I’ve lived in the Washington, DC area my entire life and it’s not very often that I get to see something in the city completely new. On Saturday the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon series made its annual stop in town, and offered a private tour of the Capitol building as one of its pre-race activities. Invitations came through a lottery system and my favorite runner somehow summonsed the requisite luck to win a spot.
I am not a runner so I felt a little guilty attending. I rationalized it by telling myself that I do support one — most recently traveling to the Center of the Nation — a fact I’ve mentioned several times previously on Twelve Mile Circle. Also, I do like to bike so maybe that was sufficient physical activity to qualify although my running has been limited to weekly 3-mile "fun runs" at a local brewpub. Still, winners were allowed to bring one other person so I accepted my "guest of" status on Friday afternoon and headed over to the Capitol.
There were about twenty lucky winners and their guests who met at the Capitol South metro station entrance. A former Congressman led the tour, Jim Ryun who represented the 2nd District of Kansas from 1996 to 2007. Member of Congress wasn’t his only accomplishment, either. He was also a highly accomplished runner. Rep. Ryun first ran a sub-four minute mile while he was still in high school and later recorded a personal best at 3:51.1, the last time an American held a world record at that distance. He participated in three Summer Olympics, and won a silver medal for 1,500 metres at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968. He also captured a slew of other national and world records at various distances during a distinguished career.
For two hours, Rep. Ryun and his wife Anne graciously guided the group through various uncharted corners of the Capitol generally off-limits to tourists, all the while conveying their reverence and respect for this cornerstone of American democracy. It was a rare privilege that few visitors get to experience in person. I truly savored every moment, realizing I probably wouldn’t be lucky enough to experience something like this again.
There once was a time not too many years ago when it was easy to get into the Capitol and we could pretty much wander around public areas as we pleased. It used to be a regular stop on my standard tour whenever I shepherded out-of-town visitors around the famous sites of the National Mall for the day. We’d start at the Capitol, maybe pop into one or two of the Smithsonian museums, meander over to the Washington Monument and wind our way down gradually to the Lincoln Memorial. Access to the Capitol became much more difficult after 9-11. Congress created the Capitol Visitor Center to restrict the flow. Anyone wanting to get into the Capitol building itself needed a reservation in advance and then had to stick to a highly regimented tour.
Our Friday afternoon tour wasn’t anything like that. People elected to Congress retained certain privileges for life; "once a member, always a member." Those included access to special entrances into the building and unfettered access to certain areas of the Capitol otherwise restricted to the public. Those privileges also extended to their guests. A simple flash of a badge was all it took to completely bypass the Capitol Visitor Center and its crowds, and walk directly through a side entrance without a line. We still had to pass through a security checkpoint with guards and a magnetometer although that barely took any time at all for our modest group.
The same badge led to several more corridors and rooms including some I’d never seen even during simpler times when security wasn’t as tight. We couldn’t take photographs in most of those places and in fact we had to leave our mobile phones on a table and pick them up later. Thus, even though we got onto the floor of the House of Representatives, sat in the actual seats used by Members of Congress, marveled at the architectural details and heard stories of political events that happened there, I didn’t have a single photo to prove it. I also learned of the existence of a small chapel tucked away in an obscure corner, a beautiful room used for quiet contemplation with a stained glass image of George Washington kneeling in prayer; and again, no photos (although I found one on the Intertubes)
However, we were allowed to use our cameras on the Speaker’s Balcony. The Speaker of the House had perhaps best view of any office in Washington, and his staff allowed our group onto the balcony for a brief moment. That’s the photo I’ve posted immediately above. Amazing.
Of course we also toured through many of the standard Capitol passages including the Rotunda and Statuary Hall. I’ve seen those places many times before so I focused my attention on the geo-oddities of the situation after soaking in the noteworthy artistic and architectural aesthetics. The Rotunda was still under renovation during our visit, making it difficult to appreciate its true beauty through scaffolding and canvas catchments. Construction couldn’t obscure one important fact that I’d mentioned previously in More Oddities in Washington, DC: the point directly beneath the center of the Capitol dome stood atop the city’s divisions. I made sure I found the exact spot where my body would be split evenly between Washington’s Northwest, Northeast, Southwest and Southeast quadrants simultaneously.
Who is that blurry man in the photo? Why, that’s Father Damien. Each state got space for two statues in the Capitol. Hawaii chose King Kamehameha and Father Damien. Hawaii recognized Father Damien, now elevated to Saint Damien of Molokai, for his ministry to lepers forced to live on a remote corner of the island in the Nineteenth Century. Eventually he contracted the disease and died there in 1889. That former leper colony became Kalawao County, famed amongst county counters as the smallest county in the United States. Someday I will go there.
Our private tour ended and we found ourselves back on the street. We hopped onto the subway and headed to dinner, grateful for being in a place where opportunities like these sometimes presented themselves.