I was given an opportunity to go to Washington last month to attend a conference. I ducked out on at least one of my pre-arranged Capitol Building and then some tours to walk around the buildings where congressional representatives (and the media) have their offices. This was far more interesting than the tours I did go on. I also spent 2 days in both the House and Senate office building cafeterias – a hotbed of lobbying and deal making from what I could see.
The overarching impression I got walking the “marble halls of congress” was that our congressional representatives, yes – even the “good” ones – are very very very very isolated from those they represent. The only people they seem to be interested in talking to are groups and of those groups, only those who seem to carry some promise of publicity. My congressional rep had about 2 min. for me and then pushed me off on his legislative aide. The aide, though, was a sweetheart and did seem genuinely interested in listening to me and even took notes. The representative was interested in me long enough for a photo op (20 sec.) and the remaining 100 seconds he spent pointing out what a magnificent view he had of the capitol from his office window.
I walked down the halls looking at all of the nameplates of all the representatives we hear about so much. I peeked into their office lobbies. Most of them have no taste whatsoever and the southern ones are particularly tasteless. One of the southern reps had heavy maroon velvet drapes and filigreed framed photos hanging in their lobby area reminding any who dared to enter how important they thought they were.
I walked past what I came to understand were the media and press rooms. Yes, the Associated Press has its very own official and permanent office at the capitol – and you can tell it’s a permanent and special thing since the name/title plate on the door is of the same design and made of the same brass as on all of the other congressional office doors. The TV crowd also has a special dedicated office and room.
If you hang around an elevator on any of the floors of either the house or senate, you’ll hear some interesting snippets of conversations. Suddenly somebody clearly important regarding Iran got out of an elevator and an entire contingent of Iranians rushed towards this person (no, I have no idea who they were) effusively greeting them to almost a point of kneeling down in awe of the individual. This read to me like basically some sort of massive ass kiss.
Congressional representatives have their own elevators (you may pay for them but you aren’t supposed to ride in them and a sign says just that on every floor). There are lights and bells that go off when a vote is going on (identical to what happens on a movie set to accompany the equally similar theatricality of the nonsense on the floor). People are dressed in 1985 business attire (women are in heels and crisp blouses and pencil skirts, men are in dark suits with light colored shirts and boring – or inadvertently rancid print – ties). The endurance required to stand or walk around on marble floors all day and late into the night in heels is still baffling to me.
The house and senate have gilded matching trash and recycling containers stamped with their official seals (silver and gold, respectively).
The “Ladies” room has an entire vanity area which, if you can find an AC outlet, would be a perfect place to bang out confidential juicy memos and then some. The stools are mid-century perfection. You can just imagine some of the conversations that may have gone on there in the past (let alone the hair and makeup jobs that had to be maintained). While I was in there, I heard a conversation focused mostly on who promised what to whom and somebody was pissed off about it.
The house cafeteria has a rockin’ pasta bar and that apparently is thee happening place – lobbyists schmoozing with aides and then some. Signs over all the tables forbid sitting there for more than 30 minutes – that’s how much action is going on here. Conversations I heard were aides complaining about rents in Washington and lots of military people hanging out with men in suits deep in what seemed like important conversation. I caught little bits like “..Let me know if there’s anything else I can do for you…” etc. etc. The house cafeteria area has good WiFI that’s accessible to regular people including you and me – another reason, besides the schmoozing, people tend to hang out there to “work”.
I went to an event in a small room in the Rayburn building where I sat next to a couple of Tom Harkin’s aides. If you pull out an iPad, you WILL end up talking to someone. Right now, it’s a better icebreaker and attention-getter than a pair of Laboutins. As we leaned up against a wall watching the spectacle, the young aides told me a bit about what things were like during the healthcare debate. They said a lot of aides just never went home. Given I had overheard so many conversations about the challenge of finding affordable housing in the area, maybe this is was more planned (and appreciated) than not. One of them asked me for a stick of gum and then I took off for the next event on my agenda.
I ventured off to check out what really happens on the floor re those debates and votes we see on CSPAN and elsewhere. After going through three checkpoints, I finally was permitted to sit down way up high in what they call “the gallery”. This is not unlike sitting in the cheapest seats at a ball game (or at the theatre). In fact, ushers are standing next to the velvet-curtained entrances to each of several doorways leading to the “galleries” and they hand you what almost looks like a program as you enter. You cannot talk, write, READ, eat, laugh, or cry. God forbid these congressional representatives of ours who talk to the air in these chambers (most of the time there was nobody there but a note taker and a rather uninterested chairperson/referee/secretary) glance up at the citizens they are supposed to be representing. I could not figure out to whom they were speaking. It just seemed like bad acting and a boring run-through. I tried to move to a different seat in the gallery. The ushers quickly stopped me (though the gallery was almost empty) and they made a big deal of it. I asked them why I couldn’t move to a different seat. They told me “those seats are reserved”. “Really?” I said. “…And for whom would they be reserved?”, I asked. One usher signaled to a supervisor and the supervisor came over and told me (I kid you not) “..Those seats are reserved for the homeless…”.
My next adventure was going on a tour of the Supreme Court. I got to the court to learn that all public tours were suddenly cancelled that day. Apparently public access to its supreme court was being replaced by a sudden need by Yale to have a special event. Whose court is it anyway? I was already an unhappy camper when one of the secret service agents guarding the outside of the court (where those remarkable stairs are that we see in all the movies) barked at me when I tried to go up the stairs to get a picture. Tourists were descending the stairs and I wanted to go up there where they were. Apparently you can go down the stairs but not up them. This particular secret service agent was a little too full of herself. She apparently did not have enough grace and communication skill to be able to explain this to me and was more interested in demonstrating how tough she was. I walked up to her and told her that all she had needed to do was explain to me what the rules were and I would’ve been happy to have turned back without further ado. She just couldn’t stand that and instead scolded me as if I were a three year old. This girl could easily have been my granddaughter. Gotta wonder if she treats her mother that way. These types of agents we don’t need. Send her back to Abu Ghraib – she seemed very much of the ilk of the young woman who was part of that fiasco (and claimed she was just following orders – i.e., not tough enough to accept responsibility for her own actions). Of the tiny bit of the Supreme Court I saw, I found the dress code posted to be particularly interesting. No wonder Washington is so removed from the American people. Honestly, I think they have little clue there what life is really like for Americans in any part of America today. The Supreme Court is just as sheltered and isolated as our representatives.
I actually had the privilege of being at the White House twice – once as a witness to President Obama’s signing of historic legislation for the disabled (opening up 100,000 jobs in the federal government specifically addressing the disabled community) and again the next day for an official tour of the place. No Zalahiis there but I could see how this might have happened since invitation was by email but they were very very very very careful to check and double-check the guest list and you had to have ID, etc. etc. and then you went through 3 security checks. Once on the south Lawn, we were entertained by a military band that did a great job on a full range of standards and kept us entertained for the 2 hours or so we waited for the President. We were provided with as much ice water as we wanted and sprayers of cool water as well. I have to say that the secret service agents were dolls. These men and women were cordial, entertaining, and just a joy to be around. Military men and women were there as sort of ushers (upon appearance – though they were in full dress whites with tons of ribbons, et al) but upon talking with one 22 year old woman (who was an absolute sweetheart), we learned that she is a fighter pilot who is “…just doing a variety of different jobs right now…” I didn’t want to pursue any questioning re that but I could imagine she was somebody quite interesting – maybe even a sort of “special agent”. To our left on that massive “back 40” Sasha and Maleia have for their backyard to play in is the rockin’ swing set dad and mom got them when they all moved into the White House. And what a swing set that thing is – the type of thing you see on playgrounds in good neighborhoods… with all of the extras (i.e., not just swings). I could not get to the front row fast enough to get a hand shake with the POTUS but I yelled and waved and he waved back. That was it for my time with the Mr. President.
The next day I returned for the tour. I had to wait 2.5 hours to get in. Apparently there was staff out sick and there was a mix-up and and and… You can’t go on a White House tour (reservation or not and reservations have to be made through your congressional rep many many months in advance) unless you walk in with either your congressional rep or one of their staff. So mine had to find a staff member available to accompany me on to the grounds. By the way, you also cannot enter with ANYthing on you other than ID. I mean you can’t take a purse, water, lipstick, or anything else, period. You go through 3 security checks with all of the aforementioned ID checking, et al. Even once my congressperson’s staff member showed up, we still had to wait about an hour but this kid was a delight. He was a West Wing TV show addict and we had a great time talking about the series and he told me a little bit about what things were like around the premises when the health care bill was going down. Once we were through the final security check, he left and I went on the tour …which is self-guided. You tour the lower floor of the house. The Obamas live on the floor above. The house is filled with over the top fancy fancy rococo and baroque this and that tchachki …not my taste but the artworks that have been amassed and collected through the centuries by our Presidents were to die for. One particular John Singer Sargent took my breath away and there was a Georgia O’Keefe hanging above the fireplace in one room that you could only see the edge of (they roped the room off to the public that morning for some damn reason) but even seeing what I could of it, it was luscious. What a collection – and what a travesty that it is not more accessible to the people or at least art students. We went into the state dining room where all the fancy dinner parties take place (and where dead Presidents are laid out for dignitaries to say ‘by by’ to). Hillary Clinton apparently had re-papered one of the rooms and got this amazing trompe’l’oeil thing going near the ceiling. Too glitzy for me but impressive craft-wise. I found it particularly amazing to glance over at the staircase that the Obamas must go up and down everyday and to imagine that right above me is where the kids or they or grandma, et al are sleeping, watching TV, eating, etc. The White House back door and front door are designed to be identical in appearance so that nobody feels they are being treated less respectfully and honorably than anybody else. This is also the same reason all Presidents have a unique item on their office coffee table and once they decide on that item (Reagan had jelly beans), that item is ALWAYS there regardless of who is visiting. Obama’s item is fresh fruit. The secret service didn’t know why it was fresh fruit that he chose but later on a friend of mine at the conference I was attending cleared this up – this is a Hawaiian thing (so much healthier than jelly beans). David Mamet captured this subtle detail in the play he wrote a year or so ago about the White House.
The White House garden was magnificent. We were not allowed to walk through the garden, which I found very frustrating because I could almost smell the fragrant flowers just by looking at them. There were 3 very busy expert gardeners attending to everything. We were told that Michelle had just walked by with Bo an hour or so before our tour. I would come to find that my trip was packed with “almosts” including the hour I spent at the Spy Museum’s gift store only to learn that after I left, the Mr. and Mrs. POTUS stopped by to take Sasha to check out the museum. Apparently I also must missed them when they pulled into a Tasty Freeze to get some ice cream one day. The cab drivers told me that Michelle is known to sometimes unexpectedly stop in to this or that Chinese take out place to pick up quick meals.
I spent some interesting hours hanging out at a Starbucks which was very close to the White House. That’s another good place to watch these people shmooze and do their business. George Packer mentioned in an interview that the real work and real influence actually is in the hands of the aides. I have to agree. That is exactly what I saw at the Starbucks, little cafes, and in the house and senate cafeteria. These are the people who are really doing the work of representing us – the “legislative” aides. They are the ones to get to know.
I had an interesting experience at the Library of Congress where I met with a curator. Upon entering, one guy who clearly had more money than likely anybody reading this tried to walk around the security check to enter the building. This guy had a $500 haircut and every thread of his clothing probably cost more than what I earned even working for a year at Apple. Security stopped him and told him he had to go through the machine, etc. I couldn’t help it – I’d been through the ring myself that day – and I said to the guy “…and you thought you were special… Yes, you really aren’t any better than the rest of us…” He of course ignored me and quickly walked through with nose in the air.
One day I stood at a corner near the White House and to my left was Dennis Kucinich. It took me a moment to recognize him but sure enough – that was the guy. He looked a LOT younger than his photos – I mean a LOT younger and a lot better.
Washington is a fun and fascinating place – a beautiful town filled with self-important people who seem to be out of touch with those whom they are being paid to represent. I suppose they are doing the best they can. I don’t think I really believed Washington and those who represent us were real. Shortcomings aside, knowing that this is a real place and that these people really are making the decisions that affect every aspect of our daily life was worth braving the hot sweltering weather, obnoxious tourists, and security people. I highly recommend a visit but don’t take the kids unless they sincerely are interested. It will be wasted and might spoil a future interest.