Mid-day I arrived in Washington, D. C., and I thought of my first visit in 1990 when I was sixteen.
I was traveling with the Akers family; their eldest son Rob was my best friend, even though they had moved to Dawson Springs, Kentucky. Bob, the father and a Pentecostal Holiness pastor, was thrilled to show me the city, knowing my fascination with government, politics, and American history. We stayed in the suburbs and traveled in my metro, so Bob had us stop at Smithsonian station and emerge into the middle of the Mall. I was giddy with excitement. That day I took six rolls of film as we walked all over the city.
1990 was a vastly different era in Washington--far less security for one thing. You visited the White House by getting tickets that morning and then going on a tour. You could wander freely into and around the Capitol. On that trip, when we separated to do different things, I sat in the Senate for three hours watching the debate. Howard Metzenbaum's speaking notes were in such a big font that I could read them from the gallery.
I'm on my way to Baltimore for the United Church of Christ's General Synod. I decided to spend two days in D. C. just wandering around and catching up with friends. None of those were free today, so I had the afternoon and evening to myself. So I dropped the luggage at the Tabard Inn--where I'm staying near many embassies and the HRC national headquarters--ate lunch and had a chat with an Egyptian about the weather in his country and in Nebraska, and then I began walking down Connecticut Avenue. I've got a pretty good map of Washington in my head.
I've only been in D. C. three other times--that tourist trip with the Akers in 1990, with the United States Senate Youth Program in 1992, and part of a day in 2011 with Rob Howard when we saw many of the new monuments and memorials on the Mall after a trip in the region visiting battlefields and before flying out. The reason I have a pretty good map of the city in my head is because as a kid I puzzled over maps. When I was here in '92 with the Senate Youth Program--a group of politics geeks--my fellows were amazed by my knowledge of the city, based not on experience but study of maps and history.
Heading down Connecticut I soon passed the Mayflower Hotel (much in the news a few weeks ago when Jeff Sessions testified before the Senate). I stayed there for a week with the Senate Youth Program, so I have fond memories. That program is funded by the Hearst Foundation and takes two kids from every state each year and brings them for a week of public policy engagement. That week I saw President Bush, heard Colin Powell and Antonin Scalia speak, met with my Senators, had lunch with the ambassador in charge of protocol in the State Department dining rooms, and dined with diplomats from Russia at the Mayflower where we talked about the dramatic changes occurring since the Soviet Union's demise only five weeks before. As I said, fond memories.
I made my way past Saint-Gaudens masterful statue of Admiral Farragut and St. John's Church, which I attended one Sunday morning in 92, fortunately during a service where they explained all the elements of the liturgy, given that as a Southern Baptist I was not familiar.
Then to Lafayette Square. I had enjoyed the Square a quarter century ago and wanted to see it again. Unfortunately much of it was closed off to construction. In 1990 I had enjoyed the statue of Kosciuzko, so admired it again. I believe there is a powerful statement in this park at the heart of our capital which honors the foreigners who helped us win our liberty. Unfortunately the genocidal bastard Andrew Jackson has a statue in the center of the park.
As I approached the White House, I struggled to refrain from crying. The patriotic values that have mattered to me since childhood are under assault by the current, vile occupant.
The last time I stood in this spot, Pennsylvania Avenue was a busy street. Now there is so much more security in this city. It makes it uglier, all the barriers.
As I rounded the Treasury and headed toward the Mall, of course I admired the Washington Monument and then was shocked by how stunning the new National Museum of African American History and Culture is. I was unable to reserve tickets for this trip, though I'm hopeful that I can get day of tickets tomorrow. Knock on wood.
I decided to wile away my time visiting museum I hadn't seen in a quarter century.
In the National Museum of American History I enjoyed seeing artifacts of American life, though overhearing conversations was dispiriting. There was the woman who, looking at the chairs of Archie and Edith Bunker said, "I don't know who they are." Or the child with her family who said "A wedding cake topper" which happened to be one of two men. A parent said, "Don't look at that." Ugh.
I skipped the Natural History Museum, chatted with a cute volunteer from the HRC discussing the Equality Act, and walked through the Sculpture Garden to visit the National Archives. I thought it would be reassuring in this era of national catastrophe. When I last visited you walked up the steps into the front doors and saw the documents in the rotunda. Now, there is an entrance through the basement and lots of 0ther exhibits. When I saw the very long line through turnstiles to see the documents, I decided to pass. I have seen them before, but I did purchase a cute t-shirt for Sebastian in the gift shop.
I wandered through the National Gallery of Art, skipping the exhibits of non-American art and relishing my favourites in the Hudson River School (favourites despite James McClendon's accurate theological critique of them). When I walked through in 1992 with a couple of other Senate Youthers (one from Massachusetts, I remember, but don't remember who the other was), it was my first exhibit to a serious art museum. I was a Philistine. Today I thought of my 17 year old self and giggled.
The cast of Saint-Gaudens' Robert Gould Shaw Memorial confirms in my mind that it is the greatest of American sculptures--and I've never seen the actual thing in person.
I enjoyed the East Building more than I expected, maybe for the first time finding some connection with the paintings of the mid-twentieth century as we too experience the threat of nihilism.
I admired a Helen Frankenthaler painting I've used in my teaching in my Ethics class (as part of an exercise illustrating an Iris Murdoch essay on The Good) and thrilled to encounter Wassily Kandinsky's Improvisation 31 (Sea Battle). I've owned a print of that painting since 1996 and it currently hangs in Sebastian's room. I'd never seen the original. It is marvelous.
I wanted to see the Grant Memorial again, as I had admired it so in 1990, but much of it was blocked off, so I only skirted the reflecting pool adjacent to it. I was thrilled that my memory still worked, as I saw a statue ahead and thought, "I think that's Garfield." It was.
The museums were now closing, so I wandered through the National Garden and then skirted the National Museum of the Native American (I plan to visit it tomorrow, as I've never been) on my way to the L'Enfant Plaza Metro stop. I noticed a community garden across the street from the Air & Space Museum and enjoyed the juxtaposition.
I returned to my room at the inn and cooled off before Skyping with my family. The bookshelf in the room included some odd, old texts, including the American Rose Annual 1949 where I learned of Dr. J. Horace McFarland "Rare are the international figures that can compare in world importance to this great American rosarian." What praise, given that it was the age of Churchill, Gandhi, and Einstein.
After a refreshing shower I had tapas for dinner, including delicious squid. And now I'm sitting in the lounge of the inn drinking rye whiskey and writing.