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Monday, June 10, 2013 : Washington

 

The minute  we pull the curtains, we realize that the weather forecast last night was right. It is going to be a rainy day. Too bad, but we have to do with it.

 

After shower, breakfast, and shuttle transfer to the terminal, we take the metro to the center of Washington.

 

Today, we visit the historical, political and cultural part of the Federal capital.

 

Washington is a city rich in parks, monuments, museums and historical landmarks. The moderate distances make it possible to walk. It is therefore wiser to leave the car at the hotel and use public transit.

 

Washington, the Dome of the Capitol from the lawn of the Mall

Washington, the Dome of the Capitol from the lawn of the Mall

 

When we leave the metro on Pennsylvania Avenue, the weather is grey and badly overcast, but it is not raining yet. Let's be patient, it is just a question of time.

 

The perspective of Pennsylvania Avenue gives us a three-quarters view of the Capitol. For the face view shown on the picture, we have to walk down 7th Street to the Mall.

 

We are at the heart of Government District. On our right are the National Archives, which shelter all official acts of the United States Government, on our left is the building of the Federal Trade Commission, which regulates commerce and protects consumers. Closer to the Mall, after crossing Constitution Avenue, on our left, we can see the National Gallery of Art, the largest art museum in Washington.

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One Million Bones on the lawn of the Mall, a protest against all genocides

One Million Bones, a protest against all genocides

 

When we arrive on the Mall, we see that the large expanses of lawn are covered with rubber bones.  This is what remains of a giant demonstration the three previous days, named One Million Bones, against all genocides, in Syria, Sudan, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and elsewhere. The principle was straightforward : each participant would make a donation of a given amount and would obtain a bone to put on the grass. Logically, the size of the bone is proportional to the donated amount. Once organization expenses are covered, the collected money is used to finance actions in favor of refugees victims of genocide.

 

Of course the media impact of the whole operation has been carefully calculated by the organizers, and it is certainly no coincidence that the demonstration ends on a Sunday.

 

Today is Monday, and the teams of volunteers of the organization are busy collecting and sorting bones by size. In a few hours, the Mall will have returned to its immaculate green.

 

I admit I am quite impressed with the professionalism of this organization, which leaves the place of their demonstration in exactly the same situation they found it.

 

Under the shelter of a cloth canopy, a volunteer of the organization takes her time to explain to me what the demonstration was about, their objectives, their resources, and the restitution of the Mall in its original state, which shows that you can make your voice heard while remaining professional and friendly, and without damaging anything.

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Washington, wet squirrel on the lawn of the Mall

On the Mall, even squirrels are soaked wet

 

It seems there has already been some rain. On one of the lawns of the Mall, we cross this absolutely soaked little squirrel looking for food.

 

As in many other inner-city places, squirrels have very few predators. So they proliferate, until the shortage of food more or less naturally regulates their population.

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Washington, Ulysses S. Grant Memorial, equestrian statue

Ulysses S. Grant Memorial, equestrian statue

 

We walk the Mall up to the Capitol. At the foot of the hill is Union Square, where the Ulysses S. Grant, 18th President of the Union, Memorial was installed in 1922.

 

Grant was the Commander-in-Chief of Union troops during the Civil War. A few years later, he entered politics and was elected President, serving two terms, from 1869 to 1877. His first term allowed the elimination of the last remants of slavery, a tight control of Southern nationalism, protection of Blacks and the defeat of the Ku Klux Klan.

 

His second term, however, was marked by the 1873 financial panic, against which his Administration seemed powerless, letting a five-year economic downturn set in. Corruption spread to the highest political levels, setting off many Congressional inquiries. Predictably, his political foes took advantage of the situation to retake the upper hand. In the Southern states, the Jim Crow laws, taking their name from a caricature character, instituted a "separate but equal" status for African-Americans, mandating a de jure segregation in employment, transportation, education, army, voting rights and many other domains, that persisted until the 1960s.

 

Nowadays, Grant's legacy looks pretty contrasted :


  • Militarily, he is the undisputed winner of the Civil War, forcing Lee, himself a robust reference in terms of strategy, into the Appomattox surrender,
  • He consolidated the status of African Americans and passed the Fifteenth Amendment, which mandates voting rights equality regardess of race,
  • During the 1873 financial panic, he was unable to prevent depression from settling in, seriously worsening recession and unemployment,
  • Many corruption cases marred his Presidency,
  • And he was absolutely powerless against the resurgence of white supremacy in the South, and the establishment of segregation.

 

In these conditions, his rather unconvincing attempt to come back and run for a third term in 1880, unprecedented since George Washington, only met limited success. James Garfield, a compromise Republican candidate, was elected.

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Washington, Ulysses S. Grant Memorial, the Cavalry Charge

Ulysses S. Grant Memorial, the Cavalry Charge

 

At the eastern end of the Mall, opposite the Lincoln Memorial, the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial honors the General more than the President.

 

It is made of three parts :


  • In the center, an equestrian statue shows Grant, sitting on his horse Cincinnati during the Civil War, quietly watching the battle. General Grant was indeed known for his absolute composure. This equestrian statue is one of the largest in the world.
  • On its left, the statue of the Cavalry Charge shows one of the deadliest military feats of the Civil War. Indeed, in both camps, many horseriders and horses were mercilessly mowed down by enemy shooting,
  • On its right, the statue of Artillery illustrates the central role of artillery and explosive shells during the Civil War. Their increase in power actually went on until WWII.
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Washington, statue of President Garfield

Statue of President Garfield

 

At the corner of First Street and Maryland Avenue is the statue of President Garfield. Not much is remembered of his Presidency, which lasted only 200 days, from March to September 1881, and was mostly marked by the Civil Service and Post Office reforms, to address corruption. On July 2, 1881, he was twice shot by a deranged man. Unable to perform his duty, more and more disabled, James Garfield died on September 19, 1881. Vice President Chester Arthur was then sworn in as President.

 

After Abraham LincolnJames Garfield was the second President to die assassinated. There have been two more later on, William McKinley and John Kennedy.

 

We now walk around the Capitol on the North and climb the hill, which is about 70 feet high.

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Washington, the Dome of the Capitol and the Statue of Freedom

The Dome of the Capitol and the Statue of Freedom

 

Just past the Garfield Monument, climbing up Capitol Hill, the dome appears between the trees of the park.

 

On top of the Dome is the Statue of Freedom, absolutely unrelated with the Statue of Liberty in New York City. This one, sculpted by Thomas Crawford, was inaugurated in 1863. Its base is engraved with the Latin motto "E pluribus unum" (out of many, one), in reference to the collective project of the United States of America.

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Washington, the Capitol, Eastern side

The Capitol, Eastern side

 

The main entrance of the Capitol is the one on the immense Eastern plaza and, a rarity in this country, absolutely clear of any automobile traffic. We can freely cross the plaza, under the discrete watch of no more than a few men in arms. But we imagine that, without the shadow of a doubt, an obviously hostile attempt against the building would be handled appropriately.

 

It is exactly what happened on October 3, 2013, when a car chase ended with a fatal shooting.

 

This ostensible ease of access to public buildings surroundings never ceases to surprise me.

 

The Capitol building is composed of three main parts :


 

Other controversial eminent citizens, such as former President Richard Nixon, have not been shown lying in state under the Capitol Rotunda.

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Washington, the Capitol, Senate Wing

The Capitol, Senate Wing

 

On the right, the North Wing of the Capitol hosts the Senate, the High Chamber of the United States Congress. Contrary to France, the 100 Senators, two for each State regardless of its size, are elected by direct suffrage. To guarantee some stability, one third of Senate seats are up for election every two years. There are no term limits, which allows some Senators to serve very long tenures. Strom Thurmond has represented South Carolina for 48 years, until the respectable age of 100 years. Ted Kennedy has been Senator of Massachusetts from 1962 to 2009.

 

The Senate also exerts very significant additional powers :


  • It approves treaties prior to their ratification (but does not ratify them, this is a Presidential prerogative),
  • It confirms or denies important Presidential appointments : Supreme Court Justices, Cabinet Secretaries, Directors of the most important Federal agencies such as the FBI or the CIA, and more. In this respect, the Senate keeps Presidential power in check. This is yet another significant concession wrought by the Anti-Federalists at the beginning of the Presidential regime in 1787.

 

Contrary to France, where the Senate, not known for the transparency of its functioning, is perceived as an assembly of half-retired aging political figures, the United States Senate may be, in a politician's career, an important rung on the ladder leading to higher assignments. Since WWII, Obama, Nixon, JohnsonKennedy and Truman have all been United States Senators. Before becoming Vice President, Joe Biden has been a Senator from Delaware from 1973 to 2009.

 

In the United States, being a Senator grants very significant media attention.

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Washington, the Capitol, House of Representatives Wing

The Capitol, House of Representatives Wing

 

On the left, the South Wing of the Capitol hosts the House of Representatives, the Low Chamber of the United States Congress. Unlike the Senate, which represents the States, the House directly represents the population. Each State is divided in districts, and the number of districts is reapportionned, up or down, after each census, every 10 years, proportionally to the population of each State, for a total of 435 Representatives. Each State gets at least one Representative.

 

After the last census in 2010, Wyoming (564,000 inhabitants) has one Representative, whereas California (37,254,000 inhabitants) has 53.

 

Similar to France, questionable redistricting practices are an easy way to protect elected officials, ensuring safe re-elections. Again, there are no term limits, and some Representatives may serve very long tenures. At the time of our visit, the record was held by John Dingell, a Representative from Michigan, continuously re-elected for almost 58 years, who has announced in February 2014 that he will not seek re-election.

 

The number of Senators and Representatives in each State make up the United States Electoral College, whose Electors formally elect the President and Vice President every four years. This infringement to the principle of direct democracy dates back to the origins of the Presidential regime in 1787, when the Anti-Federalists wrought from the Federalists a concession destined to ensure that each State gets a role in the Presidential election. This procedure, which may look outmoded, actually does not change a lot. Only three Presidents have ever been elected by the Electoral College with fewer popular votes than their opponent : Rutherford Hayes in 1876Benjamin Harrison in 1888 and George W. Bush in 2000.

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Washington, Supreme Court building

Supreme Court building

 

Across First Street from the Senate is the building of the Supreme Court, the highest judicial body in the United States of America. At the time of our visit, as can be seen on the picture, the building was undergoing renovation. The architect has had the excellent idea to reproduce the front of the building on the tarp protecting the works.

 

Unlike France, where judicial power is split among many instances with no meaningful impact on daily life, the Supreme Court holds multiple competencies in its hands. It acts as an appellate jurisdiction, sets legal precedents, and interprets the Constitution. Its decisions often carry significant consequences on citizens' lives.

 

Here are a few landmark Supreme Court decisions :

 

 

The ultimate jurisdiction is not always above controversy. In 2000, a Supreme Court decision ended the Florida ballot recount, implicitly resolving the Presidential Election in favor of George W. Bush.

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Washington, Supreme Court bbuilding, statue of John Marshall, 4th Chief Justice

John Marshall, 4th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

 

With no certainty, I enter the building under the protecting tarps. On my heels, Marie is even less sure. A guard lets us in, without reacting. Then we pass the metal detectors, our rucksacks are rapidly searched and ... yes, that's it, we are inside the building !

 

I have a talk with a security guard. He answers my great surprise by telling me how important it is for the United States of America to keep official buildings open, first to show the great resiliency of the democratic system, and also because, otherwise, terrorists have won, since their goal is precisely to hit democracy in its most intimate features. The guard is an American citizen born in Taiwan.

 

We stop for a moment in front of the statue of John Marshall. Besides having been the longest-serving Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, 34 years from 1801 to 1835, he gave the Supreme Court, by his action, its true role as the supreme Judicial power of the United States, on an equal footing with the President's Executive power and the Congress' Legislative power. It gained the prerogative to validate the constitutionality of bills, before or after their signing into law, to guide the interpretation of the Constitution and it established the principle of judiciary independence.

 

We follow our guide into the famous audience room, and we sit on the benches, a few feet from the long table behind which the nine Justices sit. She explains how the Supreme instance of the American judicial system works. It does not take too much effort to imagine a live audience, facing the nine Justices. I would be sitting less than 15 feet away from Sonia Sotomayor.

 

Predictably, we are not allowed to take pictures in the audience room.

 

We are at the most respected place of the Judicial Power of the United States of America.

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Washington, Library of Congress, Jefferson Building

Library of Congress, Jefferson Building

 

After this unexpected and highly educative visit of the Supreme Court, we cross the street again, to take pictures of the Library of Congress.

 

The Library of Congress has been founded in 1800 by John Adams, the second President of the Union, but it has been mostly developed by Thomas Jefferson, who donated it most of his private collections. Originally a research and documentation service for Members of Congress, it has since developed many other roles :


 

The Library of Congress includes three buildings in downtown Washington, D.C. :


 

147 million documents, including 32 million books and 64 million manuscripts, required no less than three large buildings.

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Washington, the Smithsonian Institution

The Smithsonian Institution

 

After the Library of Congress, we had in mind to visit the Capitol. But the safety instructions at  the entrance of the visitor center quickly deter us. It is not possible to enter the building with food or beverages. It is very annoying, we have snacks and water bottles packed in our rucksacks.

 

Too bad. There will be a next time.

 

Once again, we walk around the Capitol, this time on the South side, and we are back on the Mall. The weather did not get any better. There are almost no bones left on the lawns. Passing by the Smithsonian Institution, which manages most museums on the Mall, we take the picture above. We will use their services later in the day.

 

We already know we will not be able to visit the Washington Monument, closed for renovation at the time of our visit. After a stop under the roof of a sandwich booth, we cross the Ellipse park toward the White House under a rainstorm of biblical proportions.

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Washington, the White House under the rain

The White House under the rain

 

We are now facing the South Lawn, on which the famous Oval Office, occupied by the President, has its windows. But we have no chance of glimpsing anyone, first because of the awful weather, and second because the Oval Office is actually hidden behind the trees on the left of the picture.

 

We have to satisfy ourselves with watching the lawns and the rose trees, absolutely beautiful despite the highly unclement weather.

 

In theory, the White House can be visited, but appointments have to be made long in advance, thru your Congressperson for American citizens, or your ambassador for non-Americans. Considering the cumbersome process, we have given up a long time ago.

 

The rain is still pouring, and we are looking for a sheltered place. After a short break at the Washington Monument visitor center where we buy a few postcards, we settle for the National Air and Space Museum, one of the many museum on the Mall managed by the Smithsonian Institution.

 

I have already visited this museum twice, but it still reserves its share of surprises, we are going to see it soon.

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Washington, Air and Space Museum, Apollo 11 capsule

Air and Space Museum, Apollo 11 capsule

 

Like all other museums managed by the Smithsonian Institution, admission at the National Air and Space Museum is free. Inside the museum, some activities, such as the Imax 3D movie theater, carry a fee.

 

In the entry hall, we can see the Apollo 11 capsule, which took Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins to the Moon in July 1969, and brought them back. We then visit a hall entirely dedicated to the space race. It is fascinating. Childhood memories, predictably in black and white, flood my mind.

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Washington, Air and Space Museum, Imax Theater, Hubble 3D movie

Air and Space Museum, Imax Theater, Hubble 3D movie

 

We then see a film about Hubble Space Telescope and its discoveries. The film, a 3D feature with special glasses, is highly spectacular, really beautiful. Of course, the quality of Hubble pictures is outstanding.

 

We remember that the beginnings of Hubble were disappointing. Indeed, the high-precision mirrors had a flaw, and the first pictures were not as sharp as expected. A Space Shuttle service mission was necessary to correct this. The film reminds this episode.

 

Later, Hubble brilliantly caught up, and this film is absolutely beautiful.

 

Marie regrets that the film is commented exclusively in English.

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Washington, Air and Space Museum, the Wright Brothers flying machine

The Wright Brothers flying machine

 

A decent visit of this museum takes a few hours, according to the interest one has in each exhibition.

 

We are now in a room dedicated to the beginnings of aviation and, of course, the Wright Brothers flying machine occupies the center place. As shown on the picture, the pilot was lying, which certainly does not enhance visibility. To the best of my knowledge, this is one very rare aeroplane to have such a feature.

 

The first officially recorded flight in the history of mankind happened on December 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. French engineer Clément Ader's attempts between 1890 and 1897, though really interesting, have indeed never been certified.

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Washington, Air and Space Museum, the Spirit of Saint Louis, Lindbergh's plane

The Spirit of Saint Louis, Lindbergh's plane

 

We then spend quite a while in the upper floor gallery, very rich in all sorts of flying machines.

 

On the picture, we can recognize the Spirit of Saint Louis, the plane with which Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic, alone and non-stop, in May 1927.

 

The small orange plane in the background is the Bell X-1, the first plane to officially break the sound barrier in horizontal flight. This feat has been performed by Chuck Yeager on October 14, 1947. It is shown at the beginning of the film "The Right Stuff", dedicated to the space race. Yeager's part is played by Sam Shepard, the future author of Motel Chronicles, who has no relation with astronaut Alan Shepard.

 

Between them is the Virgin Spaceship One, the first entirely privately funded space vehicle. It reached space during a suborbital flight on October 4, 2004.

 

This gallery has more treasures to show. We can see a pilotless V-1 cruise missile and a V-2 rocket, history's first ballistic missile, taken from the Germans by the Americans at the end of WWII.

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Washington, Air and Space Museum, the X-15

The X-15

 

Further down the gallery, the X-15 is still there. This stratospheric plane (but, since it was powered by a rocket engine, should it still be called a plane ?) had been designed by NASA at the end of the 1950s to explore the terra incognita of stratospheric flight, which cannot rely on classical aerodynamics. It was also used as a testbed for astronauts' survival gear, microrockets flight controls, space radiation studying, and glide landing, which was used much later on the space shuttle.

 

A pure research and study aircraft, the North American X-15 flew from 1959 to 1968, performing a total of 199 missions. Its contribution to technical knowledge development, for both civilian and military purposes, is impressive.

 

Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon, has been an X-15 pilot.

 

Further down the main gallery, there is a DC-3 hanging from the ceiling.

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Washington, Air and Space Museum, WWII, Mustang P-51D fighter plane

WWII, Mustang P-51D fighter plane

 

Rain, dampness and air conditioning have worn out Marie's motivation. She sits down for a rest, while I visit the rest of the museum on my own.

 

The room dedicated to World War II fighter planes is very complete, with one plane for each of the main nations at war. I put the picture of the North American Mustang P-51D not because of its American origin but because the room is a bit cramped, and I had a hard time finding appropriate angles to take decent pictures.

 

In front of each plane, a sign describes its weaponry, cannons and machine guns. At that time, self-propelled and self-guided rockets do not yet exist.

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Washington, Air and Space museum, Grumman F4F Wildcat Navy fighter aircraft

Grumman F4F Wildcat Navy fighter aircraft

 

My next visit is in the room dedicated to World War II sea-air aviation The deck from which I take this picture of a Grumman F4F Wildcat reproduces the deck of an aircraft carrier of the period. In the shadow, there is also a mock-up command center.

 

Our visit of the museum has reached its end. It is time to take the metro again, the hotel shuttle will be waiting for us at the terminal. But at the game of train schedules and line changes, we are kind of lucky, and we twice get a train almost immediately. We reach the terminal close to 20 minutes before our shuttle.

 

It is raining again, and we are not too keen to go out. After a unsuccessful attempt to go to a definitively closed restaurant recommended by a brochure at the hotel, we once again end up at the Subway across the street.

 

The good news is that, with a little luck, I have found the glitch that had been disturbing our Wi-Fi connection for a few days. I now know that Kasperky Internet Security 2013 cannot handle more than 10 wireless networks.

 

Despite the rain, very heavy at times, we have walked well over 6 miles.

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