Politics may be the lifeblood of Washington, but it's Potter - Harry Potter, that is - who's taken the nation's capital by storm.
J.K. Rowling, British author of the best-selling children's novels about the likable young wizard, spent two days here, and the place went crazy. Parents took their children out of school to spend hours waiting in line for Rowling to sign copies of her book at area bookstores. Teachers permitted classes to tune into Rowling's appearance on a local radio show yesterday morning.
Children also left school to crowd into Rowling's sold-out appearance at a National Press Club luncheon yesterday. One fifth-grade Virginia teacher took her entire class to see the diminutive Rowling, saying she'd never had such competition among parents to be chaperones.
An old hand at the club's luncheons said he'd never seen anything like the crush of children and adults who overfilled the 400-person capacity ballroom and balconies. "Even Elizabeth Taylor didn't pack them in like this," said John Mathew Smith, a Baltimore-based free-lance photographer.
Rowling, a single mother of a 6-year-old girl, doesn't put on Hollywood airs. In fact, the slight, strawberry blondhaired author is refreshingly down-to-earth about her life, transformed into a real- life fairy tale two years ago with the publication of her first Harry Potter book, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone."
Rowling took time to say a cheery "hello" to each of 100 children who waited in line to have Rowling sign her latest book, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azakaban." She told one child who said proudly that she, too, was a writer: "You keep writing, and one day when you're famous, we'll meet again."
Rowling had her young fans laughing when she told them how her British publisher decided that she should be known as "J.K. Rowling," instead of Joanne Rowling, because boys would be more likely to read the books if they thought a man wrote them.
"Frankly, if they'd wanted me to be known as 'Enid Snodgrass' that would have been fine," she said. Now that she's famous, however, Rowling exhorts her audiences to "write and yell" at her British publishers for making such a sexist decision.
Rowling was clearly delighted by the gift of a bedazzled "Quidditch" broom created by one young fan of the fictional sport played by Harry Potter and his friends at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
But Rowling flashed with anger as she responded to a question about parents in South Carolina who believe her books should be banned from schools.
"I just think it's not good that they make decisions on behalf of other people's children," said Rowling. She says there is a simple solution for those who think her books are inappropriate: "Don't read them."
For millions of children and their parents, however, the Harry Potter books are already classics. So far, Rowling has sold 5 million copies of the first three books in the series and has achieved a publishing "triple crown" as her books occupy the first, second and third places on best-seller lists.
Rowling says she has the series all plotted out and intends to stop in 2003 with book seven, when Harry will be 18 and ready to graduate from Hogwarts. During the press club's question-and-answer session, Rowling received numerous queries about Harry's future, but she declined to answer. "I do know exactly what will happen, and I can't tell you about it," she told her eager audience. "At the moment, I definitely think I'll stop at No. 7.... It's going to feel like a bereavement. I think I'll be really heartbroken.
"The only reason I would write a book No. 8 is if I have a burning desire to do it, 10 years after the last book is published," Rowling added. "But I never say 'never,' because the moment I say I'll never do something, I do it the next month."
Rowling actually came up with the idea for the Harry Potter series during one of the lowest points of her life. A native of England, she was divorced and living in Scotland when she began writing the first book about Harry, a mistreated orphan who suddenly discovers on his 11th birthday that he is not only a wizard, but also that he is a legend in the wizard world.
Rowling says she never actually meant to write for children.
"I wrote it for me," she said of the first Harry Potter book. "I wanted to write something that I would like to read now, but I also wanted to write something like the books I used to read as a child."
Rowling added that she is asked, "time without number," why her books are so popular with both children and adults."
"I don't know, and I don't want to analyze them. I don't want to think of putting in ` X' ingredient. It's for other people to analyze, not me."
But Rowling did list some of her favorite children's authors, saying she has been inspired by the likes of Philip Pullman, Paul Gallico and, the grande dame of children's fantasy novels, E. Nesbitt. She also recommended a new book, "Skellig" by fellow Britisher David Almond.
And Rowling had some advice for budding authors.
"Read as much as you possibly can. Write as much as you can.... You'll probably go through a phase where you imitate your favorite writers. That's perfectly OK. Resign yourself to the fact that you'll write lots and lots of rubbish to get it out of your system.
"You've just got to persevere.... To be able to do this as a lifelong thing is the best thing in the world. But it's not a career for the easily discouraged," Rowling said.