Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Almost Famous

OK, not really, but I did come close to another Andy Warhol moment this afternoon when a CBS Evening News reporter snagged me coming out of the newly opened Capitol visitors center.
Today was opening day for the center and I happened to be on the Hill to have lunch with my wife. As we were walking back toward her office, we saw camera crews and remembered that the center was open today after six years of work and some $600 million. Cheryl told me that today was a "soft open," one done without a huge amount of publicity so that there would not be huge crowds and it would give staff and security a chance to work out any kinks.
I decided that the afternoon's work could wait an extra 45 minutes and headed on in.
I had no particular expectations, but a great deal of curiosity. We've been reading about cost overruns and construction delays and redesigns ever since we moved to the DC area almost six years ago. We've watched the dig beyond the construction barriers as we've hosted out-of-town guests, visited my wife's office at the Library of Congress, and participated in numerous demonstrations for peace that were centered on the Capitol.
With a withering architectural critique, this morning's Post tempered whatever expectations I may have harbored.
Still, I figured that anything that moved the security line from a makeshift tent on the sidewalk next to Independence Avenue to a permanent location under a roof and safe from DC's fickle weather was a good move.
Indeed, the new arrangement makes it feel far easier to get into the building. You can walk straight up to the entrance, go through security and that's it.
Once in, I was free to roam through exhibits on the history of the Capitol, the founding documents of the republic and several fascinating relics of Capitol history including the table which held Lincoln's second inaugural address, the catafalque that has held the caskets of those who have lain in state in the Rotunda, and a ceremonial cup that was awarded to Rep. Preston Brooks by fellow South Carolinians after Brooks caned Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner following Sumner's impassioned anti-slavery speech in the spring of 1857.
I walked through the exhibits and then straight up the stairs into the Rotunda. I don't know if you can go beyond that point without being in a tour group, but I wasn't interested in going further today.
I recall coming to the Capitol in the early 80s, when you could walk straight up the west steps that overlook the Mall and waltz right in. Such freedom in public space is almost as quaint a relic of past times as the Lincoln table, but the new visitors center at least provides an illusion of such liberty.
Of course, the CBS reporter was not interested in that. The story she came to tell concerned the excessive costs. In fact, she asked me what I thought about that. I said that compared to spending half a billion dollars on sports stadiums, this seemed in line. She asked how I felt about my taxes being spent on this and I said, that amortized over the next 50 to 100 years that people will enjoy this, it doesn't strike me as unreasonable, and that I'd rather have my tax dollars support this than two endless, purposeless war.
That wasn't the story she intended to tell, so I wound up on the cutting room floor (although you can catch a glimpse of me walking up to the entrance in my dashing black leather jacket in the teaser before the story began!).
Perhaps I should have said, "compared to a trillion dollar bailout of a failed financial system and a $25 billion bailout of the auto industry, $600 million spent on making citizen access to the Capitol a bit easier and more pleasant seems like a pretty sound investment."