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Inside D.C.'s Long, Elaborate History Of Toasting

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Paul Dickson, author of Toasts: Over 1,500 of the Best Toasts, Sentiments, Blessings, and Graces, with an authentic Gin Rickey at D.C.’s Round Robin Bar.
Rebecca Sheir
Paul Dickson, author of Toasts: Over 1,500 of the Best Toasts, Sentiments, Blessings, and Graces, with an authentic Gin Rickey at D.C.’s Round Robin Bar.

At Washington's Round Robin Bar, over an ice-cold Gin Rickey, the District's signature drink, historian Paul Dickson pontificates on the historical significance of toasts in D.C.

"They've always being totally co-mingled with politics," says the author of Toasts: "Over 1,500 of the Best Toasts, Sentiments, Blessings, and Graces." "And one of the things about toasting would be whether you fast-forward to today, or you go back to the earliest days of the republic, it was always a moment of bi-partisan celebration.

"You would say, you know, 'Here's to the Union.' [It] could be that simple. 'Congress, Courage, and Cash.'"

Dickson says toasting came to prominence in D.C. as President George Washington was leaving office.

"There was such a love of the man that they composed these 13 toasts in honor of Washington, in honor of the Declaration of Independence, in honor of the United States," Dickson says. "These were done all through the 19th century."

But in the mid-20th century, he says, "toasts sort of drifted away from the sort of short 15-20-25 word salutary. You know: 'This is to our future, this is to our children's future.' Often very simple, but heartfelt."

Instead, he says, "there was this epidemic of really bad toasts and toasts that went on for a long time."

One of Dickson's favorite long toasts was given by the president of Mexico in 1979.

"[He] was ticked off at the United States for something, and gave a toast in which he enumerated all the crimes in the United States over the last couple of hundred years," he says. "President Carter was the recipient of this toast, and all he could think to do is to propose a toast in which he mentions Montezuma's Revenge! It created a diplomatic furor!"

But a longer toast that represented a real breakthrough in American diplomacy came in 1984, when the premier of China was in Washington, D.C.

"[He] gives a 700-word toast about the United States and China and it signals the warming of relationships between the United States and China," Dickson says. "That's the moment in which everybody says, 'Ah. Maybe I'll work with these guys!'"

One of Dickson's favorite short quotes from Washington history arose during Prohibition: "Here's to Prohibition, the devil take it. They've stolen our wine, so now we make it."

Another favorite involves the old Washington Senators ball club: "Here's to Washington. First in war, first in peace, last in the American League."

Dickson also points to interesting local toasting customs. One involved the Temperance Fountain dedicated by Henry D. Cogswell.

"[He] dedicated these all over America," Dickson says. "They were water fountains and [one is] right down here at Pennsylvania and 7th, and it's still there, and it still bubbles water. So there would be people every year that would toast to abstinence. They would go there with a glass of water and that was another local custom."

When asked what makes for a perfect toast, Dickson recommends brevity, rehearsal and... stealing.

"If you're stuck for good language, don't be afraid to steal from other people," he advises. "Steal from Browning or Shakespeare or Dickens."

Dickson also suggests being whimsical, kind and celebratory.

"You're trying to make people in the room feel together and you're trying to elevate it. You're trying to elevate the room," he says. "You're not trying to say something snide or snippy. And you want to leave there with literally the feeling you've left a verbal souvenir--a piece of yourself on the table that these people will take away and remember for a long time."

And we here at Metro Connection definitely drink to that!


[Music: "One For My Baby" by Chuck Berry from The Chess Years]

Photos: Inside D.C.'s Long, Elaborate History of Toasting

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