RAH from Washington
A flash of gray-brown against a gunmetal afternoon sky. Whatever it was beat through bare branches on enormous wings and came to rest in a large tree across 15th Street from the Bureau of Printing and Engraving.
I had just walked out of the Holocaust Museum, where I was attending an academic conference on the great culture war between fascism and communism in Europe between the world wars. A couple of the morning presenters were pretty good, but the literary critics were front and center for the afternoon. After a paper full of words like ‘transgressive,’ ‘essentialist,’ ‘inversions,’ ‘subversive’ and so on, and on, I had had enough. As I headed for the exit, I remembered the comment of someone who dropped out of Yale’s English Ph.D. Program: “It’s become the place where language goes to die.”
I stepped out the west entrance into the damp cold and commented on the weather to the security guard, who said that he didn’t mind it and liked being outside. After several hours in a lecture hall, I felt the same way. I looked up at the horizon and was following the path of a Northwest Airlines jet coming down the Potomac towards National Airport when this other pair of wings caught my eye. They were so big I would not have been much more surprised to see a dinosaur. I ran across 15th Street to the tall tree where the bird landed and stood underneath, studying it for a good long while as it peered into the distance, brown back, downy off-white breast feathers fluffed up against the cold, dark gray-brown head – not an owl – large, curved beak, looking down occasionally, then at the horizon again, perching there majestically, like royalty. It took me a few minutes to compute what I was seeing, huge chocolate brown wings mottled with white during flight, a bird far too big to be a hawk or even an osprey: a Golden Eagle.
As the eagle sat up there, silently, I kept hearing a long, high-pitched note. I circled around the tree and found a gray squirrel motionless and upside down against the dark gray bark, giving out this whistle at regular intervals. I had never heard a squirrel carrying on like this. He was not scolding, as they often, do, tail twitching, head bobbing. He was stock still. Had he seen the eagle? The eagle could not see the squirrel. Was he warning any of his furry friends who might be around?
Finally I told the squirrel not to move and headed north across the Mall to get the subway at Metro Center, walking by one of my favorite Washington statues on the way: General William Tecumseh Sherman. One of my great-grandfathers, Hiram Young, served under Sherman, in the 88th Indiana Infantry. After the war Grandpa moved to Cloud County, Kansas, bought a 160 acre farm and raised a family of seven, four sons and three daughters, including my grandmother Mabel. There he took an active role in local politics and subscribed to several newspapers. This we know because his diary somehow found its way into the Journal of the Kansas State Historical Society to be published in 1946 under the title of “A Hoosier in Kansas.”
General Sherman is hatless in this statue, atop his steed that does not rear up on its hind legs, as so many do, but simply stands with grim determination. Horse and rider both face north atop a massive base that is tall enough to cause even professional basketball players to look up. Northwards stands the south entrance of the Treasury Building, graced by a statue of Alexander Hamilton. They make an odd pair, the aristocratic first Secretary of the Treasury and the dishevelled General from the Midwest. But there they are, two believers in a strong federal government, regarding each other for all eternity.
I sometimes imagine them speaking:
Afternoon, Mr. Secretary.
You know I’m just an old soldier. I hate politics and politicians. Always have. But it seems like this current batch is even worse than usual. Did you imagine that strong chief executive you favored ever getting involved in a war in Mesopotamia?
Frankly, no. But the President must be free to conduct foreign policy and at times must act decisively. Congress is not capable of it.
But what if the President makes a big mistake?
Well, a country stands or falls with its leadership. I envisioned a conservative presidency, conservative in every sense of the term: cautious, preservationist, moderate, conciliatory, not like King George at his worst. Now this situation in Mesopotamia – they call it Iraq now – well, I don’t know what to think.
What would your Commander-in-Chief have done?
I don’t think His Excellency President Washington would have us where we are now, but then again, a man like him might not enter politics now.
These folks in the White House thought it would be like marching through Georgia. They forgot that when I went through Georgia, I did not have to hold the territory. After the war, we did not have the stomach to garrison it. We got sick of fighting a bunch of Goddamned terrorists that the state governments should have taken care of themselves and let them run their states more or less the way they did before the war. It was a shame. We offered generous surrender terms and most of our adversaries – Lee, Johnston, Forrest – accepted them and behaved honorably. General Lee said “Go home, plant a crop and obey the law.” Now that’s about the best speech I’ve ever heard. That devil Forrest was even clearer. Listen to this: “You have been good soldiers, you can be good citizens. Obey the laws, preserve your honor, and the Government to which you have surrendered can afford to be and will be magnanimous.” Not bad, huh?
I didn’t know the devil had it in him. But didn’t he found the Ku Klux Klan?
Actually no. The Klan adopted him as one of their leaders, but he never led. It’s not clear that he ever joined. You know, retired generals are often called upon to say this and that and receive honorary titles, degrees, and other such foolery, often from dubious characters and organizations. Believe me, it gets tiresome.
I can imagine. Speaking of marching through Georgia, or Iraq, it took a different kind of marching to conclude our own Civil War, by that remarkable Dr. King and many others. It was a great speech he gave that summer afternoon, to the first really big crowd we ever saw down here.
We’ve seen greater crowds many times since that summer of 1963, but that was the best speech, Biblical, Shakespearean. President Lincoln would have been proud.
Frankly, I was surprised by the moral force of a populist campaign. It just goes to show that we designed a pretty good government. A strong federal government eventually did what it and only it could do: guarantee the rights of a minority.
I tip my cap to the Founding Fathers, and to the Reverend King. Is there anyone like him over there in Mesopotamia, or Arabia? A Mandela? A de Klerk?
I haven’t the foggiest idea. There must be somebody. The hotheads get all the attention. I cannot understand the appeal of terrorism. Losing in war to a more powerful and magnanimous enemy is no disgrace. Murdering innocents is.
As I’ve said before, war is hell; but at least a war comes to an end. Right now we’ve just kicked a hornet’s nest.
This current wave of terrorism will end, eventually. The Barbary pirates finally quit. Terrorists eventually get tired; they turn on themselves and self-destruct. The blood on their own hands starts to stink. A better future eventually becomes more appealing than carrying the grudges of the past.
I look forward to the day.
I left them to their conversation as the afternoon darkened towards evening.
What makes Washington, or any place, distinct? What do we mean when we say to a friend or to ourselves, “Ah, that place. Yes, I know that place”? Surely it means that we have spent some time there, spoken with people there and have some idea of what makes that place unique. Knowing a place may conjure up memories of what we did there, what we ate, where and with whom; conversations, faces of people, expressions, buildings, the way the air feels, what animals live there, what happened there.
For one day in January, this was Washington: Some lectures, a winter afternoon, a great bird, two statues of famous Washingtonians, an uneventful subway ride to Northwest Washington, a walk up the hill through an old wooded neighborhood to my apartment above the Cathedral. There were countless other stories that day, about the House and the Senate, the President, the candidates for president, the new mayor, various dignitaries coming and going. But I feel like the luckiest guy in town, for on that day I know that a Golden Eagle flew into downtown Washington. For the rest of my life, I will remember Washington as the place where I saw my first Golden Eagle.
Richard Allen Hyde