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Political Animals

Background Check Must-see TV in your house: Senate coverate on C-Span. Newspaper you can’t do without: Roll Call. Your son’s dream date: Wonkette.

It’s your lucky weekend! Here’s your chance to observe our nation’s leaders in their natural habitat—schmoozing, preening, pretending to remember your name.

When to Begin

Early. Arrive Friday morning so you can watch the city at work. Political Washington completely shuts down by Sunday (unless you count listening to the talk-show windbags on TV).

Where to Begin

The Capitol (202/225-6827; www.aoc.gov), naturally. Sign up for free tickets at the kiosk on the southwest corner of the grounds. After the tour, you can drop by the office of your senator or representative—and maybe even score a handshake. If you visit when Congress is in session (most weekdays, except around holidays), you can sit in the House or Senate visitors’ gallery and take in the action on the floor, which usually consists of a few members gossiping and ignoring the speech being made by a colleague.

The Ultimate Insider Lunch

The Senate Refectory isn’t as glamorous as it sounds—nary a senator in sight. The real clubhouse for political D.C. is A.V. Ristorante Italiano (607 New York Ave. NW; 202/737-0550; lunch for four $60), a.k.a. the A.V.—an old-school joint with red-checked tablecloths and surprisingly decent food. Yes, that’s Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the regulars, digging into his anchovy pizza.

Our Country’s Paperwork

Wander down the Mall a few blocks to the National Archives (700 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 866/272-6272; www.archives.gov), where the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are housed. Check up on your favorite amendment—it’s still there, despite what you’ve been reading in the papers.

A Dinner Splurge

If you’re dressed more like lobbyists than tourists—no shorts! no fanny packs!—try to snag a table at Charlie Palmer Steak (101 Constitution Ave. NW; 202/547-8100; dinner for four $170). It’s expense-account central for power brokers and dignitaries; you’re bound to spot a senator or two.

Where to Stay

Political junkies might be tempted by the Willard InterContinental, one of D.C.’s grandest hotels—it’s where negotiators attempted to prevent the Civil War, and where, nowadays, inaugural balls are held. But a whopping $579 only gets you a basic double with a lousy bathroom and a fussy opulence that won’t go over well with the kids. The Hotel Sofitel Lafayette Square (806 15th St. NW; 202/730-8800; www.sofitel.com; doubles from $235) has a less fuddy-duddy air and an equally choice location, a three-minute stroll from the White House.

Presidential Digs

Always stingy about tours, the White House (1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202/456-7041; www.whitehouse.gov) has been even more so since 9/11. You’re allowed to visit from 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Tuesday to Saturday—if you’ve reserved a spot well in advance (submit a request to your member of Congress at least a month prior to your visit). These walk-throughs offer a look at the president’s house that’s more Antiques Roadshow than West Wing, but you might catch a glimpse of Karl Rove, or a reporter trying to wheedle a source. The best part: all those Secret Service officers whispering urgently into walkie-talkies, wrist mikes, and lapel mikes.

D.C. Downtime

Head over to Capitol Hill, the residential neighborhood flanking the Capitol. Eastern Market, in a gorgeous 1873 red-brick building, is home to butchers, greengrocers, and crafts vendors. Your goal: brunch at Market Lunch (225 Seventh St. SE; 202/547-8444; brunch for four $35), which has incredible blueberry pancakes and even better crab cakes. Walk them off in the Capitol Hill Historic District. Stanton and Marion parks are lush oases—just right for a senator to enjoy a quiet assignation with a mistress. As always, in Washington, keep your eyes open and your camera handy.


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