After the concert on the Capitol’s West Lawn, fireworks went up over the Washington Monument. Below, the monument was recently sheathed in scaffolding to repair damage from a 2011 earthquake. Photos by Tom Eblen
WASHINGTON — Watching the annual Capitol Fourth concert and fireworks show from Washington on Kentucky Educational Television has become an Independence Day tradition in my family.
Each year we say, “Wouldn’t that be fun to attend sometime?” So, this year, we did.
My wife booked airline tickets and a hotel room months in advance. Our younger daughter took the train down from New York City and stayed with a college friend who joined us. Then we spent a long weekend soaking up American history and patriotic spirit.
Washington has never been one of my favorite places. President John F. Kennedy described it as a city of Northern charm and Southern efficiency. It has more than its share of people consumed by ambition. This time of year, the heat and humidity can be oppressive.
But the weather wasn’t too bad last week, especially compared to the unceasing rain that drenched Lexington. The city was filled with dressed-down Washingtonians on holiday and tourists like us from across the country and around the world.
While touring the city, I posted a series of photos on Facebook from such places as the National Postal Museum and the National Building Museum. I labeled a photo of the Capitol the “National Dysfunction Museum.” A friend in California commented that it wasn’t so much a museum of dysfunction as an active laboratory.
We saw little evidence of the current partisan gridlock, but that was probably because the politicians and the lobbyists who call the tunes they dance to were off-duty. I did notice that a Smithsonian gift shop had an ample supply of “Proud to be a Republican” tote bags on the clearance rack, marked 60 percent off.
At the National Portrait Gallery, we looked eye-to-eye at Daniel Boone, who sat for artist Chester Harding shortly before his death in 1820. Inside the ornate Library of Congress, we saw a Gutenberg Bible and the remnants of Thomas Jefferson’s vast book collection.
The Smithsonian’s Museum of American History showed us Henry Clay’s chair, Abraham Lincoln’s watch and the giant Star Spangled Banner that inspired the national anthem. Also behind glass there were Jim Henson’s Kermit the Frog and Judy Garland’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz.
Everywhere were monuments, relics and reminders of generations of American leaders who viewed government as a vehicle for solving problems and promoting the common good, rather than as an obstacle to selfishness and corporate power.
The soaring Capitol dome was inspiring. So was the National Cathedral, although the Episcopalian tour guide pointed out that the “national” designation is honorary because America has no state religion.
The Gothic-style cathedral of stone and stained glass, built over the past century, is as impressive as any I have seen in Europe. It also has a key advantage: elevators in the towers. And only in America would cathedral builders have enough sense of humor to include a gargoyle depicting Darth Vader from the movie Star Wars.
The highlight of our trip, of course, was A Capitol Fourth. After spending nearly an hour in a security line, we joined gathering crowds on the mile of green space between the Capitol and the Washington Monument, which had recently been sheathed in scaffolding to repair damage from a 2011 earthquake.
We couldn’t see the concert stage because of all the trees on the Capitol’s West Lawn. But we had a good view of the big screen above the stage, as well as the Washington Monument.
The show was a mix of patriotism and pop culture: 70-something singers Barry Manilow and Neil Diamond; up-and-coming singers from recent TV talent shows; John Williams conducting music from the movie Lincoln and cast members from Broadway’s Motown: The Musical. My wife enjoyed it more than I did.
But as the National Symphony Orchestra launched into Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture with accompaniment from an Army artillery squad, a spectacular fireworks display erupted over the Washington Monument.
There was something special about being in the nation’s capital on Independence Day, surrounded by a few hundred thousand of our fellow citizens. Political dysfunction had taken a holiday, and there we were, between the Capitol and a glorious fireworks show, proud to be Americans.
The view over my left shoulder during “A Capitol Fourth” on the Capitol’s West Lawn.