It's Not Yet Curtains for A Moth-Eaten Metaphor

By Richard Leiby
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 23, 2008

Rejoice, political metaphor fans, for it is drape-measuring time once again in the Oval Office.

"Senator Obama is measuring the drapes," John McCain said in raising the curtain on his new stump speech last month.

Certainly he meant measuring for drapes, which is what the Obamas would do by taking the dimensions of White House windows before putting up treatments. But anyway, it got us thinking: Where did this particular snipe -- applied to presumptuous candidates for offices high and low before elections -- come from?

The first call went to the pooh-bah of political jargon, Bill Safire of the New York Times. He thumbed through the index of his latest Safire's Political Dictionary in his office. "It ain't there," he said.

So it's no shoo-in as a political cliche, even as the presidential race comes down to the wire? "It's a borderline case," Safire said, then wished us luck on finding the origins.

We set out like a candidate exuding cautious confidence, but first took a detour on the road to victory. Make no mistake, there is an unvarnished truth about drape-measuring in the Oval Office.

"It doesn't happen until after the election," said retired chief White House usher Gary Walters, who witnessed several decor transitions in his 21-year tenure. "If that decision has been already made, they change the drapes according to their desires, and those changes are made on inaugural day."

The new occupants also make selections for their private quarters -- working with a government budget of $100,000 and whatever private donations can be marshaled -- but no sooner are the drapes hung than another political hazard arises. Someone is certain to proclaim that the treatments are "too imperial" (Nixon-era gold and royal blue) or "too common man" (Carter-era earth tones).

Window-treatment rhetoric last grew heated in October 2006, inspiring reports along the lines of "Bush Says Democrats Measuring the Drapes." At a news conference before the midterm elections, President Bush said: "You know, we got some people dancing in the end zone here in Washington, D.C. They got them measuring their drapes."

It turns out that Bush was reprising one of his father's 1992 campaign gibes, directed at challenger Bill Clinton. Citing reports that Clinton was "already planning his transition," President George H.W. Bush let loose this multi-metaphorical attack at an August campaign rally:

"I half expected, when I went over to the Oval Office, to find him over there measuring the drapes. Well, let me say, as the first shot out of the barrel, I have a message for him. Put those drapes on hold; it is going to be curtain time for that ticket. And I mean it."

Jay Leno picked up the rod in a December 1994 monologue, riffing about a White House false alarm: "I guess the alarm was set off by a woman who stepped over the security line. Turns out it was just an overanxious Elizabeth Dole measuring for drapes."

Leno recycled the gag in 2005: "Hey, you see who visited President Bush in the White House last week? Hillary Clinton. Hillary -- actually, she was just there measuring for drapes."

In a swipe against President Bush for restoring anti-abortion funding rules right after his 2001 inauguration, Ann Stone, national chairman of Republicans for Choice, lamented: "He's supposed to be measuring for drapes on his first day, not interfering with women's rights."

But what solon of lore first coined the phrase, or is it newly minted?

Jan R. Van Meter, author of the just-published "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too: Famous Slogans and Catchphrases in American History," doesn't mention drape-baiting in his book. "But like a bad smell in the drain, it just lingers, and nobody knows how it got there," he said.

"Every time they haul out 'measuring for the drapes,' it just makes me crazy. Don't their speechwriters have any sense of trying something new? It's just lazy."

Others might let sleeping dogs lie, but we soldiered on, searching newspaper databases back to the 1870s. That didn't pull back the curtain, either, although The Post did report in 1937 that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had ordered a change of drapery. (Subhead: "He Selects Red Hangings for East Room of White House, But Accepts Fine Arts Commission's Preference as to Shade.")

Perhaps this account of presidential prerogative laid the foundation for later slights, such as this one in 1980 in the Times: "Obviously, it's much too soon for Mr. [John] Anderson to start measuring for drapes at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue."

But as for earlier origins, we came up as empty as an October campaign promise. Like politicians everywhere, we counted our chickens before they hatched; before they could provide a chicken in every pot.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company