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Simon goes to Washington

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SimonOver the February 2004 half-term break a group of fourteen A Level Politics students and two staff from Cheadle Hulme School in Manchester spent five days visiting Washington DC. The following personal account was written by Upper 6th former Simon Holt. Simon was visiting the United States for the fourth time. He has a conditional offer to read History & Politics at St. John’s College, Oxford.

 

Posted 1st March 2005

Revised 05-Jun-2013

 

Museums galore
Understanding American Politics
War and Peace
On the stump with Kerry
A bit of retail therapy

For a Politics student a visit to Washington DC would be interesting at any time but with the current crisis in Iraq, the Global War on Terror and 2004 also being a Presidential Election year, the timing of the Cheadle Hulme group trip appeared, in the run-up to our departure, either wonderfully inspired or reckless. In the days preceding our trip, a number of flights from the UK to Washington had been cancelled on security grounds. After some (quite) reassuring words from Mr Pagan (the trip organiser) to parents in a pre-trip meeting, our intrepid group proceeded nonetheless.

The trip proved to be a worthwhile and completely fascinating experience. Many of the group were travelling to the United States for the first time and it was interesting for me to observe their reactions as I also remembered how impressed I was on my first visit. Given the nature of the press coverage of US politics in this country, it was also interesting for all of us to experience parts of the system ‘unspun’, or perhaps more spun, at first hand. Certainly, the city of Washington itself is spectacular, a fitting setting for the nation’s capital. The fact that we enjoyed blue skies (and freezing conditions!) throughout made the public buildings and monuments seem all the more impressive. The hotel was pleasant and well facilitated, providing us with a smart and comfortable base throughout our trip. This was, I must say, a pleasant surprise, given the standard of hotel we are used to staying in on school trips organised by Mr Pagan! The programme was both full and wide-ranging. Despite this, we probably only skimmed the surface of what was on offer. 

 

Museums galore

In the Smithsonian Museum

A definite highlight for me was on the first day with our visit to the prestigious Smithsonian Institute. Home to thirteen of America’s leading museums, it certainly lived up to the billing it was given in the literature we received. The Smithsonian provided a revealing insight into how America interprets and presents its own history. We only had time to visit a few of the museums in the complex.  We started with the National Air and Space Museum, which contains exhibits detailing American achievements in aviation and space travel, from the time of the Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903 to the fighter planes aeroplanes in the first Gulf War. Perhaps predictably, the theme of military combat was a constant feature, with exhibits from both World Wars and the Cold War featuring prominently. Exhibits commemorating US involvement in the Vietnam War were conspicuous by their absence. The maxim that ‘The winners write history, the winners write only about their winning history’ was proved to be true in this case. Other displays told the story of Charles Lindbergh’s voyage across the Atlantic in 1927 and the Moon Landing of 1969.

Later, we visited the National Museum of American History. As a budding historian, I found this of particular interest. The exhibition on the Presidents was particularly impressive, and most aspects of the USA’s 229-year history were touched upon, if not all at great length. The heady mix of detail and accessibility provided for a stimulating and enjoyable experience, for historians and non-historians alike.

However, I think it is fair to say our visit to the National Holocaust Museum had the most powerful impact on the group as a whole. Having visited a number of Holocaust museums, such as in Nottingham, Manchester and the exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London, I can see why it is considered by many to be the best of its kind in the world. The three floors packed with artefacts, eyewitness accounts and film, provided an overwhelming emotional experience. The lay-out and presentation of the storyline of this unspeakable tragedy was intelligent in the way that it managed to be tasteful and yet unflinchingly honest at the same time. After 2 ½ hours there, most of us were left in stunned silence, and yet felt we had only touched the surface of what was available at this most comprehensive of museums, a fitting tribute to those who perished during this great human tragedy.

 

Understanding American politics

Outside the Capitol

 

 

The main reason for the trip was, however, to bolster our understanding of the American political process. Our tour of the Capitol Building was of great value in this sense. We began with meetings with two of Senator Joe Lieberman’s staff, Chris Povak, one of the Democrats’ policy advisers in Congress, and Kerry Arnot, the Senator’s parliamentary assistant. The visit was particularly topical, as just a week before our arrival, Senator Lieberman had retired from the race to win the Democrats’ nomination for the Presidential Election. The opportunity to meet ‘insiders’ and to discuss the workings of Congress was very valuable for those of us sitting examinations in US Government & Politics this summer. We also had chance to find out more about the current state of affairs in the race for the White House, the role of a Senator’s staff and the influence of outside organisations and pressure groups on elected representatives. Having previously visited the Houses of Parliament at Westminster, the visit to Lieberman’s office highlighted the relative wealth of resources and facilities available to US politicians compared to their UK counterparts.  There then followed a tour of Congress, visiting the Outside the White House Old Senate, the Old House of Representatives and the Old Supreme Court, all in use from 1800 to 1860. Sadly, as the current Senate and House of Representatives were not in session the main Chambers were closed. As a piece of architecture, both inside and out, the US Capitol is a monument both to American democracy and its historical development. In comparison, the White House is somewhat under-whelming, much smaller than it appears on television. But, as No. 10 Downing Street proves, size isn’t everything when it comes to power.

 

War and Peace

A meeting with Common Cause

Without doubt, the part of the trip that divided opinions most of all was the visit to the Pentagon, the headquarters of the hawkish US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. In my, admittedly somewhat biased opinion, the Pentagon was a perfect demonstration of the war-mongering, militaristic attitude of many within the Bush administration. The tone was set with the exhaustive security checks we had to undergo to get in, including being photographed and having our passport details logged. Our guide was a young serving officer in the US Army and he managed to (just about) deliver his script while most of his time walking backwards and keeping us very much within his sights the whole time. He was supported by two colleagues, one from the Air Force, the other from the Navy, who made sure none of us wandered off. For some in our group, the tour around the huge Pentagon complex was deeply impressive, demonstrating and celebrating the awesome power, patriotism and history of the American military. For others, myself included, it was a bit more intimidating. Personally, I found the whole visit as representing jingoistic, right-wing America at its worst. The visit ended on a sombre note as we were allowed to pay our respects at the memorial to the victims of the 9.11 attack. All in all, this was not an experience I would care to repeat.

In stark contrast, our visit later on to the headquarters of Common Cause, a pressure group working to foster greater transparency and accountability across US government, was a vastly more welcoming affair. The staff at Common Cause, in particular Michael Madison, provided us with a really interesting overview of their activities, including a briefing on one of their latest projects, an investigation into the issuing of defence contracts for the reconstruction of Iraq. They patiently answered all of our many questions, free from the filters of political analysts and the spin of politicians. This was probably the most productive part of the trip in educational terms.

 

On the stump with Kerry

Working families for Kerry

I would like to finish by recording that there was one final surprise for the CHS politicians. On the final morning before our departure, the group ran into a rally for John Kerry’s campaign for the Democratic nomination. This was taking place outside the headquarters of the AFL-CIO, America’s TUC. As we now know, at least at the time of writing, Kerry will be Bush’s main rival for the White House in November so this was a happy coincidence. Please note, dear reader, that the fact I wasn’t there did not mean I begrudged my fellow politics students from partaking in such a fantastic opportunity (well, not much, anyway). Instead, I took the liberty of a little free time to go to Georgetown in Greater Washington to buy some books for my A-Level Politics Coursework and also to have a look round Georgetown University, one of America’s finest. I suppose the books were (sort of) useful, but I must admit tLabour unins for Kerryo feeling, at least temporarily, a little unfulfilled. I was joined in my trip to Georgetown by the female members of the group, indulging in a bit of last-minute retail therapy. Later, we returned to the hotel, to be greeted by much derision from the rest of the group at our missed opportunity and the sight of the many ‘Kerry for President’ posters they were ‘given’ (or, at least that’s how they described it.)   

 

A bit of retail therapy

My abiding memories of this trip will be of the splendour of the city and the concentration of interesting sights on offer to a student of History and Politics. Aside from the main business, we also had a lot of fun and time to relax after a frantic first half term. The various shopping trips, of which there were never enough for the female members of the group, and the trip to the cinema were well-received by all. Meal times were always entertaining, mainly because of the size of the portions!  Is it any wonder that the USA has an obesity problem? And where else in the world serves chocolate doughnuts as a staple product at breakfast time, and does not serve non-fizzy soft drinks in restaurants? Although I staggered out of restaurants after mealtimes feeling like I’d eaten enough for a week, other members of the group clearly did not feel the same. The doughnut-eating competition one breakfast-time between two (male) members of the group will live long in the memory, as well as the sight of a certain James Collinson eating two main courses and three deserts one evening. On a more sombre note, there was a strong sense that the race divide still exists, despite all that was achieved during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Most menial jobs were performed by ethnic minorities. It was particularly noticeable that these were overwhelmingly by black Americans amidst all of the prosperity. There was also the juxtaposition of poverty. Even though it was cold, we still noticed quite a large number of beggars and down-and-outs. Although somewhat disconcerting in what was, for the most part, a lively and affluent city, this did not take away from what was both a stimulating and relaxing trip for both students and (I think) teachers alike, and one in which I, at least, enjoyed myself immensely. In sum, our week at the city at the heartbeat of the American political process was a pleasure and one from which I will take away many memories. Sadly, laws concerning decency and libel prevent me from publishing many of them here!

 

 

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