It is a beautiful prospect, looking east from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
We were there recently on a fine March day, and could see past the Vietnam and Korean Memorials up through the Reflecting Pool (currently under repair for a leak), to the giant fountain of the World War II Memorial (dry also), to the Washington Monument beyond (pointing resolutely upward, but unclimbable until it gets some postearthquake repairs).
Everything was being patched, but here we were nonetheless, far from home but at our official national heart.
Lincoln was to my back, all 19 feet of him, seated in his enormous chair high above the cold floor, which itself sits 50-odd steps above the road below. As a child I simply thought he was titanic and hence important. Now I look at him and see the intentional quotation in stone of Phidias’ giant statue of Athena, which towered over the Greeks centuries ago in the Parthenon. She was enshrined there as the mythical founding goddess of that city, while Lincoln—as the marble silently asserts—sits here as our martyred godfather of the indivisible Union. All he lacks is the chryselephantine.
We were traveling with friends, and despite the unavoidable humiliations of being tourists we had a good time. We saw the V2, which my grandfather worked to piece together from shards on the beaches of Great Britain. We drank coffee in the basement of the Russell Senate Office Building, alongside a dozen senatorial aides in dark suits, and whispered at John Quincy Adams’ listening spot in the Old Hall of the House. We saw the Peacock Room at the Freer and the red pandas at the zoo, Malia’s First Dog and Dali’s Sacrament of the Last Supper. If this had been a European tour, we would have covered eight countries in five days. Even the children’s feet hurt.
And everywhere we went, our bags were checked—sometimes perfunctorily, but sometimes not. The security guards were invariably pleasant, but there was no remarking on the warm weather to the Secret Service man cradling a machine gun on the White House lawn, and no patting the bomb-sniffing dog we all had to pass by before entering. The President took off in Marine One as we waited our turn for the White House—and we waited a while longer, because there was no moving until he was safely away, flying below the radar to somewhere.
Our last day we saw armed policemen at the entrance to a Metro station near the Mall, politely asking the occasional commuter to move over to the side and be checked. I am told that is not unusual.
“I’m sorry the security is necessary but glad to have it,” my friend said at one of the bag checks, and I was suddenly reminded of a time years ago when another friend and I were looking for a house to rent together in Louisville. She soon found one near the river, with a great view but few neighbors on a road that was lonely at night. “We’ll be all right there,” she said, “the house has a security system.” I told her I did not want to live in a house that had a security system. I wanted to live in a house that did not require a security system.
I turned my back to the sunshine and to the police chatting on Lincoln’s steps to return inside the memorial and read the north wall, on which his Second Inaugural Address is chiseled. The speech was given in March of 1865. It was a bitter time, even in the North as victory seemed near, and it is a bitter piece of oratory.
You don’t think so? Read it again. The hardest language in that address is not its condemnation, which one would expect given the time and speaker, but the pretense of forgiveness. “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged” is not really a rhetorically extended olive branch. I think some schoolchildren still memorize the lines about “malice toward none,” but they were first spoken just a few weeks after a surrendered Columbia had been burnt by the Union Army.
No: The Second Inaugural is as implacable as the Scripture it quotes—“woe to that man by whom the offense cometh”—while wearing the fig leaf of forgiveness. It is powerfully written, but it is a speech of justification, not reconciliation.
And its rhetoric—the rhetoric that lies behind the high cause of American exceptionalism and superior moral virtue—has justified wars and police actions in the speeches of presidents ever since. Their principle has been union or anticommunism or democracy, but their rhetoric has never hesitated to assert our unalloyed rightness to crush an evil, here or abroad—no matter what collateral damage may result from the total war we have been practicing since Sherman, and no matter what evil we create in the place of the one we intend to rout. And today the legacy of that rhetoric is felt as far away as Afghanistan, and as close as 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, where the leader of the world’s greatest military power cannot walk without watchers in the Rose Garden, or use his own phone.
Like Mr. Bush before him, and like Mr. Lincoln before that, Mr. Obama has grown noticeably grayer in office. I don’t wonder.
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