The Southern Flair of Washington, D.C.

Michael Turek
by James Conaway - Washington, D.C. - April/May 2011

Washington’s Southern ties may be fading, but it hasn’t entirely lost its drawl, especially when it comes to a few recent West Wing residents

I came to Washington, D.C., the autumn Jimmy Carter was elected president and lived in the city through the protracted reign of George W. Bush, two distinct brackets indicating the South’s continuing influence. But how Southern were they? Carter’s religion was somewhat familiar to me, being an Episcopalian raised in Memphis, then home of the world’s largest Baptist church, but he seemed remarkably righteous even for a Baptist, and resolutely anti-Washington—those cardigans, and insisting upon carrying his own bag off Air Force One!

When his chief of staff spat Kahlúa onto a girl’s bodice in a Georgetown bar, I thought, “That’s more like it.” But Carter disappointed a city that expects hauteur among its entitled. White House staffers were rarely seen in Sans Souci, a fancy French restaurant in the sixties and seventies, with its banquette in the middle of the floor for maximum exposure.

Food other than peanuts didn’t seem to rank with Jimmy, who never knew the solace of fried chicken and collards at Thompson’s Lunch off U Street. He ran for reelection on the very un-Southern platform of “cold showers and root canals,” as one Washington commentator put it, and of course lost.

George W. Bush was demonstrably less Southern than Jimmy by heritage and by geography, but a lot better at playing the part. At least W had once been a devoted corn drinker and knew how to hold a shotgun. He gave himself up willingly to beef, carbs, and melted cheese, even though it was often in, well, nachos. For W, foot- and other balls were the reason weekends were invented. Also afternoons.

The accent was certainly from America’s Down Under, if also from Out There. Way Out There. His only lasting literary legacy may be the mismatch of singular verbs with plural objects (“There’s many people…”), now standard American usage. We all knew W wasn’t really Southern, of course, more the scion of a Connecticut Yankee in LBJ’s court whose avowed interest in pork rinds was embarrassing. Accepting entitlement was never a problem for father or son.

For many Washingtonians, the most memorable thing about W’s presence was the daily ejection of Dick Cheney from the vice president’s mansion on Massachusetts Avenue, in a shrieking caravan of identical black SUVs bristling with destructive capability, an over-the-top showing-off that was distinctly un-Southern. (Okay, Gore did it too, but more quietly, and slower.) But then D.C. as Cowtown East was as much a shuck as the Bush bunch’s being by extension good old boys.

It was President Kennedy, a Yankee, who said something about Washington being a blend of Northern hospitality and Southern efficiency. But Washington reflects its Southern exposure in a number of ways. Magnolias, crape myrtles, dogwoods, and cherry trees soften the contours, and the climate is closer to Richmond’s than Philadelphia’s due to an invisible weather line passing just to the north.