We’re not American, but you can’t watch television, read books, see movies without recognising and being struck by the symbolism of the various buildings scattered about the National Mall: the Capitol at one end, Lincoln Memorial at the other and the White House off from the centre.
We hired bikes this morning and spent the day riding about the Mall. It’s actually a great place to ride, being flat as a pancake and riddled with off-road paths. There are bike racks by most of the sights and, while the National Mall lacks a National Food Court, there are little kiosks selling cold water.
Today was Columbus Day and so a holiday here in DC. We look upon Columbus as an old acquaintance – we saw his purported birthplace in Corsica, the huge monument to him in Barcelona and his burial place in Seville. There was also a fair bit of discussion of his achievements in Iceland and Norway – basically pointing out that the Vikings got there first. And that’s the thing with Columbus: he didn’t discover America, didn’t land on the mainland, didn’t even know where he was – and he wasn’t a very nice person.
The idea of celebrating Columbus’ achievements is all about the accepted facade and doesn’t bear up to too much examination. That’s not a bad analogy to the amazing monumental buildings on the Mall. It really is a great grouping of buildings making an impressive heart to the nation and a wonderful symbol of democracy. Washington has a law that no building can be higher than the width of the street it is on plus 20 feet and the result is that the monumental buildings are not dwarfed by skyscrapers as in other cities. The fact the buildings are a gleaming white is a nice bit of symbolism that also makes them simply look great against the backdrop of a blue sky. And, honestly, you can’t be a West Wing fan without some of the drama and grandeur of the American government resonating.
But it doesn’t take much to see a contrast between the monuments and some of the reality. We described Watergate to the boys over dinner last night, and checking afterwards that we’d described it correctly revealed it was even more tawdry than we’d thought. I had no idea that the Congressional investigations into the President’s powers revealed that successive administrations had secretly declared an open-ended state of emergency since 1950. More recently there’s Guantanamo Bay and a range of other extra-legal actions; the increasing influence of special interest groups. Standing in the Lincoln Memorial you have to wonder what he and Washington would think of te state of democracy today.
But on a sunny Autumn day the icons of America gleam and make it feel like you’re in a film set. There’s that frisson of excitement at being at the heart of the most powerful nation on Earth. That frisson leapt to fever-pitch when, as we rode past the Washington Monument, Marine One, the President’s helicopter, peeled off from its escorts and thundered just over our heads to land on the Whitehouse lawn. Buzzed by Obama, now that’s cool.