Happy birthday, USA! I recently returned from a four-day trip to Washington, DC. While there, I revisited our National Mall and several monuments dedicated to the fathers of our country.
It had been eleven years since I last visited our nation’s capital. That was the summer of 1998. Since then our nation was led for eight years toward what former Vice President Dick Cheney called our “dark side,” so I wanted to revisit memorials and monuments to help revive the spirit of the ideals and traditions that have been admired the world over. I wanted to pay particular tribute to certain presidential “fathers” – those whom I call the Great Triumvirate of American Presidents: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The Washington Monument, in honor of the Father of His Country, does today what he did so well through most his life. If you ever get turned around on the National Mall and lose your way, just look for that tall pointed obelisk, walk toward it, and you will get your bearings. The best place to see George himself is in the newly restored Smithsonian American History Museum. There you can find Horatio Greenough’s splendid statue of the great man, (pictured, left) appropriately (?) depicted as a Greek god or a Roman emperor. It’s too bad that the Smithsonian will probably never be able to acquire Houdin’s magnificent life-size statue of Washington, which is in the Virginia State Capitol.
The incredible seated statue of Lincoln in his memorial always causes pause and reflection. Engraved on a wall, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address identifies the purpose of our government: “…of the people, by the people, and for the people.” On another wall is part of his conciliatory Second Inaugural Address, which seems to be a guiding principle of the young administration of President Barack Obama: “With malice (harm) toward none, with charity for all… let us …bind up the nation’s wounds.”
A relatively recent addition to the Mall, the FDR Memorial is a sprawling park within itself. When I first visited it in 1998, there was a conspicuous absence: the wheel chair. This time, the first sculpture I saw was that of FDR in his wheel chair. Although polio had taken the use of his own legs, he was the man who got the American people back on their feet during the Great Depression and World War II. As bad as our economic conditions are now, a primary reason that this great recession has not reached the levels of suffering of the 1930’s is because of the programs and reforms implemented by FDR and his protégés like Lyndon B. Johnson.
Like a father caring for his family, FDR assured us “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Recently, we have been reminded that violent right-wing extremists walk among us – even around our National Mall: an anti-Semitic racist gunned down a black security guard at the Holocaust Museum. The security precautions that I passed through only days before the tragedy are very much like those at airports. The man who feared and hated Jews and Blacks was stopped from further mayhem before he ever reached the checkpoints.
Although FDR’s mistreatment of many Japanese-Americans during WWII contradicted all his other policies and principles, he did deprive them of many of their rights, but he didn’t do it for political gain. The following is among his numerous quotes that are engraved within his memorial, and it identifies what we stand for: “We must scrupulously guard the civil rights and civil liberties of all citizens, whatever their background. We must remember that any oppression, any injustice, any hatred is a wedge designed to attack our civilization.”
So, on this anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, let us remember the dream expressed by Thomas Jefferson: everyone is entitled to “certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
by David Offutt
A version of this essay was published June 20, 2009,
in the El Dorado News-Times as a letter to the editor.