Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Travel Essay: Washington, D.C.

I’ve never seen so many suits in one place,” declared a friend visiting from Ohio, as we surveyed the packed metro train to Washington for empty seats several summers ago. Suited, booted and stiletto’d locals stood out from the casually dressed, fanny-pack-and-camera-toting tourists.

It is the humble suit that gives the visitor to Washington a sense of the city’s enterprise — the production, not of automobiles or food products or pharmaceuticals, but of laws, decisions, policies, and, not to forget, a scandal or ten.

From a distance, the city is unimpressive. None of the usual landmarks that define large American cities demarcate Washington from its surroundings. There are no shiny skyscrapers signalling the start of its business district or massive steel bridges heralding the approach of its borders. You would have to look really hard to find the smokestacks on top of factories at the edge of town.

Lincoln Memorial from Memorial Bridge

What is recognizable of the city from miles away, appropriately enough, is the dome of the US Capitol—which houses Congress—and the Washington Monument, the “needle” in local parlance, erected in memory of the nation’s first president.

Up close, the city is compelling. Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s plan for the capital “of this vast empire”, as he referred to the US two centuries ago, was nothing short of genius. The land he was allocated on the banks of the Potomac alternated between marshy bogs, heavily wooded wilderness and farmland, with a few hilly patches thrown in. What he envisioned was a neatly organized city with broad, tree-lined avenues, parks and grand buildings and monuments befitting the ideals of a new nation. Amid strife and delays—typical of the way Washington does business even now—it took nearly a century for an approximation of his blueprint to come to life in stone, marble and concrete.

In an election year such as this one, Washington and the way it does business are in sharper focus than usual. “Washington insider” is bandied about as an insult as presidential candidates criss-cross the country, claiming the mantle of the “outsider” who will save the country from the clutches of the “special interests that control Washington”.

The US Capitol

What transpires once the outsider gets in is anybody’s guess, but until the dust settles on 4 November and a victor emerges—bloodied and bruised from the ever-lengthening campaign season—voters are bombarded with missives, ads, debates, media interviews and stump speeches purporting to lay bare the machinations of Congress and the White House.

These four-yearly rituals merely scratch the surface—or so it seems in the face of the number of scandals and leaks that erupt with alarming frequency in this city. The leaking of Central Intelligence Agency operative Valerie Plame’s identity to the press was one of the latest, but the big daddy of them all is still Watergate. Named after the Watergate Complex—a striking edifice that houses a hotel, shops, offices and luxury apartments—the fiasco brought down a president and has the unparalleled distinction of helping name successive scandals (Monicagate sound familiar?; Lewinsky, ironically, lived at the Watergate).

Numerous paths lead into Washington from all directions, but my favourite is via the Arlington Memorial Bridge. With the majestic Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument at its top, the marble façade of the Kennedy Center and the spires of Georgetown University to its left and the entrance into Arlington Cemetery at its foot, the expansive bridge transports you into town in style.

As you follow the winding road at the top of the bridge, the vast treasure trove of cultural and political history that is Constitution Avenue begs to be explored. The must-see list—the National Gallery of Art, the National Museums of American History and Natural History, the National Archives, the Smithsonian Museums (home of the ever popular Air and Space Museum), not to mention the White House and the Capitol—is so long that days could blend into weeks in trying to do justice to all that is available in this small corner of Washington.

The World War II Memorial

The rest here.

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