A Chance Encounter

One of the things that is sort of magic about working in Washington, DC, is the potential for chance encounters with well-known people.

The best time to go see tourist sites in DC is in January through early March, before Spring break when the throngs of tourists start to arrive, and keep coming through summer. Except for the occasional group of school kids on a field trip, you usually find the museums, monuments, and other attractions uncrowded in the bleak winter months. You can take your time to stroll around and not get jostled by others, or be asked to “move along” by building guards because you’re holding up the line.

On Tuesday, a colleague from work and I decided to go explore the new Capitol Visitor’s Center, which was built underneath the U.S. Capitol Building. This monumental behemoth, which cost $621M ($440M over budget) to build and took three years longer than planned to open, now serves as the gathering place for tourists wishing to see the Capitol Building, and for visitors who have business with Congress in the actual Capitol Building. (Most visitors who have business with Members of Congress meet with them in their respective offices, which are in nearby Senate or House office buildings).

When you get to the Visitor’s Center, of course you have to go through a magnetometer. I even had to “get wanded” since my Chippewa Firefighter Boots I was wearing set off the alarm. I just rolled my eyes and endured it, and tried not to remember the happy-go-lucky days of my youth when you could walk right into the Capitol Building and wander around on your own.

You make your way to a ticket desk. The clerk was delighted to tell me that they had “a few walk-up tickets available.” Yeah, right… “a few.” The place was fairly empty. We decided to pick a time for our tour a little later, so we could walk around and have lunch, too. The restaurant in the Visitor’s Center is nice, but it is pricey. Even the Smithsonian eateries are less expensive than this place. Perhaps they’re trying to make up their cost over-runs on the backs of visitors. But I digress….

When we queued up for our tour, we were escorted into a large theater, where we were shown a movie about the Capitol and Congress. As one would expect, the Capitol’s history is as storied as it is magnificent. And Congress thinks the world of itself. But I digress….

After the movie, you exit the rear of the theater and are given a wireless headset. A tour guide briskly walks you around and you end up in the Rotunda of the Capitol Building. The Guide explains the art and frescos, and some of the history of the building. Even though perhaps I’m jaded about Congress, I still remain in awe and stare with wonder at the Capitol, especially from the inside. It is indeed magnificent.

As I was staring gape-jawed upward at the art within the Rotunda, I heard a Capitol Police Officer say rather loudly, “stay here, don’t move!” I looked around, and saw that my little tour group was being herded against a wall. We were told, “just wait here a minute.” I thought that perhaps the Vice President, who is the President of the Senate, might be walking by.

Well, yes, he did… and so did the President! I actually got to see and wave at President Obama. The President had come to the Capitol that day to plead his case for the Economic Stimulus package. It is not common for the President to come to the Capitol to press for passage of legislation. But this legislation is the biggest thing that Congress has considered in quite some time, and is very important to the President, and to our country.

So here I am, standing there, gape-jawed again. The President really looks like he does on TV. His smile is warm and gracious, he seemed quite friendly and affable. He reached over to shake hands with a couple kids who were in the front row of our group. Then he quickly walked down the hall into the Office of the Speaker of the House, which is right off of the Rotunda area.

Wow… cool, huh? This doesn’t happen every day to us commoners.

The Capitol Visitor’s Center is nice. However, except for some statues and large paintings, the place is rather barren. The movie is nice. The tour, however, is really short. You don’t get to see much. But heck, it’s free, and it’s our Capitol, where the people’s work is done. If you visit, live, or work in DC, go see it. Your visit should take about an hour to 90 minutes. You can even get tour tickets for free on-line in advance at this link. I strongly recommend that after you tour the Capitol through the Visitor’s Center, to use the tunnel and go visit the Library of Congress, just across the street. Now that is an amazing place. Enjoy!