25 moments that changed Washington

Dec 05, 2011

To mark the 25th anniversary of The Washington Post Magazine, Marc Fisher detailed the top 25 moments that shaped Washington since 1986.

Submit your questions about the story and your thoughts about how the area has changed in the last 25 years.


Fisher: 25 moments that changed Washington

From the archives: 25 great Washington Post Magazine stories

   Welcome aboard, folks. It's been a while since I've joined you on the Q&A, so it's good to be back. We're here to talk about my choices of the 25 moments over the last 25 years that most changed Washington--a selection we presented in Sunday's Washington Post Magazine--but more important, to talk about your picks for those moments, and how and why they differ from mine.

   Judging from the mountain of mail I've received about the story, there are some clear threads of complaint already: that I gave short shrift to the importance of the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination struggle, that I failed to recognize some very important Washington figures such as Cathy Hughes (the WOL talk show host and Radio One founder) and Adrian Fenty, and that I was too nice (or, to others, too critical) of ex-D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee.

   What people liked about the piece was how a couple of big themes were developed--especially about how the country's political and social polarization developed -- and how the selections reflected the loss of so many Washington institutions that truly defined the region's sense of place (the department stores and other hometown shops, and even the local banks).

   But now it's your turn and you will surely have other omissions and additions in mind...By the way, I'm coming to you from crowded, noisy, polluted and wonderfully electric downtown Cairo, Egypt, where I am reporting some stories that will appear in The Post later this month.

   So come ahead with those comments, questions and complaints....

Marc, it's great to see your byline again. I am surprised at the omission of two particular incidents: the Mount Pleasant riot, which seems to me to have been a more significant indicator than the Prince William law of the huge demographic shifts in the region and the tensions between Hispanics and African Americans in particular; and the Monica Lewinsky matter, which changed the language used in public to discuss personal matters and significantly accelerated the tabloidization of politics (leading to Gary Condit, Larry Craig, etc.). Why didn't these make the cut? Will you publish a list of runners-up?

   Thanks for the kind words. In reverse order, yes, the matter of that woman, Miss Lewinsky, was definitely a strong contender for the list, but ultimately, I thought that the whole episode, while historic nationally, really didn't change Washington that much. It was an expression of a huge and sad change in our national politics, part of the general loss of trust in society, but really ultimately only one more big step in a process that I thought was better illustrated a decade earlier, when Gary Hart dared reporters to "follow me around" and then paid the price when we did.

   As for the Mount Pleasant riot, to be honest, we eliminated that as a possibility pretty early in the process, mainly because the District's Hispanic population was then and remains today rather small and has not appreciably grown since that time. The real immigration story in our region is very much based in the suburbs, and that's why I chose the seminal moment of 2007, the battle in Prince William County over illegal immigration that led to a tough new law and an exodus of Hispanics from the county.

   I'm sure some of our other runners-up will come up throughout our hour together here....

While not strictly a Washington story, the introduction of Blackberrys and smart phones have made us all 24/7 workers. it has been the most dramatic change in office workers' norms in a generation.

   Really good point, and we struggled over how to choose an event or moment that would capture that epochal change. I ended up choosing that period around 1999 when it seemed like the entire city was a construction zone, as crews tore up streets to lay fiber optic cable that would cement our status as one of the most connected cities on the planet. That was when the promise of the Internet seemed to unfold before our eyes and the way we acquired goods and connected with others changed elementally. Of course, there have been some huge developments since then--notably social media and the advance of mobile, but those are just steps up from the foundation that was put down in '99.

OK, here's the tough question (or maybe not). You've chosen one even from each of the past 25 years. Now tell us which event out of those 25 was the most important.

   Tough indeed. I got the easy task--picking the 25 and putting them in the Magazine in chronological order. Then our website asked readers to put the 25 in order of importance, which is much more difficult.

    If I had had to do that, I think I would have chosen the 1999 item about the boom, which combines the explosion of the D.C. area's economy, solidifying our status as the nation's most affluent, best educated metro area and giving us some protection against the economic ravages we see in much of the rest of the U.S. Of course, that boom was also the tech revolution, which has changed daily life and the way Washington works in very important ways, speeding up everything. All in all, probably the most change in any one year in the 25-year period.

Here's a recent one you left out: Dippin' Dots filed for Chapter 11 last month.

   Welcome back, regular reader, whomever you may be! For the uninitiated, during my many years of chatting here every week under the Potomac Confidential rubric, we had a running and now ultimately successful crusade against the soul-smashing evil that was Dippin Dots.

   Good does eventually triumph, even in the world of frozen desserts.

and the ousting of Dick Gephardt, the War against Iraq...they may not have changed the city, but they changed how it worked and how the people viewed how or if it worked. As someone who's been here since impeachment, I'd lean towards the latter.

   Tell me more, because I don't see how the Iraq war has changed Washington even a little bit. The polarization that runs as a thread through a number of my selections long predates the war. What other lasting changes do you see from the war?

Was there an overall theme or takeaway you found in the changes to the city since '86?

   I'll assume you mean the District itself, as opposed to the region as a whole--yes, the big theme for me was one of political maturation. Remember, the District as a self-governing entity is only a few years older than the Post Magazine, so this article covers almost all of the city's modern history.

   And in that short time, the city has gone from a sleepy, boring backwater to a major magnet for the nation's best and brightest. That transformation required several different phases, with different political styles that were right for each moment. Barry's in-your-face style created and reflected a black pride of place that was crucial to creating the affluence and stability of Prince George's, the nation's most affluent majority-black jurisdiction. And the Williams-Fenty era represents the development of Washington as a multi-ethnic city that has started to bridge the gap between the federal identity and the city as a living, breathing economic entity.

I thought overall the list was heavy with recent history events. Is it as simple as these are what are still clear in your mind or some real basis to make this determination?

   Not sure what you mean--we had one item for each of the last 25 years, with one or two exceptions, so the list was chronologically balanced for the entire period.

the Oklahoma City bombing was one that should have been included b/c it caused the closing of Penn Ave in front of the White House. Love the article. At first I wondered "why" on the Holocaust Museum but the article made an excellent point about the balkanization of the mall.

   Re the Oklahoma City bombing: I thought so too and that's why the bombing and the closing of Pennsylvania Ave is indeed #10 on my list---see the 1995 entry in the article. That was the real beginning of the hardening of Washington that came full flower in the aftermath of 9/11-- a set of decisions that I'm confident history will judge to have been a cowardly and massive overreaction.

You put together a compelling list, but one you missed (?) was the government shutdown of 1995-96. If there was a turning point in the public's respect for the government and the politicians who run it, that was it. It seems that ever since then, nothing's really gotten done in Washington, with a mostly bitterly divided federal government (with the notable exception of post-9/11 unified Republican rule). Oh, and if not for the shutdown, maybe there's no Monica Lewinsky scandal and no impeachment.

   This is another one of those runners-up that we debated for some time. I ended up arguing that the shutdown (and the subsequent near-shutdowns) were a bit of political theater that grew out of the polarization that started a few years earlier and is reflected in my choices of the Hill-Thomas hearings, the Gary Hart sex nonsense, and the Corcoran Gallery art culture wars. After all, the shutdown itself was barely noticed by much of the public and had a negligible effect on the city, except as one more sign of how dysfunctional our politics were becoming.

Were there certain event that, when they happened, you thought would have a major impact, but failed to live up to those expectations? The lack of development around the new baseball stadium, in comparison to Verizon, has been a letdown for me. I suppose the same could be said of Redskins coaches and many draft picks since 1992...

   Great question--non-events are so hard to judge, but  let's imagine a few: No terrorist attacks since 9/11--that tells us a lot, doesn't it? That could mean that we overreacted to the first couple of attacks and failed to treat them as the oddities they were, or it could mean that we reacted perfectly and nailed down the lid on further attacks. We just don't quite know.

   Similarly, the Nats Park development story--we know that the economic collapse of '08 froze the progress toward development around the ballpark that had already started, but we don't know if that will have any long-lasting effect. Indications are that it's just a delay, and there are already good signs that development in SW is picking up nicely.

Newsworthy, to be sure, but how many really changed things? Did Barry's arrest really change the culture of corruption and sleaze in DC? Not just Barry (who came back and got involved in more scandals, including ones related to taxes), but others in DC government? Did his arrest just confirm how things had been? Anita's Hill testimony really changed things, or just confirmed what happens to a woman who publicly challenges DC's Old Boy Network?

   Good question--the Barry arrest was a dramatic enough event that it somehow still feels fresh in the minds of many Washingtonians, but more important, it marked the most lasting and defining shift in the city's direction since the advent of home rule and the establishment of Washington as the nation's premier black city. With Barry disgraced, the city turned to a string of mayors who represented a new generation and a style of politics and governing that turned its back on the confrontational manner of Barry and the civil rights era, and embraced instead a more technocratic approach with a deep belief in the power of planning and development. Tony Williams and Adrian Fenty remade Washington even more powerfully than Barry had, and in very different ways, with a wildly different tool kit.

   As for the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings, they not only ended up shaping the Court and its rulings for decades to come, but also played an essential role in dividing the nation into two politically and socially antagonistic camps in a way that endures to this day. And for the first time, the selection of Supreme Court justices--and later presidents and other officeholders--seemed to turn not on differences of philosophy or opinion, but on separate versions of facts. Where you stood on Hill vs. Thomas depended on which story you believed about what had happened between them-- just as we've seen such debates over the facts in so many political contests until this current presidential race.

Marc, how did you go about balancing the inclusion of events connected to the federal government with the purely local moments? I'm usually disappointed when coverage of D.C. starts and stops with happenings inside the white marble buildings, but I thought this list successfully explored more than just the usual suspects. Any local moments that just missed the cut?

   That was the tricky bit of this assignment--how to find the right mix of local and federal while staying true to the original concept. We wanted to portray the ways in which life in Washington changed, and since the overwhelming majority of us do not work for or have anything to do with the federal government--yet "Washington" implies federal to some people, especially those outside the region -- we focused on deciding which of the historic moments of the past quarter century that just happened to take place in Washington really altered our lives. That made things much easier: The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are monumental events for the nation, yet, perhaps unfortunately, did not change life in the Washington area much at all--a statement about the distance that has developed between our military and much of the rest of the population.

   The mix ended up, properly to my thinking, with an emphasis on the purely local--the things that changed our daily existence.

Marc, what moments do you anticipate will be this list in another 25 years? Successful completion of Metro out to Dulles? High-speed rail between here and Boston?

   Nice question...I bet there will be a transportation item or two on the next list, but I wonder if it will be high-speed rail or more likely, a devastating increase in traffic. Maybe it's because I am sitting in Cairo, where you have to budget--no joke--four to six hours a day just for moving around the city's impassable streets, but I think the direction our cities and suburbs are heading is that of eternal gridlock of L.A. and Cairo proportions, and the Washington area's failure to build more infrastructure--we'll argue another day about the right mix of transit and roads--will be a huge story in 25 years.

   Similarly, our overall failure as a nation to invest in infrastructure will mean that another story on our next list will be the decrepit state of American education and our resulting economic decline.

Great to have you back. I read your book on radio years ago - it was terrific! Radio in the DC region is dismal at best. Anyway, the blizzards of 2009/2010 paralyzed the region and demonstrated how unprepared local governments are when challenged with big snow storms.

   Thanks very much... I wonder if the list we do in 25 years will include the demise of radio as a mass medium and its replacement by the highly personalized music and information services made possible by the various new technologies.

   Snowmageddon was definitely on our early lists, and it qualifies as one of those moments that we will tell our kids about for many years to come, but really, what did it change? Yes, it showed once again how ill-prepared we are as a region for major disasters, but that's not exactly news to anyone who lives here, right? So it fell off the list....

You didn't include the 1994 World Cup games at RFK, the 1996 establishment of DC United, and soccer in general as events that caused the decline of a moral and civilized society in the Washington area? I'm shocked.

   Great idea! Can we add a 26th item?

   Really, though, I probably would have predicted a few years ago that the next list in 25 years might have included a new soccer stadium, but it now appears that nothing of the kind will develop and that Washington could well lose its soccer franchise. The sport continues to thrive as a youth game, but fail as a mass market pro sport in this country. Sure, it's doing better than 25 years ago, but the persistent lack of enthusiasm for the pro game is now undeniable.

If you had to pick era-long trends instead of specific incidents, what would it be? I would go with regional expansion and increase in traffic, post 9/11 security insanity/stupidity (why do we have to queue up for Smithsonian bag checks that are an insult to the word cursory?) and rise of conservatism.

   Those are good choices, though I would argue that the country is not really any more conservative today than it was 25 years ago--rather, the two great triumphs of conservatism have been to shift both parties toward the right of where they were in the 80s, and to lead the evolution of news media to a far greater emphasis on punditry and argument and away from reporting and narrative. (Economics played a big role in that shift too--mouthing off is hugely cheaper than paying for reporting.)

   But the country--and the D.C. area--remain much more moderate than either our politicians or the media would have you believe. This remains a highly pragmatic nation, one that tends toward centrism in most people's own lives and yet the political system rewards those who make louder, more binary kinds of arguments.

   I like your other trend choices.


The Capitol Visitor Center, Occupy DC (albeit a recent phenomenon), metal detectors everywhere.

   Agree on the metal detectors--and I tried to make that hardening of Washington a big theme in our list.

   I see the Capitol Visitors Center as a symbol of how fear and Big Security took over the city. I love the content inside that center, but despise what it says about our commitment to basic American values of openness and transparency.

   As for Occupy, I don't see it changing Washington in any way--it's one more in a long line of such encampments, from the early days after the Revolution straight through to the Poor People's gathering in the late 60s and on to the so-called Million Man March. Those are all politically important moments, some of which had a real impact on policy. But not on how the city operates or how people live.

I was a federal employee and Oklahoma hit hard. It was the bloom off the rose. Many feds have local offices in other cities like OK, so it was a silent blow. I thought "If it can happen there in OK it can happen anywhere"....then it did.

9/11 Gee... The Sniper, never were so many DMV residents terrorized. For anyone outside of the DMV area, the sniper either shot or killed people in a 50 mile radius from out in the counties in Maryland to the out of the way in counties in Virginia. No one lived far enough away from it.

  Totally agree--Oklahoma City, in a way, was the original trauma. 9/11, because of its scope and drama, was more devastating, of course, but Oklahoma City stripped us of our innocence in a way almost as powerful as did Pearl Harbor.

   I never had any doubt about including the Snipers in the list--as far as personal impact on people who live here, I put it in a virtual tie with 9/11. Just huge. Now, you could argue that the snipers didn't really produce lasting change, but I think those of us who lived through it have enduring psychological damage--our antennae are up in ways they never were before that.

The MCI Center and tech boom entries touch upon the economic changes felt in some DC neighborhoods, but was there any thought given to discussing the demographic changes that have accompanied them? I was surprised not to see anything on changing racial demographics in DC, though maybe it's just too big of a story to handle in any meaningful way.

   That's a huge and essential story and some editors thought I included too much of it in this list, but I think it can't really be overestimated. That's why I included several items among the 25 that get at the demographic and racial change: The rise of charter schools, the development of the MCI Center (Pollin Center, if you please), the Fenty-Rhee assault on the failed D.C. schools,  and the backlash against the city's support of bringing baseball back to Washington.

Why the hate for Dippin' Dots? Just curious.

   They are an evil social force because they contribute to the dumbing down of a great American product--the plastic pellets of the Dots are to ice cream as MSNBC and Fox are to news--they define the category down, dragging the purveyors of the genuine item with them.

And what amazes me is that they blame the decline solely on teachers, the very people who are, mainly, working their butts off to do the actual educating. AND spend hours a day writing up data reports instead of preparing lessons, as there are ony 12 work hours in a day and something has to give.

   In the decline of any polity or industry, there comes a point when the solution to declining quality is pronounced to be the highly specific measurement of production or content--it's a logical move, of course, because who can be against measuring what works and what doesn't, right? But the impact of such moves is to quantify and mechanize and homogenize work, and that leeches out creativity and thought, thereby ensuring the continued, and even accelerated decline that the measurement was set up to arrest.

   Happens every time, yet few systems have the courage to avoid it.

... clearly the biggest, transformational moment. I was out of college for just a few years when that happened and the tone in offices across the U.S. changed within weeks. It was a huge cultural shift that affected the way people talked to each other each and every day. It still resounds today. More important than a Jersey barrier.

   Excellent point. I remember two close colleagues saying in the aftermath of the Hill-Thomas hearing that they had simply stopped having casual conversation at work with acquaintances of the opposite sex. I don't think that gotcha atmosphere has entirely gone away, but it has improved somewhat -- except perhaps in the bizarre world of elective politics.

I think Snowmageddon/Snowpocolypse should stay on the list for two reasons: I'm pretty sure that the news reports coming out of it (where DC being closed costs $X Millions per day) has pretty much eliminated the chance we ever get snow days again and it made clear the need for more telework options. I think if you do a history of work habits here in the district, telework can give a milestone thanks to the duel snowstorms.

   Despite all the shelter in place nonsense, we will have snow days and we will have paralysis of the entire metro area, and we will have all those wonderfully Washingtonian moments, including wondering why exactly we are so awful at handling major weather events. Remember, the people bringing you the silliness of Shelter in Place are the same folks who brought you the on-again, off-again government shutdowns on the eve of big storms....

   Well, thanks for coming along, folks. Nice to be with you again...I'll be back in the paper and on the site with some reports from the Middle East, and hope to join you here again sometime soon. In the meantime, do write if you get work, and happy trails....

In This Chat
Marc Fisher
Marc Fisher, a reporter and editor at The Post since 1986, is the enterprise editor for local news and spent a decade writing a column and the "Raw Fisher" blog. His latest book is "Something in the Air: Radio, Rock And The Revolution That Shaped A Generation." He has worked in the Foreign, Style, Magazine and Metro sections of The Post.
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