Our series of Virtual Culture Trips has so far brought us to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. Today, we’re hopping down the East Coast to the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. From the government chambers on Capitol Hill to the tony enclave of Georgetown to the tough streets that lie beyond the National Mall, the District has plenty of stories to tell. Here are a few of our favorites, in book, movie, and musical form.
1. Heartburn by Nora Ephron
Carl Bernstein gets plenty of shine for his role in All the President’s Men, but here he catches some shade from his ex-wife, beloved journalist and screenwriter Nora Ephron. Her semi-autobiographical 1983 novel is based on that marriage, which ended in divorce after Ephron discovered Bernstein was having an affair. No one would ever go so far as to call divorce “fun,” but the author leavens the topic with her trademark wit and through the inventive use of recipes (her protagonist is a food writer) as a narrative device. Ephron also adapted the book for a 1986 film, starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep.
2. Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones
It’s understandable that most popular works about D.C. focus on it as the seat of power in the U.S., but that often leaves the city’s powerless unrepresented (sort of like how D.C. residents are unrepresented in Congress). Edward P. Jones—who’s most famous for his Pulitzer Prize–winning historical novel, The Known World—is a native of the District, and he writes evocative short stories about his hometown’s African-American community in both Lost in the City, his 1992 debut, and All Aunt Hagar’s Children, a 2006 followup. Lost in the City was a National Book Award finalist and has been hailed as D.C.’s equivalent of James Joyce’s Dubliners.
3. The Big Blowdown by George Pelecanos
The acclaimed, prolific crime novelist George Pelecanos has made Washington the primary setting of his 20 novels, most notably his “D.C. Quartet.” The Big Blowdown, published in 1996, is the first novel in the series, and it tracks four friends—an accountant, a cop, and a couple of small-time gangsters—throughout the ’30s and ’40s. The later novels (King Suckerman, The Sweet Forever, and Shame the Devil) continue through the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, and are notable for their sharp writing, their deft handling of the District’s racial tensions, and their portrayal of the importance of basketball to the city’s culture.
4. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
American culture is rife with tributes to Abraham Lincoln, but this 2017 novel, which won the Man Booker Prize, is singular in its approach. Literary superstar George Saunders imagines Willie Lincoln, the president’s son, trapped in a purgatory state following his death, at age 11, in 1862. Like the other souls wandering Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery, Willie floats between this world and the next, and he watches as his grief-stricken father comes into the graveyard to hold his encrypted body. The novel is challenging—its shifting form often takes the shape of a Greek chorus—but it’s ultimately a penetrating, rewarding read.
5. White Houses by Amy Bloom
In this 2018 best-selling historical novel, former National Book Award finalist Amy Bloom takes readers behind the closed doors of another legendary administration—that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Specifically, she digs into the relationship of the famed first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, with her close confidant—and romantic partner—the former journalist Lorena Hickok, carrying the story from their initial meeting in 1932 through FDR’s death in 1945. It is, in the words of Entertainment Weekly, “an indelible love story.”
1. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
You can’t start this list with anything other than Frank Capra’s 1939 classic, in which the naive, reformist Senator Jefferson Smith (a young Jimmy Stewart, in a career-making role) battles Capitol Hill corruption. The film was denounced by some as un-American upon its release, but it was nominated for 11 Oscars and remains one of the most beloved and frequently referenced movies in Hollywood history, ranking 29th on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years … 100 Movies” list and even inspiring a classic episode of The Simpsons.
2. All the President’s Men
The movie that launched a million journalism school applications, All the President’s Men details The Washington Post’s investigation into the Watergate break-in, which ultimately led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman star as reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, but what really makes the film are the screenplay by the great writer William Goldman (“Follow the money” is his invention, not an actual quote from Deep Throat) and an entertainingly profane portrayal of Post editor Ben Bradlee by the great actor Jason Robards. And also the fact that two intrepid young reporters brought down a crooked president.
3. The Exorcist
We’ve got to have at least one film that doesn’t involve politics in here … so how about the creepiest horror flick ever made? From the crab walk to the spinning head to the notorious crucifix scene, this 1973 hit is so full of memorably disturbing moments that it became a cultural phenomenon and earned 10 Oscar nominations. The Exorcist is set in Washington, D.C., and in its final scene, Father Damian Karras (Jason Miller) throws himself from a window and down a flight of stone stairs after drawing the demon from the young girl Regan (Linda Blair). “The Exorcist steps,” located in Georgetown at the corner of Prospect Street and 36th Street NW, have been a popular attraction for film geeks ever since.
4. A Few Good Men
This list has to have some Aaron Sorkin dialogue in it—after all, he wrote TV’s signature political drama, The West Wing. For the silver screen, though, let’s go straight to the Navy’s Judge Advocate General courtrooms in Maryland’s D.C. suburbs, where Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson gave us this immortal scene.
A lot of talent went into this depiction of America’s greatest president. Director: Steven Spielberg. Star: Daniel Day-Lewis (who won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Honest Abe). Screenplay: Tony Kushner (who based his work on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Pulitzer Prize–winning biography Team of Rivals). Put it all together and you get a film that, while a bit sepia-toned, garnered 12 Oscar nominations, pulled in more than $275 million, and gave the public an insight into the skill and sacrifice that was necessary for Lincoln to shepherd his country through the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery.
St. Elmo’s Fire (the Brat Pack takes over the District); JFK (an early Oliver Stone deep dive into a political conspiracy theory—back when political conspiracy theories were fun); In the Line of Fire (if for no other reason than the scenes with Clint Eastwood and Rene Russo at the Lincoln Memorial); The Pelican Brief (a legal thriller starring Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts? Yes, please!); The Post (Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep publish the Pentagon Papers in an effort to win more Oscars).
1. “The Bourgeois Blues” by Lead Belly
Few pop musicians can match the legendary biography of Huddy Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly. The folk and blues singer and 12-string-guitarist was one of the most monumental discoveries of the Lomax brothers, who traveled the country to record folk musicians for the Library of Congress, and once sprung Ledbetter from jail in Louisiana for a session. A few years later, in 1937, Ledbetter and his wife traveled to D.C. to do some more recording, but Alan Lomax’s landlady wouldn’t allow the black couple to stay at his apartment. The Ledbetters spent the rest of the evening looking for a hotel, and Lead Belly wrote this song as an angry response to that experience and to the city’s Jim Crow laws.
2. “Chocolate City” by Parliament
“They still call it the White House, but that’s a temporary condition,” intones George Clinton on the title truck of Parliament’s 1975 album, which was dedicated to D.C. The funk pioneer goes on to imagine a brain trust including Muhammad Ali as president, James Brown as vice president, and Aretha Franklin as first lady. “God bless Chocolate City,” Clinton says as the song begins to close, “and all its vanilla suburbs.”
3. “Bustin’ Loose” by Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers
You can’t have a D.C. music roundup without go-go—the conga-infused, funky style of R&B that has become the District’s signature sound—or without Chuck Brown, the influential singer and guitarist who became known as The Godfather of Go-Go. This song, recorded with Brown’s band, the Soul Searchers, hit the charts in 1979, and it can still be heard at Nationals Park after a member of Washington’s defending World Series champion baseball team hits a home run.
4. “Christmas in Washington” by Steve Earle
Steve Earle is one of America’s most politically outspoken songwriters. In this 1997 ballad, which he wrote on the previous year’s election night, he calls out to past folk singers (Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston) and activists (Malcolm X, Emma Goldman) to “Tear [their] eyes from paradise/And rise again somehow” to help break up a sclerotic system that doesn’t seem to look out for the little guy—no matter which political party’s in charge. Earle isn’t above writing an angry song, but this one doesn’t kowtow to frustration. Instead, he offers hope: “They cannot break our will … We’re marching into Selma/As the bells of freedom ring.”
5. “DC or Nothing” by Wale
The biggest star to come out of the DMV (D.C.-Maryland-Virginia) hip hop scene, Wale grew up in Northwest D.C. and later Maryland. On this track, from his 2011 album, Ambition (executive-produced by Rick Ross), the rapper turns his eyes to the dangers of the District’s tough streets—murder, police brutality—but goes out on a positive note: “May you see your dreams allowed/Before you see them from a cloud.”
“The Washington Post” by John Philip Sousa (have to include a composition from the American March King, a D.C. native); “Banned in D.C.” by Bad Brains (an early entry from the District’s lively hardcore scene); “Washington, D.C.” by The Magnetic Fields (“Washington, D.C., it’s paradise to me,” sings Claudia Gonson, but not because of the spectacles and landmarks—rather, because “it’s just that’s where my baby waits for me”); “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” by The Postal Service (Ben Gibbard applies his lovesick template to the nation’s capital); “Welcome to DC” by Mambo Sauce (a 21st-century go-go song from a group named after D.C.’s favorite condiment? I’m in).