Who says Washington is "Hollywood for ugly people"?: We trace a cliche back to its origins
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.
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."
The Reliable Source
| December 6, 2010; 2:26 AM ET
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