A private tour of the White House was the highlight of a trip to Washington DC for author Michael Murphy when he visited the US capital.
We’d reserved seats on the crowded express train from New York to Washington.
It rattled along at 150 mph through Philadelphia and Baltimore, and we were shocked by the poverty and dereliction that we saw next to the tracks.
Three hours later we arrived into the vaulted splendour of Union Station, whose monumental façade faces the Capitol Building, home of the US Congress.
We’d been told that no building in Washington is allowed to be higher than “Lady Liberty” atop the Capitol’s dome, so the initial impression of this imperial city is of space and light, with individual low-rise buildings on either side of wide avenues, and little traffic.
It was the time of the Cherry Blossom Festival, and the many parks with their bronze equestrian statues of civil-war Generals were softened by overflowing branches of graceful, delicate pink flowers.
My partner Terry and I were guests of two New York businessmen, Andy and Barry Breslin from County Meath, who are committed supporters of my writing.
They’d invited me with some broadcasting colleagues to perform “Stories, Poetry and Dreams” (the show based on my poetry and prose) in the Irish Arts Center, New York, on the two nights preceding St Patrick’s Day.
Eileen Dunne, Eamonn Lawlor, Emer O’Kelly, Ciana Campbell and I joyfully engaged with rambunctious audiences (and we earned a “recommended” from the New York Times).
When those friends and my agent Fiona Coffey had departed for Dublin, Andy and Barry suggested that the four of us take a break in Washington, after the effort and organisation which our American tour had demanded.
We stayed at the Jefferson, an elegant boutique hotel called after America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, who drafted the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal”.
The hotel is four blocks from the White House, so we strolled down to view the official residence of the President, nestled in green parkland on the far side Pennsylvania Avenue, now traffic free since the Oklahoma bombing of 1995.
It’s a truly beautiful neo-classical building, designed by an Irishman, James Hoban, that lives forever in our imaginations like a work of art.
We were amazed to discover an enormous executive office block with over ten acres of floor-space to the right of it, housing support staff for the current President.
Billy Murtagh, a warm, knowledgeable Irishman, works there in the Office of Science and Technology Policy as Assistant Director for Space Weather.
He was a school-friend of Andy’s from Kells, and he took us on a grand tour of the huge meeting rooms inside, rich with marble wall panels, marquetry floors, and heavily decorated ceiling and wall mouldings.
Even the brass door-knobs had symbols on them: an anchor for the Navy Department, crossed rifles for the Army.
We discovered such iconography is very important in America.
When we followed Billy across the road and into the lobby of the West Wing, he showed us the President’s seal.
An eagle is holding a sheaf of arrows in one talon, and an olive branch in the other.
He tells us, “There’s a story that in times of war, the eagle’s head faces the arrows instead of the olive branch.”
President Obama was in Cuba, so apart from the security staff, we had the place to ourselves.
It was compact, with low ceilings in the corridors.
Large photos of the President’s daily activities adorn the walls.
They’re changed on a regular basis, except for two: the iconic photograph of the crowded, small situation room when Osama Bin Laden was apprehended, and one where the President is bent double responding to a child’s request to feel his greying hair, with mortified parents looking on.
The large Cabinet room has an elliptical mahogany table bought by President Nixon, with leather armchairs surrounding it that cabinet members can keep as a souvenir when they leave office.
The President’s chair in the centre is the one with the slightly higher back.
Adjoining this conference room is the Oval Office, with views of trees and parkland through the three floor to ceiling windows behind the President’s desk.
We remembered the photographs of the young Kennedy children playing underneath it, but now it has the solid oak front that FDR had put in to shield his wheelchair.
In front of the desk, two workaday couches covered in a pale green velvet face each other on either side of a coffee table, on which sits a large bowl of apples, courtesy of Michelle Obama’s health initiative.
There are two recognisable Edward Hopper paintings of Cape Cod on the walls, and also a portrait of Lincoln by George Henry Story.
Later, as we stood in the open columned walkway along the West Wing looking out at the rose-garden, so familiar from the images of JFK talking to his brother Robert under this very colonnade, we spoke of the visceral emotions our visit evoked: nostalgia for the great political events we had lived through, a sense of connection with this house so that it felt like a homecoming, and a love for the idea of America, the land of the free, that culturally belongs to all of us.
Billy ended the tour in the Press Briefing Room, which covers over President Kennedy’s swimming-pool.
The surprise was that it’s such a small theatre: it seats less than 50 correspondents.
I took my place at the podium where the Press Secretary (and sometimes the President) gives his briefings, with the raised image of the White House to my back, flanked by two American flags.
We had a private tour of the Capitol Building with Joe Crowley, the six foot four Irish-American Congressman for New York’s district of Queens, and a close friend of the Breslin brothers.
As we stood in the rotunda under the Capitol’s dome looking up at the massive Apotheosis of Washington fresco, Joe revealed to us that, “The most important date for me in all of American history is the sixteenth of April 1865, the day after President Lincoln died.
"Following the dawn of that momentous day, the United States held together and went on…”
The Congressman gave us three hours of his time, walking us through the tunnel underneath the Capitol building, first to the old Senate, telling us of violent political rivalries in the past when Senator Sumner, an anti-slavery politician, was almost beaten to death with a cane in the chamber.
“Abraham Lincoln stood here when he was speaking, sometimes leaning against this pillar, surveying the room…”
And then we were standing on the floor of the United States Senate, a large room with a raised gallery surrounding it for invited guests, rather like the Dáil, but more intimate.
“That’s where Hillary Clinton sat…” Joe is Vice-Chair of the Democratic Caucus, and I knew he was a committed Hillary supporter.
“Will she win in November?” Perhaps the politician didn’t hear the question.
The National Gallery of Art in Washington is the most beautiful art gallery to visit, a complete contrast to the Met in New York.
It’s spacious, uncrowded, with one of the finest art collections in the world: Titian, Vermeer, Manet, van Gogh, Matisse… The only da Vinci painting in the Americas, a portrait of Ginevra de Benci, is on display in a bullet-proof case.
Georgetown is a historic neighbourhood of cobblestoned streets and 18th century architecture, full of high-end shops, with waterfront restaurants looking over the Potomac to the Watergate building.
Fiola Mare, the extravagant seafood restaurant, is the best in a 2016 survey, and the dining experience was sublime.
We had a celebration there for two Breslin brothers from Meath, who made America possible for a poet, his partner, and their friends.
Michael Murphy is a broadcaster, psychoanalyst and author. His latest collection of poetry, A Chaplet of Roses, was published in November 2015.
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