by Libby Hellmann
I grew up in Washington (yes, in the city itself), so I never saw it as a tourist destination. Nor did I give much thought to the patriotism and symbolism its monuments evoked. I played and fought with kids from Lebanon, Morroco, and Rhodesia, whose embassies were on my block. I went to the White House for tea… smoked my first cigarette behind the Capitol… my first joint at the Lincoln Memorial. I demonstrated against the war on the Mall and sold underground newspapers on the streets of Georgetown. I worked at PBS and was probably the only person in the country to watch the Watergate hearings twice a day. I met people who only wanted to talk to me because they wanted air time, and I only talked to them because I wanted a story.
Before 1960, though, DC was a sleepy Southern town. Congress left in June and didn’t dare return until mid-September. Summers were hot and humid – DC is literally built on a swamp -- and it was segregated. There were separate water fountains for “Whites” and “Negroes.” But it was a safe city, and I took the bus or the streetcar or my bike all over town. There was an Easter egg roll on the White House lawn every spring, and if you looked carefully, you might spot Ike or Mamie smiling at the kids.
That changed when JFK was inaugurated. Overnight Washington became a glittering, sophisticated mecca. The Kennedys infused the town with excitement and hope and youth. You knew from the beginning, when Robert Frost read a poem at the Inaugural, when Kennedy asked what we could do for our country, that things were going to be different.
Which might have been why my mother took me to Kennedy’s inaugural parade. Traditionally, native Washingtonians never go near politically staged events. We know better. But my mother made an exception this time. I think she knew that Kennedy's election was a watershed event. I remember taking the bus down to Pennsylvania Avenue and standing on the sidewalks in the cold with the crowd. Since I was a kid, people let me through to the front – there was no phalanx of police then -- and I had a first-rate view of the procession. I remember the President’s car slowly passing -- it was a convertible – and how it seemed to stop as it came abreast of us. I jumped up and down, waving and shouting, and to this day I was sure Mrs. Kennedy looked directly at me and smiled.
For over forty years I never went to – or wanted to go -- another inauguration. The pageantry just wasn’t very meaningful. Until yesterday. I found myself wishing I could have taken my own kids down to Pennsylvania Avenue. It would have been tough to get through security, stand for hours in bitter cold, endure the lack of facilities. But the opportunity for a glimpse of history, to bear witness to another watershed event, would have been worth it.
What did you think of yesterday?