The Magazine

Do Not Pass Go

Katherine Mangu-Ward, member of the press.

Jun 23, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 40 • By KATHERINE MANGU-WARD
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"DO YOU HAVE A PASS?" asks the burly rent-a-cop, as I stand in the midst of a swirling mass of middle schoolers. No, I explain, I have come to the Capitol to acquire a press pass, so naturally I don't have one yet. "You can't get in without a pass," he replies stoutly, and crosses his arms. Sighing, I extricate myself from the crowd of school kids being taken on a forced march through their nation's history, and attach myself to the back end of a group of twenty-somethings, all of whom sport the coveted passes. They head for another door, covered by a much less imposing security guard. I try to sneak in behind them. I am stopped--but this time the explanation of my Catch-22 falls on sympathetic ears, and I am granted admission.

Once on the inside, I assume my Washington insider persona. I breeze through the metal detector--only to be immediately nabbed by a security guard. Shunted off to the visitor's desk, I explain my mission to the clerk, present my documentation (a note on WEEKLY STANDARD letterhead proclaiming me a full-time reporter), and tell him that I am destined for the periodical press gallery, room H304. He eyes me suspiciously and asks, "Are you daily press?" No, I say, pointing to the stationery, I am from a weekly. "No matter," he says, "weeklies go to the daily press office." Fine, I say, which room? He rifles through some papers, then looks up and announces, "H304."

Upon arrival in H304 (after I'm booted out of a "Representatives Only" elevator), I am greeted by the announcement that the U.S. House of Representatives does not take cash. A new press pass requires the payment of a five-dollar fee. I scrounge around in my purse and find an orphan check, crumpled and inky, luckily separated from my checkbook, which sits safely at home. Once the check has been made out and handed over, the man behind the desk takes a tiny card with an eagle on it and types my name and the words "The Weekly Standard" very slowly with two fingers. On the back of the pre-printed card is a room number in the Dirksen building. Down I go, three flights of stairs, weaving through the crowds examining a Capitol basement exhibit on the history of the Rotunda, over to the Senate side, onto the secret mini-subway. I make my way, brandishing the card with the eagle like a talisman at the half-dozen security guards who seem bound and determined to impede my progress.

The subway is calming, but the ride on the little train is all too short and is interrupted by the arrival of a loud group of Korean men, who join me in the small stuffy car. Whatever has brought them to the Capitol does not seem to have gone well--they are sweating profusely and, I gather, swearing at each other in Korean.

Finally, I make it to the designated room in Dirksen. No one is there. I walk up to the sign that says "Line Forms Here" and wait. No one appears. I go out and check the number on the door. I walk back in and stroll up to the desk. Suddenly, a large, matronly woman rises from behind the desk where she previously crouched unseen and gives me a look so pointed I can practically hear her thoughts. The line, her eyes telegraph, forms THERE, and NOT at MY desk. I back up, alarmed. "Next!" she calls out, apparently appeased, though the formality seems unnecessary since I am the only person in the room. She instructs me to fill out a yellow card with all the information that was on the eagle card, along with the information that was on the letter taken from me in H304.

A mousy-looking man glides out from behind a pillar, and I present him with my handiwork. He says, "Thank you, Miss . . . " Here he pauses and squints at my last name, his lips move, and then, Porky Pig style, he gives up and opts for "Katherine." "Have a seat in Chair 3," he says. I turn and discover that the chairs lining the room are numbered. And, though I am the only one in the room, it appears I am destined for Chair 3. I sit. After some typing, the man reassigns me to a couch (without a number) under a television, which is broadcasting C-SPAN, the channel of choice on Capitol Hill. I wait. Once again the man behind the desk grapples with my last name, fails, and takes the easy way out. He hands me the coveted pass. It has a note attached warning me that my first-born child and left kidney are forfeit if I lose it.

These dire warnings strike me as unnecessary. After all, punishment for a lost pass is automatic--I'd have to spend another day fighting the new security and old bureaucracy of Capitol Hill to get a new one.

--Katherine Mangu-Ward