- 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
But much more of what I feel about the city comes from books I have loved. The story of the Brain Trusters and their piano, for example, is from a collection of reminiscences edited by Katie Louchheim called The Making of the New Deal. If the Wilson house stirs a chain of thoughts on my early morning ventures, it is mainly because of Gene Smith’s When the Cheering Stopped.
I am never in the National Portrait Gallery, once the Patent Office building, that I don’t think of Walt Whitman’s account in Speciman Days of how the wounded and dying men from Bull Run and Fredericksburg were crowded among the glass display cases for the patent models. I can’t pass the Capitol as a new day is about to begin without thinking of how, in The Path to Power, Robert A. Caro describes young Lyndon Johnson arriving for work:
“But when he turned the corner at the end of that street, suddenly before him, at the top of a long, gentle hill, would be not brick but marble, a great shadowy mass of marble—marble columns and marble arches and marble parapets, and a long marble balustrade high against the sky. Veering along a path to the left, he would come up on Capitol Hill and around the corner of the Capitol, and the marble of the eastern facade, already caught by the early morning sun, would be gleaming, brilliant, almost dazzling.…And as Lyndon Johnson came up Capitol Hill in the morning, he would be running.”
Like millions of readers, my view of the Senate and its protagonists has been forever colored by Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent. Lafayette Square, for all its obvious charms, means ever so much more because I have read the Henry Adams novel Democracy.
To read Louis J. Halle, Jr.’s beautiful Spring in Washington is to have your eyes and spirit opened to a world that has nothing to do with government people or official transactions or much of anything connected with the human hive of Washington. Written in the last year of World War II, when the city’s sense of its own importance had reached a new high and the author himself was serving as an official at the State Department, the book is an informal, philosophical guide to the local natural history. It is a small classic that is still in print after forty years. “I undertook to be monitor of the Washington seasons, when the government was not looking,” the author writes modestly by way of introduction.
Sometimes when I go looking for places that figure in favorite books, the effect has considerably more to do with what I have read than what remains to be seen. In 'Specimen Days' Whitman writes of standing at Vermont Avenue and L Street on August mornings and seeing Lincoln ride by on his way in from Soldier’s Home, his summer quarters. Lincoln, dressed in plain black “somewhat rusty and dusty,” was on a “good-sized, easy-going gray horse” and looked “about as ordinary” as the commonest man. “I see very plainly ABRAHAM LINCOLN’S dark brown face, with the deep-cut lines, the eyes, always to me with a deep latent sadness in the expression,” writes Whitman. “We have got so that we exchange bows, and very cordial ones.” A lieutenant with yellow straps was at Lincoln’s side. The rest of the cavalry escort followed, two by two, thirty men in yellow-striped jackets, their sabers drawn, everyone moving at a slow trot.
On summer evenings, my office day over, we would walk around the Tidal Basin, the baby riding in a carriage.
Waiting for the light to change on the same corner, on a thoroughly present-day August morning, standing on the same corner, waiting for the light to change, I look in vain for Whitman’s Washington. The early traffic grinds by toward Lafayette Square. The buildings around, all recent and nondescript, include banks and offices and something called the Yummy Yogurt Feastery. Across the street, rearing above the tops of the cars, is a huge abstract sculpture made of steel. No signs of those other times. No sign of the man on the easygoing gray horse. … And yet, it happened here . This is no ordinary corner, can never be. “The sabers and the accoutrements clank,” Whitman says, “and the entirely unornamental cortége as it trots toward Lafayette Square arouses no sensation, only some curious stranger stops and gazes.” Maybe that’s me now, the curious stranger.