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Pages From U.S. History Are Displayed in Capital

February 08, 1987|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

WASHINGTON — Mark the dates of Sept. 13-17 on your calendar of possible travels this year.

These are the dates of the 87-hour vigil that will be a first-time event in our nation's capital. It will also be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for visitors to Washington, the climax of the Bicentennial year of the U.S. Constitution.

The original copies of the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights have their permanent home here in the Rotunda of the National Archives building. In the case designed for the preservation and viewing of these priceless documents there is normally room only for two pages of the Constitution.

But during the 87-hour vigil all four pages will be on display around the clock alongside the other two foundation documents of our democracy. The ending of the vigil on Sept. 17 will celebrate the date the Constitution was signed in Philadelphia in 1787.

The vigil's goal is to allow thousands of visitors to view the entire Constitution. After the vigil, only two pages will again be on display.

Honor Guard

There will be a military honor guard in the Rotunda during the vigil. There will also be band concerts, speakers, dramatic re-enactments and other events.

Since October the circular gallery around this centerpiece of the three documents has presented a 26-case display called "The American Experiment: Creating the Constitution." An additional display, "Living With the Constitution," will begin April 10, with 247 original documents, drawings and three audio-visual viewing stations.

It will carry the story up to contemporary times, including the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the War Powers Act of 1973.

There will also be such documents as Charles A. Lindbergh's coming out in support of the war effort on Dec. 14, 1941. Another exhibit will show why Susan B. Anthony could never again be indicted as she was in 1873 because as "a person of the female sex" she had in her election district "knowingly, wrongfully and unlawfully" voted.

Symposiums, lectures and films dealing with the Constitution will be presented every week at the National Archives through September. The major Bicentennial exhibitions will be kept on display into 1988 and 1989, covering the period 200 years ago when the Constitution was ratified by the states and George Washington became the first President.

Former Chief Justice Warren Burger resigned from the U.S. Supreme Court last summer at age 79 to be chairman of the national Bicentennial committee.

Blanketing the Nation

There are plans to blanket the nation with more than 50 million copies of the Constitution. "It's like the morning after Pearl Harbor," Burger said recently. "People from all over the country are coming to join up. . . ."

Washington area hotels are bringing schedules of Bicentennial events to the attention of their guests. The historic and recently renovated Willard Inter-Continental was the setting for the reception and dinner at which Burger and his committee launched the Bicentennial year in September, at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.

Julia Ward Howe wrote the words to "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" while staying at the Willard. Presidents including Pierce, Fillmore and Abraham Lincoln were Willard guests. As President-elect, Lincoln was taken secretly into the Willard to protect him from a rumored assassination attempt. He later held staff meetings in front of the lobby fireplace.

My wife Elfriede and I have been at the Willard for a few days while getting the feel of the Constitution's Bicentennial year.

Guests such as Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Daniel Webster and generations of congressional leaders who stayed in this hotel all had their own views of democracy under the U.S. Constitution. Mark Twain would build up his audience of admirers by walking the Willard's Peacock Alley, then circling quickly around the building to walk it twice again.

A Short Walk

The White House, the National Archives, the National Press Building, the national museums and Capitol Hill are only short walks away.

Returning for dinner under the chandeliers in the ruby, gold and velvet tones of the Willard Room, we read what Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote when he was here as a Civil War correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly:

"This hotel, in fact, may be more justly called the center of Washington than either the Capitol, the White House or the State Department. You exchange nods with governors of sovereign states; you elbow illustrious men, and tread on the toes of generals; you hear statesmen and orators speaking in their familiar tones . . . until your identity is lost among them."

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