We are at the height of the tourist season in the Washington DC Metro… it’s a time when Americans (and people from all over the world) visit the Capital to see what our history is all about. It’s a time of the year that visiting the Smithsonian or the National Gallery brings immense parking problems for locals like me who look for a space along the National Mall that isn’t taken up by buses and cars with plates from every state in the union.
Armies of parents and kids with cameras and sunglasses are at all the street crossings, walking everywhere despite average temperatures in the mid-to-high nineties and not many shade trees. And, of course, it is the height of Bermuda shorts and Hawaiian shirts season… with a giant dose of jeans, sneakers (the walking really can get to you and not many tourists wear their best Florsheims or heels), T-shirts (which are sold all over the place with every kind of national symbol on them)and sandals.
So… I was flabbergasted when I watched the local news on television last night to see one of those filler feature stories they put on in order to avoid getting into the hard news of Iraq, or Alberto Gonzales or the shredding of our Constitutional rights. Apparently, tourists are not allowed to go on the White House Tour (something I remember fondly from my childhood during the Eisenhower Administration) unless they conform to a dress code!
No shorts, T-shirts, jeans, sneakers or (ready for this?) flip-flops allowed! The White House actually sends people away when they get up to the front of the line and tells them to go back to their hotels (some of which, of course, are in Maryland or Virginia and not near the White House at all) and change into the proper clothes before entering the facility.
And the responses to this are varied, running a range of “Oh well, it’s a nice day, let’s go look at the Capitol Building” to “OK… he’s the President and we’ll go do what he says.” This, to me, is symbolic of our overall scene in America today: some who think whatever the President does is all right because he has total control; some who are forced to give up their own hopes and dreams because they feel like they have no choice; and of course some who are angry about it all.
When I was a school boy I was taught that the White House… indeed all the Government’s buildings… belonged to all of us (I think our taxes pay for their upkeep or something). I also think that tourism in a hot season requires dressing accordingly for comfort and coolness and to make hours of walking easier.
Perhaps there is another reason for the dress code. Perhaps it is a way to keep ordinary Americans away from the President and his imperial presence. In a way, it’s like Japan in the nineteenth and early twentieth century when the Emperor was kept in a walled city and no ordinary person was ever allowed to come anywhere near him under penalty of death.
I think this dress code, which no other President has felt the need to put in place, will be one of the first things to go in eighteen months. So if you are planning to visit Washington DC in the summer to show your kids the accomplishments and achievements of our democracy, wait until 2009.
Or bring your good clothes.