Innocents abroad in the Imperial City

(Washington, D.C.)  From the first panoramic overview of Washington during the descent into Reagan National Airport one is reminded of how varied are the ways in which we can look at and think about the Great City and the nation of which it is the Capital.

Unlike its’ older worldwide counterparts Washington is unique in that it was expressly created to be a national capital, and for many years remained empty of residents while the seat of government was being constructed.

As late as 1939 journalist David Brinkley could describe Washington as a “sleepy Southern town dozing in the scorching summer heat “. The British Foreign Office until World War II listed Washington as a “tropical hardship post”, and routinely assigned incompetents there as an inducement to retirement.  Not surprisingly one of the honorees in the Capitol’s National Statuary Hall is the man who gave the world modern air conditioning, an innovation that would transform not only Washington but the entire Southern United States.

In keeping with the vision of its designer Pierre L’Enfant Washington was constructed on a truly grand scale.  The streets are wide, the blocks long, and the buildings immense.  Marble abounds and is sculptured in the Classical style intended to recall the glories of ancient Greece and Rome.  One can readily imagine provincial visitors to Imperial Rome gazing upon that city’s magnificence with awe akin to that of first-time visitors to Washington.

Our five day visit surrounds the Fourth of July- the nation’s 237th Birthday.  Among other things it compasses five Museums, two cathedrals, two Memorials, the Capitol, and a few good friends and good restaurants.

The museums are all part of the remarkable Smithsonian Complex which concentrates in a relatively compact area some of the world’s greatest collections ranging across the fields of Art, History, Natural History, and Science.  From the ever popular Air and Space Museum (the world’s third most visited museum) to my own favorite- the National Portrait Gallery- the Smithsonian is truly a National Treasure.

Throughout the centuries cathedrals have been settings for great music and much history. Sunday Mass at St. Matthew’s Cathedral recalls the mournful personal memory of President Kennedy’s funeral there in 1963.  In a similar vein attendance at the National Cathedral’s traditional Fourth of July Concert recalls for many the funeral of President Reagan forty-one years later.

Among those performing at the Holiday Concert are the Navy Band Sea Chanters- the official chorus of the United States Navy- who performed at President Reagan’s funeral and also three years earlier for the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance held at the National Cathedral following the events of 9/11.

A highlight of the Concert was the Sea Chanters and the Washington Symphonic Brass impressively backed by the 189 ranks and 10,647 pipes of the Cathedral’s magnificent organ joining nearly 3,000 attendees who stood to sing the National anthem as well as America the Beautiful, and the Battle Hymn of the Republic.  To call this moment moving would be an understatement.

Washington abounds in Memorials, particularly War Memorials ranging from the very large (e.g. WW II) to the very small (e.g. Catholic Nuns who served as nurses in WW I).  It seems almost every Square and Circle has a mounted Union General of greater or lesser renown (their Confederate counterparts can be found a bit further South in Richmond).

Among the better known war memorials the most compelling is the Korean.  It is ironic that the “Forgotten War” has the most memorable memorial.  A further irony is that of the five wars we have fought since 1945 only Korea left in its’ wake an unambiguously free, prosperous, and grateful nation.

The nineteen larger than life soldiers at the Memorial’s center are best viewed at dusk which conveys a haunting quality to the scene.  The faces are unsmiling reflecting a mixture of fatigue and dogged determination.  All wear Ponchos evocative of the brutal weather- from howling snowstorms to freezing rain- in which the war was mostly fought.  The ghostly Band of Brothers moves towards an American Flag beneath which is an inscription that could apply to All the American Soldiers of the last one hundred years who we sent across the Seas.

It Honors those:

“Who answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met ……….FREEDOM IS NOT FREE”

If the surest mark of a great monument is that people feel drawn to visit it again and again, then there is no greater monument in Washington or perhaps anywhere than the Lincoln Memorial.  The simple grandeur of the structure, the soaring eloquence of the two greatest orations in our history, and the brooding presence of the Great Emancipator all convey a sense of awe and reverence.

As the sun sets we walk to the back of the Memorial, look across the Potomac to Arlington National Cemetery and reflect: Lincoln knew that Freedom is not Free; those at rest across the river knew; and we the living must never forget.

William Moloney’s columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Denver Post, and Human Events.

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