It’s lonely out there; I must be one of the very few conservative tour guides in Washington, D.C., and New York City. If there are others, they are closeted. Most politically conservative guides are employed by the religious-right, Christian student tour operators, but are flown into the city during student tour season. The rest of my colleagues are extremely left-wing or radical.
As a licensed, professional tour guide in the nation’s capital, I am a servant of both the company that contracts me and the group I am conducting. My job might seem simple — pointing out the sites and sights while explaining their history – but it is fraught with potential political and social pitfalls depending on the type of group traveling. Navigating the various agendas and requests of different groups, while presenting an enjoyable, balanced, informative, and efficient tour, is an art that has taken 40 years to perfect.
However, as a servant, I must put aside many of my cherished beliefs and soldier on, preferably remaining factual and without pandering to the crowd in order to get a good tip. (RELATED: ‘ESSENTIAL TRIPS ONLY’: DC Metro Announces Major Service Shutdowns)
It’s not as if I have much choice as to which tour I am assigned; most of the companies give me only the pertinent information of where and when to meet the group. Those booking, hardly ever inquire about the type of group, so I could be assigned to a pro-choice group; a Bernie Sanders election committee; an African-American family reunion; senior citizens; international visitors; families; or simply those taking a vacation. While they look all the same on the books, they can’t be approached the same way in the field. Each time I board the tour bus, it is a new experience much akin to Alice in Wonderland in headlights. I smile and introduce myself and the driver, but I only have a minute or two to assess the crowd and plan my stops and commentary. If it is a mixed crowd, not under the auspices of any group, conference, or even participants in a demonstration or protest march, I normally start asking them where they are all from; it’s a good way to add content pertinent to their respective states, cities or countries.
Things got rather interesting immediately after Donald Trump became the Republican nominee. At first, those on the left made jokes and snide remarks, at every opportunity. Then came the election and things got really heated on the tours. My colleagues had a field day denigrating the President-elect during tours, and their distaste for Mr. Trump was evident. I found this professionally reprehensible; I had endured eight years of President Barack Obama, but never resorted to that level of incivility. My job, as I saw it, was to simply present the history of the nation’s capital, monuments, and memorials in an uplifting, patriotic way. I don’t believe that discussing history and personalities in terms of “warts and all,” or sexual misconduct, makes the tour more relevant or genuine. Point of fact, it cheapens the experience and reduces everything to trivial mud-slinging. Is that the way we ought to represent America?
My tour the night of Jan. 21, 2017, was the cherry on the icing of my day. Yes, it was the day after Trump’s inauguration, but it was also the evening after the Women’s March — something I found particularly offensive. Naturally, I had a tour that evening and I approached the bus with trepidation. My fears were well-founded, for on the bus were two rows of double seats, divided by a central aisle. To my left, nothing but MAGA hats and T-shirts, and to my right, a sea of pink, sometimes punctuated with tutus. This was not going to be fun. My driver was concerned as well, since the seating presented some difficulty as the strangers, who were kindred spirits, jostled to be seated together, before I came onto the scene. My driver indicated there had been harsh words exchanged, so protest signs were not allowed on the bus.
This was actually the first time that tourists on my bus almost came to blows. The air was thick with pent-up anger. While my sentiments were more with those who traveled here for the inauguration: the peaceful exchange of power is something that all Americans should witness, I still had to respect the Women’s March, for protesting is also part of our civic right and responsibility, no matter how much I disagree.
After the introductions and the rules of touring e.g. be on time, we started cruising down Pennsylvania Avenue. The first hurdle: The Old Post Office, recently renamed the Trump International Hotel. Spontaneous cheers and boos filled the bus. I asked my driver to pull over and stop. Since I am seated during the tour, facing front, I had to get up to turn to those assembled, much like a teacher about to admonish a class. I stood still and motionless; they immediately understood to become quiet.
I continued my commentary while staring at them, in as charming a fashion as I could muster.
“This is the Old Post Office and this building belongs to the American people. The Trump Organization has a lease on it and has put over 250 million dollars into the renovation and restoration of this building, which had been falling apart. Many previous administrations had wanted to raze this building, can you imagine that? The lobby is quite large, as it had been the sorting area for mail, which is why it is a large atrium with a skylight, which brought natural light onto the sorting floor. All of you should go in to see what an excellent job they did, and experience the Victorian industrial architecture. If you like President Trump, there is a burger place, a fine restaurant, wonderful pastries, and a bar; if you don’t like President Trump, they have terrific bathrooms with wonderful hand towels. Outside there is a bell tower run by the National Park Service, which has a glass elevator, that will take you to the top to survey the city; no tickets are required and it is free.”
A moment of silence was followed by applause. (RELATED: ‘Willing To Explore Our Options’: Trump Organization Considers Selling DC Hotel)
I returned to my seat and faced front, to resume my commentary. As I realized that I had just won the Nobel Peace Prize for diffusing this bombastic crowd, there were still some obstacles down the line.
When we travel, I need to talk quickly since it’s only a three-hour tour, but that is relatively easy for me, since I am from New York City. At last, we were at a light so I could discuss the Washington Monument. First I rattle off all the facts and figures, and then I editorialize a bit,
“The Washington Monument is in the shape of an obelisk; standing tall, straight, majestic, unadorned, and gives direction for this city and the nation — just like General Washington.” The light changed, and we were the Tidal Basin, where I talked about our floods, McMillan Commission, landfill, and the gift of the Japanese cherry blossom trees.
Our first stop is at the Jefferson Memorial. Jefferson is a rather complicated person, and with this group, I decided to concentrate on the building and view to the White House. Most people don’t know a lot about architecture, so everyone enjoyed learning about Roman Palladian architecture, Jefferson’s favorite. His memorial is based on the Roman temple, the Pantheon. Architecture saved the day and did not give anyone an entrée to bring up Sally Hemings, Native Americans, division of church and state, or other controversial topics.
We moved onto the bridge that divides the man-made Tidal Basin from the Potomac River. Naturally, I talk about the Potomac River, Virginia, and Arlington as we passed by the Roosevelt Memorial. Given that my mother and father, both divorced from one another, were right-wing Republicans, I was asked what I told people at the Roosevelt Memorial about that man! But I talked more of the memorial than the Roosevelts, the WPA, social security, and so on. My dad was convinced he prolonged the Great Depression with his programs.
Martin Luther King was our first, real stop. I gathered the group in a football huddle, and talked about the design of the memorial and the Chinese sculptor, then gave them some independent time to explore and take photos. Normally, with African-American church groups, they are extremely disappointed that it is not called, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, and that there is no mention of God in any of the quotes. So, you will not find, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty we are free at last!”
Tour guides and bus drivers call the next stop “The Big Three”: the Lincoln Memorial, the Korean Veterans’ Memorial, and the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial. I’ve had groups from the deep south who hated Lincoln; states rights is a topic of conversation. The Lincoln Memorial is based on a Greek Temple; Henry Bacon, the architect said that the Greek Parthenon overlooked the city of Athens, and Athens is the birthplace of democracy. Lincoln, therefore, is seated in the temple of democracy, and I contrast the classical styles of architecture as well as dispel a lot of the myths and alternative facts that are attached to this memorial. (RELATED: Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial And WWII Memorial Defaced With Bizarre Conspiracy Theories)
The Korean UN police action was kept alive, for many of a certain age, through MASH, but it has become more relevant since Kim Jong Un, and opinions are still expressed by hawks and doves at the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial.
The waters here can be perilous, especially with the veterans and anti-war activists aboard my bus. I approach each with due respect and just the facts, although I do become a bit poetic with the statuary of all three memorials. My favorite talk is at the Women’s Project, also known as the Nurses’ Memorial at the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, by Glenna Goodacre. The rules of the Vietnam Verterans’ Memorial were quite explicit: It had to be in a park setting, contain the names of Americans who died within the borders of Vietnam; it could not make any political comment. I still honor those rules with my commentary, and no politics, battle tactics, or inflammatory statistics are mentioned.
There is not much negativity concerning the visit to WWII, but again, the story of the design, and the beauty of the setting actually overwhelms people; this group was no exception.
The White House was next, and THE potential trouble-spot. I always take great pains to avoid all the demonstrations and protests by arriving after the 9:00 PM curfew and before the floodlights illuminating the White House are turned off. It is usually quiet and peaceful – and we are alone! My commentary concerning the White House takes place within the bus en route from the WWII Memorial. We cover the War of 1812, the invasion of Washington, D.C., by the British and Canadians, and the aftermath of that war. While the White House had been covered with a coat of whitewash before its burning in 1814, after it was rebuilt, it was painted with a lead-based white paint. Incredibly, some of my pink people, did not want to get out and take a photo; I gently explained that this was also the People’s House, and I am sure there were residents, in the past, that they liked. This seemed to pacify them and they quickly ran out to join the others.
Our last stop was a photo-op at the west front of the U.S. Capitol; I spent the time talking about L’Enfant’s initial plan for Washington, D.C., for streets and placement of government buildings, then Jefferson’s superimposed grid system, and the division of the city into directional quadrants: NE, NW, SE, and SW. The street system starts at the U.S. Capitol and the dome straddles nine zip codes!
I had sidestepped a lot of potential problems by taking charge with charm and sins of omission, without compromising my personal beliefs, as well as delivering the worst puns in Washington, D.C.! Ultimately, I was able to give all my clients a very good tour and instill a sense of pride in their country; some even reviewed us favorably on Tripadvisor!
But despite all my pains to please, I recently received a negative review from a tour client, taking me to task for referring to President Trump, as ‘Mr. Trump,” which was, to their mind, disrespectful.
Anne Marie Whittaker is a tour guide based in Washington, D.C.
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