The year was 1973. I was fresh out of college, idealistic and impatient to make my mark on the world. For all the protests back then, even Republicans believed in government and its power to provide liberty and justice for its people. So like countless other young people, I went to Washington to lend a hand, working for a consumer group and sharing a crumbling house with other meagerly paid interns.
Like everyone in town, I was fascinated by the year’s central drama – Watergate. Daily scoops by two young Washington Post reporters – Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein – slowly revealed that a “third-rate” break-in at the offices of the Democratic National Committee was part of a vast system of political dirty tricks. Those disclosures ultimately led to the indictments of 40 administration officials and the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
I went to Washington again last week to visit family and see how the city is dealing with another president under siege. As in 1973, the Washington Post reports daily on the missteps and frustrations of President Trump. Congress is once more distracted from the business of governing and calculating how this young, disruptive presidency will play with voters back home.
But Washington is a city of history, packed with marble monuments, plaques and busloads of middle-schoolers roaming between museums and food courts. Thanks to them, I thought less about the latest tweets and headlines than about the lessons from other troubled times. In the new National Museum of African-American History and Culture, I pictured black college students sitting at lunch counters, being cursed and spat upon for asserting their right to eat hamburgers. I learned about thousands of slaves risking their lives by rushing toward the advancing Union Army and volunteering to fight in an army that paid them less than their white peers.
At the hilltop cottage where the Lincolns spent summers during his presidency, I imagined President Lincoln, heavy with the death of his boy Willie and the terrible weight of the Civil War, riding his horse each day to the White House. Yet when British visitors stopped by the cottage late one evening, he greeted them with a smile and a question: “What do you think of our great country?” Even in the midst of secession and fratricide, he saw the nation’s greatness.
Looking back, history often looks inevitable, the product of powerful men’s wisdom, greed or foolishness. But lunch counters and slave uprisings reminded me that a million individual choices nudge it this way or that each day. And so for half an hour, I stood across from the White House with my sister holding signs to protest President Trump’s policies. A Japanese tourist snapped a picture. The draperies in the East Room didn’t stir. The men guarding the grounds looking unconcerned. But when the history of this time is written, I and all those who have been stirred to greater activism will be a part of it.