Wet tourists steam over impasse Sites in U.S. capital close their doors on the out-of-towners

The Government Shutdown

November 15, 1995|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Michael DeHart and Greg Read, tourists from Dallas, paid $9 to park their car near the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum yesterday morning, found out the museum was closed, ran four blocks in the rain to the National Air and Space Museum, found out that museum was closing, ran back to their car and drove to the Capitol, parked and paid again, and searched for a member of Congress to complain to.

"We're pretty ticked off," said Mr. DeHart, a pilot. "We come all the way from Texas to see the nation's capital and what do we see? Nothing but a lot of closed doors."

The city that opens its doors every day to camera-toting tourists left a lot of visitors out in the rain yesterday as government museums and monuments were forced to post "closed" signs in their windows.

The effects of the government closings rippled throughout the country yesterday. One could not apply for Social Security benefits, or get a passport, or get a question answered about taxes. But in this town, one of the nation's top five tourist destinations, the shutdown seemed a particularly bitter pill for tourists.

Visitors who had traveled hundreds of miles and spent hundreds of dollars to get here were left angry and bewildered, having been turned away from some of the capital's most popular tourist attractions -- including the Washington Monument, the National Zoo, the White House and all 16 Smithsonian museums, which closed at noon yesterday.

"We're only here for a bloody week," said Londoner Ian Johnson, evicted from the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum. "It's pouring rain, we can't even walk about. They wouldn't exactly close the Tower of London if you came to London. They just don't do that."

"This is a catastrophe," said Anna Gurevich, the leader of a group of elderly Russian immigrants hailing from the Chicago area who had traveled by bus to Washington, primarily to visit the Holocaust museum.

"I don't know how to tell them," she said as her group toured the Capitol and she learned the Holocaust museum was closed (because it receives federal funds). "We planned for so long and came such a long way. These are senior citizens with limited funds. They paid quite a lot for this trip."

Some disappointed tourists directed their anger at President Clinton for allowing the government to shut down. Some blamed the Republican Congress. Mostly, visitors here said they were angry at both sides for letting their political battles get to this point.

"Let's fire 'em all," said Penny Bell of Parsons, Tenn., a hairstylist in town for a seminar on "advanced hair replacement" who tacked an extra day on her trip to Washington to visit the Smithsonian museums. "If this is the best our government can do, what kind of trouble are we really in? I am really furious."

With that, she and another incensed hairstylist, Paula Link of Harrah, Okla., headed for the Hard Rock Cafe to have lunch.

All over the city, tourists caught between the rain and a lot of locked doors resorted to a fallback Plan B. A fifth-grade class from Piney Flats, Tenn., that had planned to visit the Air and Space Museum and Washington Monument, retreated to the hotel to play bingo with the school principal. A honeymooning couple from Cape Cod visited the National Geographic Society (open) instead of the National Gallery of Art (closed).

The Dallas guys decided to cut their trip short and leave town today instead of Friday.

Staff at the Air and Space Museum handed out to visitors lists of nongovernment-run attractions that were open yesterday -- as they politely nudged them out the door at noon.

But the suggestions, that included the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial and the Textile Museum, were little consolation to some. "It's a pretty limited selection for a town like this," said retired Air Force pilot Joe Dubner of Hayden Lake, Idaho, who had hoped to spend the day at the Air and Space Museum. "The National Museum of Women in the Arts isn't exactly the same."

Tom Stillwell, a Minneapolis doctor visiting the city with his 14-year-old son, John, headed from one of the Smithsonian museums and straight to Sen. Paul Wellstone's office, where he intended to speak his mind to the Minnesota Democrat.

"Now we're really mad," said Dr. Stillwell, a Republican who blamed the impasse on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

"The conflict seems so petty to have gotten this far -- not only for tourists but for the federal employees who have their paychecks compromised. It's a major travesty. It's disappointing that they're using federal employees and tourists as pawns. I can't help but think it's all politically motivated."

Indeed, that message seemed to translate into many languages yesterday.

"Like you say in English, they are all jockeying for position for the next race of the presidents," said Dr. Fernando Benavides, a surgeon from Lima, Peru, who left a meeting in New York to spend a day in Washington.

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