Washington: Politics is the lifeblood of this city. Sure there are the White House, the National Mall and the Reflecting Pool, but let’s go beyond the obvious tourist attractions, where visitors can get a taste of the past — and the politics — of the nation’s capital.
To see the real deal, you can attend a congressional hearing. If there’s a celebrity or controversial witness, TV crews (beyond the omnipresent C-SPAN cameras) may be in the room or in nearby hallways. You can find out what’s hot each day by checking the respective websites (www.house.gov and www.senate.gov). In the upper right corner of each home page, there’s an agenda of today’s hearings and floor debates.
If you go to the Capitol Building (East Capitol Street and 1st Street NE), you’ll see who’s at the press tables and who is just watching from the regular seating (mostly young lobbyists taking notes, plus tourists). Leave plenty of time to clear Capitol security to get into the building and then find your way to the hearing room through the congressional office buildings’ corridor maze.
If you’re looking for a grand step back into Old Washington, head over to the Willard InterContinental Washington (1401 Pennsylvania Ave. NW). Opened in 1816, the Willard has hosted many historic figures including Mark Twain, Harry Houdini and Charles Dickens, as well as nearly every president since the 1850s. Pull up a seat in the hotel lobby and imagine the ghosts of Ulysses S. Grant, who used to drink whiskey and smoke cigars there. Abraham Lincoln lived in the Willard during the weeks leading up to his inauguration and held meetings in the hotel’s ornate lobby.
Speaking of Honest Abe, political buffs will be fascinated by a visit to Ford’s Theater (511 10th St. NW), where John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln. On the second floor, you can view the box seat where the president was sitting when he was assassinated.
Just across the street is the row house where Lincoln died, Peterson House (516 10th St. NW), which is still fitted with furnishings from the time period of his death.
Decatur House (748 Jackson Place) is another home featuring Federalist and Victorian furnishings and exhibits that delve into D.C.’s rich heritage. Back in the 19th century, it served as home to Secretaries of State Henry Clay and Martin Van Buren. The National Center for White House History is also located there.
If you haven’t visited the city in a few years, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial (1964 Independence Ave. SE) will likely be new to you. Opened in 2011, the monument is a short trek from the Reflecting Pool and the Lincoln Memorial, just south of Independence Avenue. Get up close to the statue itself to read the famous MLK quotations that are engraved on it, including “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope,” from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
A few blocks from the mall is the National Archives (700 Pennsylvania Ave. NW). This year, the Archive is hosting a special exhibit, “Searching for the Seventies,” which looks at the decade through a documentary photography project created by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1971. The thousands of photos illustrate the environmental awakening of the seventies and also depict the eras fashions, politics and cultural trends.
Among the treasures currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery (8th and F Streets NW) include “Bound For Freedom’s Light: African Americans and the Civil War.” The exhibit commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and focuses on the roles played by African-Americans over the course of the conflict. It features the stories of such famous figures as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth.
An exhaustive, landmark exhibition on the Civil War is featured at the Library of Congress (101 Independence Ave. SE). The exhibit started last November and runs all year, featuring more than 200 items from the war that have never been seen by the public. Make sure to check out the earliest known draft of the Gettysburg Address and the intimate letters Ulysses S. Grant sent home to his family during the war.
If you can make the trek out to Anacostia, Va., you won’t be disappointed with a visit to the Frederick Douglass National Historical Site (1411 W St. SE). A tour of Cedar Hill, home to the famed abolitionist, runs from 9-3:30 every day. Make your way into the library adjacent to the east parlor and stand next to the desk where Douglass wrote many of his speeches and his last autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.
If all of that history has you feeling a little overwhelmed, stop in for a drink at the iconic Old Ebbitt Grill (675 15th St. NW), the oldest saloon in the city. Established in 1856, it was a favorite watering hole of Presidents Grant, Cleveland, Harding and Theodore Roosevelt. You still might run into a politician or a wayward journalist there.
So have a drink and a dance with history. It’s D.C. — we said you might have to multitask.
Gary Arlen contributed to this story.