One of my fellow Fellows is placed in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s office this year, and she arranged for a group of us to have a tour of his office in the Capitol.
Senator Reid collects memorabilia of letters and pictures connected to past and present historic figures. Senator Reid is the person who sat down the young Senator Barack Obama and asked him to run for President of the United States. This picture was taken shortly after President Obama had begun his first term when he allowed staff to bring their families into the White House. The young man in the picture looked at the President and said, “Your hair is just like mine,” and the President bent over so that the child could verify for himself. In signing the picture for Senator Reid, the President wrote, “This is the change you helped to bring about.”
I haven’t quite wrapped my mind around the idea that the most important people in DC get to use the Smithsonians as their decorators. The National Portrait Gallery is a favorite source of wall decorations, and Senator Reid’s choices include a portrait of Mark Twain and one of Harry Truman. He also has a portrait of George Washington, which I understand to be a Gilbert Stuart copy of the original Gilbert Stuart painting. That’s quite a provenance for a painting hanging so casually on the wall!
One of the best perks about the Majority Leader’s office is that it comes with its own balcony. There is no actual door to the balcony, but one of the windows slides up and then the bottom panel can be opened like a gate to gain access. It provides a spectacular view of the Mall, even if the Mall was suffering from the pre-spring browns and was dotted by construction projects.
The conference room in Senator Reid’s suite is notable for the absence of a conference room table. Senator Reid announced that important conversations and decisions would happen in this room and he wanted people to be comfortable. Indeed, it was in this room that his conversation with then-Senator Obama occurred.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell hails from Louisville, Kentucky, where he grew up and went to college. I thus appreciated the collection of presents he has bestowed on his counterpart, Senator Reid, over the years in the form of multiple Louisville Slugger baseball bats, which are tucked into several corners of the room.
Although I may never find it again in the labyrinth of the Capitol, we also visited what is known as the President’s Room, which is close to the Senate Majority Leader’s office. Its extremely ornate decorations feature paintings of some of the Founding Fathers, who I could identify as the first members of the Cabinet: Jefferson as Secretary of State, Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of Treasury, etc. There is also a display cabinet which contains an ever-changing collection of gifts presented to the President by foreign dignitaries.
I am not the only Fellow who enjoys exploring around the Capitol, and I was very excited that our Fellow host was able to show us one of the other quirks of the Capitol, the legendary marble bathtubs. When the Capitol was still under construction, many Members of Congress lived in nearby rooming houses that did not necessarily have a reliable supply of hot water. Thus the Senators and Representatives would often use the elaborate facilities built for their convenience in the basement of the Capitol. I seem to recall that Senator John F. Kennedy was also known for frequenting the bathtubs, each of which is carved out of solid block of marble. At this point, there are only two tubs remaining, and they are hidden in a maintenance room where one appears to be filled with heating and cooling equipment.
Of all the things that I will miss in the future, being able to flash my Senate badge and prowl the back corridors of the Capitol is high up on the list. It has been a fabulous place to explore!