The Mall may be the greatest 7+ mile urban run in America. Yes, the faults and distractions are legion. Crowds of milling tourists. Major thoroughfares perfectly spaced to kill the groove. Forever construction. Swampland temperatures. The cloying smell of teenage hormones.
But where else can one run amongst the great memorials? In the city of ideas, attempts, hope?
For me, the Mall and its accordant monuments have little to do with the men—and objectionably few women—they honor; no, the Mall is about the idea. Lincoln did not plan the grand temple of his repose, nor did Washington build an obelisk to his Presidency. These memorials serve not to honor the individual, but to honor the ideas that they represented, to remind us as a nation of the characteristics we choose collectively to remember, to praise.
Every time I run the Mall, I am struck again and again by the audacity of this American experiment. For here, we have perhaps the greatest stretch of patriotism found in the United States, and maybe the world. No, not the easy nationalism of flag decals and hate-filled songs, nor the shallow type found at stadium flyovers and seventh-inning stretches, but that which makes one think what it means to be American.
Along the route of the Mall, the Smithsonian museums accept gaggles of children, parents, teachers, learners, those who yearn to appreciate science, culture, history. The Smithsonian asks no price, but the price of thought—who are we to make history? What does it mean? Objet d’arte from past civilizations—is there simple existence sacred? Or is it the memory of time and place? What can we learn from time, from space?
Along the route of the Mall, quietly reverent or brashly Romanic, we remember those lost to the American experience of war. These too ask of us to understand and decode our thoughts—by what right did we ask all of these lost? What is power, duty, honor? How should we fight our wars today? Who gets to choose who lives and who dies, and in the name of what?
Along the route of the Mall, planning fosters reflection. The Capitol divided, yet one building. Abe, sitting heavy as a reminder to whoever occupies 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The quiet contemplation of the Tidal Basin, ensuring that Jeffersonian ideals still lap the shores of our nation.
Along the route of the Mall, the people themselves remind us of this wonderful attempt at something new in the world. Cowboy hats and eagle-decorated tank tops mix with dedicated punks, authoritarians stroll the same grounds as those who see the system as fundamentally rigged. They can both exist within the mental borders of the United States—does this mean it’s working? And those from outside our borders, the mix of Russian, Mandarin, Spanish, Arabic, Kiswahili, and so many other tongues (not that non-English speakers are automatically foreign, for there is room here for all), here to witness the experiment. They continue these questions—where have we failed? Where have we been a beacon of hope, and where have we been a bright, shining lie? Where can we improve, how can we be better?
Running the Mall always reminds me that the District is not the partisan entrenchment imagined outside the broken diamond. It is not interns and staffers working 80 hour weeks for no particular purpose. It is not the Beltway Bandits, the war profiteers, the “defense” agencies. It is not which party gets to reside in the White House, who gets the sharpest cut on CSPAN, who must kowtow to whom. It is the question of who we are and who we want to be. It is confronting what in us needs examination and reconsideration. It asks us to be worthy of this great stretch of ideas.
The monuments and memorials, ostensibly honoring those great Americans, are truly temples to what we hope can become our principles. Not far from the Mall, Trump has marked out his territory with his gold stamp. His monuments are built for himself, and his hope is his hatred, brutality, and ego override our principles. When I run the Mall, Trump’s fragility smashes upon the marble of Lincoln. When I run the Mall, I don’t need to ask how to make America great again, for we are striving towards greatness every day. When I run the Mall, I keep pace with history, philosophy, curiosity, reflection. Mr. Trump cannot match my pace.
But you can.
Come run with me.