Morning On The Mall

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.

The Eisenhower Memorial

You can’t build a new memorial in Washington, D.C. without there being some controversy about the concept, the design, and the location.  The Martin Luther King Memorial, which opened recently, has experienced its share of criticism — as has virtually every other addition to the National Mall area in the past 50 years.  Now the Memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower is being dogged by controversy.

Eisenhower clearly was one of the greatest Americans of the last century.  He led the Allied Expeditionary Force that invaded Europe and defeated Nazi Germany.  In that role, Eisenhower showed extraordinary political instincts and the ability to meld, and placate, disparate nationalities and personalities.  He was elected the 34th President, served for two terms, and left office a popular figure.  During the Eisenhower years America was prosperous and at peace, focusing on huge internal improvements like the interstate highway system and social and cultural developments like rock ‘n’ roll and television.  The Cold War with the Soviet Union was underway in earnest, and Eisenhower deftly managed to keep intermittent crises from turning the Cold War into a hot one.  His presidency also saw the federal government taking an increasing civil rights role that culminated in Eisenhower’s decision to send federal troops to ensure the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

How do you memorialize such a figure?  The Eisenhower Memorial designed by architect Frank Gehry contemplates an area in which three large metal tapestries create an interior space.  The tapestries will feature images of Kansas, where Eisenhower was born.  Within the tapestry walls will be green space, passages from three Eisenhower speeches, and three depictions of Eisenhower — as a barefoot boy, as a general, and as president.

Eisenhower’s descendants don’t like the design.  They wonder if the metal will rust, they don’t like the focus on his boyhood rather than his accomplishments, and they want the work on the memorial to be postponed to allow for reassessment of the design.  Other critics call the design “ghastly” and say the memorial fails to really communicate why Eisenhower was such a significant figure — which, they submit, is one of the main reasons for a memorial in the first place.

The opposition to the design caused the National Civic Art Society to hold a contest seeking a more classical design.  The winning entry proposes a memorial arch with depictions of Eisenhower as general and as president along with two fountains.

The National Mall area is like America’s town square.  We all feel a special pride about it, and we all have an opinion about how it should look.  Some people love the classical designs and want only more of the same.  Others urge that we experiment with other styles and approaches.  I’m not sure Americans care a great deal about the design; I think they care more about the concept and the execution.  The Vietnam War Memorial was controversial when it was proposed — depicted as a sad, black gash in the ground — but it is now a must-see for most Americans who visit Washington, D.C.  That memorial, with its somber, sinking feeling and the grim weight of those thousands of individual names, is as impressive and awesome in its own, unique way as the nearby Lincoln Memorial is in its classical fashion.

So, I’m not opposed to the concept of metal tapestries, per se, so long as they are created to withstand rust and the elements.  Instead, I question what is depicted on the tapestries.  Eisenhower certainly was shaped, in some part, by his Kansas childhood, but there was much, much more to his life.  Bucolic scenes of rolling countryside don’t communicate anything about the man, his beliefs, and his achievements — and indeed seem to distract from them.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial

Today America got its first close-up look at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C.  Although the Memorial won’t be formally dedicated until this weekend, it was opened to the public today.

The Memorial features a 30-foot tall statue of a standing Dr. King hewn from granite, as well as a wall with quotations, a bookstore, and dozens of cherry trees.  The Memorial is in a beautiful location adjacent to the Tidal Basin and about halfway between the Jefferson Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial.  Fittingly, it is in close proximity to the Lincoln Memorial, where Dr. King gave the “I have a dream” speech — arguably the most significant speech given by an American since Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address.

I think it is wonderful that a memorial to Dr. King has been included on the National Mall.  King was a profoundly influential figure whose words have inspired generations of Americans of all races and creeds.  He not only is the first person of color to be recognized on the National Mall, but also the first non-President.  Both of those firsts are long overdue.