Washington DC

September 5, 2021
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FROM New York it was only a four-hour ride to the US Capital of Washington in the District of Columbia, spelt Washington DC for short.

I stayed in the Southwest district. I booked on Airbnb for $75 a night and hoped it would be better than the last one.

There were plastic knives and forks in the kitchen,and dog hair and dust on the carpet in the lounge. But at least my room was clean. They were subletting the room out illegally, but I ignored that.

The first day, I bused into the city with a $15 hop-on hop-off ticket that I’d purchased on Groupon and went sight-seeing. I got off in the front of the White House and walked around to take it all in. There are security guards around the White House, of course. You cannot drive around that area, but have to walk. I got photos of the garden that Michelle Obama started for school children.

I walked past the Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building, where I think I caught sight of Barack Obama. The security made everybody stop. We weren’t allowed to cross the street, and he was followed by people on motorbikes.

The hop on, hop off bus was truly worthwhile. It was with Big Bus Tours, an authorized concessionaire of the National Park Service and the National Mall and Memorial Parks. They operate four colour-coded tours, the red loop on the National Mall, the blue loop past Arlington and other military sites, the yellow loop around the White House and Georgetown, and the green loop through the parks and past the National Cathedral, which is closed in winter.

I went to the Arlington Cemetery where John F. Kennedy and the early- 1900s President and later Chief Justice William Howard Taft are buried.

Seeing all the memorials and witnessing the changing of the guard in Arlington was amazing. It’s a national shrine. There are thousands of soldiers buried there as well as various prominent state leaders, and it makes you aware of the sacrifice the US has made in various wars around the world and its own Civil War.

In Arlington, it was a profoundly humbling moment to be able to visit the gravesites of John and Jacqueline Kennedy (later, Onassis), which are marked by an eternal flame. John F. Kennedy was a President I admired. He was the 35th President of the United States, and made progress on a lot of good things before he was assassinated in 1963. The Arlington Cemetery had a lot to see, like the changing of the guard, the tomb of the Unknown Soldier (properly known as the Tomb of the Unknowns, as there is more than one), and the Memorial Amphitheatre.

I went to the Lincoln Memorial, dedicated to the Civil War-era President who also fell to an assassin. The Lincoln memorial was the place where Martin Luther King gave his ‘I have a dream’ address, inscribed on the footsteps.

Then I went to an art museum and saw a painting of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States. Apparently when he was standing for the presidency, he got a letter from an eleven-year-old girl named Grace Bedell, who told him that without a beard he wouldn’t win the presidency. After being made President, he stopped in to see the child and thank her for her election-winning tip. I think that tells you what kind of person he was. I learned a lot at that museum, and it would turn out to be one of the highlights of my trip to DC. I saw a photo of one group of black troops from the north who had volunteered to fight, and who all died in the course of the war (not the photo in the collage that follows).

I wasn’t even aware that the North had had a black brigade. In fact, about 200,000 African Americans served in the Union Army and Navy: most were known at the time as US Colored Troops.

My American civics education was proceeding by leaps and bounds. I soon discovered that President Lincoln’s first inaugural address (1861) is one of the classics of the English language: full of phrases that have become part of everyday speech such as ‘the better angels of our nature’.

In the Lincoln Memorial, two shorter pieces were inscribed on the walls, the Gettysburg Address of 1863 and his second inaugural address of 1865. It was quite humbling to read these, too.

Then there was the Memorial to Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson, who came from Virginia, was the 3rd President of the United States. Before that, he was the main author of the Declaration of the Independence. He served as President from 1801 to 1809. The Jefferson Memorial also contains excerpts from Jefferson’s writings on the walls.

The bus driver pointed out to me that Washington DC was right next door to Virginia, which is on the other side of the Potomac River. This led straight on to a few other interesting stories, including the origin of Arlington, which is not in DC but in Virginia, which went with the South in the American Civil War. Since Virginia went with the South, that meant that Washington was technically on the front line, though the Virginia side of the Potomac was soon occupied by the North and firmly defended for the duration. Arlington was the family estate of the South’s most famous general, Robert E. Lee. The northern occupiers turned Lee’s fields into the famous cemetery; an unwelcome surprise for Lee when he came back from the war and discovered the full extent of the transformation, no doubt.

The bus stopped by the Washington Monument, close to where the District of Columbia War Memorial, a World War I memorial, stood. And also the memorial to US Civil War general and subsequent President, Ulysses S. Grant.

The National World War II Memorial has 56 pillars grouped around a plaza, pillars that symbolize the 48 states of the World War II-era USA, its seven federal territories and the District of Columbia; it was a beautiful memorial.

Even though New Zealand later went anti-nuclear and effectively pulled out of its 1951 ANZUS defence alliance with the USA and Australia, the fact is that New Zealand and Australia both owed their relative freedom from invasion and attack in World War II to the American military effort in the Pacific.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial bore the names of more than 58,000 American service personnel who died in that war, engraved into a black granite wall. I had seen a memorial to the same conflict in Vietnam some years before; I had now seen Vietnam memorials on both sides. I visited the memorial to the Korean War as well. This was organised around a platoon of stainless-steel statues of troops in ponchos,walking along in an imaginary rainstorm, with some photographs of those who fell eerily etched into another black granite wall.

We went past the Pentagon. The Pentagon was attacked on 9/11 so it was all guarded off. We just drove around all of those places. I could have walked around but travel does get tiring.

The capital city of the United States, Washington DC is a hive of monuments, museums, art and history. It’s somewhere you want to go as a traveller at least once in a lifetime. There is no shortage of sights to visit, things to do and places to be in Washington DC.

Geographically, the District of Columbia borders the states of both Virginia and Maryland, on the east coast on the United States.

The city of Washington was established as the permanent capital of the United States under the Residence Act of 1790. The Act stipulated that Philadelphia would remain the capital until 1800, to allow a reasonable interval for construction.

The famous city plan by Pierre l’Enfant was publicized in 1792, by which time the new capital had already been given the name of Washington. The District of Columbia, as distinct from the city, was created somewhat later. The city was named in honour of George Washington, the very first President of the United States (1789–1797). Today, the American capital has a population of a bit over 600,000. But with people living outside the city that come there for work, the population goes up to around a million from Monday to Friday.

On a history roll, I visited the National Museum of the American Indian, which was shaped like a rock. The day I went they had a husband, wife and son team of dancers from the Squamish people of British Columbia in Canada, who were closely related to Chief Seattle’s people on the other side of the modern-day frontier. They gave a fantastic one-hour performance.

The woman in the family group had done her PhD on native American culture and had choreographed the modern dances to ancient songs and wore beautiful clothing and outfits.

She talked about her son receiving his Squamish name when he turned 18 and how that had meant dancing and celebrations. She talked about how her ancestors had to leave their tribal lands and move to Alaska. The hardship that her ancestors had to endure meant that they did have a lot of benefits by comparison today, which she acknowledged. She also talked about the North Dakota pipeline and how water is a sacred right, so that everyone should be entitled to free clean drinking water. The way she put it was just so positive and I decided I just had to go to North Dakota to see the protesting. It was happening right at that moment on Standing Rock Reservation, and it was receiving international attention.

The museum had Native American food in the café which was really interesting and tasted amazing; I was truly impressed.

The National Museum of the American Indian is one of seventeen separate Smithsonian museums in Washington. The one most people probably think of as ‘the Smithsonian’ is the National Air and Space Museum (NASM), which displays the Spirit of St Louis in which Charles Lindbergh made the first solo flight of the Atlantic in 1927 and the Apollo 11 Command Module which once orbited the moon, among other remarkable items. But the NASM is just one of nineteen Smithsonian museums, in fact.

Of the other Smithsonian museums, their specialisms include aspects of African American life, natural history, American history, art, and other topics. There are seventeen Smithsonian museums in and around Washington DC, as well as two more in New York. They are all named after benefactor Joseph Smithson, who died in 1829 and willed over half a million dollars, a considerable fortune in those days, to the US Government to establish an educational institute to be called the Smithsonian.

Remarkably enough, Smithson was an Englishman who never visited the United States. He died in Italy and was buried in Genoa. In 1904, his remains were transported to Washington DC and reinterred in a place of honour, amid great ceremony.

I made a booking to go to Capitol Hill on Monday morning. There was no way that I could actually get a visit to the White House as you need to book it three months in advance. This was disappointing, and well worth bearing in mind if you planning to visit the city yourself.

It was incredible to think that just a few years later the Capitol would be stormed by the rioters of January 6th, 2021, looking for Vice President Mike Pence with more-or-less murderous intent while pretending at the same time to be tourists. A lot of people are calling for an inquiry to really get to the bottom of how this happened and who put the rioters, or “insurrectionists” as US Capitol Police officer Harry Dunn called them in his testimony, up to it, but the Republican Party has so far blocked such an inquiry.

I met interesting people all the time here too. Many were very open to talking with me. Where I stayed in the Southwest there was a great supermarket — Target, where I could get healthy salads and other good food. I met a Nigerian woman at Target who worked in DC. She moved there in 2004 to an apartment and was hoping to bring her family out, but her husband found another woman and her sister brought up her children. I think she finds life here expensive and quite hard.

I visited the remarkable Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, more elaborate than an earlier, 1965 memorial that is just a block of granite with his name and dates on it. As with other monuments, the Franklin D. Roosevelt one includes quotes. I really agreed with this one: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have little.”

FDR’s wife, Eleanor, was distinguished in her own right, and became the first US ambassador to the United Nations.

The Martin Luther King Jr. memorial was also very moving. It is organized around a statue of Dr King emerging from stone, a statue which looks unfinished, as if Dr King’s work is unfinished, the body only half free of the rock: which is probably the impression the sculptor desired to convey.

Washington really is the city of memorials and monuments.

The U. S. Capitol building was begun in 1800. It has 108 windows and there is a statue on top of it which represents freedom. The statue faces east, so that the sun never sets on the face of freedom.

There was a very interesting tale of how lobbyists came about. Apparently, President Grant used to drink whiskey in one of the local pubs and people used to go into the lobby to get his attention, and that is how the term lobbyist originated!

The tour went on. It turned out that the only woman to have a building named after her so far was Francis Perkins who was the first woman appointed to the US Cabinet, in the capacity of Secretary of Labor for twelve years under Franklin D. Roosevelt. Thus, the Francis Perkins Building contains the US Department of Labor today.

The White House was built between 1792 and 1800 and has 175 rooms, including 18 bathrooms. It is made of sandstone, which by tradition has always been painted white, and thus it is the White House.

Also impressive is the nearby Old Post Office, which Donald Trump renovated into a hotel before becoming President.

In a 2017 tweet, a former (2007–2013) Mexican ambassador, Arturo Sarukhan, accused the State Department of recommending the hotel to foreign dignitaries while Trump was President. Meanwhile, the Trump family has maintained a direct financial stake in the hotel. Earlier presidents would probably have sold out of the hotel if they had been in a similarly conflicted position.


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