MIRROR IMAGES Tourist Washington monuments ‘show us back to us'

The 32nd president stares resolutely from his wheelchair, cast in the kind of immortal bronze reserved for the leaders we remember as distant paragons of national virtue. Yet something seems … amiss.

He is at eye level: man, not god; among us, not above. Then there are the thighs, their metal worn down to a shade lighter than the rest of the statue. A schoolgirl runs up and reveals why. She clambers onto the statue and, ready for a photo op, takes a seat.

These days in Washington – the carefully planned capital of grand avenues and stone giants named Lincoln and Jefferson and Washington – you can sit on Franklin D. Roosevelt's lap. Anyone can.

When the nation was new, its founders designed their capital as a blank canvas that would become America's formal foyer – physical embodiment of the lofty principles that had been deployed to unite a new kind of country.

And so the city grew, and the visitors came. Awaiting them today, as Charles Osgood puts it in a tourist-bureau vanity film shown a few yards from the White House, is no less than “the skyline of the American experience, where the stones tell the stories of the American dream.”

But along the way, as America grew, something strange happened to Washington. The showpiece came alive.

The granite, the marble, the Doric columns receded, and We, the People, became the point. The history we dished up to ourselves became about not just Lincoln in the sky above us but FDR in a chair in front of us, his fatherly lap available for mass reassurance.

The iconic

“It's hard to be a cynic here,” says Debbie Cowell, a retired Army aircraft worker from Hays, Kan. It is a warm evening just after dusk, and she is sitting on one of the lower steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

In her glasses are reflected the Washington Monument and the oblong pool that separates it from the Lincoln Memorial – the centerpieces of Tourist Washington. Her eyes are moist behind the lenses. “When I come here,” Cowell says, “I feel cleansed.”

She is almost whispering. Around her, everything is abuzz.

Walk through the crowds and hear Japanese, German, Spanish, Chinese. Hear Canadian railroad worker Stan Bell, who says of our iconic monuments: “I think you guys do it the best.”

In the school year's final weeks, buses pull up to the Lincoln Memorial and disgorge kids in matching T-shirts touting high schools from across the U.S. Teachers hold aloft plastic light sabers, trying to wrangle flocks of class-trippers. Says one high-schooler to another: “It's just like going to a rock concert.”

Behind this veneer, though, gravitas lurks. The acolytes might be giggling teenagers, but it is a pilgrimage nonetheless. As it is for so many.

We come in our buses, our minivans, our trains. We sweat in queues for monuments to show ourselves what it means to be an American. We convince ourselves that our shiny best is actually our reality, and sometimes we're right. And we go home with our patriotism reinvigorated.

But Tourist Washington has changed since your grandparents' day. It is more human, more accessible. And much of it is because of American patriotism's more gimlet-eyed twin brother, capitalism. New markets, new ideas.

“Each generation has their monuments,” says Mike O'Connor, a former social-studies teacher from Sudbury, Mass., visiting Washington on a recent afternoon. “The newer ones are not designed to show power over the people,” he says, restraining his pair of golden retrievers from sniffing FDR's knees. “They're designed to show us back to us.”

Seeking meaning

“How do you spell Hitler?” asks the schoolgirl, holding her class quiz sheet and standing in front of FDR at Yalta during World War II. “H-I-L-T-E-R,” responds her classmate.

No one corrects her. They have already run off to ascend a series of enormous blocks splayed around the memorial with words like “hate” and “war” etched upon them. Try climbing on the Lincoln Memorial or the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

The FDR memorial, dedicated by President Clinton in 1997, reflects the intimacy of modern Tourist Washington better than anywhere else, and not just because he sits in the wheelchair so steadfastly hidden during his life.

The place is laid out as a labyrinth of rooms that propel visitors through time but do not permit them to see ahead – just like real life. It is an honest monument, depicting external enemies like Hitler but also the enemies within. In one nook, somber, broken men stand in line waiting for bread; nearby, a slumped couple sit glumly outside their dust-bowl shack.

We see the bumps, scars and pimples of FDR and his epoch – things lacking in the Lincoln Memorial, where the only intended imperfection is the mole on Lincoln's face.

The most telling diorama excludes Roosevelt entirely. It is a statue of a man sitting in a wooden chair, leaning forward, ear cocked toward the radio listening to one of FDR's famed fireside chats. Roosevelt himself is only implied, and he speaks not to us but through us – just like the names on the Vietnam Wall and the servicemen of the Korean War and Iwo Jima monuments.

FDR wanted his memorial to be life-sized, no bigger than his desk. He got his wish in spirit, if not in fact.

The fragmented world we have built has, by necessity, changed the capital as well. Once conceived as a grand whole, it has grown into the sum of its parts, not unlike the loose confederation of colonies from which the country sprung.

Fifty years ago, we had a few channels on TV and a few must-see places in Washington. Today we have the Internet, hundreds of channels and a capital that reflects the marketplace it serves. And just like it got harder to sell soap, it gets harder to sell U.S. history to the Wii generation if you don't change with the times.

At the Jefferson Memorial, classicism reigns. A 19-foot statue of the third president towers over visitors, and quiet contemplation prevails. Near the entrance, a sign warns: “Respect, please.” Barely a mile away, the kids are running around and climbing on the FDR memorial as park rangers watch approvingly.