Take the walk, see story of us


Come walk the national walk with me.

A three-mile beeline through American history.

I started at the Lincoln Memorial early Sunday morning, before the inaugural hordes had a chance to defy the small sign that warned "Quiet."

The sun was easing up, over the Potomac, and the only person on the white marble stairs was a guy sweeping them with a frayed yellow broom. Abe Lincoln, the stone giant, sat in the shadows, watching.

Abraham Lincoln's memorial is the center of moral gravity in a city that so often seems to lack one.

As every third-grader should know, he was the president assassinated after he oversaw the Civil War, which led to the end of slavery. It was at his memorial, at the top of these shining stairs, that Martin Luther King Jr., who later would be assassinated, once famously proclaimed his dream of an end to racism. Barack Obama brought his family here just before his first inauguration.

From these steps — out across the reflecting pool, past the Washington Monument, straight to the dome of the United States Capitol — you can see a country, or at least a country's idea of itself.

So I started to walk the path of who we are.

I weaved slightly off to the left of the reflecting pool to touch the black stone at the Vietnam War Memorial. Then it was over to the Korean War Veterans Memorial, a haunting assembly of 71/2-foot-tall stainless-steel soldiers on patrol.

The National World War II Memorial was next, a semicircle of granite pillars inscribed with the names of states.

"Where's South Carolina?" a woman fresh off a tour bus cried, then happily scurried off to snap a photo, the way you might buy an inauguration souvenir.

From there it was on to the Washington Monument, named, as every third-grader should know, after a commander in the Revolutionary War who became our first president.

At this point in the national walk, it's hard not to draw a conclusion: We are a nation built on war, defined by war, obsessed with war and eager to capitalize on war as a tourist attraction.

But keep walking, with the Capitol getting closer, and things mellow. Across 14th Street lie the museums and galleries that speak of art and science, that reveal our higher minds.

For Inauguration Day, it's also where the porta-potties, big white tents and temporary monuments to TV networks stand.

Finally, the walk reaches the Capitol, where Obama will give his second inauguration address Monday. On Sunday, the building gleamed peacefully in the January sun, though you might argue that it, too, is a monument to war.

So many visitors to Washington were taking the national walk that it seemed to have become part of the inaugural ritual. By the time I looped back toward the Lincoln Memorial, the walkways were packed.

"Are you on a pilgrimage?" I heard a young woman ask a young man. He was tall and pale. She was short and had skin the color of Obama's.

She started talking about Martin Luther King Jr., mentioned that she was biracial, and told him he had to go to the new MLK Memorial.

"MLK," he said. "Oh my God, not a lot of people have achieved his level of impact in the world. Especially for that era."