At 6:45 a.m., there appears to be a shift change for Capitol police, and civilian employees are gradually arriving at the checkpoints. Credentials presented, they pass through.
A wide sidewalk winds its way around the front lawn, which is bordered by a high, black iron fence.
I have to stop in front and stare.
Save for the officer in the street behind me, I stand alone. When I realize where I am, I wonder if the officer, or someone unseen, is staring at me ....
Before me is the mansion I have seen in so many photos, on so many television screens. It's a breathtaking sight, so much so that I almost don't notice the two armed Secret Service agents standing on the roof dressed like Ninjas.
To the left of the White House is the Old Executive Office Building. You can get pretty close, but it is gated, too. As I cross the street in front of it, a nice officer suggests I watch for traffic.
Just on the other side is a monument in honor of the Army's 1st Infantry Division. I stop to look at the names, checking to see if there is a Nelson on the list. There is. And I wonder.
Looking around, there are black vans with antennae, black cars and patrol cars parked at intersections, and concrete barriers that even those who are allowed to drive through must weave around. You can walk right past them and into President's Park. And I do, completing my exercise by circling back around The Ellipse to the Treasury building. I pass more agents at more barriers.
A story in the "newspaper" produced for the American Society of Newspaper Editors convention here describes the level of security by renaming the city WATCHington, D.C. On one hand you think what a shame it is. On the other, you experience a level of control that is satisfying in its own way.
This is my first visit to this great city. Standing on the hotel's observation deck, I can look down the boulevard to my left and see the U.S. Capitol, to the right, the White House, across the way, the Washington Monument.
When I read The Washington Times and The Washington Post, I suddenly realize that I'm reading the local newspapers, that to those who live here, this is local news.
Sen. Clinton makes an appearance
A few hours later, I sit with editors from around the nation and listen to "The President's Own" United States Marine Band warm us up for the appearance of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. - local news in the making.
An honor guard marches in, presents colors, and the band plays the national anthem, to which many sing, hands over hearts. When the colors depart, the band plays the Marine anthem. I get choked up.
The stage is set. The hotel ballroom is filled with chairs. At the front of the room on the stage, a table and two chairs sit next to the podium. The wall behind is adorned with the banners of the sponsors of this "conversation" moderated by Marvin Kalb and filmed for C-Span and public television: The National Press Club, The George Washington University, The Associated Press and Harvard University's Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics and Public Policy.
The back wall is lined with television cameras elevated so as to be above the heads of the audience.
A "miked up" Sen. Clinton enters in front of Kalb. She looks no different than on television. During an opening salvo, the first in a series of softball pitches, she declares this to be "a time of a lot of public interest in a lot of important issues."
The conversation begins, a conversation clearly rehearsed, with long answers to short questions. War, of course, is the primary topic.
She begins her spin, and so does the room, just like it seems to do these days every time a politician, any politician, opens her mouth.
(In response to a question from the audience, Clinton declares Richard Clarke to be "incredibly credible.")
I was back on The Ellipse, circling, but no longer in awe.
The symbols of our capital are of both flesh and stone.
The world has changed for this city's residents
We pass the brownstone buildings, more of the stone monuments to our country's history, as our shuttle bus delivers us to a reception at the cavernous Union Station on Tuesday evening. Inside, we move about freely, seemingly vulnerable.
Afterwards, in a restaurant nearby, I seek out a local and talk about 9-11. This world has changed for the residents of Washington, D.C., like it has for those of New York City, and unlike it has for the rest of us. They have become numb to the alert levels, they say, but thankful for them.
Security and caution are symbols of the times.
And life goes on.