Book Review: Washington
by Tom Lewis
Basic Books, 2015
Indefatigable socialite-historian Helen Nicolay set the template for histories of her beloved Washington, DC with her 1924 book Our Capital on the Potomac: start with the region’s deep history, take your readers through the early struggles to found a national capitol in a fetid swamp, dramatize the Civil War and its segregationist aftermath, furnish plenty of facts but lean heavily on great anecdotes (of which DC has had more per decade than any other American city), and throughout revert to the point that the city’s charms are all the more hypnotic for being slow to reveal themselves. This last is both compulsory and in a sense redundant: from jaded matrons to cynical politicians to whiskey-sodden reporters, no one has ever written about DC except as a friend – the place’s long-term charms are thus undeniable.
That Nicolay template is rock-solid; it’s governed almost a century of histories of Washington, DC, and it’s very firmly in place in Washington: A History of Our National City (that chauvinistic “our” tipping the reader off that this book is very much intended more for Tidewater gift shops than, for instance, Amsterdam bookstores), a plump new history from Tom Lewis, who’s quick to point out how divisive was the original decision to locate the new nation’s capital so far to the south of Eastern seacoast hubs of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. The North, Lewis writes, “disliked the South’s primitive roads, which impeded travel; its heat, which some contended led to disease and death; and its agrarian economy, which depended in large part on the institution of slavery.”
But the matter was eventually settled, a spot roughly in the middle of the Atlantic stretch of former colonies, and in due course George Washington and visionary city planner Peter Charles L’Enfant were raising the tentative beginnings of a new London, a new Paris. It’s predictable that in the beginning their pretensions outstripped their accomplishments, and Lewis stresses the familiar point of DC books – that the city is very good at making very bad first impressions:
Foreign visitors came to see this curiosity of America’s unique government on the banks of the Potomac River, but apart from the Capitol and the President’s House, the twin symbols of the democracy, they found little more than wilderness and mud. Most who stayed but a few hours or days left in shock at the rudeness and pretense of it all. For the Irish poet Thomas Moore, who visited the slighted diplomat Anthony Merry, Washington was ruled by tribunes foolish enough to think it a second Rome. He noted that the capital’s planners had even renamed the trickling waters of Goose Creek for Rome’s glorious Tiber.
Lewis is an excellent, comprehensive guide to DC’s fraught history, providing fast-paced but thoroughly-researched accounts of wars, riots, congresses and presidents. He’s only human, so he lingers a bit longer and shows a bit more zest when recounting the Washington of the so-called Gilded Age, when President Theodore Roosevelt presided over the place at what was perhaps the height of its charm (a period covered with loving intimacy in Isabel Anderson’s charming 1920 book Presidents and Pies). But his book’s second half deals with the turbulent decades following that golden age, and although he has much dire and depressing stuff to relate – about New Deals and stubborn racism and Watergate, among other things – he consistently lightens his narrative with passages of zesty optimism and some very well-observed praise where praise is due, as in a soaring section about, of all things, the construction of DC’s much-maligned subway system:
Metro passengers, especially those used to subways in New York or Boston, were in awe of the achievement. They descended underground into stations intended to make the spirit soar. Platforms stretched six hundred feet, were unobstructed by steel pillars, and featured blinking lights to announced train arrivals. Barrel-vaulted ceilings punctuated by coffered concrete rectangles rose overhead. Diffused lighting cast dramatic shadows on the walls and ceiling, suggesting quietness and calm. The bronze escalators and handrails quietly affirmed quality, while crisp lettered signs on pillars spoke with clarity, Riders realized that the Metro had become far more than an efficient means of moving people. It was a symbol of all that the federal government and the residents of the District of Columbia and the surrounding metropolitan region could achieve through democracy.
Lewis’s Washington takes the torch from many very good earlier such books and carries it forward into the 21st century. It would be nice to imagine the current crop of 2016 presidential candidates studying this lavish history of the city they all hope to rule, but most of those candidates have already taken public stands against the act of reading, so the dream is unlikely. Maybe so junior staffers will be intrigued.