A Walk With U.S. History

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National Mall, looking toward the U.S. Capitol

To live under the American Constitution is the greatest political privilege that was ever accorded to the human race. – Calvin Coolidge

America is a nation with many flaws, but hopes so vast that only the cowardly would refuse to acknowledge them. ~James Michener

I promise this will not be a political post.

I try to keep politics off of my blog, as those topics are generally not in line with the the spirit of Running River.

But just a tiny little bit might seep in, as I want to write about my visit this past week to our nation’s capital. Washington, and particularly Georgetown, were my preferred stomping grounds when I was in high school. Only an hour and 20 minutes from Winchester, it was where we went to shop for prom dresses, or to toast the town once we turned eighteen. It was where my father used to take us to see his beloved broadway musicals. I have wonderful memories of going to the Kennedy Center and the National Theatre with him.

My husband and I left the DC metropolitan area twenty years ago, when the boys were young, to move to the slower, friendlier South, and with only one or two exceptions, have never been back.

I went this weekend to see my youngest son Ben participate in the ABA’s National Appellate Advocacy Competition, a moot court competition where law students participate in a hypothetical appeal to the United States Supreme Court.

I entered DC from the south, rolling by the Pentagon and across the 14th St. bridge. The Jefferson Memorial is visible on the left, soon overtaken by the Washington monument, which can be seen for miles. Driving up 14th street, you pass the new Museum of African American History and Culture, the Department of Commerce, US Customs and Border Protection, and then the Department of Treasury, which closely hugs the White House.

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The Washington Monument, as seen from the Mall

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The Museum of African American History and Culture

Washington is a rather young city, by European standards, but these buildings are massive and substantial – they take up whole city blocks. The business of the American government, in six-story granite, slowly roll by my window. The entrances to each are guarded by police and secret service, but tourists roam freely along the sidewalks.

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The Department of Treasury

I spent a good amount of time in the Federal Courthouse at 333 Constitution Ave, where the moot court completion was held. On Thursday, my brother and I walked the 40 minutes from our hotel to the courthouse, down Pennsylvania Ave., which in itself is a national historic site. We passed by the National Archives, the museums of Natural and American History, the Justice Department, the FBI Headquarters, the National Gallery of Art, the Newseum, and yes, the new Trump International Hotel, housed in the old post office. The US Capitol loomed ahead of us at every step.

At each turn, I was struck by the contrasts and paradoxes, given the current political environment. The Newseum, which documents the history and celebrates the values of the free press, stands only a few blocks from the Trump International Hotel. The Newseum exists to “promote, explain and defend free expression and the five freedoms of the First Amendment: religion, speech, press, assembly and petition.”

Two statues outside the US Customs and Border Protection building, just a few blocks from the White House, caught my eye. The two statues are a memorial to Oscar Straus, a prominent US statesman, and represent what Straus cherished most about this country; our high esteem for enterprise, on the one hand, and our commitment to freedom of religion on the other. At the base of the monument to religious freedom, the inscription reads: “Our Liberty of Worship is not a Concession nor a Privilege but an Inherent Right.”

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The inscription over entrance #1 to the US Department of Commerce building holds a quote from George Washington; “Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair.”

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On Friday, I took a walk down to the Mall. It was a brutally cold day, with winds gusting 30-40 miles an hour and snow spitting from the clouds. Just across the street from the Washington monument, two homeless men lay in sleeping bags by a blowing grate. One had a cast on his foot, and two walkers stood nearby.

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I passed by the massive statue honoring General William Tecumseh Sherman, which stands right behind the Treasury Building. Sherman was the Civil War Union General who was known for the harshness of his “scorched earth” tactics against the confederate states.

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Equestrian Statue of General William Tecumseh Sherman

Souvenir trucks lined the road by the Ellipse, manned by friendly Vietnamese proprietors; they sold both Obama and Trump paraphernalia. Red or blue, they didn’t care. I was so cold I considered buying a stars and stripes head band for my ears.

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Street Vendor Near the Ellipse

I passed the Environmental Protection Agency building, its flag still flying high, but taking a strong beating in the stiff winter breeze. In the halls of the US Capitol there is a quote from Theodore Roosevelt, who established the US Forest Service and created the first five national parks. “The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired, in value.”

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The Environmental Protection Agency

In the moot courtroom, the case before the mock Supreme Court was a Title IX sex discrimination complaint. We stood while Ben played the bailiff, saying the words, “The Honorable, the Chief Justice and the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! All persons having business before the Honorable, the Supreme Court of the United States, are admonished to draw near and give their attention, for the Court is now sitting. God save the United States and this Honorable Court.”

The case was complicated, but the critical questions before the court were:

  • Under Title IX, what obligations do colleges have to oversee and investigate student-on-student sexual assault which occurs in off-campus locations?
  • How much lee-way do federal agencies, in this case, the Department of Education and Office for Civil Rights, have to interpret their own policies in official communications that are issued without public commentary processes?

Considering that Ben was Vice President of his fraternity at Appalachian State, and had primary responsibility for overseeing off-campus, unsanctioned parties, I had to chuckle at the irony of him defending the plaintiff in her argument that the college had responsibility to investigate the claim, regardless of the location. But he did it brilliantly.

The process of the court is tedious, and insists on deep knowledge of the law, on previous case record, and oral advocacy. Appellate advocacy is not a trial, it is intense investigation and questioning of the intent and implications of the laws as they have been applied to-date. Judges can interrupt at any time, to ask questions and challenge the presenter. At all times, extreme deference and respect are given to the role and position of the judges. It is VERY formal, is it civil, it is serious, it is in-depth. And it is a very far cry from a 140-character tweet.

Since the November election, I have been disturbed, rather mightily, about the future of this country. When I took my camera out on Friday, I really didn’t even want to photograph the White House. I still have trouble accepting that Donald Trump is the current occupant.

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The White House

But nevertheless, I left Washington DC with a renewed sense of confidence and comfort. It is hard to explain, given the contradictions and painful paradoxes I noted above. But a walk down Pennsylvania Avenue and the National Mall, as well as time immersed in the rules and structure of the law, left me feeling somewhat uplifted.

Ben took a tour of the Capitol on Friday. In the Cox Corridors, there is a quote from William Jennings Bryan. “Our government conceived in freedom and purchased with blood can be preserved only by constant vigilance.”

Yes, vigilance is called for, now more than ever.

But I think, I hope, we will be okay.

Our roots are strong. Very strong. If you doubt it, go visit Washington DC. I hear it’s beautiful in the spring.

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Lafayette Park, Near The White House

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