It may sound supremely hokey, but pack a hanky for your trip to the nation's capital. • Something, somewhere will bring tears to even the most jaded eyes. (Even if it is simply the annual pink riot of cherry blossoms.) Impressive buildings and the historic artifacts within — all evidence of the grand works and deeds that shaped our nation — will get to you at some point, and maybe when you least expect it. • It's easy to be sharp-tongued about those big-spending politicos who have lost touch with the plight of Everyman when you are thousands of miles away from where they work. But on the people's turf, staring through the glass at President Abraham Lincoln's red velvet Bible, the very one on which he and Barack Obama took the oath of office, history takes hold and shakes you. Significance can't be denied here, and you realize that lousy policy and politicians mostly come and go. The ones that matter get etched in stone.
Just try to remain stoic when viewing the contents of Lincoln's pockets when he was gunned down in Ford's Theatre. Displayed neatly in the Library of Congress, in complete opposition of that chaotic night, are two pairs of small, wire-framed glasses, a pocketknife, a watch fob and a linen handkerchief with tiny initials crudely embroidered in red. Curiously, his brown leather wallet contained a Confederate $5 note.
A visit to Washington, with all its pomposity and provenance, makes you proud to be an American. There, I said it. Cue the waterworks.
What to see
There are dozens of guide books to follow and even more sites to visit in Washington. The museums of the Smithsonian Institution alone could gobble up a week. Then there are the monuments and other museums, plus funky and fancy neighborhoods with businesses and restaurants that reflect their personalities, and mile upon mile of walking tours.
If you've been to the capital before, consider focusing on what's new this time around. On a recent trip, I combined the old and the new with a visit to the Library of Congress, built in 1897, and the Capitol Visitor Center, which opened Dec. 2. They are connected by an underground pedestrian tunnel, a nice touch when the weather is lousy, which could be just about anytime thanks to a healthy dose of four seasons in D.C.
Entry is free to both places, but expect a complete security screening when you enter and another as you proceed through the tunnel. Procedures are buttoned up tight everywhere in the district since 9/11. You'll be told to toss that water bottle and admonished not to take photos of artifacts behind glass. (The flashing lights cause fading.)
Expect crowds, that way if you hit an off-day you'll feel fortunate. Even with the economic downturn, Washington remains a hot spot for travelers. Families, students and seniors are visiting in droves. Summer, even with its dreadful heat and humidity, is the most crowded of all (save for the National Cherry Blossom Festival that ends today). The new White House residents are creating a buzz and more interest. It seems every block has an Obama souvenir store, including one at Pennsylvania Avenue and 14th Street that has a life-sized cutout of the commander in chief with a sound system blasting his inaugural speech.
A controversial center
The Capitol Visitor Center cost $621 million, and its opening was delayed several times over the six-year construction period. Security concerns, congressional add-ons and delays ran up the cost, originally set at about $220 million.
Well, what's done is done, and there probably aren't many people among the 3 million expected to visit this year who will give a hoot in Hoover how much it cost. It's magnificent and a beautiful addition to the Capitol complex.
If you've ever visited the Capitol on a sweltering July day, recall how it felt to wait in line, withering and wondering when you would get to see your government in action. Hopefully, you lugged water along and no one in your party had to go to the bathroom. Today, no need to worry about the amenities. The center has 26 bathrooms and a 530-seat restaurant.
The goal of the 580,000-square-foot center, says Tom Fontana, marketing and communications director, is to enhance the experience for people touring the Capitol. (You'll still need to get passes to get into the Capitol; see the accompanying information box.) While visitors wait to peek at Congress, they can watch an orientation movie, peruse artifacts from the Library of Congress and the National Archives and see the black-shrouded pine platform on which the body of Lincoln laid in state. The catafalque has also held the bodies of other famous Americans, including President Gerald R. Ford.
Perhaps the most impressive attribute of the center is the building itself, which is three stories underground to the east front of the Capitol. Through twin 30- by 70-foot skylights, visitors look up and see the dome, the bronze Statue of Freedom on its top and a fluttering American flag. The center is the biggest addition to the Capitol since the dome was completed in the 1860s.
Among other highlights:
• Twenty-four statues from the National Sanctuary Hall are on display in the center. Among those honored are King Kamehameha of Hawaii, memorialized in a whopping 6 tons of solid granite, and Gen. E. Kirby Smith of Florida, who was the longest-surviving full general from both the confederacy and the union.
• An 1856 plaster model of the Statue of Freedom had been on display in the basement rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building since 1993. The model was taken apart there and moved to Emancipation Hall in the center of the visitor center. On my visit, the statue was the most popular backdrop for photos. (The hall was named in honor of the many slaves who helped build the Capitol.)
• A touchable cut-away model of the dome shows visitors how the 33-million-pound structure was built.
• The 186-foot-long marble "Wall of Aspirations" features etchings of phrases from the Constitution and displays of artifacts, including Jefferson's letter to Congress asking it to finance the Lewis and Clark expedition.
At the nation's library
Even if there were nothing in the Library of Congress, it would be a fine place to visit.
More than 100 years old, the Italian Renaissance building sweeps up visitors in its grandeur. After you negotiate the very modern security system, the east corridor leads to the Great Hall with its rich mosaics commemorating American achievement. Sculpture and paintings celebrate poetry and farming, medicine and philosophy. The shell is just as impressive as the contents.
Basically, says our tour guide, the library holds everything ever copyrighted: That's 32 million books and other print materials in nearly 500 languages. The library has a rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, one of only four Gutenberg Bibles in existence (no photos — it's behind glass) and 1 million issues of newspapers from around the world over the last 300 years.
Of great interest to boys, and boys at heart, are the library's 6,000 comic books and the world's largest collection of baseball cards, which includes the collector's holy grail: the T206 Honus Wagner.
Thomas Jefferson's quest for knowledge is evident in 3-D when you stand in the middle of a sweeping arc of shelves that hold more than 5,000 books from his library. Forget arranging them "alpha by author" — the books are divided into categories such as "memory," "reason" and "imagination."
This was a guy with a big brain. And no Kindle.
The Lincoln exhibition that so moved me and others with whom I toured is on display until May 9, when it moves on to other U.S. cities. "With Malice Toward None" will only get as close to the Tampa Bay area as Atlanta. It comes to the Atlanta History Center in fall 2010, which will be the farthest south the artifacts have been displayed.
American history on the move. Something else to get misty about.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.