My consulting work at the Westin Grand in Georgetown absorbed each of five December days until early evening, so I thought I wouldn’t get to see much of D.C. on this trip. The first three nights I took long walks down M Street, enjoying the 40 degree air, such a contrast with L.A. (in the high 70’s that same week) and the holiday bustle in the shops. It wasn’t until Thursday, my last full day in D.C., that I realized that the National Mall was a short 20 minute walk to the south, straight down 23rd street, and off I went.
Shortly past George Washington University and down a gentle slope loomed the Lincoln Memorial, huge and compelling even from blocks away. I had been there years ago in the daytime, mingling with crowds, and was somewhat impressed, but I had not anticipated the nighttime effect. Approaching the broad steps, I started to feel some unusual, primal emotions as the visual impact took hold. The structure atop the mound is a faithful copy of a Doric temple, not unlike a restored Parthenon. The exterior is illuminated with floodlights, and there is somehow a dark interior contrast to the emanations of the shining white marble statue of Lincoln within, which seemed to me to glow with power, like a captured being of fire, and to reach out between the spaces of the 36 massive columns. I realized that ancient psychoactive architectural techniques had been used with impressive effect. In fact, designer Henry Bacon had used as his general model the Temple of Zeus in Olympia. On the steps were light crowds, laughing and lively, but people became silent within. The sheer size of the statue in its huge vault would be enough to engender reverence, whether it were of Zeus or a politician.
For a while it was enough to stand and gaze at the figure in silence. Then I started reading the inscriptions on the walls. First, the second inaugural address on the north wall, then the Gettysburg Address on the south wall. Finally I returned to the statue and read the inscription directly above Lincoln’s head (written by Royal Cortissoz, American art historian and art critic):
IN THIS TEMPLE
AS IN THE HEARTS OF THE PEOPLE
FOR WHOM HE SAVED THE UNION
THE MEMORY OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN
IS ENSHRINED FOREVER
A temple! Here’s a quick review of what a temple is, per Webster: “ A building devoted to the worship, or regarded as the dwelling place, of a god or gods or other objects of religious reverence.”
I was almost dizzy at the implication: the unstated purpose of the Lincoln Memorial was to deify Lincoln. Was this kosher? I wondered. Certainly it went against the concept that “all men are created equal,” and separation of church and state, and the founding fathers’ break with monarchy, with its divine right of kings.
The Lincoln Memorial was dedicated in 1922, when the Civil War was still a living memory for many. Was deification of Lincoln a means to solidify the North’s victory, the unification of the country and the emancipation of the slaves?
I pondered the other well known presidential memorials.
The Jefferson memorial, completed in 1943, was patterned by its designer, John Russell Pope, after the Roman Pantheon, a temple dedicated to all the gods.
The Washington Monument was built by Freemasons in the 1880’s to be, in part, a “shrine of the ancient craft.” Webster on the original meaning of “shrine”: “A place regarded as holy because of its associations with a divinity or a sacred person or relic.” Washington, himself a Freemason, is referred to as a “Worshipful Master,” though the Freemasons go to lengths to explain that the epithet “worshipful master” does not deify a person, which would be blasphemous, but only designates him as “venerable.” Dan Brown’s elaborations aside, the oft noted phallic nature of the Washington Monument might be a more productive approach. The world’s biggest lingam stone!
Anyway, the question is: With all the importance we place on our humanistic origins, where do we get off sneaking in deification of our mortal politicians?
From a governance point of view, deification seems practical. We are a gigantic republic, and we often have to use whatever is handy to keep our people together and somewhat obedient. Certainly if our founding leaders are now gods, then national cohesion would behoove us.
What about modern practice? Do we still deify presidents? Perhaps all the pomp and expense surrounding presidents while they’re alive is a form of deification. If so, that would be a modern version. In 1840, Edgar Allen Poe is said to have knocked on the White House door to discuss a government job with President John Tyler. He did meet with the president, though he, Poe, was drunk and the appointment did not ensue. Can you imagine a drunken poet knocking on the White House door today, asking to see the president and then seeing him? Well actually, you’d probably have to be a drunken poet to try it. We have made the president into the most important person in the country, with his own fiercely guarded giant mansion, jet plane, fleet of limos and the rest, when in fact he’s just our top bureaucrat. Perhaps we need to believe in an exaggerated importance of leaders for the sake of national identity, but that’s a weakness in the state, not a strength.
I don’t know if we need a second American revolution to bring us back to our original humanistic concepts. Revolutions stray notoriously far from their stated intentions. We’d probably end up deifying the people who led the charge, analogous to encasing the likeness of secularist Jefferson in a pantheon.
Would it be too much to hope, though, that an American president now and then could personally dispense with the excessive trappings and just do his job? Of course, the downside might be that if he were at all successful we’d probably deify him.
Doug Lasken is a retired L.A. high school English teacher and freelancer. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org