Washington and Lincoln: remarkably gifted, remarkably humble
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Our weekend in Washington, D.C., was supposed to be all about motorcycles and motorcycle gear, but the brilliant sunshine lured us outside and pushed us to different discoveries.
In two hours at the convention center expo, we'd seen all the sleek machines and biker paraphernalia we could absorb. A walk would clear our heads.
It was the first weekend in January, the temperature was approaching 50, and it had been years since either of us had visited America's great monuments. So we headed to the National Mall.
There is great genius in the fact that you have to enter this historical site on foot, from some distance. By contrast -- and there are many examples to cite -- the Arc de Triomphe in Paris sits within one of Europe's busiest traffic circles; walking across it would be suicidal. Instead you go underground and emerge under the arch, the Emperor Napoleon's massive monument to his own achievements.
But America's memorials to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, whose February birthdays in particular we celebrate on Presidents Day, stand surrounded by grassy fields, worn to bare earth in spots by the millions of shoes that pass each year.
You approach the memorials on foot, with time and space for contemplation, and their impact is overwhelming. It is humbling.
You can approach from any direction, and even on this January Saturday, thousands did. With the Washington Monument still closed since 2011's earthquake, we joined the streams converging from all points to climb the imposing steps to the Lincoln Memorial.
People stopped to look back and take photos of the Washington Monument and the reflecting pool, bathed in the late-afternoon sun. They called out to each other -- "Smile," maybe, or "Move that way" -- in a dozen different languages, it seemed, but when we entered the temple dedicated to our 16th president, a respectful hush prevailed.
And we stopped to look back -- backward through time. Lincoln was a giant. The famous statue captures that truth of character in marble: He would be 28 feet tall if he were standing, instead of sitting.
Once people have gazed on his statue, they turn to his words, and they -- we -- spend much more time here. The full texts of the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address are carved into the luminous marble.
The recessed letters are painted to make for easier reading, but they are all capitals, which are harder for the eye and brain to comprehend. There's an accidental genius in that, as you have to take time to decipher and ponder every word. Every potent word, every pithy, King James-ian sentence.
"...[W]e here highly resolve ... that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
"Fondly do we hope -- fervently do we pray -- that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away."
"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in ..."
Lincoln wrestled with moral misgivings about leading the nation to war; he agonized that both North and South could believe they were doing God's will. But insofar as God allowed him to "see the right," he chose his side and refrained from condemning those on the other.
How long since we have seen such humility in high places? Decades, I think.
A similar humility pervades Mount Vernon -- the humility of duty in the home. Sunday proved even lovelier than our Saturday afternoon on the mall, so we headed south to see Washington's home -- both of us, astonishingly, for the first time.
Washington so loved his farm that he left very reluctantly each time service to the nation called. The general who'd refused to be made "king" declined a third term as president, choosing to return home.
Even in retirement, he continued to host hundreds of guests every year from all over the country and the world. It was his duty, but it came at considerable cost.
Part of that cost is measured in the lives of the slaves who made Mount Vernon function.
Washington agonized over the contradiction inherent in leading the war for independence while he himself owned other human beings. Finally, at his death, he set them free.
Sixty years later, Lincoln agonized over how to free the entire nation's slaves. He succeeded but paid for it with his life.
This is our heritage. Flawed, noble, tragic and profoundly hopeful. These remarkably gifted but remarkably humble men brought us to this place.
First Published February 18, 2013 12:00 am