While I was in line for a tour of the U.S. Capitol, I wondered if it might also be the line to pelt our representatives with rocks. The tenor of the chitchat among my fellow tourists was, in a word, negative. “Is this the White House?” I heard a girl ask her dad. “No, this is where Congress works — or pretends to,” her dad answered. Another man wondered whether Congress had misspelled Sacagawea’s name on her statue. (It was spelled Sakakawea, which is correct according to her home state of North Dakota, though not according to her tribe.) “I wouldn’t be surprised if they got it wrong,” he said.
While Congress may be a morass of inaction, the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center is a marvel of efficiency and customer service. When I arrived an hour late for my tour due to circumstances beyond my control (I overslept), a smiling guide slotted me into a group that was about to leave. (You can book timed tickets online, or just show up.)
The tour starts with a short film that covers a year’s worth of civics lessons, including how Congress is elected and the three branches of government, all set to beauty shots of American skylines. At the end of the film, an ethereal choir sings while a female narrator brings it all home. “This is the core, the center, of our experiment in political freedom,” she says. “Congress is where we can find our common ground.”
Just one person applauded as the lights came up. Tough crowd, tourists.
After the film, we were divided up and assigned to tour guides. The guides worked to keep pre-existing groups together. “Are you from Yeshiva University?” one guide asked a Japanese family, while failing to notice a dozen lost-looking young men in kippas.
My tour group was a diverse bunch, with people from all over the U.S. and Canada, a couple from Paris and a family from Hong Kong. Our tour guide, whom I’ll call Seth because I forgot his actual name, passed out headphones so we could hear him in the echoey halls. A cute Canadian kid, maybe 7 years old, immediately began pelting him with questions. “How do these things work?” he said. Seth explained that his microphone broadcast to our headsets using a low-powered radio signal. “How far is their range?” the boy asked. Seth had no idea.
While Seth’s knowledge of wireless technology was disappointing, he did know a lot about American history. As he ushered us around, he pointed out statues of major and minor historical figures and gave concise summaries of their lives. “That’s Crawford Long,” he said, pointing at a marble statue of a long-faced man. “He was the first modern anesthesiologist.” “That’s Peter Muhlenberg,” he said, pointing at a statue of the Revolutionary War hero. “He was elected to the Senate but decided to take a better-paying job instead.”
“What kind of batteries do these use?” the Canadian kid asked.
He wasn’t the only one having trouble focusing. While it offers a nice, air-conditioned respite from the heat of the Mall, the Capitol tour is a bit boring. It’s essentially a jaunt through three rooms (the crypt, the rotunda and the National Statuary Hall) where the main things to look at are other tourists and statues of prominent, deceased citizens. The crypt doesn’t even have anyone dead in it: It was made for George Washington, but his descendents politely declined. And if you want to see your representatives in action, you have to get gallery passes from their offices.
As we stood in the rotunda, which is undergoing renovations, Seth struggled to find points of interest.
“What you’re smelling right now is paint fumes,” he explained. “Sherwin-Williams made a lovely shade of paint for us. It’s called Dome White.”
Seth also made sure to point out things of particular interest to our group. I’m from Florida, so he stopped in front of a statue of John Gorrie. “He invented air conditioning,” Seth said. “I know Gorrie,” I exclaimed. “My elementary school was named after him.”
Flushed with excitement, I asked a woman from another tour group to take a photo of me with my home-state hero. Misunderstanding my request, she started to take a photo of me with the adjacent statue, which happened to be of Rosa Parks. “Oh no, I want a picture with this guy,” I said, pointing at Gorrie before realizing that Parks’ contribution to history might be a smidge more important. “He invented air conditioning,” I lamely explained.
The kids in my group had started hopscotching on the white and black checkered floors. Two tripped and fell. “Everyone OK?” Seth asked. “Please try not to sit on the statues,” he said to a girl who had taken a seat on a pedestal.
Before he bid us farewell, Seth asked if we had any other questions. We all looked at the kid from Canada.
“Can we keep these?” he said, trying to pocket the headset. “Sorry,” Seth replied. “Maybe you can find something else in the gift shop to take home.”
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