November 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 7
It is best to arrive in Washington on a weekend, when the official part of town seems empty. This way the high-minded architecture speaks for itself; the neat lawns, the fountain of Zeus and the maidens, the Capitol and its deserted steps belong to you without a congressman in sight. This place, which seems so utterly familiar from postcards and news backdrops, is very different on a quiet Saturday in mid-May, a little closer to the sleepy Southern capital David Brinkley recalled where, a few years before the Second World War. the White House still had no gates and “on summer days government employees had lounged on [its] lawns eating picnic lunches out of paper sacks.” I arrived several weeks after the city’s convulsions over its cherry blossom season but in time to see the azaleas full-blown. There were mockingbirds in the trees on my way from the station, but the carved generals on the public greens were Union to a man.
Despite the disgust with politics registered by pollsters, tourists crowd the capital, now as always. In his 1869 guidebook to the young capital, John B. Ellis warned visitors against con men who “represent themselves as members of Congress, or as belonging to one of the important branches of government.” I had no such trouble. Perhaps nobody wants to be taken for a member of Congress this year.
Washington, of course, evolved along a clear pattern of quadrants that, nevertheless, some visitors find confusing. “L’Enfant began his work not by laying out streets or by running survey lines,” the historian William T. Partridge wrote in 1930, “but by the selection of dominating sites.” Pierre L’Enfant may not be blamed for the system of street names, but he can be credited for the powerful placement of many buildings in the federal city, particularly the White House and Capitol. From its height the Capitol dome follows you around at night like a full moon.
To get acclimated, most tourists pile aboard trolley buses, which leave from the major hotels around town. But for the gossip-minded there is the Scandal Tour. In this unorthodox orientation members of the Gross National Product comedy revue lay out Washington for you by impersonating the town’s fallen stars as you pass the sites of their transgressions. “Gennifer Flowers” (not Donna Rice) interrupts an impassioned monologue on blondeness in America to point out the Georgetown residence where Gary Hart was staked out by reporters. I found this part particularly embarrassing when we slowed to wave at the town house’s current owner, who kept on stoically spading his front garden.
When the scandally clad characters don’t convince, you feel trapped in a failing high school skit, but most of the people on my bus laughed goodnaturedly through a fairly accurate review of unsavory events at the Watergate, the FBI building, the Vista Hotel (site of the Marion Barry arrest), and so forth. There is only a glancing reference made to the Supreme Court on the Scandal Tour, and that is to Douglas Ginsburg, who failed to make it inside. But any one of us can listen in when the Court is in session, from the first Monday in October through at least April. The Supreme Court building is at First and East Capitol streets, directly across from the front of the Capitol, where the justices used to meet in a “very badly ventilated” basement room, according to Ben Perley Poore, the nineteenth-century observer of Washington life. In Poore’s day the Court’s venue was “rich in traditions of hairpowder, queues, ruffled shirts, knee-breeches, and buckles.” Today’s sterilely classic Supreme Court building has just undergone a complete cleaning and reinforcement of its front steps, where various Depression-era treasures were found by the work crews when they pulled off the marble slabs, including a time capsule from 1935, the year Cass Gilbert’s building was completed.
Sitting in on proceedings requires only that you arrive early, at least by 7:30 A.M. On the days the Court does not meet, there are guided tours. The lecture you receive inside the court-room is, like so many in Washington, equal parts civics and a cataloguing of marble, but the building’s marble “self-supporting” spiral staircases are well worth seeing. The Court was pretty quiet when I was there, because the term was winding down, but the employees had recently endured a noisy collision with anti-abortion forces.
The standard White House tour could be called a rip-off by comparison if it weren’t also free. This line gathers early, but in the end its ratio is two hours in line to five minutes shuffling through four rooms and then out, and no pictures, please. While I hadn’t exactly thought a First Lady would take my hand and guide me through the rooms of Empire furniture, this was a dissatisfying glimpse of the palace that doesn’t offer a mitigating spectacle such as the changing of the guard. It’s interesting to see the East Room, where Presidents since Elsenhower have traditionally faced the press. In the end, though, I think the highlight of this experience was the sixth-grade jazz band that entertained the crowds as they sat out the second stage of their wait by the Ellipse. The all-girl trombone section was warbly but powerful breaking into “Born to Be Wild” as our tour number was finally called. To see the White House, you’d do better to call your congressional representative’s office months in advance for the longer and presumably better VIP tour.
It’s easier to breach the Senate, but you must have a pass, obtained by either phoning ahead or dropping by your senator’s Washington office. It is a bleacher ticket for the political junkie. To reach the Senate visitors’ gallery, you present the handsome pass and take the elevator to the third floor. After more security checks you arrive at the hushed, rectangular room. When I was there, Nancy Kassebaum (Republican, Kansas) and John McCain (Republican, Arizona) were arguing for a federal standard for aircraft liability. John Kerry (Democrat, Massachusetts) presided over the empty room in the President’s chair. Howell Heflin (Democrat, Alabama) sat in silent opposition for a few minutes, wandered out briefly as figures about Cessna’s decline and encroaching foreign competition were read into the record. The argument was deadening, but as they filed out, my fellow tourists looked satisfied by the sheer amount of detail that real work was being done.
Wandering the halls of Congress, you pass the committee rooms and statues representing the notable citizens of every state in the Union. I found most people in the halls to be jocular and friendly, if understandably pressed to reach their next committee hearing. Here and there inspirational quotes appear on the walls. “Enlighten the people generally,” Jefferson says above the saloon-style doors of the second-floor House men’s room, “And Tyranny and Oppressions of Body and Mind Will Vanish Like Evil spirits at The Dawn of Day.”
Everywhere on the first floor and out front there are color-coded knots of children touring the Congress in springtime, often with vivid, matching T-shirts; expedition leaders sometimes open umbrellas to summon their charges. The Rotunda and the intimate red-and-gold splendor of the Old Senate Chamber, where Webster articulated the idea of Union in his debate with Hayne, are often suffused with a vague perfume of one hundred girls chewing bubble gum during the short lectures.
The House visitors’ gallery, where passes are also required, offered considerably better action on this day than the Senate’s. For political theater we had it all. In an hour House members argued abortion, redistricting, the rights of the rural poor, and those of aliens. These debates were all provoked by proposed restrictions on the Legal Services Corporation, up for renewal in the Congress. I saw speaking notes theatrically cast aside in the name of “talking to each other,” and I heard Congressman Jack Brooks of Texas recount how he “went to bed one night with a North-South district” and woke up the next morning with “one that was East-West.”
You go to the game to see all the maneuvering that television misses just following the ball up and down the court. It is one thing to hear the recognized speaker of the moment on C-Span, and another to wonder why Charlie Rangel is telling a joke on the Republican side of the room, or why Barney Frank never sits down but glides around giving cues to his teammates, or why my representative, Charles Schumer of Brooklyn, would be caught even chatting with Newt Gingrich, who lives in another political universe. It’s politics, the big important game. Television can’t take in all the gritty work of making law, and neither can you, really. But a day spent in the galleries feels reassuring, all the same. “Ooh, there’s Pat,” whispered the daughter of the Colorado couple beside me as Pat Schroeder entered the room beaming. “Doesn’t she look nice?” answered the mother. After noting Representative Schroeder’s vote on the redistricting amendment, the family called it a day.