Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.


The last two times I’ve been in Washington, DC, it’s been during the summer before a Presidential election. Not a bad time to go, from the commercial side: eight years ago, the street vendors were madly selling Bush-Cheney and Kerry-Edwards buttons, shirts, and whatever else they could attach a logo to. This year, it was of course all manner of variations on the Obama “HOPE” poster design; although intriguingly, I didn’t see nearly as much Romney gear about.

Both times, being present so near the seat of federal power and authority yielded a sense of import … or maybe it was just the political junkie in me that was all thrilled. Certainly, the people heading to work in the morning on the Metro didn’t exhibit any extra amount of thrill, at least not outwardly. It’s entirely possible that, living and working there, they had developed a certain immunity to it all. I found myself hoping it wasn’t the case, but thinking that it was. I also found myself hoping that if I came to Washington to work or study or anything else, I wouldn’t lose the sense of thrill. It’s all built to look quietly important.

Turista! Yeah, I know. But I live near Boston and I still love walking past Fenway, so…? Maybe that immunity really isn’t automatic?

Recently, I posted hereabouts concerning the fine work of a certain US Capitol Building tour guide. He came off as both faintly jaded and also quietly pleased to be doing what he was doing, where he was doing it. And it was early enough in my visit to the nation’s capital that I thought, “okay, then that’s my non-scientific study.” People of Washington, en garde! Time to see whether you’re happy to be here.


My first stop of that first morning after the Capitol was the Supreme Court building, across the street from the Capitol Visitors Center. Even though the front of the building was covered in scaffolding – it appeared to be getting at least a cleaning, and maybe even some repairs – this structure, to me, was stately, dignified, more than a little forbidding, even compared to the Library of Congress building next door. The rounded form of the Capitol’s Rotunda dome, I think, serves to soften the lines of that building a bit, but the front of the Supreme Court building is nearly all columns, and those columns can give the place the appearance of being much taller than it is wide (even though that isn’t nearly true). It truly looms over you if you stand too close.

I looked for a way in, and because of the repairs and scaffolding, signs pointed me around to the left-hand side of the building. There was a single security guard standing there, wisely taking shelter from the heat under a contractor’s canopy that shielded the walkway to the side entrance. It was already ninety degrees, and not even 10 o’clock yet. I probably looked like I knew where I was supposed to go; so he didn’t waste effort speaking overly, but he did nod when I pointed and said, “this way, yes?” Then I said to him, “I bet your job today is already not too much fun.” He looked a bit confused, as if not a lot of people spoke to him during the course of his day, and he wasn’t sure what to do if anyone did offer him a complete sentence, let alone a smile. But he recovered, and mumbled something about keeping cool underneath here.

I went in the side entrance, ran my belongings through the security scanners, and smiled at the two young, crew-cut security people watching the x-ray images. You have to be careful what kind of smile or cheerful exclamation you offer security people in Washington: obviously, since 9/11, security has been a much more serious matter than it had been. They weren’t mean about it, but they, also, seemed reluctant to take part in a mad smiling contest with a tourist – even one who meant well. I wondered how much of that was the sheer number of tourists they saw daily, how much was vigilance, and how much was, well, because they were working at the Supreme Court.

This joint, inside and out, is nothing but dignity. So much marble-walled, marble-floored, marble-columned dignity that it’s right on the edge of overwhelming. Even if you didn’t know what kind of monumental decisions have been debated and handed down on the second floor of the Court building, where the actual courtroom is located … the whole effect is astonishing. As I approached the ground-floor information desk, a twenty-something gentleman in a navy blazer (emblazoned with, no surprise, a dignified Supreme Court patch) looked up and wondered if he could help me. I asked him if it was correct that Court tours began at the top of the hour. Yes, he said, and added that I was free to look at the exhibits and paintings of past Justices, and visit the gift shop on this level, before going upstairs, where the Court chamber tour would start. He seemed only about three millimeters more relaxed than his security colleagues. But he very nearly smiled. It was a close call. Again, understandable: he worked at the Supreme Court.

The middle-aged gift shop cashier smiled at my statement that the postcards I was buying were going to be very important for the niece and nephew back home; but she and her warm smile were surrounded by a marble-walled sense of gravitas, even so. Even the souvenirs seemed not to want to appear tacky.

Upstairs, it was as if the gravitas was cascading down the walls and across the floor. Even the posts that held up the spring-loaded cloth barrier that defined where the Court chamber tour line mimicked the outside columns, and they read simply: “PLEASE REMAIN QUIET”. I hardly thought that was necessary, in this towering, two- or three-story-tall Greek temple of an antechamber. If anyone came up the staircase onto the second floor landing holding any kind of nearly-loud conversation, no one had to shoosh them – the décor did the job.

Any security person guarding the actual Court chamber would necessarily be stern. This early-twenties-looking one was, indeed – took his job very seriously, although he let slip a small nod and his lip twitched in a controlled way, as he shifted position to let someone take a picture of the Court chamber through its open entrance.

The docent who led my tour group was probably well into his seventies. He reminded me more than faintly of the Edward Asner-voiced elderly gentleman who is one of the main characters in the movie “Up”. He led us into the chamber, sat us down, and proceeded to relay many important facts, a few interesting stories and occasionally a curious detail which made both him and his audience chuckle, although we weren’t sure how chuckly we were supposed to be. Clearly, he liked his job … clearly, he was well aware of where he worked … and just as clearly, he was respectful of the place but hardly intimidated.

At the end of the visit, it seemed to me that the older the Supreme Court employee, the better able he or she was to manage a small amount of immunity to the looming sense of importance in the building.

On my way out, I wondered if maybe the older employees was benefiting from having read one of the inscriptions amidst the exhibits lining the walls leading to the exit. The inscription quoted Supreme Court Justice Harlan F. Stone, from shortly before the Court building was completed in 1936 (silly me, I’d assumed the place was built in 36 B.C.).

It read:

The place is almost bombastically pretentious, and thus seems to me wholly inappropriate for a quiet group of old boys such as the Supreme Court of the United States.”


If I’d read that quip first, perhaps I might have felt a mite differently about it all.


September 4, 2012 - Posted by | government, travel | , , , , , , , , , , ,

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