Storming the capitol

by Brian Clarey

Up close, the ruby slippers are not so dazzling.

They’re kind of dowdy, actually — big and wide as bedroom slippers, with a low, clunky heel and a dull, dirty finish. They don’t look like they’d pass for fashionable at an Atlantic City slot machine, let alone magically bring Dorothy back to Kansas with a triple-click of the heels.

But it’s pretty cool to lay eyes on a genuine prop from The Wizard of Oz nonetheless, up here on the third floor of the Smithsonian Museum of American History in the Hall of Pop Culture, though to be honest, I’m more impressed with Fonzi’s leather jacket, which is also enshrined up here in a glass case with one of Phyllis Diller’s wigs.

Ayyyyyy. The significance of these artifacts is not entirely lost on my young charges who are here in Washington DC, as am I, as part of Bluford Elementary Schools fifth-grade overnight field trip. They recognize the slippers, a case full of early Muppets and Michael Jackson’s porkpie hat, but Catwoman’s catsuit from the old “Batman” TV show does nothing for them, even after I explain how much better it looked on Julie Newmar than it does in the formless mannequin under glass. And Archie Bunker’s armchair might as well be sitting abandoned on the curb for all they care.

No matter — there’s plenty to do and see in our nation’s capitol, and we’re making a pretty good shot at it on this three-day whirlwind tour. By this time, Day 2, we’ve already been to the National Aquarium and the Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore, followed by dinner in the Inner Harbor, and just this morning we had a perfunctory White House tour, the highlights of which included a gander at a photo of John Travolta dancing with Princess Di and the portrait of George Washington that Greensboro girl and former First Lady Dolley Madison rescued from the White House as it burned during the War of 1812.

We’ve been to Mount Vernon to see George Washington’s sixsided barn and the crypt where he’s buried with Martha, and later, inside the Jefferson Memorial, the Paschal High School Choir takes advantage of the fabulous acoustics to belt out an a capella American medley, culminating in a harmonious rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner,” the final high note ringing like a bell under the open marble dome.

We stroll the length of the Vietnam War Memorial — nothing but a list of names engraved in the marble, powerful in its measured quantification of death. And we circle the Korean War Memorial, 19 larger-than-life statues bearing the faces of real soldiers from the four branches of the armed services, slogging through the juniper on night patrol.

As impressive, but perhaps a bit more relevant, is our stroll through the FDR Memorial as petals from the cherry blossoms swirled like a benevolent storm: four chambers, each representing one of his terms in office, using sculpture, water features and the man’s own words to epitomize the longest and most besieged presidency in our nation’s history. Sure, Lincoln presided over the Civil War, but FDR’s reign saw the Great Depression and its response, the onset of World War II in Europe and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, ongoing labor issues and stirrings of the Civil Rights Movement. Plus, you know, dude had polio.

It does not go unnoticed that we are touring the great president’s memorial just as forces in our nation’s capitol are plotting to undermine much of what he was able to establish during his tenure.

In the Capitol Building, a most magnificent piece of architecture, the students crane their necks to take in the statuary and the trompe l’oeil that graces the Brumidi Corridors, breathe deeply the history that has seeped into these walls as one of Sen. Richard Burr’s interns takes us on the tour.

He stammers when asked to explain what is going on in the General Assembly this day, but just a bit — remarkable because we are on the verge of a federal government shutdown for the first time since 1995, just the second time in US history, and this kid’s job is on the line, too.

It’s not just the students who are awed by the US Capitol — parents and teachers, many here for the first time in their lives, are struck by the splendor of the iconic building, which was once the largest structure on the continent: the old Supreme Court chambers, the original Senate floor, the grand rotunda, painted with The Apotheosis of Washington, another Brumidi that just about destroys the American notion of the separation of church and state but is nonetheless an inspiring and beautiful piece.

“Y’all seem to have a lot of art in here,” one of the parents remarks after we pass through the rotunda, underneath the mural and surrounded by bronze and plaster and marble. “So how come arts are always the first to go when they cut the budget?”