Armed camp on the hill

By Jurek Martin

Financial Times

Published: January 22 2005

Not much obviously links George W. Bush, inaugurated to a second term on Thursday, and Martin Luther King, commemorated with a national holiday on Monday. Their backgrounds, beliefs and modus operandi seem light years apart.

The strongest connection might well be the city of Washington itself. It is where the president lives and operates and it is where the great civil rights leader gave some of his finest speeches and did his most effective politicking. It also provided the backdrop for this week's inaugural and some of the King birthday observances.

As a cave-dweller of 20 years' standing, it is often difficult to know whether to laugh or cry about the state of the capital, and perhaps never more so than this week.

This is without making too much of a meal of the fact that a city that is mostly poor, black and Democratic is being asked to foot part of the bill for a lavish inauguration celebrated by people who are mostly rich, white and Republican. It does not seem quite fair.

Nor, equally, does it serve much purpose to complain about much of downtown being rendered off-limits by obsessive inaugural security - if the restrictions lasted for just a few days. The trouble is they are becoming, in only to a somewhat lesser degree, permanent and there is little the city can do about it.

Admittedly, any national capital sharing space with the federal government, and home to national monuments and museums is never going to be completely the master of its own domestic house. For years, Washington was merely a fiefdom of Congress, in which, unlike states with smaller populations, it still, outrageously, does not have full representation. Even with autonomy, it remains partly dependent on federal largesse.

Washington did not help its own legitimate causes by badly governing for so long those parts of itself that it was allowed to govern, exemplified by the 16 years of Mayor Marion Barry's rule (interrupted by a jail term). Still, the current mayor, Tony Williams, if possessed of a political tin ear, has proved a good steward of civic finances and development for the past six years.

His control is often tenuous.

His scheme to bring baseball back to Washington after a 35-year hiatus was nearly derailed by a fractious city council and is threatened further with the mischief that Barry, newly returned to that chamber from the city's poorest ward, will surely create (not enough to stop me investing in season tickets, though).

But bow-tied Tony hangs in there and can boast a new convention centre, a revitalised city centre and a renaissance of such rundown black neighbourhoods as the U Street corridor. Profound problems persist, in the schools and healthcare, with gangs and drugs, but the metropolitan quality of life has been moving discernibly upwards.

The trouble is he now presides over what increasingly looks like a permanent armed camp. You cannot drive up to dinner on Capitol Hill without being stopped and inspected by a cop or soldier.

The road separating the White House and Lafayette Park has been turned into a secure, but Stalinist concrete pedestrian walkway devoid of charm. Other government buildings, the state and treasury departments among them, are protected like Baghdad's "green zone".

The edifices of state are similarly surrounded by barriers, seemingly each higher than the one before. Both Congress and the Washington Monument are getting underground "visitor centres" designed to make both more secure, though cynics believe really to discourage any and all visitors.

The National Park Service, once an institution worthy of admiration but now increasingly politicised, wants to close down the parking area serving the Jefferson Memorial. This comes after firing its Washington police chief for complaining that she did not have enough resources to perform added security functions.

Thomas Jefferson must be turning in his grave.

Old Abe, sitting at the opposite end of the National Mall from the Capitol, now surveys a cluttered mess far removed from Pierre L'Enfant's grand design. His vista has not been improved by the intrusive World War Two Memorial, nor by the concrete barriers circumnavigating his own monumental chair.

(Dr King, whose immortal "I Have a Dream" speech was delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, is getting his own recognition on the Mall, but, like Franklin Roosevelt's, it will at least be low-rise. I have a foreboding that Ronald Reagan's will be less modest).

The charm and beauty of Washington used to be its sense of accessibility, surviving even the assassination of presidents. As the years went by this may have become more illusion than reality, but somehow there always seemed a connection between the governors and the governed, past and present.

It was, indeed, a city that all Americans (and foreigners) should visit to better to understand the foundations and principles on which this great country is built.

It is harder to get the full flavour now.

The ultimate irony is that just as the long-derided and neglected citizens of Washington have got their act together, federal security considerations are rendering it less than "that shining city on a hill" it was and should be.

It would be nice to get it back.