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Jack Smith

From the Vietnam Memorial to Abe Lincoln, with malice toward none, with charity for all

November 13, 1986|JACK SMITH

When we first approached the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., it seemed inadequate; almost trivial.

As everyone perhaps knows, it is simply a long wall on which are engraved the names of every American killed in that tragic war.

It stands in a dell, and at first, from the nearby Lincoln Memorial, it is invisible. When one first comes alongside it, the wall is lower than one's knees.

Gradually the wall begins to rise in height; finally it soars, higher than one's head, and one senses the massive weight of all those names, every one an individual human being--a man who left family, girlfriend, dog, job, hopes and life itself behind to die wretchedly in an alien jungle. . . .

. . . Samuel J. Izzard, James C. Reed, George K. Golden, Michael Miranda, Bruce E. Johnson, Bradley W. Klukas, Jessie C. Alba, Roger D. Williams. . . .

A middle-aged man in a major's uniform was looking here and there for names. He found one, and he wept. A young woman knelt before the wall, using a pencil to rub a name onto a piece of paper. Beyond the wall a small tree's foliage had burst into gold.

For the men whose names were on the wall the rhythm of the seasons was no more.

We left the wall and climbed the steps to the Lincoln Memorial. I had seen it two or three times before. I am not comfortable with tombs and memorials, but the great statue of the seated Abe has always moved me. I know the Gettysburg Address, but this time I read the graven inscription of Lincoln's entire second inaugural address, the one that ends: "With malice toward none, with charity for all. . . ."

And once again I was moved by the simplicity, force and emotional appeal of Lincoln's prose. As one biographer has said, "Mastery of the language may have been that ultimate factor without which he would have failed."

The only appointment we had in Washington was for a VIP tour of the FBI at 10:15 Wednesday morning. As suggested in a guidebook, I had telephoned Sen. Alan Cranston's office in Los Angeles to ask if he could book us on a VIP tour of the White House. His office called back to say that the White House was booked up, but they could get us into the FBI. I told them I was going to vote for the senator, but there was nothing they could do.

So at 10 a.m. on Wednesday we turned up at the FBI. A man checked our names off a list and said, "Yes. Sen. Cranston." We were subjected to the usual security check and, much to my astonishment, my wife rang the bell.

It turned out to be her metal necklace; a harmless offense; but it gave us a moment's anxiety. No one wants to ring the FBI's bell.

We were led with our party through the FBI headquarters, looking through big windows at the technicians at work. One woman was painstakingly scraping the detritus from a red rag onto a paper-covered table. The rag gave up an astonishing scatter of debris, which she then scraped into a small pile, scooped up and poured off into a container. So grind the wheels of justice.

Ford's Theater was only a block from the FBI, so we went to see where Lincoln had been shot. The theater has been restored, and the box in which Lincoln sat is draped with the flag as it was that night. Somehow being at the scene made Booth's treacherous act seem all the more real and wicked.

The house where Lincoln died, across the street, is also open to the public, but that day it was closed. I would like to have stood in that small room to imagine the great President expiring. Is it true that someone said, "Now he belongs to the ages."? I have an idea that historians make those things up.

We took the subway to the Pentagon. I don't know why, but unlike the New York City subways, which are covered with graffiti, the Washington subway has none. Not a mark. Someone told us the reason was that the subway does not go to the poorer neighborhoods, but I doubt that.

At the Pentagon subway station we signed up for a tour and were assembled with a group and led, like recruits, into that awesome five-sided labyrinth. Our leader was a young Air Force enlisted man. Built like a linebacker. About 6 feet 3 and 220 pounds. As we trooped through windowless halls, looking mostly at portraits of generals, admirals and military secretaries, he alleviated his own boredom by making corny jokes about the superiority of the Air Force and Texas.

From windows on the interior walls of the Pentagon we looked down into the five-acre, five-sided courtyard, in which, our guide said, the Pentagon's 23,000 employees sometimes take lunch and otherwise seek escape from their incarceration. It looked like a prison yard.

A leaflet listed the awesome statistics: The Pentagon sits on 29 acres of land in a surrounding of 583 acres; it has 67 acres of parking space; its floor area is 6,546,360 square feet; each outer wall is 921 feet in length; its total cost, on completion in January, 1943, was $83 million.

We passed the office doors of numerous undersecretaries, deputy secretaries, assistant chiefs of staff and lesser figures, and I had a feeling that the building contained an unrelenting struggle for power.

I was glad when our hourlong tour ended and we were back in the subway.

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