When Barack Obama mounts the podium to take the oath and deliver his inaugural address, when he looks out upon the National Mall and hundreds of thousands of bright and hopeful faces, he will see so much more: the symbols of a nation forever struggling to live up to its promise.
Start first with that memorial to the first president, the 555-foot Washington Monument. In his first inaugural address, George Washington famously called the United States a great experiment in democracy — a nod to the Founders' belief that this was a work in progress. The preamble to the Constitution sets the nation's sights on "a more perfect union."
Imperfect, indeed. That same Constitution counted slaves as three-fifths a person in considering apportionment for the U.S. House. And many of the Founders, including Washington himself, owned slaves.
"In this sense, our nation is still an experiment," said historian Paul Boller, author of a book on presidential inaugurations. "In other words, we haven't reached a level of perfection but we have grown."
Symbols of that growth litter the District of Columbia landscape. From Obama's perch at the west end of the Capitol, the new president will see steel-and-stone reminders of how the United States has evolved in good times and bad — through wars, recessions and the sort of wrenching social change we endure today.
There, directly in Obama's line of sight, is the World War II Memorial — a monument as much to the so-called Greatest Generation as to the war itself, a testament to how America rebounded from the Great Depression to build a mighty middle class and win the Cold War.
A bit farther west, hidden by a thicket of trees, lies the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. Not since FDR has a president entered the Oval Office with so many pressing worries.
In his first inaugural address, Roosevelt sought a veritable blank check from Congress to respond to the Great Depression. "I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis — broad executive power to wage war against the emergency as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe," Roosevelt said.
With speed that Roosevelt would envy, Congress is on its way to giving Obama such power — a $350 billion infusion of bailout cash is already in hand, and an $825 billion stimulus package is on the fast track.
"Obama's view will be more than just monuments because, to paraphrase (author William) Faulkner, history is not in the past. It's still with us," said historian John Baick of Western New England College in Springfield, Mass. "It will certainly be with us on Inauguration Day when we hear the echoes of the Civil War. When we hear echoes of the New Deal. When we hear echoes of slavery and civil rights."
Now, follow Obama's gaze to the north — to the White House. Consider the fact that Washington planner Pierre L'Enfant rented slaves from nearby owners to dig its foundation. White House designer James Hoben used some of his slave carpenters to build his icon to democracy.
Slaves helped build the Capitol, too.
And the ground upon which those multitudes will gather to hear Obama's address? The National Mall was the location of some of the most infamous slave markets in the East.
When Obama looks straight ahead, deep into the western horizon, he'll see the highest reaches of Arlington National Ceremony. The land belonged to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee until 1864, when Brig. Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs seized it for use as a military cemetery. Meigs' intention was to render the house uninhabitable should the Lee family ever attempt to return.
At the opposite end of the Mall from Obama stands the Lincoln Memorial — a "temple," says its inscription, to honor the nation's Great Emancipator. Carved in the chamber's north wall is Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address, the war's-end call to heal the nation's wounds "with malice toward none, with charity for all ... ."
But will Obama pause to consider Lincoln's first inaugural address, a politically pragmatic but hardly courageous attempt to hold the union together by dodging the slavery issue? In fact, Lincoln affirmed his obligation to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law, even reading it and insisting it would be enforced like any other part of the Constitution.
"I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists," Lincoln said. Eighteen months would pass before he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the death knell for slavery.
Five score years later, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and called the Emancipation Proclamation a "great beacon light of hope" for blacks.
"But 100 years later, the Negro still is not free," King said in his 1963 address. "One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination."
A generation later, we remember another line from King's speech that speaks to America's promise. "I have a dream," he said, "that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: `We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'"