“You’ve come to Washington at a very interesting time. There are a lot of issues being discussed that will affect your lives in the future,” intones Alice Rivlin, the president’s budget director. D.J., the high-school student sitting on my left, snorts in his sleep. Shiloh, on my right, giggles and almost drops Devil’s Daughter, the romance paperback she brought in case we sat in back.
But we ended up in the front row of this drab auditorium, in a colorless federal edifice called the Central Office Building, listening to Rivlin, who brims with all the charisma of a Harvard-trained Ph.D. economist. She begins her speech at 10:45 a.m. By 10:48, D.J. is snoozing.
“You must stay in school,” Rivlin lectures, “and go to college if you possibly can.”
D.J.’s lolling head whacks the back of his chair, jolting him awake. More muffled giggling from fellow students watching him. Clad in high-tops, blue jeans, and a green ball cap that he was supposed to doff, D.J. carefully tilts his head back and only half-closes his glassy eyes in a failing effort to look awake.
Rivlin is giving the keynote address to another batch of students brought to Washington by the Close Up Foundation. It’s Monday morning, the first full day of one of the 30 weeklong trips to D.C. that Close Up has organized this school year. More than 23,000 students, along with 3,000 of their teachers, will have come to Washington when Close Up breaks for the summer next month.
For the majority of the students, it’s a first trip to D.C. For some, it’s a first trip away from home. Mostly high schoolers, Close Up kids come from 50 states, U.S. territories, and even some foreign countries. That’s roughly 600 kids a week scrambling over Capitol Hill, packing the museums, and jostling your mochaccino at the downtown espresso stand.
Now celebrating its 25th year, Close Up has become the Carnival Cruise Lines of civic education. The Alexandria-based nonprofit raked in $33.2 million in revenues in fiscal 1995—$22.4 million directly from students. (The rest came mostly from corporate and government donors.) More than 400,000 people are Close Up alums.
Close Up began and still operates with a central, noble ambition—to “get people more involved,” in the words of president and co-founder Stephen A. Janger. Janger helped start the organization in the early 1970s and now enjoys widespread praise from the Washington elite. “The smartest thing to do,” he says, “is learn how the system works, so if you want to change it, you can do so effectively.”
His simple idea: Bring planeloads of kids to Washington to illustrate daily civics lessons with immersion in the federal city—meetings with government officials, visits to the monuments, and guided tours through the halls of governance. For the students, it’s a civic education wrapped in a vacation. Walt Disney, meet Walter Mondale.
But the Washington they visit is a demonized city, attacked not only for the shenanigans of the federal government but for the befuddling behavior of a populace that re-elected a convicted crack-user mayor. Watching all the out-of-town kids streaming across the city, I wondered whether a trip to the capital was opening their eyes or merely confirming their suspicions. Last month, I spent a week with Close Up kids from West Virginia, North Dakota, Wisconsin, and other states because I wanted to see what the students get for the $785 (plus airfare) they pay to be here. And I wanted to see this city as they did.
For a week, I relived the experience of thousands of Americans, including myself, who visited Washington while in high school. I was again a newcomer to a city at once majestic and pathetic. I ate more McDonald’s, heard more crude jokes, and goggled more MTV than I care to remember. And I learned, despite Close Up’s truly honorable efforts, that Washington is a city I never, ever want to see again.
Sunday, 6:45 p.m. Our Close Up visit to Washington, D.C., begins in Arlington County, Va. Close Up houses students in suburban hotels—one of many efforts to reduce costs so that more kids can afford the program. One hundred sixty-eight students are staying at Crystal City’s Days Inn; the same week, another 330 are staying in hotels in Silver Spring.
The first item on the schedule for the week is tonight’s dinner, and I soon discover that food is another target of cost-cutting. I don’t know what the Days Inn usually serves, but the rubbery chicken and cold green beans we get wouldn’t pass muster on an airplane.
I’m a little nervous about meeting the kids cold, so for the first meal I sit with the teachers, most of whom accompany their students to Washington courtesy of Close Up. That’s one reason Close Up is the largest of the four major student tour groups in the area: Instead of sending sleazy marketing letters to students, as other groups do, Close Up works directly with school districts and teachers.
A week in Washington when the cherry trees are blossoming is quite a perquisite, and tonight the teachers are in a good mood. It’s a perk some of the teachers covet and protect: Many are returning to Close Up; one teacher says he’s been here more than 10 years in a row. (“Some of the museum shop clerks are starting to recognize me,” he chuckles.)
Close Up’s own teachers, called “program instructors” (PIs), also introduce themselves. These are the plucky twentysomethings who will run workshops, moderate debates, and guide bus tours all week. (The out-of-town teachers will spend the week with their own, lighter schedule of workshops and meetings. “It’s like a week’s vacation,” says one at dinner.) The PIs are a pleasantly polished, mostly white bunch, many of them just out of Northeastern liberal arts colleges.
One, a pretty blond woman, was a public-school teacher for a while, but “my experience in public schools drove me to Close Up,” she says. The assembled public-school teachers study their chicken.
Dinner adjourns to our first workshop. There are 16 students in my workshop, nice kids from outland areas not unlike my hometown of Pine Bluff, Ark. D.J. is here, along with three other well-tanned kids who attend Beatty High School in a tiny town of the same name beached in the Nevada desert. There’s also Carrie and Keri, sweet seniors from a coal-mining West Virginia area who finish each other’s sentences and both have brothers named Justin. And there’s a tall, athletic, male Shilo—not to be confused with the female Shiloh, who’s not in our workshop but hangs out with us. (Our workshop, I will soon learn, is the cool workshop.) Among the coolest is 17-year-old Derek, who rides bulls in North Dakota rodeos. Probably the brightest is Jessica, 16, an articulate liberal from Wisconsin milk country whose accent makes the characters in Fargo sound ordinary.
Our PI, Dan Cummings, begins with the rules, which mainly include the standard prohibitions of drugs and alcohol, along with “no boys in girls’ rooms, and no girls in boys’ rooms.” (The latter is relentlessly enforced by Close Up chaperones, who sit up all night in the hotel hallways.)
Dan is a lovable geek who uses the word “chill” too often. At 28, he’s among the oldest PIs, and he’s probably the most socially conscious: Before Close Up, he lived in a Jesuit co-op and ran a soup kitchen. How he ended up here at the Days Inn, warning us that curfew is 11 p.m. sharp, is a testament to the seductiveness of Close Up’s mission: Give us a week and we’ll make citizens out of Beavis and Butt-head. “You could just be planting a seed that will grow up in college,” Dan says later, “when they have access to political groups or social service groups, and make a difference.”
Close Up honchos tell me I happened to be assigned to an unusually rural workshop. Indeed. No one in my group hails from a town of more than 4,000 people. One hamlet, Plaza, N.D., has 150 residents, two of whom, Laura and Amy, are in my workshop.
A debate quickly ensues over who’s from the smallest, dullest town. “We’ve only got one traffic light,” offers Carrie. “We don’t even have a traffic light,” counters Derek, of Watford City, N.D. For the group, drive time to the mall seems to be the most telling statistic. The two Alaska girls in my workshop top everyone when they say they have to catch a plane just to leave their little island.
But Dan steers us onto more serious ground—problems in our hometowns. “We’ve got lots of illegal polka machines,” says Butch, of Eleva, Wis. We look confused. “Poker machines,” someone translates the accent. The West Virginians have high teen-pregnancy rates; the North Dakotans, struggling family farms. Everyone sees drug and alcohol abuse. Dan carefully makes a list of our local issues, which will hang on a wall, totally undiscussed, the rest of the week.
By 9:20 p.m., our overheated workshop room—a hotel room with the furniture removed—is redolent of sweat and bubble gum. We’re tired, and Dan thankfully wraps up: “These aren’t easy issues you guys are having to deal with,” he says. “But this week, you’ve got a chance not to slip into cynicism and negativism about them. It’s a chance to rise above.”
Orientation is next, and all 168 of us file into the hotel conference room. We hear the rules again. We go over the schedule—first an overview of the entire week and then a microlook at each day.
By 10 o’clock, every fourth student or so is asleep, but the senior PI, Francine, explains the rules a third time. Then she says, “I want to tell you a story.” A chorus of groans rises from the room, but she presses on. I dozed during the story, but I think it, like everything at Close Up, illustrated the virtues of civic involvement.
Francine urges us to learn political facts, such as the names of both our senators (“What if you only have one?” calls a confused North Dakotan) and the Supreme Court justices (“How about Ben Dover?” Butch snorts). “It’s OK if you don’t know these things,” Francine says. “It’s not having an interest in knowing these things that should concern you.”
Maybe so, although Close Up’s infatuation with process, regulations, and titles is wearing thin already. For now, though, we’re too tired to argue. Finally, Francine reviews the rules, the schedule, and says good night.
Monday, 8:58 a.m. We pile into a bus for our first trip to the District. Dan and two other PIs, Karen and Jill, pace the aisle as we negotiate thinning rush-hour traffic.
Unfortunately, there’s no microphone, so the PIs must shout to be heard. On Close Up buses, the customary “and-on-your-left-you-will-see” commentaries are morphed into bellowed Socratic tours: “CAN ANYONE TELL ME WHAT YOU SEE ON YOUR LEFT?”
And so on. To its credit, Close Up begins the first full day with a bus tour of Washington as a city, not merely as the federal seat. But the three PIs, all of whom live in Northern Virginia, have only a textbook feel for the District. And their textbook is a bit unreliable.
“Does the city have its own government?” Jill asks. (It’s a question I often ask myself.)
“That guy picked up for drugs,” comes the response.
Jill continues: “Washington has what’s known as a ‘shadow representative.’ Her name is Eleanor Holmes Norton.”
Actually, John Capozzi is our shadow rep, and Norton is D.C.’s nonvoting congressional delegate. We also have, at least on paper, a shadow senator, the Rev. Jesse Jackson. But remember: It’s OK if you don’t know these things. It’s not having an interest in knowing that should concern you.
We start our tour on Capitol Hill, and the bus surprisingly ventures into Northeast, at least as far as Gallaudet University (though we don’t even approach the Anacostia River, much less tour Wards 7 or 8).
We’re told about the 1968 riots, the history of Gallaudet and Howard Universities, and D.C.’s “bankruptcy and budget issues.” The PIs try to convey a positive sense of the city, but they do so in a clumsy, squishy way that isn’t convincing: “There’s always these reports of crime,” Karen says hopefully, “but you don’t always see it.”
We trundle into Adams Morgan via Columbia Road, and Karen explains that the neighborhood “is the most kind of diverse area of Washington, D.C.”—split about evenly among African-Americans, Latinos, and whites, she says.
“It’s managed to maintain that cultural harmony through something called an Advisory Neighborhood Committee,” Dan says. (Actually, they’re called Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs), but it’s OK if you don’t know these things….)
“The ANC said, ‘We like our neighborhood; we’re proud of it,’” he says, so after the 1991 riots, the ANC brought people together. “So now there’s a police substation where the officers on duty speak Spanish,” he says.
“It’s an example of community activism,” Karen adds. “Even the McDonald’s here has menus in Spanish now.”
The notion that ANCs harmonized race relations after the disturbances five years ago isn’t totally laughable, just naive. Ward 1 ANCs were a source of tension before the riots, since they traditionally had few Latino members. The Latino Civil Rights Task Force and local businesses and churches did more to ease racial friction than ANCs did. (And the McDonald’s at 18th and Columbia has no menu in Spanish.)
But the focus on ANCs comports with Close Up’s process-oriented vision of government, in which citizen action, filtered through a government agency, can solve pretty much any problem. The PIs are unbiased politically (or “multipartisan,” in Close Up–speak), but they all share a love for the political procedure. At a time when cynicism about politics abounds and when both liberals and conservatives are becoming convinced that government can do less, not more, Close Up remains blithely pro-Washington. At Close Up, “inside the Beltway” is a term of endearment.
I’m thinking about these things as we haul into Lafayette Square. A few years ago, the Washington Post published a couple of friendly features that included Close Up students engaging in spontaneous debate with the White House nutcases who hang out in the park. PIs told the Post that the tour through Lafayette was intended to show the students another form of political communication.
We arrive at the park just after 10 a.m. and are told to be on the bus by 10:15. Dan encourages us to talk with “Concepción,” who’s been demonstrating against nukes for 15 years. But Concepción isn’t there, and the park is mobbed with three other busfuls of Close Up kids. A couple of haggard protesters sip coffee and proffer literature to mostly standoffish students. We have time to snap a couple of photos through the White House fence, and then it’s back to the bus.
“The grass isn’t as nice as it should be,” says Derek of the White House lawn.
Karen and Jill spend the next few minutes trying to get us excited about our first speaker, Alice Rivlin. “I was really excited when I heard she was speaking to our group,” Karen says. “This is a really, really, really important office. We don’t usually get someone who’s that important. She’s really, really important.”
“She’s really important,” Jill agrees.
“There is no sleeping here,” Karen admonishes. “This is not your math class. These are important people who have come to talk to you.”
Close Uppers constantly talk about how important Washington figures are, comments that are mostly lost on these unpretentious students. At week’s end, most of my workshop buddies couldn’t remember Rivlin’s name, let alone her job title. And I can’t for the life of me remember what she talked about.
12:45 p.m. The Jefferson Memorial. Keri, her naturally curly blond hair brutally straightened, aims her Rite Aid disposable camera at the third president’s head. Click. “OK, now what?” she asks.
She and Carrie slept poorly. “I have, like, a thousand pillows on my bed, and the one here is, like, this thin,” Carrie says. She holds her thumb and forefinger up to illustrate. Close Up negotiates with its hotels to keep prices low, and the Days Inn, at least, saves by paring its normal services in Close Up rooms. No telephone calls, even local ones. No elevators—the students, quartered four-to-a-room on the second and third floors, are asked to use the stairs. And no extra pillows.
After lunch, we’re off to Capitol Hill again. Dan leads a tour—the Taft Memorial, the Russell Building, the old Senate chamber, the Rotunda, and so on. He speaks authoritatively and tries hard to engage us on the issues—though the element of governance that excites us the most is the filibuster. Still, when I can hear Dan over the din of the hundreds of tourists flowing around us, he’s more interesting than any high-school teacher I had.
At the monument to the Suffragettes, Dan instigates a debate over whether the women’s movement has gone too far. Depressingly, the boys bash Anita Hill and “woman drivers,” shouting over one girl’s simple argument that women still make less than men. Dan keeps his opinions to himself, but I can’t help thinking his activist blood is boiling.
I wonder again what keeps him coming back to Close Up—it’s Dan’s third year. Later, I ask him. He fondly remembers receiving letters from students thanking him for an eye-opening week in Washington. But most students in my group think he’s “a dweeb.” And because he climbs stairs with a mild disability—the result of a 12-year battle with muscular dystrophy—the boys relentlessly mimic him.
Not that they’re singling him out. A gruff PI is quickly dismissed as a “dyke” (although one student suggests that she might be “a transvestite faggot”). During the week, we target Asians, Mexicans, Native Americans, gays, and the disabled. The kids are awash in undemocratic attitudes, but see no disjunction between their dispositions and the government they have come to honor.
To be fair, we bash one another as well: Nothing and no one is sacred. (My favorite new insults: “fucknut” and “bunghole.”) I knew I was part of the gang when Derek and company began inventing foul details about my imagined sex life with Michelle, the City Paper photographer.
7:00 p.m. We file into the hotel conference room for a seminar on the media with Ceci Connolly. I find her bio: “congressional correspondent” for the St. Petersburg Times.
The week before, I visited Close Up’s Old Town headquarters. The walls there are covered with enormous glossies: Jimmy Carter shaking hands with Close Up kids, Ronald Reagan making a presentation to Close Up kids, an earnest Al Gore meeting Close Up kids, and so on.
But this week, aside from Rivlin we meet a couple of midlevel functionaries as well as some Hill staffers who make Rivlin look entertaining. The Close Up brochures that entice students to pay nearly $800 in “tuition” also contain the promotional photos. Ceci Connolly? How about the stylish Brit Hume? At least David Broder?
In Washington, self-importance and actual importance are always inversely proportional, so we see a lot of puffery this week. It begins with Connolly, whose opening joke recounts the horrors of being a well-paid, well-traveled political journalist. There’s a lesson you learn, she says: “Whenever you have the opportunity to eat, pee, or call your editor, do it.” Silence. She waits for a laugh. More silence. “OK, tough crowd.”
When she finally stops her inside-baseball shtick, however, the kids ask some piercing questions about media excesses, particularly regarding O.J. Simpson and the Unabomber. Later, Derek expands on this: “They never print anything good. I mean, I guess bad sells, but…if someone does something great, you never hear about it.”
We take the discussion to our small workshop upstairs and debate the First Amendment and church-state issues. Some of their schools have “moments of silence”—the one in West Virginia is even preceded by the reading of a Bible verse—and “church nights”—Wednesday nights, when the schools close their doors to all school groups and sports teams to encourage church attendance.
It’s late, we’re tired, and the room is smelly again. But the kids care about the issues, read the amendment carefully, and argue fairly well. In 10 minutes, we’ll be in our rooms, glued to MTV’s The Real World, sneaking smokes in the bathroom, or prank-calling sleepy Washingtonians. But for now, we understand why we’re here.
Tuesday, 10:30 a.m. It’s Capitol Hill Day, and we’re all dressed up. Over the years, Close Up has built good relations with Congress: 14 senators and 124 representatives serve on the foundation’s Board of Advisers—more Democrats than Republicans, but solidly bipartisan. Last year, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) urged the House historian’s office to work more closely with Close Up.
The foundation established its ties to members the old-fashioned way: Janger and the other founders (his wife and brother) lobbied hard in the early years for attention. Congress embraced the affable Oklahoman and his bubbly civic-mindedness; members of Congress were on Close Up’s board before it brought its first student to Washington. In 1972, Congress gave the foundation money to help poor students attend Close Up. Today, the congressionally sponsored Ellender fellowships (named for a late senator) total $4.2 million.
Most Close Up kids spend a whole day on Capitol Hill, even when members are away. We show up during Easter recess, so most students meet congressional staffers rather than the members themselves. The staffers try hard to connect with students, which means they act as though Washington is as foreign to them as it is to the kids. They talk about high crime, high rents, and low pay. “When we go home, we can drink water out of the tap,” says one staffer for North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan (D). “We would never do that here.” The kids shake their heads in horror.
The highlight of our day is meeting Rep. Steve Gunderson (R-Wis.), who has remained in Washington to have surgery on his hand. I’m hanging out with kids from his western Wisconsin district, and we stop by his office to collect any souvenirs his office might hand out. We’re surprised when it turns out he’s there, but with a friendly, milk-fed smile, he invites us right in.
Gunderson has served the District well recently, pouring his energies into a well-crafted—if controversial—plan to help D.C. public schools. That’s why it’s disconcerting to hear him trash the city to his out-of-town guests.
“I could take you to parts of this city, and you could do things there, and you would not come back alive,” he says ominously, after one student asks him about crime. The kids are rapt. “It’s a nice city, but there are parts of the city—well, you just don’t go there. You just don’t go.”
Talk turns to home-grown issues—the farm bill, the dairy industry, and his as-yet undecided plans for next year (he’s retiring). Then, with a wave, he sends us back onto D.C.’s mean streets. “Have a great time.”
12:10 p.m. Loose on the Hill, a small group of us—Derek, Shilo, Kevin, D.J., a Nevadan named Lea Ann, and a couple others—enters the Supreme Court. It’s free time, so the PIs aren’t with us. As we file in, Derek covers his huge “All-Around Cowboy” belt buckle with his hand so it doesn’t set off the metal detector. While we’re waiting for the others, he and I talk.
Derek has been riding horses and bulls in rodeos for most of high school. He lives on a 1,400-acre ranch that his family has owned for five decades, and he asks specific, hard questions about farm policies every chance he gets. He keeps a picture of his blond girlfriend, Clover, in his wallet, which is also jammed with photos of other friends and family members. Though only a junior, he’s thinking about college—probably Dickinson State, in North Dakota, which has a good ag-business program. A big goal for this summer is to qualify for the high-school rodeo finals in Gilette, Wyo.
Derek came to Washington on Close Up “because it was a break,” he says, adjusting the black cowboy hat he wears when he’s not sporting a Supersonics ball cap. (Like the other guys, he always wears some kind of hat.) “I mean, I wanted to learn about the government and all that, but it was nice to get away for a while.”
It’s an attitude most Close Up students share and, I think, most tourists in Washington possess. The city’s appeal as a vacation spot lies in the same fortunate duality that makes CNN or the Discovery Channel successful TV networks: They entertain under the guise of education.
Too much of the one, however, cleaves
Once inside the court, we make our way to the main chamber. Can we go in?
“It’s a 20-minute lecture” to see the chamber, the guard responds. We wrinkle our noses and immediately retreat. No way.
We walk aimlessly for a few minutes and admire the court’s spiral staircase.
Thirteen minutes after we walked in, Kevin asks, “So are we going to that fuckin’ library, or what?”
One Supreme Court down, one Folger Shakespeare Library to go.
Many of our visits to federal landmarks are like that one—in through the metal detector, pick up a brochure, look around, snap a photo, which way to the exit? Lincoln Memorial—three-and-a-half minutes. Vietnam Memorial—five minutes, including the time it takes Shiloh to admire the pretty “Pow-mee-uh” bracelets vendors are selling.
Free time is over, and we’re back with the PIs. We spend most of the afternoon outside, which is silly since it’s rainy and cold. But Close Up builds no flexibility into the schedule. The rest of the week will be warm and sunny, and we’ll spend a lot of our time inside.
By the time we arrive at the Iwo Jima Memorial, a bizarre April snowstorm rages, blanketing the bus windshield with wet snowspit. “Everyone must get out of the bus,” Jill the PI announces. “You must see this monument.
“It’s really, really important,” she adds.
We reluctantly climb off the bus, which drives around to the other side of the monument. Most of us dart from one curb, pause at the heroic sculpture (click), and then run to the other side. We pay homage to the fallen Marines for a total of 100 seconds.
8:00 p.m. When not preparing America’s youth to be citizens, the PIs hang out in a staff suite at the Days Inn, gobbling candy, watching Fall Guy reruns and Forrest Gump, and generally decompressing.
I am told that everything said in this room is off the record. Fair enough, but I have spent enough time around the PIs to know that sometimes they want to murder the kids. It’s understandable: For weeks at a time, they spend long days with high-school students, enduring fart jokes, titty jokes, and more fart jokes. (And the same fart jokes, since a new bale of students arrives each Sunday.) The kids are often inquisitive and insightful, but even 12 hours of that grows tiresome.
Earlier in the day, on the bus, one student had started a joke: “Why did the monkey fall out of the tree?”
“Because it was dead,” Dan responded flatly.
Wednesday, 10:15 a.m. Last night and this morning we’ve had workshops and discussions that surprised me with their intensity and thoughtfulness. Our group is basically fascist—we decided that welfare moms must undergo mandatory, in-home drug testing on a regular basis—but it’s well-meaning.
We’re in an American University auditorium listening to a debate about the Bill of Rights. (We’re each given a pocket-size copy of the Constitution to keep.) D.J. is wearing the same red sweat shirt he’s been wearing since Monday night. There’s some doodling and napping, but less than with Rivlin.
The smartest student based in our hotel is probably Rebecca, a Vinton, Ohio, resident and pupil at the Ohio State School for the Blind. Close Up lives its progressive rhetoric by hosting D.C. trips for visually impaired and hearing-impaired students. (They also have trips for recent immigrants and senior citizens. Other ventures include the Pacific Basin Program in Honolulu, educational TV shows, and book publishing.)
Rebecca’s copy of Current Issues—a Close Up–published book sent to each of us before the trip—is as ratty as a well-thumbed phone book. Most of us haven’t touched the 350-page volume. From behind large corrective lenses, she asks clear, pointed questions and provides cogent, correct answers. We, of course, make fun of her.
We leave American and head southeast, toward Adams Morgan, where we’ll have lunch. We won’t be alone. Many Close Up buses stop at the corner of 18th and Columbia for lunch one day during the week. (It’s the only place outside the federal enclave where the kids step off the bus.)
We’re prepared for this adventure with coded warnings.
“What kind of reputation does D.C. have for crime?” Jill asks as we drive south on Massachusetts Avenue from AU.
“Bad.” “Shootings all the time.” “Murder capital.” The responses are accompanied by nervous laughter.
“I saw a guy stealing food from a trash can,” Shilo adds.
“OK, so we have vagrant issues,” Karen responds.
Then she and Jill tell the story of Adams Morgan’s racial harmony again—this time engendered by Advisory Neighborhood Councils.
“Keep your eyes open here,” Jill says. “Ask people in the neighborhood what they think of the neighborhood and how safe they feel here.”
“And take your name tags off,” Karen adds. “Use your street smarts. We don’t want everybody standing around and looking like tourists.” I look around—our bus is almost all white, and after the warnings about crime, we carry slightly worried expressions. Most of us have cameras. We are a precise incarnation of tourism.
Finally, the bus stops, and the PIs recommend that we try some of the ethnic food that’s made the neighborhood a night spot. Derek, Shilo, Shiloh, D.J., Kevin, Lea Ann, and I step off the bus, name tags safely tucked away. We look left, then right, then beeline to McDonald’s.
I work in Adams Morgan and live just south of the neighborhood. I’ve never had a soul harass me. Until today. A drunk guy clutching a 40-ounce beer wobbles up the stairs to the McDonald’s dining room. As we walk out, he menacingly demands spare change. He doesn’t touch anyone, but in 10 seconds, an impression is formed.
Back on the bus, the PIs ask for those impressions, and what was spoken in code before is more openly stated now.
“There was some black guy curled up right there on the floor” of a news shop, one student recalls.
“McDonald’s was even worse, man; there was all sorts of people sleeping in there—and some guy with cornrows in his hair asked for money,” says another.
“Yeah, that place was just weird,” comes a third response. “There were, like, black people passed out everywhere.”
This is ridiculous, and the PIs try to emphasize, again, that the crime rate in Adams Morgan is low. But Close Up strongly encourages PIs to let the students form their own opinions. The required “multipartisanship” among PIs seems to prevent them from ever telling students they’re wrong. When I ask Derek and the other guys about Adams Morgan later, they say they would be afraid to walk around the neighborhood at night.
Two students do offer positive comments about Adams Morgan—one says she met a friendly passer-by, the other, a friendly cop. But most comments are negative, and the PIs are left talking, once again, about ANCs—a weak, procedural answer to the bleak vision of the city taking shape in our minds.
The anti-urban theme of the afternoon is unintentionally emphasized by our next stop—Camilo José Vergara’s “New American Ghetto” exhibit at the National Building Museum: Tastefully framed, starkly photographed urban blight.
Once again, the PIs ask for perceptions:
“We’ve got it pretty easy compared to them,” Derek says. “I didn’t expect to see these things in America.”
Others talk about how “mostly black people and poor people” live in “inner-city neighborhoods, like Adams Morgan.” The solutions offered: more cops, tougher punishment.
For the PIs, once again, every answer is an acceptable answer. I begin to wonder if this isn’t how they, too, see Washington.
1:50 p.m. D.C. Superior Court. The PIs have brought us here to see the criminal-justice system in action. Oddly, they provide no tour and no directions. We’re let loose in the building, once again instructed to remove our name tags.
There’s something obscene about scores of hyper white kids screeching through the halls of the Moultrie Building. It’s a grim place—a place you go to rat on your neighbor, divorce your husband, seek shelter from your abusive father. For Close Up, it’s a stop between a museum and the hotel.
Carrie, Keri, and I enter the building together. “We’re gonna get killed,” Keri says as we pass through the metal detectors.
Instead, we randomly enter Room 210, Judge Robert Richter’s courtroom. A girl—perhaps 14—is testifying that the defendant sexually assaulted her in her home.
“It hurt,” the girl says. “I just closed my eyes real tight.”
Her testimony is brave and gripping. We leave a few minutes into it. “We gotta find a more serious case,” Keri says.
5:40 p.m. The bus pulls up to the corner of 11th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Planet Hollywood. Outside, maybe 100 tourists mob the entrance—and it’s just another Wednesday evening. Inside, mayhem: As “Welcome to the Jungle” blares from mounted speakers, the ubiquitous TVs rapid-fire movie clips, Planet Hollywood ads, and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s biceps. Tourists warily browse menus, looking for something under $10, as their kids check out Darth Vader’s helmet and a Terminator replica.
Close Up has deals with Planet Hollywood and the Hard Rock Cafe: Close Up herds in thousands of kids, and the restaurants give them a financial break on meals. The cost is rolled into Close Up’s tuition, along with six nights at the hotel, the workshops and other instruction, the bus transportation, most other meals, a round-the-clock nurse, security, a dance, and tonight’s festivities—after Planet Hollywood, we’re going to see The Fantasticks.
Planet Hollywood cuts some corners. Felicia, our waitress, offers us only soda or iced tea, and the food options are chicken sandwich, burger, or veggie burger. All have been sitting under a heat lamp for hours; I had to ask for a sharp knife to cut the chicken. But Felicia doesn’t forget to pimp the gift shop downstairs, where we might buy a Planet Hollywood leather jacket for $199. We dutifully file into the crammed shop and start spending.
Thursday, 9:00 a.m. It all begins to blur together. A foreign policy speech this morning. Doodling. Sleeping. Giggling. The speaker is Edward McMahon, a senior program something-or-other with the National Institute of blah-blah-blah. He lurches from Liberia to Burundi to Pakistan.
By the time he says, “So I was in Bangladesh once,” even the PIs are snoring.
11:45 a.m. The bus. The PIs are prattling on about foreign policy as Ron Brown’s funeral procession slowly creeps by in the other lane. They don’t point it out.
Noon. Ben & Jerry’s is giving away free ice cream in front of the Old Post Office. The PIs, rigidly adhering to schedule, don’t notice. Instead, we’re inside at the food court, with maybe 1,000 other diners, waiting in endless lines for overpriced burgers and soggy fries.
Three years ago, a panhandler verbally harassed a female PI outside the Old Post Office. A month before that, a frightened student had forked over $20 to bullying panhandlers who had cornered him on a nearby sidewalk. Weary of such incidents, Close Up wrote the management of the Pavilion at the Old Post Office to say it would no longer bring student groups there for evening meals. Pavilion managers complained to the D.C. government that the move would cost them $277,000 a year, money that would likely go instead to suburban food courts.
Within weeks of the incident, the D.C. Council passed panhandling-control legislation that had been pending. Now, Close Up once again uses the Pavilion for both lunch and dinner. Still, the foundation has withdrawn more and more business from the District over the years. Like many companies, it fled crime and high taxes, particularly on hotels and restaurants. (“We are slung from one side to another by the cost of living in D.C.,” Janger says.)
The organization used to have its headquarters in D.C. but defected to Northern Virginia in the early 1980s. The buses we used were contracted from a Virginia company. And only one of the six hotels Close Up routinely uses is in the District—the Days Inn at 12th and K Streets NW. The other hotel tax dollars go to Arlington and Montgomery Counties.
(Close Up actually tried to get a hotel tax break from Arlington County in 1988, on the grounds that most educational institutions are exempt from property taxes. The hotels were their “campuses,” Close Up argued. The county board didn’t buy it, and Close Up is now involved in a protracted legal battle over the taxes.)
Today, there aren’t any panhandlers at the Pavilion, but we do find myriad vendors on the sidewalks, hawking everything from Gucci handbags to Oakley sunglasses. We load up.
8:30 p.m. We’re applauding politely after a “liberal vs. conservative” debate between a Democratic communications expert and a Republican Hill staffer, filing out of the hotel conference room and into special “topical” workshops.
I choose “Gay Rights: Special or Equal?” Thirty-five kids show up, including six brave boys.
“How can you tell if someone is gay?” asks Jeff, the PI.
Most kids say you can’t, but we also agree that “wearing freedom rings” and “acting effeminate” are clear signs. Jeff, who is either aggressively straight or powerfully closeted, doesn’t challenge these answers.
I also drop in on the workshop on the “U.S. Response to Terrorism” long enough to hear Derek’s concise view: “Nuke ’em.”
Actually, the kids once again honestly debate the issues, and when you think about it, their jail-’em-or-shoot-’em approach is well within the parameters of prevailing political debate. It’s just that even after four days in the Washington bubble, their elocution is refreshingly unvarnished. In a few years, the kids will learn to cushion their views with ornate language, and they will be eligible to become conservative members of their respective state legislatures.
At 10 o’clock, discussion stops. It’s pizza time. Close Up kids order so much Domino’s pizza—by my count, roughly 40 pies a night—that deliverers often bring free pizzas to the PIs’ staff suite.
Here’s the routine: Order the pizza. Change clothes. Wait in line for the pay phones to call parents. Buy appetizers from the vending machines—i.e., a candy bar, a bag of chips, and a soda. Sit in the hall and chow.
The kids’ TVs seem to have only one channel—MTV, which shrieks from each room. Girls and boys flirt—by week’s end, there are always two or three new couplings per hotel.
The hallways are a jumble of sprawled high schoolers. A girl ambles out of her room as she pushes a needle through her earlobe, which is red and wet from the ice she used to numb it. Phones are jangling with room-to-room prank calls. The stairwells smell of cigarette smoke.
At 10:55 p.m., a huge man strides into the hallway and barks: “Time for bed. Let’s move! NOW!” He and two or three others will keep watch on the rooms all night. They each blockade a section of hallway with two chairs—they doze in one and rest their feet in the other. About once every two weeks, a student is sent home for drinking or (rarely) toking up. Beer is sometimes procured via a willing, over-21 stranger outside the local 7-Eleven, or booze is brought from home in a shampoo bottle. If my group was drinking, however, I never saw it. By 11, we’re locked away in our rooms to finish off the pepperonis and make cracks about MTV’s Kennedy.
Friday, 10:30 a.m. It’s our free day, and we’re going to “the Holocaust.” At least, that’s how we refer to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Keri graciously obtained an extra ticket for me after waiting in line all morning with her English teacher, Ms. Mendez.
We don’t have to be back in Crystal City until 4:30. Like Mendez, most of the teachers have arranged outings for the students—basically, the PIs get a needed day off, and the regular teachers step in. (A few kids are left to their own devices, however, which include sleeping in and hanging around the hotel all day.)
I take leave of my group because I have a special appointment today—my interview with Close Up President Steve Janger. As I walk into Close Up’s lavish corporate offices—located on the banks of the Potomac, in prime Alexandria real estate—I can’t help thinking about the corners I’ve seen trimmed all week.
I’m late to see Janger because of the excursion to the Holocaust. “Oh, that’s all right,” he says with a smile. “I think I was late one time in my life. But don’t worry about it.”
Janger, 59, fits the role of CEO well: nice suit, businesslike demeanor, generally constipated grimace. I instantly realize he hates doing this—talking to some snot-nosed reporter who’s asking him to distill a lifetime of hard work building a nonprofit into a 90-minute interview. He asks me twice what I plan to do with my life, seemingly unconvinced that reporting might make a career.
“Start something, John—start a business, start something like we have here—and you’ll realize how many people are willing to talk to you,” he says at one point.
But eventually we segue from my future to his past: Using connections with Americans he met while studying in Paris, a young Janger landed a State Department job. But it turned out to be unsatisfying—Janger wanted to work for himself, and he wanted to make a more tangible difference in people’s lives. So he convinced his brother to come to Washington and help him launch a company that took students to Europe during summers.
But it was 1967, and the American system was under attack. “The thing that bothered me was that antiwar feeling had turned into anti-education, anti-business, anti-establishment, anti-government feelings,” he says in the timbre of his native Oklahoma, where he returns often. “I was, and still am, convinced that the American system is the most effective democratic system in the entire world.” Taking kids abroad seemed less important than giving kids a reason to care about that embattled system.
So he, his brother, and his wife started Close Up, bringing a group of 25 to D.C. in 1971. Instead of focusing on bright, wealthy kids, Janger tried to build a program for all kids. “There isn’t a rule that only those who get a B+ can vote,” he says.
Janger is proud of Close Up’s broad recruitment goals, and he should be. In 1994, Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.) and other members of Congress attacked one of the other D.C. tour groups, the Congressional Youth Leadership Council (CYLC), for its recruiting methods. In official-looking letters, CYLC told students they had been selected as “Congressional Scholars.” In reality, a marketing firm had identified the students for CYLC. Today, CYLC tells prospective students the truth about how they were chosen. Close Up has never faced such criticisms.
Janger admits, however, that Close Up isn’t perfect. “We’re just a little blip, but somebody has to keep trying. We make mistakes…but at the end of the year, thousands and thousands of students are a little better informed, and teachers are a little more confident,” he says.
Close Up is fiercely—and naively—optimistic about America, but its idealism has had some tangible results: Thousands of kids have written the organization to say they got more involved with local politics after their week in Washington.
Close Up’s proudest moment came in 1994, when a group of Close Up kids from Arizona, with the help of their teacher and parents, helped persuade the National Park Service to build a visitors’ center in a basement of the Lincoln Memorial. The kids were upset that nothing marked the important civil rights events at the memorial, particularly Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Today, a beautiful visitor’s center celebrates the memorial’s history and includes civil rights tributes. Close Up, in short, has convinced at least some young people that they can help.
What’s more nettlesome, however, is that Close Up couples its idealistic view of America with a disturbing view of the capital city—to Close Up, an ominous, alien place. As we learn to love the country, we learn to hate the city. And by obsessing over the importance of the political titles held by its featured speakers, Close Up undermines its own message of broad, accessible civic participation. Alice Rivlin appeared behind a podium, offered a mind-numbing lecture, answered a few questions, and was then hustled off to crunch the nation’s numbers. It was about as close up as C-SPAN. Her vaunted “importance” only made her seem more distant.
For most Close Up kids—and for all the ones I got know—Close Up was neither life-changing nor totally insignificant. I wouldn’t pay for Close Up, but some of those who do are clearly energized by it. When I asked the kids what they thought, no one said anything remarkable. A positive here, a negative there: All in all, not an inaccurate picture of the capital.
Saturday, 12:45 a.m. The last dance. We’re in the hotel ballroom, now humid with sweat after three hours of dancing. The final song—Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road”—spins on the CD player. Carrie, her pink shirt raised and tied around her midriff, asks me to dance. I blush and resolve not to mention this to my boyfriend.
As we slowly circle, her arms around my moist neck and mine around her tiny waist, I ask what she thought of the week. “It was OK.”
I look around. The dancers have thinned out—no one’s patrolling the halls right now, and some of the new couples have discovered that the no-boys-in-girls’-rooms rule is breakable. The PIs lean awkwardly against a wall, not really dancing and not really standing still.
Shilo has disappeared to, ahem, “say goodbye” to Lea Ann. Derek, D.J., and Kevin are in their room packing. MTV is on.
Carrie and I clumsily hug and say goodbye. She can’t wait to get home, and neither can I.
At 1:15 a.m., I catch a cab from the hotel and ride back into the District. I ask the cabbie to drive along Constitution Avenue and the deserted Mall. I gaze up to the Washington Monument, a brilliant spire of white against the darkness. And it looks beautiful. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Michelle Gienow.