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Mrs. Henderson goes to Washington, part 1

Sometimes the surreal happens. For me it happened this summer in the form of an email with a captivating subject line: Two weeks in Washington?

Days later I had beefed up my wardrobe with business suits and was bound for D.C. I had an early morning flight — well, it was supposed to be early. The pilot actually left the cockpit to track down a group of students from Hollandale’s Simmons High School who failed to board. (Never seen that before.) Moments later one of that 17 squeezed into the window seat beside me and acknowledged he had never flown. He wasn’t much of a talker.

“Just some turbulence,” I assured him when things got bumpy.

“Oh.”

“You can adjust your tray like this.”

“OK.”

Even when the Pentagon came into view during our approach at Reagan National, he barely craned his neck. Maybe it was nerves. Anyway, that was my last brush with Mississippi for quite a while (unless passing Thad Cochran in a hall counts.) 

About now you’re probably wondering where the surreal part comes in. I guess the best way to explain it would be to tell you about the press pass I wore around my neck while I was on my trip — one that got me into the Senate news gallery, congressional hearings, and offices all over Capitol Hill. That’s pretty surprising stuff for a small-town girl like me, but it’s true. Not only did I have that press pass, but I also had a magazine assignment to go along with it. First, though, I had a few things to learn — like how to work the Metro and how to keep flats in my bag for all the walking a big city requires. 

Thankfully, the veteran reporter charged with teaching me and three other writers the bureaucratic ropes really knew his way around. He quipped that as a journalist he had worked two combat zones — seven months in Iraq and 10 years in D.C.

“Covering Washington is hard on your heart,” he said at our very first meeting, pausing for a long sip of his black coffee. “It’s like getting your love of American history gut-punched every day.”

I came to understand some of what he meant as I sat in on committee meetings where special interests reigned and listened to the Comey hearing unfold. Most noticeably, I observed a huge age disparity — lots of young aides (some not old enough to rent a car) whispering in the ears of our white-headed congressmen. It’s these young whippersnappers who do most of the gatekeeping for politicians —  managing their offices, schedules and even their words. What’s up with that?

I could also say a bit about what it’s like to watch Mississippi’s congressmen up close, but that might not go over too well. Instead, I’ll tell you that the marble on the steps at the Capitol is worn into dips from centuries of use. You can stand on a plaque that marks the spot where John Quincy Adams sat during meetings of the House of Representative. In Senate offices in the Russell Building there are light bulbs that turn red when a vote is coming up on the floor.

And on Tuesdays at the Capitol, congressmen have what is described as a pre-game meal and locker room talk before the big game. They discuss strategies, then come out onto the second floor and talk it up before the press. I stood in the mix of reporters and cameramen just feet away from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as he tried to explain the health care reform efforts. Later, the crowd gathered around Sen. Patrick Leahy as he walked from the hall to the elevator. They surrounded him on every side in a tight circle, microphones and lights dangling from poles overhead. While the huddle moved forward, inch by inch, he made his remarks and they got their soundbites.    

And I got an education. What a power trip for our elected officials: They have a Washington Post reporter waiting at their elbow to quote their every thought and a black Suburban (with special tags) waiting curbside to whisk them away when they’re done. It would take a strong person to withstand that kind of ego candy. No wonder so many of them find it hard to think of returning to regular life. 

More on my trip to D.C. next week.

Kim Henderson is a freelance writer. Contact her at kimhenderson319@gmail.com.