Capitol tours

Third in a series on a trip to Washington, D.C.

Harry Welty

Our grandsons tour of the Capitol Building was almost an afterthought. We had just visited the Spy Museum and stopped to eat at a fancy restaurant on an upscale waterfront that was new to me. We checked our time and saw that if we hustled we could still make the last Capitol tours. Unlike the leisurely Proud Boys and holiday storm troopers who waved flags of secession as they bludgeoned Capitol police we were in and out in an hour.   

The palatial new Visitor’s Center showcases a full-sized replica of the bronze Statue of Freedom that crowns the Capitol’s dome. The virginal white copy greets visitors, who can admire it up close. The sculptor gave Ms. Freedom a “pileus;” a cap like the Romans gave to freed slaves. This symbolism so enraged the slave-holding Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, that he insisted it be replaced with feathers.  

The Statute’s casting required advanced European know-how that only Philip Reed knew. Reed was the sculptor’s slave. The entire Capital was the work of slaves. They toiled through the Civil War and and unlike the statue they gained their pileus at war’s end with the 13th Amendment.

Jeff Davis, the treasonous, pileus-hating, President of the Confederacy was put in chains. He spent two years in Ft. Monroe before he was freed to become an insurance salesman.  

The Capitol isn’t quite the the tallest building in DC. A couple other’s have a few inches on her but they are out of sight. Only the Washington Monument  overshadows all else. Its 1.8 miles further down the National Mall. Go another .8 miles and you reach the Mall’s terminus at the Lincoln Memorial, the icon my Mother missed as we drove around it twice in 1962. That roundabout is now blocked for pedestrians who have been filling the space since MLK’s I have a dream speech.  

On the ceiling of the Capitol dome, our grandsons saw George Washington cavorting with angels. This and other monumental murals of our history were magnificent but our summer tour itself was limited to the building’s crypt, dome and Statuary Hall. The latter with its famous echos once allowed politicians in-the-know to listen in on their rival’s conversations.

Our tour guide told us lots of interesting things that I hadn’t learned when I was giving tours as a summer intern. Even so, the boy’s tour was a pale shadow of the one I gave a high school buddy in 1971.   J

im Zotalis was working in the Don Budge Tennis camp in Baltimore, Maryland, just a hop, skip and a jump from DC. I showed Jim all the things my grandsons could only see in videos posted by Proud Boys as they combed the Capitol looking for Congressmen to zip tie.  

Jim and I sat with famous Congressmen and Senators on the Capitol’s underground electric train on which they sped to cast votes on America’s future. We watched them vote from the balconies over the House and Senate chambers. Jim, now a  cleric, reciprocated by inviting me to Baltimore. I don’t recall much about his tennis courts but I got an eyeful traveling by Greyhound bus through a bombed out Baltimore business district.

Three years earlier Baltimore was one dozens of cities consumed by fires in the redlined ghettos after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The fire-blackened stores that were still standing were enclosed by iron grilles in case future riots broke out.  

On another summer day the noisy son of a Mankato businessman strutted into the Congressman’s office with a buddy. The lad had seen his Dad and the Congressmen toss back whiskeys in his home. That familiarity had bred enough contempt so that the staff sought me out quickly for a quick exit to a Capitol tour.

When I was debriefed by the Administrative Assistant afterwards I shared my Dad’s opinion of Mr. Nelsen’s drinking buddy - that his wealth had been a matter of dumb luck. The Assistant smiled thoughtfully at my Dad’s insight.  

I hope my Grandson’s first impressions of our nation’s Capitol ripen with age. The treacherous shenanigans of January 2021 had already made them warier than I was in 1962 or in 1971. No doubt the coming years’ legal headaches for the nation will also color their memories.

Poor kids! They’ve already endured a Covid epidemic unlike anything I had to put up, including my polio shot. They may not even have much of an Earth to look forward to even if our Democracy doesn’t fold.

I asked our guide if the tours had changed since January 6th . He told me there were no tours the day Mike Pence defended the Constitution. Covid was still raging and the guides were all home like everybody else. Perhaps their return heralds new hope for the nation.  

Harry Welty gives tours of his psyche weekly at the Reader and damn near everywhere else. Just for kicks google him.