Can Washington Catch a Break?

(By Ward Sutton For The Washington Post)
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By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 24, 2008

The hating will reach a pinnacle in Denver and St. Paul., Minn., this week and next. At the Democratic and Republican nominating conventions, we'll get soaring speeches about how awful Washington is. How it is a quagmire of corruption. How it does nothing for anyone. How it needs to change.

Politicians have disparaged Washington since long before the days of air conditioning, but the anti-D.C. comments have been especially sharp during the 2008 presidential campaign.

"The city of Satan," John McCain declared to a crowd in Nevada.

The place where people "boil all the hope out of" you, Barack Obama warned in Akron, Ohio.

And these are men who work here and are asking to be elected to the top of the heap of this stinking swamp --

One moment. We have a bit of clarification from Scott W. Berg, author of "Grand Avenues," about Pierre L'Enfant's glorious vision for a glorious city.

"D.C. is not a swamp," says Berg, who lives in Reston. "It has some low areas of marshy ground, but it's not a swamp. It didn't become known as a swamp until a whole bunch of politicians came in and started referring to it as a swamp in metaphor. You call it a swamp enough, and people think it is. The name-calling changed what people thought of the physical place."

Ain't that the truth. Everyone jabbers about the perceived negatives of the District, and suddenly they're true. Politics, and the media coverage of politics, seem to blot out our fair city's positives. McCain and Obama have buttressed their presidential campaigns with quotations about how they want to remake Washington into a cleaner, brighter place.

"Washington's broken," says the narrator of a McCain TV ad airing this month. Obama made the same diagnosis in a speech in Indiana on Aug. 8: "Washington is broken," he concluded. Republican Mitt Romney repeated this mantra before his own presidential campaign broke.

Yes, we know they're talking about the political side, but it's still agitating to hear disparaging comments grouped nominally under the city as a whole. And this goes beyond presidential campaigns to every congressional district in the United States, where candidates seek to assure people that they're not a part of Washington, but they want to work there, hold their nose and maybe freshen it up.

"It's kind of comical, because people fight, connive and scheme to get to a place they profess to hate, and then they fight, connive and scheme to stay in the place they profess to hate," says Democratic strategist James Carville, who maintains a home in Alexandria.

"I kind of like Washington. Where else could I live where it takes me 12 minutes to go to a major league baseball game, 15 minutes to the airport, 15 to the Capitol? In terms of the way the government runs, there's a lot to criticize. 'Washington' has just become a shorthand. I detest the government but love the city."

The iconic Washington putdown is often attributed to John F. Kennedy. "Somebody once said that Washington was a city of Northern charm and Southern efficiency," relayed the president in a 1961 speech. Sounds like a compliment for about two seconds.

"If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog," was Harry Truman's pithy assessment.

And then there's the line about the nation's capital being "Hollywood for ugly people," a phrase uttered so many times it has lost its sting. So we're ugly and charmless, hostile and inefficient, not at all like the leaders who will storm into the city after this election cycle and make it all better.

"It seems to me whatever temporary gain you make in the election campaign by presenting yourself as outside the special interests of Washington, it's counterproductive in the long run," says writer Doris Kearns Goodwin, a scholar of presidential history. "It further denigrates the whole field of public service. Painting with such a broad stroke -- 'Washington is bad' -- only feeds public perception that politics is not an honorable vocation."

Amid the negativity that's recycled every election year, we wondered whether any members of Congress had anything nice to say about Washington. So we called a bunch and asked them, pretty please, to provide a kind word about our city. Many did, even the ones who voted against giving the District representation in Congress. Examples of their niceties follow. Consider this a salve, a pre-convention reconciliation, brokered in the eye of an electoral hurricane.

And, yes, we called McCain and Obama, but they had nothing to say. Obama's press team declined to pass along our request. McCain's camp didn't respond at all.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company