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Pyle: Lost in Our Nation's Capital

Published May 24, 2013 6:37 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Some notes from a week off:

It was one of those moments when you realize that you have become your father.

When my dad, who lived in Kansas City for most of the 1950s, would visit me there in the 1980s, he was often upset to find that he couldn't find his way around the way he used to.

Some things he probably didn't remember accurately. But he had worked at City Hall for years, and was very much aware of where things were and how the city was laid out. Thirty years on, a lot of it had changed. One-way streets. Snarls of super highway on-ramps.

Last week, our family made a quick visit to Washington, D.C. I lived there for one whole semester, the year Jimmy Carter was elected president. So, of course, I was absolutely sure that I knew my way around.

Until we got off the airport shuttle at 9th and D streets, which I thought was two blocks from our hotel. I had totally forgotten that, on Pierre L'Enfant's grid, Washington has four 9th and D streets: Northwest, Southwest, Northeast and Southeast.

At least the one I had us walking from, with all our luggage, was the one only 11 blocks away from the hotel, not the one two miles away.

One major way that 9/11 — or, more accurately, our paranoid reaction to it — has messed everything up is on full display in, literally, the very center (again, by L'Enfant's grid) of Our Nation's Capital.

Six presidents ago, and for about 200 years before that, it was relatively easy for anyone to walk into the Capitol through any of a number of grand entrances or side doors, wander about, look at the paintings and statues, try to catch a glimpse of people who think they are important and people who really are.

Oh, there were guards and metal detectors and bag checks. But the building was mostly accessible in the way the center of a great democracy should be.

Not any more. In a fit of fear that began even before Osama bin Laden's handiwork — which apparently would have included the Capitol dome had not some very intrepid passengers taken out Fight 93 — our leaders went to great lengths to harden the home of Congress against, well, not crashing airliners. They just seriously limited the access of the people who own the damn thing.

They built a multi-million dollar, underground visitor center, on the east side of the building, opposite the side from which most tourists approach. (It cost a lot more and took a lot longer than it was supposed to.)

It's the only way in for visitors, and the only way through is to go with a guided tour.

There's a very good film about the history of the Capitol and the working of Congress that begins the tour. And our guide was a wonderful, bubbly person who made a genuine effort to speak to each of us and point out things that relate to the states we were from. So we didn't mind so much that the 45-minute tour took 90 minutes. (Another government overrun.)

You can have more freedom if you think ahead and arrange for one of the perky interns from the office of your member of Congress to give you a private tour.

Still, the limitations that prevent the citizens of the United States — indeed, people from anywhere — from just milling about in the supposed center of the free world are a disgrace.

Remember the scene in "The Andromeda Strain" where the scientist couldn't use his key to stop the nuclear self-destruct sequence in the New Mexico space germ lab because the first terminal he found was an unfinished stub?

That's how I felt taking the bus out to Dulles Airport, looking at the unfinished D.C. Metrorail track that, someday, will make it a lot easier to get to and from that airport. Without having to remember which quadrant of the city you are bound for.

George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, can always be trusted to find his way to the nearest coffee shop.

gpyle@sltrib.com