Twilight’s Last Gleaming

Washington, DC, really is quite a show: all white granite and marble, columns and arches, open spaces and great vistas. Despite my political cynicism, and sense that the place is all sound and fury signifying nothing, it’s pretty difficult not to be impressed.

Of course, I’m sure that’s what Mills, Bacon, and L’Enfant intended in borrowing from Greek, Roman and Egyptian architecture. A nation is defined by its symbols. In the The Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, National Mall, and all that has come since, we have feigned a sense of history, gravity, and diversity. In surrounding our capitol with our greatest art, artifacts, science, and technology, we demonstrate our values. At least on the surface. Impoverished neighborhoods are just a stone’s throw away. Some 300,000 war dead lie interned just across the river. And let’s not forget that for all intents and purposes, the town — and the nation — is run by a bunch of rich white guys.

Still, the monuments, expanses and vistas never fail to stir something in me, despite myself. In brief flashes, I am reminded of what we could be (virtuous ministers of individual liberty through informed consensus) instead of what we are (market-driven consumers bombing and entertaining the rest of the planet into submission).

Chris and I were there Friday to gather materials for our Mister Rogers documentary, “Mister Rogers & Me” (click here for more on the making of the film, and Friday’s shoot). We wanted to place Mister Rogers in a greater cultural context by showing his sweater in The Smithsonian, and speaking with a cross section of the population about their memories of the man and his legacy.

Having spent some of my childhood in nearby Waldorf, Maryland, there are some memories in DC. I remember standing in awe beneath the elephant diorama in great hall of the National Museum of Natural History. I remember watching “To Fly” on the National Air and Space Museum‘s giant IMAX screen. I remember sailing wooden boats on the Reflecting Pool. I remember climbing on a life-size triceratops, and riding the carousel in from of Smithsonian Castle. Just a few years ago, I ran along the edge of the Tidal Basin through and explosion of cherry blossoms.

On Friday, I paced those dusty paths as Chris gathered b-roll of the The Mall, The Monument, and the museums. I looked up towards the Capitol and pictured John F. Kennedy’s inauguration (“With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”). Then I turned towards the Lincoln Memorial and recited Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech (“When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”).

It is a swampy city of ghosts rattling their chains, urging us to remember.

When shooting was wrapped, we walked towards Air and Space.

“Jen said to make sure we came home with something for Ethan,'” Chris said.

We knew, though, that we were going for us.

The National Air and Space Museum is, after all, the most popular museum on The Mall. What is it, I wondered aloud, that makes that so? The Star Spangled Banner, The Constitution, Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers and Fonzie’s leather jacket are all within reach. Why, then, does America and the world flock to this place?

Despite four bags filled with cameras, computers, and video tape, we slipped through security. Almost immediately, I understood our collective attraction to the place. There before me was The Wright Brother’s Kitty Hawk, Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, and the Apollo 11 command module. In one wide shot, I saw the history of flight. In one instant, I was reminded of what we were capable. In one second, I remembered that, at our best, we can fly. On a good day, we soar among the clouds.

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