Washington, D.C., is a great place to visit. Recently the pleasure was ours. We joined the other thousands of tourists and school kids hoping to see the Japanese cherry trees do their singular, stunning task of springtime blossoming.
In 1912, the cherry trees were a gift from the mayor of Tokyo to U.S. first lady Helen “Nellie” Taft. The botanical gesture was from the emerging militarized imperial power that in only 29 years would send bombs, not blooms.
Stealing from the British about their capital, it can be said, “If you don’t like Washington, you don’t like to live.” Walking the streets of the district with an ear open to different languages must have been similar to strolling the lanes of London at the height of its sun-drenched empire. Sounds from all over the world populate the air. Beyond the conversations, observing the enormous variety of facial features it becomes obvious that there are limited northern European genes swimming in the worldwide pool.
The city is a seat of power and site of history. The Newseum informs the attendees of both. The six floors chronicle the continuous struggle of those in control to not only make history but also write it for their own purposes. The First Amendment including the freedom of speech and press is the bulwark against politically selected or fabricated memory.
The building houses lunch counter stools from a civil rights sit-in. Law-enforced segregation was a fact of life for the people of color in this fragment of Maryland. It is the city where both slaves were sold and Liberty adorns the top of the Capitol.
Being served delicious treats in a French bakery on Pennsylvania Avenue, I thought of the irony. A man of African heritage was selling the pastries, and I asked sarcastically if the restaurant were segregated, intimating the times had changed and that I, a white male, needed permission to sit. He laughed. Yet it is not a joke that descendants of slaves, ladies and gentlemen in our lifetime, were told they could not eat at a Woolworths.
L’Enfant planned a city of monuments. Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson are the most notable. Their grandeur reflects our admiration. The two Roosevelts also have their tributes; the elder, who started national parks, appropriately has a Potomac island preserved in his honor. His younger cousin is remembered for his leadership not limited by his physical disabilities during the Depression and World War II. Reagan has an airport named for him.
Then there are the war memorials. The most impressive is the world’s largest bronze statue of the Marines and seamen raising the Stars and Stripes on Mount Suribachi.
Heroism is balanced with tragic human reality when one visits shrines to the conflicts of our times, Vietnam and Korea.
Black stone immortalizes the soldiers. Words remember the revolutionaries, reformers, and men and women who seek a better world. Thoughtful speeches move masses to action, inspire armies and enlighten minds. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Speech are etched in marble on either side of his gigantic noble presence. Jefferson’s wisdom is preserved for the ages in his modern Pantheon. Martin Luther King’s call for peace in a world of violence still needs to be repeated until we listen.
Washington is the quintessential contradiction. Within the city’s boundaries all sides of the political argument invoke the name of Providence. Yet Lincoln noted in his second swearing-in, God could not answer the prayers of both petitioning foes.
There are the richly tailored lobbyists on K Street and homeless who sleep on nearby park benches. The Capitol is breathtaking. The machinations within can take the breath away. Foreign agents spy, and there is a museum dedicated to their craft. Wars are remembered, but the complete suffering can never be cast in bronze.
We are citizens of a superpower, but we couldn’t make the cherry trees turn pink.
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, a practicing pediatrician for 30 years, and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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