The just-launched “Gov Works” walking tour of Washington sounds like a misnomer, given the recent non-workings of government regarding the debt ceiling crisis, resolved 10 hours and 10 minutes before deadline August 2.
Ah, but that’s even more reason to take the in-depth tour that strolls from near the White House to Capitol Hill. The Context Travel tour is led by a seasoned political journalist or an American historian.
So no tiptoeing around the government’s recent dysfunction regarding the debt ceiling crisis.
“One of the purposes of the ‘Gov Works’ walk is to contextualize moments like this by juxtaposing it with other moments of government not working,” a Context Travel rep told me.
The walk begins two blocks down from the White House at the almost 200-year Willard Hotel. Nathaniel Hawthorne, covering the Civil War for “Atlantic Monthly”, wrote that the Beaux Arts hotel “may be much more justly called the center of Washington and the Union than either the Capitol, the White House, or the State Department…”
And in the Willard’s lobby, President Grant coined the term “lobbyists”, for the powerbrokers who approached him there while he tried to relax with brandy and a cigar. The hotel itself is worth a walking tour …
Speaking of lobbyists, one possible “Gov Works” stop is the site of Jack (“Casino Jack”) Abramoff’s former exclusive restaurant, Signatures — ground zero of the biggest lobbying scandal in recent memory.
And speaking of scandals, another potential point of interest is “Monica Beach”, where journalists perched outside US District Court when Monica Lewinsky gave grand jury testimony about her relationship with President Clinton.
Other possible stops: the National Archives, which houses the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, our “Charters of Freedom”; plus the FBI building, on the site of an early “Washington Post” office. The FBI building’s design was dubbed “neo-Brutalism” when it opened in 1974.
The walk, on and slightly off Pennsylvania Avenue, continues to the Hill, where the US Capitol Building faces the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress’ Jefferson Building, where the tour ends.
The Library of Congress was founded in 1800 within the Capitol Building, but was burned by the British during the War of 1812. So Thomas Jefferson offered his private collection of almost 6,500 books. That provided the foundation for the Library’s collection, which now houses more than 100 million items.
The Italian Renaissance Jefferson Building’s main reading room is so exquisite that it’s compared to the interior of a Fabergé egg. In the reading room, “We’ll consider the implied meaning of the Library — that knowledge should underpin political decisions,” Context Travel says.
Providing knowledge and context along the interactive “Gov Works” tours are experts such as Tom Diemer, columnist for “Politics Daily”, and former bureau chief of “The Cleveland Plain Dealer”, or Ron Cohen, veteran Washington reporter and former executive editor and columnist for Gannett News Service.
The other two DC tours – among Context’s 300 walking tours in 14 cities around the world:
American Biography walk, which views US history through the collections of the National Portrait Gallery and the adjoining Smithsonian American Art Museum, one of the world’s largest collections of American art. An art historian leads the tour through both these Smithsonian museums that share the exquisite Greek Revival building, constructed in 1836 to house the US Patent Office.
At the National Portrait Gallery, explore portraiture as public biography, ranging from Gilbert Stuart’s George Washington portraits to Shepard Fairey’s Barack Obama “Hope” portrait.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum has the largest collection of New Deal art. And to name only a few stars among more than 7,000 artists in its collection: John Singleton Copley, John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer, Mary Cassatt, Georgia O’Keeffe, Edward Hopper, Robert Rauschenberg…
Front Yard America, the Mall from L’Enfant to Maya Lin walk, which discusses the city’s development through urban planning of the National Mall. Led by a historian or architectural historian, the tour visits major monuments and explores the significance of the Mall, called “America’s front yard”. It begins on the grounds of the US Capitol, and ends at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial and its designer Maya Lin were met by scorn initially, like this from the “Washington Post” — “An Asian Memorial for An Asian War” designed by “…a woman who was 4 years old when the first bodies came home …”
Lin has said “the politics had eclipsed the veterans, their service and their lives,” and she had kept the design elegantly simple to “allow everyone to respond and remember.”
These three unique tours help participants remember what has made our country great — which politics must never eclipse.
For more info: Context Travel, www.contexttravel.com, 800-691-6036. Group tours (six people maximum): $330; Private tours: $65; Duration: three hours. This just in: Condé Nast Traveler Magazine selected Context’s co-founder Paul Bennett as one of 11 “Top Travel Specialists” for 2011, the second consecutive year, www.cntraveler.com/travel-tips/travel-specialists/paul-bennett.