In a country as large as America, visiting your nation’s capital is something like losing your virginity. You might have scoffed at the place and the flotsam of politicians, lobbyists, honest-to-goodness conscientious hard workers, and career climbers who make up the mental atmosphere inside the Beltway. Or you might have revered the place, imagining it as the repository of all that was pure in democracy. Washington, D.C., a magnet for the pond scum of human ambition, or the shining city on the hill.
In either case, illusions always crumble when you experience the real thing. It might be better than you expected, or worse. You might be disappointed, disillusioned; or you might sheepishly admit that it’s a whole lot cooler than you thought it would be. Washington, D.C., raw-boned America.
D.C. is hip. Not TV hip, not Hollywood hip, not underground blogosphere hip. It’s hip in a way that you can only achieve by not trying too hard. New York City, for example, tries for hip but misses by touting it so frantically. Too many other places try to be like New York and lose their own identity. Other American cities try too hard not to be like New York and end up equally lost. Maybe it’s a result of having no state, or of being neglected by the government it has housed for so long, but D.C. is real in a way other places aren’t.
The Washington Monument, that monument to phallic male power dreams, towers over the National Mall to such an extent that you could make an argument for George Washington’s ghost keeping a sharp eye on Congress, operating out of the humbling or reviled (depending on your take) classic pile of marble known as the U.S. Capitol building (pictured at top).
It’s perhaps a sign of America’s democratic evolution over the last two centuries that this building, which houses the House, the Senate, and the Supreme Court, among other parts of the government, is routinely mistaken for the White House. In the birth of the United States, it was the power of the people (white, male landowners over 21, to be exact), represented by their elected officials drafting legislation in this building, that was meant to rule the country. The president was simply an executive – a leader, yes, but not a ruler.
Which is partly, it seems to me, why the White House itself is such a modest building. It never looks like one on TV. It looks huge and impressive. But there are plenty of mansions and McMansions here in the Hudson Valley that cram their residents’ striving for power and influence much more forcefully down your throat. Going by the ideals of American democracy – the ideals, not necessarily the practice – the president’s residence should be a wholly unpretentious building. Small, relatively human-sized, accessible (even if, with modern security, that access is only an illusion), and, most important, answerable to the people walking outside its doors.
It was something of a relief that my first sight of this building did not incur anger at the person commanding from inside of it.
D.C. hums and buzzes and hurries, like any other big city on the planet. But it still has the feeling of a small town, full of awfully nice people and friendly, wide boulevards. You get the feeling that D.C.’s residents have a grip on their city, that they’ve made it theirs, even if their laws and local affairs are yet subject to the whims of the U.S. Congress.
No part of this city better represents its place as the home of representational democracy than the National Mall, a seemingly endless length of grass and walkways hogging most of the center of town. San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and New York’s Central Park could only dream of the breathing room this place gives its residents. No fancy landscaping, not a whole lot of shade except on the edges, and heaving with tourists, the National Mall is a natural magnet for romping children, picnicking teenagers, and anyone taking their legs for a good long stretch.
It is unkempt and torn up, the Mall. The grass struggles under the pressure of millions of tourists and hosted events every year. And that is what makes it so special. It’s brown, and scrubby, and used. In this most democratic of American cities, there should be no impeccably manicured lawn saying, “Keep off the grass.”
D.C. is not a jewel in the crown of America or any other cliché. It is distinctly itself. Its hallowed architecture, its informed and friendly people, and the wide-open heart of its central Mall represent everything Americans would like ourselves to be.