In June, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote a column about a wild night she spent in Denver after eating a pot-laced candy bar. The advocacy group Marijuana Policy Project honored the column by placing a billboard in the city featuring a Dowd look-alike holding her head.
Dowd told U.S. News & World Report's Steven Nelson in September that she planned to use a billboard as her Christmas card (that same month, she also talked weed with Willie Nelson on his bus outside the 9:30). "We decided to go ahead and make her a Christmas-themed version, and we mailed it to her on Friday," MPP spokesperson Mason Tvert tells Washingtonian.
"The message is just as important this holiday season as it was earlier this year," Tvert writes in an e-mail. Too many edibles could "not make for a very merry Christmas."
Through a Times spokesperson, Dowd says she has been on vacation and doesn't know whether she received the card.
If there's any time when it's most appropriate to play Christmas music, it's today, obviously. Perhaps you've got A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector playing on repeat, adding occasional tracks from Mariah Carey, Run-D.M.C., Julian Casablancas, and Beach House.
But there's one holiday cut that even the most ardent fans of Christmas music in Washington might stray from: "Christmas Eve in Washington," a slow, melodic song released in 1982 by local singer Maura Sullivan. The song is unlike any other holiday pop track. Instead of Darlene Love-style longing or musing about Santa Claus's whereabouts, Sullivan's lyrics talk about America, freedom, and sites around the greater Washington area like the Blue Ridge mountains and Chesapeake Bay.
The song is a mainstay of local radio stations playing Christmas music, but outside those airwaves, Sullivan's song is most likely found these days on internet lists of the worst holiday songs. It's easy to see that argument: "Christmas Eve in Washington" is high schmaltz that exchanges yuletide spirits for fist-pumping patriotism and Santa for Thomas Jefferson.
"Christmas in Hollis" aside, there are few great geospecific holiday songs. But just how did Washington wind up with one that is met with so much (mostly) online revulsion? Back in the '80s, Sullivan was a frequent guest on country station WMZQ's morning show. One of the bits she'd do with host Jim London was take callers' suggestions for song ideas. Usually it'd be silly stuff like "my old dog and my pickup truck and the autumn leaves," Sullivan recalls.
In late 1982, London and Sullivan conspired to write a Christmas song from the station to the listeners. London came up with the opening line, "It's snowing tonight in the Blue Ridge." Sullivan says she immediately responded with "There's a hush over Chesapeake Bay." Twenty minutes later, the song was finished, and Sullivan went down to Nashville, Tennessee, to record it with her backing band.
Sullivan and London debuted the finished track with a series of appearances on other Washington radio stations. The first few times they played it, though, they played the A-side, which rival stations probably did not appreciate. The better-known lyric "Our joyous wish for you, is for peace, love, and laughter, to last the whole year through," is actually on the B-side of Sullivan's original 45. The A-side replaces that last line with "from WMZQ."
The song quickly became a staple of local holiday playlists, even as it's picked up legions of internet bashers. But Sullivan, reached by phone on the road to Ohio, doesn't mind the haters.
"Does it bother me?" she says. "No. Not everybody's patriotic. I’m the one that gets the letters and emails from wonderful service members who take the CD overseas and have it on their iPods."
Sullivan says that besides the local stations playing it today, "Christmas Eve in Washington" is heard on radio stations in Canada, the UK, and Germany.
"It’s about the nation’s capital," she says. "This is where I have lived for many years, and this is my home."
London died in 2012, and Sullivan, now a real estate agent, doesn't sing much in public anymore outside special appearances. (She popped up to sing it last year on WTTG-TV's morning show.) But as the song lives on digitally, she still gets requests—and pans.
"One guy wrote that I was deliberately ruining his Christmas," she says. "People can turn off the radio or switch stations."
Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.
Television's holiday season is all about filler. Sometimes that filler comes in the form of live holiday broadcasts, but more often it consists of reruns from years past.
Networks may not expect spectacular numbers during the holidays, but they certainly don't want to waste a big production budget on a live program that ends up drawing the same amount of viewers in a key advertising demographic as a rerun of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
That's exactly the situation CBS faced regarding the Kennedy Center Honors, an annual holiday-timed broadcast of an event that bestows lifetime achievement awards to those in the performing arts. The program, scheduled to air this year on December 30, is well-honored itself—it's one of only three programs to win Emmys five years in a row—yet it cannot keep an audience. Other celebrity-soaked awards shows appearing on broadcast have continued to soar in the ratings by leaps and bounds (like the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, and the Billboard Music Awards—the latter two of which are produced by Dick Clark Productions, which was recently owned by Dan Snyder). In 2013, the Kennedy Center Honors reached its lowest viewership point since 1991.
For Kennedy Center chairman David Rubenstein, a change needed to come. It resulted in a recent, high-profile dust-up when the show's longtime producer, 82-year-old George Stevens Jr., announced on stage (and in close proximity to Rubenstein) that he had been forced out by the chairman, and that this year would be the last for himself and his son Michael, who is also part of The Stevens Company production team.
TNT announced shortly afterward that it planned to end its broadcasts of the annual charity program Christmas in Washington, which Stevens produced for 15 years, ostensibly because parent company Time Warner would no longer sponsor it. In recent years, the show -- once a popular holiday tradition -- has been bested in viewership (in that key 18-49 demographic) by bottom-barrel programming like TLC’s Brides of Beverly Hills.
Perhaps some of that failure has been due to the increasingly confounding celebrity appearances on Christmas in Washington, whose final TNT broadcast aired this past Friday. “Dr. Phil” McGraw hosted the show for several years, and the Backstreet Boys opened 2013’s show. Still, both it and the Kennedy Center Honors are structured similarly to competing awards shows and certain live holiday broadcasts. So is it Stevens’ aesthetic that is out of date when it comes to these shows, or are they simply examples of holiday traditions that have been, for whatever reason, unable resonate with current audiences?
But Stevens was obviously doing something right, as his trophy case and the shows' early ratings demonstrate. Asked whether the Kennedy Center blamed Stevens for the ratings tumble, a spokesperson says the performing arts complex "is enormously grateful for the contributions George and his son Michael have made to the Honors over the years" and that the awards "have grown in stature over the past 37 years to become the preeminent recognition of the performing arts in America." The center plans to "begin a search for an Honors producer that will build upon this strong foundation in the years to come," the spokesperson says. TNT has not yet returned a request for comment.
Do the Kennedy Center Honors feel stodgy or inaccessible to Washington outsiders? Is Christmas in Washington simply lost on among more engaging cable programming? (Stevens has said he's working on a partnership with a new broadcaster for that show, to be announced in the new year.) Perhaps Lucy Van Pelt summed up the cold, hard truth of the decision in A Charlie Brown Christmas, a holiday special that's 47 years old and still going strong: "Look, Charlie Brown, let's face it. We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket." And it's one where Stevens has followed his falling ratings out of favor.
Former DC mayor Marion Barry famously promised to help “the last, the lost, and the least”—a noble mission and one still sorely needed in the District, where nearly a fifth of the population lives in poverty. Now that Barry’s epic funeral observances are over, it’s fair to ask: Did he make good on his promise?
Just the second mayor after home rule was granted in 1973, Barry did much to define the office as we know it. His idea of being mayor included opening the government—and its jobs and contracts—to the region’s long-marginalized African-American community, shifting a share of power to a growing black middle class. His summer-jobs program provided first employment for thousands of DC residents. Not least, he encouraged the redevelopment of downtown DC, spurring a vibrant urban scene that put money into a lot of pockets. He showed a genius for dealmaking and problem-solving.
But it’s questionable whether Barry really benefited the poor. Midway into his first term, the 1980 Census put DC’s poverty rate at 18.6 percent. Two decades later, the percentage of District residents living below the poverty line had increased to 20.2. Barry had been mayor for 16 of those 20 years, accruing power without extending it to the neediest.
It’s only fair to note that the mayors of other big cities battled endemic unemployment during that time without solving it. But Barry enjoyed a unique opportunity in urban America: The capital city’s economy was not Detroit’s. Revenues from a downtown commercial real-estate boom further fattened government coffers. And there was a DC Council that Barry could bend to his will.
Instead, the former civil-rights leader neglected the institutions he inherited. He failed to give the police the tools they needed, and he watched as a crack epidemic drove homicides in the city from 200 in 1980 to 472 in 1990. By that time, he was addicted himself.
In his last ten years, the poor became his sole charge as the councilman for Ward 8. He consoled them and gave them hope, but poverty, homicides, unemployment, and infant mortality in his ward remained the highest in the city.
Anacostia is poised for transformation. In another decade, poverty and joblessness there will drop. Its prospects began to improve only as Mayor Anthony Williams and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton drew federal and local agencies to its blighted areas. Disgusted by the shameful state of DC public schools, Mayor Adrian Fenty took them over and started reform.
Will Barry’s “least and lost” survive gentrification crossing the Anacostia River? It’ll be up to his successors to determine whether those Washingtonians will thrive or be pushed out.
This article appears in the January 2015 issue of Washingtonian.
The National Archives is the nation's record keeper, but it may also help keep the peace at your next family gathering. On December 30, the Archives plans to host a thank-you-note-writing contest where "Children will have the opportunity to learn and practice their thank you note writing skills."
Should this course lead to a new, e-mail-free regime of thanking in your household, you may also foil your more passive-aggressive relations, who will no longer be able to torment you with wide-eyed inquiries like, "Did my gift ever arrive?"
The Archives will exhibit some of the better thank-you notes from its collection, it says in a press release, and children who complete notes can enter them in a contest to win a fountain pen from Fahrney's, which sponsors the Archives's "Making Their Mark" exhibit, along with other prizes. Your little ingrates can learn about the finer points of note-writing from 10 AM to 4 PM in the Boeing Learning Center on the Archives's upper floor. Admission is free.
Find Andrew Beaujon on Twitter at @abeaujon.
"You got me fired, baby," Ari Roth tells me when I call him Friday morning about his dismissal as the artistic director of Theater J.
Roth, who was fired Thursday by the DC Jewish Community Center, which houses the theater company, told the Washington Post's Peter Marks his ouster was triggered by interviews he gave last month about the DCJCC's reported decision to cancel future installments of Roth's Voices of a Changing Middle East Festival, a series of plays from the region that are often critical of Israel. A bit more than three weeks after Roth's November 26 interview with Washingtonian, he's clearing out his office at the community center at 16th and Q streets, Northwest. At least I'm not the only one at fault, it turns out.
"I'm blaming John Judis for everything," Roth says, referring to the former New Republic senior editor and another Jew who's caught flak for criticisms of the Israeli government and the Zionist movement.
These lines turn out to be jokes; Roth isn't actually pinning his firing on journalists. But it does connect to the real reason Roth believes his relationship with the DCJCC deteriorated—that the American Jewish community has become increasingly intolerant of less-than-rosy depictions of Israel from Jewish thinkers.
"There's been a natural alignment for many years between a community center that does so many things...including a theater that does all the provocative, enlightening things theater does," says Roth, who steered Theater J for 18 years. "There was full alignment, but there was also tension from the very first production. As Israel democratically elected governments that moved more and more to the right in response to threats interally and externally, the American Jewish community, which is devoted to the survival of Israel moved in step with the government of Israel."
Roth incited outrage early this year over The Admission, a play about a purported massacre of Palestinian civilians by Israeli soldiers in 1948 by the Israeli playwright Motti Lerner. The announcement that Theater J was mounting the show prompted a group of DCJCC benefactors calling themselves Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art (COPMA) to threaten to withold hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations over what they called a "blood libel" production. Theater J eventually agreed to cut the show's run by more than half and scaled it back to a "workshop" production with minimal set dressing. COPMA was still pissed anyway.
Roth says reactions like COPMA's have become more routine since 2009, when Israel elected a right-wing government that has waged several wars in Gaza in the years since.
"After the [Benjamin] Netanyahu government and the [Avigdor] Lieberman foreign ministry, there was more and more effort to squelch the voices of American and Israeli artists," Roth says. "It was that part of our program that reflected the impact of dissenting voices."
Before the flap over The Admission, Roth stirred a similar controversy when Theater J teamed up with Tel Aviv’s Cameri Theatre to produce Return to Haifa, based on a Palestinian novel about a couple exiled by the 1948 founding of Israel that finds a family of Holocaust survivors living in their former home. Both Return to Haifa and The Admission were staged as part of the Voices festival.
Roth insists his departure is not about the DCJCC's finances, but about a growing air of censorship.
"There was very little donor pressure," he says.
Carole Zawatsky, the DCJCC’s chief executive officer, did not respond to Washingtonian's request for an interview about Roth's firing. Robert Samet, a personal injury lawyer from Potomac who heads COPMA, did not return phone calls either.
But the aggressive pushback that Israel's critics like Roth and Judis from their fellow Jews isn't a recent phenomeon, says Alan Elsner, the vice president of communications for J Street, a left-wing Middle East policy organization that calls itself pro-Israel and pro-peace. The group was founded in 2008 because the subject of Israel "had become so toxic that institutions, people, synagogues felt they couldn't discuss it intelligently anymore," he says.
Elsner believes the loud, hawkish voices that attack people like Roth are a slim portion of the the American Jewish community, but they do include some wealthy donors flexing their political clout. But those reactions, Elsner says, come at the expense of the Jewish population's future.
"It's a formula for driving away young people, driving away people who love Israel, but are not supportive of the settlements, and see the current government destroying the country," he says. "The right has been in power in Israel with short breaks since 1977, and they've pursued building settlements and had three or four wars. The problem is, how do American Jews who support Israel and love Israel engage in a meaningful dialogue with Israel without being cast out of the tent?"
J Street itself has had trouble remaining in the tent. It applied for membership in the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, an umbrella coalition of Jewish groups, but was rejected in May even after winning the support of the Reform and Conservative movements and the Anti-Defamation League. Even to some of Israel's stodgiest public defenders, J Street's defeat was a bad result.
"It was not surprising that J Street’s most energetic opponents at the President’s Conference came from the Orthodox, many (but not all) of whom are so busy congratulating themselves on their righteousness and their fertility rate that they are blind to their irrelevance to the fate of Jews who are not like themselves, which is to say, to the fate of the overwhelming majority of American Jewry," wrote Leon Wieseltier, then the New Republic's literary editor.
Judis and Roth have never actually met in person, though Judis does call himself a fan of Roth's work. The two overlapped when a COPMA newsletter organizing the group's protest against The Admission included an article in the right-wing Jewish magazine Commentary accusing Judis and other left-wing Jewish writers (and former Pink Floyd singer Roger Waters) of "hijacking" the Jewish community."
Reached by e-mail, Judis tells Washingtonian the conflict between the most hawkish American Jews and those who are more willing to be skeptical of Israel's decisions is as visible as ever, and that the casualties are often artistic types like Roth.
"There is a looming split in that part of the Jewish community between an older generation that sees Israel entirely as a victim and any criticism of it as verging on anti-Semitism, and a new generation that goes from J Street to Jewish Voice for Peace to Open Hillel that believes that a committment to Palestinian as well as Jewish rights is intrinsic to a Jewish ethical outlook," Judis writes. "What's at stake here is not simply artistic censorship, but the attempt to snuff out works of art that recognize that Jews and Palestinians share a common humanity."
Roth plans to establish a new theater company—based out of the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street, Northeast—that will include future iterations of his Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival.
"My understanding is that Ari wanted to bring to Theater J plays that reflected the total gamut of American Jewish concerns and life, and that includes plays about Israel," says Elsner. Roth says his aim was to bring a "credible, perhaps alternative narrative" to cultural discussions about Israel.
The Post reports that the DCJCC will search for a new artistic director to take over Theater J, but the prospect of a politically neutered company could be unappetizing to its fans.
"I'm a big fan of Fiddler on the Roof," Elsner says, "but good theater has to be more than schmaltz."
Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.
The Washington Post announced Friday that its publication Capital Business "will move into the main newspaper throughout the week and no longer be a separate subscription publication." CapBiz writers will have two pages in Sunday and Monday print editions, "with regular placement on the Sunday section front and on page one," the Post's announcement says.
The Post launched Capital Business in 2010 as a $49 add-on for newspaper subscribers. Non-subscribers could get it for $69 before Friday's announcement.
According to the most recent publisher's statement filed with the Alliance for Audited Media, Capital Business' total average circulation was 22,305 copies for the six months ending in September, with average paid circulation of 8,003.
The change is planned for February 1.
A Department of Homeland Security panel convened after a September incident in which a man jumped the fence around the White House and ran into the building before being apprehended says the simplest way to prevent future invasions is simply to build a bigger fence.
The report, issued Thursday, is a thorough smackdown of the Secret Service and chastises the agency for a deficit of leadership in the wake of the fence-jumping escapade of Omar Gonzalez. But, it states, the quickest fix to presidential protection is to raise the barrier around the White House from its current height of seven feet, six inches to 12 or 13 feet.
"We decline to say precisely what the optimal new fence should look like," the panel writes, although its members do actually have a few design tips. "For sure, the fence must be taller; even an increase of four or five feet would be materially helpful. Horizontal bars, where climbers can easily place feet or hands, should be eliminated or placed where they provide little assistance. The top of the fence can also be manipulated in certain ways—such as including curvature outward at the top of the fence—to make scaling it much more difficult for most."
A taller, outwardly curved fence around the 18-acre campus sounds impressive, but it presents two big questions: Will a taller fence actually keep motivated intruders away? And just how big can the White House's perimeter get without completely eroding its supposed reputation as a "people's house" (as the Homeland Security report refers to it)?
"Any kind of improvement could deter access," says J. Reid Meloy, a clinical psychiatry professor at the University of California, San Diego, who consults for the FBI. But Meloy says the physical reinforcements can only go so far without making the White House an unwelcoming fortress in the middle of a busy city.
"In a sense that the culture demands this be the people’s house, there should be visible access," he says. "You don’t want any kind of barrier that eliminates visible access."
But Meloy adds that even if the Secret Service replaces the current fence with a taller, curvier model, it won't stop all the potential fence-jumpers out there, especially if they're lone actors like Gonzalez or Dominic Adesanya, a Bel Air, Maryland, resident who was arrested October 22 after climbing onto the White House lawn.
"Some of the most creative attacks against public figures have been mounted by lone individuals," he says. "You can deter, you can reduce risk, but you’re never going to completely eliminate threats."
Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.
In an exclusive interview we posted last week, CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou talked about his life in prison, charging that his sentence was in retribution for leaking information about the agency’s torture program. Since then, the Senate partially released its report critical of the program, prompting a ping-pong game of blame between critics and defenders. After the release, reporter Natalia Megas wrote to Kiriakou to get his reaction to the Senate report. He answered in two letters about accountability, efficacy, and the problems with the CIA’s interrogations. Some excerpts:
What’s your reaction to the torture report?
It’s worse than anyone suspected. The torturers are free, the people who conceived of the torture are free. The attorneys who justified the torture are free. I’m the only one in prison, and I’m the one who refused to torture anybody.
If CIA leaders and the Bush Administration approved the brutal interrogation methods, how can anyone else be blamed or prosecuted?
I don’t think the prosecutable offenses are those that were approved by the Justice Department. The prosecutable offenses are those where CIA officers overstepped their legal authority. People died in CIA custody. How is that not a crime? And of course, the CIA’s former Deputy Director for Operations, Jose Rodriguez destroyed video evidence of the torture. I would call that obstruction of justice.
Do you feel like the CIA cast you off?
I don’t... I had a fantastic career at the CIA, and I still have a lot of friends there. But the CIA, in my view, became corrupted by its virtually unlimited power to create, expand, and then cover up the torture program. I’m proud of my CIA service. But the truth is that there are a lot of former and current CIA employees, including many in former and current positions of leadership, who should be in prison right now.
What do you say to those who say torture is justified if it works?
Whether the torture worked or not is irrelevant. (It didn’t anyway.) Rape works. We don’t do that. Murder works. We don’t do that. Beating children in front of their parents works. We don’t do that. The question isn’t, Does it work? The question is, Is it right? Is it moral?
What would you see the government do differently?
The post-9/11 national security state mentality must change. It’s untenable within the confines of the Constitution. The FBI doesn’t need to know what books we borrow from the library (as called for in the Patriot Act). NSA doesn’t need to know when Americans call their doctors, for how long they speak, and what websites they visit (as part of NSA’s metadata collection). None of it has anything to do with national security. Politicians shouting "9/11" every time somebody questions our national security policies is a red herring and an insult to the intelligence of the American people.
What can the American people do?
Americans must demand accountability from their elected officials on issues of transparency, surveillance, and national security. Answering questions with "That’s classified" or "That was approved by the secret FISA court" is anti-democratic.
You blew the whistle on torture, then got prosecuted for talking to the press. Would you do it all over again?
I would do it all again ... Someone has to stand up and say it’s enough.
Arlington County Manager Barbara Donnellan recommended Wednesday that arts venue Artisphere, which it partially owns, should close by next July. As Benjamin Freed wrote for Washingtonian last month, Arlington has pulled back on other big-ticket projects in recent months.
- The Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcars: Arlington planned to spend $585 million on the transportation projects, which it scuttled after opposition from residents. Streetcar opponent John Vihstadt won a full term on the county board in November; board chairman Jay Fisette said the county's leadership was "caught flat-footed when organized opposition to the streetcar surfaced in just the last year or so."
- The Long Bridge aquatic center: Donnellan put a hold on the planned center this past January after estimates for construction and operating costs were higher than expected. The construction bids came in around $82 million and did "not account for design, furniture, internal equipment and fixtures, technology, security, public art, construction management, third-party testing and required permits," Patricia Sullivan reported for the Washington Post.
- The "million-dollar bus stops": Arlington built a bus stop on Columbia Pike that cost more than $1 million, a price tag an independent review later attributed to a “lack of clear communication between County and WMATA staff." The county later rebranded the stops as "transit stations" and figured out how to build them for less than cities like Eugene, Oregon, or Grand Rapids, Michigan have done.
Find Andrew Beaujon on Twitter at @abeaujon.