The massive new underground visitor center at the U.S. Capitol is about to open – as a colleague here remarked, at $621 million it cost only about three times as much as the new Raleigh Convention Center, so it must have been a bargain.
Tourists can be expected to love the place. They won't have to queue up outdoors, which in Washington during summer vacation season typically puts you at risk of broiling. They'll be able to check out what amounts to a Capitol museum before being herded – er, escorted – through the incomparable building itself.
For me it's all bittersweet. I liked my Washington the way it used to be, when I was growing up across the river in Virginia, working some of my first jobs there, going to museums and baseball games, exploring the city from far corner to far corner. Having been born there only strengthens the tie.
Capitol Hill was a favorite haunt. In high school, a day off might mean a trip to the Hill with like-minded friends to nose around, sit in on committee meetings or watch the House or Senate in action. (No C-SPAN in that era of prehistory.)
Later, in my first, bottom-of-the-ladder news job, a daily task was to forage in the Capitol's press galleries for news releases that might be followed up and turned into stories. (At holiday time, I was expected to deliver the bottles of liquor that kept our outfit, the Washington bureau of the New York Daily News, in good graces with the gallery superintendents.) After my wife went to work for a congressman, we'd often meet for lunch in the cafeteria beneath the Longworth House Office Building. They didn't charge much for Southern-style vegetables and corn bread.
None of these ramblings ever were interrupted by security checkpoints. The entire Capitol complex, except for the House and Senate floors and some adjacent spaces, was pretty much open to inspection by any visitor curious enough to walk the halls.
Now, we've been deprived of innocence when it comes to the need to protect our national shrines. Deprived, also, of a dimension of our birthright as Americans to stroll into our own Capitol when we want and go where we want. It's hard to imagine a contemporary kid developing proud bonds to a place where everyone who wants to enter is viewed and treated as a potential terrorist.
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