Rupert Cornwell: Snow brings out the best – and worst – in the US

Out of America: There's not much that American politics can't trivialise – even the worst blizzards for 110 years

Is there anything in America that doesn't turn into a political argument? Healthcare, immigration, budget deficits, even whether President Obama was born in the US are legitimate subjects for debate. But the weather?

You have probably read we have had a bit of snow here in Washington in the past couple of weeks. To be precise, there've been a couple of 6in storms, then a 2ft monster on Super Bowl weekend, followed three days later by a Siberian blizzard which piled 10ins on top of that. Throw in a hefty pre-Christmas storm, and it adds up to a record season with 55.6ins, beating the previous mark of 54.4ins in the winter of 1898-99. Back then William McKinley was in the White House and Congress was approving the first use of voting machines in national elections (at the discretion of individual states). And we've still got a month of official winter left.

North of here, in Baltimore and Philadelphia, it's been even worse. Nor has the mid-Atlantic been the only region to suffer. A rare heavy snowstorm in the Deep South on Friday means that, as I write, there is almost certainly snow on the ground in all 48 contiguous states at the same time, which might be another record.

But the impact is probably as great in the capital as anywhere. Like London, this city goes into panic mode even before a flake has fallen. "Washington is not a snow town," Marion Barry, our infamous former mayor declared back in 1987, when asked why he was enjoying himself at the Super Bowl in sunny southern California when a huge storm struck DC and the streets weren't cleared of snow.

He was right. Barry moreover survived that incident and was only brought down three years later when he was caught in a crack cocaine sting with a former girlfriend (marking the occasion with the immortal quote, "Bitch set me up"). But a failure to clear snow has ended the political careers of several big-city mayors, and our own Adrian Fenty started to feel the blast last week when hundreds of residential side streets weren't ploughed.

Most people, however, are prepared to cut Fenty some slack. After all, Washington hasn't seen anything like this since the 19th century, and even neighbours who are transplants from Chicago and New England, where heavy snows are a regular event, have been left aghast. Back in December, someone in the Obama mafia at the White House sneered that the first big storm of the season was a mere "dusting" by Chicago standards. No one's sneering now.

If you haven't experienced it first hand, it's hard to imagine the paralysing effect of three or four feet of snow in a fortnight, in a place where it rarely snows and has nowhere to put the stuff. Vague tumuli in the whiteness are the only reminders of the box bushes, azaleas and small trees in our garden.

Rock Creek Park near our house might be the Russian steppe; if the city has a musical anthem it ought to be "Lara's Theme". People live in dread of what another neighbour calls a "middle-class Katrina" – the extended power-cut that renders computers, televisions and all the other vital electronic paraphernalia of modern life inoperable.

The incessant storms have brought out admirable and maddening aspects of American life: on the one hand, the splendid comradeship of neighbours, on the other the propensity of anyone in front of a microphone or TV camera to dispense gratuitous and blindingly obvious lectures. Don't go out without plenty of layers of clothes, and don't drive. Who would?

Three times already this month I've dug out the car; not really with the intention of going anywhere but, I suspect, subconsciously to remind myself that somewhere beneath the white mantle, normal life still lurks. One's horizons narrow to the point that the most important thing is to keep open a path to the street; ours is now a miniature canyon, 2ft wide and 3ft deep.

But whoever said the people's elected representatives have small horizons? Even the weather has become a cudgel in the unproductive partisan battle that passes for the political system here. The last two storms shut down the federal government for four consecutive days (another record?) – and of course the anti-government crowd was thrilled.

"Think of it," Grover Norquist, the president of the Americans for Tax Reform group (ie Americans for tax abolition), crowed to the Wall Street Journal, "a government which can't plough the streets and fix the potholes wants to tell us how our toilets should flush and what cars we should drive."

Opponents of global warming are also having a field day. The family of Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who believes climate change is all a fiction got up by pointy-headed lefties, built an igloo on Capitol Hill with a sign saying "Al Gore's New Home". In Virginia, the Republican party took out TV ads against two Democratic Congressmen from the state who had the temerity to vote for cap-and-trade emissions controls: "Tell them how much global warming you got this weekend, maybe they'll come help you shovel."

The best joke was at the expense of Sarah Palin, who last weekend was caught looking at notes scribbled on her palm while giving her speech to the Tea Party convention. The former Republican vice-presidential nominee had been oddly quiet during the blizzard, noted the political comedian Andy Borowitz, "probably because she's wearing mittens."

Yes, there's not much politics can't trivialise. No wonder a New York Times poll on Friday put the approval rating of Congress at an all-time low of 15 per cent, and showed that only 8 per cent of voters think their Congressman should be re-elected. These meteorological storms may be harbingers of a political storm at November's mid-term elections. And by the way, they're forecasting more snow here tomorrow.

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