Tag…You’re it

The dark suit is impeccable, the hair conservatively cut, the shoes a refined statement of solidity. But the outfit isn’t complete for a Washington insider without an identity tag or two — or more.

While some know this city as “the capital of the free world,” its denizens recognize it as Tagtown.

Virtually everyone in downtown Washington wears some kind of credential during working hours. For some, it may be a simple pass that unlocks a garage or an office security door. But for those who work with the sprawling U.S. federal bureaucracy, it is literally a badge of honor.

There are tags for Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, the Treasury, the Justice Department, the Supreme Court, individual trials, museum openings and even some news conferences.

And instead of taking off the tags when the workday is done, as people elsewhere might do, Washingtonians tend to keep them on, especially if they hint at a close relationship to power.

Anthropologist Edward Smith recalls that when he worked as a White House speechwriter, there was a rule against wearing the White House tag after work. He also recalled it was widely flouted.

The willingness to be labeled fits with the Washington mindset, said Smith, a professor at American University and a third-generation Washingtonian.

“People wear these things as if they were bars on their uniform,” Smith said. “I think that some people, particularly young people, want that extra patina of prestige. In Washington, you are much more recognized as a position than as a personality.”

Some wear the tag with discretion, hidden in a wallet or inside a jacket, furtively pulling it out just long enough to gain entry. But for convenience, especially for those compelled to move around town to different agencies, tags are often worn on lanyards around the neck, where they click together like a shuffled pack of playing cards.

The only ones who don’t need to wear a tag are those whose faces are so famous they function as their own identity check. You won’t see the president with a lanyard around his neck, and most members of Congress wouldn’t dream of flashing a tag, though they are supposed to wear a security pin.

This turned out to be a problem when one congresswoman, Cynthia McKinney, switched hairstyles and was stopped at the entrance to a congressional building by a security guard who didn’t recognize her with her new “‘do.”

There was what is known in Washington as “an altercation” and McKinney, a Georgia Democrat in the House of Representatives, wound up apologizing.

Capitol Hill is one of the more low-tech operations for tag inspection. The Justice Department puts untagged visitors through an air lock as their belongings are X-rayed.

At the White House, you flash the tag out on Pennsylvania Avenue and a uniformed guard buzzes you through a locked gate and then into a guardhouse. You put any bags on a conveyor belt, swipe your tag and enter a code before going through a turnstile. The mystery is how take-out food gets through.

The Pentagon is more imposing, with separate entrances for those with badges and those without, and a hierarchy of different badges telling who’s allowed to go where, when.

Why are Washingtonians so willing to be tagged? Maybe they’re just made to feel different.

In other cities, people watch the morning news mainly for news. In Washington, more than one household watches to gauge the weather: if the reporter on the White House lawn looks cold, your kindergarten kid will too, so add an extra sweater.

© 2006 Reuters