One of the unique benefits I have as a DC tour guide, is not only seeing and experiencing the monuments, memorials, museums, etc. through my own eyes, but through those of countless visitors I usher around our fair city. I get to meet a good cross section of Americans (and occasionally foreign guests) and I am perennially fascinated by their reactions, by what we hold in common, and by what we take in differently.
While stereotypes abound, and generalizations are easy to come by, most groups, no matter their background, tend to oooh and ahhh at the same points; get bored with the same things, and be struck emotionally at the same time. I particularly enjoy using my visitors viewpoints to judge the success and failure of the architects, sculptors, and other artists whose works dot the Mall. After all, as you learn in the first week of economics, value is determined by what someone will pay for an item, not what experts claim it is. Through the eyes of my thousands of visitors I can judge the value of these works far better than august Planning Commissions, Institutes of Architects, boards, critics, and even my own personal judgment. If the masses get it, it works. If they are left scratching their heads, it failed. Art, to me, is only successful if it evokes an emotion; and I'm privileged to get to see how many people react to the same thing.
I mention all this, because our last stop on this little tour, the Lincoln Memorial is by far the most successful of all the Presidential monuments, using the above definition. My hat's off to Daniel Chester French, the sculptor of Lincoln in the Memorial. Theoretically, my objections to the Jefferson Memorial should apply to the Lincoln. It's just a big statue of a guy in a neoclassical temple. But it's not the same at all, and that is entirely a result of the artistry of French in creating a work that captures some of the weight that Lincoln wore about him like a cloak.
It's all the more impressive in that there is no surprise as to what you're going to see. Everyone is ready for it. You've seen him in movies, in pictures, in history books, and countless other bits of our collective zeitgeist. And if somehow you have not, just flip over a penny or a five dollar bill, and there he is. But still, despite my visitors familiarity, Lincoln still evokes a reaction as they walk up to him.
And the walk is part of the experience. As you walk up the 57 steps (of no significance, by the way), you are ascending as if you are a supplicant. But the statue is not heroic (in the classic sense). He's not triumphant; he is, if anything, resigned to his fate. Martyrdom, sacrifice, satisfaction, sorrow, wisdom, and a dozen other thoughts share space in his face. I've seen it hundreds of times, and it still hits me, in a way that sculptures of equal significance do not.
Besides the pilgrimage portion of your visit, you'll want to take the time to explore the rest of the Memorial. On the ground level there is a nice little museum, elevators (for the handicapped, you lazy bastards!), and the ever important restrooms. You may want to spend a minute reading the Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address. Sure, you've read them before, but they make more sense here. You'll also want to find the exact spot Martin Luther King gave his "I have a dream" speech. And finally, despite the Park Service's linguistic contortions, there IS a misspelled word in the first paragraph of the Second Inaugural. So, with high hope for the euture, I leave you to find it.