Every once in awhile, I will take a moment to walk the National Mall and mingle among the tourists. I do this to dull the jadedness that is inevitable when a former tourist makes Washington, DC their home. Tourists bring all of the joy and whimsy and awe that once inspired the migration of countless policy wonks, civics nerds and political science majors to move here. When I start to feel a bit of that idealism fading, I know it is time for that reminder, and I usually start at the feet of Abe.
The Lincoln Memorial is never without visitors. I have been there at the early AM, when the morning light moves like a long spotlight from behind the Capitol dome, illuminating the long green miles from one end, past the Smithsonians and the Washington Monument, through the recent World War II Memorial, and onward down the reflecting pool to Abe’s end of America’s front yard. At that hour, the ducks sleep in the reflecting pool as bureaucrats go for their morning jog in bad shorts and old tees around the Mall, and the homeless wake and work their way to the National Park bathrooms for a private morning scrub.
I have ventured mid-day to see Abe, with the throngs of tourists not only from every corner of America but the globe. The cacophony of America’s dialects–Bostonian, Creole, Valley Girl, Twang, Chicagoland and Pittsburghese–blend with Chinese, Russian, German, Spanish, and languages foreign to even my ear. You can’t get close to the big man in his chair, tour groups cram in and on the grand staircase, taking in the long vista back toward the Capitol and in their mind’s eye, to Old Europe and the infancy of civilization.
Years ago, in the late evening and before the security cameras drooped like acorns off the edges of the temple, I would go very late to see Abe in solitude. Many tourists–the drunk 2 AM variety–have scaled Abe’s lap for that defiant kind of facebook photo. (Your author will not admit to those shenanigans).
Why do we flock to Abe? Do we ever take a moment to ask why a nation, founded on secular principles, deified a human in a Greek Temple? The Mall is rife with this kind of history–the Great Man theory–of Washington (the warlord), Jefferson (the hypocrite who owned slaves), Grant (another warlord) and so on. The few times the common American is honored is for his sacrifice in war–Vietnam, World War II, and Korea. As you might already suspect, no monument built on the Mall was ever finished without controversy. The Civil War and near-bankruptcy of the nation during Reconstruction kept the Washington Monument from completion for nearly 80 years. The Lincoln Memorial was challenged as pagan, then extravagant, then too far removed from the city core. The Jefferson Memorial–the last of the temples–was interrupted by depression and war and was considered stylistically derivative by the time it was finished. Not to mention the gnashing of teeth by the conservative city planners over Maya Lin’s masterstroke–the deep wound in the earth, the black marble, and the names of every fallen common man that collectively comprise the Vietnam Memorial. The Mall takes on the look of a book written by committee–the National Capitol Planning Commission–who dithered over FDR’s memorial, closed the Mall forever to new monuments after the controversial Martin Luther King Memorial, and are today embroiled over building a tribute to Eisenhower either in the approved modern mode by Frank Gehry or another stentorian temple as promoted by the Eisenhower progeny.
That sort of thinking is what I hope to shelve when I wander among the tourists and see Abe with eyes anew. There is nothing really unique about the style–you recognize the Greek temple, the Doric columns, the god at the center. The style is not all that important as the idea it enshrines.
As many authors have said, before Lincoln, the way you would describe our country’s name was “The United States are.” After Lincoln, we write “The United States is.” The Civil War settled the idea of states’ rights, no matter the modern claims to that idea. Lincoln of course is remembered for the end of slavery, however, history may have glossed over Lincoln’s political pragmatism. People forget Lincoln did not favor integration, just emancipation. That is what I think people get out of visiting Lincoln, aside from the selfie that WILL appear on facebook. Lincoln is enigmatic. People get out of him what they see in him. Some see the pragmatist. Some see the Emancipator. Some see a universal symbol of America.
A family approaches me. They always do. They are the sort looking for a friendly enough face, a face that after years of jovial Midwestern nurturing will meet expectations.
“Can you take a picture of me and my family?” asks the stranger, in a mild accented English.
I oblige. Sometimes, if I can detect their native tongue, I will aim the camera, and count to three in their language before offering up the “cheese” and the click of the button. (The Chinese always awkwardly giggle. The Germans and French are annoyed. The Turks? They might buy you lunch.)
Camera returned, and image approved. I ask “…and from where are you visiting?”
Mission accomplished. A tourist interaction. And a good thing I didn’t try Danish, as I don’t think I could even wing it.
Sometimes I might ask why they visit. They may respond with a general love of American spirit, energy, and freedom. They might just want to tick off the tourist attractions, just as Americans do with the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, or the Sphinx. Sometimes they ask me from where I am visiting. They sometimes seem shocked that I am a local, especially if I am wagging from my job and enjoying a sunny, cool, humidity free day in the District. I never tell them that it is their energy and awe that I am looking for, as it sounds a bit Pollyannaish, or eccentrically stalker-like.
Of the monument itself, years of visiting Abe have clued me into some more interesting curiosities about the monument. First, there is the mistake in the carved words of the Second Inaugural Address, on the right wall. Urban legend holds the carver was so distraught that he killed himself for the mistake. You can easily find it with good vision on your future visit (hint).
More fun are the urban legends that have grown over time. The National Park Service debunks them, but I can’t help but perpetuate the legends. When it comes to the sculpture, most people believe that Abe sits on the flag and that he seems to form his initials in sign language with his hands. Another urban legend says that if you lean against the wall on Abe’s left side, as close the rear as you can get, you can see the silhouette of Robert E. Lee, the confederacy’s general, carved into Abe’s hair. Lee is looking longingly toward Virginia, and his childhood home–the Custis Mansion–that was confiscated by the Union and was turned into Arlington National Cemetery. This is the stuff of urban myth, but I look for the face every time.
Visiting Abe is about our shared cultural history and experience. Kids learn the Great Man version of history in school. Many people visit DC with family or school as a child and perpetuate the experience with the next generation. Washington is still a tourist venue, attracting every American at one point or another. It is a secular Mecca for the American idea, an actual shining city on a hill, designed for the maximum aesthetic impact, and the repository (and reliquary) of our national history. Abe gets the top billing on the marquee and rightly so. And as many Americans were reintroduced to Abe this past year in 7-to-15 dollar matinees through Speilberg’s lens and in cinematic glow, for me, the illumination of the marble Lincoln by the breaking golden dawn, for free admission, and his words etched into stone and memory are good enough.
Post-Script. The Chinese Photo-op would go something like “Eee, Are, Sun….CHEEZ-UH!” You should know a hello and some numbers in several languages. Knowing helps to break down barriers and more importantly, kills the stereotype of the “Ugly American” who is ignorant of the world. In our increasingly global world with more and more upwardly mobile citizens from Russia and China, you don’t need to travel to meet new people. They are coming here.