Washington schlepped here : walking in the nation's capital

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9780736695435: Washington schlepped here : walking in the nation's capital

The father of our country slept with Martha, but schlepped in the District. Now in the great man’s footsteps comes humorist and twenty-year Washington resident Christopher Buckley with the real story of the city’s founding. Well, not really. We’re just trying to get you to buy the book. But we can say with justification that there’s never been a more enjoyable, funny, and informative tour guide to the city than Buckley. His delight as he points out things of interest is con-tagious, and his frequent digressions about his own adventures as a White House staffer are often hilarious.

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.

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About the Author:

Christopher Buckley is the author of nine previous books, including Thank You for Smoking, Little Green Men, and, most recently, No Way to Treat a First Lady. He is editor of Forbes FYI magazine and has contributed more than fifty “Shouts and Murmurs” to The New Yorker.
From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Walk One

Union Station

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.

Let's continue on up the hill. Don't trip over any Jersey barriers. They're everywhere since 9/11. Tom Clancy wrote a book some years ago that ended with a vengeful Japanese flying a jumbo jet into the Capitol. How implausible!

The original plan was that L'Enfant would design the "Congress House" atop Jenkins Hill and see to its construction. But...

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Christopher Buckley
Published by Books on Tape (2003)
ISBN 10: 0736695435 ISBN 13: 9780736695435
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