Washington DC: The corridor of power

Get to the heart of America's political machine with a visit to Pennsylvania Avenue — a street with a few surprises in store

By David Whitley
Published 5 Jan 2016, 08:00 GMT

"Welcome to Monica Beach," says political reporter Tom Diemer. The drab, grey plaza outside the E Barrett Prettyman United States Courthouse is somewhat lacking in palm trees and sun loungers, but to the Washington DC political press pack, the nickname will always stick.

"Almost all corruption and scandal cases come through here, and during the [Monica] Lewinsky case there were always cameramen out here," says Tom. "It was a hot summer, so everyone gathered here called it Monica Beach."

The courthouse is one of the less obvious sites on Washington DC's corridor of power, Pennsylvania Avenue. The White House is at number 1600, and the trek uphill from there leads to the US Capitol and Supreme Court. Between them are numerous grand Neoclassical buildings, many belonging to government departments. The FBI headquarters and National Archives, where the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence are displayed like precious jewels, are also en route.

During his decades reporting for the likes of Associated Press and Politics Daily, Tom Diemer has been inside most of these buildings for press conferences, interviews and chats with sources. He's also spent more than enough time in the likes of The Capitol Grille. "It's a classic American-style steakhouse with big dishes," says Tom. "It's an expense account place, and it was always understood that the lobbyists would be picking up the tab."

His GovWorks tour, which gives visitors a behind-the-scenes glimpse at how the DC political machine works, begins in the spiritual home of Washington's lobbyists. The Willard hotel opened in 1847. It's where Martin Luther King Jr put the finishing touches to his I Have A Dream speech, and Abraham Lincoln's $773.75 bill is still on display. He and his family stayed there for 10 days before moving into the White House.

But the story that gives the Willard its legendary status relates to former president Ulysses S Grant. Tom says, "At the end of the day, Grant would walk over from the White House for brandy and cigars. People would bug him in the lobby when he wanted to relax, and he started muttering about the 'lobbyists'. That, supposedly, is where the term comes from. And reporters still come here to conduct interviews today."

Walking Pennsylvania Avenue, it becomes clear where the concept of bills "coming down the hill" from the Capitol to the White House originates. It's very literal, although, according to Tom, the power isn't wielded where you might think it is on Capitol Hill. The showy dome of the Capitol building may dominate the view, but surprisingly little happens there. Tom points to the massive office blocks either side. They, apparently, are where the negotiations take place and the bulk of the work gets ploughed through.

But in the shadow of the Capitol is one historic oddity that most visitors wouldn't even think to look for. On the West Front Lawn, there's a bizarre hexagonal brick structure. The summerhouse was designed in the 19th century by Frederick Law Olmsted — the man who landscaped New York's Central Park. Through the railings is a tiddly green gully, where the natural spring was originally used by Congressmen to give their horses a drink.

Now, though, it's somewhere to escape for a sandwich in the open air — and perhaps the odd secretive discussion away from prying ears. The secrets of America's power strip don't necessarily reveal themselves in the obvious places…


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