Watching President-elect Donald Trump and his wife Melania ascend the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC the night before his swearing-in ceremony to become the next president of the United States brought back a flood of memories from my youth. Growing up in Arlington, Virginia, only minutes away from that very spot, gave one the feeling of living near hallowed ground. The grandeur of Washington, its White House and Capitol building, museums and monuments are testimony to that which was achieved in 1776.
As a child, frequent school excursions centered around the nation’s capital and they filled me with awe. As a young adult, the exquisite marble edifice of the Abraham Lincoln Memorial became my favorite place for a romantic evening — especially with those young men visiting from cities or nations from afar.
In those idyllic days, one could drive up to the Lincoln Memorial in the wee hours of the morning, park in front of it and ascend the hundreds of stairs to breathe in the air of history. As one looked up to the mammoth image of one of the greatest presidents that the United States has ever known, it was exciting to appreciate the accomplishment of the successful democracy that America had become.
After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the United States was traumatized. He was buried within sight of the Lincoln Memorial, and I used to sit on the edge of the stairs and stare up at the flickering eternal light of JFK’s gravesite in Arlington National Cemetery in the distance. I felt a very real connection to the dream that he represented. It was extinguished not only with his assassination, but with that of his brother Robert which followed, and yet again with the murder of Martin Luther King. In those days, nothing demeaning had been written about JFK’s personal life, his marriage or his associations. America had its hero, untarnished, and the world loved him and his memory.
Today, I understand with hindsight how critical it is for nations to have their illusions. Sharing every blemish of political hopefuls has led many outstanding men and women to avoid the race for political leadership. Having the courage and fortitude to be exposed for one’s imperfections is more than most can withstand.
I volunteered in the halls of Congress with Senator Edmund Muskie and remember his career ending with tears, as unkind words were written about his wife. The tough exteriors now required to run for political office are a substantial test as to whether a candidate will be able to survive the international pressures that await them in office. There is no room for personal imperfections, as they will all be revealed. If we look for those without them, we will remain leaderless for eternity.
The last time I went to the Lincoln Memorial, the experience was very different. Driving from Arlington to DC is a simple route, where one passes the Pentagon and Arlington National Cemetery, crosses the river, and immediately enters the District of Columbia. By accident, I took the wrong fork in the road and ended up in the Pentagon parking lot. It was after the 9/11 terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center twin towers in New York and attempted to obliterate the Pentagon. I was met by army troops in camouflage, concerned that, as I was entering the Pentagon area, I might be a potential terrorist. From there, I drove to the Lincoln Memorial, expecting to park next to it once again. Today that is impossible. Concrete boulders make the entire vicinity impervious to traffic. Fear of terrorism has changed forever the face of the nation’s capital.
Thus, watching Donald Trump as president-elect, walk up those same stairs and salute the statue of his predecessor was extremely moving. Knowing that the same light from the Kennedy family memorial is still flickering in the distance is comforting. Watching the exquisite fireworks in red, white and blue explode above the Lincoln Memorial with the letters “U.S.A.” made me feel that there is, indeed, a future for the essential values that Americans have treasured for hundreds of years.
I suspect that Donald J. Trump has been stunned to realize the ominous task upon which he has embarked. Winning the presidential race is just the beginning. The responsibilities that follow are massive.
It is time for all Americans to come together in the hope that this man, made of clay like the rest of us, will succeed. If he fulfills his dreams, all Americans will benefit. By extension, other democracies will be more secure. It is time for those afraid of the unknown to look at the bigger picture, and allow this man to attempt to follow in the footprints of his predecessor, President Abraham Lincoln. President Trump will be held accountable, as are we all.