Saturday, December 13, 2008


Nearly fifty years after I saw it for the first time, Washington still thrills me. Its monumental architecture, the permanence of its geography, the excitement of being close to the seat of government are an intoxicating brew.

Washington was the first city of any consequence that I ever saw. In 1962, with an appointment as page to the Honorable E.C. Gathings of Arkansas, I got on a plane in Memphis, flew to Washington National airport and followed directions provided by the Congressman’s secretary to Mrs. Smith’s boarding house, near the Capitol. For a month I worked on the floor of the House of Representatives, delivering messages between Congressmen and their minions and other duties, as assigned.

It was very much a CSpan experience. I never saw anything even vaguely resembling a debate. The chamber was often empty, except for the presiding officers and those with business in the chamber. When I did see the nation’s representatives, I usually did so in the cloakroom, a large space filled with booths and tables where pie, coffee and chat were served up in ample portions. I also glimpsed the very privileged world that Congress took for granted. In those days the Capitol was a world within the world—meals, drinks, recreation, grooming, travel arrangements (and who knows what else—this was before Wilber Mills’ downfall) were all provided in the vast underground that connected the House chambers with the office buildings across Constitution Avenue.

I left that summer’s experience in haste, as I was beginning my three years at Woodberry Forest School, and the Head Master seemed to think that my attendance was more important than the life experience I was getting in the halls of government. Washington was a very different city in the early 1960s—before integration, before urban renewal, before the Metro. But from those two months, I gained a feeling for the geography of the Capital zone very much akin to a GPS and an appreciation for the museums and other cultural meccas of the National Mall—real eye-openers for a boy from rural Arkansas.

On this trip, I came to evaluate proposals for the National Endowment for the Humanities. That, in itself, was enlightening. Who knew that five manuscripts for Homeric verse still existed and are in need of conservation or that Yiddish speakers from Galicia and regions of the former USSR not only survived the Holocaust but Soviet persecution as well? With projects like these to talk about, time goes quickly, and I had a few hours the next day before I needed to catch my plane, incidentally at the same airport where I touched down in 1962.

I was especially interested in seeing the “broad stripes and bright stars” that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the national anthem. The flag was once the principal tableau of the National Museum of American History, unfurled right at its entrance. But fabric’s obvious deterioration necessitated a major conservation project, and it has only now returned to the museum five years later. To prevent further damage, the curators have provided a climate controlled cased and dark room for its display, but what an artifact! It’s huge, over forty feet long, even though its size was reduced by early souvenir hunters who clipped several inches of stripes and one of its stars. And the exhibition has a bevy of supporting cases with information about the flag maker who sewed it for $400 and change and how the artifact made its way to safe keeping in Washington.

To mark the reopening of the museum, the White House has lent its copy of the Gettysburg Address—the only one “titled, signed and dated,” as the caption says. Since my own institution boasts one of the four other copies of the document, I had to take a look, and there are differences. This one is written on three separate sheets of paper; Cornell’s is a folded letter with the text appearing on both folios and the recto of one piece of paper. But the words are the same, beginning “Four score and seven years ago” and reminding us of the high ideals that marked our country’s founding. Let us hope that the new administration, now establishing itself to face challenges only slightly less prodigious than those faced by Lincoln, will help us reestablish our moral compass.