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Three words that changed U.S. politics

How "bridge to nowhere" shaped an election, and the Congress.

By BILL ADAIR
Published April 1, 2007


WASHINGTON - Like so many Washington tales, this one begins in a bar.

Keith Ashdown, the spokesman and chief sloganeer for a watchdog group, had been stewing about how to describe Alaska's Gravina Island Bridge in a news release. He wanted a catchy phrase that expressed the huge cost and dubious need for the milelong span.

Then, as he stood beneath a Miller Lite sign at a bar called the Hawk 'n' Dove, he had a brainstorm.

"Bridge to nowhere!"

Four years later, the phrase has done what few political slogans can do. It shaped public opinion, influenced an election and pressured Congress to change its rules.

Mentioned hundreds of times in newspapers, on TV and at countless dinner tables, it became shorthand for political pork and a Congress that was out of touch.

"It was an extraordinarily powerful image," said Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Bartow. "It became a metaphor for a Republican majority that had lost its way on fiscal responsibility."

Language columnist William Safire called it "the phrase that launched a thousand editorials." Columnist George Will wrote after the November election: "Republicans now know where the bridge to nowhere leads: to the political wilderness."

This is the story of three words that changed American politics.

'Pillow-talk pork'

Ashdown is an unlikely Washington power broker.

He has never held elected office, he's not a lawyer and he rarely wears a tie. A stocky 34-year-old with a deep voice and a belly built by beer, he looks more linebacker than lobbyist.

He works for Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington group that opposes corruption and government waste. He plays a unique role in the Washington power structure: part detective, part press agent.

He gets tips about government shenanigans, verifies them, and then passes them to reporters with snappy quotes they can't resist. He described a project that helped a lawmaker's wife as "pillow-talk pork" and said Pentagon officials have "spent money like Paris Hilton at a shoe sale."

Better than most in the nation's capital, Ashdown understands that the fewest words often say the most. That's why on that night at the bar in December 2002, he was determined to find just the right ones.

The Golden Fleece

He had learned of the Gravina Island Bridge a year earlier from an Alaskan environmentalist. He decided the $190-million bridge would be good for the Golden Fleece, a legendary award for dubious federal spending.

The bridge would link the greater Ketchikan area, which has about 13,000 residents, with an island of 50 inhabitants that is home to the town's airport. It would replace a passenger ferry, but its main purpose was to encourage development on the island.

"It was really a bridge to the future of the community," said Blaine Ashcraft, executive director of the Greater Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce.

Ashdown saw a boondoggle. His challenge was to make an obscure Alaskan bridge interesting, to find colorful words that would break through the din of messages competing for the public's attention.

He was by no means the first to use the phrase "bridge to nowhere." It has been used for decades to describe unpopular bridges, including spans from Pittsburgh to Pensacola.

On June 12, 2003, Ashdown issued a press release announcing the Golden Fleece award was going to Rep. Don Young, the Alaska Republican who sponsored the bridge. At first, it looked like the effort was off to a great start. Within hours, the Associated Press in Alaska published a story. But the phrase did not appear.

Months went by. No one used the phrase.

Ashdown was discouraged. All that work and all he had to show for it was one measly AP story.

'A little oinker'

In the spring of 2004, Ashdown got a call from Timothy Egan of the New York Times, who was writing a story about the Gravina bridge and another one known as Knik Arm in Anchorage. During several interviews with Egan, Ashdown said "bridge to nowhere" at least 40 times.

Egan's story, "Built With Steel, Perhaps, but Greased With Pork," ran on the front page of the Times on Saturday, April 10, 2004. It marked the media debut of the phrase Ashdown, in Paragraph 16: "It's a gold-plated bridge to nowhere ..." and it portrayed the bridge as part of a money-grab by Alaska's congressional delegation. Egan quoted Young, who chaired the powerful transportation committee, boasting that he wanted to be "a little oinker."

Once again, it looked like Ashdown's phrase was about to take off. The next day, on Meet the Press, when Sen. John McCain was asked about boosting military spending without increasing the deficit, he complained about "bridges to nowhere in Alaska."

But again it fell flat.

Despite Ashdown's salesmanship, the bridge to nowhere wasn't ready for prime time. The span was merely a proposal and had not been approved by Congress. The 2004 presidential campaign was dominating the news and voters weren't especially bothered about political pork.

Smoking pot?

In the summer of 2005, when Congress began considering a highway bill, there was an uptick of interest in the bridge. Journalists repeated the phrase in stories that skewered the pork-laden bill.

At this point, Alaska leaders might have been able to quash the controversy if they had given a cogent defense of the bridge. The state had been blessed with two lawmakers who had the clout to get millions for the bridge - Young and Sen. Ted Stevens. But they also happened to be two of the most mercurial lawmakers in the U.S. Capitol.

As criticism mounted, Young, who had boasted that he stuffed the bill "like a turkey," told the Associated Press that, "These people keep saying it's nowhere, they're just smoking pot."

The opposition was gaining ground, but not quickly enough. Congress passed Young's highway bill, with the bridge tucked inside. On Aug. 10, the president signed it into law.

The tale of Ashdown's phrase might have ended here. But two stories gave it new life.

Duke Cunningham, a California lawmaker under investigation, had drawn attention to congressional pork because he had earmarked money for a defense contractor in return for bribes. Then along came Hurricane Katrina. As cost estimates for the hurricane soared, lawmakers on Capitol Hill began looking for expensive federal projects that could be cut or delayed.

The bridge to nowhere was the perfect target.

'Kiss my ear'

Suddenly, Ashdown's phrase exploded in the media.

In editorials, op-ed columns and TV news shows, the bridge was cited as a case study of federal priorities that were out of whack. As McCain said on CNN, "Do the American people want their tax dollars to go to the victims of Hurricane Katrina - and now Rita - or do they want it to go to a bridge to nowhere?"

An editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch groused about the highway bill "larded with pork barrel public works projects like bridges to Nowhere, Alaska." A letter to the editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press declared that "$200-million bridges to nowhere in Alaska and other outrageous pork projects have to be eliminated."

Young sneered at his critics' suggestion that he give back the money.

"They can kiss my ear," he said.

In the Senate, Tom Coburn, R-Okla., proposed cutting federal money from the Gravina and Knik Arm bridges and directing much of it to repair a span in Louisiana damaged by the hurricane. Coburn said it was "time for us to change our priorities."

Stevens, in an emotional, fist-pounding speech, said Coburn was attacking not the bridges, but Alaska itself. He thundered that it was wrong for a senator to steal another senator's pork.

"I will put the Senate on notice - and I don't kid people - if the Senate decides to discriminate against our state and take money only from our state, I will resign from this body."

Stevens defeated the amendment 82-15.

But he hadn't stopped the growing furor around the nation.

Pop status

Three weeks later, Parade magazine, circulation 34-million, cemented the pop status for the bridge with a cover story titled, "A Visit to The Bridge to Nowhere."

That marked a turning point when the phrase reached critical mass and began to have serious political consequences. Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., was so worried that he wrote to House Speaker Dennis Hastert warning that the phrase was damaging their party.

"Ask anyone what the 'bridges to nowhere' are and they will tell you they are a serious example of a Republican Congress bringing home some of the most expensive bacon in history on the taxpayers' dime," Flake wrote.

Across the nation, in campaign events and town hall meetings, members of Congress heard a chorus of complaints about the bridge to nowhere. It seemed everyone knew about it.

On the CBS-TV drama Threshold, one of the characters spoke derisively of the government paying for "bridges to nowhere." In the St. Petersburg Times, a letter to the editor used the phrase to lambast government funding for a bridge on the 15th hole at the Dunedin Country Club.

Ashdown's phrase spawned imitators. There was the "wall to nowhere" (the border fence between the United States and Mexico), the "runway to nowhere" (at the St. Louis airport) and the "railway to nowhere" (a rail line in Mississippi).

But Rep. Young, oblivious to the growing PR problem, scoffed at the criticism and disputed Flake's claim that the bridge was harming their party.

"He hasn't got any traction," Young told the Anchorage Daily News. "He's a dog lying on ice right now: He's scratching a lot but he doesn't go anywhere."

In Ketchikan, community leaders were frustrated. In their view, the news media distorted the story, but they couldn't agree on how to respond and opted to say little.

As a result, the national debate remained lopsided. The critics kept attacking, but Stevens, Young and the Ketchikan leaders failed to mount a forceful response.

Collateral damage

Congressional leaders had tried to quell the controversy by removing the earmarks for Gravina and Knik Arm from a spending bill, but they did not cut Alaska's transportation money by the same amount, so the state was still free to build the bridges with federal dollars.

The phrase, fueled by the Parade cover story, a segment on ABC's 20/20 and countless mentions on talk radio, kept spreading. As the 2006 campaigns got underway, Flake's prediction was coming true: The bridge had become a serious political liability.

Amazingly, a bridge to a tiny Alaska island was now an issue in House and Senate races in Rhode Island, Michigan, New York and Minnesota. It came up in debates and was a dependable attack line against Republican incumbents.

Brian Riedl, an analyst with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, said the phrase was as evocative as the $400 hammer that symbolized Pentagon waste in the 1980s.

In Rhode Island, Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee was pummeled from the right and the left for voting with Stevens on the bridge. The conservative Club for Growth ran TV ads that blasted him for supporting "that bridge to nowhere boondoggle up in Alaska." Chafee ended up losing his seat. Analysts say the bridge was a factor.

Nationally, the phrase also played a role in the Democrats seizing control of Congress. The Iraq war and disapproval of President Bush were the main forces, but the strong public disapproval of the Republican Congress - fueled by the phrase Ashdown conceived in a bar four years earlier - played its part.

Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the Cook Political Report, said the phrase drove home the message, "Republicans were not being good stewards of your tax dollars."

When the Democrats took over in January, their first order of business was to change House rules to require more disclosure of individual projects like bridges. The rule change reflected a remarkable cultural shift on Capitol Hill, that political pork was no longer universally popular.

Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., said his party heard a clear message from the November elections: No more bills for special interests and "no more bridges built to nowhere."

Epilogue

Ashdown has become a minor celebrity in Washington and is introduced at cocktail parties as the guy who coined the phrase. He resists the notion that the bridge to nowhere is his masterpiece, hopeful that some day he'll dream up something even better.

Friends often ask him to concoct a phrase for them. "We need a title like a bridge to nowhere. Got anything?"

But despite his success in branding the slogan and changing public views on political pork, Congress is back to its old ways. To pass a spending bill a week ago, the Democratic leadership stuffed it with pork in true Don Young-Ted Stevens style.

Ketchikan leaders still hope the bridge will go somewhere. But they fear state officials have lost their enthusiasm. The governor's new budget did not provide any money for the project.

Ashcraft, of the Ketchikan chamber, says he's concerned that the state's elected officials "are starting to grow weary of the battle."

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Bill Adair can be reached at adair@sptimes.com or (202) 463-0575.