Letter From DC: Washington, "DC," and the State of the Union

There's "Washington," and then there's "DC."

By , Columnist

While the left coast’s entertainment industry was fixated on the announcement of Academy Award nominations, here on the right coast, President Barack Obama’s third State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress took precedence as the event of the day.

No more so was the event’s preeminent status demonstrated than in Washington D.C., where liquor stores see a decent uptick in Tuesday sales and restaurants and pubs see the speech as a revenue opportunity that rivals NFL Sundays.

And nowhere was the phenomenon more evident than in the neighborhood of Capitol Hill, Congress’ residential backdrop, where brick and mortar social entrepreneurs seized upon the opportunity to present the appropriate setting for the local industry event.

Strollers up Pennsylvania Ave right past the Library of Congress saw slate sandwich boards outside pubs and restaurants beckoning customers inside with offers of “State of the Union in HD.” Flat screens on Barrack’s Row, the burgeoning restaurant scene of 8th Street S.E., usually tuned to multiple NFL football, college basketball, and even hockey games, made their annual flip to C-SPAN, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC to provide multiple perspectives.

Liquor stores were crowded between seven and eight as Hill residents stocked up on wine and spirits. “The bars do really well tonight, but we usually see at least a 10% boost in weeknight sales,” said “just Tom,” owner and proprietor of Hayden’s, the corner liquor store at 7th and Independence Avenue, S.E. “Election night is better for us. November will be another Super Bowl for us.”


Yet as riveted to the State of the Union as Capitol Hill was, there was little interest and, in many cases, absolute disdain for the pre and post coverage of the speech. As the cable news networks attempted to generate pre-speech political red meat, most screens were muted with a few offering closed captioning that was hard to track as the typo-ridden subtitles lagged the spoken word.

As the grip-and-grin portion of the event commenced, there were comments on wardrobes: Michelle Obama’s elegance and glamour versus Jill Biden’s Unitarian frock elicited quite the response at the newly-opened Boxcar Tavern across the street from Eastern Market. A parlor game of name-the-obscure cabinet secretary, senator, or for the truly astute, Congressional representative ensued.

michelle and jill.jpgBut after the slam of the gavel, the volumes of the patrons went down, and the TV sets were turned up. It became so quiet in the bars and restaurants across the Hill, one could hear the multiple helicopters circling overhead and the differing sirens rebounding against the brick row houses. Folks actually listened.

Partisan trolls, looking to provoke a response, were shushed and given stern looks after burps of “job-killer” and “socialist;” and when boos rang out during shots of GOP figures, especially House Minority Leader Eric Cantor. “Rookies,” muttered one seasoned denizen.

cantor at state of the union.jpg

When the speech was completed, the volume went back to mute and conversation picked back up again. There was nary an interest in the post-coverage positioning by partisan talking heads. Mature Democrats and Republicans alike appeared to be ruing the paralysis and demagoguery that has replaced good-faith efforts at governing.

Rationalizations to reflexively condemn either a Democratic or GOP position, while proliferating the TV screens, were either not to be heard, or presented in a satirical context for a mutual laugh.

That’s not to say that the Hill did not offer venues stuffed with those that believe their ability to recite talking point dogma is a mark of political sophistication. “Go down to Union Pub or 201 on Massachusetts Avenue if you want the political sheep scene,” offered one Hill regular.

union pub.jpgIt was an interesting irony. While President Obama and his detractors decried “this town,” how out of touch “Washington is with Main Street,” and the corruptible nature of the “city,” it became clear they were talking about their Jersey-barriered, fenced-in world that happens to be located within the confines of the District of Columbia.

Maybe Washington is a cesspool of political sludge, worthy of the criticism made by those most responsible for creating it. But sharing a fine lager at many a Capitol Hill bar demonstrated that D.C. is doing just fine, thank you very much. It’s all those people in Washington that are the problem.

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Marc Osgoode Smith has covered – and participated in - Washington DC policy circles for more than two decades as a journalist covering media and as an association and think tank executive. Smith now enjoys his role as a “cultural observer” of DC Politics and the people that engage in them.

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