After spending the day in and around many of Washington, D.C.’s most historic buildings and seeing in action some of the Senators I most admire, I felt compelled to visit the National Mall—the Lincoln Memorial, in particular. I don’t know why; I just knew I needed to see it.
It was while there, reading Lincoln’s words—particularly those delivered during his second inaugural address (excerpted below)—that I found myself unexpectedly and quite literally choked up by the enormity of our nation’s history, and by the contributions of the people who rose to the occasion when called upon to build, and then save, the United States. (No, seriously: Tears in my eyes. Caught me totally off guard.)
On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.”
That war claimed the lives of almost 620,000 people—360,222 from the North and 258,000 from the South. In a day and age when our military conflicts play out on the other side of the globe, and our own political conflicts are waged on Twitter and in the press, it is sobering to think that, when the South tried to rend our fledgling nation in two in order to maintain the despicable practice of slavery, more than 360,000 Americans gave their very lives to save it. That is how much they loved their country, and that is how successful at inspiring them to fight for it were great leaders like President Lincoln. We would do well to remember the existence of that kind of patriotism and leadership at a time when the former is used as a political shield behind which those who know nothing of real sacrifice or service like to hide, and the latter is completely absent from the office Lincoln once occupied.
Upon leaving the Lincoln Memorial, my sister and I walked along the Reflecting Pool and, at the far end, saw for the first time the World War II Memorial, which is both breathtaking in its physical beauty and overwhelming in its emotional impact.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, both of my late grandfathers served during World War II, and my maternal grandfather was a member of the 4th Marine Division who experienced combat on Iwo Jima and Saipan. Though he rarely spoke of it, he did share with me some of his war stories after I’d enlisted in the Army—and, based on what he described, I feel especially fortunate and grateful that he made it back alive.
A horrifying number of his fellow servicemembers were not so lucky.
That is a terribly inadequate picture of just a portion of an enormous wall at the World War II Memorial that is adorned with Gold Stars. (You can see a better one here, at the National Parks’ website.) There are more than 4,000 of those stars, each of which represents 100 U.S. servicemembers who died in the war. Standing there that night, it was nearly impossible for me to wrap my head around such a stark representation of the more than 400,000 Americans who gave their lives in defense of our country and its allies.
From there, we walked on to the Washington Monument, an edifice whose awe-inspiring size and scale no photograph can do justice, and whose existence, much like that of the other buildings and monuments I visited that day, left me with one overwhelming and lasting impression: The institutions and principles upon which America was founded—and the legacies of those who built, fought and died for it—are infinitely stronger and more enduring than the actions of pathetic mortals like Donald Trump who wish to warp those principles and use those institutions for their own selfish gains and malignant objectives.
“All of this is bigger than him,” I said to my sister. “These monuments and what they stand for, these institutions … all of it will be here long after he’s gone. He’s water crashing against the rocks.” I meant it when I said it; I felt it, deeply—and I still do.
The next morning, I went for a run. My route took me past the Capitol Building, up the National Mall to the Washington Monument, and then over to the White House.
As I stood behind the barricade across the street from our country’s most famous and historic residence, I was revulsed and saddened by just how unworthy of living there is its current occupant … but I also took great comfort in the knowledge that his stay will be temporary at worst—and, quite likely, abbreviated.
Ultimately, this chapter in our nation’s history will be defined not by the hollow words and provocative tweets of an incompetent, unfit carnival barker who conned his way into that house by appealing to people’s worst fears and prejudices, nor will it be defined by the lying, greedy, self-serving sycophants in his administration and political party; it will be defined by what we, as citizens, do to stop them.
And stop them we will … because we’re better than this.