14 Apr Washington, D.C.: An American Pilgrimage
Last month, I decided to surprise my wife with a birthday trip. As the loving husband I am, I naturally forwent the remote tropical island getaway in favor of Washington, D.C. You see, my wife is something of a constitutional law jock. We met in law school back in 2008, and for as long as I’ve known her, it’s been a dream of hers to hear oral argument in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Wanting the trip to be especially fun for her, I naturally invited my parents to tag along. My mom, the biggest political wonk I know, nearly passed out when I told her a friend had arranged a tour of the West Wing, and an invitation from our representative to stop by his office meant Congress was also on the itinerary. By the time we set out, our trip to see the Court had evolved into what we aptly labeled “three days…three branches.”
I’ve been to D.C. several times in my life. A highlight of childhood family car trips along the I-95 corridor included an annual D.C. layover where our minivan, bursting at the seams with dogs, kids and empty fast food containers, would wreak havoc on my dad’s college roommate and his family. There was more to the city though. As a history and government buff, D.C. had always struck me as a destination of “cool.” The Smithsonian Institute and its 19 completely free museums are reason alone to visit. On a fall break one semester in college, I found myself wandering the streets of Georgetown picturing its colonial row houses and cobblestone streets as they were when the District was in its infancy — a backwater in a new and fragile democracy.
The three days were a whirlwind, and on our last night we discussed the highlights. Like many visitors, we reflected on the city’s inescapable symbolism and meticulous layout. D.C. after all is a planned city — one of grand, European inspired boulevards designed by French architect Pierre L’Enfant, impressive monuments and memorials all paying tribute in one way or another to American heroes larger than life in both legend and in the stone that immortalizes them. On its surface, D.C. is a city built on the scale of gods and giants, portraying American democracy as immaculately designed and impervious to destruction.
But, what really humbled and inspired us was something we did not expect to see. Behind the veneer of marble and hubris exists a city built to human scale — a modest universe where an army of public servants devoted to a cause greater than themselves works to perpetuate this great experiment. I realize in this day of divisiveness and dysfunction, this image seems anachronistic. I assure you though, it exists.
We saw it first at the White House: behind the high gates and impressive grounds of the executive mansion sits the cramped bunker we call the West Wing — an office building so basic in design and so lacking in the garishness of its international counterparts, future civilizations will find it impossible to believe it once served as the nerve center of the world’s most powerful office. The majority of its employees are young and hopeful, encouraged not by lavish perks and million dollar views but by the immeasurable potential to make a difference.
The same holds true for the Capitol: beneath the towering wrought iron dome lie two chambers barely large enough to hold the representatives and senators elected to office. Adjacent office buildings have the function over form familiarity of a municipal courthouse or city hall. And, while the Supreme Court’s main courtroom is beautiful and grand, it remains intimate and approachable; the nine justices sit but twenty feet away as they reach decisions that will set legal precedent for generations to come.
“What does all this show me?” my dad asked rhetorically. It shows me that our democracy is fragile and must be cared for — that despite what D.C.’s facade would have us believe, our country remains a young and unrealized experiment, fueled by the passions of those looking to make a difference and all too vulnerable to those who would do it harm, or even more dangerously, would use its institutions for self-interest and personal gain. On its surface, D.C. reflects a democracy pre-destined for greatness. But, when you peel back the curtain, you see a democracy that requires nurturing and care — one that is only as good as the people sent to do the people’s work — a democracy that cannot be meticulously designed or planned out — a democracy beautifully imperfect, built to human scale.
Each time I go to D.C., I learn something new about it and this country. I encourage anyone and everyone to go — to stop by your representative’s office and say “hello” — to wait outside in the numbing cold or blistering heat to hear a Supreme Court argument — to take a tour of the White House and see the Oval Office with your own eyes. All we have to do is make that little effort and doors will open. You’ll be amazed at what you see.