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Posted at 2:26 AM ET, 12/ 6/2010

Who says Washington is "Hollywood for ugly people"?: We trace a cliche back to its origins

By The Reliable Source

Tate Donovan does the iconic run-past-the-Capitol in the new D.C.-filmed "Below the Beltway." (Below the Beltway LLC)

Any movie about Washington, it seems, is legally required to contain certain elements: A sleazy politician with an intern problem, a protagonist who goes for a run past the monuments, a cameo by Chris Matthews as himself.

"Below the Beltway," an indie flick written and produced by veteran city hall and Capitol Hill aide Jim Wareck, made its local debut Thursday at West End Cinema. (A one-time screening; like so many indies, it's going straight from the festival circuit to cable, with an airing on Showtime this month.) All those cherished D.C. tropes were trotted out, but a fourth as well, reports our colleague Annie Gowen -- the inevitable moment when a character declares that "Washington is Hollywood for the ugly people."

Actually, wait -- did they just get the cliche wrong? Isn't it "Washington is Hollywood for ugly people," no "the"? It got us wondering: Where the heck did this phrase come from, and how has it become everyone's favorite gibe about our nation's capital?

Our research through news databases suggests the line somehow entered the cultural bloodstream in the mid- to late-'90s, when columnists would cite the line but typically credit it to some vague anonymous sage.

The phrase appears to be an immediate descendant of one that took off in the early '90s: "Politics is show business for ugly people." It is frequently credited to Jay Leno -- but when we checked the record, it appears the late-night host always presented it as someone else's witticism: "It's like they say, 'Politics is. . .' "

Who were "they"? While James Carville uttered the phrase in a 1996 Playboy interview, we found what may have been the first in-print usage of it, in a 1992 Washington Post interview with Carville's fellow Clinton-Gore strategist Paul Begala.


Paul Begala: The guy who started it all? (Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press)

Okay, Mr. Begala, where'd this come from? "I first started using that phrase in Texas in the '80s," the CNN commentator told us. It's caught on for obvious reasons -- a pithiness that so accurately describes what we've all sensed about the two industries.

"There's a needy quality that actors and politicians have, but there's also an element of caprice to any political career" -- just as there is for any struggling actor who beats the odds to become a star. "Both take a lot of talent and drive and discipline, but there's also the element of lightning striking."

Well said. But did he coin it? Begala sighed. "I might have heard it in a bar. . . I can't honestly lay claim or credit. I'm a speechwriter -- I just collect these things. I steal from James every day; he steals from me."


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By The Reliable Source  | December 6, 2010; 2:26 AM ET
Categories:  Politics  
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Comments

Truly is a cliche. If we're all so ugly, how come I get all the attention at out-of-state bars and clubs? ;)

Posted by: crzytwnman | December 6, 2010 9:04 AM | Report abuse

I once heard the quote attributed to an Oklahoma senator.

Posted by: res1tazc | December 6, 2010 10:03 AM | Report abuse

"Below the Beltway" ? isn't that already the name of a WaPo column?

Posted by: osmor | December 6, 2010 10:36 AM | Report abuse

I always like, "inside the froot loop" when talking about goings on in DC.

Posted by: dwj703 | December 6, 2010 1:45 PM | Report abuse

It's actually,

"Washington is Hollywood for ugly people, and Hollywood is Washington for stupid people."

In recent years the part about Hollywood and stupid people has been left off the quote. I'm not sure if that proves who is winning the cultural influence battle between Washington and Hollyood, or if it just means shorter quotes are remembered better.

Posted by: blasmaic | December 7, 2010 6:08 AM | Report abuse

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