Abraham Lincoln, for example, was widely reviled and led the United States when it was more sharply divided than it ever could be today. Franklin D. Roosevelt was lambasted as a socialist. Even Thomas Jefferson had his detractors. They were loud, but had no internet to broadcast their rants of that time. Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed, threatened and branded a communist.
I don’t think there is any doubt that each and every one was flawed in some way. Who isn’t? All, however, were in one way or another exceptional leaders, figures who overcame great odds to either lead our nation or engineer important societal changes that would advance the cause of freedom or better America. All are remembered with monuments or memorials on the National Mall in Washington.
They are, indeed sites that inspire with either words or images. The same could be said of Washington itself, if people could overlook the less-than-breathtaking politicians who now operate there.
It’s hard to get around the fact that national leaders today seem prone to tripping over their own politics or special interests en route to whatever goal they might have to do their best for the nation. And believe me, I sincerely think they all hope to improve the lot of our country when they first go to Washington to serve in any branch of the federal government.
But politics, invariably, get in the way. It’s endemic. They are, after all, politicians. But the figures remembered on the National Mall, on some level, led by making difficult choices, ignoring critics and opponents or followed a gut instinct about what might need to be done at the time. They did so with brains, guile, fearlessness and eloquence. They weren’t always right, but they damn sure weren’t afraid to be wrong. And they absolutely refused to govern by focus groups or polling. If nothing else, they had the courage of their convictions.
I don’t see many like them out there today.
That point was stark for me this past weekend when I visited the National Mall once again. On earlier trips I had seen the monuments to Jefferson and Lincoln. But I hadn’t seen the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, which opened last fall. While there I decided to check out the FDR memorial, which I had forgotten all about — my hunch is I’m not the only one. Earlier on this trip we took in the Pentagon Memorial to those who perished in 9/11 and visited Arlington National Cemetery.
Unbelievable, every single site.
It led me to wonder how a city with so many inspiring monuments to so many great figures and events could have become such a cesspool of pandering dolts, dullards, doofuses and dillweeds. Don’t these people ever stop to visit the sites that surround them as they go about the business of lawmaking, speechifying and arguing?
How else to explain what goes on in Washington as the MLK Jr. memorial rises just a few hundred yards from where laws are allegedly made. The site has a spectacular view of the water and the Jefferson Memorial. The statue to the Rev. Dr. King is 30 feet — constructed by four blocks of granite. The surrounding walls are marked by many of the timeless and passionate quotes offered over the years by the slain champion of civil rights for all Americans.
Just a few feet away, nestled in the woods along the Tidal Basin, is the memorial to Roosevelt, the first and only four-term U.S. president, who guided the nation throught the Great Depression and into World War II. This 7.5-acre site was first commissioned in 1955, 10 years after FDR’s death in office. It would not be constructed and completed until 1978. In many ways, it’s the most spectacular site on the Mall.
The Roosevelt memorial, like the war memorials nearby, is not merely a tribute to the president but to the time in U.S. history he served in office. Sectioned off by FDR’s terms, it includes something visually stunning around every corner of what is a maze of stone walls and waterfalls. There are statues marking rural poverty, bread lines, fireside chats, young FDR in a wheelchair, older FDR with his dog Falla; and Eleanor Roosevelt. Famous Roosevelt quotations are inside the walls. He speaks of war, the perils of joblessness and the importance of helping those who can’t help themselves. One impressive stone mural notes the accomplishments of Roosevelt’s New Deal.
I’m not sure that it’s very simple matter to visit the sites along the Mall and not be impacted for the better, to avoid inspiration or aspire to a higher calling. How could anyone visit such places and not wish to be the best he or she can possibly be?
This leads me to believe that current members of the U.S. Senate, House, Supreme Court and White House don’t bother going there at all. Oh, they might’ve visited a site or two when they first arrived — but a refresher every so often certainly couldn’t hurt. And a trip to Arlington every so often should be mandatory for any elected official who sends young men to war.
Somebody should make it a law.
Here are some other photos I took from the two National Mall memorials we visited as well as Arlington. I’ll post images from the Pentagon memorial later. It’s a sobering vision as well.
From the Roosevelt monument, a statement about war.
Men on bread lines was the signature image of the Great Depression — captured here in statue form.
A powerful quote from FDR.
This message on the MLK memorial will stay, the one on the other side, which was an inaccurate quote, will be removed.
The scene at Arlington National Cemetery is hard to fathom. Row upon row of tiny white stones — like the ones in Pine Hill Cemetery’s “Little Arlington” — rise and fall with the rolling hills on the former estate of the late U.S. and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
The changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a solemn ceremony that takes place each hour most of the year and every half-hour in the summer.