Get our free newsletter
This Thursday night, Mayor Anthony A. Williams holds his inaugural “Mayor’s Night In.” Staffers for D.C.’s new chief executive tout the regular open office hours as yet another manifestation of the open new era Williams is inventing. Ordinary citizens need only show up at One Judiciary Sqaure and sashay into the mayoral suite to jawbone with the boss.
As Williams’ spokespeople describe it, visiting citizens will praise what’s working, complain about what’s not, and generally help him tinker with the District’s troubled government. “It’s really important to the mayor that his office be accessible to residents,” says spokeswoman Peggy Armstrong. “We’re going to have a number of our agency directors here, particularly the ones who have direct resident-service contacts. We will have a whole slew of staff there to help solve problems.”
Of course, the tradition of potentates holding court dates back a lot further than the kind of late-20th-century wonkery preached by Mayor Williams. From time immemorial, kings received the common folk, heard their pleas, and made things right. Sure, the sessions usually involved peasants seeking redress for stolen goats rather than urbanites giving feedback on dysfunctional regulatory processes, but it’s pretty much the same bottom-to-top dynamic.
In much of the world, the ritual of holding court died with the divine right of kings. It’s hard to imagine a mayor like Rudolph Giuliani, Richard Daley, or Marion Barry simply welcoming energized whiners. Armstrong says Williams talked about the plan on the campaign trail and notes that an occasional version exists in Detroit, a city Williams visited on his preinaugural tour of urban-management successes. But Armstrong admits the mayor’s staff isn’t quite sure how to proceed on opening night. “The part that’s hard is how do you do it in a limited time frame,” she says.
The mayor might be a little more certain about how to proceed if he’d added another city to last month’s tourNew Delhi. Though India’s not famous for urban administration, elected politicians there have taken the ancient tradition called durbar and updated it for modern times, providing a potential guide to how a democratic leader can hold court.
During the Mogul empire, says Brookings Institution Senior Fellow and South Asian specialist Stephen P. Cohen, “people could come and petition before the emperor or senior officials. It was very important in keeping up with what you might call public opinion. It was a long and glorious tradition.” Classical royal fortresses were designed with large meeting halls in which ordinary subjects could be received. (The palaces also had smaller chambers, where more important petitionersthe Herb Millers of their daywere given a say.) Later on, Mahatma Gandhi held ritualized morning sessions in his garden, meeting with anyone who had a request.
But the updated version really took off as India’s democratically elected officials replaced noblesse oblige with an even stronger motivation: political ambition. “I’ve watched a lot of durbars and stuff,” says Sunil Dasgupta, who covered domestic politics for India Today. “After a point it’s sort of tedious, because every morning these guys are waiting outside on the lawns….They would ask for jobs for their kids, for roads, for schools, hospitals, just anything. It’s very seldom that it is a larger political issue. It usually is, My nephew needs a job, my son needs a job, what are you going to do about it?”
After the partition of India, the tradition also lived on in Pakistan. During the 1970s, populist Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto frequently held court far from the capitala tactic not unlike the mobile office hours Williams staffers have mentioned in D.C. As people came forth with problems, Bhutto would use the opportunity to chew out his own government’s bureaucrats. Yet Williams might not want to follow Pakistan’s lead too closely. Briefly the idol of his country’s poor, Bhutto met a fate that makes D.C.’s control board takeover look painless: After a 1977 military coup, he was executed by hanging in 1979. Sometimes it doesn’t help to know what’s on people’s minds. Michael Schaffer