There's a scene in the Watergate movie 'All the President's Men' when a reporter tries to interest the formidable editor of the Washington Post in a story about 'home rule' for the District of Columbia. Ben Bradlee rolls his eyes and relegates it to a few paragraphs, and although in 1973 – a year dominated by what President Nixon did or didn't know – DC was finally granted a form of local government, it remains an anomaly in a country which prides itself on democratic freedoms.
Like the US territory of Puerto Rico, DC sends a non-voting delegate to Congress but otherwise has no representation in the House or the Senate, although since 1963 district residents (unlike Puerto Ricans) have voted for the president and vice-president. Until 1973, the House Committee on the District of Columbia basically ran one of the most important cities on the planet, and Congress still reviews DC legislation and controls its budget. It would be a bit like those resident in Westminster having no MP.
In 1980, voters in DC endorsed a convention which approved a constitution for the proposed state of 'New Columbia', but several bills to admit it as the 51st state of the union have failed to pass Congress. Ironic in a nation in which 'no taxation without representation' remains a salient cry. Yet the institutions of federal government dominate DC as much as those of the UK do London and the European Commission Brussels; Washington, however, hosts a government without properly having one of its own.
On an extended visit last week I was able to get to know the city a little better by skipping the usual sights and just roaming around, mainly on foot. I walked over to Roosevelt Island in the middle of the Potomac, which houses a larger-than-life monument to Theodore, and also Woodrow Wilson's home near Embassy Row, where he saw out what little of his life remained after leaving the White House. As a young political scientist, Wilson (whose maternal grandfather was a Kirk minister) had studied and admired the Westminster model and dreamed of turning the US into a parliamentary democracy with him as prime minister which, like so many of his political aspirations, never became a reality.
From DC on a wet Friday afternoon, I took a day trip (via Greyhound) to Harrisburg, the state capital of neighbouring Pennsylvania. Unlike Washington, Harrisburg has long enjoyed self-government, although that hasn't necessarily meant good government. During the 30-year mayoralty of Stephen Reed, city officials regularly ignored legal constraints on the use of bond proceeds, much of which Reed spent on civil war and Wild West memorabilia. Reed was later arrested on corruption charges and, in 2011, Harrisburg filed for bankruptcy.
As a consequence, the city's infrastructure was neglected, something that becomes quickly apparent if you venture more than a couple of blocks from Harrisburg's State Capitol District. Although it was nowhere near as bad as some US cities I've experienced (most recently Phoenix), the poverty was prevalent. And although there were pockets of rehabilitation – a fine modern art gallery and a hipster café or two – this was obviously a city yet to find itself a productive post-industrial role.
Yet Harrisburg clearly used to be very wealthy indeed. Like Pittsburg, it got rich through steel, supporting large furnaces, rolling mills and machine shops, while in the latter half of the 19th century it was also one of the US's most important railroad centres. The almost embarrassing opulence of the Pennsylvania State Capitol speaks to this gilded age, its dome modelled on St Peters in Rome and its House and Senate chambers decorated with African gold. Today, the state simply wouldn't be able to afford the cost of constructing something comparable.
It brought to mind the beautiful marble-clad interiors of Glasgow City Chambers, which also reflect a more affluent period in that city's fortunes, although one more intrinsically linked with empire than Harrisburg. A politics professor I had met in DC had a theory that Americans didn't really like cities, which explained why so many were in such a bad state (Trenton in New Jersey is even more decrepit). Americans idealise suburbs, lakeside retreats and rustic cabins, not congested urban jungles – even if they have to work in them.
On Easter Sunday I got up early to catch the 6.10am Amtrak service from DC's cavernous Union Station to Newark, another US city that has experienced a remarkable rise and fall, as well as its share of bad government. As Newsweek once reported, every mayor since 1962 has 'been indicted for crimes committed while in office', the only exception being Cory Booker, now widely viewed as the Democratic Party's best chance of taking on Trump during the 2020 presidential election.
I felt I knew Newark through the fiction of Philip Roth, whose 1997 novel 'American Pastoral' anticipated contemporary political themes with its depiction of a virtuous star athlete from Newark called Swede Levov, whose all-American life unravels when his teenage daughter becomes a domestic terrorist. As Levov observes, Newark went from a place that 'manufactured everything' to the 'car theft capital of the world'. Today, it's still referred to as America's worst or most unsafe city.
Perhaps my danger threshold is too high, but I explored Newark by public bus, my options being limited given my inability to drive. Beyond lots of surprised looks – white Americans, as I've written before, rarely use public transport – this proved an efficient way of getting around the once-sprawling metropolis, from Thomas Edison's atmospheric laboratories in West Orange (where most of his significant inventions were developed) to the huge Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. Striding confidently through Easter worshippers intending to look inside, I was stopped by an apologetic police officer and subjected to a bag search more thorough than at any airport.
As in Harrisburg, Downtown Newark displayed several signs of its previous wealth, not least in a prevalence of fine Art Deco buildings, including a dilapidated Paramount theatre designed by the Dundee-born Thomas W Lamb. It felt to me like New York City in miniature, and as I imagine it looked in the 1980s. But unlike New York – or indeed Detroit and Chicago – Newark remains largely ungentrified, despite being just half an hour away from Manhattan by train. I guess these things take time; when I first visited Washington DC as a teenager, I remember thinking how shabby it looked.