Letter from America : Four Days in Washington DC

A Long Walk Down Memory Lane…

Words and pictures by James Robinson
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The first thing I saw when I got into the airport in Washington DC was CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, running, I assume for a waiting plane. He had a jersey tied around his neck, he was donned in boat shoes, looking like he was going sailing for the weekend, except for the fact that his face seemed grey, and gaunt, and lifeless, (or even more so than it usually does) and in the brief seconds that I had my eyes on him, ‘leisurely’ seemed to be the last possible word that could come to mind.

“Brilliant,” I thought to myself. “Wolf Blitzer, huh? 30 seconds in town, and I see a real mover-and-shaker in the flesh.”

In retrospect, it is fitting that the one living cog of the Washington machine I witnessed, I saw while running full speed to get on a plane out-of-town. For the new in town, set aside any West Wing inspired aspirations for spying in on Washington DC power broking. Anywhere where something current could be actually happening, is somewhere else to any place you are, or may find yourself: closed off to the public, usually by lock, key and security guard.

DC, as it stands to the casual tourist, is a memorial to the greatest hits of the USA, pre-1970: a mesh of museums, monuments, memorials and over-priced gift shops.

From this, I observe two things, worthy of emphasised notation.

(i) Washington’s nature as a monument to America itself makes it the ultimate emotional Rorschach test for one’s true feelings about the American democratic system. I was debating with myself soon after arriving as to whether DC was either a) America’s heart, or b) America’s brain, when it dawned on me that I was looking at this the wrong way. It is America’s face. I was last in the city in December 2004. Bush II had defeated Kerry, and I remember Washington leading me to dwell on the fact that I was not particularly pleased by this. But, I was still overawed by the city itself, much like as a younger man I was still overawed by America as a whole. Now, as a more seasoned, on-and-off ex-patriot living in the United States, I felt respectful of the history and grandeur of its central city, but generally suspicious and cynical of the values it was seeking to purport. Simply put, the range of sights in Washington DC (the White House, Capitol, etcetera) make it impossible not to contemplate America itself.

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ii) Although there are more than several things in Washington DC, very much worth seeing at least once (no joking here, I promise, there’s some great stuff), there was a certain point where the huge expanse of large concrete odes to events that happened 40, or more, years ago becomes horribly, chokingly, oppressive. I was looking up at the phallic wonder of the Washington Monument, content with the regal spectacle of the Lincoln Memorial and a trip to Arlington fresh in my memory, when for all measure I snapped. It felt like my mind was swimming in circles and I was walking with weights tied on to my legs, and my spirits sank, miserable that I had two days left in the city. History is important, but in the here and now, it is lifeless. I had overdosed, and the town seemed dead. You spend too much time looking backwards, and it jumps out of you that there is nothing at all “of the moment” about the city.

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Lincoln memorial, the White House, Korean War

For all that can be said about the confusing identity crisis evoked by Washington’s ceaselessly inward focus, there’s a lot of cool stuff to see. The huge plus in DC’s favor is that it really does take in and pay graceful homage to a few centuries of history. On the surface level, and at a starting point, you have – the wars: Civil, Korean, World I and II, Iraq and Afghanistan, presidents: Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, Kennedy, there are the three branches of government, and the full range of Smithsonian museums. It is all in walking distance of each other. You can sight see. Lazily. And this is just the beginning.

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Capitol, Supreme Court

The Capitol tour is a waste of time: they provide no interaction with the current House, or Senate, shepherding tourists through a 13-minute welcome movie (Democracy: The Instruction Manual), and past a staggering array of preserved rooms, (unused for many, many decades) statues, and awnings, and in to the gift shop. Conversely, watching the sitting Supreme Court is magnificent (no cameras though) – the intellectual equivalent of watching a bunch of cruel, sarcastic cats toy with a helpless mouse. Are you a Scalia fan? More of a Thomas follower? Kagan? See them shuffle in their seats, argue, fight sleep, and torture lawyers. This is as close as the legal profession gets to live rock and roll.

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Security guards

There is a security blockade lurking about every corner, there are security guards swarming every building of value. You won’t see these guys in any tourist brochures, but they must pay someone to crop them out. Everywhere you go, someone is getting mad at you for taking a photo. Bored looking guards – private security, police, diplomatic protection, take your pick – stand at the ready, chatting constantly, and not appearing totally alert. Overhearing their conversations was nearly Seinfeld-ian, if they didn’t stand as symbols of the post 9/11 burden/Washington’s desire to consume itself with paranoia (an either/or for you, depending on political persuasion).

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Four blocks from the Capitol, the city descends into an expanse of urban decay. Urban renewal has led to newer developments pushing outwards from the city centre, and leading to the occasionally odd juxtaposition (a shopping mall in construction across the road from a dilapidated corner liquor store). But DC is very much a testament to the best and the worst sides of inequality in close quarters.

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Ben’s Chilli Bowl

Ben’s Chilli Bowl has it signposted that two people eat free, Bill Cosby and Barack Obama. A very much old-school diner and popular DC stop-through, Ben’s Chilli Bowl has become a go-to for foreign leaders and current president’s looking to convey some “man of the people” grit (Presidents Sarkozy, and Obama have visited). The food is good, the staff colorful, the price fair. The place has a great feel to it.

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I have a question: why does Washington have such a regrettably average basketball franchise? The city’s sports history is a virtual non-event. Boston/Chicago/Los Angeles/New York/the Florida/Texas teams, all have solid sports histories, worthy of their social/economic/political/historical importance. But DC? Nope. The stadium is six blocks from the White House. The town is filled with educated, well-paid public servants, all with evenings and weekends to kill, and much disposable income. There is a large disconnect here. A horrid, inadequate team, playing to a third-full arena seems out of place for a city of any vibrancy. The city ruined Michael Jordan. Its last basketball star, Gilbert Arenas, was suspended indefinitely for drawing a gun in the locker room. Enough said.

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Flag at half-mast

Through all the central city’s constant lifelessness (I did eventually find the missing piece: Washington DC’s modern expression of itself is crammed into Georgetown and Dupont Circle, where well-paid public servants spend their free time within a cluster of nice restaurants, boutique stores and exaggerated rents), there was one constant reminder of tragic current events, and of the incessant Washington-centric cable news spin-cycle that is constantly in action (the less said about that, the better, no?). Flags flew constantly at half-mast, right across town, a sad reminder of the Tucson shooting that severely wounded Congresswoman Gabriel Giffords and killed six others.


So. Washington, DC, a win?

My best summation: for an average tourist, the city of Washington DC is like a really, really good museum. But most of it is the same, long-standing exhibit, with little turnover in material. I’ll only visit the same museum every time it updates its main show. Washington is a “come once” town. Its predominant culture is remembrance, and after a while, it plays with your head.

Of course, a lot happens in Washington. The city means a lot. But this represents itself in suburbs like Georgetown, or Dupont Circle, culturally offering little more significance than Ponsonby.

What happens of worth, and excitement, and buzz in the town, when you walk the streets is obviously happening in the many important, handsome buildings, with security clearance needed to get past the many, many security guards.

I’m sure this is the exciting Washington, DC. The West Wing DC. The one that makes it a rewarding city in which to live if you have the right job. But it is not representative of the tourist experience.