Whenever I come to Washington, D.C. I try to pay a visit to the monuments on the National Mall to see some old favorites and check out the new additions. On this visit, I was interested in seeing the Martin Luther King memorial. Yesterday morning provided the perfect opportunity to satisfy that urge and, in the process, replenish some good feelings about the country. I headed out from my hotel at 19th and L, walked down to the Mall, and turned right. I was not alone. It was a brisk, partly cloudy day, and a lot of people were out.
I noticed there were many people in wheelchairs out on the walkways and realized that they were an “Honor Flight” group of Vietnam veterans who were heading to the Vietnam War memorial–better known as the Wall, because it is a sunken wall engraved with every name of an American killed in action. I decided to tag along, and I’m glad I did. As I walked over I overheard the veterans sharing their memories with their children, wives, and friends. When we reached the Wall itself it was enormously moving to see these seniors rise from their wheelchairs, search for the names of lost comrades, and give a salute or shed a tear in tribute.
The Vietnam vets weren’t the only people at the Wall. A number of kids were making rubbings of names, and of course people were leaving flowers, photographs, handwritten tributes, and “thank you” notes at the base of the wall, under the engraved names of loved ones who had fallen.
The Wall is a pretty intense experience on any visit, because the sheer weight of all of those names makes a powerful impression, and the personal mementos left at the base of the wall drive home the humanity of each one of the lives that were lost. Add in a group of veterans who have come to search for the names of long-lost buddies, and you’ve got a gut punch reminder of the cost of war.
It’s interesting to recall that when the commission that decided on the design of the Vietnam War memorial chose the Wall, it was highly controversial. Some people felt it wasn’t sufficiently heroic and was too dark and unsettling. How wrong they were! The Wall has a visceral emotional impact that can’t help but make visitors reflect on the war and the men and women who served in it. What more can you ask of a memorial?
From the Vietnam War memorial I walked over to the Lincoln Memorial, my favorite monument. It remains an awesome experience. There were lots of people there, taking photos. If you visit the Lincoln Memorial, you’ve got to expect to inadvertently appear in dozens of selfies as you walk around. It’s also interesting to hear the different languages spoken by the visitors. It’s clear that Abraham Lincoln is still a historical figure who is of interest not only to Americans, but to people across the world.
Whenever I visit the Lincoln Memorial I like to try to find a quiet spot where I can stand an get an unobstructed view of the seated Lincoln statue and then read the speeches–the Gettysburg Address on one side, and the Second Inaugural Address on the other–without being disturbed. Given the crowds in the Memorial, this isn’t easy, but if you walk close enough to the statue you’re out of the selfie zone, because it’s too close to get the whole statue in the frame, and you can reflect on what Lincoln somehow accomplished.
You can get a good position to read the speeches if you stand directly behind one of the interior pillars in the Memorial. I took this picture of the carved words of the Gettysburg Address, marveling once again that the most famous speech in American history can be recorded on one wall and read in only a few moments. But even now, more than 150 years later, the stirring words, and the concepts they so perfectly captured, still have the ability to grab you. Lincoln was a great writer who managed to convey more in a few words than other politicians can express in dozens of pages.
When I left the the Lincoln Memorial the crowds were out, taking in the view of the reflecting pool, the Washington Monument, and the Capitol in the far distance. I turned right to walk over to the Martin Luther King Memorial, which is across Independence Avenue.
The entrance to the King Memorial is striking. Visitors walk through a rock formation that has been cleaved in two, with a view of the Tidal Basin through the opening. The massive statute of Dr. King appears on the other side of the missing piece of the rock formation, as if he has moved the mountain toward the water, and the theme of the memorial, written on the side of the stone bearing the likeness of Dr. King, is “Out of the Mountain of Despair, a Stone of Hope.”
The statue of Dr. King is colossal and depicts him, speech in hand, gazing thoughtfully into the distance. The Memorial also features statements by Dr. King carved into a low wall that rings the statue, and the combination of the statue and Dr. King’s writings and speeches have an undeniable impact. When you stand by the statue of Dr. King, you notice that the Memorial location affords a fine view of the Jefferson Memorial across the Tidal Basin, shown below. Interestingly, Dr. King’s statute doesn’t appear to be looking directly at the Jefferson Memorial, but at an angle to the side. I expect that was intentional.
As I exited the grounds of the Martin Luther King Memorial I turned right and walked up the Mall, past the Smithsonian Institution museums and National Gallery of Art, to the Capitol. A parade was going down Constitution Avenue, and the atmosphere was loud and boisterous. When I reached the Capitol I took in the dome and classical lines of the building, as I always do, and thought about the contrast between the graceful beauty and power and grandeur of the building and the petty politics of its occupants. I found myself wishing that our current political class had more of the spirit of Dr. King, President Lincoln, and those Vietnam War soldiers–all of whom paid the ultimate sacrifice for our country.