President Obama is expected to renew his campaign promise to “change the culture of Washington” in Wednesday night’s State of the Union address. When did changing Washington become a standard bit of political rhetoric?
The spirit, if not the phrase, is nearly as old as the republic. George Washington could not profitably deride the condition of the political system that he had inaugurated, but changing the status quo was a central theme of the 1800 election that brought Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans to power. (Jefferson described the election as the “Revolution of 1800.”) Andrew Jackson was the first “outsider” candidate. He was nominated for the presidency not by the congressional caucus (the norm) but by his home state, Tennessee—which was then on the periphery of American politics. He also styled himself as a man of the people and railed against insiders like John Quincy Adams. His supporters obliged by characterizing him as an agent of change. One Pennsylvania supporter said that, as president, Jackson would cleanse “[t]he Giant Augean Stable at Washington.”
Tracking when presidents started attacking not just the ethos of the capital city but “Washington” per se—as a metonymy for everything that’s wrong with American politics—is a more difficult proposition. Some historians suggest that Theodore Roosevelt used the word in this way, but the Explainer did not uncover any specific examples. In any case, the meme seems to have taken off during the 1976 campaign, when Jimmy Carter made a point of running as a Washington outsider. (“We’ve seen walls built around Washington,” he said in one television spot, “and we feel like we can’t quite get through.”)
The exact phrase “culture of Washington” became a common political catchphrase in the 1990s. In a May 1993 interview with the Washington Post, Bill Clinton said that “the culture of Washington is too dominated by what happens to the politicians instead of what happens to the people.” In his 1996 run for the presidency, Lamar Alexander liked to rattle his opponents by insisting that “you can’t change the culture of Washington if you are the culture of Washington.” (Alexander was secretary of education under George H.W. Bush from 1991 to 1993.) And during that same race, Steve Forbes disparaged “the culture of Washington” and argued that an “inside-the-Beltway” mentality was “punishing those who work.”
Explainer readers: Can you find a pre-1976 example of a U.S. president, or presidential hopeful, using “Washington” as a metonymy? Did Grover Cleveland ever vow to “change Washington”? Send your evidence to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Explainer thanks Paul Brace of Rice University, Alan Brinkley of Columbia University, Richard Ellis of Willamette University, Slate contributor David Greenberg of Rutgers University, Michael Kazin of Georgetown University, Jon Meacham of Newsweek, Martin Medhurst of Baylor University, and Slate contributor Jesse Sheidlower of the Oxford English Dictionary.
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