American Impressions, Chapter 23: District of Columbia
Cities rarely have the luxury of being invented. They usually crop up, weed-like, where people, commerce and power converge, creating history as a byproduct. Washington, that swamp thing, turned city-making on its head. It had none of the usual prerequisites when it was conceived two centuries ago. Its setting wasn’t attractive except to mosquitoes and the famously American bug of political compromise (locating the nation’s capital along the Potomac was a Northern deal to win Virginia’s support in financing war debts). But Washington’s designer was convinced of its destiny.
To Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a French military engineer who grew up in the palatial pretensions of Versailles, Washington was to be “the capital of a powerful Empire,” its layout a mirror of America’s constitutional principles, its gardens galleries to its inevitable achievements. He designated hundreds of acres for future monuments and memorials to heroes yet unknown. He wasn’t inventing a future. He was predicting it by design.
L’Enfant’s blueprints seduced his employer, George Washington, who always had an imperial streak. For a time the more democratically minded Thomas Jefferson worried that the capital would be “big enough for two emperors, one pope, and the grand lama into the bargain.” That was when 126 people ran the entire federal government. His worries were shunted aside and L’Enfant’s design took shape—the calculated placement of the Capitol and the White House on the city’s two hills, within watchful sight of each other (the Capitol took the higher hill), the reserve for future glory that eventually became the Mall, and the grand avenues, named for the states, radiating spoke-like from the Capitol.
What Tocqueville said of America in 1830 could be said of Washington right about then: it was “a great forest pierced by a large number of straight roads all converging on one point. Once you have found the center, you can see the whole plan at a glance.”
For all its steady growth since and the mushrooming of the federal bureaucracy after World War II, Washington is still a metropolitan swamp. It’s not much of a commercial center. It’s a mediocre cultural force where the art of self-reference drowns out all others. Its great wealth is drawn from its trough-like proximity to the national treasury. And its power is vested from the states, not generated from within.
But as easy as it is to beat up on D.C.’s artificiality, comparing the capital to other cities misses its most essential function. Washington is less a city than a platted story. It is where we go to touch the idea of America, its monumental sense of itself as well as its monumental contradictions.
After New York, Washington has been a second-city to me, having a brother who’s lived in four of its suburbs since 1985. I’ve never tired of the city’s traditional “sights,” taking them in at every occasion like booster shots of my adoptive citizenship. Besides, not much else is worth seeing unless the city’s thousand halls of rhetoric are an attraction. But if there is a misconception about those sights, it is that they are a static set of chiseled stone and power addresses, when in fact the story they tell is always changing. Think only of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, once a noisy snarl of traffic and protests, and now a quiet enclosure of concrete barricades and strictly regulated demonstrators. A once-wonderful public space has turned into a concession to the Age of Paranoia. But every sight has its modern appendix, as I found out in May. Bent on revisiting some of the capital’s most common reference points, I hopped a bike in Bethesda one morning, pierced into the city on a trail that crosses one of its last remaining forests, and emerged downtown, by the Watergate—not quite a monument, not yet, but an appropriate place from where to start reading today’s Washington.
”What speech is that, the one that starts with ‘Four scores and seven years ago?’ “ “Isn’t that the one they showed at Disneyland?” “The Declaration of Independence, isn’t that the one?” “It’s right there on the wall, let’s go see.”
And with that, the three American women in their tank-tops and early 30s, who had been chatting about Abraham Lincoln’s speeches in front of his 19-foot mass of Georgia marble, walked to the monument’s north hall and read the engraved text of the Gettysburg Address. They stood back from the engraving, as most people do, in silent deference to the words on the wall, and took in the entire text, as do most people who start reading it. Confusion turned to recognition, and my impulse to inwardly make fun of them for having jumbled those great texts—and thrown in Disney in the bargain—evaporated.
Blaming Americans for not knowing their history has gotten tiresome, especially when other nations’ memories are either just as bad or, worse, selective. Nevertheless, standing near Lincoln’s statue, it was a little disappointing to hear that the only reaction it evoked in another American woman had nothing quite to do with the man in the giant armchair (“His crotch is all dirty; it’s got spider webs”), while it was left up to a French woman to grasp the whole story of the Mall in a single sentence: “Look how beautiful out back,” she told her son, pivoting him away from the statue and toward the view of the Reflecting Pool and beyond. “Everything is in the East.” Lincoln’s back is toward the west and the setting sun, having pulled the nation out of the darkness of the Civil War. He faces east (like the Capitol and most temples in history), toward the hope and renewal of the rising sun.
The modern irony, of course, is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. From its bunker-like, sudden depression in the earth not far in front of the Lincoln Memorial, it points unequivocally at Lincoln in one direction and at the Washington Monument in the other, its dark, reflecting wall as accusing as it is redeeming. Without the Vietnam memorial, the Lincoln Memorial seemed to me monolithic and bulky, more like Soviet statues that tried to outsize mountains than a tribute to a man who idealized equality. The Vietnam memorial’s fissure in the earth has humanized it, as if bringing it closer to earth than that 130-foot-wide flight of stairs and 12-foot-armchair make it seem. Even looking East, Lincoln must now see, renewal has its quakes.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is the most popular of Washington’s monuments. But it is above all a tourist attraction. Those who visit it for the most part don’t do so because they’ve lost a son or a brother or a father or even fought in Southeast Asia, but because The Wall, with its 58,000 names chiseled tomb-like on black granite, has become an essential plot-twist of the Mall’s story-line. Without it, something is missing in a way that would not be the case if the Korean War Veterans Memorial or the Vietnam Women’s Memorial were to sink into the ground tomorrow.
Curiosity may draw visitors to the Vietnam memorial at first, but once there they are usually drawn in by a dimension they did not expect. The dimension is very physical because the mirror-like reflection of the Wall induces a personal reckoning, but it is also emotional because it is the first war memorial where the sense of loss speaks louder than duty, where vulnerability trumps power. It is at once an admission of futility and a moving recognition of those who paid its price. It is war laid bare.
It is also the only place in Washington where taking pictures feels crass. You do not often see visitors pose in front of the Wall and smile, although shutters click from a distance. The Memorial imposes its own pace, a slow, hushed walk down one arm and up the other. The chatter is clipped and brief. And something—a moment between a name and a pair of eyes, a note left at the bottom of a panel—always brings out the humanity of the Wall. I will never forget the little girl who, seeing a man shadow a name off the Wall with pencil and paper, asked her father if she could do that with some of the names, too. It was a child’s most natural reaction, oblivious to the Wall’s every dimension but play. And I will never understand why her father told her no.
The Vietnam memorial was the 1980s’ jolting correction to a Mall that had grown too sure of L’Enfant’s imperial predictions. But the impulse to capitalize on a good thing has led to many sequels along the Reflecting Pool, few of them as interesting as the Wall, none of them necessary. The 14 acres around the pool now also have the Three Servicemen across from the Wall, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial (one woman died of hostile fire during the war), and the Korean War Veterans Memorial. There are plans to put up a Black Revolutionary War Patriots Memorial, a District of Columbia War Veterans Memorial, and, with Tom Hanks leading the PR charge, a sprawling World War II memorial. Descendants of Mexican War veterans also are proposing a memorial. Memorials to engagements in Grenada, Panama, Lebanon, Desert Storm, Somalia and the Balkans can’t be far behind. They’ll presumably have to fight over the Mall’s remaining 70 acres, and do it fast, considering the multiplication of American wars lately.
The glut of martial glory-mongering is not just a response to the popularity of the Vietnam memorial, but a counter-offensive against its perceived pacifism. Artists and architects judged the competition that finally awarded the design of the Vietnam memorial to Maya Lin, the Asian-American architect. Monuments erected or planned since have been the work of the American Battle Monuments Commission, a presidentially appointed panel established after World War I. Its original mission was to tend overseas cemeteries of American soldiers. Since 1982, when the Vietnam memorial was dedicated, the commission has turned to revisionism, its mission, as James Reston Jr. wrote in The New York Times Magazine four years ago, “to reclaim the war memorial business for the generals, colonels, veterans, corporate chiefs and Medal of Honor winners who lost control of the process (to artists!) with the Vietnam memorial.”
The Korean War Veterans Memorial makes the point: A platoon of soldiers is walking forward, unquestioning, toward an American flag, where a slogan serves as the commission’s signature: “Freedom Is Not Free.Ó Back to blind duty. With that and the commission’s many other revisions, the Mall is becoming a parade ground of might rather than memory, its sloganeering more Orwellian than heroic. And it leaves you wondering why memorials to wars have become the exclusive choice of projecting American power in a century when America’s contributions to civilization have had at least as much to do with soldiers as with scientists, artists, civil rights leaders and many other unarmed heroes the monuments commission has seemingly never heard of.
I followed the thread of Washington’s contemporary story to the next logical point: The Pentagon. The 29-acre building is where the administration of superpowerdom takes place, although the more I heard about its physical features -- 4 million square feet of office space, 17.5 miles of corridors, 7 acres of windows, 22,000 employees—the more it sounded like the Mall of America in fatigues. Like the Pentagon, the mall has its 4 million square feet of retail space, its 11,000 visitors an hour, its 12,000 parking spaces and other similarly millennial numbers. Instead of Knott’s Camp Snoopy, the mall’s enormous indoor theme park, the Pentagon has its 5-acre center courtyard, where soldiers are fond of pointing out that it is the largest no-salute, open-air zone in the world.
I don’t know quite what I was expecting when I signed up for the 90-minute tour of the building, a process that included presenting a photo ID and listening to a stern lecture about no talking in the halls, no drinking from water fountains, no talking in other languages (the warnings were also posted in German, Chinese, French, Korean and Spanish, but not in Russian), no rest room breaks, and no knives “or any other weapons that can cause bodily harm.” What I did not expect was to spend 90 minutes looking at paintings of war planes, warships, and generals in corridor after corridor where only the color of the tile changed. In what must be Washington’s weirdest coupling of purpose with image, the Pentagon, as presented to visitors, is a guided art tour. Stars The most revealing aspect of the 90 minutes was the amount of construction along the way. Corridors are being narrowed, 200,000 square feet of offices added in a $1.2 billion expansion that will last until 2006 (the whole place took 14 months and $50 million to build in 1941-42).
The Pentagon did not look like it was taking military downsizing too seriously.
Maybe future war monuments could crop up on the weedy parts of its 583-acre reserve, which borders Arlington National Cemetery at one point.
It was dusk when I reached the White House. It was also Sunday, so the media’s porcupine-clustered hardware on a square of White House lawn was tarped over, tourist traffic was light, guards were bored, a cop car and its two officers idled in the middle of barricaded Pennsylvania Avenue.
As she has uninterruptedly for the last 20 years, Concepcion Picciotto sat, homeless-like, on a makeshift divan of tatters, across from the White House in Lafayette Park, although she is not homeless. She founded her vigil in 1981 with William Thomas, who now runs the vigil’s elaborate Web site. I remember seeing Picciotto there in the early ‘80s, when she began her 24-hour stand, back when anti-nukes demonstrations were proliferating and ordinances hadn’t yet been written to restrict the number and size of her signs. She is now harassed by cops, who sometimes idle their car in front of her stand, the exhaust facing her. But protest is, literally, her life.
”This is the peace fort, and that,” she says, pointing to the White House, “is the war fort. So they don’t want me here. If I was supporting what they’re doing, I wouldn’t have any trouble.” She speaks in conspiracies, sometimes in mild rants that are just as paranoid as the concrete barricades at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue. But she’s also a regular stop on the route of walking tours, delivering a brief history of her convictions that manages, after all these years, never to sound rehearsed or phony. It is an eyesore to official Washington, but it isn’t comforting to realize that as a memorial to peace in the city of monuments, Picciotto’s raggedy stand is all there is.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA IN BRIEF
Total area: 68 sq. miles (rank: 51)
Population (1997): 528,964
Economy: Government, tourism, services
Motto: Justice for all
Notable facts: Washington, D.C., is one of America’s oddest contradictions: It is the federal capital of the world’s foremost democracy, yet its citizens didn’t get the right to vote for president until 1961. Their one House of Representative member cannot vote on the floor of the House, and they have no senators. Congress has legislative authority over the district, which is 70 percent black. Rev. Jesse Jackson, among others, has been leading an effort to win statehood for Washington, D.C., which would require a constitutional amendment.
Washington, D.C., in quotes: “Sam stands in the center of the V, deep in the pit. The V is like the white wings of the shopping mall in Paducah. The Washington Monument is reflected at the center line. If she moves slightly to the left, she sees the monument, and if she moves the other way she sees a reflection of the flag opposite the memorial. Both the monument and the flag seem like arrogant gestures, like the country giving the finger to the dead boys, flung in this hole in the ground. Sam doesn’t understand what she is feeling, but it is something so strong, it is like a tornado moving in her, something massive and overpowering. It feels like giving birth to this wall.’’—From the novel “In Country’’ by Bobbie Ann Mason (HarperPerennial, 1985).
* Washington, D.C., general site: www.washdc.org/index.html
* The Pentagon: www.defenselink.mil/pubs/pentagon
* Vietnam Veterans Memorial: grunt.space.swri.edu/thewall.htm
* Searching names on The Wall: grunt.space.swri.edu/thewall/thewallm.html
* Lafayette Park peace vigil: http://prop1.org/