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Say what you will, it was fun

Washington Post

What else to do this week but peruse the various year-end quote compilations of 2005? And, as always, what fun.

Among the menu items: Howard Dean hating Republicans, Pat Robertson calling for the head of the Venezuelan president, Vice President Dick Cheney swearing in -- not at -- reelected Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Sen. Richard J. Durbin becoming the latest pol to learn that Nazi comparisons never work, Kanye West saying George W. Bush doesn’t care about black people, Bush saying we must fix Social Security (“or Rumsfeld may never retire”) and “Scooter” Libby waxing pastoral about aspens turning in fall and how it was time for Miss Run Amok (reporter Judith Miller) to return to her job (this was a few months before it was time for him to leave his).

Such lists fill space and turn pages in December -- like aspens turn in fall. The quotes run together, a blur of insurgencies in their last throes (Cheney) and victory notions in Iraq being “just plain wrong” (Dean).

There is no design to any of this, intelligent or otherwise.

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Over time, most quotes will recede from memory. (“In a month,” declared Sen. Trent Lott, “who will remember the name Harriet Miers?,” etc.) But some utterances will live on, intentional or not.

What were the best quotes of 2005? Oh, so many, according to our panel of experts -- a bipartisan group of Astute Washington Observers whose opinions we value greatly and, more importantly, who were responsive during a week when self-respecting AWOs are keeping their BlackBerrys holstered.

But this being zero-sum Washington, it’s not enough to simply compile a “best of” list. This town craves one winner, a front-runner quote that dominates all others. And that winner is -- ohhh, not so fast.

By narrative convention, we’ll start with the runners-up in a naked attempt to build drama and make you read to the end.

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“Let me start by telling you this: I have never used steroids. Period.”

-- Rafael Palmeiro,

chemically enhanced slugger, to a congressional panel. The now-former Oriole tested positive for you-know-what a few months later. But thanks for playing, Raffy. And extra credit for jabbing your finger in the air for emphasis.

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“Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, you don’t even -- you’re glib. You don’t even know what Ritalin is. If you start talking about chemical imbalance, you have to evaluate and read the research papers on how they came up with these theories, Matt, OK? That’s what I’ve done.... You don’t know the history of psychiatry. I do.”

-- Dr. Tom Cruise,

in an interview with Matt Lauer on NBC’s “Today” show

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Coupled with the sofa-jumping on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” as Scientology’s leading man declared his love for Katie Holmes, this exchange fed an impression of a dude unhinged, or off his Ritalin.

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Too-Good-to-Skip Dept.:

“I took a poo in the woods hunched over like an animal. It was awesome.”

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-- Drew Barrymore,

on MTV’s celeb eco tour, “Trippin’ ”

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Partisan Provocation Dept.:

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“They all behave the same. They all look the same. It’s pretty much a white Christian party.”

-- Howard Dean,

now head of the Democratic National Committee, generalizing about Republicans

Given that Dean is also on record as saying he hates Republicans (“and everything they stand for”), one can imagine some of them hate him back.

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But that would be wrong.

“It would be unfair not to give the honor to Howard Dean,” GOP lobbyist Ed Rogers says, casting his vote for quote of the year. “He is probably the most quoted DNC chairman ever. Quoted by Republicans, that is.”

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“What I’m hearing, which is sort of scary, is that they all want to stay in Texas. Everybody is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. So many people in this arena, here, you know, were underprivileged, so this is working very well for them.”

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-- Barbara Bush,

while visiting Katrina evacuees in the Houston Astrodome

“Gotta be Bar,” Democratic strategist Jim Jordan says. “All you need to know about the worldviews of 41 and 43 is that the family matriarch believes, and says, that hurricane-ravaged poor folks, who’ve lost loved ones and what little else they have in the world, have caught a lucky break to be camping out in the Astrodome.”

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As a general rule, the most durable quotes don’t require the media to keep replaying them or a hostile opposition to keep reminding everyone of them. Rather, they stand on their own absurdity, famous last words that hang naturally from the necks of their authors. All the better if they are uttered with conviction, from a bully pulpit.

This year provided another classic in the famous-last-words category. It is the slam-dunk, read-my-lips, I-did-not-have-sexual-relations-with-that-woman 2005 doozy, a Cat 5 quote for the ages:

“Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job.”

-- President Bush,

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during his first visit to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, commending then-FEMA head Michael D. Brown

Really, it was never even close. The president’s vote of confidence had all the markings: Patently false, it came during a widely viewed event, was uttered by a prominent speaker, played to an unflattering caricature (of both people) and packed supreme irony. Within days, Brownie was no longer doing any job, never mind a heckuva one.

It also bestowed a belittling one-word nickname that would eliminate “Michael Brown” from any future discussion of the doomed Master of Disaster.

Plus: Brownie’s white dress shirt was buttoned too high and pressed too well for a hurricane.

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Plus: Brownie’s e-mails would eventually make him look worse.

“I got it at Nordstroms,” Brownie wrote of his outfit while Katrina was bearing down on the Gulf Coast. Then he added: “Are you proud of me? Can I quit now? Can I go home?”

Yes, yes and yes, Brownie.

But we digress. Back to the presidential money quote:

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“I think for both concision and cluelessness, Bush wins hands down,” says Ted Widmer, a history professor at Washington College in Chestertown, Md., and a White House speechwriter during the Clinton administration. “It’s very efficient,” Widmer says. “It packs maximal inaccuracy into minimal expression.”

An added bonus of “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job” is that it will live forever in the lexicon of disingenuous boss-speak. Who will ever hear the words “You’re doing a heckuva job” again without half expecting to be frog-marched out of the office a few days later?

On that note, have a heckuva New Year, everyone. And watch what you say.


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