The Speaker’s Lobby: Capitol Visitors

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

05 March 2009

There was nary a pair of XY chromosomes outside the entrance to the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) Thursday afternoon. A wall of 70 female Congressional staffers, pages and interns clutched cameras and cooled their high heels for nearly an hour in hopes of catching a glimpse of Brad Pitt.

Pelosi met Joe Black to discuss his hurricane relief efforts in New Orleans. And the throng of women outside hoped Pitt might emerge to sign an autograph or pose for a picture.

But that wasn’t going to happen. U.S. Capitol Police officers (many of them women, by the way) “snuck” Pitt out a back hallway that leads from the Speaker’s office to the Senate side of the Capitol. There a handful of reporters and photographers traced Mr. Jolie’s path as he strode past the office of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), by the Senate chamber, down an elevator and into the Senate subway station. Pitt then donned a pair of designer sunglasses as he walked through an underground tunnel to the Russell Senate Office Building.

By then, the crowd caught wind of Pitt’s exodus and ran, fighting their stilettos with every step, from Pelosi’s office to the Senate side of the Capitol. The staccato clicking of their shoes and squeals of excitement echoed off the marble, Congressional floors and columns.

“It was like a herd ran by here,” muttered one exasperated Senate staffer.

But the chase wasn’t finished yet. As Pitt cut through the tunnel, the wave of fans boarded a Senate subway and rode ahead. They beat Pitt to Russell and waited for the heartthrob when he arrived, their cell phone cameras flipped open.

Pitt’s entourage then ushered him up a flight of stairs, outside and then back across Constitution Avenue toward the Capitol. He finally climbed into a black Ford Expedition with tinted windows. The irony is that the circuitous route through the subway tunnel took the megastar nearly back to where he was when he walked past the Senate chamber.

Pitt remarked that despite the pursuit, the Washington, DC press corps is “nicer” than the Hollywood paparazzi that dog him in LA.

“And they dress better,” Pitt added, as a celebrity reporter from Los Angeles with a handheld camera attempted to ask him about allegedly blowing through a red light on his motorcycle over the weekend on Wilshire Blvd.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown visited the Capitol a day earlier to speak to a Joint Meeting of Congress. But Brown’s visit generated a fraction of the interest ginned up by Pitt. Lawmakers had to scrape together interns and pages to fill the seats in the House chamber for Brown’s address.

The only reason Pitt’s chat with Pelosi prompted dozens of women to stake him out was the announcement of a photo op he held with the Speaker and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC). That short session drew a throng of reporters rarely seen at Pelosi’s office. The photo op was scheduled to start at 3:30 pm. But when many reporters arrived at 3:15 pm, Pelosi, Pitt and Clyburn had already begun. Some scribes grumbled that they missed the event. The groused that the Speaker could start early for Pitt but delayed her weekly press conference 24 minutes earlier in the day.

Everyone was looking for Pitt at the Capitol Thursday. But every week, dozens of celebrities, actors, athletes, musicians and artists stride through the halls of Congress under the radar. Unlike Pitt, they don’t announce they’re coming and skate by with nary a glance from tourists, aides and lawmakers.

Several years ago, I came around a corner in the Senate too quickly and physically slammed into a man bearing a few days of facial hair and wearing tinted, amber shades. I said excuse me and went on my way. An hour later when I came around another corner and almost collided again with the same man. That’s when I realized Bono was on the property. U2’s lead singer had meetings with senators about his work to reduce world hunger.

A year later, I spied a tall, strapping man with a shock of golden hair coming down a Capitol hallway. I recognized him as he walked closer. I decided to get his attention.

“Who dey, who dey, who dey think gonna beat them Bengals?” I hollered.

Recognizing the chant, the man stopped, smiled and walked my way. It was former Cincinnati Bengals quarterback and CBS football analyst Boomer Esiason. I knew the “Who dey” incantation would catch Esiason’s attention. I grew up in southwest Ohio. And when the Bengals went to two Super Bowls in the 1980s, Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium used to rumble with fans cantering the “Who dey” slogan.

The former NFL star was paying lawmaker’s visits to help raise money for the Boomer Esiason Foundation. His son Gunnar suffers from cystic fibrosis.

Once during a Senate vote, I came up a Capitol elevator near the Senate chamber expecting to see a gaggle of reporters and senators milling about. But when the elevator opened, there stood former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda. At first I just said to myself, “Oh, there’s Tommy Lasorda.” Frankly, walking the halls here sometimes can inure you to celebrity. But then a light bulb went off. “THERE’S TOMMY LASORDA!” my brain screamed.

For a moment, I thought about the incongruous nature of seeing one of baseball’s best managers standing elbow to elbow with Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) and former Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) . But again as a Cincinnati sports fan, I decided to grab Lasorda’s attention.

“Go Reds!” I yelled, knowing that Lasorda’s ears would perk up. There was no rivalry more fierce than the Reds and the Dodgers when Lasorda managed Los Angeles in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Kind of like the Yankees and Red Sox now.

Hearing me, Lasorda smiled and said “Oh don’t give me that crap!”

I introduced myself and we chatted about the old, great Dodgers and Reds teams.

On inauguration day, I passed Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) as she exited a House elevator alongside a curly-haired woman in sunglasses. Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID) asked if I “knew who that was” walking with Maloney. Turns out it was Grammy winner Carole King. Simpson spotted King because she apparently keeps a summer home in Simpson’s Idaho district.

Lots of people testify at Congressional hearings. But the encounter with King made me wonder if the Jazzman was testifying that day on Capitol Hill.

But it’s just not superstars and sports heroes who visit the Capitol. Sometimes you’ll encounter real heroes.

A few weeks ago, I bumped into a Democratic press secretary up on the fourth floor of the Rayburn House Office Building. We shot the breeze for a few moments. And in the distance, I spied a contingent of uniformed men and women coming our way. I recognized a mustachioed member of the group as they drew closer.

“Captain Sullenberger, I just want to shake your hand,” I said.

It was US Airways Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger who saved 155 lives in February when he landed his plane in the Hudson River. Sullenberger was on his way to meet with the chairman of the Aviation Subcommittee, Rep. Jerry Costello (D-IL). Sullenberger appeared at a Congressional hearing the next day and made an appearance at President Obama’s maiden address to Congress.

But sometimes you’ll see a celebrity and not even know it.

Last summer, the Capitol was nearly empty when I left about 8:30 pm. As I cut through Statuary Hall, I saw Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH). A woman accompanied Kucinich as he led her on a tour. Kucinich said hello and introduced me to the woman.

“This is my friend Melissa,” Kucinich said. I shook the woman’s hand, told her she had a good tour guide and walked to my car.

I never gave that chance meeting another thought until a week later. I was sitting at home and the Grammy-winning song “Come to My Window” came on the radio.

My mind raced back to the brief encounter with Kucinich’s friend in Statuary Hall.

I had met Melissa Etheridge. And didn’t even realize it.

– Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.