I Love Washington
A noted historian’s very personal tour of the city where so much of the American past took shape—with excursions into institutions famous and obscure, the archives that are the nation’s memory, and the haunts of some noble ghosts
April/May 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 3
The only one of our Presidents who retired to Washington after leaving office was Woodrow Wilson, and for all his celebrated professorial background he certainly did it in style. Ten of his friends chipped in ten thousand dollars each to cover most of the cost of a house of twenty-two rooms on S Street, just off Embassy Row. S Street was quiet and sedate then and it remains so. But once, on Armistice Day 1923, twenty thousand people came to cheer Wilson. They filled the street for five blocks. I have seen the photographs. He came out finally, tentatively, for his last public appearance. He stood in the doorway while they cheered and sang, a pallid, frail old figure wrapped up in a heavy coat, Edith Boiling Wilson at his side, the vibrant, assertive second wife, who, many said, secretly ran the country after his stroke.
I think of her when I pass by. I wonder if, in fact, she was the first woman to be President. And I think about the crowds on that long-gone November day, in that incredibly different world of 1923. What was in their minds, I wonder, as they looked at their former commander in chief? What did they feel for that old man? Are some still alive who were there and remember? Probably so.
“I am not one of those that have the least anxiety about the triumph of the principles I have stood for,” Wilson said in a brief speech. A headline in The New York Times the same day was spread across three columns: HITLER FORCES RALLYING NEAR MUNICH.
In many ways it is our most civilized city; the scale seems right, more humane than other places.
I pass the Wilson house only now and then. The way to see Washington is on foot, and I like to vary my route. Early mornings are the best time, before the traffic takes over. The past seems closer then. The imagination takes off.
I try to keep a steady pace. Harry Truman said that for a walk to do you any good, you ought to move along as though you mean it. As a captain in Woodrow Wilson’s war he learned a military pace of 120 steps a minute. I try, for the exercise, but also because I am writing a book about Truman and,who can say, maybe starting my mornings as he did will help. In an hour you can cover a lot of ground.
Washington is a wonderful city. The scale seems right, more humane than other places. I like all the white marble and green trees, the ideals celebrated by the great monuments and memorials. I like the climate, the slow shift of the seasons here. Spring, so Southern in feeling, comes early and the long, sweet autumns can last into December. Summers are murder, equatorial—no question; the compensation is that Congress adjourns, the city empties out, eases off. Winter evenings in Georgetown with the snow falling and the lights just coming on are as beautiful as any I’ve known.
I like the elegant old landmark hotels—the Willard, now restored to its former glory, the Mayflower, with its long, glittering, palm-lined lobby, the Hay-Adams on Lafayette Square, overlooking the White House. And Massachusetts Avenue, as you drive down past the British Embassy and over Rock Creek Park, past the Mosque and around Sheridan Circle. This is an avenue in the grand tradition, befitting a world capital.
The presence of the National Gallery, it seems to me, would be reason enough in itself to wish to live here.
In many ways it is our most civilized city. It accommodates its river, accommodates trees and grass, makes room for nature as other cities don’t. There are parks everywhere and two great, unspoiled, green corridors running beside the Potomac and out Rock Creek where Theodore Roosevelt liked to take his rough cross-country walks. There is no more beautiful entrance to any of our cities than the George Washington Parkway, which comes sweeping down the Virginia side of the Potomac. The views of the river gorge are hardly changed from Jefferson’s time. Across the river, on the towpath of the old C&O Canal, you can start at Georgetown and walk for miles with never a sense of being in a city. You can walk right out of town, ten, twenty, fifty miles if you like, more, all the way to Harpers Ferry where you can pick up the Appalachian Trail going north or south.
Some mornings along the towpath it is as if you are walking through a Monet. Blue herons stalk the water. You see deer prints. Once, in Glover Park, in the heart of the city, I saw a red fox. He stopped right in front of me, not more than thirty feet down the path, and waited a count or two before vanishing into the woods, as if giving me time to look him over, as if he wanted me never to wonder whether my eyes had played tricks.
Even the famous National Zoo is a “zoological park,” a place to walk, as specifically intended in the original plan by Frederick Law Olmsted.