nominating him to replace Lewis Powell, a moderate justice who was retiring. Within an hour of the announcement, Senator Ted Kennedy set the tone for the bruising contest to come: "Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of government, and the doors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is — and is often the only — protector of the individual rights that are the heart of our democracy.”
The battle over Bork is at the center of Anthony Giardina's new play The City of Conversation, which runs through the end of next month at Lincoln Center in NYC. The production features a galvanizing performance by Jan Maxwell as Hester Ferris, a doyenne of Georgetown dinner parties whose influence in liberal politics is legendary. But things turn sideways when her son shows up with a conservative girlfriend just as the Reagan Revolution is about to take over our nation's capital.
The first of the play's three acts is set in 1979. Ferris is dismissive of Jimmy Carter and excited about the possibility of Kennedy challenging him for the Democratic Party nomination for president the following year. Then her son Colin (Michael Simpson) arrives unexpectedly with his fiance Ann Fitzgerald (Kristen Bush), who is something that Ferris isn't used to seeing or hearing in her home — a conservative Republican.
It's no fun to give away all the details, so let's just say that later on that evening the young couple are at the dinner party Hester gives for a conservative Kentucky Senator (veteran screen and TV character actor John Aylward) and his wife (sardonically played by Barbara Garrick). The senator is intrigued by Fitzgerald, this fetching young true-blue conservative, but Hester is outraged. What is this young thing from Minnesota doing in my house?
The second act is the heart of the story, as Hester's family is literally divided by politics. Her zeal to bring down Bork is palpable (if also maybe a bit exaggerated, I would argue), but if you'll recall, the country was truly divided by his nomination, which came nearly seven years into Reagan's reign, a very dark period indeed for liberals in Washington and everywhere else in the country.
The final act (and the one that was the least satisfying to me) takes place on January 20, 2009, the night of Barack Obama's inauguration. Every cast member who we met earlier in the show is older now — no one older than Hester.
Giardina writes in the Lincoln Center Theater Review that the inspiration for the play came from a 1996 essay in the New Yorker by Sydney Blumenthal that eulogized the "vanished liberal establishment that flourished in Georgetown after World War II." (Not long afterwards Blumenthal split the-then TIna Brown-edited edition to work directly for President Clinton).
Giardina writes about his melancholy feelings after President Obama was elected in 2008. An unabashed liberal, he states that though it was an "epochal moment," he knew that a fierce opposition would rise immediately (and did in the form of the Tea Party just a few months later).
"They'd broken the glass and they'd got in, and what they'd undone forever was the great sixties assumption that there was a permanent Washington, that liberalism would always triumph, that all those unpleasant Republican attempts to undo the great progressive agenda were only brushfires, to be put out as soon as Democrats were in the majority again."
Now, a lot of folks regardless of their political persuasion, would celebrate the end of that D.C. Establishment. But nevertheless, though the play in one respect celebrates and mourns the old Washington, its power comes from how some people can't separate the personal from the political, at the expense of some seriously hurt feelings.
The City of Conversation plays at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center, New York City; 212-239-6200, lct.org. It now runs through July 26.