October 1, 2005
A Dada Tour of WashingtonOn Friday, September 30, less than a week after the big peace demonstration I had a couple of hours free before catching a train at Union Station, so I plotted out a walk from the Washington Hotel at 15th and F down about a mile to the station. It was the briefest unguided tour imaginable of the beautiful, historic and enigmatic city, informed by little other than a map and the knowledge that I wanted to get from one point to the other.
It was a glorious day, a day of sunny perfection, a day on which you could moderate your temperature from slightly warm to slightly cool by walking in the shade when your body temperature had revved up from walking. It couldn't have been more perfect. A day -- I can't help recalling -- as perfect as 9/11. Somehow whenever that phrase about a perfect day comes to mind, I can't help but remember that day. Funny. In the Bush era, bad weather is your friend.
On top of being a perfect crisp autumn day it was Friday, so the city emitted a palpable feeling of jubilation over the nearing of end of the work week.
Besides the elegant, neoclassical design of the city, the execution of a Platonic vision of Jefferson, the huge historical monuments and tangible history, there is the street life. This is the America that really pulses with life under the great abstract institutions that rule the country, as if from Olympus. One wonders if the people who are synonymous to the word "Washington" in most people's minds ever walk on the streets. Of course they must.
One of the first things I saw was a wild, flashy police escort zipping noisily through the street, all dazzle and noise and a grinning presence that says all-power. Look out or you will be dead. At the tail end of a parade of motorcycle cops and police cars came a big dark limo with black windows. And I, like thousands of others no doubt, watched dumbly wondering if that was the president.
The proximity to such an awesome power is in itself a powerful experience. I walked by the White House, looked up across the gorgeous green lawn to the front. It was quite a distance just across the lawn and the view of it was largely obscured by trees. Has it gotten physically more hidden since a few years ago? Or does it just give that impression now because of the fact that we know it is the most secretive White House in history.
It's the anti-Watergate White House. It wants to reverse the democratizing influence of the fall of Nixon. It wants to go back to the days that inspired Senator William Fulbright to write a book about "The Arrogance of Power" in 1966. (See: Tom Paine, Common Dreams )No more of this meddling by citizens. Just let us do our jobs! Stay the Course!
But I digress. Even at the distance across the lawn, I could see some motion around the line of limos around the front drive. It's quite a manorial existence, a fitting domicile for our chief executive to make his life easy to allow him to give his attention to governing. Being president is an experience that every Bush should experience at some time in his life.
On occasion we should let some other Skull-and-Boneser or Yalee get his mitts on the reins of power for a while. It's only fair to pass it around a little -- though not too much.
It had a more egalitarian feeling when the Clintons were there. I was thinking of the way the privatizers want to privatize every public resource and I guess eventually that would include the White House. After all, if you made it into condos you could charge magnificent prices to the chic and hyper-rich.
I stopped in for a bite to eat at The Corner Bakery, which is really a little fast food restaurant on the corner of the National Press Building. The building is a huge structure that houses news bureaus of newspapers from around the world. The Corner Bakery is a nice, quick place to get some friendly, inexpensive food. I ordered a bowl of chili and got a big flat bowl of it with cheese on it that was bigger and better than I expected. In front of me was a pillar decorated by black-and-white 8X10s of people who play journalists on TV, including a drugged-looking Dan Rather, an ungainly posed Larry King, and a few nearly interchangeable supermodel-slash-newscaster faces, one of whom I recognized by reading her autograph on the picture: Katy Couric.
These pictures are exactly the same kinds of 8X10s you see in the lobbies of theaters, they are the pictures actors use to get jobs. It's a curious iconography, but it puts the news business in proper perspective. It is journalism by pretense only, but as showbiz it is authentic.
This goofy photo of Larry King, posed like a cartoon character, says it all. You can hear Larry King along with Randy Rhodes, Al Franken and Janine Garofolo on Air America! What? Did Larry King join that Pinko Neo-Communist Liberal cause? No, he's advertising a particular brand of vitamin C. What does Larry King take? Ester C. Not just C, but Ester C. So this is what kind of a newsman Larry King is. That's how much his word is worth.
Sure, it's just vitamin C, with a flimsy angle on why you should buy the product of this company that puts so much money into advertising on the radio with Larry King, or a much cheaper brand. No great crime, maybe a tiny melting of the truth, but not really a lie. But can you imagine Noam Chomsky coming on the radio for some product.
Of course Bob Dole sold his face for a corporatized afrodisiac, but can you imagine Jimmy Carter advertising a product, a consumer good, a pleasure drug, a sexual aid?
Michael Jackson, when he had the world at his feet could have come out for anything, and he sold his person to Pepsi. Britney gladly did the same. And then there are all these sweet vacant faces on the pillar.
After I left the Corner Bakery I continued down F Street for a few blocks. The street ambiance was friendly, courteous, unpretentious, unagressive -- in stark contrast to the attitudes of the political class, which includes the reporters, that represent the city to the rest of the world.
On F Street I walked through a downtown shopping strip, then at 10th Street I saw to my right an amazing domed structure, its round top reflecting the sun blindingly. I decided to walk toward it. I needed to head that direction a couple of blocks to get to the place where you can walk over Interstate 395. I asked a man who told me the building is the Natural History Museum. An amazing beauty. I walked a couple of blocks toward it where I could see it better and photograph, but I didn't have time to get closer.
On the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue, I realized I was standing in front of the J. Edgar Hoover FBI building. It had a dull-looking architectural feel reminiscent of bulky Nazi super-race architecture or postwar Soviet Architecture. Bearing the name of that closet cross dresser, the little tyrant who exercised control based on all the dirty goods he had on everyone in Washington, the master Washington bureaucrat who survived the treacherous waters for generations while presidents came and went.
Now he's got a building with his name on it. Go figure. I turned left on Pennsylvania Ave. heading toward Union Station. To my right was the Department of Justice, a larger-than-life super-parthenon towering powerfully above the tiny people. As I walk by I remember when John Ashcroft paid millions of dollars to cover the breasts on the statues in that building. And he charged it to the American people.
I don't care that he thinks he holds a higher moral standard than all the people who held the office before him because he thinks breasts on statues are indecent, he had no right to spend millions of public dollars on it.
As I am absorbing these little reminders of the sordid activities of the ants who move about in the midst of these glorious monuments and I am thinking, Will we ever be able to wrest ourselves from under the grip of these lunatics?
I'm thinking, probably not. That is, you'll never stop the never-ending struggle, but at certain points the struggle gets right up to your door and you are forced to take action, to become part of the struggle. Sometimes you have to push back, and sometimes you win a battle.
Arthur Schopenhauer said someone should write a tragic history about the "endless struggle which the good and genuine of all ages and all lands has to endure against the always dominant and wrong-headed; depict the martyrdom of almost every genuine enlightener of mankind, almost every great master of every art; show us how, with a few exceptions they lived tormented lives in poverty and wretchedness, without recognition, without sympathy, without disciples, while fame, honor and riches went to the unworthy..."
A couple of blocks down I walked by an Afro-American man about 65 or so sitting by the walkway holding a paper cup and he asked if I had any spare change. I had a very little and turned back and dropped it in his cup. He thanked me and then as I started to walk away again he said something about a message, would I like to hear? I didn't fully grasp what he had said, but he said, "You got a second?" and motioned me over with his pen in hand. He looked down at his pad and started reading a poem called "No Indispensable Man". At the end of the lines he circled the rhyming words at the end of each line as he got to it. Then he was fumbling to flip to another page and just put it down and said, "I can remember it," and finished it without looking.
It was a great message and a perfectly crafted little lyric to tell the story. Whenever your ego gets puffed up a little too much and you are a little overcome with your sense of your importance, it said, just try sticking your hand in a bucket of water, and when you pull it out again, see how much of a mark you left on it, see how important you are. There is no indispensable man.
I told him, and I meant it, "I wish I could emblazon it across the sky. There are a lot of people in this town who need to hear that message."
Just before I got to Union Station I passed the Capitol, another truly awe-inspiring sight, shining in that bright sun. It was beautiful, and of course full of those very strange people who run that game they've got going there. I couldn't gaze at it in wonder for too long. I had a train to ride.