Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A Monday In An Expectant Washington

They say five million people are coming to Washington to see Barack Obama inaugurated next Tuesday, but this week, it felt empty and expectant. On Monday morning, the bookstores and sidewalk vendors had plenty of Obama merchandise ready, but shoppers were few. The chairs were in place for the VIPs on the west side of the Capitol. To accommodate the rest of the audience, Porta Sans are arrayed along the Mall all the way back to the Lincoln Memorial.

My Nixon Foundation colleagues Kris Elftmann and Kathy O'Connor and I felt as if we had the town to ourselves as we walked from our hotel in Georgetown to the Capitol -- until we saw a smiling friend standing next to us at a stoplight on Pennsylvania Avenue. Even though Tim Mead, legendary communications VP for our home town Angels, was on the way to the White House for a meeting with the President, he graciously paused to let Kris experience the heft of a World Series ring.

Our destination was the lavish new Captiol Visitor Center, the $621 million installation you access from an underground entrance halfway to the Supreme Court in order to protect Sen. Harry Reid from smelly tourists. Again, we expected to be battling crowds, but it was pretty much we and the statue of Po'pay from New Mexico. Perhaps 20 others were along for a breathtaking new film about the Congress and a guided tour of the Capitol.

Naturally, I looked for Christian highlights among the artworks in our greatest secular temple. In John Gadsby Chapman's 1840 painting "The Baptism of Pocahontas," on display in the rotunda, that's her brother turned away in protest as one of my fellow Anglicans, the Rev. John Whiteaker, does the deed, evidently a prerequisite for her marriage to John Rolfe. (Our gracious young guide said the protester was her father, but the Architect of the Capitol sets him straight.)

Wandering around the Obama-fixated capital, I remembered Garrison Keillor's rueful "We're all Republicans now" from the early years of the Bush Administration. These days the rue is on the other foot. As I walked up 12th Street, I passed the headquarters of the Republican Committee of the District of Columbia, where the party's pervasive dysfunction was appropriately expressed by a word-processed sign announcing that the doorbell was out of order.

Republicans associated with The Nixon Center, the Nixon Foundation's nonpartisan foreign policy think tank, were feeling somewhat more au courant Monday evening at the Four Seasons in Georgetown. After all, we were honoring the exceedingly relevant Admiral Mike Mullen, who as chairman of the Joint Chiefs will be President Obama's chief military adviser at least until late 2009. The smart money says he'll be reappointed for a second two-year term. Besides, The Center's foreign policy realism, halfway between isolationism and neoconservatism, corresponds neatly with the Obamian Zeitgeist. Recall that realist prophet Brent Scowcroft remained pointedly neutral during the fall campaign while staying in touch with Obama.

During the reception, I spotted the peripatetic Steve Clemons, whose influential "Washington Note" blog is also known for its humane, realistic perspective on international affairs. I asked him to pose with Singapore's ambassador to the U.S., scholar Chan Heng Chee, a loyal friend of The Center for many years. Steve graciously stooped to be photographed, since he's 6'5", and Ambassador Chan is not. Later Steve was seen giving my wife and colleague Kathy a foot rub at her table, which is a long story.

After paying tribute to President Nixon's foreign policy vision, Admiral Mullen called on the U.S. to make better use of its diplomatic and economic clout in addition to its military power. Good intelligence also plays a vital role in the war on terror, which meant that Orange County's Julia Argyros, wife of Nixon Center founding chairman George Argyros, was in a unique position to get up to date during her dinner conversation with Michael V. Hayden, director of Central Intelligence.

Meanwhile, Kathy (left) was getting caught up with Sharon Fawcett, deputy archivist of the U.S. in charge of all the Presidential libraries. We've been working with Sharon for many years on Nixon records matters in general and, most recently, the complex process of adding the Nixon Library to the Federal system, which culminated last year in the handover of the library and museum to the National Archives.

Sharon was having a little breather before returning to the gargantuan task of preparing President Bush's records for the long ride down to Texas and the soon-to-be-built Bush Library at SMU. She and her Archives colleagues face unprecedented technological challenges. She told us, for instance, that all the electronic records created by previous Presidents equal 2% of W.'s e-records. Among Sharon's most vital responsibilities: Making sure scholars can still read all those e-mails and attachments in 50 or 100 years without making hard copies of everything. Try getting an old file from a five and a quarter-inch floppy, for instance.

By the time all that's done, there'll be an Obama Library to plan -- in four or eight years, depending on whom you ask. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Godspeed on Tuesday, 44!

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