- 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
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.
It was Olmsted also who did the magnificent Capitol grounds and who had the nice idea of putting identifying tags on the trees, giving their places of origin and Latin names. I like particularly the tulip trees (Liriodendron tulipifera); the tulip is one of the common trees of Washington, and it lines the main drive to the east front of the Capitol. There are red oak, white oak, silver linden, a tremendous spreading white ash, sugar maples, five kinds of American magnolias, a huge Japanese pagoda tree. A spectacular willow oak on the west side has a trunk three men couldn’t put their arms around. In spring the dogwood in bloom all around the Capitol are enough to take your breath away.
There are trees and there is sky, the immense, blessed overarching sky of the Mall. What city has anything to compare to the Mall? At first light on a summer morning, before the rush hour, before the first jets come roaring out of National, the dominant sound is of crows and the crunch of your own feet along the gravel pathways. The air, still cool from the night, smells of trees and damp grass, like a country town. Floodlights are still on at the old red Smithsonian castle, bathing it in a soft theatrical glow, like the backdrop for some nineteenth-century Gothic fantasy. The moon is up still, hanging in a pale, clear sky beyond the Monument, which for the moment is a very pale pink.
I am always moved by the Mall, by the Monument (our greatest work of abstract sculpture), by the Lincoln Memorial with its memories of Martin Luther King, Jr., and by the Vietnam Memorial. I don’t like the Hirshhorn Museum. I think it’s ugly and out of place. And I don’t like the ring of fifty American flags around the base of the Monument, because they seem so redundant. (How much more colorful and appropriate, not to mention interesting, it would be to replace them with the fifty flags of the fifty states.) But I love the steady flow of life in every season, the crowds of tourists from every part of the country, every part of the world. One Saturday morning I watched a high school class from Massachusetts pose for a group portrait in front of the colossal equestrian statue of Grant at the east end of the Mall, the Capitol dome in the background. They looked so scrubbed and expectant, so pleased to be who they were and where they were.
I keep coming back to look at the statue and its companion groups of Union cavalry and artillery. Grant on his mighty horse, his face shadowed by a slouch hat, looks brooding and mysterious. He and the side groups are the work of a prolific sculptor who is hardly remembered any longer, Henry Merwin Shrady, whose father, George Frederick Shrady, was Grant’s physician. Henry Merwin Shrady had no romantic misconceptions about war. He spent twenty years on his memorial to Grant—twenty years “laboring on details of action and equipment, which have passed the scrutiny of military men as well as artists,” I read in one biographical sketch—and he died of overwork before it was dedicated. To me it is the most powerful of all the equestrian statues in Washington, and I wonder that it is not better known.
Though I have lived in other places longer, Washington has been the setting for some of the most important times of my life. I saw it first when I was about the age of those students from Massachusetts, traveling with a school friend and his family. I had seldom been away from home in Pittsburgh and could hardly believe my eyes, hardly see enough. We got about by streetcar. It was something like love at first sight for me. At the Capitol we were given passes to the Senate gallery and warned not to be disappointed if only a few senators were on the floor. There was almost no one on the floor and one man was reading a newspaper. No matter. I was overcome with a feeling I couldn’t explain, just to be in that room. I would happily have stayed all afternoon.
The next visit was about five years later, while I was in college, only this time I was head over heels in love with a girl, who, fortunately, also wanted to see the sights. (She is a politician’s daughter.) We stood in line for the White House tour, drove out along the Potomac to Mount Vernon. It was March, but felt more like May. The tulips were out at Mount Vernon, and the river, I remember, looked as blue as the ocean. That night, all dressed up, we had dinner at the old Occidental Restaurant, next door to the Willard.
In 1961, after Kennedy took office, still in our twenties, we came back again. I had landed a job as an editor with the U.S. Information Agency, then under the direction of Edward R. Murrow. Only now we came with three small children. On summer evenings, my office day over, we would meet to walk around the Tidal Basin, the baby riding in a carriage. One Saturday afternoon at the Library of Congress, I found my vocation.
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.
What I’m drawn to and moved by is historical Washington—the presence of history anywhere you turn.
Or consider the Octagon House, three blocks over at Eighteenth and New York. The Octagon, which is actually hexagonal, is a contemporary of the White House and one of the architectural gems of Washington, in the Federal style. It’s occupied, appropriately, by the American Institute of Architects, and, like the Wilson House, open to the public.
In 1814, after the British burned the White House, James and Dolley Madison and their pet macaw moved into the Octagon for a stay of six months. The peace treaty that ended the War of 1812, the Treaty of Ghent, was signed in the circular parlor over the main entrance. The house has a magnificent circular stairway, all its original mantels, most of its original woodwork, its original marble floor in the foyer. The architect was William Thornton, the first architect of the Capitol.
Reportedly there is also a secret tunnel in the basement leading to the White House. It is one of those old Washington stories you hear again and again, like the story of alligators in the sewers of New York. It is even given as gospel in the excellent American Guide Series book on Washington. But the tunnel doesn’t exist, sad to say. Nor apparently is there an Octagon ghost, as reported repeatedly. The original owner was a rich Virginia planter named John Tayloe. Supposedly he had a beautiful daughter who, thwarted in love, threw herself from the stairway to her death on that marble floor, and her ghost has haunted the house ever since. As it happens, Tayloe had fifteen children, none of whom is known to have committed suicide, and for twenty-odd years, anyway, nobody has heard or seen a sign of a ghost.
I can’t help wonder about the spirits of Jefferson and Jackson, Lafayette, Daniel Webster, and others known to have dined or slept in the house. And what of Dolley herself, in her rose-colored Paris robe, her white turban with its tiara of ostrich plumes? An eyewitness to the signing of the Treaty of Ghent said that the “most conspicuous object in the room” was Mrs. Madison, “then in the meridian of life and queenly beauty …”
(“Of course, there were better times,” growls an aged senator in Gore Vidal’s novel Washington, D. C.)
On the high rise of R Street in Georgetown is a palatial red-brick affair with white trim, all very Italianate, which was once a summer residence for Ulysses S. Grant and later owned by Rear Adm. Harry H. Rousseau, one of the builders of the Panama Canal. In the 1930s it was taken over as bachelor quarters by a band of exuberant young New Dealers known as the Brain Trust, with Tom (“Tommy the Cork”) Corcoran as their leader. One of them remembers a night when a friend dropped by bringing his own grand piano. “A moving van arrived and three or four fellows got the piano up the stairs and into the living room. Tom and his friend played duets all evening. Then the boys packed up the piano and put it back into the moving van.”
There is John Kennedy’s house, also in Georgetown, at 3307 N Street, and the house on Massachusetts Avenue off Dupont Circle where Alice Roosevelt Longworth held court for so many years. And directly across the street stands the monstrous, gabled brick pile that once belonged to Sen. James G. Blaine, “Blaine of Maine,” a brilliant rascal if ever there was, who nearly became President in 1884. It was a puzzle to many of his time how somebody with no more than a senator’s wages could afford such a place.
The elegant headquarters of the National Trust for Historic Preservation at Eighteenth and Massachusetts was once Washington’s most sumptuous apartment house. Andrew Mellon, who served three Presidents as Secretary of the Treasury and who gave the country the National Gallery, occupied the top floor. On G Street on Capitol Hill, near the old Marine Barracks, you can find the little house where John Philip Sousa was born. On the crest of the hill at Arlington, across the Potomac where the sun goes down, stands the columned Custis-Lee Mansion. From the front porch there you get the best of all panoramas of the city.
Some of the history that has happened here I have seen with my own eyes. When John Kennedy’s funeral procession came up Connecticut Avenue, the foreign delegations led by Charles de Gaulle, I watched from an upstairs room at the Mayflower Hotel. It had been reserved as a vantage point by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch , so that Barbara Tuchman might describe the scene much as she did the funeral of Edward VII in the opening chapter of The Guns of August. Marquis Childs of the Post-Dispatch, a friend, had been kind enough to include me. So I shared a window with Mrs. Tuchman. “Look at de Gaulle, look at de Gaulle,” she kept saying, as he came striding along in his simple khaki uniform, taller than anyone, his face a perfect mask.
On the afternoon when the Senate voted for the Panama Canal Treaties, I was watching from the gallery, and later that evening, as Washington was lashed by a regular Panama deluge, I was among the several hundred people who crowded into the State Dining Room at the White House to celebrate, to see, as it turned out, Jimmy Carter enjoy one of the few happy moments of his administration.
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.
The most engaging guide to the city’s landmarks is Washington Itself by E. J. Applewhite, which is both well written and full of delightful, little-known facts. Thanks to Mr. Applewhite, a former official of the Central Intelligence Agency, I now know as I did not before that the statue of Winston Churchill in front of the British Embassy has one foot planted firmly in the extraterritoriality of the embassy’s Crown property and the other over the boundary in U.S. territory, in tribute to Churchill’s British-American parentage. I know that the Government Printing Office is the City’s largest industrial employer; that the eight glorious columns inside the old Pension Building are the tallest ever built in the Roman style, taller even than those at Baalbek; that the Mayflower Hotel is by the same architectural firm, Warren and Wetmore, that did Grand Central Station in New York.
My favorite book about the city is Margaret Leech’s Pulitzer Prize history, Reveille in Washington .
If asked to name my favorite book about the city, I would have to pick Margaret Leech’s Pulitzer Prize history, Reveille in Washington, first published in 1941, one of my all-time favorite books of any kind, which I have read and reread and pushed on friends for years.
It is Washington during the Civil War, a chronicle of all that was going on at every level of government and society. I read it initially in the 1960s, in those first years of living here, and it gave me not just a sense of that very different Washington of the 186Os, but of the possibilities for self-expression in writing narrative history. Like Bruce Catton’s A Stillness at Appomattox, it was one of the books that started me on the way, first reading Civil War history, then thinking more and more of daring to try something of the kind of my own. I wanted to be a writer in the worst way—if ever I could find a subject.
The subject turned out to be the Johnstown flood of 1889, and the fact that I found it in Washington, found the work I wanted most to do, has, I know, a lot to do with my affection for the city.
A number of old photographs were spread out on a big oak table in the Picture Collection of the Library of Congress at a point when I came wandering by one Saturday. They had just been acquired by the library, and one of the curators, Milton Kaplan, took time out to tell me about them. A Pittsburgh photographer had managed somehow to get into Johnstown with all his glass plates and heavy paraphernalia only a day or so after the disaster, when almost nobody was getting through. In one picture a whole tree was driven through a house like a javelin. I didn’t know it then, but I had just begun my first book.
More important in the long run, I had “discovered” the Library of Congress, the greatest “treasure house” we have, and I have been drawn to it, I have been inspired and fortified by it ever since, no matter where I was living. Any city that has the Library of Congress is my capital. Some of the happiest, most productive days of my life have been spent in its manuscript collection or working with its newspaper files. It is one of the wonders of the world. The statistics are staggering—twenty million books, of which less than a fourth are in English, nearly six million pieces of sheet music, more than one million recordings of music and the spoken word, the papers of twenty-three Presidents, the papers of Clara Barton and James G. Blaine, the Wright brothers, Clare Boothe Luce, Margaret Mead, and J. Robert Oppenheimer, Sigmund Freud, Lillian Gish, and George Washington Goethals. Its new Madison Building is the largest library building in the world. But I love best the old building, the Jefferson Building as it is now known, with all its Beaux-Arts marble extravagance and exquisite workmanship. The domed Main Reading Room is one of the most spectacular interior spaces in America.
It was because he wanted to be near the Library of Congress that Woodrow Wilson chose to retire in Washington. I understand that perfectly.
The combination of the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and the Smithsonian, all within walking distance of one another, more than justifies the city’s reputation as an unrivaled center for research. But they are only the largest and best-known of numerous libraries and research facilities within the city limits. There are a half-dozen universities with excellent libraries. The Folger Shakespeare Library is here. The Columbia Historical Society, devoted to the history of the District of Columbia and housed in a splendid old brewer’s mansion, has a library of fifteen thousand volumes, collections of maps, prints, manuscripts, memorabilia, and many thousands of rare old photographs. The Society of the Cincinnati has a research library devoted to the Revolutionary War that includes some twelve thousand volumes and letters from nearly all the principal figures of the war.
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.
Then there is Ford’s Theater with its flag-draped Lincoln box and, downstairs in the basement, a Lincoln museum, containing, among other things, the clothes and large black boots he was wearing the night of the assassination. Across the street, in the Petersen House, is the room where he died the following morning. But maybe his presence is felt most of all in the rise and dominance of the Capitol dome, which he insisted be completed during the Civil War to show that the Union continued.
The second observation is really a question: I wonder why so many of our politicians feel obliged to get away from the city at every chance? They claim a pressing need to get back to the real America. To get votes, a lot of them like also to deride the city and mock its institutions. They run against Washington, in the shabby spirit made fashionable by our recent presidential campaigns. It is as if they find the city alien or feel that too close an association with it might be somehow dishonorable. It is as if they want to get away from history when clearly history is what they need, they most of all, and now more than ever.
Let us imagine that instead of rushing off to wherever it is they come from, some of them were to spend a morning at the Wilson House or on the Mall with their fellow citizens touring the National Museum of American History. Or what if they took time, say fifteen minutes, at the National Gallery to enjoy and think about George Caleb Bingham’s The Jolly Flatboatmen—just that one painting? Might not that too be a way of reaching the real America?
I have no sense that the people they represent fail to appreciate the city or to feel its spell. They come in ever increasing numbers, by the tens of millions every year. They climb the sweep of marble steps at the Supreme Court, pose for a picture by the Grant statue. They move slowly, quietly past the fifty-seven thousand names in the black stone wall of the Vietnam Memorial. They pour through the Air and Space Museum, the most popular museum in the world now, craning their necks at the technical marvels of our rocket century. We all do. We all should. This is our capital. It speaks of who we are and what we have accomplished, what we stand for.
For myself, I know I have a lot more to see. It does me good also to remember how much creative work has gone on here down the years in so many fields. This was the home of Alexander Graham Bell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the historian Frederic Bancroft, who also developed the American Beauty Rose. Bruce Catton wrote A Stillness at Appomattox here. Rachel Carson, The Sea around Us and Silent Spring. This is a good place.