Here's what no one ever expects about Washington—it's breathtakingly beautiful. Even for people like me who have spent most of our lives here, some burst of blossom will stop me, remind me of how much this place pleases the eye. Tourists come here anticipating an educational experience, not an aesthetic one. It's the monuments of marble that draw millions of visitors each year to witness the workings of government and hear about the happenstances of history. Wary of what it's like inside the nefarious beltway, they come almost out of duty, grimly determined to see the Capitol and the White House and the Supreme Court because somehow they "should."
Yet even inattentive visitors can't help but notice the view of the National Cathedral, looking like a real-life Impressionist painting, the minute they get situated in a cab at the airport. When I collect friends, I love to hear the gasps of delight as we drive up the Potomac River in springtime, taking in the dogwood trees dotting the hillsides of Arlington Cemetery, cherry blossoms surrounding the Jefferson Memorial, tulips standing guard at Memorial Bridge. Even in the dead of winter when only a few sturdy pansies keep alive the memory of the spring and summer's profusion, there's a gentleness to the landscape that tempers the grandeur of the seat of government.
Alas, Washington has not escaped the blight of ugly glass boxes that mar most American cities, but here they are blessedly short. A height limit prevents buildings from hovering ominously over ant-size pedestrians, no caverns of skyscrapers block out the sun. And the broad boulevards of the original design that seemed so ludicrous in the swampy town of the early 19th century now afford a sense of space, provide breathing room. You never feel cramped and constricted in Washington. Even with all its trappings of officialdom, everything here is built on a human scale.
That's appropriate for the Capital City of the New World, where "Here the people govern" is painted above the doorways in the Capitol, the building that serves as the symbol of the American experiment, its dome recognizable throughout the Earth. Because first my father and then my mother served in Congress, I grew up in the Capitol, so the building has never seemed strange or solemn to me. What interests me is how newcomers feel so comfortable there, how familiar it seems to them. After all, how many times have they seen it on TV?
But here's the part we who cover the shenanigans under the dome don't talk about much: No matter how many debates we've heard, stakeouts we've suffered through, how many times we've seen that dome, it's still a thrill. When I walk out of the Capitol in the early evening and see its white, white magnificence set against the deep blue sky, I get goose bumps. Like the flowers, it never fails to move me with its beauty—and its meaning.
COKIE ROBERTS who covers politics, Congress, and public policy for ABC News, is co-anchor of This Week with Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts.
2016 National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest
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