Speaker’s Office in Capitol Becomes Temporary Tourist Attraction
WASHINGTON — It started happening as soon as the day’s U.S. Capitol tours began Friday morning.
First there’d be an abrupt swivel of the head. Then fingers would point. And finally cellphones appeared as tourists, arms outstretched, tried to capture a bit of modern history.
“It’s still there,” several visitors were heard to gasp as they passed the House speaker’s ceremonial office, nestled in the short, second floor hallway that bridges the gap between the Rotunda and the smaller Statuary Hall.
The object garnering all the attention was the narrow wooden sign, no more than 2 ½ feet across, bearing the words in gold: “Speaker of the House” and “Kevin McCarthy.”
Days after the House ousted the California Republican from the top leadership post in a historic 216-201 vote on Tuesday, the sign has become something of a shrine or relic, every bit as much a “must see” for tourists visiting on Friday as the eight large historical paintings in the Rotunda or the plaque marking Abraham Lincoln’s desk location in Statuary Hall, the early 19th century “chamber” of the House of Representatives.
As Capitol tour guides admonished their charges to “keep to right” to accommodate the flow of people coming from the other direction, people repeatedly stopped in their tracks, some smiling, some laughing quietly, while at least one, a gentleman from Africa, observed, “all good things must come to an end.”
“How long does the process to replace a speaker take?” a woman who identified herself as Lauren from Tennessee, asked of no one in particular.
Her guide smiled and shrugged.
The assembled reporters — now down to a mere three or four as compared to the dozens who sometimes staked out the speaker’s office before his ouster — mostly shuffled their feet.
Finally one said, “That’s anybody’s guess.”
And so it went, hour after hour, with couples and families stopping to pose in front of the sign and the arched entrance to the speaker’s inner sanctum.
Some people posed while making ironic gestures. Others simply pointed at the sign while looking toward the cellphone of a friend.
One young man, in his twenties, stood in front of the archway and held his fingers in an L-shape in front of his forehead, the widely recognized sign for “Loser.”
But most people were respectful, seeming more curious than anything else.
“And here we are at the speaker’s office,” a tour guide said as he hustled a dozen or so people through the hallway. “If you follow current events, you know this office has been the subject of an awful lot of activity of late.”
As he spoke, a man identifying himself as Frank, from Chicago, leaned toward the reporters and asked, “Is he still in there?”
In fact, Kevin McCarthy was in the office at that point, meeting with his interim replacement, Speaker Pro Tem Patrick McHenry, R-N.C.
And that fact gave way to an example of how symbols sometimes outstrip actual human beings when it comes to being objects of curiosity and fascination.
Not long after Frank had moved on, McHenry, accompanied by a staffer and security escort, emerged from the speaker’s office and hurriedly cut a path right through a tour to the staircase across the hall.
While McHenry was hardly the best known member of Congress before this week, his penchant for bowties and the historical role he’ll play presiding over the selection of the next speaker, should have made him recognizable to some.
Instead, offering a quick “good morning,” he continued on his way without the least resistance from gawkers or history buffs.
After McHenry disappeared down the steep staircase and had gone, a man wearing a broad smile, a plaid shirt and jeans walked over to where the reporters continued to wait.
“I know what you’re doing,” he said in a thick southern drawl. “You’re waiting to take pictures of folks taking that sign down, aren’t you?”
“Maybe,” said one of the reporters.
With that the man chuckled, shook his head and walked away.
But not before stopping to capture his own cell phone memory of the Kevin McCarthy sign.