Saturday night, after the PC dinner was over, we were walking back to the hotel, and one of my colleagues (Mary Jane Irwin from Penn State) suggested we go see the monuments. It was around 8:30 PM, the city was growing dark, but we were told the mall was safe until about midnight. So we ventured forth.
It had been my goal on this trip somehow to stop by the Lincoln Memorial. I have always been a big fan of Lincoln, and I remember how moved I was at my last visit, when I was around 11 years old. For those of you not from DC, the mall area extends from Lincoln to the Washington Monument (the tall monolith). There were four in our group: Mary Jane, myself, Bruce Childers (Pittsburgh), and Daniel Kaestner (Germany). There are many steps leading up to the floor of the monument, and until you reach the top it's hard to imagine what you will see unless you've been there before.
As you reach the top, you see the large statue of the sitting Lincoln. His pose is almost relaxed, yet he is in no danger of slouching. His head tilts to look down upon the visitors. He does not look as if he is about to speak, but rather he seems predisposed to listen.
As nobody around me seems interested in talking with him, I take the initiative. I ask the question I didn't know how to ask at 11, but have wanted to ask since: "How did you do it?"
The Korean man about to photograph his children stops mid-snap, looks above his children posed in front of the statue, and elaborates almost impatiently: "How did you keep your dignity?"
A couple from Greece had been looking at the lights that illumnate Lincoln's statue. They looked at each other and then said: "You didn't care about polls or popularity; how did you know what was right, and how could you hold your course in the face of such opposition?"
The Vietnam veteran in his wheelchair had been enjoying the view of the mall, and was thinking about his buddies' names enscribed on that memorial, when in anger he turned on Lincoln: "You sent so many to war; people died, you know, but at least they knew why they were fighting. I fought in Nam for a war I didn't understand. I didn't emancipate anybody, but came home to be branded a fool by the people I thought I was protecting."
A child from Wisconsin---must have been about my age last time I visited here---had been looking at the stone folds of Lincolns slacks when she looked up at Lincoln and said "I wrote to President Clinton and he sent me a picture, but my parents took it down off my wall because they were so mad at him. They look sad when I ask for the picture back. I want Daddy to take a picture of me in front of Clinton's statue, but I can't find it. I would write to President Bush but he seems so angry all the time."
Standing next to her was an elderly black gentleman, with grey hair and his hands thrust deep in his pockets, watching his children watching their children run around the memorial. The youngest of his grandchildren was reading the words of Lincoln's second inaugural address enscribed on the walls. Only in 2nd grade, she did not know many of the words but she pretended to be reading them all the same. An older grandchild was trying to remember the Gettysburg address from 4th grade when he had to memorize it. He glanced at the enscription now and then to jog his memory.
Although the elderly man seemed unconcerned by our questions for Lincoln, he looked first at us and then up at the statue and just grinned. And Abe smiled right back at him.