Dec. 5, 2004, 5:30 p.m.: Darkness has fallen, and the train slowly rolls into Union Station. It is the first time I have ever been to Washington, D.C., and it’s long overdue. (Yes, I know. It is hard to believe that for all my political interest and participation, I had never been to our capital until my senior history essay research necessitated that I make the trip last month.)
5:45 p.m.: I open the doors of Union Station, and against the backdrop of the clear night sky, I see the dome of Capitol Hill lit up. It is a breathtaking view — picture perfect. On the drive to my hotel, I am overwhelmed by the beauty and the history in every single monument.
The next day, 8:40 a.m.: I emerge from the dark Metro station to sit and wait in front of the National Archives for the shuttle that will take me to the branch in College Park, Md. On one end of Pennsylvania Avenue, I can see the daunting Capitol building, and on the other, I can just make out the upper half of the White House. I take a short walk around a few blocks, and I am immediately enchanted by the Old Southern and historic nature of this city. Finally, the shuttle comes, and I am well on my way. Passing by the government buildings, traveling down the wide expansive avenues, watching government vehicles pass by, I sit back and relax as a sense of pride — in spite of the disappointment I feel toward the Bush administration — sets in. The history of it all is enough.
9:15 a.m.: Suddenly, something changes. The Georgian and neoclassical architecture disappears within minutes. My new surroundings look shockingly different from those of minutes before. Dilapidated buildings house eateries, and the streets are unkempt and filled with garbage. There is a school to my right that could not possibly be where students are sitting down to learn. The roof looks like it is about to cave in, and the football field seems completely unusable. I had been told that the area immediately surrounding Washington was bad, but I didn’t expect anything like this. It is difficult to understand how neighborhoods like these could exist so near the American government’s seat of power, where laws are supposed to be passed that would afford those in these areas a better lifestyle.
9:45 a.m.: Again, I have before me a building that in my eyes seems to be of architectural genius — the National Archives building in College Park, Md.
4:00 p.m.: I leave the glass building that houses the classified documents that reveal government policy, and once again, by way of shuttle, pass through the impoverished areas with largely African-American populations until I reach my hotel, which has a direct view of the dome of the Capitol building.
Why take you through my rather mundane routine? Well, this week, all eyes are on Washington, from the first episode of “American Idol” on Tuesday, to the Senate hearings for Condoleezza Rice, to today’s $40 million spectacle: the inauguration of George W. Bush for his second term. On Tuesday’s edition of CNN’s “American Morning,” the question posed to viewers was whether or not it seemed inappropriate that $40 million was being spent on the inauguration. Pundits and viewers alike suggested that perhaps the money should be donated to the tsunami relief effort or toward funding Social Security or even for the reconstruction of Iraq. Or, even still, some suggested that because we are in the midst of a war, the ceremony should be toned down to honor those soldiers who have lost their lives.
Since much of the price tag for the inauguration comes from corporate donors (and they have every right to donate however much money they want to the pomp and circumstance taking place at this very moment), I hope, as others do, that they have already or are considering donating as much to the tsunami relief efforts. More importantly, as the Lincolns and limos drive down the wide avenues, as the powerful political elite — wearing their designer tuxes and dresses — gather in the neoclassical and Georgian buildings that line these streets, and as Bush promises to succeed in the reconstruction of Iraq, I hope he, his political allies, his political opponents and his corporate friends remember that less than a few miles away lies a world that needs reconstruction as well. For within the backyard of the White House, there is a place where the schools Bush wants to make better are failing and crumbling, where families are broken and where poverty is deeply entrenched. Imagine how $40 million could transform the poverty that surrounds the lavish ceremonies now in progress.
On Monday, we celebrated the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. If he were alive today, he most certainly would have smiled and been pleased to see Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state, the highest government position ever held by an African-American woman. Yet, I’m certain he would have frowned upon the impoverished nature of the African-American community that surrounds D.C.
Perhaps Bush can begin his second term by taking his daily jog through these neighborhoods. Then maybe he would be infused with as much passion in working on his domestic policy as he has been in liberating and reconstructing Iraq.
Alicia Washington is a senior in Trumbull College. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.