In mid-November, we took a mini-vacation: riding bikes to to downtown DC. The sunny day and mild temperature contributed to the lovely fall day. We acted like hometown tourists, except for being in the midst of a tumultuous election aftermath and a still surging pandemic. A few weeks earlier, some of the Smithsonian museums had reopened with safety measures in place, such as mask wearing and timed-entry passes. We snagged tickets for the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Just in time as it turns out. Since November 23rd, all Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo are closed again as a health precaution due to rising COVID-19 cases. The last four years made touring the history museum a good choice, with its features: a section of the Berlin Wall and an exhibit on American presidents.
Following Germany’s defeat in World War II, Berlin was divided, with the Soviets given control over one sector. The Berlin Wall, erected in August 1961, started as a barbed wire fence, with a goal of keeping residents from defecting. When I was stationed in West Germany in the early 80s, I traveled to Berlin twice and saw the towering concrete wall that replaced the temporary concertina. The city of Berlin was enclosed by East Germany, a country that required special permission to navigate. During one trip, I took the duty train from Frankfurt; the other time, I led a US Army truck convoy through East Germany.
During our temporary duty in Berlin, my platoon and I received permission to go into East Berlin, the Soviet sector. We proceeded through Checkpoint Charlie, with its menacing towers, vigilant guards, and deadly landmines. Afterwards, we visited the museum, looking at exhibits that highlighted the clever, and sometimes deadly, efforts desperate people made to escape from the East. In June 1987, US President Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) challenged Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall.” Reagan’s demand was clear (and impolitic — one national leader telling another what to do?). Reagan was adamant: Get rid of the Berlin Wall, symbol of a divided Germany, in order to “advance the cause of freedom and peace.”
The Reagan – Bush campaign slogan in 1980 was “Let’s Make America Great Again.” Reagan spoke out against the Wall and was still in office when it fell. The current president (POTUS 45) resurrected the slogan, amplified the brand, and chose wall-building as a symbol of his presidency.
His promised wall, on the southern US border, was intended to keep desperate refugees out. Over four years, fifteen (15) miles of new wall have been erected. On our visit to downtown DC, we discovered a less advertised wall has been constructed. 15-foot-high metal barriers now enclose the perimeter of the always heavily-fortified White House. The defensive perimeter has even extended to incorporate Lafayette Square park. The White House, known as “The People’s House,” is a fortress and not welcoming to visitors. Instead, it seems poised to repel attackers. Those barricades were only part of the war zone ambiance. Many store fronts in the executive mansion neighborhood had ground floor windows covered by expanses of plywood. Apparently, the city was expecting rioting after the election and the incumbent’s failure to concede.
During my morning walk, I observed police car convoys flying through red lights, tow trucks and snowplows pre-positioned for forced vehicle removals, ugly barriers, and boarded-up windows. Like Berlin in the 1980s, the ambiance made me feel paranoid. Before our supervised visit into East Berlin in 1982, we were briefed on what to wear, how to behave, and told: “Assume you are being watched and can be stopped or apprehended at any time, and possibly for no reason at all.” Is it any wonder people wanted to escape that oppressiveness? Déjà vu decades later in DC — a new Cold War, better than the old Cold War….
I skirted the White House’s reinforced perimeter towards the Hay-Adams Hotel. In February, I had spent several hours there with my co-blogger; I thought she’d appreciate the contrast from then to now. The stately Hotel had renovated its exterior to fend off aggression, adding a tall chain link fence and a roving guard to protect the entrance. Across the street, St. John’s Episcopal Church was similarly barricaded with an implicit message: “Stay away.” The church’s façade became famous in June as backdrop for the President’s holy book photo op, preceded by the Lafayette Square skirmish, where law enforcement personnel summarily cleared protesters using tear gas and riot control tactics.
Across from the hotel and church is a memorial fence at what has become known as Black Lives Matter (BLM) Plaza. The chain links support a collection of photos of people killed and protest signs, a monument to social justice and accountability. The living memorial has itself become a flashpoint, as marauders object to the message and tear down the artifacts, proclaiming that they are “acting in the name of Jesus.”
The President promised walls and here are some that he can take credit for:
- 15 miles of new border wall between the US and Mexico
- A militarized zone surrounding the White House
- The BLM memorial near Lafayette Square
- Cultural divisions and pollical divide within the country, having provoked and stoked a war between his “base” followers and those who object to his “leadership”
- Wall man — a supporter with a specially tailored suit (see photo)
Under the slogan “Make America Great Again,” Reagan wanted to remove walls; 45 wants to build them. The position of US President automatically confers a lasting legacy. During his term, each president faced good times and bad, with chances to leave his mark, for better or worse. As the end of 2020 approaches, with less than two months to inauguration day, POTUS 45 is still working on what he will leave behind and how he’ll be remembered. Perhaps it will be a COVID-19 Memorial Wall, listing the names of those who died of the virus under his watch — 270,000 and counting.
© Joan S Grey, 4 DEC 2020 ∞
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