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Pancake politics

With the party conventions over and Congress set to adjourn early as a result of the fall campaign, the nation's capital is about to settle down to some richly deserved obscurity. Longtime Washingtonians sometimes have difficulty recognizing how much their town is overwhelmed by weighty and not-so-weighty matters of politics, except perhaps when they venture elsewhere on vacation.

As I write, news releases emanating from Washington continue to pay homage to the three branches of government, no matter that some of the subject matter, especially dealing with the President, should not see the light of the public's day. Virtually every activity of the chief executive becomes news. What is worse , it's been that way for a long time.

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For example, on Sept. 29, 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt left the White House to visit a dentist a short distance away, on New York Avenue and 14th Street. ''The presence of the President and his carriage,'' read a news account, ''attracted a crowd, but when the President seated himself in a chair and the dentist began to work in full view of the passers-by, the crowd grew to large proportions.'' Although Teddy handled himself with aplomb in this situation, one has to wonder whether such minutiae are the stuff of good history.

More so than in TR's day, reporters are critical of the recording of history because professional historians are absorbed in technical work undertaken for the edification of the writer and a small number of disciples.

All this would not be so bad except for the fact that the element of perspective - the passing of months and years - is not provided the reporter as it is the historian. During the Great Society days of the 1960s, for example, reporters were quick to nod agreement with the conclusions of Washington officials who ventured to Appalachia. Specifically, federal officials were appalled to find Appalachian folk eating pancakes for dinner. Ergo, these residents were ill-nourished and in dire need of various federal support programs. One small step for Appalachia's entry into middle-class society, one giant leap for Washington's status as the reservoir of social wisdom.

On reflection, however, such conclusions illustrate the standards and expectations of the reformers more than they reflect sound nutritionary advice. Put another way, one gets the feeling that the nation's capital has a bad case of social myopia and that Americans are missing the really important events of history.

About 100 years ago when Chester A. Arthur was President, John Bach McMaster wrote his ''History of the American People'' as an antidote to those who wished to make a mountain out of the political molehills of Washington.

''The subject of my narrative,'' McMaster wrote, ''is the history of the people of the United States of America. ... In the course of this narrative much , indeed, must be written of war ... of presidents, of congresses, of embassies, of treaties, of the ambition of political leaders in the Senate-House, and of ... parties.

''Yet the history of the people shall be the chief theme. At every stage of the splendid progress ... it shall be my purpose to describe the dress, the occupations, the amusements, the literary canons of the times; to note the changes of manner and morals; to trace the growth of (the) humane spirit. ... Nor shall it be less my aim to recount the manifold improvements which in a thousand ways, have multiplied the conveniences of life and that long series of mechanical inventions and discoveries which is now the admiration of the world, and our just pride and boast.''

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All this is by way of saying that we need to put events into perspective - to know a great deal more about the people of the nation and a lot less about its political leaders residing in the nation's capital. And I suspect that the data uncovered would suggest, as it did for McMaster, that the citizenry is much more significant and interesting in its accomplishments, demeanor, and priorities than Washington's officialdom. Especially those VIPs who compose the city's social circuit where, I'm told, political chitchat is centered around a late night feast of a whole lot of little pancakes.

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