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It all comes down to perspective.
And unquestionably, until Friday, I had the best view of any journalist in Washington.
It was a blessing that came with the job.
Most Washington journalists are condemned to ply their craft hunched over laptops at the at the National Press Club. Others are perched in front of some computer terminal in a dusty newsroom off K Street.
Scribes assigned to the Senate press gallery sit at Formica study carrels that look as though they were swiped from the library at Michigan State.
Those who cover the president work out of cramped phone booths in the White House basement. Computers, printers and phones are usually stacked vertically to maximize space.
It’s rather unglamorous.
Except if you have a view like mine on Capitol Hill.
The view from the window in the FOX broadcast booth on the House side of the Capitol had no rival. Unparalleled. Peerless. From the third floor of the Capitol, the window looked west down the National Mall, to the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and into Virginia.
I’ve had great views before. Mostly on vacations. Oceanside views at Caribbean resorts. A view of the Vegas strip from high atop the Venetian Hotel. Views of the mountains in Banff and Zermatt, Switzerland. A view of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
But I was the lucky reporter who got to enjoy one of the greatest panoramas in America on a daily basis from my post at the Capitol.
I lose the booth because it’s time to renovate the House Radio-TV Gallery. It hasn’t been redesigned since the 1980s. So I’ll be a Congressional nomad for the next five months, roaming the building, armed with a laptop like some vagabond. And once the renovation is complete, I’ll get a new both. But alas, with no window.
FOX’s House booth was an anomaly. Most TV and radio news organizations which cover Congress clustered their workspaces in the main part of the House Radio-TV Gallery, just off the House floor. CBS had a booth next to NBC. Which was next to the PBS’s The NewsHour. Which was nestled next to ABC. And so on.
FOX is the youngest of the networks, arriving on the scene in 1996. At that point, there wasn’t much unused space in the gallery. My predecessor Jim Mills secured the booth in a little corner down the corridor from the rest of the House Radio-TV Gallery.
It shared a wall with the ornate “hideaway” office of Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-CA), the leading Republican on the House Appropriations Committee. I used to joke with Lewis that I’d put a glass up to the wall to eavesdrop on him plotting strategy to outwit the Democrats.
And the booth rests immediately behind an enormous, 33’ by 43’ mural titled “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way.” The painting looms over the House’s west grand staircase. Painted by Emanuel Leutze, the mural depicts settlers wearing buffalo robes and riding in covered wagons as they headed west.
A motto is inscribed on the part of the wall close to my booth: “The spirit grows with its allotted spaces. The mind is narrowed in a narrowed sphere.”
My spirit grew in the allotted space I dwelled in at the Capitol, staring westward across the great expanse of the Mall. And I’m lucky I got to lease it for a few years.
The booth may boast a great view. But you’d never know it from the path to get there. To find the booth from the Radio-TV Gallery, you’d have to exit into the main corridor, walk past the House chamber and walk by a bank of elevators and a portrait of Jeannette Rankin, the first woman to serve in Congress. There you’d find an innocuous but locked wooden door. Go through the door and you’d discover yourself in dim, narrow hall that looked like something on board a Seawolf class submarine. The compressed passage dead-ended forty feet away with a doorway. And that door led you to the booth.
I sometimes called the booth the “Room With a View.”
In fact when I would bring visitors to the booth, I’d always make sure the shades were drawn. The hallway was so dank and decrepit, no one would ever expect a vista like mine.
It was almost like a magic trick. I’d pull back the shades, revealing the Mall and all of Washington in its splendor. And without fail, each guest would always exclaim “Wow!” their eyes widening. A few jaws dropped. And then they’d pose the same, obligatory question.
“How did you get this?”
My reply was always coy. Kind of like the response one gets when they pose a sensitive question to someone in the intelligence community.
“I don’t discuss sources and methods,” I’d respond, and begin to point out the landmarks.
The booth’s view perfectly framed the Mall between the shafts of two Doric columns, decorated with acanthus leaves and astragals as they met the roof of the House wing.
To the left was the Department of Health and Human Services. Then Independence Avenue, the Museum of the American Indian and the Air and Space Museum. The Smithsonian Castle jutted out into the Mall. Then the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument. To the right you could see the Museum of Natural History, the top of the Old Post Office and the Treasury Department way down Pennsylvania Avenue. Far in the distance, you can spy the bell towers of the National Cathedral.
The planes at Reagan National Airport across the Potomac were a permanent fixture.
But there were a few spectacles I enjoyed the most.
On the horizon to the left, you could just make out the pillars of Arlington House. That’s the home of Robert E. Lee. It rests on a hillside at what is now Arlington National Cemetery. Sometimes at night, armed with a good set of binoculars, I could spot a tiny flicker of fire just below Arlington House. It was the eternal flame that quivers next to President Kennedy’s grave.
Also, if you stare straight down the Mall at night and into the Lincoln Memorial, you can make out the silhouette of Lincoln’s statue, invisible during daylight.
One of the best things about the booth were the sunsets. You never knew what to expect as you stared west. The clouds would tear across the sky, leaving streaks of pink and magenta. Sometimes coral. And even bubble gum. Every night was a treat.
And then there were moments where having such a roost helped cover the news.
Anytime there was a protest on the Mall, I could see it. I had a birds eye view of the health care demonstrations a few weeks ago.
I remember entering my booth in the pre-dawn hours of inauguration day, 2009. Every few seconds, a flashbulb would snap somewhere down the Mall. Then day broke. A sea of humanity that stretched from the steps of the Capitol and beyond the Washington Monument.
I could see plumes of smoke erupting from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building when it caught fire in the fall of 2007.
Best of all, I liked the booth because it was off the beaten path. You could take a source there without having to parade them past all of the other reporters in the House Radio-TV Gallery.
So with the renovations underway, I become a journalistic hobo at the Capitol. Oh, I’ll have a temporary base of operations, across the building in the Senate Radio-TV Gallery. But as I roam the Capitol, I get to check out some of the other views. Even though I spend every working day in the Capitol, I’m embarrassed that I can’t speak off the cuff about the significance of a given statue or painting that adorns the hallways. A new perspective is probably good for me.
In the movie “A Room with a View,” Lucy Honeychurch and her cousin Charlotte Bartlett complain that they had been promised “a room with a view” when they arrive at their pension in Florence.
I was never promised a room with a view. No one is. But I got one anyway. I now have the chance to drink in other views. And I still get to see Congress up close on a daily basis.
After all, whether you have a view or not depends on your perspective.