By Jamis H. MacNiven
So there I was—sitting at the table next to Louie Gohmert, congressman from Texas, wondering how a fool like this ends up as an elected representative. Among his positions is his insistence that the United States Federal government as directed by the Muslim Brotherhood is preparing to invade Texas this summer, declare martial law, round up the Christians and take their guns. This would be pretty funny if I was kidding. I am not.
We were in the Congressional Dining Room which is overseen by an amazing French trained chef recently pulled away from his three star Michelin…no actually the food is Holiday Inn cafeteria fare. No stars. Sorry. But this is how America eats in most places so it was fitting.
I was in Washington DC with my wife Margaret and our great friends Doug McConnell and his wife Kathy Taft. We went to see the elephant and the donkey show that is the Congress today. I hadn’t been to downtown DC since the Watergate hearings in the early 70s. The civic buildings are pretty much the same but security is now the big business. That and Uber driver.
You probably remember Doug from his well loved show of many years Bay Area Back Roads. Well you’re in luck. He has a new show airing right now on NBC called The Open Road with Doug McConnell. It is similar to Back Roads but sooo much more.
On the Senate floor we heard Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma explain that climate change is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated. His opinion would be less relevant if not for the fact that he chairs the Environmental Oversight Committee. His reasoning is that the Bible says the seasons will always exist and that’s all he needs to know. Jim’s the one who threw a snowball across the Senate floor last winter to demonstrate that it was not hot outside. I’m dropping Jim a note telling him not to hide under his bed when the sun goes down at night. “Don’t fret little Jimmy, that big ol sun will be back in the morning.”
We went to Washington to have lunch with our Congresswoman Jackie Speier. Congressfolks are amazingly accessible. This is the whole point, right? Once you’ve been screened you can wander the halls of Congress and march right through any member’s door. And many doors in the halls of Congress are left wide open so there’s a very welcoming atmosphere.
In front of the one office where the door was shut was a huge bronze sign that said, “Please come in.” There was also a sign that read—Illinois’s 18th District. Humm, all the rest had members’ names…? Margaret opened the door because she and Kathy had figured out that this was the office of the disgraced congressman, Aaron Schock, who stole our money to decorate his office like Downton Abbey. A staffer popped out of an inner office and said, “Don’t please come in, and by the way, I’m looking for a job.” We heard that the congressman spent no little time sculpting his picture perfect abs in the gym and falsifying his expense account. It was rumored that he was about to install a siren and a flashing light in front of his blinding red office begging the FBI to come and arrest him but they nabbed him before the work was done.
Lindsey Stein, a congressional page, (who happened to grow up in Woodside two blocks from Buck’s) took us on the members’ subway in the tunnel under the city. John McCain was sitting in front. We then toured around the grand public halls and under the dome. I had never been in the rotunda and it was a top ten for sure. We passed John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi though they weren’t exactly walking arm in arm. Earlier Barbara Boxer had been on the plane with us. There were lots of other ‘gets’ and we felt like trout fishermen on a rare stream catching and releasing these folks back into the murky body-politic of the nation’s Capital. Touring the sites is hyper real and I found it heartening to see so many families bringing very small children.
We were staying at a house a half a block from the Library of Congress. It was advertised as having a pool which, though true, was as green as the kudzu vines that will crawl up your leg if you hesitate on the street. I expected the Capitol* Hill neighborhood to be pretty snitzy but it’s surprisingly down tone. The brick sidewalks heave with the lush vegetation and many of the buildings are 150 years old and look as if they could use a nip and a tuck. The neighborhood grocery stores have a half abandoned air and you have to look carefully to see if they are still in business.
The woman who owns the house told us with giant eyes that the double lot next door sold for over One-Milllyun-Dollars! Oh wow… She explained that her folks were from Kentucky and that her father was a Hatfield and her mother a McCoy. She declined to take sides and as of 2007 the families claim to have buried the hatchet in this famous feud over a stolen pig. She also told us that the guy who painted the murals in the Capitol Dome, Constantino Brumedi, had painted murals on the ceiling of her house but someone painted over them. She said she intended to get up on a ladder and check someday. I hope she isn’t disappointed.
We had the good fortune to wander into the Supreme Court and listen to a lecture in the chamber right in front of the nine famous chairs. One is put in mind of the big cases Dred Scott; Plessy vs. Ferguson; Citizens United—“Corporations are people my friend.” Wasn’t it Romney who said this or maybe it’s a line from Soylent Green.
It was pointed out that this isn’t the highest court in the land. There is a basketball court on a floor directly above the chambers.
We strolled around the Mall looking at the familiar sights. We saw the pool Jenny waded across in Forest Gump and oh, the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream. As we walked up the steps I was moved by the sight of a mixed race couple holding hands looking reverently at the statue of Lincoln. We have come a long way, baby!
The Vietnam memorial attracts a lot of attention from soldiers and their kin—there to witness the names of every soldier who was lost in that senseless war. One witnesses a good deal of anger and collective grief in as you walk along this stygian granite gash in the earth. The new WW II Memorial has no such outpouring as old wars make way for new ones.
More upbeat is the Air and Space Museum. I had been there so long ago that I think I saw the Wright Brothers themselves installing their Flyer. Since then the space capsules have come—the Mercury, Apollo, all sorts of missiles and rockets. There is even a Russian three-headed ICBM which had once been pointed at us. There still are thousands of them aimed both ways but not to worry, President Rick Santorum won’t push the button unless he ab-so-lute-ly has to.
The Library of Congress was one of our favorite places. I’m a book guy so seeing many of the books that Jefferson had owned is a real thrill. It was his collection that established the library and many of his actual books are still there. I asked to borrow one but they said nooo. “What kind library is this?” They also have one of the Gutenberg Bibles. I’m a big fan of the GB. This book was printed nearly 600 years ago and since the day it was bound it has always been the most valuable (and I contend—the most historically important) book. They wouldn’t let me borrow that one either—not even for a 7 day loan.
Leaving DC we followed the trail that John Wilkes Booth traveled as he was making his escape after shooting Lincoln. Doug pointed out that this happened just 6 days after the war ended. So sad even at this great remove. Traveling with Doug and Kathy was especially thrilling as they positively burst with enthusiasm for American history. They lived in DC and we had fun as these real insiders showed us around. Margaret had visited the city many times especially when her parents lived there in the 70s. They were actually at the Watergate during the break-in. Nixon—he doesn’t look so bad when you imagine President Palin.
One of our goals was to visit the Ghost Fleet of the Potomac. I tell people about this but it seems that it is not famous and in fact not more than about 10 people have ever heard of it. The Emergency Fleet Corporation (or the White Elephant Fleet) was to be an armada of 1,000 merchant ships ordered to fill the gap left by the hundreds sunk by the Germans in the First World War. These 285 foot ships were built of fir and sugar pine. The problem was that the wood was green and therefore prone to shrink after assembly. As they worked their way east to join the war, it was discovered that not only were they were too small to carry much they were also disintegrating.
Then the war ended but the program remained as the money had already been allocated. It was hoped they could do service hauling freight but after the war there was a worldwide shipping glut. Finally after a billion had been spent (at the same time the Panama Canal cost $750M) they tried to donate the remainder of the fleet to Uruguay, but they said, “No way Jose, we really don’t need firewood, especially wet firewood.” After launching some 500 ships the Feds threw in the towel and sold the fleet to a salvage company for $750,000.
The idea was to move 233 of them to the famous ship breaking shallows across the Potomac from Quantico where the steam engines would be pulled. Ooops, they had just perfected the marine diesel so the salvers walked away.
For six years the joint was pretty festive with whorehouses popping up in abundance along with the moonshiners as it was Prohibition. The military base across the river supplied the customers. It’s now 1924 and the stripped ships were scheduled to be set alight. The local fishermen protested that burning the ships would kill the fish. It did.
Today we aren’t so foolish and the military would never spend money so recklessly.
On our way back to DC we stopped at Arlington National Cemetery. Here we saw the Kennedy family plot with the eternal flame burning on this modest memorial. Some visitors lay Kennedy half dollars on his grave and we gathered enough for a nice lunch. (Don’t call the Capitol Police, I’m kidding.)
We saw the headstones of many famous statesmen and military figures. Of course one has to see the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Here the guards march mechanically back and forth carrying rifles with knives on the end of them in the rain, in the heat and in the snow. I heard a number of opinions on this war memorial. Visitors say it’s a moving and appropriate tribute to soldiers who died serving valiantly. Others think it glorifies war thereby perpetuating it. Whatever your opinion it is certainly a place for sober reflection about the hard side of society that is war.
Robert E. Lee’s house is on a promontory overlooking the cemetery and all of Washington about 5 miles away. Lincoln offered Lee the command of the Union Army but Lee chose the losing side. The house itself is a grand plantation mansion but of bizarrely lopsided architecture. The portico has twin rows of immense columns fronting a house much too small to justify them. They are painted with faux marble and the whole effect feels like some strange statement of misguided grandiosity.
The Confederacy is a disgraced failure of a nation yet some in the south take off work to celebrate Jefferson Davis Day and twirling Confederate flags explain that they are nostalgic for the good ol days. Well, in a free country people get to do things like this but it seems to me it’s time to let it go.
I have an opinion about the Civil War that most folks don’t share. It is that the war was a mistake. Back then the South had lots of money but they didn’t have a manufacturing economy. If the Union had spent its effort to securely (they had an ineffective blockade) sew up Southern ports the Rebels would have had to capitulate in time. Freeing the slaves was the best idea of the 19th century but keeping the South in the Union was unnecessary and counterproductive. If our aim was to keep the South in the Union to make sure they stopped mistreating the African Americans the war didn’t have that outcome. Slavery ended but Jim Crow took its place.
We didn’t declare war to free the slaves. Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation after war was already underway and not as a precursor to the war. Slavery and apartheid would have collapsed along with the economy (South Africa is not a perfect place but they transitioned with more grace than we demonstrated). Some say the Southern leaning British would have allied with an independent Confederacy but we had already marched the Redcoats into the woodshed twice and we could have applied the hickory handle to their backsides a third time.
But hey, maybe Louie Gohmert will turn out to be right and we will end up reinvading Texas.
When you go to Washington DC you think about the history of the United States and your place in it. I have a lot of issues with our government and many of the systems that have evolved but there is one thing we have in abundance—that is the right—the very obligation—to complain. We are the world’s number one self-critics. This is not trivial, it is one of our core strengths. Our country is founded on protest and our freedom to speak out is Amendment Number One.
So keep it up America. Our institutions are far from perfect but they point toward justice and in this world that is much as one can hope for.
And while we’re talking about government, isn’t it time to bring back the $100,000 bill?