Push-Buttons to Power

The large automatic-dial telephone in my room at the Hay-Adams hotel in Washington, D.C. reminded me of a command post.

With the touch of a button I could ring the concierge, room service or front desk. I could have wake-up service, the time or the weather.

More intriguing, there in the nation’s capital, labels indicated that I had push-button access to such powerful institutions as the White House, the Supreme Court, the Capitol, the Library of Congress and the Federal Reserve.

At first I thought it was a joke. But then I decided to try the White House.


A man answered.

“Thank you for calling,” he said in a kindly voice. “The White House is open to visitors from 10 a.m. until 12 noon Tuesday through Saturday. No advance tickets or reservations are necessary. The line for the tour forms on the top of the Ellipse.”

“The Ellipse?” I repeated.

“The Ellipse is the large circular park between the south grounds of the White House and the Washington Monument,” he explained. “Occasionally the White House may be closed for official functions and notice may not be given until the day of the event.”

“I can certainly understand that,” I said.

“Upcoming special events include the Easter Egg roll on Monday April 16 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.,” he went on. “It’s open to children 8 years old and younger accompanied by no more than two adults. The annual garden tour will take place on Saturday, April 21 and Sunday, April 22 from 2 to 5 p.m. No advance tickets or reservations are necessary for either event.”

“I am sorry that I have to leave town before then,” I interrupted. “I missed the cherry blossoms, too.”

“Thanks very much for calling,” he concluded, “and enjoy your tour of Washington.”

What a thoughtful thing for a busy President to say--although some might suspect a recording.

No matter. Now that I knew about the White House Garden Tour I could plan to drop in next spring. After all, 1991 is the bicentennial year of the city of Washington and a yearlong party is planned. There should be plenty of fireworks.

But back to the business at hand.

I tried the Federal Reserve. A woman answered and asked how she could help me. No recording this time. I was so flustered that I hung up.

I bypassed the Library of Congress because I had been there the night before to see a new exhibit on “The American Journalist"--in fact and fiction. Displays included the marvelously messy desk of legendary editor William Allen White, the first Watergate burglary notes in the scribbled hand of Bob Woodward and a phone booth where reporter Clark Kent could change to his Superman suit.

Finally, as the noon carillon began ringing at historic St. John’s Church across 16th Street, I decided to call the U.S. Capitol and check on my representatives.

A clipped voice answered: “We are sorry your call cannot be completed as dialed. Please check with the operator or dial again.”

But Congress was saved from my questions by the bellman who came for my luggage.