I have been awake since two thirty this morning. This is normally the case for the first couple of days after arriving in the United States from Europe: long hours of insomnia waiting for the day to begin. Despairing of going back to sleep, I turn on the television. The nomination for the Republican candidate for next year’s presidential election is just heating up and the TV channels are full of speculation as to whether Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney will be the beneficiary of Herman Cain’s exit from the race. Twenty minutes later and I am completely demoralised by the quality of political debate. You want to scream at the television. As an advert for the supposed virtues of democracy – from the nation that was founded on its very principles – this is dreadful.
How can we expect China to give it a go, Russia to take it seriously, Egyptians to embrace it or Syrians to keep dying for it when its greatest exponent has reduced it to a pantomime? It is no better in Europe. The bond markets not the electorate have now decided who will be prime minister in Greece and Italy: two ancient civilizations that were experimenting with forms of semi-representative government when the rest of us were wrestling bears and hiding in caves.
The European Union has effectively reversed itself on to the road to political union without actually debating it – let alone consulting the voters. Only the UK in the EU has decided not to head down the same route. In so doing, Prime Minister David Cameron has taken a bet that Britain’s financial services industry would be damaged by an extra layer of Euro-regulation and by an untested, but probably accurate, assumption that there is little national appetite for greater union.
At least in Washington DC there is the opportunity to switch off the television, forget about the sorry state of modern politics and take one of the finest of urban walks, one best undertaken when the rest of the city is asleep.
Start near the AnnaPurna Consulting office on K Street in the early hours with just a hint of pre-dawn light. Head down, past the White House, to the National Mall, the central outdoor public space stretching westwards from Capitol Hill. First stop is the tall, Egyptian-style obelisk of the Washington Monument, the tallest structure in downtown Washington DC. In daylight it can look a little exposed and austere. But floodlit, it is magnificent.
Push on across the Mall to the Jefferson Memorial. The memorial is a rotunda situated on the edge of the tidal basin, a circular expanse of water fed by the Potomac River. It is built in the style of a Roman Pantheon with a statue inside of the great man looking back towards the Washington Monument and the White House. He is out on a limb over here so it is worth reminding yourself that when President John F. Kennedy welcomed 49 Nobel Prize winners to the White House in 1962 he said: “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent and of human knowledge that has ever been gathered together at the White House – with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone”.
Leave Jefferson and circle back around the basin to re-join the main section of the Mall and stop briefly at the World War Two memorial. It is imposing but somehow lacks focus compared to the other monuments and by this time you will be drawn to the superb Lincoln Memorial at the end of the Mall. Climb the steps to the classical Greek Doric temple that houses the famous statue of a seated Lincoln looking back up towards the Capitol. If you are running, it is useful to take a breather, stop and read the inscription of the Gettysburg Address on the inside of the building; time to recover and feel an inspirational boost.
The Lincoln statue is renowned for the sense of calm contemplation on the President’s face – something he had little time for when in office. It is beautiful but I always feel that it is not necessarily an accurate representation of his character. He was much more physically awkward and ill at ease than this depiction suggests. He had superhuman depths of tenacity, courage and political brilliance. But he was – I am sure – geeky.
And if you fancy yourself as a writer, then the fact that he is reputed to have dashed off something as brilliant as the Gettysburg Address on the train on the way to the battle-site the day before he made the speech, is a sobering way to confront your own literary limitations. Even if this story is apocryphal, I doubt anyone as serene as the statue depicts would have had the dynamic surge of depression-fuelled creativity to write something so extraordinary. (see below.)
It is a short walk from the Lincoln Memorial to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. Many people come to Washington just to see this dedication to the Americans who died in the Vietnam War. It is haunting: a wall of black, reflective stone etched with the names of the dead and semi-submerged into the contour of the grassy slope in to which it is built. Half grave – half trench, it stays in your mind. Some veterans have resented the lack of grandeur, but for me the emphasis on loss and sacrifice is spot on. All the names are the same height and you can only distinguish individuals when you come close. This uniformity emphasises that all those listed on this wall, regardless of rank and status, met the same bleak end.
By now it is getting light and time to head back. It is unusually warm for early December due to the tightly tucked blanket of cloud stretched low over the city. The leaves on the trees look drab. No hint that in a few hours when the sun reaches through the clouds they will ignite in a coppery blaze of autumnal glory before fall finally turns to winter.
It is time to start the day. Time to say goodbye to yesterday’s political heroes and turn our attention back to how best to prepare for the political and economic tribulations to come. We don’t have a Jefferson or a Lincoln to help guide us and we don’t know for sure that for all their genius and fortitude they would fare any better than the current generation of political leaders. But they would both have recognised in today’s predicament the classic hallmarks of crisis management: a need to make the least bad decision without enough time, with too little information and with too much contradictory advice.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.