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WASHINGTON is basically an imperial seat plus slums plus liquor stores. The celebrated Mall stretches about a mile from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial on the shores of the Potomac. On either side of it loom numberless federal buildings. Except for the Pentagon, it's all right there. Most of the buildings are the familiar second-rate parodies of the Panthcon and, as Greenough pointed out over a hundred years ago, there is nothing sillier than America trying to be Corinthian. Perhaps every President for the last hundred years, tired and frustrated at the end of his term, wanted to bequeath some mark of concrete and marble, some monument to belie his own colossal incomprehension and inability to deal with the complexity of American life. And so he employed the resident artistic hacks to bludgeon the reluctant marble into the unlikely shapes that grace the Mall.
But beauty is truth and so the legacies of these efforts, the palatial slabs of stone, are not beautiful. Yet they are not as incongruous as they first seem. What beuer abodes could there be for the thousand upon thousand small-time bureaucrats and journalists that feed upon the beleaguered operation of the state? Washington reeks of lower-echelon bureaucracy. Just as Cambridge reeks of Aeademia and cheap repression and Manhattan of the sham-Literati and Brahmin businessmen, so Washington labors under an oppressive cloud of paperwork and promotions.
And it is a city that cultivates Southern mannerisms. The waitresses smile and drawl just that way. The blacks keep the government buildings clean, drive the buses, and increasingly, are the cops. The commercial downtown is a pastiche of Woolworths and cheap department stores. It was into this America that a half million people from another America marched.
You'd think that because there are so many Americas, each one would broaden the perspective of the others. But it hasn't worked that way. The urbane upper-middle class of the coasts ridicules Nixon's mumbling about the silent majority. In Alabama, when a kid from a small town goes to Harvard he can never feel safe in that town again. The eyes of the haggard speechwriters and secretaries are too tired to focus on the Tobacco Road slums five blocks away from the Capitol. When we get excited because a half-million of us have gathered so close to the White House we forget that four times as many people have attended college football games the same day. And on and on.
So there we were. A half-million people sitting in the middle of the imperial seat, surrounded by its lying architecture. One of the isolated Americas superimposed on another. How many times had we all been through the very same ceremony? It was as if we had to gather every so often to make sure that we existed. Each individual had to reaffirm periodically that he was at least part of one of the Americas, even if that America was hopelessly at odds with all the others. Each individual had shuddered at the thought that he could believe only in himself and in God.
The ceremony was sickeningly familiar, from the lackluster prose of the speakers who never really moved the chilled crowd to the final rampages of a few Weatherman-types through the streets of downtown Washington. Even the cops were used to the script this time. It was easy to engage them in friendly conversation and they rarely got mad even as they methodically tossed the tear-gas canisters into crowds of chanting youths.
So there we were. Laughing at Spiro Agnew and chanting. "All we are saying is give peace a chance." As if that were any less idiotic than Agnew's various oral commissions. If we couldn't define ourselves in terms of each other at least we could define ourselves in opposition to Agnew.
WHETHER we knew it or not we were saying something much more profound than the catchy Lennon tune. All the different and irreconcilable groups, the Weathermen and the McCarthyites, the Panthers and Mayor Washington, were all saying in their own way that we are finding it harder and harder to exist in America. We came to this Southern city with its stupid architecture, this pathetic town of ulcers and unreality to say en masse that we feel like orphans, we feel at odds with ourselves and particularly with this war that has grown out of us (do not make it into a mistake), and that we wish to disown a part of ourselves. The sight of the Capitol does not make our heart skip a beat anymore, if it ever did. Nixon on television does not frighten us, but only saddens us further. Our communal alienation may also be our hope, but orphans with no place to go may soon become Weathermen.
It's as if the whole country is tripping. Drugs make you trust your own perceptions. They make you think you can see everything when really some things are too big, some too small, and some too far away for you to see. Nixon trusts his own eyes. It may be idiotic, but he really thinks he sees America. And, of course, we trust our own perceptions. What this means is very simple-there will be no more mass marches on Washington like the one last Saturday. If a half-million people ever come back to Washington the script will be a little different. Authority has become merely power, orphans will soon become Weathermen, and America will be in for a bad trip.
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