WONDERING AND WANDERING IN WASHINGTON DC
Washington DC reeks. The stench, according to some, is caused by corruption in high places, political chicanery, and machinations by self serving lobbyists. It’s a city engulfed in a miasma of arrogance, greed and ambition.
Well...that is what some people say. And given the character of today’s occupant of the White House, it is hardly surprising.
But that’s beside the point.
The more important point is that Washington DC is a magnificent testament to the greatness of the American people, to the country’s past and despite everything else, to its present as well.
It is a dignified and elegant city. Its historical monuments, superb art galleries, museums and memorials flank the National Mall—a green swath of lawn, shady trees and reflecting pools. The imposing Lincoln Memorial stands at west end of the Mall, at the midpoint the Washington Monument obelisk pierces the sky, and the Capitol building with its cupola and white colonnades marks the eastern end. To the north the viewer can glimpse the facade of the White House, and the Potomac River and it’s tidal basin lies to the south.
The Washington Memorial is closed to the public due to repair work, so I start my exploration at the memorial to Thomas Jefferson– the third American President and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. His statue stands at the centre of a circular pavilion, its walls inscribed by quotations from his (prolific) essays and speeches. Quote: “We would hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. Among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
A short drive away, Martin Luther King Jr., arms folded, looks gravely at his visitors from his stone plinth which bears the inscription: “Out of the Mountain of Despair, A Stone of Hope”. I walk along the surrounding wall reading the sentiments of a man whose life was dedicated to the civil rights movement and the indefatigable pursuit of justice for all: Quote: “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
Around the corner is the extensive memorial to Franklin Roosevelt. I linger here, strolling along a shady pathway that flanks several sculptures of America’s charismatic 32nd President, and I’m impressed beyond measure by the man, his political and economic foresight and courage. He served an unprecedented four terms and guided the country through the Great Depression of the 30s, and through World War II. Quote: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
Abraham Lincoln is honored in a memorial that stands at the west end of the Mall. The marble statue of the seated 16th President takes centre stage while inscriptions of his speeches – notably the Gettysburg address – are displayed on the surrounding walls. With this imposing building at my back, I join visitors gazing at the vista that stretches before us: the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, the Washington Monument needling scudding clouds, and beyond that in the distance, the white dome of the Capitol building.
Dotted around the Mall, are memorials to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country: lines of visitors walk by a wall of remembrance etched with the names of Vietnam veterans; a five minute walk along the Mall leads to a dramatic fountain-splashed memorial honoring the gallant soldiers who fought in World War II.
However, from a personal viewpoint, it is my visit to nearby Arlington Cemetery that revives my most poignant memories. I stand, head bowed before the eternal flame flickering upon the graves of John F. Kennedy, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, little Patrick their son, and an un-named daughter who died at birth.
Further on along the pathway lies the graves of the Kennedy clan: Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. who was killed during World War II and whose remains were never recovered has a cenotaph erected to his memory; his brothers, Robert (Bobby) Kennedy and Edward (Ted) Kennedy are laid to rest nearby.
I glance at my watch and move on to the next item on my list: a guided tour through the Capitol building. This is where the corridors of power lie – the south wing holds the House of Representatives, while the Senate is located in the north wing. Visitors like myself go through the usual security checks before entering the large Emancipation Hall.
A 19-plus foot replica of the Statue of Freedom dominates one side of the room, and beyond this lies a gallery of informative photographs, captions and models detailing the progress of the Capitol building through its many stages of construction. My tour is set for 3 pm, and on the dot my group is ushered into an auditorium to watch an engrossing 13-minute introductory film which sets the stage for the tour.
Armed with voice receiver sets, my group and I follow a docent who leads us into the crypt and from there to the spectacular Rotunda with its painted cupola ceiling. Encircling the hall is a bas relief fresco depicting historical highlights beginning with the landing of Columbus in the New World in 1492 and culminating in the birth of aviation in 1903.
Paintings of historical events and statues of Presidents— Gerald Ford, Ronald Regan and Dwight Eisenhower to name just three—line the walls of the Rotunda. The adjoining National Statuary Hall features several more notables, which gratifyingly includes a bronze Rosa Parks. She is seated, with chin raised, expression ever so subtly defiant, as she gazes at onlookers.
Ninety minutes later, I’m back in the sunshine, squinting up at the Statue of Freedom which stands atop the Capitol dome. It a symbol of American values as expressed by Franklin Roosevelt: “Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear” and of Martin Luther King Jr. who sought to maintain an “abiding faith in America...and the future of mankind”. Noble ideals to be sure. But will they endure beyond today’s malign and destructive political attitudes? One can only hope so.
IF YOU GO:
Tours of the Capitol are free and offered between 8.40 am and 3.20 pm, Monday to Saturday. Tour passes are required, and may be booked in advance on line at www.vistthecapital.cov. Or call 202-226-8000
Also free are self-guided tours of the nearby Supreme Court, Folger Shakespeare Library, and Library of Congress. Flanking the Mall is Washington’s outstanding National Art Gallery and the many Museums of the Smithsonian Institute. A popular attraction is the National Museum of African American History and Culture, housed in a unique architectural landmark building. Allow no less than three to five days for your visit and be sure to wear comfortable shoes.
PHOTOS: by Margaret Deefholts
1. Jefferson Memorial Plaque
All material used by Travel Writers' Tales is with the permission of the writers and photographers who, under national and international copyright law,
retain the sole and exclusive rights to their work. The contents of this site, whether in whole or in part may not be downloaded,
copied or used in any manner without the explicit permission of Travel Writers' Tales Editors, Jane Cassie and Margaret Deefholts,
and the written consent of contributing writers and photographers. © Travel Writers' Tales