If it seems like an age since I promised to bring you my observations on Washington DC, it’s only because, well, because it’s been three weeks and, as you know, a week is a long time in politics, even longer if you’re travelling. Since I wheeled my suitcase out of the Wodehouse convention, I’ve put a week in Manhattan, a continent, an ocean and an unwelcome dose of the coughs and sneezes between me and the capital capital.
I am now, of course, by Wodehousean measure an Expert on the United States, if not all things American. My first piece in this series explained why this would be so and I see no reason not to claim Expert status. In three weeks, I supplemented my infrequent visits to the US over 30 years with a second train journey from the west coast across what I’ve seen referred to as “flyover country”, starting in San Francisco rather than Los Angeles (as I did 20-odd years ago), setting foot in Chicago, conventioneering in DC and marching through Manhattan. I have transported, housed, fed and watered myself mostly in ways not much different from those of the people around me, sometimes better than average and sometimes less than. In Washington I stayed in a rundown hotel that catered for the budget tourist and consequently was full to the brim with school groups, some of them foreign. The Wodehouse convention meant I was closeted for three days with a couple of hundred middle Americans from all over the country – all reasonably affluent, it is safe to say; mostly of a certain age, but not all; mostly white, but not all; and mostly Anglo, but not all.
I am an Expert then, and it is from this exalted position I declare that I’m damned if I know. I no more understand America than all the others who have traipsed through that vast and diverse experiment in civilisation. The only thing I have concluded is that, if you want to understand America, as everyone is always trying to do, you need to start in Washington DC.
This might seem counter-intuitive, given the way other Experts of all persuasions have fanned out across the nation over the past year, trying to get a handle on what happened in the Presidential election. Mostly, it seems to me, they’re trying to find out where they went wrong in their prognostications. If they really wanted to understand their own country, I reckon they should start by joining a tour group at the Capitol. Not only would they actually meet “deplorables”, they would hear what it is ordinary Americans are told about the foundations of their country and what it is they, oh so deeply, believe about it. Go to the source is an early lesson in journalism, and this is it.
As anyone knows who has eyes to see and a TV to switch on, the United States Capitol is a gleaming white, neo-classical, domed pile built on a hill overlooking the broad sweep of the National Mall past the reflecting pool and the Washington Monument down to the Lincoln Memorial at the western end on the banks of the Potomac River. I bought a lapel pin at one of the Capitol souvenir shops. It has a quite handsome enamel image of the dome against a red background, which I shall be quite pleased to wear. But I’m a little reluctant to separate it from its card because the blurb on that card is a masterpiece of writing – maybe not the Gettysburg Address but in its own way a gem of succinct prose:
The United States Capitol is the most widely recognized symbol of democratic government is the world. It has housed Congress since 1800. The Capitol is where Congress meets to write the laws of this nation, and where presidents are inaugurated and deliver their State of the Union messages. For more than two centuries, the Capitol has grown along with the nation, adding new wings to accommodate the increasing number of senators and representatives as new states entered the Union. Its ceilings are decorated with historic images, and its halls are lined with statues and paintings representing great events and people from the nation’s history.
The 1875 Appleton’s guide book, so beloved of Michael Portillo, says simply: “It is probably the most magnificent public edifice in the world.
Since 2008, visitors have had access to the Capitol via a huge two-level bunker under the building – not a bit under, but right under – approached through an unobtrusive entrance on the eastern plaza (the back side of the building, above). This “visitors’ centre” is not unlike a railway station – a big open space and booking windows where you acquire your ticket for a tour or maybe a seat in the gallery of the Senate or the House of Representatives. Off to the sides are a large cafeteria and at least three souvenir shops. You can book tours in advance or, if you’re like me, just blow in and wait your turn, which on the day I went meant a few minutes in a queue, and getting organised into manageable groups.
The tour starts with a movie (of course: this is America) explaining where you are and the meaning of it all. Then, equipped with a radio receiver and earphones, you follow your guide upstairs and down, round the corridors, while he or she points out the salient features. I’m not going to reproduce that here, even if I could, but housed under that familiar dome, as the pin card says, is all the grandeur and pomp of what I term the imperial republic of the United States of America.
Our guide on my day was a young man with a basketballer’s name whom I took to be of African American heritage, at least in part. He had a very smooth and dead-pan, witty line of patter, which lightened the necessary dullness of “the Capitol was built in . . .” and “the statue in front of us . . .” One remark he made has stayed with me.
George Washington’s presence is everywhere in the Capitol. The crypt was supposed to be his tomb but he willed that his body be buried at his home, so the space is empty. High up under the dome is a painting very reminiscent of the Sistine Chapel ceiling called The Apotheosis of George Washington – that is, the first president becoming a god. On the wall of the rotunda under the dome, among many large historical paintings, is one of Washington resigning his commission as a general. Our guide stated this really meant he was declining an offer to become king. Then he said: “George Washington refused to be king, so we made him a god instead.” He did not smile. He is possibly the only master of irony in Washington DC, if not the whole of the USA.
Another founding father, Thomas Jefferson, apparently insisted when the Federal capital was being planned that the home of Congress be named the Capitol, a designation associated with the Capitoline Hill of Ancient Rome. This was the site of Rome’s most important temple and it was surrounded by the Area Capitolina, a precinct where certain assemblies met, and numerous shrines, altars, statues and victory trophies were displayed. In Washington DC today, the Capitol is at the heart of a precinct of Federal Government buildings, all linked by a labyrinth of tunnels. Monuments abound. And they are all in various incarnations of classical architecture. Even nearby Union Station, from which I entered and departed Washington, was built in the same style.
This is pomp and circumstance well before Elgar gave it to the British Empire. The tone is entirely deliberate. The Founding Fathers set out to create a capital city that reflected the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and expressed their ambitions for their fledgling nation, even then glimpsing its manifest destiny. Born in revolutionary zeal, theirs was not to be a country which compromised on freedom and democracy, nor surrendered anything to Britain or France or any of the European empires. This was the New World and its capital was to be greater than anything from the old.
This is the Myth upon which the United States of America is built and that Myth is embodied in all the stones, in all the concrete and steel of all of Washington’s monuments, museums and institutions. And day by day, as the tour buses roll through, that Myth is being continually defended, reinforced and disseminated. You have to go to Washington and see it and feel it. The Stars and Stripes flying proudly over a forlorn little cottage beside the railroad in the middle of the desert then becomes understandable. The loyalty of people who have little reason to be loyal becomes explicable. Even the insularity of Americans becomes clear.
The point, it seems to me, is that when you see upheavals in the US, as one section of the populace or another rises in loud and often violent protest, it’s not the Disunited States on show. It’s quite the contrary. The Myth is real; the people live it and breathe it. They are united in their belief – it’s just that those who feel left out, or pushed out, want (back) in. It’s their birthright. SPQ . . . not R . . . A.
For those not up with the modern world, the above is not a typo. There is in Washington an institution called just that, and I thought it was dedicated to exploring and explaining the world of news, journalism and the media. As an old-time hack I made it my first stop in my tour of DC, ahead of even Union Station.
It is a six-level, modern edifice of concrete, steel and glass on Pennsylvania Avenue, the direct road link between the White House and the Capitol. Once you get inside, having paid your $15 for two days’ access, you receive a visitor’s guide which states on its cover: “The Newseum promotes, explains and defends free expression and the five freedoms of the First Amendment.” Mmmm, not quite what I was expecting but, to be fair, I hadn’t done any preparation. Clearly, then, everything to do with news in the Newseum is related to the text for the day, any day, the First Amendment to the US Constitution (1791): “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Everywhere you go in the place, you get a good dose of this from the Big Brother screens that constantly blare out “information” about what you’re seeing, and indeed what you’re not seeing. The ideals of the First Amendment cannot, and should not, be denied, but various illuminated faces are on continuous loops declaring that freedom of speech in the US is absolute, despite the contrary being demonstrably the fact of the matter. Somewhere in the place some nonentity is quoted as saying something along the lines that you are free to speak but not free to be stupid. Right there is a limit on freedom of speech, leaving aside all the other issues that statement raises. I suppose that if I’d started shouting some of the many words prohibited these days just about everywhere in the US, or places influenced by the US (like Australia), I’d have been shut down quickly and thrown out of the joint, maybe even arrested and charged under the hate speech laws. It takes only a quick perusal of Wikipedia to discover the limits on freedom of speech and the other four freedoms in the First Amendment. The Newseum does not even start to acknowledge the case.
There’s more. The guide book advises you to start your tour on the sixth-floor balcony from which you get a brilliant view of the Capitol. I would like to think that the positioning of the Newseum and its view of the seat of power is a metaphor for the tensions that must always exist between government and the media – the eyes of the people, if you will. However, the received message from the Newseum is that the media, empowered by the First Amendment, is in fact an institution within the body politic – the Fourth Estate, in the British tradition – and, underneath all the show and bluster of the daily news cycle, has a symbiotic, rather than antagonistic, relationship with the shining white symbol on the hill.
Two current exhibitions on at the Newseum put a QED for me on this assertion. One is a gallery of photographs labelled Creating Camelot, marking the centennial – I would have said “centenary” but let it go – of the birth of John F. Kennedy. The other is Inside Today’s FBI: Fighting Crime in the Age of Terror.
The Kennedy show is entirely of pictures by Jacques Lowe, a photographer who became embedded with the Kennedys during JFK’s campaign for President and stayed on until the fatal day in Dallas. Lowe created all the images that the rest of the media turned into Camelot. Nowhere does the Newseum address what we all know more than half a century later: the Kennedy Camelot was as much a myth (no capital letter on this one) as that of King Arthur. Emblazoned above it all is a quote from JFK’s father, Joe, that they were going to sell Jack like a can of peas. I would like to think someone smart added this to the display to lend some counterpoint to the Camelot contrivance. But, like the view from the balcony, I doubt it. The whole tone of the exhibition is one of approval and admiration. Oh, you might say, the presidency and the government are two different entities – and you’d be right. The government sits on the hill and the presidency way down on the other side of the paddock. The physical separation reinforces the constitutional. But there have been times in America when the two have become synonymous, and the Kennedy years, from the outside at least, constituted one of them. The message I received from the Newseum was: “We did this. We created Camelot and it was good.”
I didn’t enter the FBI exhibit. I just couldn’t. The FBI is clearly in PR campaign mode, with feel-good stuff placed strategically around Washington, and heaven knows it does need some good PR at present. I have no problem with that. But for the Newseum to mount a display by a powerful police force that has often been an enemy of the five freedoms of the First Amendment is perplexing, to say the least. Perhaps some Federal funding found its way down Pennsylvania Avenue.
The Newseum, I am sad to say, is more about propaganda than anything else. It promotes and defends, as it says, but doesn’t do much explaining in its stated focus on free expression and the five freedoms of the First Amendment. The news, journalism and the media are merely tools in its self-appointed mission, and its positioning at the heart of government.
I don’t know of any railway station anywhere that is as much part of a deliberate nationalistic image as Union Station in Washington DC. It was built in 1907-08 in response to legislators’ wish to banish the messy and noisy railroads from the middle of the grand Washington Plan that the capital managers were busy turning into the place we see today. The two major railroads servicing Washington came together under its roof (hence Union Station, like all the other Union Stations dotted around the US).
The result is a neo-classical building within walking distance of the Capitol in the style of the other grand (not say grandiose) buildings of the Capitol precinct. Indeed, the architect is said to have based his design on sketches he made of the Baths of Diocletian in Rome. One author in my library described it this way:
Detraining, one crossed southwesterly through the huge glassed-over concourse, into the vaulted Main Hall with its high Constantinian arches and gold-leafed ceiling panels, and out under mammoth military statuary into the Plaza, which opened on lawns and gardens leading directly to the Mall and the Capitol. This was a gateway rather than a central square. Visitors to the new Rome were initiated through a succession of environments providing a proper transition from the earthiness of trackside to the grandeur of the Capitol dome. Outside, the marble cornices, the arched entries, the epic inscriptions, and the plaza fountains constituted a fitting monument to the Columbian spirit embodied in the railroad and the nation over which the capital presided.
In practical terms, what the railroads did with this vision was to keep themselves close to the heart of government and, not incidentally, make their presence indispensable. Which is the way it was for nigh on half a century until the post WWII decline of the railroads made the florid edifices of major stations burdens to their owners. Many, like Pennsylvania Station in New York, fell under the wrecker’s ball. Others lay rotting away for years while passenger services were relegated to demountable sheds and single track platforms. You can still see this today, if you have travelled as far on Amtrak as I have. Once-grand stations have become bus stops.
Union Station in Washington has been saved by turning it into a shopping mall. Mind you, what you see today represents several attempts over half a century to make the place viable as a commercial enterprise. I gather that the shopping part of the station was much bigger and busier when it was first established and I have to say that as of October 2017 trading looked not much more than desultory. The irony of it all is that, as a station, it’s probably never been busier, nor more important, with the growth of commuter traffic from the suburbs and towns of Maryland and Virginia, and with the demand for less hassle in transport along the Washington-Philadelphia-New York-Boston corridor.
The result is that the edifice part of the station – the main hall, the side halls and the shops – is airy, open and spacious (albeit with few places to sit) and the train side is closed-in and crowded worse than airport departure lounges, not a little dingy and staffed by Amtrak people who couldn’t care less. The departure procedure is regimented in a way that I now recognise is standard throughout the land of the free – you get in line where and when you’re told, you use ESP to divine what those instructions are as signage is at a minimum and, when released through the platform doors by the guardians of the queue, you make a mad dash for the train.
The whole experience is summed up by a mini-incident I had in a Walgreens shop in Washington. I rolled up at the checkout with my modest needs – toothpaste, I think – and waited while a woman at the counter completed her purchases. She went and I presented. The woman on the cash register refused to deal with me. “You have to go through the line,” she insisted, twice when I protested that I was the only person there. What I had to do was wind around through the roped-off, designated queue line. She was adamant and I had to stifle my annoyance because I knew what the result would be if I didn’t. That’s the way it is, I’m afraid: you keep your mouth shut and you do as you’re told.
NEXT: Mr Wodehouse Goes to Washington
To stop the pedants from revolting, let me just note that the word “media” when used as a collective to describe the many mediums of communication has long since lost its plurality. I am a staunch defender of the English language but it’s not on my agenda to deny the sense of new usages like this.
The quote about Union Station comes from Making Tracks by Terry Prindell (1988), a man who took a year off his work as a teacher to travel the then 30,000 miles of the Amtrak system. It is a measure of the way Amtrak has failed to reinvent itself that, 30 years on, Terry’s work remains a reasonable picture of the network.