I spent a good deal of time in Washington DC when I was younger. Not enough to know it well, but certainly enough to develop an extended, deep appreciation of not just the architecture, but the foundations upon which those structures and monuments were built. No one needs me to linger through a litany of historic and political references and landmarks, footnoted by great Americans with sometimes fate-bending accomplishments or sometimes questionable motives. From the portrait gallery to the Lincoln Memorial, to King, Vietnam, Jefferson, and World War Two memorials to the outrageously symmetrical Capital and the tonnage of objects at the Smithsonian, just walking by these places is a humbling experience; more of an event, really.
And right in the middle of it all, gently set back from the center of the mall, is the White House, the President’s Mansion. To think that a handful of people over the course of the past two centuries changed the course of human events just inside the fence across from Lafayette Park, moves almost everyone who walks by, pauses, takes a picture and then a deep breath, and moves on.
I drove into town last week and rolled slowly by the White House, and I got depressed. No, I’m not going to criticize, analyze, lambaste, ridicule or even remotely pass judgement on who is inside and what is going on, except to say I was depressed. I normally sensed the occupant of the White House moved about inside with purpose, of course, but did so always rooted in respect for the position and the place and the people who came before. I just assumed the president would always carry the weight of this country in his or her arms with the strength of our history in his or her spine. I often disagreed with policy and perspective, but I never doubted motive or morals. Still, last week I was sad by what seems to be a mockery of over two hundred years of checks and balances, of respect, of dignity, of morality, of history and the human condition.
I went to a writer’s conference, hung out with some friends, ate, drank, laughed, and forgot about where I was until I went to the Ford’s Theatre. I couldn’t watch the play without also glancing up at the box where Lincoln was shot, and I thought about how even now, more than one hundred and fifty years later, the respect citizens have for this sacred location is unwavering. Later, I walked north and wondered just how this country is going to survive. I didn’t turn toward any problems over trades and economic sanctions and immigration and fences and treaties and ecology, but instead I worried for the rapid erosion of our sense of self. We always lived in this country with the historic and absolute truth that the people who worked in these places would at the very least act with a firm conviction for the future of humanity. And I just don’t believe that is the case any longer. This is not a partisan problem, it is quite concretely a matter of trust that we can face our problems with honesty, integrity, and for the better good of us all. And I was depressed for the first time in all my travels to Washington, D.C. because of the seeming absence of honor and respect for institutional memory. Gone. Depression turned to worry. Worry turned to Pinot Grigio.
Then I got to 14th and K Streets. There against the evening sky is the most bold, imposing building on this side of the Capitol. Most of the office lights were lit though it was after eleven p.m. and I had the immediate sense that something subversive and determined and important was going on. This, of course, as noted in majestic letters at the top near the two towering points illuminated by red lights, is the headquarters for The Washington Post.
I stood and stared and remembered my youth at college, listening to lectures by real journalists explain how the American Experiment is still strong because of the Checks and Balances not just of three branches of government but because of the Fourth Estate. Now, in a world my late advisers could never fathom, where true, honest reporting is as rare as it has ever been since the days of Rome’s first newspaper, the “Acta Diurna,” it seemed to me while I stood on the street looking at the monstrosity of a building that it was now, somehow, rebel headquarters. I have a strong sense of security knowing that if we are ever under attack from within, we have at our disposal some of the world’s and history’s most dangerous weapons—trained journalists who know how—often better than administration insiders—to find the truth and disseminate it to the world.
These guys are good. 47 Pulitzer Prizes, 18 Nieman fellowships, 368—friggin’ 368—White House News Photographers Association Awards, and still counting. The work of writers Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, along with Editor Ben Bradlee, brought down the Nixon White House because of persistence and an unwavering commitment to accuracy and the truth.
Journalism history is riddled with examples of one honest voice deafening the screams of a thousand liars. Ida Tarbell unearthed the secrets of Standard Oil and the Rockefeller’ empire, redirecting the rivers of investigative journalism, Upton Sinclair’s famous work concerning the meat packing industry forced the development of the Pure Food and Drug Act and new standards in the packing industry. Murrey Marder of the Post exposed Senator Joseph McCarthy’s hearings and brought an end to them and the senator. David Halberstam of the New York Times wrote extensively about Vietnam and Seymour Hersh, also of the NY Times, changed events in this country by writing about what became known as the My Lai Massacre. These people and others championed investigations, often life-threatening, to get at and expose the truth. This has not changed by one syllable. It might seem as if the pure waters of honest journalism have been diluted by the brackish facts of a million streaming tributaries, but there are some organizations whose commitment to truth is so grounded in history and tradition that they can still be counted on to call out the criminals and charlatans.
At the top of that list for internal investigations of governmental affairs are the two men who inspired my choice of major in college—Woodward and Bernstein.
I’ve been to DC many times through the years but for one reason or another either I never walked up that way or simply never noticed, but there I was standing on K Street, at first feeling depressed and even frightened for the future of the country, then suddenly at ease.
Because it occurred to me at nearly midnight on a clear, cold evening in our Capital, that the building on K Street might just be the most important piece of real estate in Washington DC right now.