Sunday, May 18, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Even on the worst days in Washington, when nothing seems to be going right, you can’t help but pick up some residual joy from the tourists in the Capitol.
They’re everywhere this time of year, moving into the space under the dome like relatives visiting for the summer.
School groups in matching T-shirts. Families with camcorders. Not long ago I saw, on separate days, men in denim overalls who looked like farmers.
They jam up the space between the House and the Senate like traffic on I-15 coming onto the Strip. Maneuvering through them requires a practiced weave, like a savvy commuter changing lanes to stay in motion. Just when you think you’ve got a clear shot to walk across the rotunda, a tourist will abruptly stop, crane his neck and admire the pretty dome, like a stalled sedan. You, too, must stop in your tracks to avoid a collision.
Only an inexorable cynic can’t crack a grin. Most days I do. An easy joy comes from watching visitors’ earnest awe for the place.
They listen intently as guides explain the history. How President Lincoln kept building the dome during the Civil War, confident the country would survive. (Photos from that era show a half-finished Capitol and, across the mall, a half-finished Washington Monument, engaged in their own staring contest of hope.) How the 13 angelic women painted beneath the dome represent the original colonies.
Washington gets a bad rap for not having the dazzle of celebrity. Too much policy, not enough bling.
But the sparkle of history, and history being made, is all around — in a senator strolling home after work, who talks shop a bit along the way, in the lawmakers having dinner on spring evenings at the tables along Pennsylvania Avenue.
History is a moving target here, the narrative constantly shifting, as we saw last week.
The Iraq war debate has morphed, from last year’s failed effort to bring the troops home to this year’s campaign to help returning veterans readjust to civilian life.
Veterans groups want Congress to beef up the GI Bill to make college more affordable for those coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. The bill isn’t just about getting vets an education, they say, it’s about giving them a chance to reintegrate themselves via a college campus rather than a potentially stressful workplace.
Republican Rep. Jon Porter, an Iraq war supporter since he came to Congress, barely survived reelection last year after his opponent tried to tar him as in lock step with President Bush. But he broke with Bush and voted for the bill. He was one of just 32 Republicans willing to do so. Party leaders oppose taxing the wealthy a half-percent surtax to pay for it. But Porter said yes. It was another in a series of votes he has taken over the past year that are changing the narrative of his record.
Do the tourists see such changes happening around them as they stroll through the Capitol rotunda?
Probably not, especially because post-9/11 restrictions prevent easy access to the galleries where visitors can watch the chamber action in the House and Senate. But they can certainly pick up on the sound bites later, and say they were there.
A surprisingly good sound bite didn’t get much traction last week, but is worth reconstructing.
Sen. John Ensign, part of Republican Party leadership in the Senate, joined his colleagues at a news conference to bemoan the high price of gas and discuss efforts they were taking to find relief.
When it was his turn at the microphone, Ensign brought a little Las Vegas to the otherwise glitter-free briefing outside the doors of the stately Senate.
Something’s wrong, he suggested, when you can get steak and eggs in Las Vegas for less than a gallon of gas in your tank.
That’s right, gas is $3.70 a gallon in Vegas, but you can fill up on steak and eggs for $3.29.
In that moment, the state that still gets its share of ridicule as the home of gambling and prostitution enjoyed status in the Republican message operations with a price-of-wheat-in-Kansas kind of normalcy.
Was that a new narrative being drafted for Vegas, as not just a gamblers’ paradise but a place where honest, average Americans are feeling the pinch at the pump just as they are everywhere else?
Who knows? You could practically hear the siren call of clanking slot machines as staffers and reporters chuckled over the steak-and-eggs story throughout the afternoon.
Too bad Ensign’s comments didn’t get more widely reported. Las Vegas could use a tourism plug these days.
Maybe if tourists were reminded about the early-morning breakfast specials near the Strip, they would head west and free up some traffic lanes here under the dome.