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I Saved Latin
Well, staff-led Capitol Tours. Kinda. Not really. But I played a role.
The first paying job you can get in a Congressional office is as a Staff Assistant, and there are two paths for that position: sorting the mail or giving tours. In early 2007, fresh out of college, Arizona Senator Jon Kyl’s office hired two new “staff asses” and I was one of them. And our Chief of Staff picked me to be the guy who gives tours.
My friends often joke about my Max Fischer-like obsessions, and getting tours down perfect was yet another obsession to add to the list. I even have the hair.
Around the time I was hired, the years-long construction Capitol Visitors’ Center, or CVC, as we called it, was nearing completion. It was a huge undertaking. Imagine constructing what is essentially a gigantic bunker that has 18,000 more square feet than the Capitol itself. Post 9/11, it’d streamline visitor security screening, offer gift shops, restaurants, meeting spaces, and a wonderful museum.
It also gave the Architect of the Capitol, sort of its bureaucratic landlord, an opportunity to kill off intern and staff-led Capitol tours once and for all. And there was good reason to do so: a lot of intern/staff-led tours are awful. This is because most offices don’t take it seriously and let interns do the tours instead of the things they’d normally be doing: folding letters, licking envelopes or answering angry phone calls.
Given the choice between paper cuts and/or a daily migraine or tooling around one of the country’s most historic and beautiful buildings, most people chose giving tours. (Except the lunatics who reveled in turning phone calls into their own personal Oxford Union.)
To make the tours more fun, or because they were lazy, these interns would either a.) read from a sheet of facts, making the tour very boring or b.) make stuff up. I cannot tell you how many times I heard these ‘terns spin some yarn. The chandelier in the small Senate Rotunda? It was raised from the Titanic! I would call them on this in front of their tour with quips like: “OK, Clive Cussler.” Yeah, I was (and remain) that guy.
The AOC (no, not her) wanted to put an end to the tomfoolery, and proposed eliminating the ability of offices to give such tours. Outrage ensued: Members like this constituent service, especially the House members who have to run for office every two years.
Nowadays, sadly, Republicans are better known for organization and giving pre-insurrection planning tours or walking the halls after a few pops to scream at Senate Pages enjoy the beauty of Constantino Brumidi’s Apotheosis of Washington in the middle of the night. But you get the point: Taking away tours is potentially taking away votes.
So the folks at POLITICO asked around to find a staff-led tour guide that would counter the not-entirely wrong narrative, and somehow, that led them to me.
My office was press-averse, so this was sort of a big deal and I didn’t want to blow it. Thankfully, I didn’t.
Keep in mind, this was pre-smartphone. Yes, I had a Blackberry, but looking at your phone back then was considered rude. So I had to have a watch for tours, and this was my go to dating back to high school:
I loved that watch so much, in fact, it was my second of that model.1 In high school, I was the gear lead at Eddie Bauer, and knew a little bit about watches, but I wasn’t a lug nut, so to speak. I could change links, or even a replace a battery. I knew what really good watches were, and spent my lunch breaks at the Beachwood Place Bailey Banks & Biddle ogling the Omega Seamaster from my favorite Bond flick, Goldeneye. Until they asked me to stop.
A quartz watch in a resin case, my first Victorinox met its end when the lugs eventually wore out the resin, making it impossible to put on another strap. This was not fixable, so a Timex Expedition lasted me through college and into the workforce.
But one day, at a store at nearby Union Station, I found another for $150, which was ~30% of my weekly salary. Normally, I would have refrained: I don’t need a watch, I already have one that works. But I was flush with a little extra cash since I won a contest run by SpikeTV thanks to my mom’s contest addiction. I also bought a top of the line Mac desktop and a Canon Rebel DSLR that I still have (and use) to this day.
And that Capitol tour in Politico? Well, it helped compel a number of members to sign onto a “Dear Colleague” letter that ultimately resulted in a compromise that allowed the continuation of staff-led tours, provided we took a class, booked our tours at a certain time, and followed a prescribed course to avoid clogging. Even my boss, who hated Dear Colleague letters, signed on.
I wore that thing everywhere for a few years, until Blackberries gave way to the iPhone and Androids. Looking back through my photographs, I wore it on a family vacation to Egypt, but as our smartphone addiction grew, my Swiss Army watch disappeared into storage, and the battery died.
A few years later, then-Rep. Mark Kirk (R-IL) fought again against the CVC regime and their “red coat” tour guides. He was fed up with the limitations, and so another “Dear Colleague” led to another legislative effort, a bipartisan one, that found Jon Kyl and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz’s signatures on the same letter.
Not helping matters was an open letter Facebook post from one of those “professional” tour guides named Shane Hanley that made the rounds on e-mail list servers. Hanley wasn’t all wrong, but his kicker included a sucker-punch: “We make at least 10G more than you.” 2
Neither side got what they wanted, really: The Architect didn’t kill off tours, and the old way of tours was dead. If you’re ever in Washington, the “red coat” tours are quite good, but if you want to see the old Senate baths, you’ll need a VIP tour from a member, staffer, or journalist who can take you.3
I tried getting the Swiss Quartz movement replaced in the watch during the pandemic, but it did not appear to take. The battery died fairly quickly. It’s not even easy to find out what the movement is without opening it up. I looked and looked to no avail.
Maybe I’ll try again some day to get it running, but for now, it sits in my watch drawer with fond memories of being on my wrist during the last days of the wild west of staff-led Capitol tours.
—Casual Time #1 by Jim Swift
So, I saved Latin. Kind of. Not really. But I played a role. And so did my Swiss Army watch.
It was also the watch of choice of Michael Bloomberg, and Northern Exposure lead Dr. Joel Fleischmann.
I tried to see what Shane’s up to nearly 15 years later and he seems to have dropped off the face of the earth.
Yes, journalists can give tours, too. I was one of the first member of the press gallery to be able to give a “staff tour” since I took the tour guide class as a staffer. You don’t have to do that anymore.