Image: Hillary Clinton Testifies
Chip Somodevilla  /  Getty Images file
Congressional hearings are one of Washington's great spectacles. Here Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton faces the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the Hart Senate Office Building on Tuesday.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 1/15/2009 5:56:30 PM ET 2009-01-15T22:56:30

Washington, D.C., doesn’t get to host Mardi Gras or the Super Bowl, so the presidential inauguration is our spectacle.

It is both Mardi Gras revelry and Super Bowl elation, combined with what Ronald Reagan called in his first inaugural address "a solemn and most momentous occasion; and yet, in the history of our Nation… a commonplace occurrence.” 

The transfer of power from one president to his successor is an occasion for politicos, lobbyists and grassroots activists to hoist their champagne glasses and raise the roof.

Maybe you won’t be in Washington for inauguration week, or you’ve only been here years ago on a field trip with your eighth grade class, dragooned by fretful teachers to visit the museums on the Mall.

But plenty of spectacles routinely happen in Washington, even when a president is not being sworn in.

This is a town full of extroverts, political performers, and bit players who become famous for a while then are forgotten. (Remember Linda Tripp? Scott Ritter?)

Here are some of the places where you can see virtuoso performances almost every day...

The Supreme Court of the United States
The clerk proclaims in a voice filling the massive court chamber, “Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! All persons having business before the Honorable, the Supreme Court of the United States, are admonished to draw near and give their attention, for the Court is now sitting. God save the United States and this Honorable Court!”

You can sit in the visitors’ gallery and listen to the nine justices interrogate the lawyers arguing for their clients.

The Constitution is being reshaped and redefined and you have a seat to watch it happen. If you’re lucky, you will be at the court on a day when the justices hear arguments on a controversy that gets everybody’s blood up: Ban the words “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance? Let alleged terrorists held at Guantanamo file suits in federal court?

Caution: you will likely need to line up early in the morning or the night before to get in to see one of the marquee cases.

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But even if the case the justices are hearing on the day you happen to be there is a morass of technicalities that only law professors can grasp, these unelected eight men and one woman are worth going out of your way to see. After all, they can strike down laws that members of Congress spent month and months writing.

Unlike most of the rest of Washington’s political figures, they are in no danger of overexposure. They don’t do Meet the Press or The Colbert Report. They don’t crave celebrity treatment.

So the chance to see them in their natural habitat is one of the best things about visiting Washington.

And they are idiosyncratic personalities: Justice Antonin Scalia often badgers and mocks lawyers arguing before the court. And Scalia often uses the lawyers as a kind of handball wall against which he bounces arguments intended to rebut Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer.

Justice David Souter asks lots of questions, tugging and pestering and persisting — all in his wonderful New Hampshire country store accent. In a Guantanamo detainee case last year, he told Solicitor General Paul Clement that British judges “were exercising habeas jurisdiction in a polity in which Parliament is supreme.”

He drawled the word “Parliament” making sound like “PAAH-lee-ah-mint.”

Watching Justice Breyer
But the most fun to watch is Breyer. He has a patient professorial manner of setting out two alternative sides of a case, or two possible explanations of what Congress intended a law to do.

Then he’ll sum up by asking the lawyer, “So I need you to help me understand. Which one is it?”

On Monday, hearing arguments in a complex case involving a gold mine in Alaska and whether the Environmental Protection Agency or the Army Corps of Engineers should decide if mine tailings should be allowed to be dumped in a pristine lake, Breyer said to lawyer Ted Olson, “It's so counterintuitive, that all you have to do is take a terrible pollutant and fill the bottom of the lake with it and now it's up to the Army Corps of Engineers and not up to the EPA, that I assume I don't understand the statute, and you will explain it to me.”

The audience laughed and Olson replied, “Yes, I will, Justice Breyer.”

You may be lucky enough to see one of the veterans of the Supreme Court bar such as Carter Phillips, who have argued dozens of cases before the court and who have a gift for making the complex lucid.

Or you may witness an embarrassing gaffe, such as the one made by Virginia assistant attorney general Pamela Rumpz in a 2002 oral argument involving the death penalty and the mentally retarded.

“How do you account for a state like the one that I come from that has not executed somebody in over 60 years?” Souter asked Rumpz.

The lawyer had to admit she had no idea what state Souter was from.

Across the street from the Supreme Court are the House and Senate office buildings, where you can see another kind of spectacle, Congressional hearings.

Trapping the witness
Members of Congress know that the best chance of them getting a twenty-second sound bite on national news broadcasts is to pinion a witness, trapping him or her in an admission of some terrible misdeed.

I have my own favorites over many years of watching congressional hearings. One is from 1997 when the late Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., chided independent counsel Donald Smaltz for forgetting to tell a House oversight committee that he had been a registered Republican voter.

"You remind me of the late, unlamented secretary general of the United Nations, Kurt Waldheim, who also had a lapse of memory. He conveniently forgot several years when he was a Nazi," said Lantos, a Hungarian Jewish émigré.

A flustered Smaltz said, “Are you suggesting that I am a Nazi?”

You may get to sit in on a hearing in which a pit-bull witness exchanges growls with his tormentors on the committee.

Last June’s hearing pitting Vice President Dick Cheney’s aide David Addington against Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee was a fine example of people who disdain each other not hiding it in a day-long impasse.

What's playing at the think tanks?
Then there is the entertainment to be had at Washington’s think tanks.

The think tanks — right, left, center and mixed — offer a wealth of enlightenment, in effect a university-level education on a daily basis.

Let’s just take one week: the week after Obama’s inauguration.

The right-leaning American Enterprise Institute will present one seminar on the macroeconomic impact of Brazil's sugar cane alternative energy program, another on the effects of the federal bailout of banks and financial firms, and yet another assessing the last 30 years of the Iranian Revolution and the future prospects for U.S.-Iranian relations.

The libertarian Cato Institute that week features a seminar with Susette Kelo, plaintiff in the landmark Kelo v. City of New London case in which Kelo fought all the way to the Supreme Court to keep an urban redevelopment agency from seizing her house.

Meanwhile, that week the Democratic-affiliated Center for American Progress has a debate on the political and social implications of Latino population growth over the next several decades.

And at John Hopkins Center for Advanced International Studies, Iranian émigré author Azar Nafisi will be talking about growing up in Iran under the shah and in the early days of the Islamic revolution.

We’ve only scratched the surface of what D.C.'s think thanks have to offer.

Except for the dog days of August, they always have some event you can learn from.

An evening of people watching
After a day of the Supreme Court or a high-level policy briefing at a think tank, there are always people to observe as you sip a glass of pinot noir.

Go to Bistro Bis on E Street, NW near Capitol Hill, to see senators and House members going to or from fund raisers, which are held next door at the George Hotel. At the bar you’ll find an assortment of congressional staffers, lobbyists, political donors, and reporters.

Finally end your day with the kind of drama that needs no words to be spoken.

A nighttime visit to Mall and its many monuments can stir the soul. Walking up the steps to the Lincoln Memorial — when most of the tourists and school kids are long gone — can move you to feel what Lincoln's words “the last full measure of devotion” mean.

Due east of the Lincoln is the easily recognizable and imposing Washington monument, though at night, when lit from below, it takes on a different and more somber tone even as it rises above everything in the city. In between is the relatively new World War II Memorial, whose lights and fountains reflect beautifully on a dark night.

Northeast of the Lincoln is the memorial to those who served and died in the war in Vietnam. While rarely empty during the day, an evening stroll along the walkway to study the Wall, as it's known in D.C., provides a quiet, contemplative moment to ponder a war that can still divide.

Just southeast of the Lincoln, on the other side of the reflecting pool, is a memorial to the unsung heroes of the Korean War.

Especially on foggy or snowy night, when the bronze soldiers take on a haunting and ghostlike quality, a visit to this site is a fitting way to commemorate the gallantry of the Americans who fought there and in their own way gave “the last full measure of devotion.”

A long walk down the South side of the Mall brings you to one of the newer memorials, this one tracing the life of F.D.R. through his words and important moments is his presidency. Unlike many of the Mall's monuments, this resides mostly at eye level, bringing F.D.R.'s words home in an intimate, personal way.

Fittingly, our nighttime tour finishes with a walk around the Tidal Basin, lined by Washington's famous cherry trees, leading you to the anchor of The Jefferson Memorial. F.D.R himself laid the cornerstone of the monument.

This magnificent tribute to our third president features a design honoring his architectural tastes, a bronze of the man that shines like gold at night, as well as five quotations taken from his writings.

Perhaps the most famous is a perfect end to your tour: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..."

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