WASHINGTON, D.C.: I spent the week before last there, wandering the White House, watching a House session, checking out the so-called insider bars, and trying to see what makes this city tick.
It’s many things: company town; tourist town; two-party town; full-scale party town; a seething mix of very smart, powerful, ambitious people; and, for me, an illustrated history book.
On our long-awaited White House tour, daughter Wendy, son Barclay, and I fantasized that we’d run into President Obama and Michelle in a hallway and chat, but no luck. After clearing heavy security, we joined other tourists wandering the route-appointed rooms, splendidly carpeted and adorned with lovely furnishings, portraits, and huge chandeliers.
The only sign I saw of the fire set by invading British (the War of 1812 and all that) was a charred sandstone doorway in the basement where cooks were preparing a meal — not part of the regular tour.
Since the Obamas lifted the age-old ban on photographs, people were quietly shooting selfies. (No, the tour doesn’t include the Oval Office.)
But the famed legislative sausage grinding of lawmaking goes on inside the Capitol building. Thanks to passes from Congressmember Lois Capps, we watched the House assemble for a vote on a drug bill — with the election coming up, you’ve got to answer the call.
They’d done their homework, so the voting by cards inserted in electronic counting devices went fairly quickly. They arrived, stood around schmoozing — Republicans on one side of the aisle, Democrats on the other. Rep. Capps, who’s retiring after this session, was there. Minutes later, with the crack of the Speaker’s gavel, it was over, and they all trailed out. All that was missing, someone remarked, was the alcohol.
The Capitol corridors, awash with chattering schoolchildren and tourists just hours earlier, were empty, echoing marble chambers as we walked out, alone except for a few guards.
The third branch of government, the Supreme Court, resides in a (pretentious or impressive; you pick the word) neoclassical, be-columned “temple of justice” that features a cafeteria open to the public, where we ate — not in the company of any of the justices — and a fifth-floor gym that includes, for basketball players, what’s been dubbed “the highest court in the land.”
The place is hardly historic, only dating to 1935, and architect Cass Gilbert petitioned Italian dictator Benito Mussolini to make sure that the Siena marble was of top-grade.
D.C. was swarming with bands of high school students, climbing the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and walking paths of Arlington National Cemetery, where we watched the eternal flame flicker over the grave of assassinated president John F. Kennedy.
Raindrops fell like tears on the solemn, dark wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. In D.C., war is always with you, including the World War II and Korean War monuments and others.
The 555-foot-high, phallus-likeWashington Monument is visible from just about anywhere in D.C., and if you’re lucky, you can ride to the top. We weren’t. Probably the most popular of the Mall museums is the Air and Space Museum, where you could easily spend a full day, or week.
Another mecca for crowds of kids was the Newseum, a fascinating six-floor gathering of the history of news and a catch-up on what’s been happening, in print, photography, and TV, since long before the kids were born. You can’t miss it; the entire high wall on Pennsylvania Avenue is devoted to the First Amendment.
There’s much more to D.C., including the magnificent National Gallery of Art, where we didn’t have to shoulder through crowds, young or old.
“The Round Robin is the busiest bar in town,” claimed one taxi driver. We found the small, circular watering hole at the old Willard Hotel jammed with drinkers of all ages engaged in gossip, gulping the house-favorite mint juleps (don’t bother), some clearly engaged in diplomatic flirting-hustling.
D.C., with its large population of young, well-paid workers, parties with a passion, and interns, staffers and legislators all have their separate (more or less) hangouts, divided by party affiliation (more or less).
Most fun we had was at the 160-year-old Old Ebbitt Grill, big and on the dark side, with a bustling bar, fine food and service, and booths you never want to leave. I’ll be back.