Peering up at the First Amendment of the US Constitution chiselled in foot-high letters into the facade of Washington DC’s Newseum feels like a news junkie’s pilgrimage. In the shadow of the Capitol building, plonked halfway down Pennsylvania Avenue towards the White House, the giant marble and steel palace is stuffed with everything from the obligatory ancient presses to a desk telephone once owned by Rupert Murdoch, with an ‘R. Brooks’ on the speed dial.
For any journalist visiting the city, not to bow down at the wall of news would be a travesty. It offers you the chance to walk a length of the Berlin Wall, sit on the last set from Tim Russert’s Meet the Press, and snap yourself in the Anchorman newsroom. You might recognise the building from the opening credits of House of Cards, which, in a convoluted way, is what brings me to town.
Having visited DC countless times for work — 24 hours here, a three-day conference there — I’ve seen the insides of cavernous ballrooms and soulless convention centres and woken up in generic hotel rooms that could be anywhere in the world. I had always whizzed past the white domes and columns on the way to somewhere else. But I had never actually spent time in the city as a tourist.
With its wide avenues, squares and endless marble, it sometimes feels like Rome, though there are more town cars and fewer mopeds. ‘It will make wonderful ruins,’ said Thomas Vidal (Gore’s grandfather, and a sometime Democratic Senator from Oklahoma). For anyone who spent their formative years watching episode after episode of The West Wing, devoured both seasons of the American adaptation of House of Cards in two ten-hour sittings and can quote you most of All the President’s Men, there is something strangely comforting about the familiarity of this imperial backdrop.
Having spent four days in the political bubble of that convention centre out of town, this time I was here for pleasure rather than business. Checking into the Mandarin Oriental was nearly enough to tick all the boxes, but given that it was half-past six and I am under 30, I thought I had better venture slightly further afield: a tough call given the free Riesling, the dim sum and the unbeatable view of the Jefferson Memorial, set among cherry trees then at the very pinnacle of their world-famous, tourist-pleasing bloom.
I found myself with a Saturday night to kill in one of the most recognisable cities in the world, and despite the familiarity of the surroundings, I realised I needed some help getting around. So I did what any self-respecting man would do: call up your best friend’s very leggy, very heartbreaking ex-girlfriend and find out where the party’s at.
I met the American Woman, at her suggestion, in the Blue Duck Tavern on 24th and M. It’s clearly a date spot, helped I imagine by the fact that President Obama surprised diners by bringing Michelle in for their wedding anniversary. If politics is showbusiness for ugly people, then the current influx of TV dramas has clearly given DC one hell of a facelift. As the New York Times’s Mark Leibovich says in his seminal book This Town: ‘The liaison between sex appeal and Washington has always been stout but clunky. This Town is a place where for many years Henry Kissinger was considered a sex god.’ Yet, if the Saturday night crowd is anything to go by, gazing into each other’s eyes surrounded by the romance of fiddly bone marrow and oven-fired Wagyu beef, all that has changed. Whether it’s a bit of showbiz glamour from the city of boxed sets, or the trickle-down from the youngish, hippish White House, there has clearly been a knock-on effect.
A night-time walk through the war memorials, exquisitely lit and higgledy-piggledy enough to feel very private, is clichéd for a reason: it’s just something that needs to be done. The whole city has an enforced intimacy, though on this occasion it was helped along perhaps by the Blue Duck’s bumper Californian wine list. Walking back towards the White House, a hefty nightcap and a (non-Cuban) cigar in Shelly’s on F is a must for any freedom-loving Brit, if only for the chance to light up inside. Luckily Uber’s private car service in this city is second to none.
You can tour the Pentagon during the week by appointment, but the 9/11 Memorial on the facility’s perimeter is enough to bring a little of Homeland to your Sunday morning. For Frank Underwood fans, a turn around the Capitol building first thing is a must. It’s a chance to get close to the seat of power while it’s deserted, and you’re going to need room for brunch.
As she’s an expert operator in the town, I trusted the American Woman’s selection again: the Old Ebbitt Grill opposite the Treasury for baked oysters in an absurdly delicious broth. Obviously the Bloody Marys come with a jumbo shrimp in them. I mean, why wouldn’t they? Be sure to come back later for the mint juleps and the half-price oysters after 11 p.m.
If you think the bubble effect of the Westminster village is bad enough, hacks and flacks stateside get a brunch-time email briefing courtesy of Mike Allen of Politico, just in case you and the politico in your life run out of conversational ‘talking points’ over your bisque.
Feeling guilty, I headed to the Smithsonian to brush up on my Civil War history, but as the sun set on my stay, the rooftop bar at the W Hotel rounded things off. It’s only when you look down on it that you realise how small the White House is. Two blocks from the West Wing, you can drink Twinkles on the open roof and quote Josh Lyman and President Bartlet until it’s time to Uber yourself to the airport and back to your DVD box sets — where DC looks much bigger and more daunting than it appears in reality.
A four-night stay at the Melrose Hotel Georgetown (www.melrosehoteldc.com) starts from £825pp. A four-night stay at the Mandarin Oriental (www.mandarin-oriental.com/washington) starts from £1,305pp. Both include return flights from London Heathrow with British Airways. Prices based on two people sharing. To book, visit www.americaasyoulikeit.com. For more information on the Capital Region visit www.capitalregionusa.co.uk