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Washington, D.C., up close and personal

By Karen Villalpando, 11/01/2012

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Since this is our Election issue, we thought an article about Washington, D.C. and its historic monuments would be in order. We visited our nation’s capital last summer as a family, and the trip made a personal impression on all of us.

The Washington Monument, while currently closed for entry due to damage that occurred in a 2011 earthquake, is still viewable from the surrounding grounds. (photo by Michael Villalpando)

I was 12 years old the last time I was in Washington, D.C.. It was a family vacation where we all loaded up in the station wagon and drove nearly 1,000 miles, stopping at various Stuckey’s and motels on the way.

Our daughters had never been to our nation’s Capital before, and Michael was about 20 years old with a backpack and $200 in his pocket on his last visit. The time was right for a trip to D.C..

Over the last 38 years since I was there, much has changed about the city, but in a sense, many things remain the same. What struck me first was the cleanliness of the city. Even in areas of construction, there was orderliness.  The boulevards are wide and the green space is more plentiful than I imagined. The monuments are as grand as ever, and are a big part of what remains the same.

Driving past 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the White House stands as regal today as it was in 1974, probably as regal as it was when it was first constructed in 1792. The first president to live in the White House was John Adams. In 1814, the British set fire to the President’s House (as it was then called) and headquarters moved to a nearby hotel, The Willard, still just a block from the White House, and where we stayed our first night.

After reconstruction was complete, President James Monroe moved in in 1817. He oversaw the building of the South Portico and in 1829 President Andrew Jackson added the North Portico. Theodore Roosevelt added what is now known as the West Wing, and Howard Taft is credited with adding the Oval Office. Of course throughout the years, interior renovations have occurred many times, with many First Ladies wanting to add their own style and personal touches to the house.

Tours of the White House are still available, but the security is much tighter – as expected – than 40 years ago.  Advance reservations are now required, must be made through one’s Member of Congress, and space is limited. We were to arrive at 7:45 a.m. for our 8:00 a.m. tour, and we had to pick up a special pass from Congressman Henry Waxman’s office. Personal items (purses, wallets, cameras) are a no-no, and if brought along must be left in the security office, understandably. It’s amazing how many people can’t follow directions. I saw many people with cameras and drinking soda, despite these rules being plainly spelled out. We were proud to be standing in line, dressed properly, with Michael in a suit and tie, and the three of us in dresses.

The self-guided tours allow you to spend as much time as you’d like in each room, and there are guides throughout who can answer questions. We were able to view the East Room, the Blue Room (which is not as blue as it once was, thanks to First Lady Hillary Clinton’s change in the wallpaper) the Green Room and the Grand Entrance Hall where currently a portrait of President George W. Bush hangs. We spent perhaps 45 minutes going through the various rooms, and once we exited, realized there’s no turning back. Take my advice and linger, soaking up all of the history, paintings, and photos hanging on the walls.

The hill, upon which the Washington Monument is located, offers this view of the White House. Many of the monuments are within walking distance of each other, including the Smithsonian’s 19 museums. There is much to see in D.C., so be sure to map your trip before you go. (photo by Michael Villalpando)

With so many monuments and museums to view, plan your trip accordingly. It’s difficult to take it all in two or three days. One tour not to be missed is the Capitol building.  Tours are free and reservations are required.

We had a very special guide for our tour of the Capitol – Congressman Henry A. Waxman. He happened to be in D.C. and offered to give us a personalized tour. We began in his office where he has framed bills that he either authored or helped craft, signed by every president under which he has served since elected to Congress in 1974. The one in which he is most proud, he said, is the Affordable Care Act, the healthcare law signed under President Obama. Waxman said he and Ted Kennedy worked for more than 30 years to pass a healthcare law, and it finally came to fruition under President Obama. According to Waxman, the full effects and benefits of the law will not be fully implemented until 2014. Once the American people completely realize and see how this healthcare law will directly improve their lives, the call to repeal it will fade away.

Waxman’s office is in the Rayburn building, as are the offices of many members of Congress. In the basement is a small train, more like a tram that transports members to the Capitol when a call for vote is convened. It is especially helpful during inclement weather. After going through proper security clearances, we made our way to the rotunda, where statues of noteworthy people representing every state of the union are erected. For the state of California,  a statue of Ronald Reagan has been erected.

The painting inside the dome, “The Apothesis”, is breathtaking. Painted in 1865 by Italian artist Constantino Brumidi, the fresco combines Greek and Roman gods and goddesses with important Americans and achievements. The center features George Washington surrounded by 13 women, for the 13 original colonies.

We ventured to the House of Representative chambers, which have remained virtually the same since 1945, other than the addition of electronic voting machines. Next to the Speakers chair is a relic from the English Parliament, a post that is replaced with an American flag to indicate the House is in session. The post serves to remind the House of Representatives just how far we have come as a nation.  Mr. Waxman invited us beyond the red velvet ropes to where the Speaker sits, when seemingly out of no where, a young man appeared and informed the Congressman that he could not do that. The man in his twenties was dressed in jeans and an orange and white striped polo shirt. Waxman responded to him, “Do you know who I am?”  The man replied, “I’m very aware, sir.” Waxman retorted, “Well OK then. You’d think they’d have a dress code around here.” The whole incident lasted under 30 seconds, but provided us all with a good laugh.

Outside of the House Chambers is a gathering room with finely appointed furniture, richly woven draperies and numerous oil paintings where members of Congress meet privately with each other, discuss the issues of the day and, I’m sure, make deals. French doors lead to a terrace offering remarkable vistas of the city. Mr. Waxman said he rarely goes on the balcony because members who smoke usually occupy the space. In fact, smoking was allowed in the gathering room until Nancy Pelosi became Speaker of the House and prohibited it, Waxman said.

On to the Senate Chambers, where unlike the House, the Senate still has desks, each with a bronze placard bearing the Senators’ names. We made our way to John Kerry’s desk, and when Mr. Waxman started to lift the lid, another young person descended upon us, informing the Congressman that was off limits. She too was dressed rather casually, however, she was quick to appease the Congressman by ushering us to a desk we could open – the freshman senator’s desk. In this case, it was Senator Mark Kirk’s, whose desk serves as the “candy jar”. What was most interesting is the senators who have previously sat in this desk carved their names – much like school kids – on the inside. Two names that stood out, Barack Obama and John F. Kennedy.

Walking through the halls of Senate Chamber Gallery are the busts of every Vice President. It was a trip down memory lane, recalling the names on both sides and remembering how they impacted our country. Waxman went on to discuss his work with other legislators including Senator Dole whom he worked with on several pieces of legislation, including a health care initiative. “That was a more civil time in our history. We worked together to get a lot of work done,” Waxman said almost wistfully. Unfortunately, he said, compromise is getting harder and harder to come by, and he blamed both sides for their failure to cooperate.

As we walked the corridors of the Capitol, I was struck by the thought that the persons who inhabit this place – right here and now – are just the temporary caretakers – caretakers elected by the people, to come to Washington and do the job we’ve entrusted them with. It’s not about the House of Representatives or the Senate members – it’s about us – the people and the power is in our hands.

We moved onto the Smithsonian next. It’s a daunting task, viewing the Smithsonian and its 19 museums and zoological park, in two days. We selected two museums – the Air and Space Museum and the American History Museum. We saw the First Lady Inaugural Gown exhibit, Dorothy’s red slippers (among many other American icons) and the Star Spangled Banner exhibit. The 30 X 34 foot wool and cotton flag is displayed in dramatic fashion behind glass in a climate controlled room. It was by far one of the most awe-inspiring moments of the trip. Lines move slowly in the Smithsonian, especially in the middle of summer. I suggest you consider the off season for a more leisurely experience.

The Jefferson Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, WWII Memorial were all on our list of musts, but we ran out of time. We were able to enjoy Lincoln from afar and got a little closer to the Washington Monument. The 555-foot, 5-1/8” marble obelisk honoring George Washington, is currently closed after it sustained damage in an August 2011 earthquake. It’s still a sight to behold and the view of the White House from the hill it sits upon is memorable. Just a short walk from there is the WWII memorial honoring the 16 million who served and the 400,000 who died. I was stunned at these facts. President Bill Clinton signed a law in 1996 authorizing the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) to establish a World War II Memorial. Senator Bob Dole, a World War II veteran seriously wounded on the battlefield and twice decorated with the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, led the fund-raising campaign for the memorial, again his name coming up in a bi-partisan effort. The memorial officially opened in April 2004. There was a certain calming feeling being at the memorial, it was quiet and solemn, away from the bustle of the Smithsonian. Perhaps it was because Michael’s father was a WWII veteran. He was a gunner’s mate on the USS San Diego, the first American ship to enter Tokyo Bay. He received full military honors when he died in 1997, and Michael was presented with the American flag that draped over his coffin. We brought that flag with us, to have it flown over the Capitol Building. At the end of this long day, we all sat silently for a few minutes absorbing the moment.

Reminiscing about our trip is fitting these last few days before Election day. As I head to my polling place on Tuesday, I will recall the many mental pictures I took at the White House, at the Capitol, and at the WWII Memorial. My vote matters, my voice will be heard on November 6. I hope those who will occupy the positions we elect them to will hear it too.

Michael Villalpando contributed to this story.

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