Lately, I have been talking about train stations, though not on purpose — they’ve simply come up. I mentioned a couple in a Paris Journal. That led to some comments on New York train stations. And I mentioned a Union Station in yesterday’s Kansas City Journal.
Well, here’s another Union Station: Washington, D.C.’s. It is a beauty, one of the glories of the city. (A city of many glories.) It’s maybe a little too shopping-mall for me. But we need grand and glorious shopping malls, as well as grand and glorious train stations.
Most of the time, when I’m in Union Station, I’m rushing through it. Sometimes at a literal sprint. It’s nice to mosey, when you have the time.
Every time I return to Washington (from Manhattan), I think, “The streets are so wide. The sky is so big. The buildings are so short.” Everything is open. Then, after an hour or so — half-hour — all is normal. What I mean is, you don’t think about the differences between the place where you are and the place where you were.
Here’s something new, to me: The cabbies are now taking credit cards. But a cabbie tells me, “There’s an extra charge of $2.50.” Is this true? I don’t know — I assume it is. On hearing about the charge, I opt for cash.
I attend an event at the Willard Hotel — a place I have never been inside. Strange. I’ve passed it a thousand times, but have never gone in.
The Willard, just to remind you, is the famous and historic hotel at 14th and Pennsylvania, next to the Treasury Department (which is next to the White House).
Quick, name an opera set in the Willard Hotel. Right you are: The Ballad of Baby Doe, composed by Douglas Moore. This opera is about Horace Tabor, the Colorado Silver King, who ditched his wife for a girl named Baby — Baby Doe. Tabor met a tragic end, and so did Baby. (“And down will come baby . . .”)
Anyway, the two married in the Willard Hotel, and the opera reflects that.
Incidental intelligence: Once, after I gave a lecture at the Salzburg Easter Festival, a distinguished American came up to me and said, “You reminded me of a class I had at Columbia with Douglas Moore. I loved that class.”
I’m sorry for the boast, but people may like to know that Moore taught at Columbia. (Lame excuse for a boast.)
Quick, what great American song was written in the Willard? Well, Julia Ward Howe wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” there. (She wrote the words. The music already existed, as “John Brown’s Body.”)
Outside the Willard, there is a plaque commemorating Howe and her achievement. The following lines are quoted: “In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea / With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me.”
You won’t be singin’ that at high-school assembly . . .
If you buy something in the Willard’s gift shop, remember this: You won’t get a bag. You can pay for a bag. Five cents. I bought a few postcards, and asked for a bag. There was a charge, for this itty-bitty bag: five cents.
Does that seem right?
As I’m in a boasting mood: I’m from something rare, namely an old Washington family. Washington is a transient town, owing to the government. At least it has been. What with a semi-permanent governing class, maybe things are different now. Anyway, my people got here — Village of Georgetown — at the end of the Civil War. All four of my father’s grandparents were born within D.C. city limits. Etc., etc.
Anyway, a block from the Willard — at 13th and F — stood the shop owned by my great-grandfather. Walter Johnson, the Big Train, was a customer.
Okay, I think I’m done boasting . . .
Let me quote my grandmother: “If Washington were a European city, we would ooh and ah over it. But because it’s ours, we overlook its beauty, or take it for granted.” True. What a beautiful, beautiful city. If we had to travel over an ocean to get here — and if the people here spoke a foreign language — we would realize that more easily, I believe.
Is the above a boast? No — I didn’t have squat to do with Washington’s beauty, and neither did my family (to the best of my knowledge).
Every time I come here, the sites seem more and more off-limits. Security is beefier. I remember when Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House closed to traffic — to cars, that is. That was during Clinton’s first term. In the next campaign, Bob Dole pledged to reopen Pennsylvania Avenue.
I’m sure it was right to close that part of the street — a prudent measure. My kin remember the old days, though: You could simply go up to the White House and knock on the door.
There are of course trade-offs between liberty and security. President Obama once denied that. Indeed, he poured scorn on people who acknowledged the fact. Now he is an acknowledger.
But shouldn’t he kind of apologize to those he scorned?
I’m pleased to find that I can divorce the White House — as a building, as an institution, as a symbol — from its current occupant. It is still a thrill to see the White House.
Like you, I’m in favor of free speech. But am I in favor of amplified speech? I have always chafed at this, thinking it an infringement on others’ liberty, and peace.
I’m walking the grounds of the Capitol, and someone is hollering into a microphone. He is hollering for Obama’s impeachment. I’m all for hollering against Obama. But why can’t you talk at a reasonable volume to the 20 or so people around you? Why do you have to subject people for hundreds of yards, in all directions, to your hollering?
There was no way to visit the Capitol grounds — and those grounds are vast — without hearing this hollering. That’s not free speech. That’s a public nuisance.
I once knew a man who pronounced this word in three syllables: “NEW-ih-sance.”
The Supreme Court has a scrim on its façade — a drape depicting the façade of the Supreme Court. Disconcerting. It’s as though we’re looking at a play or opera that features the Supreme Court.
You can’t go up the steps. Security or police will stop you. When I lived in Washington, couples had their wedding photos taken on the steps all the time. Is it really necessary to make the steps off-limits?
The Washington Monument is covered in scaffolding. A pity. There have long been people who have called the monument “phallic.” There are people who just can’t think other than sexually. Well, if the monument is a you-know-what, the scaffolding looks like a kind of — well, we used to call them “rubbers.”
I have a feeling that’s a very old-fashioned word.
Actually, “rubbers” used to mean what you wore on your feet when it rained. And, in Britain, it meant pencil erasers — probably still does.
When I lived here, I knew a woman whose great-grandmother — possibly great-great — played in the Washington Monument, as it was going up. This same girl was taken by her father to see the hanging of the Lincoln conspirators. He wanted her to see that evil was punished.
Between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, I linger before the John Paul Jones monument. It is very well done. Stirring. There’s a somewhat whimsical fish, with water streaming out of its mouth. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that JPJ is a less big deal in American life than he once was. Are kids taught about him?
I can never remember what he said. “Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes”? No. The line belonging to him, immortally, is, “I have not yet begun to fight.”
I’m glad to see the Lincoln Memorial — maybe the best place in America — in good shape. Not long ago, the words on the wall were “dripping.” They were streaked, green. Now everything is sharp, clean, and clear.
I meet a colleague at a restaurant I’m unfamiliar with: Edgar, in the Mayflower Hotel. It’s named after someone who ate at the Mayflower a lot — the late FBI director.
Everyone knows that Washington used to be a southern town — a “sleepy little southern town,” to use the cliché. It is still that, still southern, when you meet some old-time Washingtonians (white or black). Very soon, that’ll all be gone, I suppose.
We used to say that Theodore Roosevelt Island, in the Potomac, was a “hidden gem.” It ain’t so hidden now, judging by this Saturday morning. It’s packed, and rightfully so.
I glance over at the TR monument. Frankly, he looks to me a little like Lenin, or one of the Kims. Stiff. I’m not nuts about this monument.
Am I nuts about TR? Like many a Reagan conservative, I have mixed feelings. But I’ll tell you this: I very much enjoyed reading about him when preparing my history of the Nobel Peace Prize — and I very much enjoyed reading his own words. His Nobel lecture is one of the finest meditations on peace I have ever come across.
I quote from it liberally in my book, and will give you a dose or two here:
Peace is generally good in itself, but it is never the highest good unless it comes as the handmaid of righteousness; and it becomes a very evil thing if it serves merely as a mask for cowardice and sloth, or as an instrument to further the ends of despotism or anarchy.
. . . above all, let us remember that words count only when they give expression to deeds, or are to be translated into them. The leaders of the Red Terror prattled of peace while they steeped their hands in the blood of the innocent; and many a tyrant has called it peace when he has scourged honest protest into silence.
As they say on the Internet — that’s where we are, right? — read the whole thing.
A cabbie tells me, in disgust, that the traffic lights in the city aren’t coordinated. The government ought at least to do that: coordinate the lights. As it is, you have to stop at darn near every one. There’s no smooth sailing.
Anyway, this is what the cabbie says. And he reminds me of a friend of mine in Houston — a conservative Republican, as far as I know. He supported the Democrat, Bill White, in the last gubernatorial election. Why? Because White, when mayor of Houston, coordinated the lights. You could then roll through Houston.
Which my friend thought was just great.
Here in Washington, there are masses of tourists, some from abroad, but most from around America. Parents are showing their children their capital city. Their own parents, before them, did the same, no doubt. At the Lincoln Memorial, girls skip up the steps, just as they always have. They’re counting the steps and giggling as they go.
I have grave concerns about the future of this country. But, surveying the scene in Washington, I think it’s going to be okay. It is, right?