During the last government shutdown, some of us were 12 years old and wearing out our VHS tape of “Tommy Boy,” that comic masterpiece about responsibility, duty and friendship. The disapproving public might think the 113th United States Congress is full of both Tommy Callahans (entitled oafs) and Richard Haydens (sniveling bean counters), but this is no time to discuss how “Tommy Boy” is an allegory for our legislature.
Instead, after a week of thinking shutdown thoughts, the heart of the matter is how culture changes faster than politics, and how the time between this shutdown and the last shutdown is somehow both an eon (when measured in how we live) and a blip (when measured in how we govern).
Picture it! Mid-November 1995. Cold and wet in Washington.
President Bill Clinton said that Republicans were holding the country hostage; Republicans excoriated Clinton for playing golf. White House chief of staff Leon E. Panetta accused Republicans of “terrorism”; Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich told the press that the White House was creating a “spectacle.” Everyone was talking about who was “essential” and who was “nonessential,” and then everyone was reminded that the nicer nomenclature was “emergency personnel” versus “non-emergency personnel.”
Citizens called congressmen “weenies” and “children.”
Citizens said politics were no longer effective.
Citizens didn’t really notice anything different about living in Washington during a shutdown except that the traffic was a little lighter.
“[I]t doesn’t affect me,” one retiree told Malcolm Gladwell, who at the time was a business reporter for The Washington Post. “I just think it’s asinine.”
Meanwhile, 800,000 federal workers were furloughed, the news reported.
How many were reported to be furloughed this week, nearly 18 years later?
The more things change, etc.
“I’m embarrassed to be a Washingtonian today,” said Mike Dickens, president of a Bethesda-based hotel group, in 1995.
And today it’s even worse, he says.
“I thought, ‘Are they really going to do what they did in 1995? Are they that stupid?’ ” Dickens says, when reached at home by phone Friday. “There’s a whole lot of people [in Congress] that weren’t here in 1995, and they have no appreciation for what this does,” especially to the D.C. area hospitality industry, which is busier in October than around the holidays, when the last shutdown occurred.
Is there comfort in repetition? Can nostalgia be our anesthetic, or our guide?
Then and now: The two political parties in two branches of the government can’t seem to make it work, and it’s everyone’s fault except the person who is currently talking on television.
Speaking of television, the classic “Seinfeld” episode featuring the Soup Nazi had aired 12 days before the 1995 shutdown, and everyone was saying “No soup for you!” like it was a punch line. Ross and Rachel were acting like grade-schoolers on the second season of “Friends” and Mariah Carey would spend most of that two-part shutdown at the top of the Billboard charts, first with “Fantasy” and then with Boyz II Men with “One Sweet Day” as the stalemate stretched into 1996. “Tommy Boy” had come out earlier that spring, though it would be eclipsed in posterity by a summer hit called “Clueless,” which lovingly satirized Beverly Hills high schoolers and mopped up the soap of “90210.”
EBay was two months old.
Babies born during the 1995 government shutdown — all those Jessicas and Ashleys and Michaels and Jacobs — will soon be adults who are eligible to vote.
On Day 18 of that shutdown, private funds were used to reopen the Vermeer exhibition at the National Gallery of Art. Legions lined up for cultural sustenance after a period of sensory deprivation. Just imagine navigating a furlough without social media, let alone high-speed Internet, and thank your lucky stars and bars that now is now and not then. Now we don’t have to internalize our rage and ennui. We can impose it on others with a couple taps of a thumb.
This time around, Washington is in the soft embrace of a glorious Indian summer. Furloughed workers nurse their wounded pride with discounted booze and sliders at restaurants eager to capitalize on the unrest. The series finale of “Breaking Bad” is still all anyone wants to talk about (“No meth for you!”) and the most popular song right now is probably sung by Miley Cyrus (“Wrecking Ball” would be apropros, politically). Just click the #shutdown hashtag on Twitter and scroll through the dread-laced zingers about kids who can’t get their cancer treatment and hurricanes that won’t be monitored.
“Tommy Boy” star Chris Farley is long dead.
Newt Gingrich is still on television.
Malcolm Gladwell is a rich author, not a newspaper journalist.
Babies born during this current shutdown — all those Sophias and Ethans and Olivias and Noahs — will become adults in 2031. Don’t worry, babies. In this far-off, not-so-distant, bright and beautiful future, the 47th, 48th or 49th president and the 122nd U.S. Congress will have learned from past repeated mistakes. They will know responsibility, duty and friendship. And they will be working together, not against each other.