In January 2009, I visited Washington, D.C. for the first time. The occasion: Barack Obama’s inauguration. On election night, my husband, Peter, and I decided on a whim that we wanted to witness history, to be a part of the infectious collective joy that had been gathering steam ever since the charismatic young Senator threw his hat into the ring. The next day, I cashed in our airline miles and booked a tiny condo I’d found within walking distance of the monuments.
I hadn’t been back until last month. The occasion: Peter’s sister had beaten cancer, at least for now, and she wanted to celebrate with a trip to Washington, D.C with her brother, her sister and their spouses.
With the midterm elections less than a week away, the two visits feel like bookends to an era, and I’m gobsmacked by just how much has happened in the 13 years between, especially the past six or so. I can’t stop bouncing between memories of D.C. present, and what feels like a very distant past, as I try to figure out how to feel about America which, despite its potential, is not exactly living its best life.
Washington D.C. in 2009
Jan. 18, 2009: As our taxi from Dulles Airport rounds the Tidal Basin, we gaze through the night sky past the Lincoln and Washington memorials to a cavalcade of Jumbotron screens lining the National Mall flashing highlights from the “We Are One” concert earlier that day. We’d missed an A-List line-up of performers who ranged from Beyonce to Bruce, but no matter — we have so much else to look forward to.
Jan. 19, 2009: The day before the Inauguration it’s as cold as D.C. gets. Undaunted, we set out to explore the monuments. The icy wind soon finds my wrists as the sleeves on the black cashmere swing coat I inherited from my grandmother are too short, as are my gloves, something I’d never noticed in California’s forgiving winters. So much for trying to look classy. Meanwhile, my husband is plenty comfy in his beige, floor-length down coat, complete with hood. As we make our way to the Lincoln Memorial, he’s a sand dune shifting down the sidewalk.
By morning’s end we’ll have also visited memorials to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Korean War, World War II and Vietnam. That last one hits me hard. Between the river of names on the walls, and the people they left behind placing flowers and other tributes, my wind-chapped face is stinging from tears. By the Tidal Basin, we notice a plaque on the ground announcing the site of the future Martin Luther King Jr. memorial.
Back at the condo, I pull off my snow-soggy Ugg boots. I have finally signed up for Facebook so I write my first post: “Walked around DC this morning. My feet are frozen but I’m proud to be an American today.”
Jan. 20, 2009: It’s Inauguration Day and while thousands have headed to the National Mall before dawn, Peter’s employer has a building that overlooks the viewing bleachers on the parade route, so we have an indoor party to attend. We check our coats and join colleagues and other guests for a fete that includes a bar and a buffet line where we fill our plates next to Martha Stewart while wondering what other celebs might be nearby. As the Inauguration ceremony’s start time approaches, people find seats in front of one of the many TVs. Quickly, it’s standing room only so I plunk down on the ground in front of a group of older Black women. Others — a mix of races and ages — do the same and as we squish in, an older woman puts her hand on my shoulder and gestures that I can lean back against her legs. As I do, I place my hand on hers, and we hold them there for a while, two strangers smiling together, even as we sniff back tears.
There’s plenty of lull time between the ceremony and the parade but we stick around for warmth and the chance to watch it from one of the fourth floor windows, though space is limited. When Peter’s colleague offers us her parade tickets we grab our coats and sweet talk our way through security. Minutes later, Al Roker is yards away, working the crowd and, eventually, the new President, First Lady and their entourage round their last corner, waving. It’s so cold, my camera has stopped working. No matter, I don’t need a photo to remember the joy of that moment, it’s forever captured in my heart. I might have woo-hoo’d. My husband is convinced Obama pointed directly at him. I’m obsessed with Jill Biden’s boots. Has she really just walked for two hours in stiletto heels?
We have managed to also get tickets to the MidAtlantic States Inaugural Ball, no small feat. It’s one of 10 such parties, most of them in ballrooms at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. Oddly, the featured musicians for this East Coast party are members of the Bay Area’s Grateful Dead. Despite the $150-a-ticket price tag and formalwear, Inaugural balls are not swanky affairs. There might be a bar, maybe a few pretzel snacks, but who cares? Like everyone else, we’ve put on our prom clothes and are here for one thing.
When the Obamas finally arrive at 11:20 — their 6th ball that night — we are rewarded. Barack and Michelle gaze into each other’s smiling eyes as they glide across the stage to the Dead doing their version of “At Last.” The crowd swoons. We are in the room where it’s happening. Less than five minutes later, they’re off to the next ball. Maybe that’s the one where Beyonce sings?
Jan. 21: On our last day, there’s so much still to see. We head out early to the Library of Congress, because libraries are Peter’s thing. It’s gorgeous and impressive even though I’ll walk away with no specific impressions. Afterwards, near the Capitol building, I notice a line of buses unloading teenagers in matching T-shirts that are partly covered by coats and too far away to read. I’m delighted to see so many young people coming to be part of the Inauguration until I notice they’re lining up behind someone dressed as The Grim Reaper.
Bewildered, we move on to the Newseum. Like the other museums it is a testament not just to the relics it houses — in this case The Fourth Estate — but the people who have made those relics exceptional. I’m riveted at the rows of front pages from newspapers across the country, each vying to most vividly capture yesterday’s history-making day. I feel emotional seeing the wall with names of journalists who’ve died speaking truth to power, so many more than I ever knew. The exhibits take us to the top floor, where we step out to the roof deck to enjoy the view. Coming toward us is a parade of signs, some with gruesome depictions of fetuses. That’s when I realize what the Grim Reaper is leading.
We spend the rest of the afternoon on the Mall, in and out of as many of the Smithsonian museums as we can muster. From Julia Child’s kitchen to the replica of Apollo 13, I’m exhausted, yet can’t wait to see more. After these three happy days, I’m a little besotted with our country. Meanwhile, the Grim Reaper’s parade is over and its marchers have scattered everywhere. Every time a see a kid in one of those damn T-shirts, I’m smacked back to reality. It’s time to go home.
Washington, D.C. in 2022
Oct. 11, 2022: On my second trip, this time with Peter’s family, we’re staying in an Air BnB in the NW corridor. At dinner at Cafe Cacao, we have our first DC moment just before the profiteroles arrive, when four black SUVs pull up and deposit about 15 people of several ethnicities who appear to be work colleagues. It turns out the French restaurant’s owner is not from France but from Turkey. His guest of honor? The Turkish ambassador and his entourage.
Oct. 12, 2022: On our first day in DC, the five of us Lyft over to the African American museum. This trip is all about seeing monuments and museums, and I suspect this one will pierce my heart. It does. After entering, we descend a series of escalators to encounter the first slave ships and work our way up to ground level to 1965 when the Civil Rights Act is finally passed. After a lunch break we head upstairs to the joyous culture stuff — jazz, sports, dance, authors, Motown, hip-hop, food and, inevitably, an exhibit about Obama’s presidency. Such fresh history, I think.
That night Peter and I break off to have dinner with a young couple, family friends. En route to their neighborhood near DuPont Circle, we keep our eyes peeled for a bar where we can watch the Jan. 6 hearings. As luck would have it, the final hearing is taking place tomorrow on Capitol Hill. Unfortunately, our AirBnB doesn’t have cable TV and none of us wants to huddle around a laptop. High-profile hearings are DC’s hometown sport, or so we’re told. When I ask our Lyft driver for a recommendation, he answers: “What hearings?” The Jan. 6 hearings, I explain. Remember when those guys stormed the Capitol? “Oh yeah,” he replies, “I heard something about that.”
Oct. 13, 2022: We’ve solved the “where to watch the Jan. 6 hearings” question by walking over to the nearby Union Pub. We’re surprised to see ESPN on the bar’s TV screens, but they lead us to a sideroom and turn on MSNBC. Over sandwiches and a pitcher of local IPA, we strain to hear over the bar’s classic rock soundtrack. But we all know the story by now: The former President tried to stage a coup, democracy is at risk, here’s yet more proof of wrongdoing and, oh yeah, time is of the essence. As we settle our tab, our baby-faced waiter says that on Jan. 6 he was so unnerved he locked his doors and turned out his lights. As we walk out into the drizzly afternoon, a white-haired man hustles into the adjacent barbershop. Could that be John Eastman? We take turns peeking, and decide we’d put money down — it’s him.
Oct. 14, 2022: The morning after the Jan. 6 hearings the five of us are in the Rotunda of the nation’s Capitol, which we’d just spent a lot of time watching on TV. I’d never understood what a point of national pride the Capitol building was until Jan. 6, when America sat, dumbfounded, watching police and insurrectionists in hand-to-hand combat alongside a split screen with members of Congress crawling along the gallery floor wearing gas masks. Since it’s October, Congress is not in session, so there’s no chance to peek at the proceedings. Still, we appreciate the earnest intern’s history lessons, Capitol trivia, and the 100 statues of notable Americans to which each state has donated two. Peter is certain that California will be represented by John Muir, and is disappointed to instead find Junipero Serra and Ronald Reagan. It’s no surprise that out of 100, only nine are women.
After lunch, we head toward a place I don’t really want to go, but know I need to: the Holocaust Museum. In this group I’m the only one who’s not at least half Jewish, but I have read many books, seen many movies, even been to Auschwitz. As we move along the museum’s walls, at one point walking through a railroad car, we follow the story of the Holocaust from the American perspective. I’d learned a lot about how America’s intervention ultimately saved the Allies and liberated the camps, but not as much about its initial hesitancy to step up, and this country’s own history of anti-Semitism.
At the Obama Inauguration, I had been ignorant enough to think those issues were in the past, but Charlottesville and its aftermath revealed my naivete. Like the African American museum, exhibits here unveil the worst in humanity, and some of America’s darkest hours. But they also show the flip side, the one where heroes sung and unsung remind us that this is a country that, despite its deep flaws, ultimately moves forward, sometimes by inches, sometimes by yards.
Oct. 15, 2022: On our last day we finally have time to walk the monuments again. It’s such a glorious autumn afternoon I hardly recognize the Korean War Memorial, now bathed in the bright red and orange leaves of autumn. We also spend time at the memorials to Lincoln, World War II and, of course, Vietnam. Our final stop is the Martin Luther King memorial, which opened in 2011. We enter through the “mountain of despair” to find the ““stone of hope” out of which a massive depiction of the Civil Rights leader emerges. It’s a weirdly warm day, but I get chills looking at the good Reverend as he gazes across the Tidal Basin at the memorial to Thomas Jefferson, Founding Father and owner of slaves.
American history, it’s complicated. Oh, and my beloved Newseum? It closed in 2019.
My first trip to D.C. was a balloon drop of happy memories that buoyed my optimism that we were fast-forwarding to a better future. My second visit was a sobering blur of mixed emotions, where the schism between American ideals and how those ideals are playing out feel like that scene from the movie “Gravity,” where Sandra Bullock’s tether to the spaceship is severed and she finds herself floating off into oblivion.
Election Day is just days away, but we all know it will be a stressful few days or weeks until all the votes are counted and races are called. With the tensions surrounding the 2022 midterms, it feels like we’ll either move forward by inches or backwards by yards. Until then, I’m doing my best not to get lost on the mountain of despair. There’s nothing to do but vote, then stay laser-focused on keeping and polishing that stone of hope until it’s shiny as a diamond and glows like that beacon of light it was always meant to be.