By Stephen M. Silverman
Updated July 30, 2003 01:00 PM

America’s almost “Idol” Clay Aiken ventured to America’s capital Tuesday to emphasize his other passion beyond singing — education, reports PEOPLE.

And he was one busy guy. After a closed-door meeting with officials at the U.S. Department of Education (including Education Undersecretary Eugene Hickok and Assistant Secretary for Special Education Bob Pasternack), Aiken said: “Since I’ve had to put my own work with special needs kids on hold for now, I am excited to do what I can to support worthwhile educational efforts, particularly those which reach kids who might otherwise fall through the cracks.”

The 24-year-old crooner later went up to the Capitol with members of the American Film Institute to discuss the institute’s K-12 Screen Education Center program.

Aiken, in D.C. as part of the “American Idols Live Tour,” also took a private tour of the White House and stopped in to pay a surprise visit to his home state senator, Elizabeth Dole (R-North Carolina).

Nicely dressed in a suit, the lanky Southerner sang “Happy Birthday” to Dole, who turned 67. It was the first time the two had met.

As for the concert, The Washington Post critic adored Aiken, extolling his “epic voice and flirty ways” and calling him the evening’s winner, “if not the show’s.”

The Post also had nice things to say about “AI” champ Ruben Studdard, 25, saying that he has “charm.”