HI, I'M IAN SHOALES, THE SEMI-eminent, acerbic social critic. Perhaps you've heard of me. Perhaps you've noticed my hardhitting commentaries on "All Things Considered" and "Nightline," or in USA Today? My trademark, "I gotta go"? That Ian Shoales? Is my name a word in your household? When you see the crossword puzzle clue "bitter, negative, cynical," do you write "Shoalesian" in the boxes, whether it fits or not? I know I do.

Well, the week after the Tower commission report was released, I was sitting home in San Francisco in a kind of blue funk/brown study/subdued fury emotional combo, thinking: "This Whole Iran Thing has gotten out of hand. What this country needs is a bit of my analytic style." I figured America had been Feeling Good About Itself long enough; the white bread of a Positive Mental Attitude needed a bit of my yeast. The Beltway needed to tighten its belt. So I hopped a red-eye to D.C. using the frequent-flyer points I'd gathered (a friend's points actually, but I figured when he saw me on "The McLaughlin Group," swapping Good Ones with Robert Novak, he'd forgive me my theft).

I should have called ahead. "McLaughlin" was locked up tighter than Ollie North's mouth. Of course, it was 8 in the morning, but I thought, naive me, that Novak would be up at dawn to catch ComSymps in their lairs. I stood pounding on the door for an hour, screaming, "Let me in! I'm not a liberal!"

There I was, wired from coffee, lack of sleep, jet lag, when I thought -- hey! I'm in Washington, D.C.! Since there won't be a struggle to the death with Novak, and so the trip won't be a total loss, why don't I see the sights?

This, then, is my flirtation with tourism, my open letter to America. Let's rephrase that for these budget-conscious times: my open post card to America.


9 a.m.: I take off at a sprint for the Smithsonian, past the brisk secretaries walking to work in their skirts and Reeboks, past the Soviet Embassy, bristling with antennas, past the Black Hebrews picketing the National Conference on Soviet Jewry picketing the Soviet Embassy, bristling with antennas -- what a city!

10 a.m.: The doors of Natural History open. The dinosaur room (always my favorite) is already packed with kids, the old bones swarming with warmblooded young. I skip the saurians and dash to Evolution. Here I see the "If Every Cockroach Survived" exhibit. If the placard can be believed, this diorama features 130,000 cockroaches painstakingly glued, by some underpaid Smithsonian staff member, to the surfaces of a strikingly realistic "All Electric Kitchen." At the right viewing distance, this suburban swarm is quite disturbing. Forget the Hirshhorn, this is art.

Upstairs is the Insect Zoo -- there's a concept from hell. A Smithsonian Ms. stands apart from the crowd, smiling, holding what she describes as the World's Largest Cockroach. Moms with fixed grins avoid her like the plague. I walk up, though, to ask if she knows who the unsung genius is who glued the cockroaches to the AEK down the hall. She stops smiling and shudders at the thought of all those cockroaches, even though she's got a giant cockroach swarming all over her. Just goes to show you: One of anything can be a pet, or cute. It's when you start adding up those numbers that you get swarms, herds, bureaucracies, and nature starts going to hell in a handcart. AMAZING FACTS!

Data gleaned on the trot: Eskimos kill wolves by burying a coiled whalebone in blubber; wolf eats blubber, boing goes bone, wolf dies painful death. The scorpion was the first animal to walk on land. The Incas performed skillful skull surgery -- just for the hell of it, as near as I can tell. MEN WITH DEEP VOICES

11 a.m.: I'm out of there, jogging to the White House. While I wheeze my way, I consider a phenomenon (since I am a social critic): There seems to be a constant presence in museums of taped commentaries by Men With Deep Voices. Why Men With Deep Voices? It's reassuring, I guess. When a Man With a Deep Voice gives you a fact, you feel you can be sure it will stay a fact . . . and not change into something more alarming.

Here is a brief audio sampler of Deep-Voiced statements:

"Sixty-five-million years ago, giant flying reptiles disappeared from the earth."

"The stage is now set for higher forms of life."

"Most of the purple pins are in the orange/brown area."

"Explosive materials are one of society's most powerful tools."

Men With Deep Voices will get no argument from me. WHITE HOUSE

Standing "on line," as you easterners say, for the White House tour, we are told by one of the volunteers, "You'll be in momentarily, whatever that means." This gets a laugh from the line. "I think it means 'soon.' The entrance is right there. They'll search you for weapons. If you have any weapons, just leave them here."

The line doesn't know how to respond to this, but it cracks the tour guide up. We pass a sign -- the Prose of Men With Deep Voices -- that reads: "Any activity that disrupts the tour or impedes the flow of traffic is prohibited." This covers a lot of ground, from terrorism to tying your shoe, so I watch my step. I don't want to be arrested as a White House traffic impediment.

We pass through the metal detector, down the corridor, past the library ("2,700 books relating to American life," says a deep-voiced placard), then up to the East Room, the Green Room, the Blue Room, the Red Room, the State Dining Room -- hey, is that it? What a gyp!

"This is not a museum," says a Secret Service man in a blazer. I stalk down the walkway toward Pennsylvania Avenue. On my left, in front of the West Wing, a dozen video cameras stand, covered in plastic, like tiny stripped trees protected from the cold. A uniformed Secret Service man leads a German shepherd on a leash. On my left a kid in a blue blazer leads a little spaniel on an Expand-a-Leash. Wait a minute, that's the president's dog! I've seen it on television! Three little old ladies snap its picture. Guard dog and pet! Juxtaposition! Irony! Is this cute or creepy? You tell me, America, I'm only a tourist. FIRST LADIES

12:30 p.m.: American History, second floor. I've seen so many gowns of first ladies, they blur into one: silk and yellow satin empire mutton sleeves with Austrian butterfly sprigs, coated with lavender and diamond piping; this was worn by a first lady for the annual Easter Egg Roll.

I get my first intimation of what we in California call bad vibes. The White House is pretty austere for the manse of a world leader. Where opulence enters into our history is here, with the gowns of first ladies. The indulgence evidenced by these gowns is excused, even encouraged.

But if presidents are measured by their accomplishments, their ladies are measured by their grief: Jane Pierce's dead son, Mary Todd Lincoln's mental illness, Betty Ford's clinic. By and large, the first ladies all rattled around the White House feeling useless, trapped and depressed, with only their fine clothing to keep them company.

Here's the final tableau: Jackie, Lady Bird, Pat, Betty, Rosalynn, Nancy. They're stuck behind glass like mannequins in a department store window. They watch us watch them, mute and staring, together in their gowns as they never have been in life. LUNCH

1:30 p.m.: Lunch under the street at the National Gallery is plucked from a food "exhibit"; you view the food and make your selection. It's kind of a lunch museum. As I select my yogurt and fruit plate, I get a sudden mental image of the museum of the future: the "Tourist With a Minicam" display is minicammed by a tourist with a minicam. OUR NATION'S CAPITOL

2:30 p.m.: The guides in the Capitol wear red blazers, for a pleasant change of pace from the blue blazers I've been seeing everywhere else. The guide for my group, a harried-looking man with a Boston accent, rattles off information so fast it's all lost in tourist echoes: what artist built what and when, and how the chandelier was installed, and when it's cleaned, and which three artists did which of 19 scenes in the Rotunda, and which states sent statues -- our group just can't keep up with him.

Finally, as we stand in Statuary Hall, an old guy in a 49ers cap asks him, "Where's that place where you whisper and everybody can hear it?"

"You're standing in it," our guide snaps, and takes off at a trot to the other side of the room, where he bends over and whispers something. We all listen intently for evidence of what my pocket guide solemnly (and scientifically) calls "parabolic reflection," which John Quincy Adams used to spy on the opposition. But the hall is so crammed with noisy Americans we can't hear a thing. Isn't that just like you, though, America? A guy tries to spy on another guy, and you're just too big and noisy to let it happen. PROSE OF MEN WITH DEEP VOICES

My favorite bit of prose comes from the back of my complimentary ticket to the Senate chamber: "To help you make your visit more pleasant, please observe the following rules . . . Standing or sitting in the doorways and aisles, smoking, applause, reading, taking notes, taking of photographs, and the wearing of hats by men are prohibited."

The Senate isn't in session, which makes the rules moot, but I wonder, does "the wearing of hats" include the old guy's 49ers cap? If yes, would removing it make the old guy's visit more pleasant? I don't have the answers, just the questions.

The complimentary ticket, by the way, is described on its front as a "souvenir." Pretty chintzy, if you ask me. At least they could have sprung for a post card. THE MIRACLE OF FLIGHT

3:15 p.m.: The Air and Space Museum is filled with every conceivable flying machine. Two Mercury capsules, the Spirit of St. Louis, the engines of Saturn 5, each as large as a cozy bungalow. They have everything from the hot pants of a '60s stew to a model of the "Star Trek" Enterprise. In the videotapes of the space shuttles, there's no tape of the Challenger going up in smoke. There are no dead astronauts or pilots here, no kamikazes or crashes. There's something very Soviet about the Air and Space Museum: It's filled with machines so large they seem like shouts, glory untouched by defeat.

I contrast Air and Space with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Those empty flying machines did these boys no good. This shining list of names, punctuated from time to time by tiny flags and flowers, is a directory of the dead. In its completeness there is glory and hope: When we catalogue the dead, we aren't so quick to make more of them. HIGHER FORMS OF LIFE

3:45 p.m.: The National Aquarium, oddly enough, is in the basement of the Commerce Department building. I find myself, first thing, in front of the Touch Tank. A little girl stands looking at an anemone, her hands behind her. Her mother says, "You don't want to touch it? That's all right. I just wanted you to know the option is there for you." Huh? A little bit of California, right here in D.C.

Next to the fish tanks are videotapes of fish on television monitors that look like fish tanks. The only difference between the video fish and the real is in the quality of the picture. For some reason this frightens me, and I get out of there quick.

On the street, a sign tells me the feeding time of sharks and piranha -- information that comes in mighty handy in D.C. Across the street they're shooting some movie. I see the actor Dennis Quaid smoking a cigarette. D.C. and L.A. are a lot alike; they're both one-industry towns and, as we all know, show business and politics have a lot in common. Ask Fawn Hall. THE FBI STORY

3:55 p.m.: Near the FBI building are two porno bookstores. I try to find significance in this. I try to find the entrance to the building. These are not easy tasks. I hook up with two Chinese kids, and we weave among concrete pillars, pound on walls of glass. Finally, they tug on a glass door, which opens suddenly with an electronic buzz. A female voice asks, "Y'all there for the tour?"

We are confronted inside by a metal detector and the Scanray Linescan System FourC X-Ray Inspection System. Miraculously, we manage to walk through without setting anything off.

Three blue-blazered guides -- hard teen-age girls with a thin veneer of politeness -- bark, "Have a seat! Just have a seat, okay?"

I obey, feeling like the object of an exercise in crowd control. The Chinese kids, who have no English, take longer to comply. The guides resort to the time-honored American technique of dealing with foreigners: talk loud and slow until they get it.

The holding area fills up with a crossing guard convention and a group of middle-aged men wearing name tags. The tall blond guide with mirror wraparound shades shouts, "You may now proceed to Holding Area Number Two. Thank you for waiting." There's another American phenomenon: thanking people for doing something they have to do anyway.

By and by we run out of holding areas and actually embark on the tour of the FBI building, or, as I like to call it, the Hall of Alarming Statistics.

We are shown the Ten Most Wanted List, which is -- let's be frank about it -- a People magazine approach to criminal activity. The primary criterion for a criminal to be on this list is the criminal's popularity. We are shown the Crime in America display -- a series of little cartoon figures that look rather like the little man on the door of the men's room, or on the walk/don't walk sign. One of the little guys lights up every 44 seconds to show the incidence of assault in 1985; another little guy with his hands up lights every 63 seconds (robbery). We see cute little stamps, which our guide informs us were coated with LSD and given to small children. We see piles of drugs behind plate glass: heroin, cocaine, cannabis and a big heap of pills labeled "dangerous drugs." We are shown the devious means by which microfilm secrets are smuggled to our enemies: a child's doll, a hollow pencil, a hollow nickel. We see a Tommy gun used in the St. Valentine's Day massacre, and a replica of Lee Harvey Oswald's rifle.

We are shown a blowup of an agent's ID and badge, and our guide points out the ways we can assure ourselves that the ID shown is real and not a forgery.

What is the implication of all this? Well, we're a nation dropping like flies from the antics of sociopaths, who will not only give drugs to toddlers, but use the toddlers' dolls to smuggle atomic secrets to communists, all the while disguised as FBI agents to throw us off the scent.

For our next thrill, the firing range. An agent holds his Magnum at his side and speaks to us through a cordless mike, which makes him sound like a man with an amplified sinus condition. He puts six rounds into the heart of a target, then picks up the 9mm submachine gun and lets loose a burst of 13 rounds per second. The target is ripped to shreds. "Cool," says the crossing guard next to me.

"Any questions?" the agent asks sadly.

"Do you ever have to use your gun?" asks the crossing guard.

"More and more every year," he says, even more sadly. When I was the crossing guard's age, I wanted to be an FBI agent. Later, in college, I thought the FBI was tapping my phone (paranoia is, after all, a form of self-flattery). Now I stand somewhere between those two attitudes. We live in a world that thinks it needs the FBI more than, say, art. But where is the art that speaks to that fact, America? Not in the National Gallery. Of course, there are those porno bookstores. DINNER WITH THE POWERFUL

And so my whirlwind tour of D.C. draws to a cranky close. I have enough time to grab a bite before my 7 p.m. flight. I sit alone in an Italian place, a table of Democrats on my right, a table of Republicans on my left. Is that ironic or what?

"Did either of you see the president's speech?" says the loud Democrat.

"Out in the boonies, nobody cares," says the female Democrat.

"No," says the loud Democrat. "They're tougher outside the Beltway than inside. And America thinks these guys really blew it."

This is too much for the loud Republican, who pipes up: "Who do you have to offer? Kennedy?"

"Who will you have?" retorts the loud Democrat. "Pat Robertson?"

The female Democrat emits periodic hoots of loud and patently false laughter during this exchange.

"Go with your first impulse," whispers the female Republican. "That's how I order dinner."

I'm grateful for this glimpse of D.C. in action, this museum of attitude. I stiff the waiter and think about D.C. all the way to the airport. You know what D.C. is? It's a Disneyland for people who like to file. I gotta go. ::