Visitor’s guide to Washington

Sue – Washington was built on a swamp and political cynics have liked to observe that it’s remained one ever since. But now there’s a different mood in the air. A new President promises new hope, so it’s a perfect time to take the temperature of the American capital. (Temperature, by the way, is important to bear in mind. It can get unbearably hot and humid in the summer months).

There’s little point in visiting Washington if you’re not interested in America, its politics and its history. Politics was very much on my agenda. I was there as chairman of the BBC Reith Lectures in which a political philosopher from Harvard, Michael Sandel, argued that we need a ‘new politics’ one in which public care for society as a whole should predominate over self-interest. It’s not an argument that will take root naturally in an America brought up on ideas of opportunity and self-advancement, as one young Republican made clear in the debate after the lecture. Getting on and getting rich was the aspiration of every American, he said. The American Dream should not be allowed to die.

Hugh – America enjoys wearing its history proudly as a stroll through the Washington memorials to four of its greatest Presidents testifies. It’s hard to imagine Britain agreeing to spend public money on monumental shrines to its important ancestors. A small statue in Parliament Square is all they ever get. But in the American capital, the oratory and actions of four of the great men who shaped the nation are immortalised: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt all have tons of masonry
in their honour.

What strikes you, however, is how much more splendid these buildings are than the houses in which some of them lived. Washington’s home at Mount Vernon, just outside the capital, has a glorious setting on the banks of the Potomac River, but the house itself is quite small. Jefferson’s home, Monticello, a couple of hours’ drive away, is more graceful and architecturally more interesting he designed it himself but still pretty modest by British standards. When you look at the sort of palaces British heroes liked to build Marlborough’s Blenheim for instance you realise what an important part restraint played in the creation of the American nation. The founding fathers avoided grandeur in their personal lives. It was left to posterity to invest them with that.

Sue – Washington is elegant, very different from America’s other great cities: New York, Los Angeles or Chicago. It has no skyscrapers buildings are restricted to a maximum of 15 storeys. And its buzz isn’t the same as that of Hollywood or Broadway. The people who walk the streets, tourists and locals alike, seem intent on a rather more serious purpose than they do in the razzmatazz of the Big Apple or Tinseltown. Washington is very much America sober.

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While we were there, it hummed with comment and gossip. President Obama was presenting to the world his approach to the problems of the Middle East. In Britain, Gordon Brown was struggling to cling to office. In America, new energy; back home, the same old tired dogfight. The new President has been highly successful in engaging people who’d previously shown no interest in politics. A waiter in a seafood bar told me he gets regular texts and emails from the White House updating him on Mr Obama’s plans. For the first time, he feels involved in the government of his country. This is the first achievement of the Obama Presidency: America has been refreshed.

Hugh – Barack Obama launched his bid for the Presidency in Springfield, Illinois, the city where Abraham Lincoln cut his teeth as a politician. The Civil War, which ended with Lincoln’s assassination at the moment when he’d finally succeeded in saving the Union, is very much part of Washington’s history. Some of its fiercest battles were fought not far away, as the armies of the North fought to prevent the Confederate forces from reaching the capital.

At Fredericksburg, barely an hour’s drive south, a Union army crossed the Rappa-hannock River to attack the forces of Robert E. Lee, the famous southern general. But Lee held a commanding position, and the Union attack was repulsed with an appalling loss of life. Today, the scene of this carnage is a memorial park with headstones marking the places where unnamed men died in their thousands. We remember the American Civil War as a great triumph of liberty over slavery. It’s easy to forget that 620,000 Americans lost their lives more than in any other war that the country fought, including Vietnam

Sue – Washington is grand and wide, but all around it are smaller places most far older than the capital which provide great contrast. Make for Annapolis, an hour’s drive away, and one of the oldest towns in the USA. On a sunny day, with the breeze blowing off the ocean and summer bunting fluttering, Annapolis is delightful. A cruise round the harbour helps you understand the size of the huge system of waterways that make up Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the US. Some 150 rivers drain into it. It provides a shoreline for six states. The bay is a whole world in itself and no trip to Washington would be complete without dipping your toes in its waters.

Hugh – When the British lost control of Chesapeake Bay, they lost the War of Independence. In 1781, the British general, Cornwallis, was holed up in Yorktown on the southern tip of the bay. Having fought a long campaign against the revolutionaries, he’d retreated to await reinforcements. None came. Instead, George Washington and his French ally, Gen Rochambeau, led their armies on a 600-mile march from New York to where the British were sitting. (Washington popped into his house at Mount Vernon on the way: the first time he’d been home for six years.) He and Rochambeau knew that a French fleet had defeated the Royal Navy and had command of the Bay. Cornwallis was trapped. After three weeks, he capitulated and the Americans had won the war.

Sue – History makes you hungry. No one would describe Washington as a gastronomic capital, but that doesn’t mean that food isn’t plentiful. We began in true American style, with fried nachos and beer at the bar in Union Station. I’d never dream of eating at Paddington or Euston (although I’m told that the new St Pancras is a bit of a foodie venue), but Union Station rather like Grand Central in New York is worth a visit. Its vaulted ceilings and broad concourses make it an airy place, and a chat with travellers over a fattening snack helps you get a feel for life American-style. Elsewhere, it was Maryland crab cakes on the harbour or a stonkingly large bowl of lobster spaghetti at the Cafe Milano in Georgetown, where power-hungry politicians meet and plot.

Hugh – Having risen at first light, Thomas Jefferson took his dinner at 4pm, washed down with local Virginian wine. Virginia the bountiful was the oldest of the English colonies, originally three-quarters the size of the UK. Driving through it, you imagine what those early settlers must have felt as they explored their new lands: rich, green pastures, thick forests and a coastline brimming with seafood. What a homeland! Four of the first five Presidents came from Virginia, as did some of the earliest attacks by Americans on the impositions of the British Crown. No wonder Britain lost the War of Independence. It thought it was fighting a bunch of rough-and-ready farmers in fact, its enemy was a collection of young and eager nations.

Sue – America has a knack of making you feel optimistic. A trip to Washington, particularly at the moment, is a tonic in a world where good news is in short supply. We returned home full to the brim of food and drink certainly, but also of thoughts and experiences that have stayed with us.

Sue and Hugh stayed in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Washington DC