A brief history of hubristic drape-measuring

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In Thursday's Washington Post, Richard Leiby digs into the background of a political cliche: "measuring (for) drapes." In his stump speech, John McCain says that "Senator Obama is measuring the drapes," meaning that he is already presumptuously planning how to decorate the White House. President Bush used the line about Congressional Democrats before the 2006 midterm elections, and Bush the elder applied it to Bill Clinton in the 1992 campaign. Leiby took the drape expression back to a 1980 reference in the New York Times on John Anderson ("Obviously, it's much too soon for Mr. Anderson to start measuring for drapes at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue"), but its roots actually go back for several decades before that, as befits such a sturdy cliche.

The expression turns up with drapes or curtains used interchangeably, which may offend interior decorators ("Drapes are pleated and are more formal, whereas curtains are informal and generally gathered," says Well Dressed Windows), but the distinction matters not a stitch to most of us. Putting up new drapes (or curtains) in the White House has traditionally been seen as an appropriate task for a new First Lady, along with picking out china patterns and other domestic busywork. (Jacqueline Kennedy was perhaps the most famous White House decorator, and on Jan. 17, 1961 Helen Thomas of the UPI noted that Mrs. Kennedy "brushed aside questions about fashion but said she already has ordered fabric for curtains and slipcovers at the White House and the Kennedy weekend home at Middleburg, Va.").

An early example of a hubristic First Lady-in-waiting was Martha Taft, wife of Senator Robert Taft, the early favorite for the 1940 Republican presidential nomination. Martha spoke too soon in February 1940, since her husband didn't even manage to get the party nod, losing out to Wendell Wilkie:

Martha Taft is sure that "Bob is going to get it." She is ready to answer questions in regular stump style, though she refuses to say whether she will change the drawing-room drapes in the White House.
(St. Petersburg, Fla.) Evening Independent, Feb 19, 1940, p. 11

In the 1968 presidential campaign, the full-blown drapery joke appeared at least twice. The first time came in April, shortly after Lyndon Johnson dropped out of the race, opening up the Democratic field to Robert Kennedy among others. Jack Wilson, in his syndicated "Potomac Fever" column, wrote:

Naturally Bobby wanted to talk to the President as soon as possible — he had to fix it so Ethel could get in to measure for curtains.
Albuquerque (N.M.) Journal, Apr. 9, 1968, p. 4

Then in late October, Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey used it to deride his opponent Richard Nixon at a rally in downtown Los Angeles:

Humphrey, almost hoarse from shouting, accused Nixon of "playing president."
"Why he's even been to Washington … to look at the White House … and measure for drapes," Humphrey quipped.
(Van Nuys, Calif.) Valley News, Oct. 25, 1968, p. 31A

The joke got transferred to state gubernatorial races too. In 1970, David F. Cargo had served two terms as governor of New Mexico and couldn't stand for reelection. That allowed him to joke about his eager potential successors in the state legislature:

Governor Cargo prefaced his message to the Legislature by inviting all of the legislators and their wives to a reception at the executive residence at 8 o'clock last night. He commented that this would give an opportunity for some of them to measure the curtains, an amusing reference to the number of gubernatorial hopefuls who have received public mention.
The (Santa Fe) New Mexican, Jan. 21, 1970, p. 4

The drapery joke got a boost from the Watergate scandal, as speculation increased about Nixon's resignation, despite Vice President Ford's insistence that he had no interest in taking over the White House. In April 1974, Art Buchwald imagined this conversation between Gerald and Betty Ford:

"What are all those swatches on the floor?"
"I was just looking at drapery material. You know the drapes in the Lincoln room are so ugly."
"Why are you looking at drapery material for the Lincoln room, Betty?"
"You have to order this stuff six months in advance. You can't just get them by calling up Macy's."
"Betty, I don't think you should be ordering drapes for the White House, even if it takes six months to get them. If I've told you once I've told you a hundred times there is absolutely no way I will be President of the United States."
"Then why do you keep standing in front of a mirror every night in a morning coat with your hand on a Bible repeating 'So help me God.'"
Washington Post, Apr. 21, 1974, p. H1

Then columnist Arthur Hoppe used the joke in reference to the Fords in August of that year, just before Nixon announced his resignation. Hoppe casts the Ford family in a sitcom, and has Betty say this to the kids:

Now, children, you know your Dad doesn't want to be President. And as I tell reporters several times a day, I've never given a thought to becoming First Lady. Which reminds me, those awful drapes in The Oval Office are really going to have to be replaced.
–The (Oil City, Penn.) Derrick
, Aug. 9, 1974, p. 4

The joke was used in 1975 by Earl Dodge, vice-presidential candidate for the National Prohibition Party (who knew prohibitionists even still existed then?) to strike a note of humility:

"My wife hasn't started to measure for drapes in Nelson Rockefeller's house." said Dodge. 43. of Lakewood, Colo. "I have no illusions or delusions."
(Mansfield, Ohio) News Journal, June 28, 1975

In a 1976 Chicago Tribune profile of Donald Rumsfeld, who had just been named Secretary of Defense by Ford, Henry Kissinger poked fun at the young man's ambitions:

Kissinger had quipped that he found it necessary to announce that he was signing on with Ford through '76 because "Something had to be done. Mrs. (Elliott) Richardson and Mrs. Laird were running in and out of my office measuring it for curtains, and Rumsfeld too was coming in to measure."
Chicago Tribune, Jan. 4, 1976, p. I12

In 1978 the joke traveled north of the border, as used in a Canadian political cartoon described in this UPI report:

Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau sits scowling in an armchair at home as Conservative Party leader Joe Clark — his wife Maureen busying herself in the background — leans over and says, "We have come to measure the curtains."
Hartford Courant, Dec. 22, 1978, p. C27

Along with Canada, the cliche spread to the U.K. and Australia as well:

[Neil Kinnock] went on to mention … his own remarks made last year about it being time to measure the curtains at Number 10.
The Guardian, May 16, 1986

Put another way, if Mr. Bouchard loses, John Turner can start measuring the drapes at 24 Sussex Drive.
The Globe and Mail, June 16, 1988

A competent Opposition, led by a credible leader, would already be measuring the curtains in the ministerial offices.
Sydney Morning Herald, Mar. 23, 1990

And in the U.S. it popped up in various local races throughout the '80s:

Anyone looking for evidence that a 1986 Senate race is under way between Gov. Bob Graham and Sen. Paula Hawkins would have discovered plenty last week, but in Washington, D.C., not Florida. … The governor came up in midweek to discuss the state's interest in federal immigration issues and, I suspect, to measure for curtains in the Senate office.
Miami Herald, Feb. 3, 1985

"I can't tell you that I'm measuring the curtains for the governor's mansion," [Alabama state GOP executive director Marty] Connors said, "but what we are witnessing is the birth of the two-party system in Alabama."
Los Angeles Times, Aug. 8, 1986

Before [New York City mayoral candidate David] Dinkins starts measuring for curtains at Gracie Mansion, however, a few caveats are in order.
Washington Post, Feb. 12, 1989

[Utah Governor Norm] Bangerter, [chief of staff H.E. "Bud"] Scruggs said, has warned the leader of the House "what he was going to do if he caught him measuring for drapes or carpet one more time."
(Salt Lake City, Utah) Deseret News, Feb 14, 1989

It's surprising that anyone would dare utter the cliche seriously before an election, but it was used that way about the first President Bush:

While Republicans like Gov. Michael Castle of Delaware exulted that "I think Bush can start measuring the curtains for the White House," the mood among Democrats was somber.
New York Times, Oct. 15, 1988

Even after the '88 election, Barbara Bush felt that it would be presumptuous to start thinking about White House drapery, as George Plimpton wrote at the time:

Barbara Bush feels that sizing up the Rose Garden now would be like measuring for drapes before the Reagans have moved out of the White House.
Sports Illustrated, Dec. 26, 1988

The Bushes then further cemented the cliche in American political parlance, as noted by Leiby. But by then this hoary chestnut had already traveled far and wide.

[Update: Welcome, readers of the New York Times political blog, The Caucus.]

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14 Comments »

  1. Brandon said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 3:51 pm

    On a tangential note: "interior decorators" is a somewhat offensive term within the profession, as most of them prefer to be called "interior designers."

  2. Jan Freeman said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 4:05 pm

    Drapes vs. curtains nowadays designates more formal vs. less formal, but "drapes" was socially taboo for some decades. In the 1950 edition of "Etiquette," Emily Post says:

    Drapes — this word is an inexcusable vulgarism.
    Curtains are hung at a window; "hangings" as decoration of walls. It is true draperies would be correct for many loopings or shirrings or pleatings, especially on a woman's dress.

    (There's no mention of drapes in the 1922 edition of Post, so presumably the usage problem had not yet arisen.)

    Miss Manners, at least as late as 1983, concurs, calling "drapes" and "drapery" faux-elegant commercial words.

  3. Kevin Iga said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 5:06 pm

    By the way, the National Prohibition Party is apparently still alive:
    http://www.prohibition.org/
    and here's their nominee for president:
    http://www.geneamondson.com/prohibition-party-2004.html

  4. Donald Jurney said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 6:31 pm

    On page 186 of "White Ethnic New York," author Joshua Weitz writes of Mario Procaccino during his losing 1969 election contest against John Lindsay for Mayor of New York: "“Another quip popular among the self-styled learned classes held that Procaccino planned to replace the rugs at Gracie Mansion with linoleum….”
    This was also the election in which Procaccino coined the phrase "limousine liberals."

  5. Nathan Myers said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 7:50 pm

    Is the topic restricted to political application? I would be amazed to find the idiom originated there, and not in the gold-digging matrimonial or heritability sphere.

  6. Aaron Davies said,

    October 26, 2008 @ 12:27 am

    There was a Simpsons (or possibly Family Guy?) episode during Clinton's impeachment that had Gore standing behind Clinton in the Oval Office, measuring the windows, with Clinton asking him to stop.

  7. Graham Nelson said,

    October 26, 2008 @ 6:30 am

    The joke also exists, occasionally, in England – for instance in the 1980s satirical television programme "Yes, Prime Minister" (the title is ironic since the theme is of the civil service thwarting everything that politicians want to do):

    Aide. …either that, or get the Leader of the Opposition's wife over here.

    Prime Minister. Why, what can she do?

    Aide. Measure up for curtains.

    We don't say "drapes" over here, of course. It's an interesting example of a joke that would be difficult to frame in America, in quite the same way, because there's no ready phrase to describe "the current leading rival for the Presidency from the other party" – in the UK, the "Leader of the Opposition" is a recognised position, always in existence; the US only has "the other party's nominee", I guess, and even then only for a few months at a time. So in the US, you need to name the wife in question.

  8. Ralph Hickok said,

    October 26, 2008 @ 8:57 am

    I guess in the US the leader of the opposition might be the House minority leader, who stands to become speaker of the house if his or her party takes control. Obviously, though, the two roles aren't equivalent, since the speaker of the house belongs to the legislative, not the executive branch.

  9. alex boulton said,

    October 26, 2008 @ 2:02 pm

    I always thought the difference in this sense was simply US "drapes" & GB "curtains".

    The OED says "drapes" is "chiefly North American", dating citations back to 1895; "curtain" goes back to the 12th C, though specifically for windows only to 1704.

    Live & learn.

  10. Alexandra Galibert said,

    October 26, 2008 @ 2:28 pm

    Dear Alex Boulton, I think the difference is that "drapes" means "curtains" in the US and "wall hangings" in GB.

  11. James Wimberley said,

    October 26, 2008 @ 4:12 pm

    Why does the joke involve measurements? I assume the White House (10 Downing Street, Elysée..) staff has them all on file from previous decorating crises.

  12. tablogloid said,

    October 27, 2008 @ 2:54 pm

    There is more drapery news from Canada.
    In ice hockey, a well delivered body check to an opponent on the rink is known as "draped up on the boards".

  13. tablogloid said,

    October 27, 2008 @ 2:56 pm

    If you don't get to measure the drapes, it's curtains for you.

  14. marie-lucie said,

    October 28, 2008 @ 11:14 pm

    James Wimberley, that's the point of the joke! The next (or would-be) occupants are seen as indecently eager to take possession of the place, as if moving to a new house they have just bought and for which they need to order curtains. Besides, as someone said, it is not the curtains/drapes you have to measure, but the window.

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