He Loves DC: Peter Earnest (Part 2)

Photo courtesy of Me
Peter Earnest, courtesy of Me

Last week, we introduced you to the Executive Director of the International Spy Museum, Peter Earnest. He sat down with me back before Thanksgiving; we talked for quite a while covering both his personal observations and his professional opinions on the Washington DC area.

Before we continue with the rest of the interview, I need to point out that Peter can be an extremely funny guy. If you doubt, witness the two-part episode that aired about a month ago on Stephen Colbert’s show, specifically the “Fallback Position” segment he does periodically. He did two segments with Peter, an interview and a look at some items in the museum proper. If you’ve not seen them, you must. (Each segment is about six minutes long.) Don’t worry, we’ll still be here when you get back.

Ok, on with our conversation! We cover everything from public perception on espionage to cabbies to people; find out what Peter had to say after the jump.

Photo courtesy of Me
Spy, courtesy of Me

With today’s culture caught up in 24, The Unit, Alias and other TV shows—much more than they were in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s—do you think people take that type of danger less seriously or more seriously? Do you feel that the tone has kind of changed regarding the CIA and espionage?

Peter: Well, of course, we’re sort of looking at the map through a lens here, and we’re focused on Washington and then there’s “the rest of the country.” So keep in mind, Washington was one of the two major targets of 9/11, and so I think people who live in Washington and who’ve lived here for a time are well aware of that.

The pattern of the terrorists—Al-Qaeda specifically—has been they go after targets that they may not have gotten the first time, and hence, the second strike on the World Trade buildings in New York City. I think, certainly, if you live in this city, not a day goes by almost that there isn’t some news about intelligence, terrorism, concern over the progress of the wars and so forth. That’s not true in every city but it is characteristic of Washington. I think people here are more aware of our international obligations, our international involvements, if you will. I think there is a greater awareness. But let me just turn the page for a moment to the [International Spy] Museum itself.

Probably 75, 80 percent of our visitors are from out of town, and that’s interesting. We’re continuing to be a very popular museum as people come to Washington, and we continue to be very high on the list of places people want to visit. Why do they want to visit this museum? I think part of it is to get a glimpse of that world of espionage, national security and so forth. A lot of families come here. A lot of families come and bring their children, and I think it is out of awareness and interest.

I think there’s always a degree of uncertainty, a lack of knowledge about that world. I think this [the International Spy Museum] is one of the places people see to sort of satisfy their curiosity and try and fill out some of the blanks in their thinking about intelligence.

So you think that because of the nature of the city, locals are less likely to come here because either they feel like they know it pretty well or they’re too immersed in it to really want to come to the museum?

Peter: Well, when we talk about “the locals,” here we’re talking about Greater Washington and the Washington area. Let’s face it, there are locals who haven’t visited Washington as much because it’s here, and therefore, it’s too easy. It’s not a destination city; it’s right here. Yet, they still haven’t regularly made use of the museums and the tremendous cultural offerings here, and there are people who come from all over the world to this city. There are people who live within a few miles who almost pride themselves on, “I haven’t been to Washington in five years.” That’s sort of sad, I think.

I am always amazed at people that I meet outside of Washington. You travel to the West coast. You go to the Midwest. I’m always amazed when people have never been to Washington because this is your nation’s capitol. I can’t imagine people in France who haven’t been to Paris, you know? They may decide they don’t like Paris or they really love Paris but it’s hard for me to think of people who have never been to Paris or people who live in our country and have never thought to take the children to Washington to find out where the government resides and what it looks like. I just think that’s interesting.

Do you feel that it’s more important for residents of the metro area to really visit the city more from time to time?

Peter: Well, here’s what I see, is many people who live around in the Washington area frequently are the hosts for relatives and friends who “want to come to Washington.” They end up staying with their friends here in the Washington area, and they say, “Hey, how can we make best use of our week in Washington? What are the best places to visit? What’s the latest hot ticket?” I think it behooves people to sort of keep pace with what’s going on in this city, new museums, new galleries, new offerings. There’s a tremendous amount going on in this city. You know better than many people the explosion of theaters in this city and just cultural events. It’s a very rich city culturally.

When you have out-of-town friends or family come visit, what do you recommend they see?

Peter: Well, now, in all fairness, first, I recommend they go to the Spy Museum. [grins] Actually, when they come to visit, they know about it. There are a lot of people who come here who have heard about the Spy Museum. The brand of the Spy Museum has reached many corners of the country and overseas.

But when people do come to stay with us—and they do—I sort of have a sense of what their interests are, and some of them would like to take advantage of going down to the Kennedy Center, go to the theater, and some of them are aware of a new exhibit.  There’s a tremendous exhibit right now on Pompeii down at the National Gallery. They’re never going to have that opportunity, even if they go to Pompeii, to see all those artifacts and things brought together.

So I try to keep up with what’s going on in the city so I can give people some guidance. I love this city, so when people come here, I often will just take them myself. I love being a guide because I know the city that well, and I just think it’s a fascinating city.

What do you and your wife like to do when you have the time?

Peter: Well, we cover the gamut. We’re very devoted to the theater. Arena Stage, for example, as you know, is having a big remodeling so they’re working out of the Lincoln Theater, and again, an area itself under renovation—also, a theater there in Crystal City. We frequent the National Art Gallery and the East Building. Particularly, they will get a new exhibit in, or the Hirshhorn. We will go to events. I have spent New Year’s at the Kennedy Center, and we will go to events like that. They’re just part of what the city offers.

The explosion of restaurants in the city has been incredible. I don’t think there’s a native food of any country that you’re not going to find somewhere in the Washington area. It’s not all Italian restaurants.

What part of the year do you especially love in the area?

Peter: Well, right now, we’re in the fall, and I like the fall. But what I would tell you is you made the comment that I could live anywhere I would like, and that’s true, but what I like about Washington is the change. I like the changing seasons. Yet, it’s a relatively moderate or temperate climate. It’s not New England cold in the winter, and it doesn’t have that long, long, prolonged winter. Yes, it can get hot in the summer but it’s still not quite where Mississippi and some of those other areas are in the heat of the summer, so I like the change. When you say a favorite part, it’s hard not to enjoy the spring here.

This is a very green city. There are lots of trees, and the city does a wonderful job with them. There are lots of flowers and trees, and it’s a great city to walk around in from that point of view. But I’m enjoying the fall. Right now the leaves are falling, and winter is moving in.

Where do you think the DC metro area needs to improve?

Peter: I always bemoaned the fact that we were perhaps the only major capitol in the world that did not have metered cabs, and it just drove me nuts. I think that Mayor Fenty is doing a great job, and he took that bull by the horns and said, “We’re going to have metered cabs.” There was a certain amount of wailing and carrying on from the cabbies. We now have metered cabs, and clearly, people are making a living out of it because they’re still driving cabs out there. But to me, the contrast with New York City, where you can get in a cab and really have a very nice ride for seven bucks or whatever it was, was just very galling. I think since we are a city that’s visited a lot by foreigners, who understood the zone system? Very few people. I think that the foreigners and the locals as well have always felt they were being ripped off.

Even though I think that many cabbies were honest and tried to call it straight, who knew? So I think the meter actually makes for a better relationship between the professional cab drivers and their customers. That’s one of the improvements, and I have to say, it’s already happened.

But I think one of the characteristics of, I think, a great city—and Chicago would certainly fall in that category and London would fall in that category, Berlin, I was there a few weeks ago—is a good transportation system, a way for people to move around relatively inexpensively and quickly.

I think the more the city can do… I know they’re trying to revamp the bus system. They’ve got a couple of new Metro lines in mind. We’re looking to some sort of a train to connect Dulles with the Metro system. Those are improvements that the people are working on. We do see a city on the move. This is not a subtle city. This is a city that’s well aware of its limitations. It faces the great difficulty of being a creature of Congress, and I think that’s such a difficult framework for the city to work with for its budget and so forth. Right now, Mayor Fenty and Michelle Rhee are taking the most aggressive approach to the school system I’ve ever seen, and one can only wish them well.

Do you believe DC should have voting rights in the Senate and Congress?

Peter: Yes, I would be a supporter of voting rights for DC. We have a delegate, but a non-voting representative in the House—Eleanor Holmes Norton—who I think has done a fine job. Actually, it’s interesting as you and I talk, I’m now living in Virginia. I’ve lived most of my years in Maryland, and I’ve lived from time to time in the District; but, I’m saying, we have Eleanor. I speak as a Washingtonian, and that’s just because I identify with Washington even though I’ve lived in these various areas around. But I also speak as somebody in Virginia. I’ve been in Virginia the last, oh, gosh, 20 years so I’m conscious of wearing that hat as well.

Do you have any plans what you’re going to do after the museum after you’re finished here?

Peter: People will say, “Now, how long are you going to do the museum?” I will tell them, “I’m not resigning this week so I don’t know what to tell you.” The museum has been a real kick. I’m the founding director. We’ve been open since July of 2002. We have had over four million people go through here. We’ve just had terrific programs and activities so I’ve really enjoyed it, and it’s allowed me, a professional intelligence officer, to keep my hand in the game. Literature, and I’m called on to lecture a lot, be interviewed a lot. That’s been a really enjoyable aspect of being here.

We are looking right now at the possibility of sort of expanding ourselves beyond the physical plant or walls of the museum. There is a new world, and you know it better than I do—the Internet world, blogging and so forth. These are elements that we’re looking at making even greater use of.

About a year and a half ago, we started podcasts, which we call “spycasts.” They are very popular. We’ve had good feedback on those. We’re still in the growth mode. There are several other things we’re considering that I don’t have the go-ahead on as yet but I’d like to be here and see those through.

As far as next year, are there any special plans or events that you can let us know about 2009?

Peter: Well, we’ll still have Operation Spy, which is our standalone experience separate from the museum, and that’s picking up traction. You can do that, as you know, 15 people go through it in about 50 minutes, and people have thoroughly enjoyed that.

We’re limited in space here so right now it’s difficult to put in a new exhibit. We are tinkering around the edges. We’re looking at revamping what we call “The Ops Center,” which is actually the last room on the tour. That could happen as early as this year coming up.

I know that more increasingly, the museum has been the subject of various media events just like Steven Colbert’s report that just aired not too long ago, which was fantastic, by the way. You had De Niro come through to use the museum’s resources in making The Good Shepherd and other projects. Do you see that continuing to increase as the museum continues to establish itself?

Peter: I think so. I think we’re a venue. We are now a recognized place about the subject of intelligence and espionage. I think we’ve had a degree of sort of favorable recognition by the intelligence community itself. They hold social events here from time to time, and I think that sort of thing speaks well of the museum and its acceptance by the community. We’ve had some wonderful community events that people have enjoyed. We’re looking at this year to move out into the community even more.

How so?

Peter: Right now, we have a policy which we’ve had since the beginning of the museum that any kid in the city in the 5th grade can come to this museum free. We [made an agreement] with the district government, and we thought that was a good grade, a good age for kids to come. But we’re looking at doing some more community involvement like that.

Do you have any book plans in the future for yourself?

Peter: I have one that I’m working on right now with another author.

Very briefly about Colbert’s visit: it was very fun to watch. Was it as fun to make with him as it was to watch?

Peter: It was just a delight. Steven Colbert is a very gracious guy. He is very gracious with his staff. He was terrific to work with. It was as fun to work with as what you would see on the screen. Where he gets the energy, I’m not sure, but it’s there, and he’s a very warm and easy guy to work with. I enjoyed it.

It was really fun having him come here and doing a program, and we all got a kick out of it. They were here really the better part of the day. They came down from New York. He was wearing a tuxedo. I saw him step out of that big bus. They actually came down on the train, and they were here from fairly early in the morning, probably around at least eight, to do some shooting in the museum, and they were here until mid-afternoon. They had plans to go to another institution after this one but they were here long enough that they bagged those plans. I don’t know that they travel outside New York City all that often, but we very much enjoyed having them here. They’re welcome to come back any time.

Do you still have your medal?

Peter: I still have my medal, yes.

So you are Peter Earnest?

Peter: And I am Peter Earnest, yes.

Many thanks to Peter and the International Spy Museum for the interview and access. The museum is located at 800 F. St, NW in the Penn Quarter area. Call 202.393.7798 for information on tickets and hours. You can also hear Peter and other intelligence analysts offer their take on historical and current events through the Spy Museum’s Spycast series, broadcast once a month and available for free on the museum’s website.

Listen to the entire unedited interview with Peter; simply download the link and run on any standard mp3 player. Run time is approximately 35 minutes.

Having lived in the DC area for ten years, Ben still loves to wander the city with his wife, shooting lots of photos and exploring all the latest exhibits and galleries. A certified hockey fanatic, he spends some time debating the Washington Capitals club with friends – but everyone knows of his three decade love affair with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

A professional writer, gamer, photographer, and Lego enthusiast, Ben remains captivated by DC and doesn’t plan on leaving any time soon.

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