Washington D.C. is a one trick town. Take away the politicians and their coterie of aides and what do you have left. Lawyers and lobbyists, that is what you have left. According to a man we met on the street (and DC statistics) one in twelve DC residents is a lawyer and there are 12,200 lobbyists. The only good news being this is down 300 from 20 years ago. And all this from a population of 690,000 in 2020. Of course, this is all a distraction from the wonderful city that Washington D.C. really is.
We chatted with the lovely gentleman and his wife for 15 minutes whilst waiting for a bus to Georgetown. He explained he was a Government worker now retired who had been in DC since the early sixties. His suggestion that their straying dobermann puppy at the time had seen them having a drink with the Kennedys and others rang less true given their refined manner, obvious intelligence and graciousness. We didn’t believe a word of it and I left with the feeling we had just had a wonderful conversation with a couple of some note. This encounter put Washington into some perspective. Its brashness and pace is countered by a group of its citizens who have that air of confidence tempered with humility that defines good people. Not so its drivers. A ruder and more aggressive mob I have not come across. Pedestrian crossings may as well not exist and the concept of an orange light before a red has certainly not sunk in here. If you slow a little to allow a car to enter the traffic you are met with a chorus of horn blasts that continue until you are on your way again. It is nightmarish and one can only wonder at the mindset or perhaps stress levels of Washington’s commuters. Thank God for the Metro system which is clean, inexpensive, often and on time.
But the beauty of Washington for the tourist is its history and the wonderful monuments, galleries and buildings that contain it. Add these to the parklands and The National Mall which surround them and you have a classy city that is a joy to explore. We started at The Capitol Building, the iconic building at the eastern end of the National Mall. The Capitol is where the US Senate and House of Representatives, collectively Congress, meet and is a treasure trove of US history. The building itself is a work of art with its distinctive white dome and columns. We took a public tour (free) which lasted 30 minutes plus a 20-minute film. There are some 60 rooms in the building but the interesting stuff is in the old rooms where the Senate and House used to sit before becoming too big. Paintings of Columbus landing, pioneers forging a new life and meetings between the settlers and the indigenous Indians abound the walls. An enormous fresco goes around the inside of the dome depicting scenes from the Mayflower landing to the completion of the building in 1824. The design of Dr William Thornton, a Scottish physician of all people, was approved in 1793 by then President George Washington (who died in 1799 and missed the finish) since when it has been built, burnt (those bloody Brits), rebuilt, extended and stormed. It is a truly magnificent piece of architecture and well worth the time to explore.
Washington D.C. is itself a designer city. The French engineer Pierre L’Enfant was commissioned in 1790 following the passing of the Residence Act to create a federal district alongside the Potomac River as the nation’s capital (at the time Philadelphia). It is not part of a state, nor a state itself to keep things neutral (at the time only 13 states made up the union). This may explain the numerous posters and bumper stickers proclaiming “Taxation without Representation” seen around the city. The downtown streets are wide and easily navigated. The National Mall and Memorial Parks which run from downtown are hard to beat (eat your heart out Champs Elysees). We spent a day biking around The Mall and the Tidal Basin exploring the Lincoln Memorial, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial and its two large black granite walls carved with the names of all the war dead and the Washington Monument. This obelisk shaped memorial completed in 1884 honours the first President of the US and at 555 feet was the highest structure in the world at the time and is still the highest stone structure. Again it is an architectural masterpiece held together by the structure and weight of the granite stones it is built from. We took the lift inside (a modern addition and again free) to the top for a unique view of the surrounding city. My favourite though was the memorial to Martin Luther King Jr where one “Passes through the Mountain of Despair to the Stone of Hope” – a magnificent statue of the great man himself carved by the Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin. The quote of course is from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Then it was off to The White House. Its relative smallness tucked away as it is amongst the impressive stone government buildings of downtown D.C. belies its importance. It is certainly white and the grassy parkland front and back adds to its attractiveness. There is again that feeling that you are near a seat of power – also a little enhanced by the numerous and impressive secret service personnel who wander quite casually about with equally impressive firearms across their chests. I have had one encounter with one of these at the UN building in New York when he swung around and unlocked his safety catch with a loud click as we were imploring to be allowed in near closing time. Never again. But it all seems good natured and the soldiers smile politely as they make their silent way amongst the tourists. You cannot get close to the President’s home and tours which can be arranged through your embassy are off at the current time. Still there was a feeling of “presence” and more so when someone pointed out we were standing on the Ellipse where a certain ex-president spat forth his lies and bile early on January sixth 2020.
We stayed in the Hotel Sonesta (recommended) in Dupont Circle (recommended) a half hour walk and an easy metro ride to downtown and close to Georgetown and embassy row. Georgetown is the leafy high-end suburb of red cobbled sidewalks and beautiful row houses. Home to the wealthy and many famous politicians over the years it is also a favoured restaurant and shopping district alongside the river. We walked its shady streets and visited the breathtaking Georgetown University stopping only to admire the redbrick former home of John and Jackie Kennedy and a host of other houses where extraordinary historic events occurred. We could have been in Hampstead, London. In fact downtown DC could easily have been a melding of London and Paris (see Pierre LEnfant – Engineer).
Lastly there is Arlington National Cemetery. But definitely not least. Laid out on the side of the grounds of Arlington House, the estate of Mary Lee, grand-daughter of Martha Washington (George’s wife) and the wife of Robert E. Lee, the Civil War general who led the Confederate Army. Arlington is the national military cemetery of 639 acres and home to over 400,000 war dead beginning from the American Civil War. It is a memorial in itself with its lines of marked graves rolling down the grassy slopes amongst the oaks and cottonwoods. It is very easy to reflect on the hopelessness of war and its true victims as one wanders the gravesites and despairs at the thousands of young lives sacrificed at the altar of the demagogues, criminals and sociopaths who ruled our world – and of course still do. Bastards, every one of them.
Arlington Scenes – A Funeral, Arlington House and Washington Memorial
Would I return to Washington D.C.? Probably not. Did it leave an impression on me? Oh yes. This city has that aura of power and it is hard to shake the idea that you are walking in the political centre of the modern world. It is in the air. In the sound of the sirens of the police cars as they scream along the boulevards front and back of the black Chevy Suburbans carrying the great and the good to the White House or the Capitol. It is in the enormous stone buildings that line the streets and parks and in the names that rebound off its walls. Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington, Roosevelt, Truman, Franklin, Hamilton, Edison, Pauling. Names that shaped America and the modern world. I felt that to come to Washington was to understand this simple fact. America is very good at honouring its past. Regrettably it is not so good at learning the lessons from it.