News & Politics

The Shutdown Fight Will Be Waged at the World War II Memorial

Visiting veterans just want to pay tribute to their fallen comrades. Members of Congress, reporters, and even furloughed government workers have other plans.

Veterans from Illinois try to see the World War II Memorial without interference from those involved in the shutdown fight. Photograph by Benjamin Freed.

Forget the White House. Forget the Capitol Building. The fulcrum of our shutdown-obsessed American politics can be found down the Mall at the World War II Memorial, where congressional Republicans stymied in their efforts to stymie Obamacare are putting on a show of patriotic civil disobedience on behalf of a tour group of US veterans.

Yesterday, when the elderly, wheelchair-bound World War II survivors showed up hoping to see the memorial, GOP members rushed to the scene to push aside the shutdown-imposed barriers to give the vets entry to the memorial. When a new group of vets showed up today, the National Park Service was quick to avoid a repeat, declaring that the tour groups are “First Amendment activities” that can use the site regardless of operating status.

That didn’t stop officials of both parties from rushing to the memorial to have their photos taken with the war heroes. Representative Michele Bachmann, Republican of Minnesota, and Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, were followed not long after by Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, who announced that the GOP will somehow pay to keep the memorial open for 30 days.

The veterans, who arrived today from New Mexico, Missouri, and Illinois, wanted no part of the shutdown fight. “It’s a great, wonderful exhibit,” Robert Kaiser, a Chicago-area Army veteran, said as he exited the memorial. The continued spewing on Capitol Hill over how the government should be funded is “fake” and “political,” he added.

A few US Park Police officers, who are not subject to being furloughed, patrolled the area while the visiting veterans milled in past crowding politicians and reporters. David Nichols, a board member of Honor Flights, which organizes the convoys, worked security on the Independence Avenue, Southwest, side of the memorial, only letting the veterans and their companions past the barricade. Nichols also wanted no part of the shutdown fight.

We don’t care about anything else,” he told Washingtonian. “We don’t pick sides.”

If anyone not elected to Congress was down there making a statement, it was John Aucott, an Agriculture Department employee who went on unpaid leave yesterday and stood outside the memorial holding a sign reading “Our vets did their job. Congress please do yours!”

“To use this as an opportunity to get press coverage is unfortunate,” Aucott said of the members of Congress who dropped by for photos ops with World War II veterans. Still, he wouldn’t mind seeing his fellow furloughed workers join him in making a scene at the memorial as more veterans’ groups arrive this week.

“If you’re furloughed, come out and make a statement,” said Aucott, who gave numerous interviews and posed for plenty of his own photos.

The National Park Service had planned to open the monument for visiting veterans on a daily basis, said Carol Johnson, an NPS spokeswoman who started her own furlough after today’s groups cleared out. Priebus, meanwhile, said that the Republican Party will hire five private security guards to work the fences at the memorial. RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said the $150,000 offer is being made because the memorial is “an example of something that needs to be open.”

“It’s clear that the government shutdown is affecting people,” Kukowski said. “The Democrats haven’t been at the table. They’ve been touting how much money they’ve been raising.” The Democratic National Committee raised about $850,000 on Monday. Kukowski would not say how much the RNC has hauled since the shutdown started.

Priebus’s appearance was another good photo op to distract from the continuing shutdown, perhaps, but it seems the 900 World War II veterans scheduled to visit this week would rather be left alone, whether the interlopers are politicians looking to score points or furloughed workers making a stink.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.