Thursday, December 11, 2008

Lately in Washington, D.C.

Lately in Washington, D.C., I had several strange encounters with wildlife. Walking away from our neat but unlovable embassy on Massachusetts Avenue, I saw an enormous black rat emerge from shadows under the portico of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, canter nonchalantly down the steps, through dividing shrubbery, and make a bee-line for the Brookings Institution, that robustly conservative think-tank next door. The movement of rats being noteworthy (sinking ships, and all that), I wished that it had been scuttling in the opposite direction.

A little later, while crossing the park in Dupont Circle, to the riotous amusement of several bag ladies languorously sunning themselves nearby, I was attacked by a duck. Swift of foot, he traced a graceful arc, ultimately coming from behind, clacking his beak with surprising reverberation, and pecking gamely at the cuff of my trouser. Startled, I looked around for ducklings, but there were none. Presumably he was on crystal meth like everybody else around here.

A good proportion of the tens of thousands of flags that flutter winningly all over Washington, D.C., were flying at half-mast. Wondering why, I asked shopkeepers, taxi drivers, doormen, and—not without pleasure—a statuesque, impeccably courteous, moustachioed cop lounging against a quoin during his lunch break. Nobody knew.

Occasionally you think that nobody knows anything in busy American cities. The nearest post office? “Don’t know.” A good dry cleaner? “Haven’t a clue.” Where’s the nearest subway? “Huh?”

Finally, however, an elderly volunteer behind the information desk in the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art, somewhat hard of hearing, came up trumps: It turns out the gesture was in memory of all serving police officers who ever fell in the line of duty, nation-wide. That courtly cop, a southern gentleman in fact—well, he should have known.

Last year around the White House, and throughout Lafayette Park, it was good to see numerous Australian flags flying alongside Old Glory, even though they were in honor of the Prime Minister, who was staying at Blair House, the President’s official guest quarters.

President Harry S. Truman lived there for most of his administration while the White House was being rebuilt. For understandable reasons, during the depression and war years President Roosevelt allowed 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to fall into disrepair.

One feels a chill upon walking past the modest portico where, on November 1, 1950, there was a determined assassination attempt upon Truman. All three conspirators, Puerto Rican nationalists, were shot dead by the Secret Service right below the President’s study window, just like that. There was no sign of the Howards.

Tottering past the colossal U.S. Treasury building, I noticed in the forecourt the modest but splendid bronze statue of its early nineteenth-century maecenas, the great Albert Gallatin, who came up with the novel idea of presenting to Congress annual reports of income and expenditure, and whose forecasts were thought to be uncanny. Washington bristles with gorgeous, exquisitely maintained bronze statues which, because they’re mostly dwarfed by immense buildings of insistent Roman Republican sobriety, are easy to overlook. But the inscription beneath Secretary Gallatin is surely the envy of anybody who harbors mighty ambitions in commerce or public life. It reads, simply, “Genius of Finance.” God, I love the nineteenth century.

Washington is at its best when the cherry blossom is out, and daffodils, jonquils, tulips, and azaleas are rioting all along the avenues, while in corners of the Mall the glorious dogwoods are at their peak. There is no American tree more elegant: slender but shapely, with creamy white flowers bobbing delicately on the branches like so many over-sized butterflies. On my first visit to Washington, whilst gawping at a particularly beautiful specimen, near the Smithsonian “Castle,” I heard then saw my first bumble bee, enormous, tiger-striped and very furry, chugging laboriously at shoulder height towards a promising crop of pear blossom. He bore an uncanny resemblance to Leigh Bowery.

Deep in the National Archives, an institution I have never visited before, I was fascinated by the cheerful postcard from Annie Oakley to President William McKinley, dated Nutley, New Jersey, April 5, 1898, on the eve of the Spanish-American war:
Dear Sir,

I for one feel confident that your good judgment will carry America safely through without war. But in case of such an event I am ready to place a company of
fifty lady sharpshooters at your disposal. Every one of them will be an American and, as they will furnish their own arms and ammunition, will be little if any expense to the government.

Very truly,

Annie Oakley
The card was written, posted, delivered, read, and the key phrase underlined enthusiastically in blue wax pencil, then initialed and dated by the twenty-fifth President himself, all on the same day, a sobering reminder of how far things have sunk at the U.S. Postal Service. Perhaps it was the fellow feeling between native Ohioans that led Annie Oakley to make the offer, but, possibly because of the effectiveness of Admiral Dewey in Manila, the McKinley administration did not take it up.

They also have on display President Richard M. Nixon’s letter of resignation, dated 8 August 1974. Why was this addressed to Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, and not, say, his successor, Vice-President Gerald R. Ford, or the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Congressman Carl B. Albert (D) of Oklahoma?

Not perhaps an issue of overwhelming importance, but later on, back in New Haven, curiosity led me to get in touch with the Nixon Presidential Library, whose fine archivist, David R. Sabo, supplied the answer with alacrity.

According to Section 11 of the Presidential Succession Act of 1792 “the only evidence of a refusal to accept or of a resignation of the office of president or vice president, shall be an instrument in writing declaring the same, and subscribed by the person refusing to accept or resigning, as the case may be, and delivered into the office of the secretary of state.” This was when the office of secretary of state was considerably more than the equivalent of that of merely a foreign minister.

Incidentally, in a not particularly rare solecism, not long ago the
New York Times, commenting on his recent dealings with the Bush administration, described him as “Mr. Kissinger.” Is there anyone who was even vaguely conscious in the 1970s who does not remember the wily old toad as “Dr. Kissinger”? No doubt presently they’ll come up with a bad re-make of Mr. Strangelove.

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