- Historic Sites
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
Three years ago we returned, and while much about American life has gone downhill in the intervening time, I think it is fair to say that Washington has become a far better city than it was. There is more variety, more going on besides politics and government, more music, better restaurants, more theater. (The addition of Kennedy Center has made a tremendous difference.) There are more resident composers, painters, film makers, and writers. Smithsonian, The Washingtonian, and The Wilson Quarterly have been added to the magazines published here (which include National Geographic, The New Republic, and U.S. News & World Report). “All Things Considered,” radio at its best to my mind, is produced here by National Public Radio, and WETA, Washington’s public television station, produces “The McNeil-Lehrer Report,” “Washington Week in Review,” and “Smithsonian World,” the project which, with my work on Truman, has brought me back again after twenty years.
Much is going on in history and biography. The historian Marcus Cunliffe, who teaches at George Washington University, has two books in progress, one on the role of private property in American life, another on republicanism with a small r. The biographers Edmund and Sylvia Morris keep an apartment a block from the Library of Congress; he is working on volume two of his life of Theodore Roosevelt and gathering material for his future biography of Ronald Reagan; she is writing the life of Clare Boothe Luce. Rudy Abramson of the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times is doing a biography of W. Averell Harriman. Albert Eisele, author of a superb study of the intertwining careers of two old Washington hands, Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy, called Almost to the Presidency, is writing the life of the late Cardinal Gushing. And Daniel J. Boorstin is working on a sequel to The Discoverers, his opus on the human quest to understand the world. His subject now is human creativity down through history, and he is up and at it every morning before dawn, for two or three hours, before going to his official duties as the Librarian of Congress.
Not everyone, I realize, cares for Washington as I do. “Neither Rome nor home,” somebody once said. New Yorkers can be particularly critical, impatient with the pace, annoyed by the limits of the morning paper. Government buildings have a way of depressing many visitors, including some of my own family. I remember a woman from the Boston Globe who wrote at length about what a huge bore it all is. A one-industry town was her theme, which wasn’t exactly new or true, not any longer.
There is no local beer, let alone a home baseball team, and the tap water tastes pretty bad until you get accustomed to it. The cost of living is high, parking is a constant headache, the cab drivers may be the worst on earth.
And of course there is more than one Washington. There is lawyer-corporate Washington in the sleek glass boxes along Connecticut Avenue, black Washington, student Washington, journalist Washington.
What I’m drawn to and moved by is historical Washington, or rather the presence of history almost anywhere you turn. History is the great pull of the place for me. Indeed, it is hard for me to imagine anyone with a sense of history not being moved. No city in the country keeps and commemorates history as this one does. It insists we remember, with statues and plaques and memorials and words carved in stone, with libraries, archives, museums, and any number of marvelous old houses besides the one where Woodrow Wilson lived.
Blair House, catty-cornered to the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue, is a good example. The morning of April 18, 1861, inside its small front parlor, Robert E. Lee sat with Francis P. Blair, Sr., who, speaking for Abraham Lincoln, offered Lee command of the Union Army. I never walk by there without thinking of this—and of the historians who dismiss the role of personality in history, the reverberations of a single yes or no.
Blair House, now being refurbished, was built in 1824 and has been owned by the government since World War II, when, the story goes, Eleanor Roosevelt found Winston Churchill pacing the upstairs hall at the White House in his night-shirt. She decided the time had come for some other kind of accommodation for presidential guests. Later, the house served as quarters for the President himself, President Harry Truman, while the White House was being restored.
One autumn afternoon, right where you walk by Blair House, the Secret Service and the White House Police shot it out with two Puerto Rican Nationalists who tried to storm the front door and kill Truman. Truman, who was upstairs taking a nap in his underwear, ran to the window to see what the commotion was about. One assassin was dead on the front steps, a bullet through the brain. Pvt. Leslie Coffelt of the White House Police, who had been hit several times, died later. On the little iron fence in front of the house a plaque commemorates his heroism.