August 15-21, 2002
It is a balmy Friday night and a breeze rips across the plazas of Washington, D.C. I am on my way to the memorials, a walk of about three miles. In town for the National Writers Workshop (NWW), a confab of some of my industry’s best and brightest, I am out on this night because an empty hotel room is no place to be on such a splendiferous evening.
The journey takes me past some of this city's most notable edifices, among them the White House, the Treasury and the Department of State.
The first place I stop is a gate outside the White House, where a small gaggle of visitors is standing. The alpha male in the group looks across the thicket of bushes and the great lawn. He points.
"That's the West Wing," says the man with an air of authority. His female companion -- dare I say she was a blond? -- looks down and then has a bolt of recognition.
"The West Wing?" she questions. "That's a TV show." A mile or so later, at the next juncture of my shuffle down E Street, a father shepherds his young flock along 17th Street when his son stops and points to a poster of Jackie Kennedy, resplendent in her signature pillbox hat. The poster advertises an upcoming exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. "This is where Kennedy was shot," says the boy quite confidently. His father ushers the flock along, mentioning nothing about the fact that John F. Kennedy, the youngest and the first Catholic president, was shot 1,330 miles to the southwest, in an armpit of a town called Dallas.
People who know me understand my increasing frustration with those who neither know history nor respect it. It is a recurring theme in newsroom debates, where I often trot out references to the past -- in these cases anything before 1980 -- to beta test whether twentysomethings know of what I speak. More often than not, my vestigial ramblings are met with gaped jaw, forcing me to change my approach or risk being the curmudgeon.
Which is why I was so enthralled by Clarence Page, the storied Chicago Tribune columnist and TV pundit, who regaled the NWW gala with his reverence for history.
Page recalled the day Thurgood Marshall announced his retirement from the U.S. Supreme Court. All the young reporters, he said, peppered the old man with questions about the scandal du jour -- the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings.
Marshall was a poor black man who became a lawyer and fought segregation all through the South, often risking his life in the process. He was one of the most important figures in the civil rights movement.
But the young'uns weren't trying to hear that, said Page, whose eye twinkled with mischief as he spoke, looking very much like the Groucho of You Bet Your Life fame.
"So I asked Marshall how he wanted to be remembered," said Page. "He said, I want to be remembered as someone who did the best he could with what he had.'"
Page closed his remarks with a quote from another noted 20th-century philosopher, Jerome Garcia.
"Sometimes the light's all shining on me," said Page, summing up his history in journalism. "Other times, I can barely see. What a long, strange trip it's been."
Speaking of long, strange trips, the sojourn back from the Lincoln Memorial is even odder than the trip there.
The Lincoln Memorial is an amazing place late at night. Old Abe's massive stone likeness gleams from the beam of spotlights. In the distance, across from the Reflecting Pool, red lights on top of the Washington Monument wink, the serenity broken occasionally by the roar of a jet landing at Reagan National, across the Potomac.
Jets landing so low, so close to the monuments -- well, you can't help but wonder anymore what could happen. I think about that as I trudge through the night, until I reach the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
As I walk through the descending and ascending walls of black granite etched with the names of the 58,000-plus who died 8,500 miles away from home, I run into three men from Somalia who are just a little bit lost and wondering where they should go.
"Follow me," I say to the Somalis, offering my services as tour guide, explaining a bit about the history of 'Nam and what an utterly useless misadventure that was.
All the while, as I explain a war that dragged on for more than a decade, I am struck by the irony: So many young people were slaughtered over such a long time, and almost two decades later 18 U.S. servicemen died on the streets of Mogadishu and we were out of there in a jiffy.
A mile or so later, after another E-Street Shuffle, a man in black steps out of the bushes and stops as soon as he sees me. Despite his M-16, he is as startled as I.
And why not?
It is after midnight in a very jumpy place.
"Hi," I say to the man, who is patrolling the outer perimeter of the White House. "Hi," he says back, from inside the fence that surrounds the president's residence.
We smile and go our separate ways, he back to keeping the White House safe from intruders, me back to keeping journalism safe from the White House.
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