Politics and Pomp: Washington, D.C.
Text and photos Anne Coombes
All eyes will soon be on Washington, as the new POTUS (President of the United States) is sworn in, taking the reigns of the world’s foremost superpower. America’s capital is known as the political engine of the Western world and, for the first-time visitor, there’s a frisson that is hard to describe.
Since George Washington took the first oath in 1789, billions of American citizens have witnessed the grand inauguration of the president. This year’s swearing-in ceremony, taking place at noon on the steps of the Capitol building on January 20, promises to be just as full of pomp as ever – stars and stripes blazing fiercely. Americans will be hanging on every word of the inaugural address, an oratory tradition that has seen speeches ranging from 8,445 words to just 135. Later, the president and vice president make their way down Pennsylvania Avenue, cheered by well-wishers; a parade of floats and marching bands, both military and civilian, processes along the Mall between the Capitol and the Washington Monument, arriving finally at the venerable doors of the White House. Those fortunate enough to be among the throng will have no doubt that they are part of a slice of history.
Of course, standing before such iconic structures as the Lincoln Memorial, a shiver of excitement is inevitable. We’re so familiar with shots of the Reflecting Pool, the White House and the Capitol from Hollywood films, that it’s almost disturbing to be confronted by them in the “flesh.” You don’t need to be American to appreciate the patriotism that oozes from every stone.
We’re so familiar with shots of the Reflecting Pool, the White House and the Capitol from Hollywood films, that it’s almost disturbing to be confronted by them in the “flesh.”
The city’s impressive marble and granite monuments tower above: majestic by day, ethereal by night. The evening illuminations are gasp-inducing but the District of Columbia is also known for its blue skies and sunshine, which make strolling around a real pleasure. Washington is worth a visit at any time of year, but spring is a particularly beautiful season, with cherry trees blooming along the banks of the Potomac River. Washingtonians are quick to shrug off their winter coats and take in the air, enjoying the elegance of their city and all that it has to offer.
There is a staggering array of memorials around the city, but among the most touching are those commemorating America’s mid-century armed conflicts. Nineteen stainless steel statues depict fi ghting men on patrol, representing the 1.5 million army, navy, Marine Corps and air force men and women who fought in the Korean War. On a grander scale, the fountains of the World War II Memorial, dedicated in 2004, play at one end of the Reflecting Pool; it’s a favorite spot on hot summer days, when the breeze blows welcome spray.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, designed by Chinese- American architect Maya Lin while she was still a college student, is etched with the names of the more than 58,000 servicemen and women lost in that conflict. Family members often visit to pay their respects, take a rubbing of the name of a lost loved one or lay flowers and flags at the base of the black granite walls.
For a bird’s eye view, a trip to the top of the flagencircled Washington Monument is a must. It takes the elevator a whole minute to reach the top (the foolhardy can climb the 896 steps). An alternative 360 degree view can be had from the Old Post Office clock tower, built in the 1890s.
A trip to Mount Vernon, the family home of first U.S. President George Washington (from 1754 to 1799) is a real treat. The elegant Georgian mansion, overlooking the Potomac, boasts 500 acres of grounds. Voyeurs will love taking a peek at the great man’s bedroom and musing over the startlingly vivid wallpapers chosen for the downstairs dining room and parlor. President Washington alone earned the title “Father of his Country” in recognition of his leadership in the cause of American independence.
Also in Virginia is Arlington Cemetery, the final resting place of around 250,000 war veterans. The biggest draw is President Kennedy’s grave, marked by an eternal flame. It was lit by Jacqueline Kennedy at her husband’s funeral in 1963 and has burned ever since. Visitors approach in reverential silence, as John Kennedy remains a national icon commanding huge respect. For more insight into American patriotism, watch the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The History of Inaugural Balls
On May 7, 1789, one week after the inauguration of George Washington in New York City, sponsors held a ball to honor the new president. It was not until 1809, however, when President Madison was sworn in, that the tradition truly began. That night, First Lady Dolley Madison hosted the gala at Long’s Hotel, selling four hundred tickets at $4 each. The inaugural ball quickly turned into a highlight of Washington society. A typical ball could accommodate thousands of guests. For example, the feast marking James Buchanan’s inauguration in 1857 included 400 gallons of oysters, 60 saddles of mutton, 75 hams, and 125 tongues.
Its location became a prime topic of discussion and angst. Most of the early balls were held in temporary structures, which often presented problems. On one occasion, the weather was so dreadfully cold that guests were obliged to dance in their overcoats and hats. They ran out of coffee and hot chocolate and the caged decorative canaries froze on their perches.
Today, inaugural balls are a traditional element of the celebrations, with up to 40 separate evenings planned this January. Each sports a patriotic name: Stars and Stripes, Independence, and Liberty to name a few. These premier events for Washington, D.C. society are glittering affairs at which the incoming president always endeavors to makes an appearance, if only for a single dance.
If you’d like to become part of history, purchase your ticket from a vendor such as GreatSeats.com (1-800-664-5056). In 2005, some were available for as little as $50, with prices ranging through to $775.
Tickets for the Inaugural Parade will be available in early January ($295-850).
Don’t miss the National Air and Space Museum, displaying the original Wright Brothers plane and a full-size copy of NASA’s Lunar Landing Module. Discover the world of espionage at the International Spy Museum, which boasts that most of the exhibits are “stolen.” One section, dedicated to the Cold War, is particularly intriguing for visitors from Russia. Meanwhile, the U.S. Holocaust Museum documents Nazi persecution of millions before and during World War II, bringing the past starkly to life.
Unless you are a champion walker, one of the best ways to see the sights is by open-top bus or trolley, which allows you to hop on and off through the day. Tours leave regularly from Union Station. A one-day ticket costs $32. www.historictours.com/washington for more information. For well-organized package trips to Washington, see Smithsonian Journeys at www.smithsonianjourneys.org/tours.
Tickets for the Washington Monument are available free of charge daily from the booth near its base.
Flights to Washington’s Dulles Airport from Moscow’s Sheremetyevo are available on Air France (connect in Paris) for just over $900 or just over $800 with KLM (connect in Amsterdam). Aeroflot offers a direct flight to Moscow on Saturdays ($600).