Letter From DC: The Diminishing 4th, The Diminished Capitol

By , Columnist

A past Washington D.C. summer highlight was the city’s celebration of the 4th of July.  Despite the inevitable heat, humidity and requisite thunderstorm, it was a day of barbecues, partying, and smiles as hundreds of thousands congregated on the National Mall bookended by the Lincoln Memorial and the U.S. Capitol. The Fourth, like New Year’s Eve in New York City, was D.C.’s “raison d’etre.” No more.

The days of rolling couches and kegs to the Mall, of bringing a bottle of wine to the U.S. Capitol’s West Terrace, of freely mingling through the 20-block expanse to experience arguably the most famous and awe-inspiring fireworks in the nation have long been over. The sense of aesthetic appreciation for Pierre L’Enfant’s grand design for the city -- with the openness and accessibility of the National Mall deliberately designed as a symbolic hallmark to the nation’s sense of citizen egalitarianism -- is now spoiled.

capitol_west.jpgIn its stead now exists a demilitarized zone, with chokehold security checkpoints framed by fences and manned by gruff Capitol and U.S. Park police looking for any reason to justify their presence. Kids’ backpacks are inspected with the aid of rubber gloves and batons. There are deep, probing interrogations about whether that bottle of water really is bottled water and threats that if that pointy umbrella is not immediately surrendered, admission to the Mall will be denied.

These recent changes, as have most, were implemented under the guise of “enhanced security,” the need to keep us safe from evildoers and terrorists. Maybe it’s working. Attendance to the national birthday party has been diminishing year after year, perhaps reducing its attractiveness as a potential target. “Nobody goes down anymore,” said many a resident of the Capitol Hill neighborhood that has the dome as its backdrop. “It just isn’t worth the hassle.”

It appears, however, that there is an upside -- intended or not -- for Washington’s political elite: keeping those masses, which they ostensibly represent, at bay. It all started with the closure to the public of the U.S. Capitol’s West Terrace following the 9/11 attacks, denying access to one of the grandest of man-made vistas.

The security rationalization is dubious. One already must be screened to enter the U.S. Capitol complex. A step outside for fresh air and a remarkable view threatens security?

The landmark, however, has not gone to waste. On the 4th, it was teeming with “Members,” Hill staffers and “invited guests” (campaign contributors and lobbyists), savoring crab puffs and glasses of Chardonnay denied to the civilians below. It’s also a favorite check-giving location for those with access to a “Member” for association and lobbying events.

reid flippin the bird.jpgThe velvet rope security apparatus was then extended with the building of the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center, a $621 million, 20 acre, underground funnel for the sanitizing of huddled masses. “In the summer time, because it gets so hot here, you could literally smell the tourists coming,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said at its opening in December of 2008. “It’s a facility that allows people to have a place to go to the bathroom. There are many bathrooms here."

Twenty-six to be exact. It has not been determined whether the generous plumbing was responsible for the center going double over budget and three years past schedule. 

With the opening of the Visitors Center, Congress was then able to restrict free access to the Capitol, prohibiting self-directed strolls to marvel at the architectural wonder of the Rotunda and the Hall of Statues at one’s leisure. That can only occur with scheduled, chaperoned tours that insure minimal contact between those that pay for the “People’s House” and those that work in it, unless you know somebody of course.

The U.S. Capitol Police built a Jersey-barriered security perimeter around the Capitol campus, which includes House and Senate Office buildings, closing streets and forcing alternative routes to Union Station and thruways to get on and off the Hill. Not surprisingly, the street closings coincided with a much belabored demands for additional parking by Hill staffers. Two birds, one stone.

Picnickers on the grass lawn of the actual hill the Capitol sits atop now are routinely harassed by Capitol Police telling lunchers that the fact that they do not keep moving makes them suspicious. During Washington’s Snowmageddon two winters ago, it literally took an act of Congress to approve children sledding down the wintry slopes, but only after a Senator’s kids were identified as potential threats, and only that one time.

From afar, we learn of the Capitol’s symbolic status as the “People’s House” and the National Mall as the “nation’s front lawn” flanked by free-of-charge Smithsonian museums. We learn about the honor and necessity for the country’s citizenry to petition and seek redress of their concerns to their elected officials. The panoramic views are stunning and the notion of representative democracy and its nobility should be inspiring, especially on the Fourth of July to mark the nation’s 235th birthday. 

Instead, air-conditioning, bathrooms, parking spaces, “restricted access,” and “prohibited items” are defining our national holiday in its capital. Don’t bother next year and instead catch it on PBS. It’s a prettier picture, and no concrete barriers and checkpoints.

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Marc Osgoode Smith has covered – and participated in - Washington DC policy circles for more than two decades as a journalist covering media and as an association and think tank executive. Smith now enjoys his role as a “cultural observer” of DC Politics and the people that engage in them.

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