A power trip in Washington DC

Sunday Times
Published: 21st May 2006

In the vibrant restaurants and bars, the energy and attitude are palpable. And if you want to understand America and its present policies, you need to see its dreams made stone in the great monuments of Washington.

The Lincoln Memorial (1922) alone is worth the trip to Washington. It’s the Taj Mahal of America, bringing grown men and women to their knees, moved without comprehending quite why. Martin Luther King chose the Lincoln Memorial as the place to give his “I have a dream” speech in 1963: “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation... it came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.” 

I first visited the Lincoln Memorial when I was five, on a humid summer day, and still remember leaning my back against the cold marble and looking up at the sad, haunted face of Lincoln as he sat on his immense marble throne. Later, when I lived in Washington and took visiting friends, as I walked up the steep steps and saw Lincoln, I felt a twist in my heart and tears in my eyes.

This time, the effect was the same.

He was still waiting there, so troubled and huge in his armchair, gazing down at the Reflecting Pool and beyond at the domed Capitol building. The two miles between the Capitol building and the Lincoln Memorial, referred to as the National Mall, is the heart of the city. Lincoln’s spirit seems to dominate with both frailty and strength. Even his great weary hands, resting on the sides of the armchair, somehow suggest the hopes and limitations of humanity.

This and the other great old monuments take you to the core of America. Like great books, they are different each time you visit them.

The Jefferson Memorial (1943) is elegantly set by the waters of the Tidal Basin (with words from the Declaration of Independence etched in the walls: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”). It’s a temple of marble columns, a columned rotunda, curving round Thomas Jefferson’s 19ft bronze statue, looking out towards the White House. If Lincoln’s memorial suggests effort and decency and vision, to me Jefferson’s is a tribute to the imagination and sheer vigour and glamour of the country.

The Roosevelt Memorial, opened in 1997, was new to me. Up early from jet lag, knowing none of the museums opens until 10, I visited it very early, and there were no guards there. Its simplicity and grace were calming, especially as there is intense security throughout the city.

The memorial has 7 acres designed as a series of contemplative courtyards, modest and different in style to the temple-like memorials to Lincoln and Jefferson, but powerful and quietly impressive. The first courtyard contains a small statue of Roosevelt himself, sitting in a wheelchair, and it is a shock to see a figure from the American past shown with such honesty. Each courtyard combines words carved in stones with figures tracing the story of each of his terms as president, the broken stones depicting the chaos of war.

“I have seen war. I have seen war on land and sea. I have seen blood running from the wounded... I have seen the dead in the mud. I have seen cities destroyed... I hate war.”

I was so moved that I returned that night. The moon reflected into the water, the floodlights glittering on flecks of silver in the pink granite and illuminating the engraved words, including: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” 

Living in Washington 12 years ago, with young children, I fell in love with the city’s mixture of formality and wildness. Raccoons hurried through our garden at night and huge, prehistoric insects beat against the windows. Like America itself, Washington appeared to be in control, but it wasn’t at all. When it snowed in winter, which it nearly always did, everything shut down and people expressed consternation.

It is the interplay between the grandeur of the architecture and the delicacy of the blossom and the light that helps to make Washington such a dramatic experience, especially during the spring, and makes all three of these monuments to these mighty presidents so extraordinary.

The memorials to the courage and sacrifice of the ordinary soldier are as impressive in their way. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1982) has a dizzying list of names of the dead etched into black marble, and at the Korean War Veterans Memorial (1995), statues of grey fighters make their way in helmets and grey raincoats, warily stepping over neat strips of black marble and neat, low-lying firs. Much less effective, however, is the pompous new National World War II Memorial, with its 56 pillars in a semicircle around a central plaza.

The museums and galleries that line the National Mall would take days to see properly. The newest is the National Museum of the American Indian (2004); gorgeous outside, a little dull within. Two of the best are the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of Natural History, where the tarantula feeding sessions are not just for kids. 

If you want to visit another source of pure power, with plenty of prowling tarantulas, go to the Capitol building for a tour and make sure you ask to sit in on a session. Watch the senators talking in the corridor like the conspirators in Julius Caesar.

To take a break from the imperial side of the city, browse through Georgetown, the Hampstead of Washington, with its galleries, boutiques, restaurants, cobbled back streets, bars and red-brick houses with glossy painted doors. This is the oldest part of DC, established as a port in the early 18th century, where John F Kennedy and Jackie later entertained and Kissinger held court. As a builder remarked disapprovingly of the old house we owned in Washington, it has some age on it.

Suburban life orbits the poised and formal city centre, which has livened up over the past 12 years, with new restaurants, bars and clubs opening, and uneasy areas such as Chinatown and U Street now sizzling. The Hotel Monaco, in the Penn quarter, is drop-dead chic, as is the Mandarin Oriental, with its grand views over the Potomac. In the fish market and restaurants of Water Street, rich and poor scramble together over all-you- can-eat buffets and great buckets of seafood.

The trees are not dwarfed by skyscrapers, as they are in the streets of New York. Although Washington, on the face of it, worships human greatness, it is nature that seems in command, the snows and humidity and radiant light of the early morning, the beauty of the trees that line the wide streets and parks such as Rock Creek Park, which loops through the city. Here, the landscape and buildings and light constantly tease and delight. This is an extravagantly beautiful city: its layout is of wide, tree-lined streets, embassies and houses swept back as if bowing, bridges and sudden parks, bronze statues. As you drive to the north of the city, the cathedral rises like lace against the fretwork of trees. Would I live there again? I don’t know. They say never go back, but some places do tempt you. 

Need to Know

Sally Emerson travelled as a guest of British Airways Holidays.

Getting there: British Airways (0870 850 9850, www.ba.com), United (0845 844 4777, www.unitedairlines.co.uk) and Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007, www.virgin-atlantic.com) fly from Heathrow; from £388. Maxjet (0800 0234300, www.maxjet.com) flies all-business from Stansted; from about £1,000.

Where to stay: Hotel Monaco (00 1 800-649 1202, www.monaco-dc.com) has doubles from £89; the Mandarin Oriental (554 8588, www.mandarin-oriental.com) has doubles from £135.

Tour operators: British Airways Holidays (0870 243 3406, www.ba.com/holidays) has three nights at the three-star Washington Plaza from £599pp, room-only, including BA flights from Heathrow. Or try Virgin Holidays (0870 220 2788, www.virginholidays.co.uk) or Kuoni (01306 742888, www.kuoni.co.uk).