Internal Conflict: Two Worrisome Days in Washington DC: Day One

August 12th, 20113:04 pm @

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Congressmen fight it out in Washington DC

If it seems like our congressman would rather fight than talk, it may be because they're not listening to each other.

Here’s one of those peculiar things that half the people you talk to are already aware of and the other half is surprised to find out.  Did you know that US senators speaking on the floor of the senate chamber speak to no one?

Well, technically they speak to the C-Span cameras and a handful of bored looking functionaries, but they are not speaking to their fellow senators, which seems to me the point of a debate.  They are speaking to an empty room.

I sat in the Senate Gallery appalled.  How, I wondered, could the two parties ever reach accord if they weren’t even listening to each other?

Don’t get me wrong.  The senate gallery at the US Capitol is a fine place, a polished wooden loft consisting of five rows of chairs overlooking four concentric semi-circles of desks and a handsome antique clock whose hands seem to drag as a lone senator drones on, speaking to no one, urging no one to accept his point.

Let’s Get Real

US Senate sitting for their official portrait

US Senate Official Portrait: One of the few times all the senators come together in the senate chamber and cooperate. Click picture to enlarge.

Before admitting me to the gallery, the Senate had a few rules.  Silence.  Keep quiet.  No talking.  But in addition to that: no cameras, no recording devices, and no taking of notes.  Huh?  No taking of notes?  What were they telling me, that the wheels of democracy run more smoothly when no one listens, no one speaks and no one takes notes?

But of course someone is taking notes, the Senate stenographer.  She is typing everything the speaker is saying, getting it into the Congressional Record, so it can be considered by the other senators, leading them to deliberation and an eventual meeting of the minds.

Let’s get real.  It is highly unlikely that most senators actually read the Congressional Record.  Senators have little time for that.  It is estimated that 25% of their time is spent raising money for reelection.

George Packer's video on the Empty Senate Chamber

George Packer's New Yorker article on the "Empty Senate Chamber" is available as a 15 minute PBS video on YouTube. Click image to play.

And who, you might ask, are they raising money from?  Why special interests and corporate lobbyists of course, the same people who are getting legislation designed in their favor in exchange for their generosity.  So what’s the point of a debate?

None actually, which is why there isn’t any.  Instead, senators speak to the C-Span cameras, trying to convince their constituents that they are doing something important in order to get reelected, which, if you think about it, is campaigning, not debating.

Visiting the People’s House

US Capitol Dome

The frieze on the capitol dome is painted on, not carved. Past congresses apparently did practice fiscal responsibility. Click picture to enlarge.

There is much in Washington DC that is not what it appears to be, and as tourists most of us go gamely along because we like the idea that we are living in a democracy, much in the way that we like to pretend that we are in Africa when we are on the jungle ride at Disneyworld.

On the first day of our two day trip to Washington, my wife and I were being asked to play along, to get into the spirit of the thing, to be willing participants in our own hoodwinking.  But I was conflicted.  Sometimes the government’s attempts to dupe us are so transparent it’s almost insulting.

Take the idea of “the people’s house”.  Since the American government is supposedly “by the people, for the people,” and since our tax dollars pay for pretty much everything in Washington DC, all the public buildings and parks actually belong to us – we are only letting our elected officials use them for awhile.  Or at least that’s the story.

Capitol rotunda paintings and statuary

Alexander Hamilton, the nation's first right wing pitbull, stands beside the Signing of the Declaration of Independence in the Capitol Rotunda.

Politicians love to fluff this one up and present it to us.  On accepting the gavel as Speaker of the House, John Boehner said,“This is the people’s House. This is their Congress. It’s about them, not us.”

Please.

In a speech to the National Urban League President Obama declared that the White House is the “people’s house”.

Maybe, but if you want to visit your house, you will have to apply through your congressman for permission and then wait six to eight weeks while they do a background check on you.  If they grant you permission, most likely at the last minute, you’ll be given a strict appointment time, which means you’ll have to rearrange the rest of your itinerary at the last minute to fit it in.

The White House

Everything about the White House tour seems designed to discourage you from doing it.

It’s sort of a pain, but then everything about touring the White House seems designed to discourage you from doing it.  Before you go you’ll receive a list of things you are not permitted to bring into the White House, including handbags, book bags, backpacks, purses, food and beverages of any kind, strollers, cameras, recording devices, tobacco products, personal grooming items (including make-up, hair brushes, combs, lip balm, hand lotions, etc.), any pointed objects (including pens and pencils), aerosol containers, guns, ammunition, fireworks, electric stun guns, mace, martial arts weapons/devices, or knives of any size.  Otherwise, you are free to bring in anything you want.

At the bottom of this list is the kicker: “Coat and package check facilities are not available”.

Tourists in front of the North Portico of The White House

After the tour we stand around gawking up at the iconic white columns before being prodded along.

That’s right, if you want to visit the White House you are going to have figure out how to spend a day touring the nation’s capital without your camera, your purse or your backpack, not to mention your lip balm and your comb.  The only other options are to leave everything in your hotel room and then return afterward to retrieve it, or park your car in a parking garage and leave everything in it under a sign that says, Not Responsible For Lost or Stolen Items.

But all this is worth it.  Right?

How to Deal with Unwanted Guests

After they herd you through two security checkpoints, and after you’ve been put through a metal detector and an X-Ray machine, you are finally permitted to enter your house where – surprise! – you are left to wander aimlessly through the downstairs ceremonial rooms without a guide.

Geithner and Obama in a meeting

While we were touring the White House, the President, the Secretary of the Treasury and Congressional leaders were upstairs arguing about the budget ceiling.

That’s right.  The White House tour is not guided.  Apparently they’ve figured out that unwelcome guests are more likely to move through an attraction quickly when there is no information about it.

A pair of security guards are stationed in each room and they invite you to ask questions, but most of the questions are uninformed and are concerned with the objects on the tables and mantles, and the paintings on the walls, rather than with the historic meetings and earth-shaking decisions that have taken place here over the course of 200 years.  It’s like visiting a historic battlefield and discussing the types of grass.  It misses the point.

East Room of the White House

The East Room of the White House is a place of great historical signficance. Click the image for a virtual tour of The White House.

You are let into the White House through the East Colonnade on the lower level where you are free to look at a few portraits of former presidents and some nice photographs of them and their families.  You can peek into the Library, the Vermeil Room and the China Room, which are handsomely furnished and almost never used for anything.

Then you wander upstairs to the first floor where you enter the East Room which is historically significant.  Having been designed by George Washington, it is part of the original structure.  Abigail Adams hung laundry here in 1800, and Lewis and Clark prepared for their westward journey here a few years later.

Andrew Jackson presided over a notorious inaugural bacchanal in the East Room in 1829, and Union soldiers quartered here during the civil war.  It has been the site of lavish White House weddings, and the bodies of both Presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy have lain in state here.

Sculpture garden at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC

The sculpture garden at the National Gallery of Art is one of many lovely outdoor spaces scattered around Washington DC.

But you would know precious little of this if you didn’t come already armed with the information.  Most people just wander through the East Room, looking at the sumptuous trappings and fighting off the tendency to yawn.

You plod along through the Green Room, the Blue Room and the Red Room, following the crowd.  You emerge into the State Dining Room, which is set for an upcoming function, a meeting of Afghanistan women.

Now I don’t remember inviting them to dinner at my house, but here they will soon arrive, after I and my fellow homeowners have been ushered out through the Entrance Hall onto the North Portico where we stand around gawking up at the iconic white columns before being prodded along.

National Gallery of Art East Bulding

I.M. Pei designed East Building at the National Gallery of Art. Turns out Pei is not the only Chinese national who likes Washington.

I can’t help but wonder if those Afghanistan women will be permitted to bring their purses, lip balm and combs.  Something tells me they will, and it gets under my skin.

What the Treasury Secretary and I Have in Common  

What is this mildly jingoistic resentment I’m feeling?  Is it because I am becoming enamored of the idea of democracy, peevish that something that is supposedly mine is so grudgingly parceled out to me.  But then as I walk along through the Ellipse, the 52 acre park just south of the White House, I am reminded of who really owns this country.

A chattering swarm of Chinese people are pressed up against the White House fence, snapping pictures.  In fact, you see Chinese people are all over Washington DC, come to inspect what they’ve bought, I suspect.

Two redheads

A 16th Century Florentine merchant looks askance at Marianne, my wife, at the National Gallery of Art.

I am standing there, marveling at their enthusiasm for their newly purchased country, when none other than Timothy Geithner, the Treasury Secretary, brushes past me on his way to the White House with two of his aides to meet with Obama and Congressional leaders to hash out the debt ceiling crisis.  As they hasten past I overhear Geithner say in a flustered voice, “Well, we can’t do that with the economy in the shitter…”

I imagine he is referring to Republican efforts to cut government spending which, logically, will put a lot of government workers out of work at a time when we are struggling to bring down unemployment.  But he could just as easily be referring to Democratic efforts to raise taxes at a time when every American is feeling pinched.  In any case, he doesn’t seem to know what to do about it, and neither do I.  We are both clueless.

Capitoline Venus

The 4th century Capitoline Venus peers out between the columns at the Rotunda of the National Gallery of Art.

Saved by the National Gallery

I am feeling depressed, even though it’s a perfect summer day in Washington DC.  The birds are singing in the trees, water is splashing in the fountains, and the neo-classical structures are like white confections lining the boulevards.

Washington is the most Parisian of American cities.  It was designed by Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a French born architect and engineer, and it has turned out largely as he envisioned it, with avenues radiating out from rectangular parks and a garden-lined grand avenue, which is today’s National Mall.  Thomas Jefferson explicitly sought to make Washington an “American Paris”, and if he were alive today, he would be pleased.

And like the City of Lights, Washington DC is devoted to the arts.  Aside from its monuments and statuary, the National Gallery of Art, located on the National Mall, possesses one of the finest collections of art in the world.  My wife and I went there to savor of things authentic and uncorrupt and try to regain a sense of the pride and glory that comes with living in a democracy.

Old Ebbitt Grill

The Old Ebbitt Grill is a Washington institution, serving food and drink since 1856. To see a video on the Old Ebbitt Grill click the image.

Spread out over two buildings, the museum’s centerpiece is the domed rotunda modeled after the Pantheon in Rome.  At one side of the rotunda stands the Capitoline Venus, a life-sized 4th century nude in polished marble, perfectly intact, and on loan from the Italian government for the first time since its discovery in the 1670’s.  It felt good to think that our country rated such generosity on the part of Italy.

Down the main halls, extending east and west from the rotunda, a warren of galleries exhibit a bountiful collection of European art, including paintings by Rembrandt, Monet, Van Gogh and DaVinci’s Ginevra de’ Benci, the only portrait by Leonardo DaVinci in the Western Hemisphere.

Interior of the Old Ebbitt Grill

It is rumored that the animal heads above the bar at the Old Ebbitt Grill were shot by Teddy Roosevelt.

As a writer with a narrative bent I enjoyed the collection of 20th century narrative paintings by the likes of Wood, Wyeth and Hopper.  As a designer, my wife preferred the modern and contemporary collection in the I.M. Pei designed East Building, including Pollock, Warhol and Calder.

Yes, we Americans are just as capable of turning out timeless masterpieces.  Our contributions are just as memorable.  It’s true.  We’re good enough, we’re smart enough, and, doggonit, people like us!

The National Gallery helped to soothe and lift our spirits and rekindle our national pride.

Oysters and Jazz in Washington DC

HR-57 Jazz Club

For sizzling jazz at bargain basement prices you can't beat HR-57. To see video of a jam session at HR-57 click the image.

Washington has the power to uplift you because it is not just the seat of our national government.  In addition, it offers a rich cultural mélange.  The city is home to more than 50 museums, five national libraries, 130 professional theatre companies, and literally hundreds of live music venues.

Washington has a particular penchant for jazz.  Outside of New York City and New Orleans, no other American city embraces jazz so enthusiastically.  In the District of Columbia itself there are more than 40 jazz clubs.  In the surrounding metro area there are 30 more.

But before heading out for an evening of jazz we had to eat.  So we tucked into dinner at the Old Ebbitt Grill.  Literally across the street from the White House, the Old Ebbitt Grill was established in 1856 as a boarding house and was home to many presidents before they took up residence in “the people’s house”. The restaurant moved several times and wound up at its current location in 1983.

Treasury Building at sunset

As the sun set on the Treasury Building there was no settlement in the debt ceiling crisis. We hoped it didn't portend the sun setting on the country.

The Victorian interior has many fine touches evocative of a Washington saloon of the 19th century, including a marble staircase, carved glass panels, taxidermied animal heads (supposedly from Teddy Roosevelt) and a mahogany bar, a replica of the original bar where many a future president rubbed elbows with the citizenry.

The Oyster Bar at the Old Ebbitt Grill is renowned for its array of exceptional oysters and award winning wines, and it was the oysters we were there for.  We ordered a selection of seven oysters from along the east coast and were not disappointed.  The Rocky Points and East Beach Blondes were fine, but the Wellfleets and Matunucks were outstanding.

After we dined we headed uptown.  Most Jazz enthusiasts know Blues Alley, long acknowledged to be DC’s premier jazz venue, but HR-57, a small BYOB club in the H Street Corridor/Atlas District, provides a passionate and authentic experience at a price that’s hard to beat.  For an $8 cover charge ($11 if you BYOB) you can sit there all night without spending another cent and feast your ears on performances by young up and comers, blowing and thundering their way through renditions of Coletrane, Davis and Dizz.

Washington DC at dusk

Washington DC is a breathtakingly beautiful city full of ugly realities. It leaves a person conflicted.

We landed there on open mic night and the earnest dedication of talented people to their craft, one that went largely uncompensated, and one designed to give more than it took, was a welcome antidote to what we had seen earlier in the day and bolstered our pride in the drive and ingenuity of Americans.

Reflections on Day One in Washington DC

On our first day in Washington we had seen wealthy and powerful men speaking to no one in a chamber designed for debate so they could get their faces on camera and get reelected.  We had seen a Treasury Secretary flustered and foul-mouthed, not at all self-possessed, about to enter a meeting that would prove to be the first round in a dangerous game of chicken that nearly took the country over the brink.  We had seen American tourists eager to believe that the city and the country belonged to them.  And we had seen Chinese tourists who seemed to know better.

In the name of security, we had seen commonplace items, cameras, pens and notepads, prohibited from public buildings, buildings that supposedly belonged to us.  We were told to record nothing and keep silent.  And everywhere we saw cameras watching us.

And then we were told we were living in a democracy.

We saw a lot of people trying to fool themselves and we saw a lot of people willing to help them do it.  But we also saw beauty, grace and charm.  We saw passion and authenticity and commitment to an ideal.

We saw the underlying qualities that make America great.

And we saw the bitter crust that has developed on top of them.

We were conflicted.  And it was only our first day in Washington.

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Hour by Hour Travel Plan for Washington DC…

9:30am-11:30am
United States Capitol

US Capitol Visitor’s Center
East Capitol Street, NE and 1st Street, NE
Washington, DC 20002
202-226-8000
8:30am-4:30pm Daily
Book a tour of the Capitol

Noon-1pm
The White House

White House Visitor’s Center
Southeast Corner of 15th & E Street
Washington, DC 20230
202-456-7041
7:30am-4:00pm
Arrange a White House Tour

2:00pm-5:00pm
National Gallery of Art

4th and Constitution Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20565
202-737-4215
Monday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m
Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m
Visit the National Gallery of Art

5:30pm-6:45pm
P.O.V. Rooftop Terrace Bar at the W Hotel
W Hotel
675 15th Street Northwest
Washington, DC 20004
202-661-2478
Monday – Thursday 11:00 AM – 2:00 AM; Friday 11:00 AM – 3:00 AM; Saturday 12:00 PM – 3:00 AM; Sunday 12:00 PM – 2:00 AM; After 5:00 PM guests under the age of 21 are not permitted access to P.O.V
Sip at P.O.V. Rooftop Terrace Bar

7:00pm-8:30pm
Old Ebbitt Grill

675 15th Street Northwest
Washington, DC 20005-5702
202-347-4800
8:30am-1:00am
Dine at the Old Ebbitt Grill

9:00pm-11:00pm
HR-57 Center for the Preservation of Jazz

816 H St NE
Washington D.C., DC 20002
(202) 253-0044
9:00pm-1:00am
Visit Hr-57 Jazz Club

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Related Videos:

George Packer and Tom Udall on the Senate’s Empty Chamber

Old Ebbitt Grill by the Wandering Foodie

Capital Bop at HR-57 Jazz Club

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Previous stop on the odyssey: Beckley, WV    //
Next stop on the odyssey:  Washington DC, Part 2

MAO map to Washington DC

Click map to enlarge

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Image Credits:

Partisanship, James Steidl; US senators official portrait, Public Domain; YouTube Video Image, YouTube; Capitol Dome, Malcolm Logan; Alexander Hamilton statue, Malcolm Logan; White House, Malcolm Logan; Tourists at North Portico, Wasted Time; Geithner and Obama, Public Domain; East Room of the White House, Public Domain; Sculpture Garden, Malcolm Logan; East Building, Malcolm Logan; 16th Century Merchant and wife, Malcolm Logan; Capitoline Venus, Malcolm Logan; Old Ebbitt Grill exterior, Tim1965; Old Ebbitt Grill Interior, Malcolm Logan; HR-57 Jazz Club, Malcolm Logan; Treasury at sunset, Malcolm Logan;  Washington at Dusk, Francisco Diez

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