A trip to the US capital highlights how this city’s intellectual and creative buzz inspires and entertains the nation’s leaders – and its many visitors
It’s the most exciting day in US politics for years. And nowhere is more buzzing than Washington DC as the whole world waits to hear who will be its most famous resident for the next four years.
More than any other city I can think of – except the Vatican – Washington revolves around one man.
The livelihood of so many of its residents, the vibe on the streets and the view the rest of the world has of DC depends on the president.
It’s an awe-inspiring place to visit at any time. But a trip to the US capital during the election or in the run-up to Inauguration Day in January gives you a chance to reflect on the most powerful man on earth – whoever they may be.
I was there a week ago with today’s vote already too close to call. But while the official polls put Republican Mitt Romney and Democrat Barack Obama at roughly 49% each, Washington has it’s own way of taking the political pulse.
At Topaz Bar you can choose the Obama Home Sweet Home cocktail (made with bourbon, lime, pineapple juice and soda), a tribute to his Hawaiian roots. Or go for the alcohol free Romney Float, in homage to his Mormon faith (root beer, whipped cream, caramel drizzle, kosher salt).
Even the hairdresser a few doors down from our hotel in cool Dupont Circle was running a poll – putting incumbent Obama well ahead, 69 cuts to 16.
But the support for Obama is not a surprise, nor is it just because his cocktail is made with some good, hard liquor. This is a company town – and as our new friend Alicia pointed out, Obama’s expansion of the government has delivered jobs for people here. Jobs they may lose if Romney wins and scales back.
Obama has also been celebrated as that very rare breed – a president who lives in Washington, and not just in the White House.
While his predecessors have been stay-at-homes (well, Lincoln’s night out at Ford’s Theatre was an unfortunate precedent), the Obamas have headed out on their famous ‘date nights’ to the local restaurants. And everywhere they have patronized has thrived.
Some even credit him with causing a nightlife revolution in the city. Whether this is true or not, if you haven’t visited for a while you’ll be impressed by how much more vibrant the scene is now – gay and straight. You can see it in neighborhoods like the one where we stayed in the Dupont Circle or a little further out in Georgetown.
Staying in one of the neighborhoods, as we did at the stylish, comfortable and central Dupont Circle Hotel, is a great way to get under the skin of the city. The hotel has been refurbished at a cost of $52million (â‚¬41million) and the bar was buzzing with cool young people talking politics. Nearby the local bookshops and cafés reflect the charm and intellectual spirit of the city – home to the brightest and the best who are drawn by leading universities as well as jobs in government and media.
But ask not what kind of president you have, or will have. Ask what president you should have. Washington has an answer for that too.
Start in the National Museum of American History, part of Smithsonian, the globally famous sprawling series of museums and galleries that line both sides of the National Mall.
Its exhibition on the American Presidency covers the lives, deaths and work of the incumbents – not to mention offering a glittering display of the First Ladies’ gowns.
And it’s clear from the museum’s ongoing poll that neither Romney nor Obama would stand a chance in an election against their historic rivals – Americans want George Washington back.
Once you’ve covered the history, head back out to the Mall for some inspiration.
There’s no shortage of that inscribed on the memorial to the US’s third president, Thomas Jefferson.
Perhaps if his successor in the White House and the politicians on Capitol Hill remember his plea ‘laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind’ we will soon have same-sex marriage equality in the US.
Each day thousands of Americans and foreign visitors make the pilgrimage to the Lincoln Memorial. And pilgrimage is the right word – as the inscription above his looming, titanic, statue makes clear this is both temple and shrine to his memory. Alongside Washington, he is still rated as the greatest of Obama’s predecessors.
While everyone associates the exterior of the Lincoln Memorial with Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I have a dream speech’, fewer realize that the area around the Reflecting Pool has also been the site of massive LGBT protests.
Nearby war monuments are a reminder of the president’s job as commander-in-chief. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a great gash in the ground. As you walk along the memorial wall, you go down a gentle slope, pulled further into the conflict. Stare at the names etched on the black stone (not actually marble, as I assumed, but volcanic gabbro) and you can dimly see your own reflection in the highly polished surface.
But my favorite of the memorials is round the side of the tidal basin, neighboring the new Martin Luther King Memorial. The tribute to Franklin Delano Roosevelt feels very human and democratic. It’s not a monolithic monument but a series of courtyards, waterfalls and pools. It spans the whole of his presidential history, leading the US through the turmoil of the Great Depression and World War II. But despite the severity of the subject matter, it’s fun, tactile and even romantic.
Of course it’s all very well to admire the great leaders of the past – the reality for people in Washington today is much more uncertain. We met up with Bob, an LGBT marketing guru, for breakfast and he was ‘nervous’. If Romney comes in, many fear the liberties of gay people may be in danger and even the optimists are worried that he ambitions for gay marriage equality will take a battering.
And it really is close. Another friend we saw was Louise, a journo for one of the big national papers – and even with her insight she found it was too close to call a week before the vote. Today it’s still a tight race though there is some evidence to back my insistence that Obama will edge it.
Whatever happens next, it’s going to be a long and exciting night in Washington DC.
For general tourist information, visit the official Washington DC site.