and maybe future First Husbands. Hillary's impending announcement brought to mind this piece I did for Garden & Gun, and the question, "What would another four years of Bill be like?"
The Southern Flair of Washington, D.C.
BY JAMES CONAWAY - WASHINGTON, D.C.
Washington’s Southern ties may be fading, but it hasn’t entirely lost its drawl, especially when it comes to a few recent West Wing residents
I came to Washington, D.C., the autumn Jimmy Carter was elected president and lived in the city through the protracted reign of George W. Bush, two distinct brackets indicating the South’s continuing influence. But how Southern were they? Carter’s religion was somewhat familiar to me, being an Episcopalian raised in Memphis, then home of the world’s largest Baptist church, but he seemed remarkably righteous even for a Baptist, and resolutely anti-Washington—those cardigans, and insisting upon carrying his own bag off Air Force One! When his chief of staff spat Kahlúa onto a girl’s bodice in a Georgetown bar, I thought, “That’s more like it.” But Carter disappointed a city that expects hauteur among its entitled. White House staffers were rarely seen in Sans Souci, a fancy French restaurant in the sixties and seventies, with its banquette in the middle of the floor for maximum exposure. Food other than peanuts didn’t seem to rank with Jimmy, who never knew the solace of fried chicken and collards at Thompson’s Lunch off U Street. He ran for reelection on the very un-Southern platform of “cold showers and root canals,” as one Washington commentator put it, and of course lost. George W. Bush was demonstrably less Southern than Jimmy by heritage and by geography, but a lot better at playing the part. At least W had once been a devoted corn drinker and knew how to hold a shotgun. He gave himself up willingly to beef, carbs, and melted cheese, even though it was often in, well, nachos. For W, foot- and other balls were the reason weekends were invented. Also afternoons. The accent was certainly from America’s Down Under, if also from Out There. Way Out There. His only lasting literary legacy may be the mismatch of singular verbs with plural objects (“There’s many people…”), now standard American usage. We all knew W wasn’t really Southern, of course, more the scion of a Connecticut Yankee in LBJ’s court whose avowed interest in pork rinds was embarrassing. Accepting entitlement was never a problem for father or son. For many Washingtonians, the most memorable thing about W’s presence was the daily ejection of Dick Cheney from the vice president’s mansion on Massachusetts Avenue, in a shrieking caravan of identical black SUVs bristling with destructive capability, an over-the-top showing-off that was distinctly un-Southern. (Okay, Gore did it too, but more quietly, and slower.) But then D.C. as Cowtown East was as much a shuck as the Bush bunch’s being by extension good old boys. It was President Kennedy, a Yankee, who said something about Washington being a blend of Northern hospitality and Southern efficiency. But Washington reflects its Southern exposure in a number of ways. Magnolias, crape myrtles, dogwoods, and cherry trees soften the contours, and the climate is closer to Richmond’s than Philadelphia’s due to an invisible weather line passing just to the north.
PagesBut the city overall has moved figuratively northward, according to a recent article in the Washington Post. “In the 150th anniversary year of the start of the Civil War, the region at the heart of the conflict has little left of its historic bond with Dixie.” Experts say that a linguistic line separating Southern from Northern accents today passes a mere forty-five miles north of Richmond, capital of the Confederacy.Baltimore, close by to the north, was a prominent slave market in the 1830s, and the District of Columbia linked to that industry. Many old families known as Cave Dwellers, who were here for the duration and not linked to any one administration, are still a fixture in Washington, and many of their forebears were Confederate sympathizers. The ring of forts built around the city was constructed as much to intimidate them as the Rebs, but no one in D.C. worries about Cave Dwellers defecting anymore. “How long have you lived here?” is at least an approximation of Southern pride of place and endures in D.C. Local politics is all about the Democratic party, an echo of a vanished past in most of the South now, and so in an odd way makes Washington more traditionally Southern than, say, Little Rock.
But the city overall has moved figuratively northward, according to a recent article in the Washington Post. “In the 150th anniversary year of the start of the Civil War, the region at the heart of the conflict has little left of its historic bond with Dixie.” Experts say that a linguistic line separating Southern from Northern accents today passes a mere forty-five miles north of Richmond, capital of the Confederacy. Baltimore, close by to the north, was a prominent slave market in the 1830s, and the District of Columbia linked to that industry. Many old families known as Cave Dwellers, who were here for the duration and not linked to any one administration, are still a fixture in Washington, and many of their forebears were Confederate sympathizers. The ring of forts built around the city was constructed as much to intimidate them as the Rebs, but no one in D.C. worries about Cave Dwellers defecting anymore. “How long have you lived here?” is at least an approximation of Southern pride of place and endures in D.C. Local politics is all about the Democratic party, an echo of a vanished past in most of the South now, and so in an odd way makes Washington more traditionally Southern than, say, Little Rock. Washington has acquired some selfconsciously Southern restaurants—Acadiana, Blue Ridge, Bubba’s BBQ (in nearby but thoroughly ’burban Falls Church)—and it retains the status of northernmost city where grits are often served with breakfast as a matter of course. But Washington has become so sophisticated that the south of France is as likely an influence on the cuisine beyond a few soulful dives like the Florida Avenue Grill. The deepest Southern roots in D.C. are still about food, and most often in the black community. Efficiency has improved since Kennedy’s day, particularly if you’re interested in purchasing a tune-up for a BMW. Hospitality hasn’t necessarily if you’re not part of a recognizable influence center, Washington being as much about taking advantage of affiliation as talent. But if you can get beyond the opportunism, there are real people in your nation’s capital; the variety of their talents and generosity is awesome. An underground nexus of professional holdovers from Carter, Gore, and other Southern shape-shifters between government, moneymaking, and philanthropy keeps the embers glowing in Cleveland Park, Georgetown, and the inner burbs, helping in its way to blunt those Northern bristles. Between Carter and Bush there was that other Southern president, Bill Clinton. But Clinton wasn’t readily recognizable as Southern, despite all the stories about burgers and Astroturf in the pickup bed. The dramatic lip biting, and the wonkiness, were learned traits, and Bill was just a tad too together to be properly Southern. He remained an enigma to his briefly adopted city—including to those who almost lost their wives to the presidential limo as it departed cocktail parties, a smiling Pres in the half-opened door. When Clinton’s distant relatives came wandering out of the woods, a Southern presidential requisite (remember Billy Carter?), I thought things would improve. But this changeling was born-again of the Ivy League, not the Ozarks, and recognized early on the political and social advantages of professional Southernism, riding Dixie slick across exposed flanks on Capitol Hill and Wall Street. Clinton’s example brought out the worst in his fellow transplanted Southerners, even those who had adjusted to life in D.C. A journalist I know reverted to an accent as thick as Carolina vinegar and pulled pork. Late one night at a fancy party in Kalorama he turned to his wife and said, “Let’s piss on the fire and go home.” Clinton’s downfall was hilarious despite the damage, and lacking in the tragedy expected of a protagonist from the ole CS of A. He also lacked the grace to lie well, and the true regret required to be believed and forgiven, something most any Southerner could have explained to him. President Kennedy’s insights were really about the edgy nature of Washington, sitting as it does on the cusp of ultimate might and the hinterland. In what other city can you walk out of a meeting with some of the most powerful people in the world, cross a middling river or a highway, and encounter someone in camo trying to shoot a deer? Think of Washington as the eternal frontier, a twenty-first-century Jamestown, a St. Louis on the eve of western expansion, all about energy, ambition, and—too often—ideology, potentially enriching, and heartbreaking. Which brings me back to Carter. After he lost to Ronald Reagan but was still in the White House, Carter sat for the famous portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh, and a friend of mine, an Alabaman and Karsh’s agent, asked if I would like to come along for the shoot. Naturally I said yes. It was December when we all gathered in the Oval Office. Carter had injured his shoulder skiing and was obviously in pain, but he stood beneath the bright lights, a gray presence on his way out, listening to the sound of hammers out on Pennsylvania Avenue where bleachers were going up for Reagan’s inaugural—the proverbial rising gallows. He made conversation without mentioning his troubles, personal or political; he didn’t balk at the tedium of portraiture. Then, smiling, he shook hands all round and went back to the nation’s business. While the photographer packed up his gear, my friend and I took turns lounging in the president’s chair, behind his desk, unimaginable behavior post-9/11. But I couldn’t get Carter the man out of my mind. He was gracious, stricken, real. Southern. ***
To see my bio go to: http://cjonwine.blogspot.com/2014/09/heres-my-new-bio.html