Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Capitol Time

How I spent my summer vacation.

We found ourselves in Washington, D.C., recently on a trip to the East Coast to visit family and friends. This was not a new experience. We visit our nation's capitol often. We have a daughter there and both my wife and I used to live in Washington pursuing wildly divergent careers.

She worked for the CIA. I was in the military. But that's a story for another day.

No matter how many times we visit D.C., we never tire of visiting the museums, galleries and monuments. This time was no exception.

The weather, usually approximating high noon in Borneo, was mild. Tourists were plentiful, mostly gawking parents with bored kids in tow, although seemingly in smaller numbers than we've seen in the past.

Blame the economy, which seems to be the whipping boy for everything from job loss to ear wax.

Conventioneers were visible. The Islamic Society of North America and the Christians United for Israel were meeting at approximately the same time. No incidents were reported.

Also on scene were the Romance Writers of America, the Texas Bandmasters Association, the American Bridge Teachers Association and something called the Magic Lantern Society. Is this a great country or what?

Contrary to what you may have read on the Internet, I didn't see any roving bands of Socialists, loudly promising equitable distribution of the nation's resources. That's not exactly true. I did see a few. Albert Einstein, Hellen Keller and Susan B.Anthony, socialists all, stand etched in stone here.

I expected to see a gaggle of protestors and/or supporters in town for the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor. But there were none, reflecting the often boring nature of the hearings despite the cable TV networks' attempt to present it as edge-of-the-seat excitement.

I did see one kid in front of the Supreme Court building hawking "Sonia" T-shirts.

We visited the new Washington Visitor Center, which extends beneath the U.S. Capitol building. It is spiffy and efficient. It should be. It cost $621 million to build, $360 million over original estimates.

Now a group of congressmen want to inscribe "In God We Trust" on the walls of the center which will cost another $150,000. This, of course, is pitting religious types against church/state separation advocates. Maybe the California legislature can them help reach a speedy resolution of the problem.

We took a guided tour of the capitol, something I haven't done in 40 years. The tour hasn't changed much. You visit the rotunda, the old Senate Chamber and the crypt beneath the Rotunda. I noticed that guarding the entrance to the Senate chamber is a large statue of James Garfield. I though it odd that Garfield would occupy a room peopled by the likes of Eisenhower, Lincoln, Washington, Martin Luther King. It would be like finding Gerald Ford in the pantheon of American heroes.

Garfield's main claim to fame is that he was assassinated, the second president (after Lincoln) to be killed in office. Later, I saw an ornate statue of Garfield near the Potomac River. Quite a tribute for a guy who served six months in office.

Not all was well in Washington. The National Mall, which runs 1.9 miles from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial and is often referred to as "America's front yard," was in appalling condition.

Most of the grass is dead or dying. Reflecting pools are filled with putrid water. Sidewalks are crumbling.

An Associated Press analysis of congressional spending since 2005 found the mall has been at a disadvantage in competing for extra funds doled out by lawmakers, compared with sites that are represented by powerful members of Congress.

Because the mall is in Washington, D.C., it has no vote in the House or Senate.

Last year, when dozens of ducks and ducklings died of avian botulism because the water in a mall pool near the Capitol was so fetid, and as urgent repairs were needed to stop the Jefferson Memorial's sea wall from sinking into the mud, the Senate killed a $3.5 million earmark for the mall, according to the AP. Instead, funding went to projects back home.

The Obama Administration recently steered $55 million in economic stimulus money toward repairs, but Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says that's only a down payment on the nearly $400 million needed to fix things up.

It's a hell of a way to run a capitol.

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