John Kelly's Washington

L'Enfant and Douglass Statues Are Monuments to D.C.'s Political Invisibility

A bill to move statues of Pierre L'Enfant and Frederick Douglass from this building at 441 Fourth St. NW to the Capitol is on the back burner. In the meantime, they can be seen in the lobby -- just don't try to take a picture.
A bill to move statues of Pierre L'Enfant and Frederick Douglass from this building at 441 Fourth St. NW to the Capitol is on the back burner. In the meantime, they can be seen in the lobby -- just don't try to take a picture. (By John Kelly -- The Washington Post)
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By John Kelly
Thursday, September 10, 2009

There's a hostage situation going on at 441 Fourth St. NW. There, in the lobby of the building known as One Judiciary Square, two great Americans are being held against their will.

And who's holding them hostage? None other than Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's nonvoting member of Congress.

That's what Mark Plotkin -- WTOP political analyst and all-around home-rule burr-under-the-saddle -- thinks.

Here's the deal: About a year ago, the District paid $200,000 for statues of Pierre L'Enfant and Frederick Douglass. There's a perfect place for them: the U.S. Capitol. After all, 100 other distinguished Americans are on display there, some in Statuary Hall, some in the Capitol Visitor Center.

One hundred statues. Two from each state.

Of course, the District isn't a state. So, as the rules stand, L'Enfant and Douglass aren't allowed inside. Never mind that one basically created the city and the other was once a slave who became one of the nation's most impassioned abolitionists.

The District routinely gets shafted on stuff like this. Commemorative quarter? It took an act of Congress for Washington to get one. For the longest time, there wasn't even a D.C. flag in front of Union Station.

All of this might seem minor compared with the egregious lack of congressional representation that the District's residents suffer. But symbols matter, especially in a city full of them.

As far back as 2002, Norton introduced a bill in Congress that would allow two Washington statues to be placed in the Capitol. In March, she reintroduced the bill, H.R. 1720. It would, it says, "permit statues honoring citizens of the District of Columbia to be placed in Statuary Hall in the same manner as statues honoring citizens of the States are placed in Statuary Hall, and for other purposes."

But in all the time that Norton's bills have been before Congress, nothing has happened. And that has Plotkin plotzing.

"She should be using these statues as an example of how we're invisible in the American political system," he told me.

The issue resides in the Committee on House Administration, chaired by Robert A. Brady (D-Pa.). Moving the statues would require a vote by the full House and Senate and a change in the relevant statute. That's not something Norton wants to press while trying to get the D.C. Voting Rights Act passed.

"The Congresswoman has worked over the years on this issue," a Norton staff member e-mailed me. "Currently, she has a number of pending unprecedented D.C. bills. All agree that strategically we should proceed with the most difficult first, the D.C. House Voting Rights Act of 2009, and we're getting close on that."

Plotkin thinks that ignoring the statues is a lost opportunity. If they're ever moved, there'd be a big welcoming ceremony in the Rotunda, and the nation would be reminded of the unequal status of the District's residents. (Here's an idea for the D.C. Council: Require licensed city tour guides to preface every tour with: "Residents of Washington do not enjoy voting rights equal to other citizens of the United States.")

And what of the L'Enfant and Douglass statues? I wanted to show you a photograph of them, so I went over to One Judiciary Square, which houses D.C. government offices. After going through security, I pulled my little point-and-shoot camera out of my briefcase and raised it to my eye.

"No, sir," said a security guard. "No, sir."

Um, I just want to take a photo of the Frederick Douglass statue, I said.

"That's not a tourist attraction," the guard barked.

Maybe it isn't now. The question is: When will it be?

See You Soon

My column is taking a break. Early next week, my wife and I have to take our daughter's stuff out to her at college. (She has spent the past week on an ice-breaking freshman orientation hike through northern Minnesota, a trip designed, I'm sure, to make dorm life seem luxurious.) Later in the week, I'm making a quick trip to Oxford for a conference on social media. (Send me your thoughts on the intersection of social media and mainstream media: kellyj@washpost.com.)

"John Kelly's Washington" will resume Sept. 21.

Join me at noon Friday for my online chat. Go to www.washingtonpost.com/discussions.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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