Then & Now: The corridors of power

The corridors of power

by Manuel L. Quezon III

TODAY Newspaper

WHEN the American Republic was young, and George Washington was it’s first head of state, presidential functions were held in accordance with the protocol of the Old World. Washington would sit on a raised dais and people were expected to stand around respectfully. His receptions were like royal audiences. However, when he passed from the scene, the transition from the protocol and procedures of royalty to the manners that became traditional in a democracy swiftly took place.

And so the United States can boast of a tradition of democratic protocol that goes back further than that of any other democracy on earth, including France, it’s contemporary: for the traditions of the French are firmly grounded on royal and imperial traditions, while those of other states (such as Britain) remain a hybrid of royal and democratic traditions. As for other democracies, their democratic traditions represent a more recent, clean break with the past.

A nation which lacks a monarchy and its accompanying pomp must institute pageantry of it’s own: this is true for all states, whatever their political line. The Soviets took the path of inspiring awe by utilizing its citizens in elaborate mass demonstrations. The French do it by evoking the elegance of the Second Empire. The United States does it by cleverly mixing Hollywood spectacle and the intimidating display of it’s vast national wealth. We do it by putting sirens on vehicles and shoving people out of the way.

In the city named after Washington, the five divisions of government -the Executive, the Legislative, the Judicial, the Military and the Beaurocratic- operate from vast palaces calculated to make the foreign visitor feel puny and inconsequential. Congress has it’s Capitol, with each house having smaller palaces to house it’s members, such as the Rayburn House Office Building. The President has the White House. The Supreme Court has it’s classical temple; the Department of Defense has the Pentagon, and the Department of State has the State Department Building.

In the Capitol senators deliberate in a newer chamber (their original, older one was restored to it’s former glory in 1976 for the Bicentennial and is now used for closed-door committee meetings, photo opportunities, and as a waiting room for important guests waiting to address Congress) but sit at desks dating back to the restoration of the government to Washington after the War of 1812. The important committees -of which the committee on appropriations is one of the most powerful- have their own large rooms, decorated in colorful tromp l’oueil harking back to the interiors of Pompeii. There are large, leather-covered armchairs in these rooms, as well as enormous, leather-covered tables, and across from every seat, a brass nameplate has been attached proclaiming this or that particular spot to be the sitting-place of this or that Senator: clearly, with the important committee memberships being linked to seniority, these places are understood to be definitive for the long run.

The Congressmen, too, operate in palatial splendor according to a strict hierarchy. Junior members of Congress operate out of another building while the Rayburn Building (which was the most expensive office building in the world at the time it was completed in the 1960s) is reserved for senior members of Congress. They even have a private subway to take them to and from the Capitol.

The Bureaucracy is not to be outdone by the people who appropriate the funds that keeps it going. The Department of State, housed in a nondescript building, is composed of dingy corridors and slightly seedy-looking cubicles (although the visitor is assured that a renovation is going on) manned by tired-looking people shuttling between computers, filing cabinets that have enormous locks and are actually small safes, and elderly IBM electric typewriters In contrast to the marble floors of the Palaces of the legislature, the functionaries of State squeak around on worn linoleum floors. But the powers-that-be of the Department hold office in a floor designed to recreate 18th-century interiors. Again, the walls are a riot of color; there are the ubiquitous leather-covered chairs, a legacy of Anglo-Saxon culture; in one conference room, antique China is proudly on display; and in the reception hall, the portraits of past Secretaries of State line the walls, representing every conceivable style of portraiture. Protocol is strictest here, naturally enough. Visitors are immediately briefed to leap to attention once the Deputy Secretary of State enters the room, for example, and much time is spent discussing the nuances of attribution when it comes to meetings with the press.

The Palace of Mars is the Pentagon, and visitors and their military guides delight in hearing -and being told- mind-boggling statistics about this vast building. It is the trivia-nuts’ paradise: 17 1/2 miles of corridors (theoretically, one can go from any side of the building to the other in 7 minutes: that is, if one is as fit as a Navy Seal). 131 stairways. 19 Escalators. and 13 elevators. 284 toilets, 691 drinking fountains, 7,000 clock outlets with 4,200 clocks installed. 16,250 light fixtures with 250 bulbs having to be changed daily. 7,754 windows. 23,000 employees working in 6,636,360 square feet of floor area, park their 8,770 cars in 67 acres of parking spaces. In other words, this is the Mother of All H.Q.’s (well, o.k., so it isn’t really an H.Q., it’s just a glorified clerical office).

The walls are painted buff. Framed engravings of glorious victories line the walls, interrupted along one corridor by rows of portraits of past chiefs of staff (a good number of whom served in the Philippines at one time or another). There are little shrines here and there: one to George C. Marshall. Another (near the correspondents’ offices) to war correspondents. There is even a section of wall devoted to editorial cartoons. And of course, everywhere, uniforms, brass, gold, infinite variations on the American eagle and potbellies.

Boys will be boys, and when members of the press are brought to the Pentagon briefing room where press conferences are held, the journalists jostle to be photographed at the podium, many of them making martial gestures as the flashes pop.

These are the rooms we see and hear about on television; which we read about in the papers. And which, once in a while, are opened up to foreign visitors in order to impress them with how high and mighty Uncle Sam still is. And it works, at least for a while.


Manuel L. Quezon III.

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