I happened across an issue of The Weekly Standard. This particular issue was dated August 15-22nd. On the cover was a caricature of a family standing on a very desolate National Mall in our Nation’s Capitol. It caught my attention because I’ve been a visitor to the mall and some surrounding locations a few times.
The author, Andrew Ferguson, goes on to describe his concern over his perceived decay of the Capitol, especially the National Mall area because of policy, building memorials and of course, politics. The article did bring back a recent visit to the mall.
In March of 2004, I was invited to testify at a Senate hearing on continued funding of of after school care for at risk kids. I flew into DC on a red eye that required me to spend about 3 hours at Chicago Midway Airport on my way from Minneapolis to DC. My reward for a late flight to Reagan National Airport, a cab driver that didn’t know where my hotel was located right downtown in DC, was an unusually warm and clear spring day. The morning allowed a number of us the opportunity walk the downtown area in the early morning when the air is still crisp and our fellow pedestrians still had some spring in their step, despite the multitude of cell phone users already making appointments and brokering deals.
We met with a few people for some prep work over breakfast at the Dirksen Office Building and then we went up a few floors and presented our case. If was quite an experience.
The best part of the trip was still to come. We had a couple hours between meetings. One of the volunteers offered to drive a few of us around for a tour. That’s where I met Albert Einstein.
Someplace near a government building, near Potomac Park, across the street from the Vietnam Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial is a small sunken garden. In the middle of that garden is a giant statue of Albert Einstein. It is sculpted with metal that looks like a child’s work with putty. It is rough but the face of Einstein is unmistakable….the almost child-like grin hidden below the giant moustache, the twinkle in the eye saying that the real joke was on all of us. I was told this was our “guide’s” favorite place. Kids like to come here and sit on Einstein’s lap.
It was a bit surreal…here I sat in a suit and tie, face to face with a man who probably had more to do with significant scientific change in our world as anyone: unassuming, and simple in his appearance and demeanor…in a city full of symbols, power and high-stakes bravado. The location was hidden from the bustling street about 100 feet away from us…quiet….cool…the rustling leaves around us making the only sound. One could imagine Einstein quietly speaking in his hard accent…what’s the rush…enjoy the day.
We walked across the street to the Vietnam Memorial. There are too many names of people I know on that wall. People took etchings of names. There was a man with his family there who was quietly sobbing, his family comforting him as he made a rubbing of a name carved on the wall. Standing there, with the breeze blowing slightly, again the pace slowed, the noise outside the confines of the memorial died down and time stopped for a while as I remembered faces, places and events connected to names I recognized on the wall from a very long time ago. It was a difficult place to be.
We walked for a bit to the Lincoln Memorial. This is one of my favorite places. Every time I come to this place I am impressed with the simplicity of the memorial and the statement it makes. I found the place that The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King stood on the steps when he delivered his know famous speech. Close your eyes and imagine you are back 40 years ago and listening to the man who changed a society with a very simple phrase. The background noises dim and time slows again. I suspect that the designers of this memorial purposely placed it so that as you stand there, Lincoln, his eyes seemingly staring down at you saying….”do the right thing.” grabs your attention.
We went on to Union Station to have lunch. I hadn’t been there before and I found it a bit humorous as I walked the now food court, information center and movie theatre complex. It occurred to me that among the movies that had scenes filmed in that place was one entitled “Mr Smith Goes To Washington.”
As I walked the station, I couldn’t resist a chuckle between the similarities between the events that bought both Mr. Smiths to Washington many years apart. Both of us were headed to the senate chambers but for different reasons, I just hoped my debut would be less of a disaster than the first Mr. Smith’s. I’m sure that many of you who know me would be confident that I could hold my own during a filibuster as did James Stewart in the movie. If you haven’t seen the movie, go rent it and you will figure out what I’m talking about.
During my time in DC, I did get a tour of the Capitol. Despite the security measures, it is still a bit awe-inspiring. A later walk that evening from a local office to an eating establishment ended the day well with a good Italian meal.
The following month, I returned to the area for three months to attend the FBI National Academy. I was fortunate to have some time to return to DC and visit other locations.
Despite Mr. Ferguson’s concern (Remember way back at the beginning?), I think the Washington DC National Mall and its places to visit are alive and well. The diversity of the memorials and places located there comprise our diverse background. The spirit is still there, despite the best efforts to barricade, hide and secure it.