Washington Post Magazine’s 25th anniversary: 25 moments that changed Washington most since 1986

December 1, 2011

Twenty-five years ago, Washington Post Magazine was launched. That doesn’t seem like many years, but life sure has changed.

In 1986, terrorism was someone else’s problem, AIDS had only just become a household name, and we’d never seen a serious tech rally, much less a bust. Heck, Whitney Houston even had two hits on Billboard’s year-end singles chart.

To mark the Magazine’s anniversary, we decided to look back at the past 25 years in Washington, a history-making city charged with preserving much of the nation’s history. The question became: What were the 25 moments that changed Washington most since 1986?

The answer was more difficult than expected. After going through back issues of the newspaper and other sources, the staff compiled lists, then piled into a room to debate. And debate. And debate. (Regrettably, no one agreed with me that the region’s first legislation to allow red-light cameras belonged — Virginia, 1995.)

Finally we called in Marc Fisher, a longtime Post columnist and reporter who has the sharp intellect to make the choices and the tough hide to withstand the objections. Today we offer you his list. Let us know what you think at wpletters@washpost.com. It’s your turn to debate.

And thank you for reading WP Magazine. In 1986, dozens of U.S. newspapers had magazines. Today you can almost count them on one hand. Life sure has changed.

— Lynn Medford

1. (1986) Would Washington still be suffering from epidemic cocaine use if Maryland basketball star Len Bias had not collapsed from an overdose in his College Park dorm room and been declared dead two days after the Boston Celtics selected him as the No. 2 pick in the 1986 NBA draft? Bias’s death was both a tragic wallop to fans of the dynamic playmaker from Prince George’s County and a wake-up call to a generation of casual drug users who grew up believing that cocaine was somehow less harmful or more “natural” than other hard drugs. Bias’s death quickly led to the passage of a federal law that attached mandatory minimum sentences to drug offenses — sparking a dramatic 20-fold increase in the nation’s prison population, a sour legacy in the view of many lawyers and law enforcement officials who would rather see government focus on high-level traffickers.

2. (1987) The story was one of the oddest to have appeared on the front page of The Washington Post: “The Miami Herald reported yesterday that a news team that staked out Democratic presidential front-runner Gary Hart’s Capitol Hill town house determined that a young woman from Miami spent Friday night and Saturday with him while his wife was in Denver.” Reporters from a reputable newspaper staking out a presidential candidate’s house? Hart, then a leading candidate for his party’s nomination, slammed the newsies for “hiding in bushes [and] peeking in windows.” But Hart, faced with earlier questions about womanizing, had invited reporters to “follow me around ... put a tail on me.” Five days after the Herald report, Hart quit the race. The relationship between politicians and the media had been irrevocably altered. The years since have seen not only a cavalcade of candidates brought down by their sexual appetites, but also a redefinition of the relationship between the media and other public figures, including sports stars and Hollywood celebrities, as the salacious became a routine — and highly popular and profitable — piece of the daily news.

3. (1988)On June 23, a climate scientist from NASA named James Hansen told a congressional hearing that Earth was getting warmer and that the cause was human behavior — namely, the ever-increasing production of greenhouse gases. Hansen painted a grim portrait of a future of ecological turmoil: droughts and fires, floods and ever-more-sweltering heat waves. In the first testimony about global warming, Hansen said there was “only a 1 percent chance of an accidental warming of this magnitude.” From the start, there were skeptics aplenty. Despite a mounting drumbeat of scientific support for the hypothesis, the political divide over global warming only deepened. The skepticism tended to come from the right, as conservatives adopted an attitude eerily reminiscent of one their counterparts on the left embraced in the 1960s: rebellion against the received wisdom of the elites.

4. (1989) Washington’s Corcoran Gallery of Art wasn’t looking for a fight. The museum planned to open a show, “The Perfect Moment,” featuring works by American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The exhibition, which had appeared at museums in Chicago and Philadelphia without incident, included portraits of flowers and people, but also a selection of beautifully lighted images of blunt, rough homosexual encounters. Some, depicting sadomasochistic scenes, were to be displayed, as in the other cities, in an X-rated area governed by an age restriction. But shortly before the Corcoran show was to open, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) learned that the National Endowment for the Arts had given the Philadelphia museum $30,000 for its Mapplethorpe show. Appalled, Helms recruited more than 100 congressional colleagues to protest the use of tax dollars to subsidize “morally repugnant materials of a sexual nature.” Federal law prohibited the NEA from interfering with the content of any art its money supported, but the Corcoran’s leaders canceled the show, hoping to save the museum’s federal funding of about $300,000 a year. The decision couldn’t have been more shortsighted. The Corcoran, accused of censorship, was picketed by civil liberties activists, gay leaders and artists, some of whom barred the museum from showing their work. The museum lost a $1.5 million donation. Soon, its director resigned. But the damage was done, and the incident would lead to an effort by Republicans in Congress to dissolve the arts agency. The NEA would survive, but with a far more cautious approach. The battle over what is obscene and who gets to decide rages still.

5. (1990) Technically, Marion Barry was not quite accurate when he reacted to his arrest after taking two long drags on a crack pipe in Room 727 of the Vista Hotel on M Street NW. “Bitch set me up” was an understandable expression of pique and shock, but Barry’s girlfriend Rasheeda Moore was only a tool in the operation, a joint sting set up by the FBI and Barry’s own D.C. police department. The grainy videotape of the mayor of the capital of the free world sucking up a cocaine high became the city’s shame, a cruel comedy mainstay and a crystallization of the District’s abiding racial divide. Although Barry was convicted of drug possession and served six months in prison — after a trial at which prosecutors claimed that he had used drugs hundreds of times over his three terms as mayor — he was back on the D.C. Council within months, and reelected mayor two years later. But although Barry never went away — as Ward 8 council member, he was a constant burr in the side of then-Mayor Adrian Fenty — his drug travails and the failures of his final term as mayor led to the elections of Anthony Williams and Fenty, who spurned the populism of the Barry era and emphasized a quieter, duller politics in which the city was no longer the employer of last resort, but a more professional operation aimed at lending confidence to private investors. Still, even in the sunset of his remarkable career, Barry retains the power to inject racial resentments into city affairs. Mayors ignore him at their peril.

6. (1991) In another landmark stop on the path to polarization, a law professor at the University of Oklahoma came to Capitol Hill to comment on Judge Clarence Thomas’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. This is what Anita Hill told the senators: When she worked for Thomas at two federal agencies, he would frequently call her into his office and talk about sex. “He spoke about acts that he had seen in pornographic films involving such matters as women having sex with animals. ...” she said. “He talked about pornographic materials depicting individuals with large penises or large breasts involving various sex acts. On several occasions, Thomas told me graphically of his own sexual prowess.” Four days after Hill’s testimony, the Senate voted 52 to 48 to put Thomas on the Supreme Court. But the reverberations from Hill’s allegations continue even 20 years later. As they’d learned to do since the Gary Hart scandal, politicians, the media and members of the burgeoning industry of spinmeisters turned a Washington process that had formerly been the purview of law professors and bar associations into a partisan battlefield. As a result, Americans chose to believe Hill or Thomas mainly according to their preferred ideology or party. The nation was splitting into two camps, each not only with its own belief system, but even with its own set of facts.

7. (1992) In January, after a 14-2 season, the Washington Redskins defeated the Buffalo Bills, 37-24, the last time a D.C. team in any of the big four sports leagues has won a championship. Since then, the Redskins have appeared in the playoffs only four times. The Wizards have never made it to the NBA Finals; earlier, as the Bullets, they won the big prize in 1978. The Capitals and Nationals have never won a championship. Hope arrives regularly for all of these teams, usually in the form of a savior: a new owner (Daniel Snyder, Ted Leonsis, the Lerners), a superstar player (Michael Jordan, Kwame Brown, Gilbert Arenas, Alex Ovechkin, Donovan McNabb, Stephen Strasburg), even a new building (MCI Center, Jack Kent Cooke Stadium, Nationals Park). But the result is always the same: Washington is the home of the Senators, the Generals (the Harlem Globetrotters’ perennial victims) and Tony Kornheiser’s vaunted Curse O’ Les Boulez. They even made a musical and movie out of our sentence to sports hell: “Damn Yankees,” in which we finally make a deal with the devil to win the pennant — but the show ends before we get a shot at the World Series. But that’s fiction. In real life, the Redskins won in ’92 by taking their first 11 games, riding what Kornheiser famously dubbed the Bandwagon, a vehicle expansive and powerful enough to carry the whole D.C. area along.

8. (1993) The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum opened to huge popular and critical success, a victory for curators who worked to tell the complex story of how extremist ideology took hold of an advanced society and how the German people came to murder millions of Jews, including hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens. But as successful as the museum was in combining serious history with an emotionally devastating presentation, the Holocaust Museum opened the door to a trend that would dramatically alter the face of the Mall and the way in which Americans tell the story of our past. After the founders of the Holocaust Museum were given federal land and the right to tell their story as they saw fit, demands from other groups multiplied. The result is a balkanized Mall: separate museums for American Indians, blacks and perhaps Latinos as well. The Smithsonian’s American history museum is left with the difficult task of finding what still unites us on a Mall full of separate visions of history — an approach that culminated in the National Museum of the American Indian, which gave control of its content to individual tribes, who were free to present their history in the best light, without independent curators filling out more challenging parts of the story.

9. (1994) Republicans won control of the House, giving the party the upper hand in both chambers of Congress for the first time in 40 years. In the Senate, Democratic stalwarts such as George Mitchell, Howard Metzenbaum and Dennis DeConcini gave way to a new generation of Republicans including Jon Kyl, Rick Santorum, Bill Frist and Fred Thompson. But it was in the House that the Republican Revolution would find its voice, as Speaker Newt Gingrich led conservatives such as Lindsey Graham, Tom Coburn, Sam Brownback and Bob Barr to sell the “Contract With America.” The campaign plank that promised to change the rules by which Congress ran and to introduce bills to balance the budget, cut taxes, reform Social Security and welfare, and impose term limits — a program primarily drawn from Ronald Reagan’s 1985 State of the Union address. Although most of the program did not become law, the Contract played a major role in nationalizing House races that had previously focused on local concerns and solidified a conservative agenda that would dominate the debate no matter which party controlled the White House or Congress.

10. (1995) One month after the truck bombing of a federal office building in Oklahoma City killed 168 people, President Bill Clinton ordered Pennsylvania Avenue NW in front of the White House closed to vehicles, the first major step in a hardening of the city against terrorist attacks. Although the al-Qaeda attacks of 2001 led to a more thorough reshaping of the city’s landscape, it was the Oklahoma City blast that ended the capital’s life as an open city. Suddenly, driving into a garage involved guards wielding mirrors to inspect car bottoms. Jersey barriers undid the designs of landscapers and architects. An architecture of fear came into vogue, and as critic Witold Rybczynski put it, a city of “graceful Georgetown mansions, neoclassical federal buildings” and iconic monuments was tucked behind a new vocabulary of “screening facilities, hardened gatehouses, Delta barriers, perimeter fences, and seemingly endless rows of bollards.” The result of this explosion of security measures was a visible, palpable sense of insecurity, a fortress of fear, and a new form of Washington one-upmanship in which an agency was only as important as the extent of its security perimeter. Defenders of the American tradition of openness cried out against the capital as bunker, but their arguments were usually trumped by the security officers’ simple retort: “Are you ready to risk lives?”

11. (1995) In November, Woodward & Lothrop closed, leaving Washington with only one department store it could call its own. (Hecht’s would die soon enough, in 2006.) Garfinckel’s, Raleigh’s and Lansburgh’s had already called it quits. In the next few years, Giant Food and Riggs Bank would be bought by bigger companies from out of town (the Netherlands and Pittsburgh, respectively). The local families that ran the stores Washingtonians knew as their own sold out to the big boys, usually because they were losing out to national chains that moved in with lower prices. Peoples Drug fell to CVS; Hechinger hardware bowed to Home Depot. The newcomers set up shop first in big boxes in the suburbs. Years after the homegrown stores had left the city as a retail desert surrounded by suburban malls, Target and now Wal-Mart ventured into the District as well. But the damage done by the loss of the area’s major locally based retailers is felt to this day, in the reduced commitment to local charities, the demise of careers that started and stayed in one community, and the diminution of a sense of place.

12. (1996) Since its founding in 1980 as the Cable News Network, CNN had opened bureaus throughout the world, offering a breadth of news coverage never before seen on television. But in the 1990s, despite CNN’s success in attracting huge audiences for major events, the cost of gathering news rose far faster than ad revenue. In 1996, Rupert Murdoch, who had made a raft of newspapers around the English-speaking world editorially conservative and quite profitable, launched Fox News Channel, which offered hard-news headlines midday and strong, almost entirely conservative pundits in prime time. Fox News changed the tone and content of cable news, raising argument and punditry over neutral reportage. For Republican politicians, the new channel was a godsend, a national platform for their talking points and a launching pad for their personalities. Fox’s ratings success — before its second decade, Fox News had surpassed CNN in audience — led competitors to copy its approach, if not its political leaning. CNN put a greater emphasis on punditry and personalities, and Fox’s liberal counterweight, MSNBC, made an even more dramatic shift from traditional news reporting. Before long, much of the content and style of national politics was being shaped on cable news, despite its relatively tiny audience. On any given weeknight, about 3 million Americans watch one of the cable news channels. On any given autumn Sunday, about 105 million Americans watch football.

13. (1996) After a surprisingly easy path through the District’s political thicket, charter schools became a free and popular alternative to the city’s troubled regular public schools. Although the charter movement began as a conservative challenge to public schools that right-wing politicians believe are sentenced to poor quality by rigid and selfish teachers unions, D.C. leaders avidly grabbed on to the idea as a way to keep and lure back a black middle class that had been leaving the city for better public schools in the suburbs. Although the charters vary enormously in quality and as a whole perform only slightly better than regular public schools, they offer smaller classes and a safer environment — in good part because every family in a charter is there by choice. Today, almost half the city’s schoolchildren are enrolled in about 60 charters, which the teachers unions have long since embraced. Some of the schools have been criminally lousy, and some are recognized as among the nation’s best charters, but overall, they have established themselves as the schools of choice for D.C. parents who are actively involved in their children’s education.

14. (1997) Abe Pollin just wanted to build an arena for his basketball and hockey teams that would be modern and convenient. Downtown Washington made sense to him, in part because a Seventh Street NW site was right on top of a Metro station, but also because the city’s center was, well, central — unlike his failing Capital Centre in Prince George’s County. The D.C. government was in no position to pay for a sports facility, so Pollin, in a move that likely gave other sports moguls palpitations, paid for the building himself — to the tune of $200 million. When MCI Center opened (in the annoying manner of sports facilities these days, it changes names, though by any reasonable measure, it should be called the Pollin Center), banks and developers, seeing masses of people pouring into the then-dormant area, loosened their purse strings. The result was a new entertainment and dining quarter, with boutique hotels, new theaters, apartment buildings and, most important, plenty of foot traffic. Maybe the whole neighborhood should be named for Pollin.

15. (1999) The Dulles corridor sprouts office towers and morphs into Silicon Valley East! Tech zillionaires party on Seventh Street NW and at the Tower Club in Tysons Corner! Ordinary houses in choice Zip codes in Arlington, Bethesda and the District bust through the $1 million mark! Valet parking, celebrity chefs and outdoor heaters remake Washington’s night life! The explosion of new technologies created a bubble that seemed as if it might never burst. After hitting a modern low of 519,000, the District’s population started to rise again. The District’s streets became a minefield of construction ruts, but who could complain? Crews were laying fiber-optic cable that would make Washington one of the world’s most connected cities, and connection brought the magical riches of the Internet. It seemed as if everything was changing: money (online trading and banking), housing (sell and search from your desk), work (résumés and job listings), love (online match services), sex (free porn), school (would teachers and buildings even be necessary?) and on and on. “Bricks and mortar” became shorthand for old-fashioned and obsolete — but buildings kept rising. Silver Spring would finally get its new downtown, the National Harbor development on the Potomac in Prince George’s County got the green light, and Whole Foods would put its largest store in the region on P Street NW, unleashing a wave of gentrification along the 14th Street corridor, which had sat forlorn for more than three decades after the 1968 riots.

16. (2000) In the ultimate partisan face-off in Washington history, the contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore came down not to who should win the presidency, but who did, bringing postmodernist deconstructionist battles from academia’s ivory tower into the homes of American voters. Whose facts would count? In the closest presidential election in a century, the power to decide devolved first from the nation’s voters to a few hundred semi-confused elderly voters in Florida and then to the nine justices of the Supreme Court.After the court’s 5-to-4 vote to select Bush and, later, the birthers’ false claim that Barack Obama was not a natural-born U.S. citizen, neither of the last two presidents has been considered fully legitimate across the nation’s political divide.

17. (2001) Everyone walked through his or her own Ground Zero. We flew flags over highway overpasses. We learned alternative routes out of town. We made escape plans with those we loved. We woke in the small of the night to the vague howl of fighter jets that patrolled the skies over our homes. We joked about duct tape, then bought some more. We sent our armed forces overseas to gain revenge, then, when we looked up a decade later, they were still there and we were still here, wondering why we have to take off our belts and shoes before boarding an airplane. Every day since, in office lobbies, we have signed log books no one will ever look at. Every day since, we have shown ID cards to guards who don’t read them. Every day since, we wait for the next one and wonder who has won.

18. (2002) What sense of security the 9/11 terrorists didn’t steal from us, the snipers did. Whereas the jihadist attacks succeeded in creating a terror that first united and later divided us, the personal vulnerability many Washingtonians felt in the days after the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center was eventually displaced by debates over foreign policy and two wars. But the two snipers who shot at random people from the trunk of a 1990 Chevy Caprice aimed directly at us, targets chosen solely because we lived here. They killed 10 people. Their 23-day reign of terror focused on our most ordinary activities: pumping gas, going to school, getting a bite to eat. There was no white box truck, but suddenly white box trucks were everywhere, each of them a threat. A decade later, those who were children during those days remember it as the time they learned that their parents could be more afraid than they were.

19. (2004) The design and completion of the National World War II Memorial on the Mall was done in a hurry, a laudable effort to honor — while some of them were still alive — the 16 million Americans who served in the military during the most ambitious undertaking in the nation’s history. The memorial to a war that cost 400,000 U.S. lives, built in a classical style reminiscent of many European war memorials of an earlier age, was roundly dismissed by critics. The New York Times called it “a shrine to the idea of not knowing or, more precisely, of forgetting. It erases the historical relationship of World War II to ourselves. It puts sentiment in the place where knowledge ought to be.” Other critics compared it to the Soviet Union’s war memorials or even to the fascist style beloved by Hitler and Mussolini. Future generations will decide if the memorial has the lasting power of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Wall, I.M. Pei’s East Wing of the National Gallery of Art or James Freed’s Holocaust Museum, designs that communicate an enduring belief that Americans will always strive for a more perfect union. For the moment, the World War II Memorial is a gathering place for those who already know. The surviving World War II veterans mostly love the place. Tears roll down their cheeks as they walk their younger relatives through the memorial, proudly set at the center of the Mall, in the core of our collective memory.

20. (2005) After a 33-year absence so devastating that some Washingtonians lost their sense of place and aligned themselves with a team in Baltimore, baseball overcame its twice-burned bias against the nation’s capital and gave Washington a third chance. The area’s economic boom and persistent position atop any list of the nation’s most affluent metropolises — along with the fact that the Montreal Expos were a flop and baseball had nowhere else to turn — finally led Commissioner Bud Selig and his fellow owners to spurn the fulminations and threats of Orioles owner Peter Angelos and move a franchise to the District. The city’s cause was helped considerably by the D.C. government’s willingness to front the money to build a new stadium — a decision that divided District voters and helped deliver the mayoralty to one of the deal’s leading opponents, then-D.C. Council member Adrian Fenty. Soon, bang-zoom went the fireworks, and curly W’s appeared on red caps from Manassas to Mitchellville.

21. (2007) Egged on by residents who clamored for action after a doubling of Prince William County’s Hispanic population between 2000 and 2005, the county passed the toughest anti-illegal-immigrant law in the nation. Police were authorized to check the immigration status of anyone they stopped on suspicion of committing an infraction. The crackdown led to huge protests by Latinos, about 8,000 of whom later left the county, perhaps because of the new law but in many cases because of the precipitous decline in construction jobs following the economic crash of 2008. The crowds of young men hanging out on street corners seeking the work of day laborers largely dissipated, but the crime rate did not change much. Most residents pronounced themselves pleased with the law’s impact, and studies concluded that Prince William had effectively pushed some Latinos to neighboring jurisdictions.

22. (2007) Everyone wanted D.C. public schools to get better. But which schools and better for whom? Adrian Fenty won the mayoralty by promising he’d improve schools throughout the city, but while his dynamo of a schools chief, Michelle Rhee, blazed a trail of firings, hirings and renovations through every ward, she did so with a brazen disregard for local politics and the sensitivities of race and class. The result was dozens of shuttered schools, stunning new facilities at many D.C. schools, a new generation of teachers, a one-term mayor (whose replacement immediately showed Rhee the door) and a resurgence of black frustration over the city’s changing racial and economic demographics.

23. (2008) The near-collapse of the world’s economy emptied out suburban developments that had been home to working people who had surprised even themselves by their ability to get mortgages their incomes didn’t remotely support. In Prince William and Prince George’s counties, foreclosure signs seemed to dot every block. In the District, the baseball stadium-sparked construction boom froze. In the Dulles corridor, tech companies dissolved, leaving office buildings hungry for tenants. Unemployment throughout the region spiked, and the fact that the rate here was well lower than almost everywhere else in the nation was little solace for those who painfully discovered just what it is to try to survive without means in one of the country’s most expensive markets. The economic free-fall slammed every income level. Fortunes shrank, some dramatically, especially after investment whiz Bernard Madoff turned out to have been a world-class thief. The resulting surge of schadenfreude over the suffering of wealthy individuals and institutions didn’t last long, as local charities suffered from the loss of donations from some of their most stalwart supporters.

24. (2009) After a spontaneous explosion of people onto Washington’s streets on election night, the city played host to the most remarkable inauguration party since John Kennedy’s nearly half a century earlier. Young and old, black and white, Democrats and independents and even some Republicans flooded the Mall and much of the District’s center to celebrate America’s first black president, a cool, young, inexperienced senator whose promise of change spoke deeply to an electorate frustrated by both parties’ failure to engage with the fact that the country had gone seriously off the rails. Would Barack Obama live up to the hype or even to his own soaring rhetoric? Would he challenge the system in real and penetrating ways? Those questions would bedevil the president in the years to come, but for the moment, he was a singular avatar of change, a vessel overflowing with voters’ hunger to believe in the enduring power and promise of the American dream.

25. (2011) Two years after more than a million people massed on the Mall to place their trust in a new leader, Washington had morphed into a target of frustration and wrath from all sides. The tea party on the right, the Occupy Wall Street movement on the left and a besieged middle class in the center were united in the greatest expression of economic anxiety and political distress the nation had seen since the cultural upheavals of the late 1960s. The right blamed big corporations and big government. The left blamed big corporations and big military. The little guy wondered what had happened to the great American promise of class mobility, the idea that if you worked hard, you’d get far. The government teetered on the verge of shutdown, its leaders unable to agree on much of anything. Yet even in this time of sky-high unemployment that now seemed baked into the system, Americans took to the streets and social media in impressive numbers, refusing to let go of the ideals of a country founded in revolt against the elites. “We are the 99 percent,” they said, convinced that it was the people, not the banks or corporations, that were truly too big to fail.

Marc Fisher is a Washington Post staff writer. He can be reached at marcfisher@washpost.com.

Marc Fisher, a senior editor, writes about most anything. He’s been The Post’s enterprise editor, local columnist and Berlin bureau chief, and he’s covered politics, education, pop culture, and much else in three decades on the Metro, Style, National and Foreign desks.
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