Politics, as Usual

Washington, D.C. Home of humorless bureaucrats, big egos and daily jousts for power and prestige. The city of brotherly bickering.

That’s the perception, anyway, and the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities wants to change it. To lighten up the nation’s capital and make it more appealing to tourists, the commission brings us “Party Animals”—a collection of 4.5-by-5-foot polyurethane donkeys and elephants painted by local artists and plopped on street corners all around town. The idea is to inspire whimsy and lure tourists to neighborhoods where they might spend some cash.

Such fun. American cities have endured this kind of thing before. Cows in Chicago. Pigs in Cincinnati. Horses in Kentucky. The idea originated in Zurich, where the Swiss decided the street corners simply looked better with fiberglass cows on them. It should have stayed there.

Leave it to Washington to imitate a trite idea and spin it into something worse. Instead of pandas, an option briefly considered by the commission, we get the symbols of the Democratic and Republican parties. A drawing of Bill Clinton even appears on one donkey’s rump.

Forget the National Air & Space Museum, the Kennedy Center, the National Zoo, the Shakespeare Theatre—all attractions that make Washington a cultural mecca and tourist destination on a par with other major cities. Don’t bother touting Michael Jordan and the Washington Wizards.

Instead, Washington promotes its dark art, politics, and inevitably evokes the spin, lies and manipulation that go with it. This is how we let down our hair. Apparently, it’s how we define our art as well. We admire people like White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, once dubbed by GQ “the flack out of hell.” But I doubt tourists would find him warm and fuzzy.

“Party Animals” is about fun, not politics, the commission insists. That’s hard to believe, considering it was Laura Bush and Mayor Anthony Williams who introduced it to the public. “The donkey and elephant first appeared in public in the 1870s in Harper’s Weekly,” Bush said. “That’s when political cartoonist Thomas Nast used them to make satirical jabs at the politicians of the day. You might say that his efforts backfired: The animals have instead become much-loved symbols of American politics.”

So far, the love has been hard to find, but there is politics aplenty. First, the D.C. Statehood Green Party filed suit, arguing that the city’s largest public art exhibition paid for by taxpayers should represent more than just the two main political parties. The Greens wanted their symbol, a sunflower, included. A judge threw out the complaint.

Another suit followed after the commission rejected a submission from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. To draw attention to the plight of circus animals, PETA wanted to include a shackled baby elephant with a tear running down its face and a circus sign nailed to its side. Now that’s whimsy.

All this to show the world that Washingtonians are not a bunch of buttoned-down bureaucrats.

So where’s the party?