It’s a Wonderful Life has become as essential to the holidays as Black Friday and Starbucks Christmas cups. You remember—Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey is cured of wishing he’d never been born when an angel shows him Pottersville, the commercialized horror that Bailey’s hometown would have become without him. With the old year ticking away, we’re thinking about what our own town might look like without our local George Baileys. Here are some guesses.
Real life: The consumer advocate’s Green Party 2000 presidential bid deprives Al Gore of 97,000 votes in Florida, costing Gore the White House.
It’s a Wonderful Life: Gore wins Florida and the presidency, and signs through a cap-and-trade system for carbon—at the time, a non-controversial Republican leftover. Nevertheless, because the Gore-produced doc An Inconvenient Truth never gets made, Greenland melts in late 2008. That same year, John McCain beats two-time also-ran George W. Bush for the GOP nomination and romps into the White House. Unfortunately, while walking down Pennsylvania Avenue during the inaugural parade, the new President is run over by an out-of-control Chevy Corvair, whose dangerous flaws Nader was never around to call out.
Washington today: President Sarah Palin is currently finishing her second term.
Real life: The Post reporter stumbles onto Richard Nixon’s dirty-tricks squad while covering a burglary at the Watergate.
It’s a Wonderful Life: With no Woodward on duty the day Nixon campaign “burglars” are arraigned after breaking into the Democratic headquarters, a lesser reporter writes it up as a cut-and-dried crime story. Nixon skates to another term, pursuing détente with the Soviet Union so successfully that the USSR survives to this day. The Post isn’t so lucky: Without the star power of All the President’s Men, it remains locked in a circulation war with the Washington Star, where hotshot young reporter Maureen Dowd makes a name for herself by covering the scandal that drives Nixon’s anointed successor, George H.W. Bush, from office in 1978.
Washington today: Another round of layoffs is announced at the struggling, second-place Washington Post. Veteran Metro reporter Carl Bernstein is among the victims.
Real life: Salahi—later one of Bravo’s Real Housewives of D.C.—and her then husband crash a White House state dinner in 2009.
It’s a Wonderful Life: No embarrassing security lapse, no hairstylists—make that “hair artists”—testifying to a grand jury. Secret Service chief Mark Sullivan’s reputation remains intact, and gaffe-prone Desirée Rogers keeps her job as White House social secretary. Rogers puts down roots in Washington rather than moving to Chicago. In 2014, she decides to enter local politics, riding celebrity endorsements to victory over incumbent Vincent Gray and DC Council member Muriel Bowser in the mayoral election. In an unusual decision, she names Sullivan as her new police chief.
Washington today: Mayor Rogers declares Real Housewives of D.C. Day in the District, honoring the ratings juggernaut’s fifth season.
Real life: Cofounds AOL.
It’s a Wonderful Life: Without Case to lead the pioneering internet provider, the dial-up revolution diverts to Time Warner’s Road Runner. Lacking Case’s marketing genius, that firm fails to convince America to tolerate the screech of modems. Internet users muddle along on text-based Usenet for years. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan star in a movie called You’ve Got Binary Content. It flops. AOL is also not around to buy Ted Leonsis’s Redgate Communications, make him a gazillionaire, or enable him to purchase Washington’s hockey and basketball teams in 1999. Instead, local businessman Dan Snyder buys the teams, forgoing a chance to bid on the Redskins several months later.
Washington today: With the freshly renamed Washington Warriors celebrating their Super Bowl title, owner John Kent Cooke is one of the most admired people in town.
Real life: Abramoff is ringleader of the “Gimme Five” scandal, which implicates GOP insiders and helps cost Republicans their House majority in 2006, prompting new limits on gifts from lobbyists.
It’s a Wonderful Life: Untarnished by scandal, Tom DeLay becomes speaker of the House in 2007. Two years later, DeLay’s strong support from GOP right-wingers enables him to strike a bargain with the new Democratic President: He’ll support health-care reform, but only if the administration shows fiscal prudence by agreeing to create panels that decide whether to approve costly end-of-life care. Democrats denounce “death panels,” but they become law. Obama-DeLaycare is a bipartisan triumph, and both men romp to reelection. Frustrated Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi retires but goes on to win Dancing With the Stars in 2012.
Washington today: With scant attention paid to gifts from lobbyists, the average cost of a steak dinner for two grows to $600.
Real life: The executive chef at the Spanish restaurant Jaleo discovers 23-year-old chef José Andrés and brings him to her new Penn Quarter restaurant in 1993.
It’s a Wonderful Life: Without Cashion to lure him east, Andrés stays in Southern California, making San Diego a national culinary hot spot thanks to the small-plates trend he has inspired. Instead of moving north to Portland, creative West Coast types priced out of San Francisco and LA begin moving south. The quirky IFC show San Diegonia, starring Saturday Night Live alum David Spade and 1990s singer Jewel, becomes a surprise hit. Back in Washington, Cashion can’t leave the stove at Jaleo and thus never opens Cashion’s Eat Place, stunting the still-nascent farm-to-table movement.
Washington today: At the White House, Michelle Obama sponsors a “GMO garden” featuring industrially produced crops from around the world.
This article appears in our December 2015 issue.