Tourist's Guide To Washington


So a 21-yr-old cousin is visiting, and Friday I walked him all over town, about which I felt guilty at first (I really walked his tuckus (sp?) off), but now that we are under two feet of snow, the subway is closed, the visitors' centers of all monuments are closed, and no one's permitted to drive unless it's an emergency, it seems prescient.

A review.

When did the White House tour get so awful? It's no longer even a tour. You pass through several layers of security, they hand you a brochure, a sign you might very well miss announces the tour's self-guided, and you walk through in all of five minutes. Docents in each room will answer questions if you have them, but they don't look as if they really want you to. (You official Washingtonians: if you've been on the White House Christmas tour during the Bush years, it's exactly like that, except no festive mood and no special booklet to explain what you're seeing.) The official tour used to be more welcoming, longer, and was directed so you could know what paintings you were looking at or which interesting events took place in those rooms. Now the feel is: "Oh, just great. Citizens again. Fine. Here are some rooms: green, red, yellow, blue. Off you go now, pip-pip."

I didn't notice that the Obamas had switched out any portraits. Reagan's still in a place of honor, as is George H.W. Bush. Bill & Hillary are there, but they were in the Bush years, too.

One thing that strikes me each time I visit the White House is its republican scale. It has dignity but not grandeur (King Juan Carlos' table in the Palacio Real couldn't fit in the state dining room). I reflected on that this time around in connection with the Obamas' state dinner for India. They held it in a tent because they wanted a bigger room to accommodate more guests (400 instead of the usual 150): which rubbed me wrong when I read it. It seemed to signal imperial yearnings. Not literally. I hate it when people second-guess every decision the First Couple makes about entertaining, and I suppose I don't want to say that a tent is too much for the President of the United States. Nonetheless, the scale of the White House is meant to be an indication of the type of our government. It is not too much, not too little; it's fitting.

National Christmas tree and Menorah? Check! Next we hoofed it over to the Washington Monument. May I just say how much I love the National Park Service? Rangers are unflaggingly cheerful, friendly, helpful, informative and frequently charming and funny.

I'll come back to that in a moment, but first I must mention even though the weather was unpleasant (cold and damp, with the blizzard advancing on us from the South all day), we were there with an Israeli family, Japanese, a Czech couple, and several active duty soldiers traveling with their families. I love to watch the cultural interactions at tourist places. When an elderly Indian woman (in a light sari paired with a winter parka and Uggs!) inquired in a heavy accent of an American teenager if she could sit down, as she had a bad hip, the kid said, "Go for it!" I laughed. What an American form of hospitality!

Getting back to the Park Service, however, you enter the Washington monument 8 people at a time, and the Ranger manning the door began the tour by saying the staff would like to welcome us as it welcomes all visitors: with a security check. Once wanded, we awaited our 70-second elevator ride to the top, for incredible aerial views of Washington in all directions. Then we descended a short flight of stairs to reach the actual memorial as such.
I am pleased to report there is nothing at all PC on the tour. The monument remains a genuine monument to Washington's character and achievements. (There's a very nice selection of books in the visitors' center, too.) It's incredible to think of the impact he made on the world. All the states and many nations contributed stones for the monument. I like the Greek contribution, pictured above. It's a stone from the original Parthenon, engraved as follows:
George Washington, the hero, the citizen of the new and illustrious liberty: the land of Solon, Themistocles and Pericles --the mother of ancient liberty--sends this ancient stone as a testimony of honor and admiration from the Parthenon.
The Lincoln memorial is an obvious homage to the Parthenon, but Washington's has part of the Parthenon in it. Isn't that cool? (The Park Service has a website where you can research every stone if you care to.)

Next we walked up the mall to the Sculpture Garden, had lunch there, took in a couple of exhibits at the Air & Space Museum, then walked up to the Capitol, entering through the new and controversial Visitor's Center. The tour itself is pretty good if you don't barf during the little introductory film they have you sit through. It's all breathless narration and self-congratulation, without any sense of what there is to be proud of. If you imagine a paeon to the U.S. Congress being outsourced to a foreign PR firm that knew nothing at all about the United States, this is pretty much what you'd get.

It's been years since I toured the Capitol, and I'd forgotten how much it, too, is a kind of monument to Washington --particularly if you look up at the famous fresco of Washington taking his place in the pantheon of the gods. At his feet is the rainbow, Liberty and Victory flank him, Victory sounding her trumpet, while dancing maidens representing the 13 original states frolic around him.  The six auxiliary scenes surrounding the central one are amazing, too. There's Freedom trampling tyranny and kingly power; Neptune & Venus laying the transatlantic cable; Mercury handing a bag of gold to Robert Morris, financier of the revolution; Ceres seated on a McCormick reaper among them.

Such self-conscious connecting of the republic to antiquity! If the rotunda were to be painted today, what would it look like, I wonder? You know what else is a wonder? The immense painting of the Baptism of Pocahantas in the Capitol rotunda. I'm rather amazed that hasn't been protested off into a dark vestibule somewhere, but there it is: a celebration of Christianity ascendant over native religion at the heart of government. (Shh! Don't tell anyone.)