Sunday, September 29, 2019

Capitol Politics

 U. S. Capitol

Now that we’re retired, Tim and I spend much of our time following national as well as local political news. Not surprisingly, the daily outrages coming out of the White House keep us plenty busy. So naturally we were intrigued when the L.A. Times announced its latest “expedition,” touring Washington D.C. with one of its political reporters. President Bill Clinton was in the midst of impeachment the last time we visited D.C., 20 years ago. Might another impeachment happen if we returned? We signed up immediately.

Our group was small: nine well-read Southern Californians who, despite political affiliation, were all as concerned about the current White House as we are. Our guide was a Times political reporter and D.C. resident. Thanks to him and his contacts, we were able to: meet with staff from the Constitutional Accountability Center, which is representing Congress in an emolument lawsuit against the White House; watch the filming of MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews; eat lunch with L.A. Times editor Jackie Calmes, who is writing a book about recent Supreme Court appointee Brett Kavanaugh; have drinks with MSNBC political commentators; meet retired Congressmember Henry Waxman, who now works for his son’s lobbying firm; and tour the recently-renovated offices of the Motion Picture Association.

The true highlight, however, was touring the Capitol building, where we unexpectedly stumbled into the middle of history. After briefly visiting the Supreme Court building, we walked over to the Capitol and chatted with Senator Kamala Harris’s communications aide. Two interns then took us on a tour of the Capitol, including rides on the underground trams that take legislators from their buildings to the main part of the Capitol—typical VIP touristy stuff.

Looming over all of this, however, was the whistleblower complaint claiming that the White House used promises of military aid to extort Ukraine into investigating presidential candidate Joe Biden. In response, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi scheduled a special Democratic caucus meeting at 4PM to discuss whether or not to launch a formal impeachment inquiry. Their decision would then be publicly announced at 5PM.


It was almost 3PM when we just happened to be walking by Pelosi’s office in the Capitol. Suddenly there was a flurry of activity as somebody whispered, “There’s Schiff!” And sure enough, here came an entourage including Congressmember Adam Schiff, chair of the House intelligence committee, followed closely by Jerry Nadler, chair of the House judiciary committee. Obviously both were on their way to confer with the Speaker before the 4PM meeting.

“Oh my god,” I said to no one in particular. “It’s happening!”

Within seconds, we were surrounded by TV, radio, and newspaper reporters eagerly awaiting news. Anticipation filled the hall. We all knew the three Congressmembers were talking impeachment. I could barely breathe.

Our Times guide had arranged a 3:15PM meeting with L.A. Representative Jimmy Gómez, so we quickly made our way to another part of the building. It seemed impossible that the hundreds of happy-go-lucky tourists we passed didn’t know what was happening in Pelosi’s office. Making no predictions, Gómez was clearly distressed about the decision he would soon help make, saying that this was a sad but historic day. He then left for the 4PM meeting as his aide took us down a flight of stairs that led to the back of the building.

As we were leaving, we heard a loud cheer: Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, wearing a bright orange hijab, was greeted by a small, but loud, group of pro-impeachment supporters. Exiting the building, we joined the supporters for a quick photo before walking to our van. Only then did I allow myself to cry, relieved that Congress was at last moving toward impeachment. At 5PM, we listened to Pelosi’s announcement as we drove back to the hotel. A formal inquiry was finally being launched.

 View of the Capitol from the Supreme Court building

More photos of our trip follow below.

Sightseeing Washington D.C.

 Viewing the Capitol from the Newseum

We flew into National Airport late Saturday, spent the night in Crystal City, and then took the subway into D.C. on Sunday. I forgot how futuristic the subway stations are.

 Beautiful subway stations in Washington, D.C.

 Schlepping our luggage on the subway
Arriving at our hotel early, we made our way over to the Newseum, a museum dedicated to the First Amendment and a free press. Unfortunately, the building has been sold, so this was our last chance to see it. So much for celebrating freedom of the press!

Inspiring quotes on the walls

Colorful section of the Berlin Wall

The first tour with our group was Dupont Circle, our "home" neighborhood for the week. Lots of amazing homes, many of which are now embassies or museums.

Typical Gilded Age mansion

Former Walsh-McLean mansion (1903) now
serves as the Indonesian Embassy

 Former Heurich House ((1894), now the

  Lovely row houses

After dinner at the Tabard Inn (yum!), we piled into our van for an evening tour of the Washington monuments. Even if you've seen the monuments during the day, you must return at night—absolutely spectacular.


Every state represented


Ascending the stairs

"The memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever."

Lincoln's view of the Washington Monument across The National Mall 

Washington, D.C. Journalism

Historic NBC Studio A
On Monday, we visited the L.A. Times Washington D.C. bureau, where we chatted with reporters about immigration, healthcare and the environment. We then met with staff at the Constitutional Accountability Center, which is representing Congress in an emoluments lawsuit against the White House. I decided then and there that if I were to change professions, I'd want to be a constitutional lawyer. Ah, to be younger . . .

Lunch was at Ben's Chili Bowl, a popular hangout for politicos and local folk alike. In 2009, Barack Obama famously ate here a few days before his inauguration. This beloved landmark has been serving chili dogs, burgers, and more since 1958.

"Can't miss" signage

 Tim in his glory

At 5:40PM, we hopped on our tour van again to NBC studios, where we watched a live broadcast of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews. Historic Studio A was also the site of the first televised presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, plus has hosted Meet the Press since 1958.

Getting ready to broadcast

Meeting Chris Matthews after the show

On the Hardball set

NBC peacock 

The Capitol and Supreme Court Buildings

Library of Congress, topped by a sculpted torch
Before being thrust into the middle of Tuesday's historic events, our group toured the Capitol and two of its nearby sibling buildings, the Supreme Court and Library of Congress. 

All marble and grand hallways, the Supreme Court is perhaps the most austere of the three buildings. Court was not in session, so we were treated to a 30-minute informational lecture inside the renowned courtroom. Unlike the rest of the starkly white public area, the courtroom is lushly draped in red velour. 

Supreme Court building

Stairs leading to the courtroom

Red-draped courtroom and nine Justice seats. Observers sit on pews
and cane-backed chairs.

Next stop: the Library of Congress, which librarians affectionately call "LC." It is the world's largest library. Although there are no books in sight, LC is magnificent in its decor and architecture. A true temple of written knowledge.

 Library of Congress archway in the Great Hall 

Looking up from the Great Hall

Ceiling ornamentation


 Looking down onto the Great Hall

Ceremonial Librarian of Congress office

Thomas Jefferson's book collection, which provided 
the foundation for the original LC collection

World-famous Reading Room. Remember the scene in 

Reading Room's rotunda

Our last stop of the day was the Capitol, which we accessed via a public underground tunnel from LC. The building is festooned in statues. But perhaps the most famous is the original plaster model of the bronze Statue of Freedom that sits atop the Capitol dome. Recently restored, the plaster version is the centerpiece of Emancipation Hall, the building's main public space.

Plaster Statue of Freedom

Thanks to our Times tour guide, we visited Senator Kamala Harris's office in the Senate's Hart building. We even got to ride the underground trams connecting Hart to the rest of the Capitol buildings.

Directory to Senate offices: Kamala Harris's office, room 112


Lots of underground hallways

Restricted access
Open underground tram cars and "conductor"

Breath-taking Capitol rotunda, under which deceased officials
lie in state for public viewing  

Air and Space Museum

Chuck Yeager's Bell X-1
After chatting all morning  with lobbyists, Tim and I decided to spend our last afternoon in D.C. at the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum. Unfortunately the museum is currently under renovation, so the exhibits seemed rather haphazard—Neil Armstrong's space suit, for instance, was part of the Wright brothers display (huh?). Nevertheless, it's always exciting to be around rockets and historic airplanes.


Skylab B, which was never launched into space

 Tail-end of Apollo command module

Neil Armstrong's moon-landing space suit

And historic airplanes, too—Lockheed 5B Vega, Amelia
Earhart's favorite 

Most exciting, however, was seeing the actual 11-foot-long model of the starship Enterprise used in the opening credits of the original Star Trek series. Painstakingly restored, the model, which used to unceremoniously hang in the museum's gift shop, now has its own display, lighting up three times a day at 11AM, 1PM, and 3PM. We were, of course, there!

 Refurbished Enterprise

View from the rear

Unadorned backside, which was never filmed

All lit up!

Happy Trekkie!