- 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
At the main public library, the Martin Luther King Library downtown, you can now work with the morgue file of the defunct Washington Star , long the city’s leading paper. Each of the military services has its archives. So do the government departments and agencies. A new fourteen-story National Agricultural Library at nearby Beltsville, Maryland, has become the “most extensive collection of agricultural information in the free world: more than 1.8 million volumes and growing.” And if you ever wish to know about asphalt or child care, coal, cotton, firearms, drugstores, banking, peanuts, or civil engineering, or almost anything else you can think of, there is a national association here to provide all you need and more. In the Yellow Pages I also find a National Academy of Astrologers.
It is hard to imagine a better place for a writer of history to live and work, particularly if the writer is independent, as I am, and thus unaffiliated with a university. The whole city is a university.
A further source needs to be mentioned. It is the large supply of living memory, all that is tucked away in the minds of those older Washington residents who were witness to or actually took part in the events of earlier times. They are here in amazing numbers, and it has been my experience that they want very much to share what they know and remember. They will give generously of their time; and you don’t have to chase across half the country to find them.
In my work on Truman I have talked with perhaps fifty men and women who knew him or worked with him (or against him in some instances), all people living in Washington—retired journalists, former White House aides, senators and Senate staff, the wife and son of a former secretary of state. And I have more to see, since each invariably tells me of others I mustn’t overlook. And what a lot will be lost when these people are gone.
I have talked with one man who knew not only Truman but Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, and Eisenhower as well. He is no one whose name you would recognize. Passing him on the street, you wouldn’t look twice. Part of his job was to be inconspicuous. He is a retired Secret Service man. “You must have been asked to talk about these things many times,” I said somewhat apologetically about midpoint in my interview. “No, Mr. McCullough,” he answered. “Nobody has ever asked me about any of this.”
Of nearly equal importance to the political historian or biographer, or anyone trying to understand the past, is what might be called the living model. People are the writer’s real subject, after all, the mystery of human behavior, and a historian needs to observe people in real life, the way a paleontologist observes the living fauna to better interpret the fossil record.
This is very important. And all varieties of the old political fauna of Washington past are around today, alive and mostly thriving—the glad-handers and nostrum-sellers, the doctrinaires, the moneybags, the small people in big jobs, the tea-table gossips, the courtesans and power-moths of every stripe and gender, as well as the true patriot, the genuine public servant, or the good, gray functionary down in the bureaucratic ranks, who, so often, is someone of exceptional ability.
Truman used to talk of Potomac Fever, an endemic disorder the symptoms of which were a swelled head and a general decline of common sense. Were you only to read about such cases, and not see some with your own eyes, you might not appreciate fully what he meant.
Ambition, the old burning need for flattery, for power, fear of public humiliation, plain high-mindedness, devotion to duty, all that has moved men and women for so long in this capital city moves them now. The same show goes on, only the names and costumes are different.
Two further observations: First, I am struck more and more, the longer I am here, by the presence of Abraham Lincoln. He is all around. It is almost as though the city should be renamed for him. Most powerful, of course is the effect of Daniel Chester French’s majestic statue within the Memorial, our largest and, I suppose, our most beloved public sculpture. But there are at least three other Lincoln statues that I know of, one in Judiciary Square, another in Lincoln Park, a third in the Capitol Rotunda. Elsewhere in the Capitol are two Lincoln busts, five paintings of Lincoln, and in the crypt a colossal marble head, an extraordinary work by Gutzon Borglum that deserves a better place where more people will see it. Lincoln is at the National Portrait Gallery—in spirit upstairs in the grand hall, scene of his first inaugural ball, and on canvas in a portrait by George P. A. Healy that dominates the hall of the Presidents. There is Anderson Cottage at Soldiers’ Home out North Capitol Street, Lincoln’s summer White House, where, until the time was right, he kept the Emancipation Proclamation locked in a desk drawer; and the so-called Lincoln Bedroom at the White House, where he never slept but where he signed the Proclamation. A duplicate of the Healy portrait, Lincoln pensive, his hand on his chin, hangs over the mantel in the State Dining Room. A duplicate of the Lincoln bed in the Lincoln Bedroom is the bed Woodrow Wilson died in at the house on S Street. Pew 54 at little St. John’s Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square, the Church of the Presidents, is marked with a silver plate as the Lincoln pew.