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In Washington Schlepped Here, Buckley takes us along for several walks around the town and shares with us a bit of his “other” Washington. They include “Dante’s Paradiso” (Union Station); the “Zero Milestone of American democracy” (the U.S. Capitol); the “Almost Pink House” (the White House); and many other historical (and often hysterical) journeys. Buckley is the sort of wonderful guide who pries loose the abalone-like clichés that cling to a place as mythic as D.C. Wonderfully insightful and eminently practical, Washington Schlepped Here shows us that even a city whose chief industry is government bureaucracy is a lot funnier and more surprising than its media-ready image might let on.
From the Hardcover edition.
First I call your attention to 2001's Churchill, a Biography--by Roy Jenkins (paperback: Plume, $18). Of all the works on Winston Churchill (and the list of books about him is approaching the length of the list of Abraham Lincoln biographies), I would nominate Jenkins' biography as one of the best--although William Manchester's unfinished study is great, too.
Jenkins, who performed similar services for prime ministers William Ewart Gladstone, Herbert Henry Asquith and Stanley Baldwin, as well as for others of historic significance, was superbly gifted with experi-ence (50 years at or near the top of British and European politics) and had the opportunity to observe Churchill during the 16 years they served together in the House of Commons. Jenkins' recent death has deprived us of the further biographies we were all anticipating.
Churchill is, on the whole, admiring, but it is certainly no hagiography. The last sentences disclose the fairness and the fullness of this great biography: "When I started writing this book I thought that Gladstone was, by a narrow margin, the greater man, certainly the more remarkable specimen of humanity. In the course of writing it I have changed my mind. I now put Churchill, with all his idiosyncrasies, his indulgences, his occasional childishness, but also his genius, histenacity and his persistent ability, right or wrong, successful or unsuccessful, to be larger than life, as the greatest human being ever to occupy 10 Downing Street."
Next I want to call attention to two books that have two things in common: both are by Buckleys--father and son, respectively--and are therefore distinguished by first-rate writing, great narrative skill and a splendid appreciation of the historic and the comic.
Getting It Right--by William F. Buckley Jr. (Regnery, $24.95)--continues Bill Buckley's series of turn-ing the history (perhaps too narrow a canvas here) of 20th-century American politics into exciting novels. And, of course, the author himself is a participant in many of the incidents. In Getting It Right we see what Robert Welch, founder of the John Birch Society, and the impressive, puzzling and enormously influential (for a short time) Ayn Rand were really like. Rand's novels about the beginning of the conservative movement rivaled the Harry Potter novels in sales. Now it's hard to know quite why, as Rand's writing was unexceptional. Probably her loss of fame is be-cause conservative thought and philosophies--so unusual at the time--have become so much a part of the conventional wisdom that her writings have lost their shock value. Welch and Rand had offshoots that had to be exorcised and dealt with before conservatism could be accepted. Buckley was the major force behind making conservatism appealing, un-derstandable and respectable.
Washington Schlepped Here--by Christopher Buckley (Crown Journeys, $16)--is an incredibly good guidebook to our nation's capital. Even the most ancient of Washington's cave dwellers who are reputed to know every-thing will have a lot to learn about their city from young Buckley. Christopher, a comparative newcomer, has mined the sources assid-uously, without ever losing his extra-ordinary comic talents. There are few--if any--better descriptions of the Freer Gallery of Art's Peacock Room. And I'd be surprised if many Lincoln scholars are familiar with Lincoln's cas-ual dismissal of criticism of the Gettysburg Address: "Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a differ-ence of purpose between the Almighty and them." When it comes time for your children or grandchildren's school class to visit Washington, the best preparation they or anyone could have would be to read this book.
Then I read two too short books with similar themes: An Italian Affair--by Laura Fraser (Vintage Books, $12) and A Thousand Days in Venice--by Marlena de Blasi (Ballantine Books, $12.95). In both of these books an American woman, each an excellent book, has her dreams of romance in Italy come true--at least for a time. Ms. Fraser's book is far superior, probably because of a general lightheartedness and her obvious joy in her love affair. In both books, the local color and the descriptions of the mouthwatering Italian dishes are superb. These books are among the best recruiting weapons Italy's tourism authority could wish for.
And last I read a truly small, delightful book for dog lovers: Why Dogs Do That--by Tom Davis (Wil-low Creek Press, $13.95). An earlier Davis work, Just Goldens, chronicles the lives and skills of golden retriev-ers. Why Dogs Do That answers several puzzling questions, such as why dogs bury bones; why dogs insist on sleeping in bed with their masters; and why some dogs howl. (Sadly there's no reasonable explanation for the blood-curdling noises emitted occasionally--usually around midnight--by my golden retriever.) This book is a splendid addi-tion to dog lore. It should enable you to understand at least some of your dog's puzzling, but always lovable, behavior.
To board a train in New York's Penn Station is to descend into Dante's Inferno. To disembark in Washington's Union Station is to ascend into his Paradiso. This is one of the world's truly spectacular thresholds, and you're lucky, because for the first seven years I lived in Washington, it was shut for renovations -- after the Congress, in its infinite wisdom, spent many millions turning it into a -- it makes me twitch even to type the words -- National Visitors Center for the Bicentennial in 1976. Only the United States Congress could have taken one of the country's most stunning interior spaces and turned it into, as E. J. Applewhite noted in his excellent book, Washington Itself, "a labyrinth of makeshift passages and a mean borax lobby that would disgrace a small-town motel...an unseemly pit with escalators to nowhere but with a large screen for an automated slide show called PAVE (for Primary Audio Visual Experience) to orient the visitor to sights he can see better by simply walking out to the sidewalk in front of the building."
I feel much better for having quoted that. To paraphrase Santayana, those who forget how Congress can waste your money are doomed to supply it with even more. But let us relax now into the beauty of this cathedral of transportation, while trying to forget for the moment that Congress is now in charge of "reforming" Amtrak.
It makes sense to start our first walk here, for two reasons. The first and obvious being that this might well be where you're arriving. The second is that Union Station was built at the turn of the century as part of a plan to finish what L'Enfant had begun. The station's architect was a man named Daniel H. Burnham, a Chicagoan who had been director of works for the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893. The Exposition's "Court of Honor," displaying buildings of even height, with lots and lots of statues and fountains, got America's architects to thinking that the slightly shabby, thrown-together melange that was the nation's capital could use some brightening up.
This led to the McMillan Commission of 1901, headed by Senator James McMillan of Michigan, a railroad magnate. And now I must eat my words about how Congress screws up everything, because in this case, it didn't. What it did was to appoint the country's aesthetic A-Team -- Burnham; New York architect Charles F. McKim; landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.; and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens -- and send them on a seven-week tour of Europe to gather up ideas, then turn them loose on the capital city. The result, a Rome-on-the-Potomac landscape of gleaming white granite and marble buildings squatting on a vast green lawn, is the city that you are now standing in. Its trophies are Union Station, the Lincoln Memorial, the Reflecting Pool, the Memorial Bridge to Arlington, the Federal Triangle. L'Enfant's Renaissance city, reborn as a Beaux Arts showcase.
Union Station's vast scale isn't simply due to the fact that its builder tended to think big, but has a more practical reason: to accommodate the crowds at presidential inaugurals. As Applewhite notes, every president from Woodrow Wilson to Harry Truman arrived here by train for his inauguration. When the hotels reached maximum occupancy, visitors slept in Pullman sleeping cars on sidings. FDR's and Eisenhower's funeral trains set out from here. Robert F. Kennedy's arrived here. These were great events that took place on a worthy stage. The spectacle of coffins loaded onto military planes in air force hangars or tarmacs have little of the same grandeur.
The building that Union Station replaced was the old Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Station. It was here that Abraham Lincoln, under conditions of secrecy and disguise, arrived for his inaugural in 1861, and from here that the funeral train carrying his martyred remains departed for the long journey home in 1865. The trip to Washington, fraught with peril and threat of assassination as it was, had its comic moments, not that they were funny at the time. Lincoln's young son Robert managed to lose his father's inaugural speech, and once Lincoln had been successfully snuck into the ladies' entrance to Willard's Hotel, his bodyguard Allan Pinkerton cabled in code to his fellow agents: "Plums delivered nuts safely!" Presidential guards are no longer allowed to send cables.
Burnham based the Union Station's central hall on the one in the Baths of Diocletian in Rome. I just looked up Diocletian in the encyclopedia: aside from imposing wage and price controls throughout the Roman Empire -- making him the Richard Nixon of his day -- his other distinction seems to be that he conducted the last great persecution of Christians. Whatever his sins, by Jupiter, he made sure Romans bathed.
There is a definite "Roman thing" -- as my former boss, Vice President Bush, would have put it -- going on in Washington. To be sure, Gore Vidal has written more or less his entire impressive oeuvre on this theme. At the city's beginning, there was even a creek named "Tiber" running where Constitution Avenue now does. Rome had Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg splashing in the Trevi fountain; we got Wilbur Mills and Fanne Foxe leaping into the Tidal Basin. But Washington may be the only modern city left with functioning Roman-style temples. By functioning, I don't mean that people are slitting open peacocks and roasting bullocks. The Park Service would probably fine you for that. But gods are being worshiped in these temples. We'll explore this more fully when we get to the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials.
For now, set your bags down and enjoy the incredible space you're in. Then walk to the main doors, where you'll hear Jimmy Stewart bubbling over with excitement: "Oh, look, look! There it is! The Capitol Dome!"
United States Capitol
The Zero Milestone, a little nub of stone marking the precise spot from which all distances from Washington are supposed to be measured, is just south of the White House. The Capitol Building, meanwhile, is the Zero Milestone of American democracy. Any movie set in Washington, any New Yorker cartoon, will show the dome perfectly framed in a window. It is the ur-symbol for "United States of America." To be sure, there are days -- most days, perhaps -- when what goes on inside this gleaming white hive is enough to make you wonder if we really did the right thing back in 1776.
There's a wonderful oil painting from 1844 done by William McLeod showing what Capitol Hill looked like from where Union Station is today. It could be a tranquil Constable landscape depicting Wiltshire or the Cotswolds, only there's this odd Roman temple plunked down in the middle of it.
The landscape that greets you today as you walk out of the Union Station is slightly changed. The first thing you'll probably notice is the absence of cows. But once you've crossed Massachusetts Avenue, and you start up the Hill, it does get bucolic, if not quite by McLeod's standards. In 1809, according to the WPA Guide, the British ambassador "put up a covey of quail" right around here. Et in Arcadia blam blam.
In the 1870s, Jenkins Hill, the "pedestal" that L'Enfant had envisioned as "waiting for a monument" (the "Congress House"), was transformed into an urban garden space by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. He had by then completed a masterpiece, New York's Central Park. Here he had 131 acres to sculpt, dig, and mulch. In the northwest corner of the grounds, just in from the intersection of First Street N.W. and Constitution Avenue, you'll find the grotto that he built over a spring once frequented by local Indian tribes and travelers on their way west, to Georgetown. It's apt that a bubbling spring should have later become a rendezvous point for Woodward and Bernstein and their famous source, "Deep Throat."
I stood somewhere near here on January 20, 1981, and watched Ronald Reagan become the 40th president. I remember being amazed to think that Reagan should become the first president in history to be sworn in on the West Front of the Capitol Building. Here this glorious expanse, the Mall, America's front lawn -- why on earth had all those other presidents chosen to give their inaugural speeches facing a parking lot? At any rate, Reagan the Californian decided to give his speech facing the same direction that Lewis and Clark had, and it seemed apt, even if on that particular day America was focused east, specifically in the direction of Iran, where our embassy hostages were still being held after 444 days. (Joke at the time: What's flat and glows in the dark? Tehran, ten minutes after Reagan is inaugurated.)
By standing on the West Front, Reagan was also facing Arlington National Cemetery. In his speech, he quoted from the diary of a young American soldier named Martin Treptow, who had been killed in World War I. Reagan said he would try to act as Treptow had pledged to, "cheerfully and do my utmost, as if the issue of the whole struggle depended on me alone." It was a lovely sentiment, even if within a few hours the media had found out that that Martin Treptow wasn't buried at Arlington, but 1,100 miles away in Bloomer, Wisconsin. This would be the first of many clarifications over the next eight years issued by the White House press office. But I'll invoke my right as a Republican to go on remembering it as a stirring moment nonetheless, wherever the hell Marvin Treptow is buried. How many Republicans does it take to change a lightbulb? Three: one to change it, one to mix the martinis, one to reminisce about how good the old one was.
Copyright © 2003 by Christopher Buckley.
Posted October 26, 2008
No text was provided for this review.