I stopped at the Lincoln Memorial, my favorite national monument, on my visit to the National Mall early this morning. It never fails to inspire me, and I stop there whenever I can for a few minutes of silent, awed contemplation of our greatest President.
This morning I was struck by the message on the sign placed near the Lincoln statue. It’s probably unnecessary — I’ve never heard anything but hushed whispers in my prior visits — but I appreciated it nevertheless.
Don’t you wish people took heed of the sign as they talked about, say, the 2016 presidential campaign?
The National Mall in Washington, D.C., is a wonderful place, with its museums and monuments, walking paths and reflecting pool. My favorite spot on the Mall is the Lincoln Memorial. It is, quite simply, a majestic place — a kind of temple to democracy and an aspirational symbol of what the United States can and should aspire to be.
The most awesome part of the Lincoln Memorial experience is entering the interior and seeing the colossal statute of Lincoln created by sculptor Daniel Chester French. Towering nineteen feet tall, showing Lincoln seated on an enormous chair, the statute is the embodiment of our ideal of presidential character. When many of us — at least, those who have visited the Memorial –visualize Lincoln, French’s depiction is what comes to mind: deeply thoughtful, somber, placid, resolute, and reassuring. The dark shadows that sharply etch the 16th President’s craggy face play a significant role in creating that sense of calmness and historical enormity.
Interestingly, it wasn’t always that way. When the Lincoln Memorial was first dedicated in 1922, French was horrified by the lighting of the statute. French specifically created the sculpture so that shadows would define Lincoln’s face, but the skylights in the building didn’t produce sufficient overhead lighting to provide the shadows — leaving Lincoln to sit with a kind of blank, zombie-like stare, rather than projecting the sense of unwavering purpose that French had intended. It wasn’t until 1926, after large floodlights were installed into the ceiling to cast the overhead light in the right way, that French was satisfied. The photograph below of the worker installing the statue prior to the dedication gives a sense of how different Lincoln looked under the original lighting conditions.
French was right, of course — the shadows are a crucial part of what makes the Lincoln Memorial statue so memorable. It’s amazing what some light shining from the right direction can accomplish.
I had a quick trip to D.C. this morning, returning this afternoon, and it was a downer. In addition to the torrential rains and bleak skies, and the bumper-to-bumper, constant-honking, angry-gesturing traffic that made what should be a 15-minute taxi ride into an hour-long ordeal, the news on the radio was all about shutdown, shutdown, shutdown. I saw tangible evidence of our inert government when the cab drove past the Lincoln Memorial and I saw the “closed” sign and the barriers blocking off the area around the noblest structure on the National Mall.
Everybody on the streets, from the surly drivers to the sodden pedestrians, seemed deep in gloom, and I found myself sinking deeper into the mire with each fresh blast from a car horn. It’s hard not to be depressed about the state of our nation when petty politics causes the closure of even public areas that are supposed to remind us of our nation’s glory.
In a world of senseless violence, ethnic wars, random kidnappings, and suicide bombings, why get angry about some green paint splashed on a statue — particularly when the paint can be cleaned and the statue returned to its former glory?
But the vandalism at the Lincoln Memorial does make me angry. I hope they catch the twisted person who did this, and I hope they make him pay.
The Lincoln Memorial, like the rest of the National Mall, says a lot about America. Lincoln was one of our greatest Presidents, and one of our greatest Americans, period. His story tells a lot about this country, and his perseverance through the awful bloodshed of the Civil War does, too. Most Americans have seen the Lincoln Memorial, on fifth grade trips to the Nation’s Capital or on family visits there, and it is an awesome temple to the American Idea — noble and grand, humbling and moving, with Lincoln’s careful words carved on the walls and his craggy, wise head looking down upon us. We leave the Lincoln Memorial, and we feel good.
So why in the world would some idiot splash paint on Lincoln’s statue?
And while we are figuring out the answer to that question, let’s also answer this question: how could the vandal do this and get away? I hate to suggest even more surveillance cameras in this country, but the Lincoln Memorial needs to be protected. Now that this pointless act has occurred, we don’t want to give terrorists any ideas.