The world seems to be drawing my attention towards Washington D.C. I caught something on the television, as is often the case, about this fascinating place and I saw recently that a friend of mine was visiting. Of course, there is also the fact that American politics is currently at the head of the global news agenda as the race to be the next president heats up and the current front runner is Hilary Clinton. She’s tried for the White House before and she came awfully close to securing the nomination on her previous attempt. That was eight years ago and I was lucky enough to be there during that time. I had saved every penny I had of my EMA and in February of 2008 I secured myself a place on a college History & Politics trip to Washington… I am never going to forget it.
DULLES INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT- SOMEWHERE OUTSIDE WASHINGTON D.C
After an eight hour flight from Heathrow I find myself in a long queue in an otherwise bland and boring terminal building. I haven’t slept on the plane and I’ve been up since the early hours… Back in England it’s approaching bedtime but here it’s still late afternoon so I’m more than a bit tired. I’m also about to face one of the scariest things on the planet: getting though US customs! I’ve filled out my little card, the one which asks questions such as ‘have you ever been affiliated with any communist organisation?’ and now I’m about to face PASSPORT CONTROL. I’ve heard stories about this, about people being dragged away to some room and never being seen again, of hideous things happening, intrusive strip searches and probing and unusual things being done with scissors. Is that all a myth? This place looks like it might all be real. The threatening looks of the airport secuirty guards don’t help and neither does the announcement that comes over the tannoy.
‘IF YOU LEAVE YOUR LUGGAGE UNATTENDED I’M GOING TO BLOW IT UP!’
Well that’s a fine welcome to the land of the free- A threat to destroy my stuff if I leave it behind, even by accident. The fear of this makes me want to get through passport control as quickly as possible. I want my bags before one of these threatening guards comes along and runs away with it. Unfortunately this is not just any passport control, this is United States passport control. It isn’t a quick check of your passport and a stamp and a wave through. It is far more than that. Everyone here seems to be big and thuggish and the customs official at the desk I’m sent to is no exception. This makes the whole process intimidating, especially when I’m being asked what I’m doing here and having my fingerprints taken and my mugshot done. Even then it isn’t over because there’s the threat of more customs checks and random bag searches for contraband. For some reason this terrifies me. I have a packet of crisps- potato chips I guess they’d call them over here- in my bag and I’m worried that some official is going to find them and blow a gasket. I’m assured by a teacher that they aren’t a problem but I don’t believe him for a second. My bag isn’t checked so I guess that we’ll never know.
My bag is not on the carousel… Nobody’s is. They’ve all been taken off, either by the teacher who is standing in the middle of them or by a security guard. I imagine him lurking just out of sight, waiting to see which ones are collected and which ones aren’t. I’ll bet he’s ringing his hands, eager to run away and turn them into fireworks. I quickly find mine. It’s good… It’s safe. Phew! Time to get out of here… Oh wait. Not everybody has got through passport control yet. This is going to take a while.
A BUS- APPROACHING D.C
After what seems like ages we are out of Dulles, away from threatening customs men and cutting through the dark of an early February Virginia night. I want to see what it looks like but there’s practically nothing to see thanks to it being dark. We’re joined on this bus by our tour guide for the next couple of days, a middle aged lady who I can’t recall the name of. For some reason ‘Nicola’ rings a bell, though I’m probably wrong. On the journey to the hotel she gives a brief overview of the area and D.C and what we’re going to see over the next few days. She tells us that it’s also Super Bowl day… That isn’t something I really have any interest in but it was the New York Giants against the New England Patriots that year if you really want to know. At some point we cross the Potomac river and I can just about see the water thanks to some lights on the other side. This is my one and only view of the Potomac and I don’t catch sight of it again whilst I am here.
‘Oh look they’ve got countdown traffic lights,’ someone shouts as we hit the city. I idiotically start to look around for these Richard Whiteley and Carol Vorderman themed traffic lights but that isn’t what they mean. They mean that the traffic lights count down until they change. That is a lot cooler than having Carol Vorderman on your traffic lights. I don’t even think Americans would know who Carol Vorderman is so to them she would just be some random woman. Her presence on the traffic lights would be inexplicable. It would probably be inexplicable to British people as well come to think of it. Anyway, that doesn’t matter now because we’ve arrived.
I’m not going to name the hotel… It was on a street corner and from the name it sounded like it could be quite a nice place. Looking on the website it looks better than I remember but it still seems like the kind of cruddy place I remember it being. It looks like it hasn’t been decorated since 1978. I wouldn’t book it myself, let that be known. In my memory it resembles the Happiness Hotel from The Great Muppet Caper and from the pictures on the website, I can see why. I remember it being all dark and dingy and not all that clean. Bits of it were falling apart. It’s not going to be five star luxury when you’re on a college trip, obviously, but considering we were told this was a really good hotel it wasn’t. Trip Advisor places it squarely in the bottom 25% of DC hotels so in no way can it be considered a good hotel. In contrast, in New York later on, we got this sweet-ass swanky hotel that I would love to stay in again. There was a major problem with that hotel though, and it wasn’t their fault. I shall say no more on that as even eight years later I still bear the internal scars.
It’s late so myself and my roommates dump our stuff and go grab some food. We don’t go far, only as far as the hotel restaurant but we seem to be the only ones in here. Everyone else appears to have gone out into the city or is off watching the Super Bowl somewhere. I have a huge plate of Buffalo wings, something that seems to me to be so typically American. I do my best to get through them but don’t quite finish. I enjoy them though. Those are good Buffalo wings. Afterwards a few of us go out onto the streets to have an explore. They’re deserted through a combination of it being a Sunday and Super Bowl night. Having thought of America as this really crowded place, streets packed with people from end to end (you can blame movies for that one) this is a shock, but a nice one. The empty city has this perfect atmosphere to it. It feels strangely safe. Our voyage into these streets is only short, however, for it has been a long day and our beds are calling.
HOTEL ****, CENTRAL D.C- THE NEXT MORNING
I find that the breakfast here is quite alright. It’s a proper spread of things- Bacon, fruit, pancakes, juices- An all American breakfast they call it. I pile my plate with stuff and at first treat it like a proper meal. I’ll eat the savoury stuff first and then have the sweet stuff as a kind of desert. Alas, with only one plate this means that the maple syrup which I’ve shamelessly poured onto my pancakes ends up all over the bacon as well. The combination works. I love it. Bacon and maple syrup for the win! I will have this again for the next two mornings, completely slavering that bacon in a winter coat of maple syrup. Writing this makes me want some…
It isn’t that cold today. It’s chilly and I need a coat of my own but it isn’t that cold. First stop of the day is Capitol Hill just a short walk down the street. DC isn’t a city of high rises, they have building limits, but this is all still a lot bigger than I’m used to. I wonder what is in each building and I’d love to stop and amble around a bit, explore the streets, but you can’t do that in a group and we’re kind of in a hurry anyhow. I manage to stop and get some photos along the way but they aren’t very good or very interesting. At this point in time I’m still using the point-click (and will be for the next few years) so the quality on them isn’t great. The only good thing is that I can take photos super quick so I’m not lagging behind much.
It isn’t long before we reach the top of the National Mall and the Capitol building, home to the legislative branch of the US government; the Senate and the House of Representatives. Now the last time I was in any kind of political institution like this I almost vomited. The difference is that was an incredibly hot day and they don’t let dirty, common children from underperforming secondary schools sit down in the House of Lords. There is more security here than at the Houses of Parliament- There we were just able to walk in and meet the tour guide and we were off but this involves metal detectors, x-ray machines and almost the whole shebang of protective security. This is understandable given that the US is a country that is more prone to violence than the UK.
The tour is an interesting one and I can’t help but compare it to the Houses of Parliament. Parliament is a chaotic place. It’s all higgledy piggledy and grand and processional and you go through small doors in the side of rooms and come out in even grander rooms. It’s all very old fashioned. The Capitol building is far more practical and laid out in a much more sensible fashion. Despite being roughly the same age (in parts) it feels more modern. It is a very severe sort of place, very straight and very prim. We begin in the rotunda and then move on to the old senate chamber, the statuary hall and finally the crypt where George Washington was originally intended to be buried (though he ended up being buried at his home in Mount Vernon.) There’s a sense of pride and patriotism about the building. It encapsulates a sense of nationhood. There are statues and monuments to the great political events of US history everywhere you look. All politicians, not just the founding fathers, are lauded. It’s still a working building, as evidenced by the fact that we can’t see either of the main chambers because they’re both in session right now, but it is also one big celebration of power and government and legislature. At the little shop in the crypt I buy a faux-olde tea stained reprint of the Declaration of Independence. For a while it sat on my wall.
After the Capitol building Nicola takes us on a walking tour of the National Mall. Again it’s a big, bold, brash statement of nationhood. Nicola tells us that Americans are proud of their home states and that she’s from Indiana… Or was it Iowa? Somewhere beginning with I anyway… I have a twenty five percent chance of being right whichever state I chose. It’s becoming clear to me, just from looking around, that Americans aren’t just proud of their states but of pretty much their whole nation; their history, their politicians, their national heroes, who they are as a people. The mall is a statement of pride in everything American. History and culture are represented by the numerous Smithsonian museums that flank its edges. Monuments to the presidents are here- Jefferson and Lincoln and Washington being the most famous ones. It’s also a place of remembrance. The national war memorials are here and Nicola shows us a few of them. I’m quite impressed by the scope and design of the Second World War memorial and I like that each state is represented here individually. The Korean War Memorial and the Vietnam War memorial are the ones that stay with me most though. I’m not sure why. All along the mall Nicola gives out potted histories about what we’re seeing like the history of the Smithsonian (its founder, James Smithson, was British and he’s buried in the main building) and how they built the Washington Monument and why the White House is called the White House. Seeing and hearing of all this pride in the nation and its history, all on public display, I begin to understand why getting into the U.S is the way it is. Americans are proud of their nation and they only want to protect it, keep it safe from harm and even more so given the current global climate. I can respect that.
Eventually we reach the Lincoln Memorial and the spot where one of the all time great speeches of the world was made.
‘I have a dream that one day my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character…’
I still remember where I first came across that speech. It was a small video clip on an Encarta encyclopaedia, a name that is about as nineties as The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air and The Spice Girls. I played that clip over and over because I was magnetized by this man, by his voice, by the way he spoke. I was too young at the time to grasp the full meaning of what he was talking about and I didn’t have any of the context to what he was talking about but I found him magnetic. All these years later I find myself standing on the spot where that speech was made, the spot from whence those words would echo down the ages, literally etched in stone at my feet- ‘I Have a Dream.’
The promised land Luther King spoke about, alas, has not yet been reached but as I stand here the dream is about to move one step closer to being realized. All around D.C there are posters and campaign banners for the Democratic Party nomination at the next election. Hilary Clinton is known the world over as the wife of Bill. Outside the US her rival is an unknown but by the end of this year Barack Obama will have made history as the first black president of the US. As I stand on the spot where Luther King made his speech either Obama or Clinton could be the one that ends up in the running to be the next president but things are about to be set in motion here in DC, things that will be talked about and commented upon for generations to come. I stand on a spot where history was once made and as I do, all around me, it is preparing to be made again.
‘Look at that,’ Nicola says of the plaque on the floor marking the spot where the speech was made. I’m awed by it. ‘Today you can touch a dream!’ Nobody moves. I want to touch the dream but don’t want to look silly. Then someone else does it and I don’t want to look like I’m copying. We’re allowed to wander off and look at the Lincoln monument on our own. This is one of the great monuments of the world. I’ve seen it so many times before, in movies and TV shows but nothing prepares you for how big it actually is. It’s a cliché that everything in America has to be supersized but that is one enormous statue. He’s twenty foot tall- Over three and a half times bigger than I am. All five foot four and a half of me hardly comes up to his foot. He’s like a giant… He’s the BHG: The Big Honest Giant. I read the Gettysburg address on the wall to the left and then go back to the statue. Why do we have almost nothing like this back in Britain? I go back outside to the plaque… Nobody is watching are they? Good. I can touch the dream!
I’d love to go over and see the Jefferson monument, which I can see through the trees, but there isn’t time and our tour of the National Mall has just about come to an end. I’m coming to admire America’s reverence and respect for its own history. It’s something we don’t really have back in Britain, especially not in England. We don’t have a National Mall or anywhere that celebrates and commemorates our great leaders and heroes. Our first and longest serving PM, Robert Walpole, doesn’t even have one measly little statue anywhere and most others, if you named them, wouldn’t even register as a blink on the brains of most people. ‘Lord North? Never heard of him,’ they’ll tell you. Sure, we have some places that celebrate our great leaders and heroes. We have Trafalgar Square, a few statues in Parliament Square, Poets Corner in Westminster abbey, the National Memorial Arboretum (for war heroes) and Queen Victoria’s over the top tribute to her late husband- the Albert Memorial, but there is no one place that collects it all together like here. It isn’t just here though. This is just the heart of the nation’s celebration of its past. For another example you only have to look to Mount Rushmore, a staggeringly impressive monument to the nation’s greatest leaders. What do we have that can compare? A lump of rock that is supposed to look like Pitt the Younger is about all. The British don’t do patriotism very well though. Whenever the British get patriotic it tends to be divisive and any National Mall for Britain would likely be trashed within two weeks. The Thatcher monument wouldn’t even see out the opening night.
The tour is followed by the Smithsonian Air and Space museum and this is my kind of place. It’s huge and wandering around seems to take hours and hours. The entrance is packed with planes and rockets, hanging from the ceiling, on the ground and behind railings. The command module from Apollo 11 is here, some ballistic missiles, the Spirit of St Louis. I find myself more interested in the side galleries though, those detailing the space race and the advent of powered flight. There’s one here, it might have been temporary, called Treasures of America and inside there are all sorts of items from American political and cultural history- George Washington’s Coat, I measure myself against him and am found wanting, the counter from the Greensboro sit ins, the sign from Mash… Kermit the Frog is in the entrance but he’s been pickled (for want of a better word) behind glass. This is my favourite part of the museum and I go through here at least twice. It might even have been three times, I’m not sure. Thinking on it, of all the objects and artefacts in that museum, I would say that 90% of them were American. There were a few Russian spacesuits and orbitals floating around but almost everything else was American. Looking at the whole of the Smithsonian collection online now, I can see that’s true of most of the collection. That is definitely a good thing, especially in an age where other major museums are being asked to return objects taken during the age empire. It shows that you can have a museum filled with objects from one nation and you don’t necessarily need to showcase items from other cultures. To talk about that now though would detract from the story at hand. Perhaps another time.
The rest of that day is something of a haze. I know I wanted to go and explore the Chinatown but since we weren’t allowed to go off on our own and everyone else I was with didn’t want to go in I never got to. The evening meal ended up being McDonald’s, kind of shit since you can get that anywhere.
HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM-THE NEXT MORNING
Breakfast done we find ourselves crossing D.C to visit the Holocaust Museum. I come out not really knowing how to feel about it. A part of me is disappointed, I expected there to be much more but I appreciate that the many empty spaces are designed to make you reflect and think. Looking at it I don’t think we saw it all, only a tiny proportion. I think a lot of it was closed up for one reason or another. I certainly don’t recall some of the things mentioned on the Wikipedia article. I think perhaps I should visit again if I ever find myself back in D.C.
I don’t have my camera with me today, or my bag or any money. They’re back at the hotel, as has been advised, so as to make it easy to get through security at our next stop. This is the biggy- Forget the Capitol Building or the Smithsonian or the National Mall… This is 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, better known as the White House. We saw it from afar yesterday on our tour with Nicola but now we’re going inside. You can well understand the tight security detail here, you actually need a passport to get in as well as an array of x-ray machines and metal detectors and other security checks. You can’t have any old muck wandering in off the streets. You only see a tiny, tiny proportion on the tour as well but since it is a big building that is still quite a lot. Of course, you can’t go into the west wing but you do get to walk through a fair amount. It’s reminiscent of an English Country House tour. In fact it is exactly the same; you walk through roped off rooms and the furniture is placed in carefully curated positions so you can see them. Instead of friendly National Trust guides, however, you have stern Presidential security men watching your every move. You are kind of hurried through as well, which doesn’t please me. I want to linger, this is the White House after all and it isn’t every day you get to be here. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Someone reckons they see George W Bush going up the stairs in the entrance hall (I don’t) and then later on one of my roommates describes the entire place as, wait for it, tacky! Nobody else in the group agrees with this sentiment. Personally, I think if you want tack there are plenty of places to go for it other than the White House. There is no way the White House can be called tacky. Compared to a lot of European stately homes and palaces the décor is actually really subtle. Perhaps if it was Cardiff Castle or Neuschwanstein he’d been talking of I could understand, maybe, but not the White House.
The afternoon is spent walking around the Potomac Mills shopping mall. It’s nothing worth mentioning really. It is just a shopping mall with shops and things. I look around a few, I can’t recall which. Most of the stores are clothes shops and I’m not that interested in looking at clothes. I think I preferred the other mall. I eventually end up in a large book store where I buy myself a copy of The Man With The Golden Gun. The shop assistant commends me on my choice and asks me if they’ve revealed the name of the next film yet… They have, Quantum of Solace. The assistant does not sound too impressed. I get myself some food afterwards, I can’t even recall what it was it was so long ago now, and on the bus back into D.C I settle into a seat and begin what will be a long journey with Mr James Bond. After Golden Gun I decided to read the books in order and so would eventually come back to where the book starts, with Bond presumed dead by British Intelligence, though actually he’s just lost his memory.
That day is Super-Tuesday, the day when a huge number of states have their primaries for presidential candidate. Everyone is talking about Hilary Clinton VS Obama because this is the day that will, without being an official confirmation, secure the nomination for one of them. I want Clinton to win because I don’t know the other guy. Looking back all these years later I’m glad it was Obama who won and he’s clearly proven himself (in my mind) to have been a competent and level headed statesman. He’s been one of the most consummately professional politicians on the planet. He’s handled the last eight years, some of the most difficult not just in American history but in the world, incredibly well. He pulled through them, sometimes divisively, and he made it look easy. It doesn’t matter what you think of him or his policies, nobody can deny that he’s taken on the perils and the pitfalls of the presidency and from where I’m standing, he’s knocked them out of the park. Yes, the nation is a divided one, but what great politician in world history hasn’t split opinion during their term? It is often only with a great deal of hindsight that we see who was and who was not great and I believe that the history books will mark Obama out for far more than merely being the first black president. America and the world will miss him come 2017, just you watch. If we were looking back on eight years of a Clinton presidency, would I be saying the same thing? She’d have been good, a force to be reckoned with for certain, and she will be if she wins this year, but I don’t think I would be saying the same thing as I am about Obama.
I watch the results come in on the news for a while until my roommate decides he’s bored by it. This is the same guy who called the White House tacky and clearly he has no interest in history being made. For the next hour he annoyingly flicks through all the channels, watching things for five minutes at a time and then switching to something else. I just sit and read, occasionally able to catch a glimpse of what is going on with the primaries. Obama, it soon becomes clear, is going to come out on top. That night was the night of no going back, the night the White House came within his grasp for the first time. I’m kind of proud to have been there for it.
Early the next morning, with news of the Obama win buzzing around D.C, comes the third and final delicious breakfast and a sad farewell to this home of American politics. The next stop is Philadelphia, for the constitution centre and the Liberty Bell, and by evening we’ll be in New York. Beyond its borders the US is often criticized, jeered at for what is perceived as over the top patriotism. Looking around D.C though, the National Mall and the White House and the centre of it all, you really start to understand that a bit more. This is a nation that is proud of where it comes from, proud of its people and its achievements in a way that no other country on earth is. They have a respect for their history, for their political institutions and for the land they call home. What D.C shows is that we can all learn a thing or two from the way America does things. We should all be a little more proud of where we come from, of where we live, and of what has come before us.
If you thought this was a good read then check out some of my more recent trips on the travel page.