Washington D.C. -- A Living Civics Lesson

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Squinting to get a better view of the Declaration of Independence, the kids said, "You can't even (ital) read (unital) it!" Never mind that they were staring at the original 220-year-old document displayed in the majestic National Archives Rotunda, along with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Admittedly, the text was washed out. So precious to the nation's heart are these faded parchments that they're lowered each night in their cases 22 feet below the Rotunda floor to a 55-ton concrete vault.

The kids -- I had four with me ranging from 5 to 12 years old -- had gotten more excited earlier seeing the most-requested picture in the Archives: Richard Nixon shaking Elvis Presley's hand. (They bought a postcard of the photo.)

They also liked getting a look at the original patent for the Super Soaker water gun. All records of the nation's civil, military and diplomatic activities are kept by the National Archives, from the Emancipation Proclamation to draft records to a rambling letter Elvis wrote to the president offering his help to fight the war on drugs. That adds up to hundreds of thousands of movie reels, recordings and millions of engineering plans and photographs. (To arrange a guided tour of the Archives call 202-501-5205. Visit the Home Page at http://www.nara.gov)

Maybe seeing the Constitution isn't as much of a thrill as riding a giant water slide, I conceded, but it's still worth waiting in line, and a lot cheaper than a water park, too.

The Archives, as are most all sites in Washington, is free. And what better time than around the nation's birthday to get a first-hand civics lesson, not to mention plenty of fodder for next year's social studies projects.

The kids were good sports. Especially when, as promised, we headed to Planet Hollywood for burgers and made time for the pool and TV after a long day of seeing history up close.

Another plus to visiting now: If you can take the heat, hotel prices are as low as $59 a night during summer months. There are evening concerts on the National Mall and no better view than from the top of the Washington Monument. Even the kids got excited when they saw all of those familiar buildings "for real": The White House, the monuments, the Capitol. They got drenched in the fountains and rode the old-fashioned carousel on the National Mall. Don't forget the Smithsonian's upcoming 150th Birthday Party in August.

(Call the Smithsonian at 202-357-2700 or take a virtual tour before your visit on its enormously popular Home Page at http://www.si.edu. Rather than wait for hours at the Washington Monument, make reservations for your ride to the top by calling TicketMaster at 800-505-5040. The charge is $1.50 per ticket and 50 cents handling fee per order -- well worth avoiding a long, hot line with the kids. TicketMaster also distributes timed same-day tickets from the 15th Street Ticket Kiosk which opens at 7:30 a.m. Call the Washington, D.C. Convention and Visitors Association at 800-422-8644. Remember to ask about special summer deals when you visit its Web Site at http://www.washington.org. Request the Washington D.C. Prefers Visa Value Pack with coupons for hotels and attractions.)

Our first stop in Washington this trip was the Capitol. Congress was still in session during our visit, so we were able to watch a bit of a Senate debate.

"I couldn't figure out what was going on," confessed 12-year-old Matt, who had been studying the Constitution in sixth grade.

"That's true for a lot of people around here," joked Brian Hanley, the young aide to Connecticut senator Christopher Dodd, who showed us around after we had visited our senator's office. There are ongoing tours of the Capitol (they meet in the Rotunda), but it doesn't hurt to request a personal one from your representative.

If they have a staffer available, your visit will be more kid-friendly. Ask your congressman or senator for gallery passes, if Congress is in session. (Call the Capitol at 202-224-3121. Visit the Senate Web site at http://www.senate.gov or the House at http://www.house.gov. See if you can find your representatives' page.)

When the kids have had enough history and need some food or souvenirs, local parents tell me there's no better place than the Old Post Office Pavillion on Pennsylvania Avenue between 11th and 12th streets. There are toy stores, book stores, free entertainment and plenty of fast food eateries.

Equally entertaining, we found, was Union Station, the restored train station on Massachusetts Avenue NE that houses 125 stores and restaurants, as well as a movie complex. If you've got stamp collectors in your house, stop in across the street at the Smithsonian's newest museum where you can try delivering mail (via computer game) or sorting it.

Another tip from local parents: Take the Metro instead of driving. It's safe, clean and will easily take you to all major attractions. The Tourmobile stops at all of the major attractions. Look for red-and-white Tourmobile signs along the Mall. Pay once and get off where ever you want; you reboard free. (Call 202-554-7950).

Five-year-old Melanie, meanwhile, only wanted to see Socks, the Presidential cat. I tried to oblige with a tour of the White House, giving the older kids a quick lesson on the different branches of government. (Call your Representative to arrange tickets for the White House Tour. Get a preview on the Web at http://www.whitehouse.gov.

Melanie, of course, paid no attention to the historic paintings, the furniture or the massive chandelier in the East Room that takes 14 hours to clean. Of course, Socks was nowhere to be seen, to Melanie's great disappointment.

"If we can't see Socks," she declared as we were leaving. "Let's go find the President." Maybe next time.

(c) 1996, Eileen Ogintz. Dist. by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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