“The Past is Prologue (More or Less)” by Michael Arria

“Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender.  We see only what the others see.  The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future.  We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception.  This literally colors our vision.  A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.”Don Delillo, White Noise

1.

If you eliminate the annual disappointment of the Red Sox seasons from my childhood, my single biggest moment of chagrin was seeing Mount Rushmore.

My grandparents brought me to South Dakota the summer before second grade.  I was under the impression that, if you couldn’t walk right up to the monument, you could at least get tremendously close.  I envisioned touching George Washington’s nose and I had dreams that Teddy Roosevelt’s ear was the entrance to a tunnel that ran through the length of the mountain.

None of this was true.  Mount Rushmore might as well be a million miles away when you get there.  I looked at it through binoculars for roughly fifteen seconds and that was it.  It was an utter letdown.

For years I had resisted doing the established tour of the nation’s capital, I had been to the city a few times but the idea of hitting up the customary Washington attractions gave me flashbacks of South Dakota: platitudinous tour guides, McDonald’s chicken fajitas, motion sickness, and the adolescent realization that an entire people and culture and been systematically eliminated.

I realize none of these associations are particularly fair while planning a road trip with my friend Jen.  This conclusion, coupled with the fact there’s an ongoing exhibition devoted to Abraham Lincoln at the National Museum of American History, prompts us to select the District of Columbia as our destination.

2.

I don’t drive which means my primary duties for the trip are paying attention to exits, readying money for tolls, and finding tolerable radio stations.  Do people fuck and drink more during recessions?  I’m assuming so and this assumption is certainly lent credence if we consider contemporary pop-music to be an acceptable gauge of national sentiment.  The pop stations are currently dominated by insouciant anthems of sex and drinking.  Kesha has a hit that contains a line about brushing your teeth with Jack Daniels and another one about dudes trying to fuck her at bars.  Young Money, who are something like Lil Wayne’s version of the Mickey Mouse Club, have a catchy number where Lloyd tells you to call him Mr. Flintstone because he can “make your bed rock”.

Last year, while the paradox of foreclosures smeared across a canvas of perpetual banker bonuses was solidifying itself into the national consciousness, Jay-Z rapped, “Fuck talking about the recession/that shit’s depressing.”  He was right.  There’s no aspect of budgetary collapse that sounds good backed by a Timbaland beat.  Young Jeezy released an album last year audaciously titled, The Recession but anyone who purchased it for analysis of the mortgage crisis was barking up the wrong tree; most of the lyrics are about selling crack.

3.

We get to Washington DC late after a minor snag in New York and a stop at the Alexander Hamilton rest stop in New Jersey that, quite narrowly, saves me the indignity of pissing into an empty Vitamin Water bottle.

It’s 3 AM and we know nothing about the area.  We order a prodigious amount of food from a Wendy’s drive-thru and down it while searching for the first available hotel.  The first available hotel is a grubby shithole and I have to get the security guard to wake the desk clerk from a nap in order to check in.  The room reeks of cigarettes, not like someone just finished a butt or two, but that stifling stench that permeates the air in rooms where cigarettes have been smoked continuously for years and years.  We sleep on the outside of the covers and set our cell phone alarms for 8 AM.  I wake up before my alarm goes off feeling like a gauzy layer of paste exists between my skull and skin.

We find the perfect hotel before 9 AM.  It’s gigantic, historical, and not altogether expensive.  The staff is gregarious and there’s a bar. After bringing all our shit to our twelfth-floor room and downing coffee at the underwhelming café next-door, we hit the town; determined to cram every DC thing that tourists do into one twenty-four hour session.

4.

DC is different than New England in tangible ways.  All the Starbucks in the area surrounding our hotel close at seven and, when you push the button to access the crosswalk, you are granted an entire minute to cross the street.  I have a hard time processing either of these facts; in Boston you are given roughly three seconds before the blinking orange hand appears and my friends and coworkers generally answer questions about their wellbeing by explaining how caffeinated they are or need to become.  The cabdrivers in Washington talk to you like they’re your friends.  People don’t honk or yell or seem to cuss often.  It’s all very strange.

The only people working in Washington who seem to genuinely hate their lives are the employees at The National Archives.  Walking through the front door is some distressing combination of boarding an airplane and getting chewed out by a junior high teacher. A child makes the mistake of leaving her sweatshirt tied around her waist and is promptly reprimanded for the infraction.  I suppose you can never be too careful although security’s apoplectic demeanor seems to have less to do with the possibility that people might actually smuggle in devices to deface the founding documents of the country and more to do with the fact they dislike human beings.  While waiting in line a corpulent, stoic woman who seems to be the only employee without a gun, asks a group of students what the Thirteenth Amendment is.  After someone correctly replies that it prohibits slavery, she immediately snaps, “What’s the fifteenth!?” without batting an eyelash.

When we get to the Declaration of Independence there is a security guard, probably in her late-forties, glancing at us.  I smile at her but half-expect the woman to either scream at me for taking too much time or quiz me on the quartering of soldiers but, instead, she launches into the most illuminating, soft-spoken explanation of the Declaration’s signing that I have ever heard.  She covers all the bases, starting with the “Committee of Five” and working her way through mini-bios of the illustrious gentlemen.  She points out that the oldest to sign the document was Ben Franklin and the youngest was Edward Rutledge.  I don’t dwell on the fact Edward Rutledge was my age in when he signed for fear that mulling it over will lead me toward some sort of quarter-life crisis breakdown.

I could listen to this security-guard talk all day and when she ends with the line, “This was all signed in the year of our Lord, 1776.” there’s a part of me that wants to clap.  The Wilfred Brimley-looking gentleman next to us thanks her for her insight and then adds, “So much history”, a comment that strikes me as superfluous.

5.

Jen thinks Lincoln is the most attractive President in the history of the Republic and, although many women found Lincoln hunky during his time, I suspect Jen is the first person to declare, “A lot of these pictures are going into my spank bank” at the Ford’s Theatre gift-shop.  I have never really considered Mary Todd Lincoln to be much of a looker but, in many ways, she’s right up my alley (short, brunette, crazy) and she seems like she would be a fun date.  While looking at a ghastly purple dress of hers we discuss the time she flung hot coffee at her husband while an astonished Ulysses S. Grant watched.

6.

Standing in front of the White House for the first time in my life fills me with a sense of existential dread.  Facing the most famous residence in the world makes me realize that I have spent the entire day in DC without once thinking about the man who is currently President.

It wasn’t so long ago that I listened to Obama’s acceptance speech on that magical November night.  This was the first political moment of my lifetime that I knew meant something.  It didn’t matter whether Obama would go on to be the best President of all-time or the worst; what mattered was that moment when an African-American, a man whose story was a marvelous narrative representing everything that is great about the United States, won an election in a country marred by a deep and violent racist past.  What mattered was that, a man who would have been Jim Crowed a couple generations ago and enslaved had he lived less than two hundred years ago, was standing on a stage in Grant Park giving a victory speech; a victory speech solidifying him as the most important man in the world.  Our President said this: “”If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”  That’s precisely when I began to cry.

Obama, despite what the lunatic fringe of the country would have you believe, has not been the worst President ever.  He also, certainly, has not been the best.  He has been largely ineffectual, having more in common with Buchanan and Hoover than he does with Lincoln and Roosevelt.  The novelist Kevin Baker recently wrote, “Hoover—like Obama—was almost certainly someone gifted with more intelligence, a better education, and a greater range of life experience than FDR. And Hoover, through the first three years of the Depression, was also the man who comprehended better than anyone else what was happening and what needed to be done. And yet he failed.”

7.

There are still indefatigable liberals (many in my age-bracket) who believe that, any day now, the authentic Obama will emerge from the shadows speaking in the populist tones of FDR and, presumably, chomping on a similar cigarette holder.  He’ll do things: establish single-payer healthcare for all, bring all the troops home, shut down inessential oversea military bases, stand up to Wall Street, maybe even legalize marijuana.

It’s easy to make fun of the right wing for believing in the imaginary (death panels, approaching socialism, the Muslim takeover of civil society, intelligent-design) but the aforementioned liberal perception of Obama isn’t much less ridiculous.  Since his term began I have read a number of people sound off on the fact they thought they were voting for “a different candidate”

My only theory here is that, perhaps, the conclusion of the gruesome Bush-era left liberals so positively vertiginous that they weren’t actually paying attention to the semantics of the Obama campaign.  If they had examined the statements of the future President they would realize that the man certainly isn’t duping them, he has come as advertised.

Take the case of unremitting war in the Middle East: Obama’s recriminations of the war against Iraq were never based on the morality, or even legality, of the attack but on logistics; the war as public-relations disaster, a projected summer blockbuster that no one bothered to see.  Obama never implied there was anything wrong with the world’s lone superpower devastating a country, just that there was something wrong with diverting soldiers and bombs from the unrelenting, imperial adventure taking place in Afghanistan.

The Bush administration wasn’t criticized as outlaws who invaded a country without pretext, running an economy into the ground at home while sticking an impetuous search for mythical weapons of mass destruction on a credit card, but as bad salesmen; a clique of sympathetic Willy Lomans who simply made the mistake of looking for democracy in the wrong spots.

So it wasn’t especially surprising that the President chose Hilary Clinton, fundamentally wrong about the most significant foreign-policy decision of my generation, to be Secretary of State.  Obama also voted for the Patriot Act and told a paper in 2004, in reference to the war in Iraq, “There’s not that much difference between my position and George Bush’s position…”

The disputation between Obama-apologists and the Teabag maniacs seems to exist in some parallel universe where people give a shit about things like whether or not the President tucks in his shirt.  Some wingnut says the President’s birth certificate is faked, some well-intentioned liberal pipes up to explain that it’s authentic.  A purposeless debate ensues.  This all occurs while cities like Detroit are left to die.

8.

Studs Terkel wrote, “Hope never trickles down.  It always springs up.”  That sentiment is crucial when we think about the President.  Obama has always been a marketable brand but he wasn’t pushed to enact robust change, the way Lincoln was pushed by the abolitionists or the way FDR was by the labor movement.  During the campaign of 2008 the economist Doug Henwood wrote, “Despite the grand claims of enthusiasts, he doesn’t really have a movement behind him—he’s got a fan club. How does a fan club hold a candidate accountable? It’s not like he’ll take the phone calls of all those 27-year-olds who gave him $100 on the web as quickly as he’d answer a summons from Paul Tudor Jones.”

9.

We swing by Concepcion Picciotto, the woman who has been protesting the existence of nuclear weapons outside the White House since 1981, before leaving the area.  She asks us where we’re from and gives us some literature.  It’s nice to see someone so committed to a cause but even Picciotto, with her paranoid contention that the White House releases a gas each night in order to poison her, strikes me as a little teabaggish.

The gift-shop across the street from the White House is something of a disappointment.  We both expect to be able to purchase the most farcical mementos imaginable (William Henry Harrison commemorative plates, Calvin Coolidge paper-dolls, framed pictures of William Taft’s cows) but the items for sale are almost all predictable; the only thing that I contemplate spending money on is a MCGOVERN ’72 poster.

The entire time we are in the gift-shop a DVD of presidential bloopers is playing.  Richard Nixon is cracking jokes with Sammy Davis Jr.  George Bush senior talks about how much he hates broccoli at a press conference.  This all makes me think about the most recent Bush. When people play the “Worst President Ever” game they tend to compare Bush to presidents who sucked because they did nothing when the country desperately needed them to do many things.  Bush did many things, most of them wretched.  However, I always found something eerie about how much we laughed at him.  He would say uproarious things like, “I believe that human beings and fish can coexist peacefully,” or “Our nation must come together to unite,” and we would keel over but, while we rolled on the floor gasping for air, all these not-very-funny things were happening like, countries were invaded without pretext and The Constitution was being jammed through a paper-shredder.  I have an entire theory that Bush made the American Left irreparably dumber but I’ll spare you the details so that I can simply quote Jay-Z twice in one essay; “A wise man once told me don’t argue with fools/cuz from a distance people can’t tell who is who.”

10.

We walk to the Vietnam Wall.  I watch teenagers make crayon rubbings of dead relatives they never met and think about Nixon cracking jokes with Sammy Davis Jr.  Shortly after deciding to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan to maintain some Kiplingesque thrill, Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize.  Henry Kissinger won the prize in 1973.  The satirist Thomas Lehrer decided that he could not perform any longer after Kissinger accepted, “It was at that moment that satire died.  There was nothing left to say after that.”

11.

What’s your favorite Washington Monument story?  Mine is this: in 1854 the anti-Catholic Know-Nothings stole a block of marble from the monument that had been contributed by the Pope.  They dumped it in the Potomac.  We touch the monument, look up, and begin to walk to the Lincoln Memorial.

While walking alongside the water we talk about Martin Luther King’s speech and that deplorable scene from Forrest Gump where Forrest and Jenny run through the water in order to hug.  “I have always contended that you can track most things that are wrong with contemporary America back to the fact Forrest Gump beat out Pulp Fiction for Best Picture in 1994,” I tell Jen.

You can’t actually hug anyone in the water nor can you walk in it.  I watch a hippie-looking gentleman with a backpack take roughly seven steps in before some sort of authority-figure appears blowing a whistle.  He doesn’t seem to have a gun and looks younger than me, I wonder if he belongs to some sort of specific aqueous security-force.

There’s a mess of people from field trips sitting on the steps in front of Lincoln’s memorial decked out in luminous, matching shirts which reminds me I have to call my March Madness picks in at some point during the ride home. We climb up the stairs and there’s Lincoln.  I have seen it a million times in photographs and on video but it’s still impactful to see up close.

The crucial moment of the aforementioned trip to South Dakota was the stop we made at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum.  To look at the photo album dedicated to the trip is to see me rocking a shirt adorned with killer whales, Red Sox hat on my head, tongues of my British Knights out; there’s me in pretending to push a replica of the plow Lincoln used growing up, there’s me smiling in front of a photograph of Salmon Chase, there’s me next to a photograph of Booth’s co-conspirators.

Back then I viewed Lincoln as some sort of whimsical mannequin who only communicated via witty banter. I literally viewed him as the real-life version of the mechanical Lincoln from Disney’s Hall of Presidents.  My prepubescent perception of Lincoln involved him smiling, waving, and saying shit like, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”  I thought he freed all the slaves single-handedly.

I now realize that such a view of Lincoln is problematic.  Tremendously flawed, Lincoln could never be considered a true ally of the abolitionists.  He shared the despicable racial opinions of his era and once famously declared that if he could win the war without freeing a single slave, he’d be fine with that.

But Lincoln changed.  He never became a fiery radical but he became a catalyst for deep social-change, a man who moved with the flow of history.  Frederick Douglass put it best in his oration at the unveiling of the Freedman’s Monument, “Though he loved Caesar less than Rome, though the Union was more to him than our freedom or our future, under his wise and beneficent rule we saw ourselves gradually lifted from the depths of slavery to the heights of liberty and manhood.”

I realize that, despite my cranky gripes about Washington DC becoming some irrelevant center of rouge taxidermy, the promise of America is still something that makes me feel relatively mushy.  I think about that benevolent security guard at The National Archives and I think about Jefferson’s reference to, “The Pursuit of Happiness.”  We will never know, exactly, what he meant.  It’s the real Joker in the deck, Gore Vidal once observed.

I think about that last line of the Gettysburg Address, “This nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

For the first time since arriving in DC I feel optimistic about my country’s current status.  I look at Lincoln and think, we have not perished from the earth yet, which means we still have time to live up to all this hokey, touristy shit.

It’s getting dark and our legs are dead.  We walk by the closed Starbucks and take the elevator to the twelfth-floor.  We set our alarms early, there’s nothing left to do but drive back to Massachusetts.

Posted May 4th, 2010

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4 Responses to “The Past is Prologue (More or Less)” by Michael Arria

  1. Pingback: New Essay Posted: “The Past is Prologue (More or Less)” by Michael Arria | Newhandsweepstakes

  2. Amanda says:

    this is going to sound incredibly vacant, but until now i’ve never been too psyched on the lincoln memorial. he’s just so tall and sitting in that chair. but now i will forever have a false-memory of you climbing it and touching his nose.

    the real joker in the deck. jesus. what a wonderful essay.

  3. aliciasiegel says:

    I love travel stories, Michael. Yours in particular struck me as very interesting both because you are a great writer, but also because the whole D.C. historic scene has been an interest for me for years. Recently I read “Assasination Vacation”, which I’m not sure if you’ve read it, but your story brought to mind some great memories from that book.

  4. Sarah Valverde says:

    This essay was very inspiring and enjoyable to read. There is nothing more mind expanding than a road trip that makes a deep impression on a person. Thanks for sharing!

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