Oh, earnest Washington. Pious Washington. Somber, serious, nerdy Washington. Here we go again, celebrating a do-gooder vision of ourselves, creating a monument to -- this time -- volunteerism!
Los Angeles (aloof and name-droppy) gets the glitter. It gets stars on the sidewalk. It gets to celebrate creativity and romance and glamour: Frank Sinatra, the Lone Ranger, Diana Ross, Charlize Theron.
Atlantic City (insecure and breast-taped) gets kitsch and blows it up, life-size: On Miss America Way, outside the Sheraton Atlantic City Convention Center Hotel, tourists get to photo-op, stepping under a crown held high by a bronzed Bert Parks. "There she is," he croons, a hidden sensor setting off his recorded voice. "Miss America."
But Washington? Washington gets sidewalk medallions that look like manhole covers, lecturing virtue and masquerading as monuments. They've been installed along 15th and G streets NW. Twenty of America's greatest volunteers have so far been memorialized, including Frederick Douglass ("a key architect of the movement that ended slavery, the very institution into which he was born," as his plaque says) and Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, who tells those pausing long enough to read: "You must never so much think as whether you like it or not . . . you must never think of anything except the need and how to meet it."
Someday, the Extra Mile will form a rectangle, stretching from 15th to 11th streets and along F and G, and will show off 70 medallions honoring great Americans known for "their caring and personal sacrifice," citing "the essential role" that "charity and volunteering have played" in American history.
But yesterday, the mile was still being dedicated. It was a typically Washingtonian ceremony, involving a former president (George H.W. Bush), a former first lady (Barbara Bush), and an institution of the media-political complex (Cokie Roberts).
Also being celebrated in spirit were those at the often-unlandscaped fringes of society: volunteers who help tattooed-teen runaways study for the GED, who get platform-heeled prostitutes tested for AIDS, who ladle soup in a kitchen for the homeless -- volunteers who are, in short, continuing the work of plaque-honorees such as Harriet Tubman, who led 300 slaves through the Underground Railroad to freedom, and Cesar Chavez, a farm worker who fought for migrants' rights by helping found the United Farm Workers of America.
Yet those dingy realities were nowhere near the dark-suited and crudite-catered pomp and circumstance of yesterday's ceremony. As still-living plaque honorees, their families, descendants of other honorees and corporate sponsors squeezed into the gilded, chandeliered and mirrored ballroom of the Willard Inter-Continental Hotel, the Washington speeches droned on.
Finally, Bush spoke. The Extra Mile, he said, proved that "greatness and goodness are not relegated to the history books," at which point everyone filed outdoors to see an explanatory plaque set into the sidewalk and hear another round of speeches. At last, Roberts, as master of ceremonies, looked to Bush to give a final round of words. He shook his head and waved his hands no. He had nothing more to say. He was ready to get going.
Barbara Bush was looking for the limo.