Washington DC, Part 1: Our Nation’s History, Etched in Stone

Last Friday night, in giddy anticipation of a weekend of inaugural festivities (and feeling thankful to live in a country where a state’s voters can choose to change laws they believe don’t make sense) I stood before our floodlit Capitol building and gazed proudly at that marzipan dome glittering in the cold night sky. Our flag whipped its red, white, and blue — a flapping window of color in the center. I clouded the view with my breath and strode right to our Capitol’s base, marveling at both how lonely and how accessible it was.

Under a bright full moon that seemed to draw even not-so-wise men to this exciting time and spot, I thought to myself, “the greatest Capitol for the greatest nation.” Gazing at this floodlit dome, so bright and crisp against the black night sky, I could overlook the foibles of our present Congress and celebrate the greatness of American government.

Our Capitol building felt like a part of me. I considered how the planners of 9/11 targeted our commercial and military centers (the World Trade Center and Pentagon, with another plane heading for the White House) rather than our Capitol. But in retrospect, hitting this building might have hit us, even more, in our collective soul. We are the great nation that we are because of what our founding fathers designed for us — our government.

A chilly pilgrimage to our nation’s capital. (All photos by Trish Feaster, www.thetravelphile.com)

To get into the right frame of mind for the inauguration, my partner Trish and I walked in the bitter cold through a string of memorials. Like a four-course dinner of patriotism, we savored memorials to Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Abraham Lincoln.

The memorials that celebrate great Americans seem at the same time to celebrate the value and necessity of good and engaged government. Although stiff with the cold, we got caught up in each. I’m not sure if it was just my state of mind, but I actually read each of the inscriptions at each monument. Doing so, I meditated on how great men combine great wisdom and timeless thoughts with the tumult of their day to leave our nation stronger than when they found it. And their ideas, deservedly carved in stone, should live on. I also wondered how many great words from leaders in our generation will be carved into the stone of future monuments.

The Jefferson Memorial created the ambience of an ancient temple — with the author of our Declaration of Independence standing like a god in the center. After reading 360 degrees of his chiseled words, I thought it’s understandable that as a nation, we’d have an urge to deify Jefferson.

Nearby, a fallen arch, like a 450-foot-long Nike swoosh filled with inspirational quotes, cradled the towering white statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. It provided a space where people of all colors gather to remember and be thankful for progress — hard-fought, well-earned, and in need of vigilant defense. Seeing Black Americans pay tribute to MLK was thought-provoking for a person as white as me. I wanted to let them know I’m with them, but I didn’t feel worthy. It was their fight and struggle and victory. Still, this monument seems to help us all celebrate gains in civil liberties together. Perhaps that was part of the designer’s intent.

MLK, who embodied the “think globally, act locally” M.O., declared: “If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.”

Nearby, as if on the same team as MLK, Lincoln sat tall and soft-spoken… small but central in a giant stone temple. While he seemed dwarfed by the temple, it sat upon him as if an oversized hat of justice — declaring that, while he was only a mortal, he championed a great cause. Here and throughout official Washington, it seems much is about the Civil War and slavery and emancipation.

The Roosevelt Monument melds nature — with its rough stones, landscaping, sturdy trees, and gushing water — and the struggles of a society with high ideals for its people. It seemed brilliantly fitting for FDR. The circa-1930s figures of dignified workers and symbols of the lofty ideals of the age reminded me that the social battles being waged within our country today are nothing new. The inspirational words of FDR are timeless and, I believe, worth reviewing for caring Americans. I didn’t realize how much my political philosophy came from his until I read those inscriptions. One of my favorites: “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.”

Finishing with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, I was inspired to buy a book on Washington memorials to better appreciate the designs and to re-read every inscription of each memorial. I’d love to write a guidebook to or make a TV show on Washington DC…but it’s not Europe. One thing I’d strongly recommend: Do the monuments at night and read the inscriptions — all of them. (And, especially welcome if really cold, the Jefferson Memorial offers a warm indoor exhibit with a WC that’s open nightly until 11 p.m.)

Later, inspired by our nighttime monuments walk and all the inaugural festivities, we dropped in on the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. With artifacts ranging from Washington’s collapsible telescope and compact little battlefield dining set (with nesting plates and pans) to Dorothy’s sparkling ruby slippers, it tells the story of America. My highlight: the tattered flag that inspired “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Even with much of it snipped away over the ages as souvenirs, it’s still about half the size of a tennis court. Standing between the flag and Francis Scott Key’s original handwritten lyrics got me singing our anthem…for the rest of the day.