Washington, DC is an impressive city. No doubt about it. But I am finding it almost self-consciously so. Everywhere through the downtown and around the Mall, the older government parts of the city, there are these massive stone buildings that you have to crane your neck to see the top of. Even the post office wouldn’t fit in one camera frame as we stood in front of it. (I haven’t put it here because the photos are, well, of half a building. But this below is the treasury.)
It all adds up to a kind of punch-you-in-the-face, look-at-our-might impressiveness. With columns. I actually can’t quite work out if I like it. (And the heat isn’t helping to make the city hospitable – it’s 32C as I type at 11pm.)
But I do admire the foresight of the founding fathers. Most of the government buildings were built (I believe) in the 19th century — and they’re still in use today. As I said, they’re enormous and surely must house many more workers than could possibly have been employed 150 or 200 years ago. Andrew tells me the politicians at the time believed that, while the US was not a major player in the world back in the 1780s, if they built their capital as if it belonged to an empire then that dream would be fulfilled. I guess they were right.
Every president is represented in the city somehow, through a monument, a park or a desk-sized slab of stone (that was for Franklin D Roosevelt, though he does have a proper memorial too which was opened in 1997). As such — especially when you also consider the veterans and service memorials — it also becomes a kind of city of pilgrimage for Americans seeking to honour their country and history and place in the world. The Lincoln Memorial is crowded with visitors even after dark, all seeking to be part of something. The quote above his head even calls it a temple. If in passing (or by specific design) they also read the great man’s words and ponder his actions, are they not paying homage?
I think it’s hard for Australians to understand what the presidential position means to Americans. We don’t really have a similar role, and certainly the prime minister (any prime minister) doesn’t seem to be as revered or respected as the POTUS. But some of it rubs off on you. We went to a basketball match on Monday because we heard Obama would be attending. (And Andrew likes basketball. But mostly because of the president.) The guys sitting behind us were super impressed when Obama and Biden arrived, and stayed, even if they didn’t agree with their politics. Contrast that with John Howard attending a football match towards the end of his term as PM and getting booed.
So the pilgrimages taken to Washington, DC are not just about memories and past presidents but also that tantalising possibility of getting a glimpse of the current resident of the White House. Or even just his helicopter.
Or maybe — just maybe — my view of the city is too coloured by West Wing.
But it is an impressive city.