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Get Engaged: Visit Your Nation's Capital!


By Robert Ikenberry

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Earlier this year I had the opportunity to spend a couple weeks in Washington, D.C. I was on vacation: no set schedules, no conferences, no meetings. I was there just because we wanted to spend some time in the Capitol. For me, it had been decades since I’d been in D.C. For my wife, it was her first visit.

It was a wonderful trip.

Capitol Building
All photos courtesy of the author

This blog is intended to be a strictly nonpartisan encouragement for each and every American to visit Washington, D.C.

Please note, this is not an endorsement, or criticism, of any party, or of any of the current members of the executive, legislative or judiciary branches. I have strong opinions about all of them, but this blog is intended to be a strictly nonpartisan encouragement for each and every American to visit Washington, D.C. I urge you to have some interaction with their legislators (or, more likely, their staff) and to be engaged at some level in the political process. Not only is it our right as citizens, it’s our responsibility.

Every member of the electorate needs to spend some effort to be informed about critical issues of the day, and that means not just watching a particular news channel or reading blogs from people you already agree with, but trying to assess the actual facts (yes, there are still such things) about what proposed changes to legislation would lead to and whether or not you support those goals.

The Big Four

In my opinion (and this blog is all just my opinion), there are four areas to concentrate on for your visit:

  1. The Government. Plan to visit Congress, the White House, the Judiciary, the State Department, the National Archives and the other official departments with headquarters in Washington.
  2. The Monuments. Don't miss the memorials—Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, FDR, MLK, World War II and Vietnam, plus all the others—and include the Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River in Virginia.
  3. The Museums. Not to be missed are all the Smithsonian Museums. (Plan your trip ahead of time; some require advance reservations, some a wait in line to get in that same day.) Plus, there are other private museums like the Newseum, and smaller museums in some of the Federal buildings like the National Mint. My highlights: the Air & Space Museum(s) and the Natural History Museum from the Smithsonian group (see as many others as you can spare the time and have an interest—they are all great treasures) and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
  4. The City. Washington has great restaurants, bars, sports fields/arenas and neighborhoods with unique flavors. (Though not all of them are great—check ahead, as you would in any big city). The Metro is a good way to get around, especially for seniors if you get a pass (half price). There’s shopping, neighborhood markets, foreign embassies and much more to see and do in non-governmental Washington.

To start your trip planning (and you do need to plan ahead to get the most out of your trip), contact your local representative’s office. They can help you with passes to see the Senate and House chambers, make reservations for tours of the Capitol and advise you about the Supreme Court tours, State Department tours and even White House tours, all of which need to be reserved well in advance.

Senate Judiciary hearing

Most hearings are open to the public (first come, first served).

If you have special interests in a particular agency like, say, the Post Office or the Library of Congress, they can give you lots of information on what’s available to see and how to make the proper arrangements.

Seeing a Hearing

I was interested in the legislative process and decided to attend a couple of hearings that happened to be occurring during our visit. Most hearings are open to the public (first come, first served) and surprisingly to me, I was even able to get into one of the hottest hearings—the Senate Judiciary interviewing James Comey of the FBI in what turned out to be his last hearing—simply by waiting in line for about 30 minutes. There was another Senate hearing about infrastructure, and by making a couple of polite requests, I was able to get permission to sit in the press well, between the witnesses and the Senators, and get some up-close photographs.

I don’t know how you might react, but this chance to see famous senators up close and listen live to the kinds of hearings I’d only seen before on C-SPAN and cable, was really a memorable event for me.

We also got to be in the gallery of the Senate when they took a vote, and in the House when several measures were passed. Heady stuff for political junkies!

Hoofing It

Be prepared to walk, a lot. And be prepared for the fact that something you really want to see won’t be available. The buildings on and around the National Mall are old, and seem to be in a constant state of re-building and renovation, and that means sometimes stuff is closed.

Jefferson Memorial

Don't miss the memorials—Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson (pictured), FDR, MLK, World War II and Vietnam, plus all the others—and include the Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River in Virginia.

It may sound touristy (and it is, but you are a tourist when you visit D.C.) but the one- or two-day hop-on, hop-off buses that tour the major sites in town are an excellent, quick way to get oriented. They can help you see stuff you probably won’t get to again (because there’s just too much to see in a reasonable amount of time), and pack a lot of sites into a short period of time. We spent two weeks in town on our trip and thought that was about right. There was lots more we could have done, but we were able to tick off most of the things that we really wanted to see and do. And we weren’t so exhausted or tired of dealing with stuff (traffic, eating out, metro trains, whatever) that we didn’t want to come back at some point and do it some more.

In short, I highly recommend spending a careful, reasonable-duration, open-minded visit to our nation’s capital with your family. You won’t regret it and you will have a better perspective of our history and a renewed sense that all things are possible in an America where we all work together.

My favorite quote, at the moment:

“Don’t blame the internet, or smartphones, or fake news for Americans’ poor reading. Blame ignorance.” – Daniel T. Willingham, Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, in The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads.


Robert Ikenberry

Robert Ikenberry, PCS, has been in industrial painting and construction since 1975. Now semi-retired as the Safety Director and Project Manager for California Engineering Contractors, Robert stays busy rehabbing, retrofitting and painting bridges. His documentary on the 1927 Carquinez Bridge was the pilot for National Geographic’s Break it Down and an episode of MegaStructures.



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