When Dickens, a greater reporter and uneven novelist, first came to Washington, he wrote a scathing description that remained accurate for decades. Of Washington, he said. "It is sometimes called the City of Magnificent Distances, but it might with greater propriety be termed the City of Magnificent Intentions; for it is only on taking a bird'-eye view of it from the top of the Capitol, that one can at all comprehend the vast designs of its projector, an aspiring Frenchman; Spacious avenues that begin in nothing , and lead nowhere; streets, mile-long, that only want houses, roads, and inhabitants; public buildings that need but a public to be complete; and ornaments of great thorough-fares that only lack great thoroughfares to ornament - are its leading features."
I didn't go to the top of the Capitol for my view of the city, but I did take in the scene from my favorite place for an evening drink, the outdoor roof garden of the Washington Hotel. Looking out over the city, you can see some of the old things that have survived - and some of the new that shouldn't.
Twenty years ago government, in its wisdom, was going to destroy some of Washington 's grand-set structures - the graceful old War Department, still the most beautiful of buildings; the old court of Claims across the street, now a fine gallery; the old Post Office, with its turrets and elegant stonemasonry, standing watch on the Avenue midway between Capitol and White House; the rows of splenddi old federal-style homes surrounding Lafayette Square. Thanks to sufficient public protests, these were saved. Over the years, government, in its wisdom, has put up some of the most atrocious buildings in the country - great cold blocs of cement, nco-Reich style, like the FBI headquarters dwarfing the classic Arfchives Building across the street; the collection of massive stone structures at L'Enfant Plaza; the forbidding uglinessof the HUD building, a fitting symbol of the government's efforts at public housing and urban development.
But those are only some signs of the city, physical evidence of both change and continuity. That's not what's important about Washington, just as many of those today do. They deal in the politics of the moment, with what the politicans who rule here are saying, with what Carter or Congress are doing . The greater change over these years has come not from the politicians, but from the people who live here. Certainly the old problems of race and prejudice are with us still in part. But the lessening of tensions, the absence of many of the more malignant expressions of hatred and fear, the newer feeling of tolerance surely represent the real story of change in Washington.
Dickens had a point after all. He just never got to see the magnificent distance we've traveled in so short a period.