Do You Smell Something?

The real dome is nice and all, but now we also have a cutaway model of it.
The real dome is nice and all, but now we also have a cutaway model of it. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
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Wednesday, December 3, 2008; Page A03

It took the better part of two decades and cost $621 million, but Congress has finally solved one of the great problems of our time: smelly tourists on Capitol Hill.

"In the summertime, because of the high humidity and how hot it gets here, you could literally smell the tourists coming into the Capitol," Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid said at yesterday's much-delayed opening of the Capitol Visitor Center. "Well, that is no longer going to be necessary."

Indeed not. Now the unwashed masses will have climate-controlled toilets, an eatery and a gift shop, in a temple of marble, granite, bronze and cherry.

What was conceived in the 1990s as a sensible $71 million celebration of democracy turned into a half-billion-dollar shrine to legislative excess: an extra $4.2 million for congressional seals, an orientation film and backpack storage space, $30 million more for extra tunnels, elevators and the like, and $85 million for a TV studio for senators (makeup facility included) and a two-story hearing room for House members. By the end, even the lawmaker whose committee monitored the visitor center said she'd "never seen a bigger boondoggle in my life."

The ordeal ended, appropriately enough, with a final fetid moment yesterday. House Minority Leader John Boehner, noting that "behind me stands the original model for the statue of Freedom that sits on top of our Capitol dome," declared, grandly, that "this grand hall of the congressional visitor center will memorialize America's unrelenting fight to ensure freedom and equality for all."

Well, maybe not freedom for all. When the ceremony ended and a video journalist from went to interview participants as they filed out, Capitol Police ordered her to stop. A uniformed policewoman then directed the journalist to replay her footage and erase all images taken after the ceremony ended, and a representative of the House television gallery then told the journalist to leave the building -- all under the gaze of the statue of Freedom. A Capitol Police spokeswoman said the officer should not have ordered the erasure, but House officials said they were correct to ban the taping and to order journalists out of the building.

As congressional leaders stood in "Emancipation Hall" -- the underground center's great hall -- for the dedication, they spoke as if the opening of this tourist rest stop would take its place among the great moments of American history. "We are their colleagues -- colleagues with James Madison, Henry Clay, Sam Rayburn, Tip O'Neill, so many others, and we learn from their leadership," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asserted.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell traced a line from George Washington's laying of the Capitol cornerstone to yesterday's dedication: "By making it more accessible to the people for whom it was built, it is our hope that Jefferson's vision is again fulfilled and Washington's prayer is renewed."

And Boehner saw yesterday's activities as the fulfillment of Lincoln's second inaugural address, delivered just above the new center. "Thirty thousand people heard Lincoln say, 'With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work that we are in,' " he said. "Today, in the midst of very historic changes for our republic, we begin a new era in the life of this magnificent Capitol building."

Thus was consecrated a sacred monument to the American tourist's need to eat lunch and use the restroom. Participants prayed for the visitor center. "Breathe your spirit into this space, that amid the busy life and important work of government, visitors may always find here a gracious welcome and abiding peace," offered Daniel Coughlin, the House chaplain. "Lord, we're grateful for the official opening of this beautiful visitors center, and for the sacrifice, the service, the love and labor, that made this moment possible," added Barry Black, the Senate chaplain.

Rita Dove, the former poet laureate, read a poem. "Consider her drenched gaze, her shining brow," she said of the Freedom statue. "She rests in her weathered plumage, big-boned, resolute." A choir sang. "So much more than just a building," a soloist crooned about the Capitol. "It's the theater where the drama of democracy is staged."

And now, it's also the place to cool off, eat lunch and buy souvenirs.

During its troubled construction, the visitor center was an orphan. Yesterday, it had many proud parents. "I didn't do it, but I had something to do with it," Reid said, clearly pleased with the place's massive size. "They were hauling out of this building, let's see, 60,000, 65,000 truckloads, big trucks, of dirt," he announced. "It's five acres -- it's a huge facility."

The majority leader wasn't done. "It's a facility that allows people to have a place to go to the bathroom," he said. "There are many bathrooms here. . . . Souvenirs here are available."

But where Reid saw toilets and trinkets, Boehner saw history. Recalling the British burning of the unfinished Capitol in 1814, he concluded: "It took 38 years and two wars to truly gain our independence, and it took several generations and a bloody Civil War to end slavery and win freedom for millions of African Americans. And today, we mark the opening of the Capitol Visitors Center."

So, children, those are the great moments in American history: the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War and the opening of the Capitol Visitor Center.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company