On December 12, 1985, the President of the United States, returning from his summit meeting in Geneva with Soviet leader Gorbachev, went straight from the airfield to report to Congress. His helicopter was bathed in a corolla of many-colored spotlights as it swooped down upon what the designer of Washington, Pierre L’Enfant, in his plan for the capital, knew as Jenkin’s Hill.
The millions watching the presidential helicopter on television bearing its important passenger down to the halls of Congress might well have associated the sight with something out of classical mythology, Zeus coming down to earth. The scene brilliantly concentrated by so many lights and cameras no doubt looked like just another photo opportunity or media event, as Americans calloused by so much publicity and advertising say these days. I for one was deeply impressed. It made me think again how showy and theatrical, all-focused on externals (especially in the television age), official Washington—the first city created exclusively as a center of government—has always been by comparison with America’s other power centers. In Washington public ceremony and the rituals of state take on a created, performance-like quality. By comparison with our slovenly mass cities these days, all business when they are not in pursuit of entertainment, Washington shows a touch of the transcendent, which in America is equivalent to the unfamiliar.
Not all great American cities these days show what a success story America has proved in the history of nations. Washington certainly does. It reflects as never before the richness, the world influence, the political continuity, and above all the everlasting magnetism to Americans themselves of what the eighteenth-century founders modestly called an “experiment.”
For a country whose most famous entrepreneur in the 1920s declared that “History is bunk,” the traditionalism of Washington, the white Roman fronts assembled street after street, give sanction to the past, yet more than ever permit Washington to remain the city of compromise, the place to deal. Without Washington’s unique Romanitas along sacred-looking centers of government, American life would seem unbearably strident. But Washington, at least from the outside (for visitors looking on, the outside is all they think themselves fit for, thank you), is a territorial version of an old-fashioned Sunday: a reminder that somewhere tradition still exists, with its hint of another world.
Of course it is a little sad to watch the crowds humbly lined up at the National Archives to stare at our sacred documents, so hemmed in by uniformed guards watching their every step. Washington is another American city internally under siege. Those uniforms remind me of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s complaint, early in the Civil War, that “we filed out of the station between lines of soldiers…putting us in mind of similar spectacles at the gates of European cities. It was not without sorrow that we saw the free circulation of the nation’s life blood (at the very heart, moreover) clogged with such structures as these.”
If you don’t live here, there is something inherent to Washington that keeps one an observer, always on the outside, long after he has ceased to be a pilgrim.
I first knew Washington as a boy in the late Twenties, visiting an uncle amazingly able to keep a grocery store not far from the Capitol. I knew it in Depression and war, when it was excited, wildly distracted. Far from the unbroken sleekness it now shows at first glance, it was humble in places because of the lines of “temporary” shacks hastily put up for offices in the First World War. I knew it especially well during President Kennedy’s administration, when so many liberal intellectuals—as they were then—felt, even as Vietnam was creeping up behind them, that they were witnessing a rebirth of American intellect fathered by Harvard and dedicated to the proposition that there is nothing wrong with having fun while you are shoring up the free world. When Robert Frost was meeting with his old friend Sherman Adams in the White House, he was astonished to find that President Eisenhower had no interest in meeting him. No sooner did the New Frontier name itself than Robert Frost remembered that he had once been a Democrat and heralded “an Augustan age of poetry and power, with the emphasis on power.”
But Washington then was not as splendid, as regal, as haughtily sure of support, as it is now. Even the groups shakily gathering at the Vietnam memorial, almost in sight of Father Abraham forever brooding over this increasingly divided society, show that Americans really have no other center, nowhere else to turn for the necessary icon. Washington in its officialdom represents the showcase, the ordained and sacramental meeting place of Americans who—never was this more true than now—have nothing in common but their being Americans. Even the statues to mostly forgettable generals, the statues that no other American city supplies in abundance, plus the museums, the libraries, universities, the national offices that give trade unions and professional organizations a touch of official sanction, present Washington as the home of our civic religion. Here the United States is not just a country but the embodiment of its legendary aspirations as the first deliberately created nation in modern history and the first officially to declare that its legitimacy rests on the consent of the governed.
Today’s sumptuous, noticeably chic Washington seems the most finished, the most complete of American landscapes. The Washington Monument encircled by a sea of fifty flags reminds me of what a provincial Greek once said—“I have never been in a city so gorged with icons as your Athens.” This great absract sculpture was more impressive by itself. But these days we stamp everything “USA! All the Way! USA!” I am grateful for the pressure from the home folks that put the effigies of so many local celebrities into the rotunda of the Capitol. What if some of them remind me of the wax-works at Madame Tussaud’s? We need a little provincialism to mellow the slightly overbearing face of superpower. These days young congressmen with blow-dried hair draped across their foreheads all look as if they have taken a screen test. External Washington reflects a sense of its world importance in every chic restaurant, glittery new shop, and perfect little museum. It was always more famous for pomposity than fashion or art, and now it has all three, plus the most varied museums in America.
The top-heavy importance of Washington to itself used to be disguised more modestly. Yet even in the late Sixties, despite the turmoil raging around Lyndon Johnson, he made his presidency immortal. A nervous young reporter had obtained an interview but was too nervous to make good use of it. Rising in exasperation to his full six feet three and a half inches, the President demanded: “How can you ask a chicken-shit question like that of THE HEAD OF THE FREE WORLD??!”
Washington is the most visible sign of America’s continuity and relative consistency as a political system. Society in America, as all our literature says, is always in flux, often in eruption, tense with race and class conflicts. Our big cities present the greatest wealth in the world, the most daring architecture, side by side with beggary, open degradation, homelessness. There is not enough public spirit to conceal America’s many losers. But Washington presents on the surface, for official purposes, a show of national stability that is warranted enough when you consider the revolutions and counter-revolutions that have yanked so many nation-states from their roots.
Here there were no roots, just the political instinct for a center that would hold together so many antagonistic states and interests. A place for government totally apart would also give a special meaning and authority to the unprecedented “experiment.” Of course the actual site was the result of a compromise between North and South that got the southern representatives finally to withdraw their opposition to Hamilton’s Assumption Bill taking over the states’ debts. President Washington, who picked the site himself, faced considerable embarrassment because of his land holdings in the area. His choice, typical of all far-seeing Virginians at the time, was based on the conviction that the Potomac would be a main highway into the West. Washington as a center for national transportation and the site of a great national university was the dream of the eighteenth-century founders as late as the administration of John Quincy Adams.
President Adams failed to see his dreams realized, as he failed in general to find acceptance from rival politicians for the brilliant intellectual authority he hoped to direct on and from this city. But the imagination of power, what the raw new place cut out of swamps and forest was all about, was supplied by the classical style, which thought in noble perspective, great vistas, traditionally awesome columns, great flights of steps meant to subdue and impress.
Classical style expressed the influence of the expected. You have only to cross to the East Wing from the National Gallery, all rotundas and columns and symmetrical divisions, to feel the effect of high modernism, all sharp angles and sections divided contrary to your well-schooled expectations. The classical style linked itself to the past in order to project a grandeur essentially timeless. Pierre L’Enfant was thinking big and was encouraged to do so when Thomas Jefferson lent him the plans of Frankfurt, Karlsruhe, Amsterdam, Strasbourg, Paris, Orleans, Bordeaux, Lyon, Montpellier, Turin, and Milan. Paris, of course, remained the main influence on L’Enfant; the British architectural historian Mark Girouard notes in his book Cities and People that L’Enfant’s sketch plan (1791) was a synthesis of the Champs Elysées and other elements from Paris along with colonial Williamsburg and Christopher Wren’s plan for rebuilding London after the great fire, combined with inspired use of the topography of the site.
Mark Girouard says that L’Enfant’s plan (engraved and made public in 1792) “is arguably the most brilliant town plan ever conceived…. It was based on a grid, for convenience of laying out lots for sale, and a web of diagonals…. The two main monuments, the president’s house and the Capitol, were…linked indirectly in a way clearly suggested by the relationship of Capitol and governor’s house at Williamsburg.”
The Capitol, to dominate from Jenkin’s Hill, the highest point in the district, “was to look down the grand avenue and across the river.” The president’s house was to have “a clear view along the river reach, towards the neighbouring town of Alexandria, by way of a promontory of land on which L’Enfant suggested erecting a ‘Majestic Column or a grand Perysemid,’ which would ‘completely finish the landscape.’ ” L’Enfant told President Washington that he was aiming at “a sense of the real grand and truly beautiful only to be met with where nature contributes with art and diversify the objects.”
L’Enfant dreamed of the Mall as a public walk, not road; one that in his broken English he prophesied would give Washington “a superiority of agreements [amenities] over most of the city of the world.” The Mall never became the parade ground he envisaged, and by the early twentieth century there was cleared away even the naturalistic park which had taken over L’Enfant’s Mall. Daniel Burnham, the too-ambitious Chicago World’s Fair architect, re-created it as a broad formal vista line with grand public buildings.