A Eugenean wanders Washington, D.C.
By Mose Tuzik Mosley
The Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C., Nov. 5, 2008, shortly after midnight. It is a transcendent moment and I am the first journalist here to cover it.
From the top step of this marble temple with the carved stone image of Abraham Lincoln in the background and a gentle mist falling from overcast skies, the view down across West Potomac Park, the Reflecting Pool, the shimmering image of the Washington Monument and the Capitol Building in the distance, is cloaked quiet history. A couple of steps away from where I am standing Martin Luther King gave his Dream Speech. Pilgrims from around the world come here to celebrate freedom. This is a temple of emancipation for many people. I it is a marble symbol for all that is good about America.
And tonight, a little more then one hour after the miracle election of a progressive Democratic president who happens to be of African descent, a crowd is gathering. They will come with Obama buttons and newspaper headlines to make photographs of the historic moment. They will come to pay respect to Lincoln and exclaim their joy and hope.
And we are here at the very beginning.
I am lucky to be here with two friends. One of them is just about my oldest friend, 30-plus years since we met while protesting at the Trojan Nuclear Power Plant, St. Helens. She is now vice president for strategy and leadership development at a progressive D.C. think tank. My other new friend is a Marine lance corporal; an Iraq war veteran who took a bullet in the neck. He is currently studying law at Stanford and public policy at Harvard. He has a couple of mean scars and a gentle disposition.
Earlier as we are walking across the mall toward the memorial I make a joke about the stillness of the Reflecting Pool and how it looks as though we can walk across the water.
“Tonight” Sean says, “I think Obama probably could walk across it.” That is the sort of feeling we have after midnight at the Lincoln Memorial.
A day earlier, on the plane from San Francisco, I am watching video lectures from the TED Conference in Monterrey. The lecture that speaks to me most eloquently is by Matthieu Ricard a Buddhist monk, formerly a microbiologist from the Pasteur Institute. He describes Buddhist teachings as a process for increasing the depth of knowledge and compassion. Inner peace through meditation. Happiness even during the most oppressive suffering. In fact an acknowledgement that suffering is good. It provides contrast in the human experience. It provides momentum and space for growth toward the positive. I’m paraphrasing here and certainly have a novice’s incomplete understanding of Buddhist thought, but the idea gives me a certain peace.
My mind immediately applies this concept to the election. The idea that the suffering we have experienced from the incompetence of our government in the last eight years, is now fueling the outburst of hope that this presidential election now engenders. The power of contrast; but also the opportunity for improvement.
I have consider the point that we would never be on the verge of electing an African-American intellectual to the White House without our world’s current ugly state of affairs. The neo-conservatives have screwed things up so badly that it is good. In some ways we should thank then for being so good at being so bad.
If the Bush administration had not been so incompetent, lying us into an unnecessary war, allowing the greed of Wall Street to overwhelm our economy, borrowing from China to pay for it all — if they had been just a little bit good at anything other than fucking up, we might be looking at four years with Sarah Palin a heartbeat from the presidency. Perhaps Obama could have come to the forefront anyway, but you have to wonder at the workings of the universe. Extreme distress begets a new world of hope.
It seems balanced, somehow. Of course I’m thinking this the day before the election. Maybe I’m taking things a little bit for granted.
The day of the election I wake up early in D.C. and walk the 12 blocks from my friend’s apartment to the front lawn of the White House. It is 7 am and a crew of carpenters (my brethren) is already at work. They are beginning to build the grandstand where the newly elected president with give his inaugural address. It’s being built at the edge of the White House compound, backed up by the 8-foot iron fence that encloses the 12 acres of the presidential residence. We talk wages and overtime. They are all from Local 2756. Union carpenters. I ask how they are voting.
Laughter. Union carpenters? They are voting for Obama.
A man I’ll call Leroy the Carpenter, takes a short break from cutting a 2 by 10 to talk to me about the job. He doesn’t particularly like working here but the overtime is great — especially this time of the year.
There are 77 days before the inauguration. Seems like plenty of time to build a stage, without working extra time.
“Hey,” he says, “I don’t claim to know. They want it done quick is all. That’s what they told us. Soon as we can get ’er done.”
Somewhere, maybe throughout D.C. there is a collective force more than ready to be done with the current administration. It is as though everyone can’t wait to move on to “the new.” No matter who gets elected. It’s change either way, and I get the feeling that any change is better. Fatigue has set in.
My impression is that this town is damn tired of bad news. Everyone loses here when the government is scorned by its people. Especially when the scorn is well deserved and not just irrational. Even the carpenters can feel it.
Leroy only pauses a minute. Can’t talk, he says. Got to work. This structure right here is where The Man will stand to give his speech. He smiles at me through his dark complexion and I know he means Obama.
In the background is the famous view of the north entrance to the White House. A perfectly kept green lawn. The Greek revival pillars of the North Portico, that faceted octagonal chandelier that hangs over the door. To the right a video set-up for the press corps where each correspondent will give their report with that famous view of the West Wing in the background. Autumn leaves fall from the big-leaf maples. Secret service agents with rifles pace along the edge of the White House roof.
It is a heavily secured area. After the terrorist acts of 9/11, it became even more so. When I was younger you could line up early in the morning and join a tour of the White House. Now you need to apply for the tour through your congressperson. There is a six month wait and an FBI background check.
There are guards with guns everywhere. I understand this, but I can’t help but look at it through the lens of a peace activist. Everyone seems to have a weapon. Even the statues.
It is an entire neighborhood of martial images. In the park across from the front lawn the bronze likeness of Andrew Jackson riding to war, a couple blocks away William Tecumseh Sherman, riding to war, and a block beyond that David Farragut is damning the torpedoes. Ricard Rochembeau. French general is astride a cannon pointing to the battle. Iron cannons aimed in every direction. Memorials to fallen soldiers. Monuments to those who died in violent conflicts. Even the sharply pointed phallus of the Washington Monument looks somehow threatening.
I’m as good an American as the next person and I’m willing to accept that a certain amount of historical violence had to take place so that I can sit here and criticize freely my country’s preoccupation with the power of destruction.
I walk around to the front of the White House because I want to get a view, take a photo of the south lawn. I’m especially interested in this lawn because it is where my fellow journalist Michael Pollan (New York Times Magazine, Oct. 9, 2008) has recently suggested that the new president plant 5-acre vegetable garden. An organic, sustainable, carbon retaining, food producing example of new thinking. A strong image to show the country and the world that we are heading in a new direction: pointing us down a path toward a sustainable future.
It is indeed a long wide expanse of beautifully kept grass. It has perfect southern exposure. It looks to me like a good watering system is already in place. Just have to till up the sod, maybe build a few raised beds, amend the soil, and sow the seeds of the future.
While I’m standing there envisioning corn, beans and squash, I hear the soft rumble of a gas engine. How amazing, I think, as a spreader cuts across the center of the lawn, they already have a tractor. It looks nearly brand new. A couple of farm implements to attach to the back of that thing and we’d be in business. Couldn’t cost us more then a few thousand dollars. I bet we could even get a few hundred former hippies to pony up for it.
I take a photo of the green John Deere 4320 as it winds its way through the middle of our future vegetable patch. The driver is slowly, methodically spreading fertilizers, petrochemicals, no doubt. More bankrupt thinking from our non-organic past.
But the miracle of America is that we can change. Change is the theme of this election, right? And today, Nov. 4, is the day for it. The day America decides. I find myself holding my breath as I walk back over to Pennsylvania Avenue.
I have the extreme good fortune to watch the election returns from the offices of a progressive think tank located a couple of blocks from the White House. An old friend is a founder of this group and she has arranged for me to join the staff as they follow the pervasive media coverage on three separate TV screens.
The largest screen, tuned to CNN, is located in a conference room with a dramatic glass wall overlooking the corner of Connecticut and L Street. Across the avenue a giant American flag hangs three stories tall in the glass atrium of the Washington Square building. There is a buffet table of barbeque ribs, grilled chicken, potato salad and cold slaw. There is a tub of ice and bottled beer. Coca cola and Seven-Up. Home made ice cream with all the fixings. As Middle American as food gets.
The room is filled with staff and their guests and of course many are supporters of Obama. In fact this organization was founded after the defeat of John Kerry in the 2004 election. It was a time of deep soul searching for progressives and the impact of that defeat provided the impetus to organize around the concept of finding a new way forward between the two parties. The idea resonated among several wealthy donors and this non-profit, non-partisan think tank was born. Tonight, after four years of promoting progressive approach to public policy, the staff is gathered to see if they have had any effect. The election of a progressive president will in many ways validate their ideas.
There is a lot at stake in the room tonight. And the evening starts out with fidgeting and nervous worry.
By 9 pm Eastern time the returns are only showing a leaning toward Obama. Several keys states have been two close to call. And even though Pennsylvania and then Ohio go into the Democratic blue column, meaning that there is almost no way McCain can win, the staff is still slightly unsure. It isn’t until 10:49 when CNN calls New Mexico for Obama that the corks begin to come out of the champagne bottles.
In the meantime a group of kids has been playing on the floor in the middle of the room. They have been coloring maps of the U.S. using red and blue crayons to color the states as the television predicted the results. One of the most earnest (and certainly one of the cutest) is a 3-year-old girl of Asian descent, adopted by her parents two years ago from the Hunan province of China.
Her name is Liberty Jane and she has the most beautiful straight dark hair and shining brown eyes of anyone in the room. She is up way past her bedtime. At 11 pm when the polls close in California, Oregon and Washington, CNN immediately calls the election for Obama.
Cheering and shouting throughout the room. Through the glass walls we can see people coming out onto the street on Connecticut Avenue. Taxicabs are honking their horns. The happiness is contagious. People are hugging each other and slapping their palms. I find myself shouting at the television screen.
“Yes,” I shout, “Yes, Yes, YES …”
Ten minutes later when things have calmed down, I watch one of the older men in the room lean down to talk to Liberty Jane. He smiles at her and says: “Liberty Jane in 2044.”
For a moment it becomes a quiet chant. Liberty Jane in 2044, Liberty Jane in 2044, Liberty Jane in 2044 …
An adopted Chinese woman as president of the United States of America?
Tonight in not only seems possible.
It seems likely.
By midnight we are out on the streets, a drizzle falling from the sky, and on the sidewalk we fall in behind a half dozen German businessmen smoking cigars and celebrating the election results. That is the kind of city Washington, D.C., is. People from all over the world come here to solicit one thing or another from the U.S. government. And every foreigner I speak too is overjoyed with the election of Obama.
The office is a just a few blocks from the White House and we decide to stop there on our way over to the Lincoln Memorial.
It is a wild scene. Just this morning I stood here virtually by myself talking to the union carpenters. Now the space is crammed with screaming and shouting people. Thousands of people. Jumping up and down, celebrating the end of the long election cycle. Delirious with joy over the victory of Obama.
So now we are standing in front of the White House with a couple of thousand others. People are slapping each other high fives. Strangers are hugging. Couples are kissing. Laughter and shouting, young people and old, white and black, people from all over the world.
And at one point we are all facing the North Portico of the White House, maybe a hundred yards away and we are singing in a giant chorus:
Nah nah hah nah
Nah nah nah nah
Hey, hey, hey, Goodbye.
Repeated over and over.
At precisely 12:49 am I am standing at the foot of the 20-foot tall statute of a seated Abraham Lincoln. I am lost in a meditative reverie. I’m thinking about the words I just read on the north wall, words taken from his second inaugural address. “Malice toward none.. Bind up the nation’s wounds … achieve and cherish a lasting peace among ourselves and will all nations.” Stirring words and as I am standing there I feel a certain vibration, as though the statue were breathing to life — as though a new beginning.
It is my cell phone vibrating in my hip pocket. My sister calling from the West Coast. Calling from Eugene. She thinks I’m still in her time zone.
“Well,” I say,” I’m actually in Washington, D.C., standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial”
“Wow! Really? That is so appropriate.”
She goes on to tell me that she has heard from several of her friends that Obama is actually the re-incarnation of Abraham Lincoln.
After we hang up, I ponder this belief for a moment. I find myself hoping that this is not the case.
Old Abe does not look that comfortable sitting up there 12 times bigger then life cast in stone. And I think about what he had to go through to get himself immortalized.
I went home after that to get a couple of hours of sleep. But I was up early, before dawn, and I walked back down to the memorial to record the beginning of the first day after the election.
Not much of a sunrise. Thick overcast with a grayness seeping into the granite paving stones. A slight breeze from the west, rippling the long reflection of the Washington Monument. Just a handful of people there. A small group of men from Russia, a couple from Wisconsin, a woman sitting on the top step nursing her baby.
A short while later I take a photo of the woman and her child sitting in front of the statue of Lincoln. She has just moved to Washington from London, her husband a producer for the BBC Radio network, currently on assignment in Chicago at the Obama election night rally. I ask her why she came up here with her baby.
“Well it seems just so like the place to come” she says with a delightful British accent,” Inspiring in a way … so symbolic. We are so happy with the way things have turned out, you know.”
I do know. I’m pretty happy with it myself.