A television crew from Boston sat me down in Western Plaza this week (good gale blowing) and asked me what was so wonderful about Washington.
Uh. Well. Uh.
"Why do visitors come to Washington?" the TV reporter asked.
Well, that was easy. They come because it's the capital. No doubt a number of them arrive to promote their new improved toilet seats that cost far less than the going price. Others come to confer with the 398,746 former Cabinet members, high military figures, authorities on fossils of the Jurassic, specialists on Surinam and experts at refurbishing stuffed elephants when the hide starts to peel off.
But most, surely, come to see the monuments and museums, and especially to inspire their kids, who are faithfully dragged about pleading for a hamburger.
Clever fathers begin at the Washington Monument, dispatching the youngsters up the stairs with the assurance it is tremendous fun. When the tots descend they are tractable as a rule and quite willing to sit quietly for a time on a bench in the National Gallery.
"But what do visitors miss, that old-timers love about Washington?" the gimlet-eyed reporter demanded.
Well. Uh, there is Great Falls. People go to the Dordogne to see wild scenery and it's nothing to Great Falls. In mid-July you can ride a canal boat and admire the turtles swimming in the glassy cool translucent wave.
Not many tourists get as far as the Freer, which has the most beautiful objects of any museum in town. Not many seem to yet know about the National Building Museum in the Pension Building. Inside the great lobby are the world's largest Corinthian columns. We were challenged once by the Temple of Diana at Ephesus, I believe, but we won. Ours are bigger. Heh heh heh.
"They say people don't go home, once they've worked in Washington," he said.
Well that is God's truth. They have to live somewhere and the charms of Marvell, Ark., fade with the decades, so they stay right here, pouring out of those apartment houses on Connecticut Avenue like lemmings, once the morning rush hour is past.
Which brings us to cherry blossoms. "You mean the cherries are past bloom?" visitors cry every year, except when they cry, "You mean the cherries won't begin to bloom for two weeks?"
Or, if they hit it right (and my recollection is that April 4 is the best average date for the cherries) they whine, "I never saw such a mob in my life. I never thought we'd get out of the Tidal Basin once we got in. Where do all those people come from?"
Some people can take cherry blossoms or leave them alone, like the wife of a Middle East ambassador who told me just before she left town that if she saw one more cherry blossom she'd be sick on the sidewalk.
How gross. That was years ago. No need to take offense.
Nothing is more beautiful than a Tokyo cherry in bloom (the main kind around the Tidal Basin) and few trees rival them in floral beauty. Apart from that they are a royal pain in the neck, with invasive roots so nothing will grow near them, as the people of Kenwood know. The cherries remind me strongly of people who are just sort of wandering around not looking very power-lunchy or important, who on a particular day burst into glory and dive in the river to save Bess Truman, as it were, and we see in a flash that this glory was in them all along and just never had occasion before to blaze forth.
People whine a good bit that the cherries are only in bloom for four days or, with luck, a week, then the earth is solid white with their fallen petals.
You can see samurai swords with five-petaled flowers engraved on them. These are cherry blossoms. Short-lived. I have read the samurais adopted cherries to remind them of their likely fate of having their heads cut off, as the cherry blossoms are glorious of a Wednesday and completely dropped -- rather than faded or withered -- the next time you see them.
Viewing the cherries it is possible to think of people you could readily spare, but decapitation is sadly uncommon amongst us and no matter how hopefully you watch the falling blossoms, the people you could spare keep hanging on. How unfair the world is. Still, every year the cherries fill us with hope.
Not everybody sees the trees with these dark thoughts, though probably Mrs. Taft did, when the Agriculture Department burned the entire first shipment of cherries. They had bugs and things. It hurt Japanese feelings to have all their gifts burnt, but it worked out all right because they sent some fine bug-free specimens later, the ones still blooming around the basin.
Well, they're like life, the cherries. Sometimes too early, sometimes too late, sometimes right on schedule and what a mess in the traffic.
But you see them on a warm day against a puff-sprinkled blue sky and it doesn't make any difference how short they last. One day is enough. Sort of.