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.”
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Covering Washington November 20, 1986