Monday, July 04, 2005

Crumblord Goes to Washington

Last week, my best friend and college roommate came to visit lovely Baltimore. We've been friends now for over 20 years, which is a little mind-bending, so I try not to think about it.

The day after he arrived, we hopped aboard the commuter train that runs between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., for a visit to our nation's capital. I've been to Washington a few times, although not as much as you might think, living so close. And I've never really done the monuments-and-museums circuit. But this trip was, frankly, awe-inspiring.

My friend's older brother is a Congressman; he was elected in 2000, taking the seat that Hillary Clinton's opponent in her race for Senate vacated in order to run. Even though he is a Democrat in a heavily Republican area, he has won successive re-election with a high percentage of the vote.

Even better, he's just a cool guy.

The weather in D.C. was muggy in the extreme; within minutes of emerging from Union Station in search of coffee and/or air-conditioning, I felt like a wrung-out sponge. We parked ourselves in a cafe before heading to our first stop, the Library of Congress.

We were scheduled for one of the regular tours, with a special mini-tour to follow. Those who were going on the tour convened in a theater - there were about 100 people, who would then split into three groups, each led by a different docent. When informed that one was not allowed to take pictures of the historic bibles on display, one disgruntled tourgoer raised his hand and said, "How come is it we're not 'lowed to take pickchures of the Bahble?"

We discreetly switched groups.

We had a great docent - Joanne - a retired sixth grade teacher who took charge and herded us along efficiently. We found out later that each docent is allowed to write his or her own tour, focusing on whatever they are personally interested in. Joanne pointed out the symbolism in the many paintings and statues that can be found in the public areas of the library.

After the 45 minute tour - yes, we saw the Gutenberg Bahble - Joanne took us to the room where members of Congress occasionally meet or hold press conferences. It's beautifully designed, and was serene and quiet while we sat and chatted with her.

Then it was on to the Congressman's office. I was surprised that the security involved no more than a metal detector - I expected to be grilled, or at least to have to show ID - but soon we were walking the halls, passing office after office of people like Majority Leader Tom DeLay. As an avid reader of Daily Kos and other political websites, I was starting to experience a feeling like being backstage at a rock concert.

The office was beautiful; apparently the representatives change offices as their seniority level increases. This office had previously been occupied by a member of the House who was then elected to the Senate. I have not Googled enough to determine who this might be. But it's a swell office.

The staffers were almost all in the their mid-20s. It doesn't pay well to work for a Congressman, unfortunately, so turnover is high, and only the young can really afford to do it. But energy and optimism were beaming out of everyone in the office - all of them are clearly excited to be working there.

We went for a brief tour of the Capitol; by this time the building had closed to tourists, so we were alone when we came to the Rotunda. The Congressman is a history buff, and had an interesting story for every room we came to. My friend and I, both West Wing addicts, were almost dizzy. (This is the first time my friend has come from California to visit his brother since his swearing-in.) We came to the lobby outside the Senate chamber, where the Congressman sent a message to see if Senator Clinton might be available to meet us for a moment. Unfortunately, she was in a committee meeting, but sent her regrets. They are friendly; photos of the Congressman with the both of the Clintons are displayed in his office. It's probably fine that we didn't get to meet her, as I might have spontaneously combusted.

As it was, we ran into a number of his Congressional colleagues, all of whom shook hands with my friend and I and chatted with us. It was striking, the way that all of them have the skill of looking you in the eye and addressing you as though you were an incredibly important person at that moment, even though you had just been introduced as the friend of somebody's brother. Although we met several members of Congress, my personal favorite was Rep. Melissa Bean, who won a tough fight against incumbent Phil Crane (who never actually acknowledged her victory.)

My friend and I got to sit in the gallery of the House of Representatives, while voting took place on a number of bills. The way votes are cast is interesting: a representative inserts his or her ID card into a slot at the end of the aisle and presses the "yea" or "nay" button. The results are projected on an upper wall above the gallery - the projections appear and disappear with disconcerting suddenness, like an effect from the Haunted Mansion.

We spotted several familiar faces - DeLay and Hastert, among others. An hour flew by, and the voting was over momentarily. Then, we got to eat in the Capitol dining room, the original home of "freedom fries" (which are still on the menu.)

Although the food is supposedly bad and the service worse, our dinner was fine (hard to screw up pasta.) At the table next to us were Representatives Carolyn McCarthy and Linda Sanchez (whose sister Loretta is also in Congress.) They chatted with us - very nice - before settling down to an animated discussion over their dinner. The entire atmosphere was very collegial, very energetic, very ... fun.

After dinner, we were treated to a walk around the outside of the Capitol, in the police-guarded area where the general public cannot go. The view down the Mall to the Washington Monument was suffused with hazy orange light as the sun set over the city. The Navy swing band played for a group of tourists on the West Steps. Everywhere we looked, there was history. It truly brought a lump to my throat. There are so many terrible things going on in this country - in this very place - and it renewed my faith that somehow things will be set right.