Visiting the Lincoln Memorial in the Trump era: ‘There is a lot to fight for’

On the first President’s Day weekend of Donald Trump’s presidency, visitors reflect on the legacy of a president who guided the country through civil war

Visiting the Lincoln Memorial in the Trump era: 'There is a lot to fight for'
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‘It’s a good reminder of our bedrock, our foundations, because for me that’s been shaken a bit.’
Photograph: Jason Reed/Reuters

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This article titled “Visiting the Lincoln Memorial in the Trump era: ‘There is a lot to fight for'” was written by David Smith in Washington, for theguardian.com on Monday 20th February 2017 12.00 UTC

It was a cold, starless night. The illuminated statue of Abraham Lincoln, carved from marble 19ft high, gazed eastwards across the reflecting pool towards the Washington Monument. But for the scratchings of a hungry animal in a bin, the air was still, the chamber sepulchral.

Around midnight, four people arrived, continuing a conversation that had begun over dinner. Two were men, two were women. Two had voted for Hillary Clinton in last year’s election, one had voted for Donald Trump; the other, who had just spent three years abroad, had not cast a ballot.

At this hour, they had the Lincoln Memorial to themselves. “It’s a time when it’s quiet and reflective,” said Cyndi Festa, an operations leader from Center Valley, Pennsylvania, perched on the memorial steps and wrapped against the chill. “I’m not sure that, when there are lots of people around, I get to ingest and reflect.”

Michael Smith, a communications director from Atlanta, Georgia, added: “I’m not sure what Abraham Lincoln’s voice sounded like but when I come here at night I can almost hear it.”

Beth Laliberte, a lawyer from Richmond, Virginia, volunteered another reason for visiting. “It’s a good reminder of our bedrock, our foundations, because for me that’s been shaken a bit.”

And Jim Simmons, from Naples, Florida – the sole Trump supporter – made a joke: “I’m just here ’cause I heard it’s a great place to meet chicks at midnight.”

Michael Smith, Jim Simmons, Cyndi Festa and Beth Laliberte at Lincoln Memorial in Washington.
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Michael Smith, Jim Simmons, Cyndi Festa and Beth Laliberte at Lincoln Memorial in Washington. Photograph: David Smith
Since it opened in 1922, generations have found reason to visit the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, mounting the steps, entering the solemn chamber and turning their heads upwards to contemplate the giant seated statue of the 16th president, his left hand clenched in a fist, his right hand more open – he was once described as a man of both steel and velvet.

Behind him are the words: “In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.” On either side the walls are carved with inscriptions of his Gettysburg address and second inaugural address which, reflecting on the civil war, makes a clarion call “to bind up the nation’s wounds”.

The four visitors, who had been attending a conference in Washington, lingered by one of the 36 fluted columns that surround the memorial, one for each of the 36 states in the Union at the time of Lincoln’s death. They looked out at a vista that included the obelisk built to commemorate George Washington, the spectral figures of the Korean War Veterans Memorial and the clock tower of the old post office – now the Trump International Hotel.

Simmons, 57, mused: “I voted for Trump because it’s different. Neither candidate was the most appealing I’ve ever seen; it was a hold-your-nose election. Sometimes a little change is good and America could do with a little shock to clean up some things that have been ignored a long time. It’s to inject something different in the system. It could go worse or it could go better. It’s worth a shot.”

Festa, who came back recently after living in Ireland for three years, rejoined: “Should he change the trajectory of this nation and make it what it should be, I will have no problem with my grandchildren being at a Donald Trump memorial.”

People hold candles during a vigil in front of the Lincoln Memorial this month in solidarity with protests against Donald Trump’s travel ban.
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People hold candles during a vigil in front of the Lincoln Memorial this month in solidarity with protests against Donald Trump’s travel ban. Photograph: Zach Gibson/Getty Images
For Laliberte, 42, who took part in the Women’s March on Washington the day after Trump’s inauguration, that is a highly unlikely prospect. “He’s done nothing to suggest that he could handle a catastrophic event appropriately,” she said. “He spends more time lashing out on Twitter to celebrities than he does on reading books. He lashes out like a crazy person.”

Simmons interjected: “Beth, I’m not here to change your mind.”

Laliberte, cordial but firm, insisted: “Don’t pretend operating a business is like operating a government.”

Simmons said: “I think coming in with a fresh set of eyes offers opportunities, a different perspective.”

The group posed on the steps for a photo and went on their way. “We can disagree without being disagreeable,” Simmons observed.

Earlier in the day, pedestrian traffic had flowed through the memorial, filling the chamber with winter hats and coats, cameraphones and a steady hum. They stood where Martin Luther King delivered his I Have a Dream speech, where President Richard Nixon debated the Vietnam war with student protesters around 4am one morning and where Trump himself, with fireworks above, held a pre-inauguration concert.

Last week, Vanessa East, visiting for the first time, spent long minutes silently reading Lincoln’s words. “I felt like seeing something inspiring: what our country was compared to what we are today,” she said. “This great man was in the middle of a civil war and sought to lift the country up. I find Mr Trump seeks to divide us and push us down.

“We don’t have boys fighting out in Gettysburg but we have people being horrible to each other on social media. I don’t know that Trump is trying to bring us together.”

East, 44, a restaurants manager from Long Beach, California, reflected: “I started weeping the second I got here. It’s a monument to the people we are and how hard we fought for equality. We’re still fighting. There is a lot to fight for.”

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