Do you think there’s a laundrette here called “Washing A Ton”? Now that we’ve set the high-brow tone, let’s explore the cess pool of power, corruption and cherry blossom.
We begin our journey by taking in the White House. Built in 1999 for external shots for The West Wing, it has become one of the most famous American-ish buildings. I say American-ish, as it was designed by an Irish architect who won the commission in an open competition (hey, that episode of the West Wing is already pulling its weight). It shares some similarities with the place we stash our president, particularly when seen from the road. Not to brag, but ours is next to a zoo, unlike the American White House, which is next to something much more beastly: Congress.
Before we get onto them, we need to fully check out the White House. I was content to stand at the railings and take a few pictures, but I’m in luck. For two weekends in the year, the White House gardens are open for plebs to get their muddy footprints everywhere. It’s free, you just need to grab a pass which gives you a time slot. Mine isn’t for about 45 minutes, which gives me time to listen to an episode of The West Wing.
(Because the Sorkin years are heavily dialogue based, you can treat them as an audio play and still get about 90% of the experience. I took the audio tracks from the DVDs and put them on my mp3 player)
(I like The West Wing, okay? … I could even cite the episode where they talk about this level of fandom, but I think that would be a bit much.)
It’s a quick queue and a security sweep and I’m in. It’s so close that I could – but have been sternly asked not to – lick it.
That’s not the big news though, I’m a harmless manchild. The big news is who else got in — entirely unnoticed by security — and who is now eyeing up his next conquest:
Bertie’s keen eye scoping out the Oval Office is attracting a bit of attention. The agents seem to be taking note of this cunning bear and the innocent man who is holding him and talking to him. Speaking of juvenile things: one of the many complaints levelled at Congress, the President and politics in general is that they can’t get anything done. It’s a complaint I’ve had in the past too, but I think being in the heart of it, I’m beginning to understand why everything takes so long. Look at what’s directly outside the Oval Office:
If I were President I’d make all my public addresses while on that swing. It’s so tempting that even highly trained (and armed) professionals can’t resist:
He’s not the only one: later on, as I’m taking a good look at the First Lady’s garden (erhm, no euphemism: Michelle Obama is the latest in a line of White House occupants that have kept a vegetable garden on the grounds), and I spot an agent sneaking off to lurk beneath a tree and… eat some nuts and berries.
The last thing to see is the United States Marine Band (I believe), who play during the garden tours:
Now, since I’ve returned from the States, we’ve learned a lot about government surveillance and the vast amount of specific data they’re capable of gathering. In hindsight, I find it a little on the nose that, as I approached, they began playing, “Irish Tune From County Derry”, although the tune’s more recognisable title would be “Danny Boy”.
It’s time to head on now and, as I leave the White House grounds, I realise that Bertie has disappeared. Probably nothing to worry about. I head down to the Mall and, on the way, pass the Washington Monument, which is still under repair following the events of Olympus Has Fallen.
Reaching the Mall I immediately make a discovery: although known primarily as the seat of power of the United States of America, I had no idea that Washington, DC also housed the Red Keep.
I make my way to the Capitol building, which shows little sign of activity beyond the tourists taking pictures. Even if it wasn’t a weekend, my odds of spotting the cogs of government turning weren’t great – considering Congress only works half of the year.
Much more interesting on the Mall is the Smithsonian. Given the stray references to it, I assumed “museum”. Given the amount of stray references and the wide variety of things said to be held there, I assumed “big museum”. It’s actually 19 museums, nine research centres and a zoo – and that’s just the DC hub. I was immediately faced with a tough decision: which branch of the Smithsonian did I have time for? The Museum of American History? The National Air and Space Museum? The Museum of Natural His—who am I kidding, I’m already in the Air and Space Museum:
You might recognise the above fellow as the joint Apollo-Soyuz mission. The above is actually a replica because, as we know, the Apollo module is over in Los Angeles. Now you might be asking: why’d I go for Air and Space? Didn’t I already kind of do that with my previous visit to the Los Angeles Science Centre? Didn’t I definitely do that with Kennedy Space Center? And the airplane museum in Arizona? Shouldn’t I have taken this opportunity to try something else? Fair points, trumped by one obvious thing:
The second most famous space ship in history is sitting in the entrance hall of the Air and Space Museum, waiting for all and sundry to come paw at it. Doesn’t matter how many times I see an Apollo module, or the Gemini modules, or really anything that’s been into space, I remain simply astonished that it’s something we’ve done, as a species.
Which makes it all the more impressive that the National Air and Space Museum has actually managed to get its hands on the most famous space ship in history:
This model of the USS Enterprise was, indeed, used during the filming of the original series. The Smithsonian has wheeled out the Apollo module that first touched the surface of another celestial body in an event watched by 500 million people for, y’know, the tourists. The real connoisseurs of space travel know to go to where the good stuff is: the shop. … I… I’m not entirely sure why, I think it’s because when you see the Enterprise, you’ll immediately want to own something that looks like it. Yeah. That makes sense.
There are still a few more things left to go in our meander down the Mall. At one end is the Capitol Building, along the sides is some of the Smithsonian and, at the far end, is the Lincoln Memorial.
As I wander along I’m reminded of the Mall’s staggering history, from inaugurations, to Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech, to countless political rallies and I’m left with one important question:
I make it to the end and up to the Lincoln Memorial:
(I know! Another Daniel Day Lewis joke. I was so tempted to do one about the towncar. Next trip, I promise). The Lincoln Memorial is packed with people taking in the majesty of the memorial, thinking about the legacy of the Great Emancipator, or hiding in the shade from the scorching heat. Mainly the latter. I venture back out into the sun to head down to the water. As well as being a pleasant Sunday, huge numbers of people are out and about to enjoy the cherry blossom. Apparently, like watching the leaves turn in autumn, coming to look at the cherry blossom is another American tradition I don’t fully understand. But here it is:
The path to the water also leads me to another memorial. There’s an episode of the Simpsons where Lisa goes to Washington, becomes disillusioned and tries to seek counsel from the Lincoln Memorial. Drowned out by the mass of people there, she instead heads down to the Jefferson Memorial, where the statue of Jefferson bemoans that no-one comes to see him. Well I’ve got some news for him:
I tell you what though, I am a little disappointed. As well as the general amoral mass of politicians, I had the impression that Washington, DC attracted a certain calibre of civilian. That calibre is “batshit crazy”. Frankly nothing I’ve seen today implies that. Everyone’s been pretty polite. There are litterbugs, but that’s more annoying than anything. On my way back from the Jefferson Memorial, I do see this:
Which seems a little reckless, but not entirely out-there nuts. Then, as I’m crossing the road, I spy:
I head round to get a closer look:
This right here is what I love about America. I think this is the only country that could do this without any irony. We’d be too embarrassed to do anything like it. I mean, look at that glorious vehicle. It’s an omnibus of all the crazy I had been after. If you can’t read it, there are stickers complaining about: smoker’s rights being taken away; communism; mosques; socialism; how George Washington was a tobacco farmer; the pharmaceutical companies; “the first person who promoted the LIE that ‘smoking causes lung cancer’ was Adolf Hitler”; anti-Mormon; anti-health care; anti-exercise (“’Health is duty’ – A Nazi Party Slogan”); something about light bulbs; anti-pet regulation; and smokers not spending money.
I suppose the only thing I can say about this person with their vehement anti-anti-smoking agenda is: they might be loud and annoying, but they won’t be around for long.
Anyway, I don’t want to end my time in DC on that crazy note. Instead, I’d like to end by going a little outside the city, to another part of the Smithsonian… yes… you’ve guessed it, it’s to do with Air and Space:
There’s also a model of some notable aircraft that didn’t make the cut, such as the bonkers-looking, but cool VTOL rotodyne:
Nearby is… the Enola Gay:
I’m not… sure. I mean, I’m assuming the museum is displaying the Enola Gay specifically and not just because they wanted a B-29 Superfortress and that was the one they had. I suppose I’ve seen lots of aircraft that have unleashed immense destruction in their histories, but there’s something strange about having this aircraft, that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, just hanging around, mixed in with happy little one-man, quirkily designed planes. Still, moving on to the main reason I came here:
The Space Shuttle Discovery, named—I’m not even going to make a Discovery Channel joke here. I’m just going to sit and stare for a bit. See you guys next time when I go to my 48th and final state, New Jersey. If Bruce Springsteen songs have taught me anything, I’ve saved the best for last.