Ideas

Ideas | Mark Peters

D.C. gives swamps a bad name

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 31: White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon waits for the arrival of U.S. President Donald Trump for a meeting on cyber security in the Roosevelt Room at the White House January 31, 2017 in Washington, DC. Citing the hack of computers at the Democratic National Committee by Russia, Trump said that the private and public sectors must do more to prevent and protect against cyber attacks. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Steve Bannon at the White House.

In real life, swamps aren’t so bad.

On “60 Minutes” last weekend, former White House adviser Steve Bannon claimed that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants President Trump to stop describing Washington, D.C., as a hopeless bog of venality. “I don’t want to hear any more of this ‘drain the swamp’ talk,” McConnell supposedly said.

Trump and his supporters have long portrayed the capital as soaked with corruption and dismissed D.C. insiders as “swamp creatures.” Sometimes this lingo gets downright virtuosic. Recently on “Fox & Friends,” former Secret Service agent Dan Bongino called McConnell an “upper-crust, bow-tie-wearing, foie-gras-eating insider swamp monster.” Though the right has made more noise lately about swamps,

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Americans of varying ideological stripes have been using the metaphor for years. Etymologist Barry Popik has traced it back to a use in 1912 by Victor L. Berger, who likened capitalism to mosquito-borne malaria: “We should have to drain the swamp — change the capitalist system — if we want to get rid of those mosquitos.” Ronald Reagan used “drain the swamp” in 1983, referring to big government, while Donald Rumsfeld applied the term to terrorism after 9/11. Popik quotes a saying, circa 1970, that may inspire some sympathy for politicians: “When you’re up to your [rear] in alligators, it’s easy to forget you came to drain the swamp.”

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This conception of swamps as disorienting — even terrifying — also comes from Hollywood, as evidenced by such B movies as 1966’s “Curse of the Swamp Creature” (1966), “The Legend of Boggy Creek” (1972), “Creature from Black Lake” (1976), and “Swamp Devil” (2008). These films are inspired by legends of supposed real-life swampies: They’re drippier versions of Bigfoot, the Jersey Devil, and the Yeti.

In reality, the equation of government shenanigans and soupy wildlife isn’t fair to the wildlife. William Clark, who chairs of the board of trustees of the Okefenokee Swamp Park, a nonprofit located in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge near Waycross, Ga., is an expert in why swamps are important. In an interview, Clark describes Okefenokee as “a beautiful and pristine ecosystem that offers a haven for endangered species of wading birds, such as heron, cranes and ibises, as well as the natural habitat for hundreds of species of carnivorous plants, insects, fishing spiders, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles, especially frogs, snakes and alligators.”

The Okefenokee is the largest blackwater swamp in North America, but Clark said all swamps are important: “the loss of any watershed, including the loss of a swamp, is a loss to the entire local environment.” Indeed, recent weather events in Florida and Texas have renewed a national debate about draining swamps for agricultural or residential use.

Perhaps that bodes well for literal swamp creatures, such as the swamp rabbit (Sylvilagus aquaticus). This large cottontail, found in the Gulf Coast and other southern regions, is a terrific swimmer that can live nine years if it avoids a long list of predators and its swamp remains undrained. This boggy bunny is cute and harmless — two adjectives seldom applied to swamp critters from the District of Columbia.

Mark Peters is the Ideas language writer.