The other night, along with many thousands of other visitors, we found ourselves on the Mall in Washington, DC.
It had been a sweltering day in the capital and many, I assume, were outside to escape the heat in cramped apartments and hotel rooms. But most, myself included, were there for other, more site-specific reasons.
The Vietnam Memorial, a black granite gash carved into the cool grass of the mall, attracted quite a lot of visitors for that late hour. Most displayed that singular combination of excitement, appreciation and respect I’ve seen there all the many times I’ve visited.
But it was the Lincoln Memorial that had, by far, the largest crowds. The enormous white statue of the martyred president sits alone, with the exception of his own words, high in a neo-classically Greek temple, itself perched atop many many stairs. The path upward to see Lincoln is extraordinary, the view of Washington from his feet, amazing. His face looks down at his visitors, not with fatherly kindness, nor happiness, but stern judgment.
There is no mistaking the intended effect: awe. We are showing near-sacred reverence for someone we placed in deliberately shaky control of our nation’s future during a time of unprecedented challenge. And then, just at the moment of the Union’s and his victory, one of our fellow citizens murdered him. Along with the battlefield at Gettysburg, the Lincoln Memorial may be our secular nation’s only great temple.
Few leaders anywhere in the world have such memorials.
Up those many steps, I saw the climb of individuals, families, other groups, large and small. I heard voices speaking in many languages; some I understood, some I recognized, others were completely foreign to me. No matter the language, on the faces and in the gestures, I could read the respect of pilgrims to the site.
People come from all over the earth with deep and sincere appreciation to visit this place of tribute to the man who preserved the union during our greatest crisis.
Is it at all possible to find, to recognize, to appreciate that level of greatness in our country today? Are we all pilgrims to dead American characteristics? Are we all visiting Lincoln’s memorial like schoolkids looking at reconstructions of the dinosaurs?