A quick confession as I begin. I like the Washington Post. From where I sit it may be the best newspaper in America. Sure, the NYTs is OK, but they did have Judy Miller. The reporting of the WP over the last decade has been—for the most part—(IMHO) outstanding.
That said the WP has its share of problems. The Editorial Page is consistently an embarrassment, the Opinion Page hasn’t updated their contributor rolodex in decades and the paper carries a gaggle of inside-the-beltway dilettantes who almost never add anything of substance to the debate (you know: Broder, Milbank, Kurtz and the other regurgitators of cocktail party prater on the WP payroll). And then there was that recent business about selling access at a party in the Publisher’s home.
Still, all in all, I think the WP is a great American newspaper.
I live in Baltimore and work in DC. When I drive into District I usually park across the street from the Washington Post. Then I walk the few blocks to work.
And outside of the WP is a monument to the bias we face and the bias that we fight.
To the jump...
Washington DC is a funny town. It is a one industry town and that industry is power. There is a lot of focus on power in DC. Who has it, who’s getting it, who knows how to use it and who is losing it. It is a place that celebrates and grovels in the minutiae of power, process and your relative place in the pecking order.
For decades, the local paper in town—the Washington Post—has excelled at chronicling the ins and out of the power game in DC. When they're good, they are excellent—the best newspaper in the Country (again IMHO) and sometimes they FAIL big time.
A case in point was a recent epic FAIL concerning the selling of access through dinner parties at the home of the Publisher. Man-O-Man, was that a dumb idea.
I like to think that the memo that exposed the party plan leaked out because the DNA of the WP is actually dedicated to the best aspects of journalism. I tend to think that even when one part of the operation is getting consumed with a bias or group-think, another part is working to bust that bubble. Over the last decade you often saw that struggle play out on the pages of the paper where there could be an Editorial Page celebrated Bush and his War on one page and on others that same day, reporters where writing stories that exposed Bush and his policies as a catastrophe that defined his Administration.
There is a constant struggle between the ingrain power biases of political celebrity reporters in DC and working WP journalists who write about what actually is happening. One of the things that makes the Washington Post a great newspaper is that you can see that struggle played out in a raw, almost naked way, in the pages of the paper on almost any given day. I find it something to celebrate.
You can also see this struggle on display any day you feel like walking south from the main entrance to the Washington Post and then west on L Street NW.
The main entrance to the Washington Post is on 15th Street NW about midway between L and M streets:
It is an easy place to find, so let’s begin the walk here. Facing the entrance turn left and head south. The first street you come to is L Street NW. Turn right and walk about a third of the way down the block. This is what you’ll see:
The darken doorway on the right is the L Street entrance to the Washington Post. This is the employee entrance. It is the nearest entrance for commuters using the DC Metro system and the Farragut North Metro Rail stop on the Red Line. Through this door pass most of the writers and editors of the WP on a regular basis. And next to this entrance is a clear display of the ingrown bias that we fight in Washington DC. Let’s take a closer look at the sculptures on display by the American Flag:
Yep, it is a Donkey and an Elephant.
Many years ago a Chicago artist placed sculptures of a cow around the city that were painted by other artists. It was not long before this painted sculpture craze swept across America. It seems that every city and town has some version (crabs in Baltimore, Peanuts characters in St. Paul, mermaids in Nolfork, bulldogs in Athens, GA and so many more).
Some years ago in Washington DC it was Donkeys and Elephants because they are the symbols of power in this town. The Washington Post purchased two of these sculptures and now they stand sentry at the employee entrance. I’ve walked by them hundreds of times. A few months ago I stopped one day and looked at them and since then I’ve been thinking about what they tell us about the power bias in Washington. Here is a closer look:
The Republican image—the elephant—is decked out with ALL the symbols of power in Washington DC. The Capital Building is on its left side and the White House is on the right. The Supreme Court is on its head. Other monuments are tattooed across its body. The sculpture is a monument to the inherent and lasting power of the Republican Party and Conservative ideals. It is a perfect illustration of the power bias in DC that Republicans are, or at least should always be in power—even when they are not. It is this bias that mandates a form of bipartisanship defined only by Democratic concessions. It is this bias that leads to more Republicans always being booked on the Sunday shows, the editorial pages, and cable shows than Democrats. It is this bias that mandates beltway denizens must always treat Chuck Grassley with more respect than Tom Harkin. It is this bias that treats "tea baggers" with more respect than war protestors. It is a bias that is reinforced by the Donkey sculpture the WP has chosen to pair with its Republican Elephant of Power:
Pandas. Democrats are Pandas. Odd. Endangered. Picky eaters. Shy. Timid. Hard to reproduce. Cute. Sweet. Non-threatening. Weak.
The gap in how Republican Power is viewed in DC and how Democratic Power is viewed is on clear display in these two sculptures. The conventional DC wisdom is that there is nothing powerful about Democrats and that Republicans are powerful as a birthright. It is a bias that anybody who walks by the 15th Street entrance of the Washington Post can see on display any day of the week.
Look at the heads of this Donkey and this Elephant:
The Elephant is clear-eyed and clear-headed. The Republican mind is on the Supreme Court, power and how to wield it.
His head is in the clouds. The eyes are cloudy. Democrats are in a dream state. They wouldn’t know what to do with power if it fell into their lap. They are hopeless, but they are cute.
Now, this is only an illustration of the power bias that we fight as we try to bring change to Washington.
One might quibble with my use of these sculptures to make a point, but it is not possible to deny the pro-Republican power bias in Washington, DC. And it is not just some in the media who have this bias. It is all over town. The Blue Dogs have this bias. Harry Reid has this bias. Lobbyists have this bias. Conservatives have this bias and yes, so do quite a few liberals and progressives.
This willingness to assume that Republicans are always more powerful than they really are makes everything harder. It means we are in for a long struggle with some victories and some defeats. It means that we need to learn to shake off this assumption of Republican power and learn to assume, accept and use the power that we have. The CPC took a solid step in that direction today when the stood up to the Blue Dogs. We need more of that.
And as we fight we need to know that we start every round of every battle at a disadvantage. If you are a liberal or a progressive you are always a dirty fucking hippie—always a weak-ass panda in this Bourgeois Town. And Conservatives are always the voice of power with access to any media outlet they wish to use. Grover Norquist can get on any show he wants to be booked on and he will always be treated as a serious player. Al Gore, Howard Dean or Jimmy Carter will never be given the respect that the inside-the-beltway crowd gives Norquist and the rest of his merry band of conservative think tank thieves. The gap is big.
Fortunately, I think we are turning the tide and that we have a President who understands this power gap and how to over come it. He knows the bias that we face and how much work and time it will take to close the gap. He has been organizing to overcome these gaps of power all his life. He calls on us to organize and to fight—to support him and just as importantly to hold him accountable. He challenges us to discover and use our power as connected citizens. We are called to reject the cynicism of Washington that accepts the beltway power bias myths as a fact of life. We are challenged to be the change that we seek. The good news is that we are stepping up to the plate.
We are now engaged in the first rounds of an epic struggle to take back this Country. In recent years we have had some success at the ballot box. There have been a handful of legislative victories as well. And there have been many, many disappointments, delays and a few defeats. There will be more. It is important to remember that we are just at the beginning. We are nowhere near a lasting victory yet.
This will not be easy. It will not be fast. Every victory will meet pushback. There is not a quick fix for anything. We need to be prepared to be engaged for the long haul. Ready to realize and use the power we have and ready to bust the myth of conservative power as a birthright that has poisoned our politics since the days of Reagan.
A few blocks away from the WP there is another pair of these Donkey/Elephant sculptures over on 16th Street NW. I do not have a photo to share, but in this pair the Elephant is wrapped in the American Flag in a bold claim of patriotism. The Donkey is a patchwork of all the State Flags working together to create a pattern that defines the sculpture. It is another interesting artistic reflection on power in Washington.
The GOP is wrapped in cheap, easy and symbolic patriotism.
The Democratic Party is defined by all 50 States working together in harmony to create a whole. Now that is a fine illustration of our power—our ability to work together across issues, passions and State lines for the common good. We are powerful because of and when we work together. We are powerful when we realize that we can organize and use the power that we share. We are powerful when we organize our community for change.
I’m glad that we have a community organizer in the White House who gets this.
It will be interesting to see if and when the power base in DC realizes that the ground is shifting. The cracks are starting here and there and one day the Republican Party will lose the auto-assumption of power they’ve enjoyed for the last thirty years.
Perhaps on that day the Washington Post can commission an artist to repaint their elephant with images of Abramoff, Enron, Iraq, Iran-Contra, torture, Foley, Vitter and the many other scandals that truly define Republican power.
That would improve the view I have on my way to work.