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Best of the Decade - Local Stories: 9/11, Chandra Levy, Virginia Tech, D.C. sniper, pant suit man, anthrax scare

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Marc Fisher
Local enterprise editor
Thursday, December 17, 2009; 12:00 PM

Join local enterprise editor Marc Fisher for a fast-paced survey of the top local stories of the decade on Thursday, Dec. 17 at Noon ET.

Beyond 9/11, the sniper and the Virginia Tech massacre, what were the stories that altered how we live in the Washington area from 2000 to 2009? Vote on the top stories, add your choices in our discussion group and critique our list.

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Marc Fisher: Welcome aboard, folks. Good to be back with you. Today, on a very busy news day, we're looking back at the biggest news stories of the decade (and let's not get into the eternal debate over whether the decade ends at the end of this month or the end of next year....)

Of course, you're invited to join the discussion here on the big show, but please also cast your ballot on our ranking survey. I've put 18 of the top stories of the decade on that list, and a few hundred of you have so far added your voices. The collective wisdom thus far has it that 9/11 and the transformation of our city, region and nation through new security measures adds up to the top story of the decade. Hard to mount a hugely enthusiastic argument against that, but interestingly, almost as many of you put the sniper trauma in the top spot as put 9/11 first. That says an awful lot about just how scary those weeks were--and we should talk about that here today.

The economic stories collectively also put together a strong showing in our survey--unemployment, the recession and the boom/bust cycle in local real estate scored high, as did the District's economic revival. For those who have been hit hard by job loss, it's hard to imagine a bigger story.

I was surprised by how strongly the Virginia Tech massacre is showing at the top of the ranking--what's your thinking there?

Come ahead with your nominations for stories we've failed to mention, your thoughts about why your top stories deserve to be at the head of the list, and your reflections on the long-term impact of these events.

Your turn starts right now....

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Cerrato resigns: That's the best news of the decade for sure.

Marc Fisher: Certainly it's a happy day for many disgruntled Redskins fans (or is that a redundancy?) but does this rank even close to the Top Ten of the decade? I was surprised that in our survey, the Dan Snyder era hasn't even cracked the Top Ten--and I made the story so broad as to encompass all of the Skins' various traumas and ills over the past ten years. Did Snyder finally make this move because the real nightmare--that fans would move from angry to apathetic--was now unfolding before his eyes?

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For me : nothing tops the dry cleaner law suit story.

Marc Fisher: For long-term significance, I can't muster the most compelling argument in the world. But for a story that captured a moment and brought people together in head-shaking, community-building amazement, the adventures of Pants Man took the cake for this decade. What's heartwarming about the Pants Man story is that it proves that despite all of our worries and complaining about how standards are slipping and civilization is crumbling before our eyes, we really do have some basic, commonly-held beliefs about what constitutes fair play and reasonable behavior. And when someone like Pants Man crosses the line and behaves in ways we find reprehensible, we do come together in a way that makes it possible to believe we can make things work.

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Capitol Hill: What's new with Pants Man and, given all the columns you filed, has he sued you and the Post?

Marc Fisher: Not a lot happening on the Pants Man front. Of course, he's been busy as can be, apparently spending nearly all his waking hours compiling massive and massively confounding appellate arguments as he continues to pursue his belief that he was done an egregious wrong. The courts aren't buying it, and he has gotten stomped at every turn. All indications are that he's not done, but no, he has not filed suit against me or any media organization that has covered his case.

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13th St. S.E.: Best story has to be PANTS MAN! That and your hatred of a certain championship soccer team.

Marc Fisher: A groundswell of support for the $54 million man!

As for United, how many of you would have predicted that the soccer team would still be without the prospect of a new stadium, that they'd be the last tenant at RFK, the only obstacle to demolition of the sad old place and construction of a new riverside residential neighborhood on that site? But we should have seen this coming: The dominant history of stadiums in Washington is of plans gone awry and ambitious proposals that die on the architect's light table.

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Washington, D.C.: Marc,

Can you please bring your column back? Even if it's one column a week with a chat? Your absence is badly missed, and I say that as someone who disagreed with you half the time.

Marc Fisher: Very kind of you--I left the column to return to editing. The chance to start some new things at The Post in this time of enormous change in the news world was too exciting to pass up. Please check out our latest innovation, a blog called Story Lab (voices.washingtonpost.com/story-lab), where we're trying some new ways to involve readers in the formulation and reporting of stories. Lots of initiatives coming up in the Lab and all around the site and in print.

I do sometimes miss the column, but will try to return here from time to time to resume our conversation, and I am also trying to carve out time to take on occasional reporting and writing projects, such as my recent cover story in the Post Magazine about Michelle Rhee.

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Glad to see you!!: Marc, I have sorely missed both your columns and your chats.

Marc Fisher: Thanks very much--my team of nine splendid writers is producing some compelling reading and aggressive reporting. You can keep tabs on our work via Facebook or on our Story Lab blog here on the big web site.

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washingtonpost.com: Lawyer's Price For Missing Pants: $65 Million (Post, April 26, 2007)

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washingtonpost.com:

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Cleveland Park, Washington, D.C.: Marc --

I'd put the sniper ahead of 9/11 because the sniper was a purely local story, while 9/11 is more associated with NYC than here.

Marc Fisher: Surely the destruction in New York claimed far more lives, but I'd argue that day--to-day life changed much more in Washington, where the security cordon around buildings and the ID rigamarole that so many of us have to go through every day is much more intense than in New York or other parts of the country. Sadly, we have failed, unlike most of the country, to bounce back and regain the confidence to set aside silly, meaningless security measures and assert control of our daily lives.

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washingtonpost.com: Story Lab

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Washington, D.C.: The slow, sad decline of Metro: I started being a regular rider in December 2000 and still am five days a week. When I started, the cars were clean, breakdowns were infrequent and accidents were unknown. Now, nine years later, we've had a string of deaths, one horrific crash, repeated breakdowns of equipment and cars that are strewn with free newspapers, empty water bottles, you name it. The system was once the envy of public transportation officials in this country and now it's decrepit. To me, that's a big, but not positive, story.

Marc Fisher: The Red Line crash is showing up at #9 on our list right now, but your point is excellent: The larger, longer-term decline of a system that was a major point of pride for Washingtonians is a huge story that spans the decade.

The question is whether it can be turned around without a huge, inconceivable investment in remaking the infrastructure. Why did this happen? Blame the local governments that failed through all these years to create a dependable finance structure and left Metro uniquely dependent on revenue from the fare box.

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Rockville, Md.: Best?

I will vote for a sleeper and that is medical technology advances. Just check out "60 Minutes" this last week on growing new body parts. If this technology works we will get a real and significant decrease in medical costs and the President will be called a genius.

Marc Fisher: Interesting--not a strictly local story by any means, but biotech is the biggest and most important driver of the economy in Montgomery County and our region is positioned to be the primary beneficiary in the nation if and when the much-vaunted advances in medical technology really do reshape the health care system in this country. Of course, we've been promised those advances and savings for decades, and medicine remains remarkably retro in so many ways. Health insurance is, for example, the last purely paper-driven sector I'm aware of. The fact that every time someone in my family goes to a doctor, I have to fill out all manner of forms and put them in the mail is a testament to the sector's resistance to progress.

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washingtonpost.com: Story Lab

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Decades: Sure, the decade 2000-2009 ends now. The decade 2001-2010 will end next year. Any ten years are a decade.

The 0/1 thing ten years ago was because people give ordinal numbers to centuries. 1900-1999 was a century, but it wasn't the "20th century".

2000-2009 isn't the "201st decade", but since no one numbers decades like that, it doesn't matter.

Marc Fisher: Right, any old ten years is a decade. But in the sense of the neat artificial construct that we commonly call a decade, for the purpose of assigning meaning where there probably isn't really any, in our effort to all be like Tom Wolfe and designate a particular thrust to something we can sum up as The Sixties or The Seventies, we have picked the years that end in zero as the starting point.

By the way, Michael Rosenwald of The Post's Enterprise team has a splendid story coming up on our failure to find a commonly accepted name for this decade that ends on December 31. Watch for it.

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Silver Spring, Md.: For me, the most incredible local story has been the development of downtown Silver Spring. It's still a work in progress, but I've got to say it's a bigger entertainment magnet for me than Bethesda, Rockville or DC. There are summer evenings, walking past the fountain, watching folks play chess or chase their toddlers around, when I burst with pride for my community and I'm so grateful to live here.

Note to Brian Folger: we don't need the silly music and flat screen tvs in the tunnel to the garage.

Marc Fisher: The boom that gets written about the most is that of downtown Washington, but you're right: There were a whole bunch of boomtowns around here over this decade. Silver Spring was a victory for smart planning and adventuresome development. The new downtown has not had the promised or desired impact on reviving the old downtown--but neither has it destroyed the old downtown as some naysayers feared it would. Sadly, the most successful public space in the new development was taken away from the people who made it their own--the Astroturf empty space in the center of the development that naturally morphed into an informal gathering spot, even a picnic spot.

What are some other places that blossomed over the course of this decade?

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Fairfax, Va.: What do you think is the perception of Washington, D.C. as a town outside its borders, across the U.S., what with the sniper and the Red Line crash and Pants Man and other often humiliating stories that come out of the nation's capital?

Marc Fisher: I don't think we have more than our fair share of humiliating or pathetic stories. If it's wacky news you want, Miami has cornered the market. We don't get quite as many Rich Folks Misbehaving stories as the affluence of our market would lead one to expect. That's in part because we're an overly media-savvy and behaviorally conservative region. We do get more than our share of strange and scary security stories, a factor of having the gummint as our guest.

Our perception from afar, alas, remains heavily government-saturated, a woeful misreading of both our economy and our local culture. So people outside our area are always surprised when real people stories emerge from here.

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Cleveland Park, Washington, D.C.: "Surely the destruction in New York claimed far more lives, but I'd argue that day-to-day life changed much more in Washington, where the security cordon around buildings and the ID rigamarole that so many of us have to go through every day is much more intense than in New York or other parts of the country. Sadly, we have failed, unlike most of the country, to bounce back and regain the confidence to set aside silly, meaningless security measures and assert control of our daily lives."

True, but that all started with the Oklahoma City bombing and was moving steadily along when 9/11 happened.

Marc Fisher: Yes, and we were, sad to say, early adopters on all of these security hysteria measures, but it took 9/11 to fundamentally alter the daily geography of our lives. We've come back a little ways from the City Under Siege days of Jersey barriers around every building, but we're still caught up in the employment scam in which people are required to show ID at building entrances--probably the single dumbest faux-security measure in the history of mankind.

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Clifton, Va.: GMU's Run to the Final Four. You left it off your list. Typical of the WP's bias against GMU

GMU Class of '81

Marc Fisher: Wilbon had it on his list, I'm pretty sure. Or Steinberg--one of those guys. And it was a heady moment, but alas, even from the perspective of a GMU alum, I bet you'd admit it was but a moment. (Though such moments count: Mason got a huge bump in its admissions applications after the NCAA run. Illogical, but there it is.)

I wouldn't make it Top Ten, but definitely Top 20.

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Washington, D.C.: We really miss you, Marc! All of the items listed are important, but since it goes beyond a 'top 10', may I add the Michael Jordan years to it? MJ really was a hope, someone who could turn around a sorry franchise that took an inorganic name, and continued to underachieve. "Air Voicemail" failed as an executive, and did more to hurt the lineup on the court through his ego than anything else. An argument could be made that the Bullets/Wizards have had more bad years than good, and the MJ years were no exception, but it just crystallized bad sports management in a town that is rife with it (Spurrier, signing Deion Sanders, Nats record, Snyder's Reign).

Marc Fisher: We do have way more than our share of lousy sports franchises and owners, raising once again the issue, which we've debated here for years, of The Curse.

But I left Jordan off my list because his presence here actually was a Top Ten story that fizzled so quickly and so completely as to drag him down out of the Top 20. He made stunningly little impact here, both as an executive and as a player. It was actually sort of a cheering lesson, in that it showed there really is some merit to local culture and identity--MJ would always be a folk hero in Chicago, but put him in a place where he had no base of support beyond ordinary fandom, and he turned out to be a slight draw. Also: This town is not easily impressed by celebrity, and so we held him to the standards that other cities might not have. He didn't measure up.

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Arlington, Va.: Can I vote for Sen Allen's macacca moment?

That one phrase and the video on YouTube brought down George Allen.

P.S. Personal note added. I'd always thought Sen. Allen was a bit sleazy but he was always smart enough or plausible enough to explain it away. He could not explain away "macacca" and the smirk after he said it.

washingtonpost.com: George Allen introduces Macaca (YouTube)

Marc Fisher: I've been surprised not to hear more nominations for the macaca moment. I had a generic Virginia politics item in my list (Virginia goes purple), but the demise of a man who had at least as good a shot as any at becoming president was an extraordinary story that very early on showed us the emerging power of the blogs, YouTube and the niched media.

And today's the day to remember the macaca moment, as George Allen's brother rises to be Dan Snyder's next victim at the helm of the Redskins.

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McLean, Va.: Marc,

I think that the list of candidates should be qualified. Some of the candidates are stories about individual people or events, while others are about trends having a multitude of individual stories.

I wonder how the rank ordering of the list will change if you resubmit it in a couple of years. I'm guessing that the trends (e.g. immigration, real estate boom and bust) will rank higher than individual stories like Chandra Levy.

Finally, I think that in your role as editor, you should assemble a team to perform a post mortem on the list to determine which stories could have been better covered. I'll even supply you with an outsider's observation: the Post's coverage of the local real estate boom and bust lacked timeliness. The Post didn't start analyzing the real estate boom until after it had busted. The Bubble bloggers were way ahead of you on this story.

Marc Fisher: Interesting--actually, I think our coverage of the boom very early on was prescient and valuable. I agree that toward the end of the boom, we weren't as explicit as we ought to have been about connecting our reporting on the danger signs with the prospects of a dangerous bust. But that's all 20-20 hindsight. As I look back on our stories about the homebuyers who really should never have been given loans, and the balloon loans that made no sense whatsoever, and so on, I can see it all coming, but who in that moment dared to say that this was all an insidious farce?

I'm not sure about the primacy of trend stories over the microviews that tell us something more about how we live. In fact, I think it's those people-driven stories that ultimately reveal more about who we are and what we're living through than the more sweeping trend stories.

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washingtonpost.com:

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Washington, D.C.: "I'd put the sniper ahead of 9/11 because the sniper was a purely local story, while 9/11 is more associated with NYC than here."

Not for those of us who were working in D.C. that day. We saw the smoke. We lived through the rumors about what was happening and about to happen. We wondered how to get home in a commuting debacle that, for the first and only time in history, no one was inclined to blame on Metro, the local departments of transportation, or the idiot driver in the next lane. Unable to complete my trip home on Metro, I found myself walking the last two miles with a crowd of others, including some from the Pentagon, who had been working there when the plane crashed. I made it home, but home had changed forever.

Marc Fisher: Well said. I agree. But my kids were much more affected by the sniper, and so were most of their peers whom I've asked about this. The sniper really hit home for kids--shattered their sense of security in a way that 9/11 did for many of us older folks.

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"Employment scam"?: How do you mean? Keeping undocumented people out of sensitive areas seems like a good idea.

Marc Fisher: Oh, please: Those ID checks don't do a thing to keep illegals out of office buildings. You could flash a library card and get past nearly all of those checkpoints. Not a soul gets kept out by those gatekeepers--certainly not a soul who might pose any kind of threat.

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Rockville, Md.: Thanks for hosting, Marc. Hate to add another sports item onto the list, but I really think the Verizon Center is a bigger deal than we might think. It revitalized Chinatown, and really made it a hometown venue for D.C. sports (no offense, but the Landover Caps/P-G Wizards doesn't have the same meaning). It also showed that you CAN put money into developing a city center, and possibly will spur other revitilization projects.

Marc Fisher: Absolutely--the Pollin Center (will Ted Leonsis have the class and guts to give the building its proper name? No, I didn't think so) was not only a massively generous gift to the city, but more than anything else, it was a statement of courage and confidence that proved to be contagious. Every time I wrote about the impact of the arena on the city's revival, I got calls and emails from folks who thought I was being way too kind to Abe Pollin and way too gullible about the effect a sports facility can have on development.

So I called many of the property owners and developers who came in and built in the years after the arena opened. Why did you build then and there, I asked. The almost universal answer: Because if Abe Pollin had the courage to build there and make it work, I knew it was going to be safe to invest there.

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Rockville, Md.: "What are some other places that blossomed over the course of this decade?"

You got to ask?

Rockville -- of course.

And Bethesda keeps on growing better.

Marc Fisher: Yes, Rockville is much improved, but the changes there seem mainly limited to that town center development, without the more sprawling impact on development or the shift in how people move about and interact with each other that we've seen in Reston, Silver Spring, Bethesda, Seventh Street, or other parts of downtown Washington.

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Arlington, Va.: Pants Man definitely deserves a spot on this list -- and on another one, modified by a four-letter adjective beginning with "s."

You mentioned that "he's not done yet" -- so he's still wasting everyone's time and taxpayer money? Any possibility that someone will move to have him declared a vexatious litigant?

washingtonpost.com: Roy Pearson

Marc Fisher: I hereby declare him to be a vexatious litigant. Oh, you mean, like, in a court of law? Ah, well, no, no one who wears a suit to work wants to take him on in any sort of lasting fashion. Most of the judges who have dealt with the case--with the notable and brave exception of the trial judge, Judith Bartnoff, who took no guff from the guy--have wanted mainly to wash their hands of it as soon as humanly possible.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Riverfront community at RFK site? Noooo! Our NFL owner has the oldest and worst stadium in the division. He needs a new palace to be built by the D.C. government once the economy gets back on its feet. We need to keep FedEx field open for a bit after the new RFK is done so that we have enough facilities for the 2020/2024 Olympics.

Marc Fisher: The D.C. government, it's fair to say, has completed the stadium-building portion of its existence, at least for this century. If Danny Boy wants to build a new plaything in and for the city, the District will welcome him with open arms and a bounty of tax breaks, but they ain't gonna shell out for anyone again. They feel burned by the baseball thing, even though they are already reaping the tax revenue benefits and stand to do so in a much bigger way if the Lerners get scared enough to invest real money in their sad franchise.

Don't hold your breath for the Olympics--that's one instance in which our rep as a government-saturated boring humidity sink will kill us. Foreigners still imagine us as the place we were half a century ago.

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DC- MJ again: You actually made my argument, Marc -- precisely because he was such a fizzle flop, when he was initially hailed as someone who would turn the ship around. Abe definitely earns some of the share of blame on this, but ultimately, how a sure thing as the MJ phenomenon turned into the Man driving off in a convertible (w/IL plates to boot) shows that style just can't compete with substance. As a Bulls fan, I could never figure out the whole MJ-DC connection -- and I still can't.

Marc Fisher: Yeah, we essentially agree--the fizzle is the story. Fizzles by and large don't make my Top Ten lists, but this was a huge one.

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McLean, Va.: Marc, how did Dippin' Dots rank as a story?

Marc Fisher: You got the fastest ticket from the question queue to publication that I've seen in a long time. Anyone who even considers the Dots, those precious little plastic bits that are pawned off as edible products, as a Top Ten entry deserves Hall of Fame status in my book. You're making me want to come back here every Thursday at noon....

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Rockville, Md.: How people move about. There is he first county-funded underpass at 355 and Montrose Parkway. That will be a help and the application of traffic cameras and even the White Flint initiative. Lots of planning for a Metro centric system going on. And the library. And...

Rockville is moving.

Marc Fisher: Thank you, Mr. Mayor.

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Arlington, Va.: What about the success of the Orange Line in Arlington? "Smart" development is probably best showcased in this region between Rosslyn and Ballston.

Marc Fisher: A great and lasting story, but not really a story of the '00s--that was really a story of the 90s.

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Arlington, Va.: The sniper was the worst, over 9/11, because it delivered a sense of randomness to the powers-that-be. The Iraq invasion happened in the wake of the sniper thing, as our officeholders and media elites (hello Ms. Bumiller) were scared to death as their chauffeurs opened the door to let them out.

Marc Fisher: The randomness of the sniper was surely what has compelled so many people to put it high up on their lists...but 10 years from now, it will be remembered only by those of us who lived it every day, whereas kids will learn about 9/11 for many decades to come.

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Sixties: As a cultural phenomenon, sixties ran from about 1965 to 1972.

Marc Fisher: I'd say 67-74, but point taken.

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Anonymous: Man we need you back in the Metro section!

I know you ae doing something else, but sell wearing another two hats to the WashPost!

Marc Fisher: Many thanks to you and the long queue of similar comments that I'm not going to post--I'll try to come on back more often here. I've enjoyed the hour...thanks for coming along....

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Petworth, D.C.: Marc, we've missed you, both online and in the paper.

Marc Fisher: And one last of these....

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Rockville, Md.: "Can you please bring your column back? Even if it's one column a week with a chat? Your absence is badly missed, and I say that as someone who disagreed with you half the time."

I miss it too. Same for the disagreement. Who knows? You could have been right.

Marc Fisher: Thanks, all--now I'm heading downstairs to hear the Wilson High School choir sing holiday tunes to Post employees. I appreciate all the kind words...that kicks things in the head for today...Fisher out.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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