I brought seven notebooks on this trip. (This trip is my trip to Washington, and it’s not so much of a trip as a sojourn, and it’s not so much of a sojourn as a study abroad.) But apparently seven notebooks is not enough space to take down all of my thoughts, so here are a few. I expect there will be a few more soon.
There’s a fantastic essay from Michael Kirby’s A Private Life that stuck with me long after I read it. He tells the story of visiting the town of Fairmount, Indiana; it’s a pilgrimage to the birthplace of James Dean and one of the many little journeys we all take on our search for meaning. For Kirby, James Dean had awoken something in him when he was young, something that never went back to sleep again. I felt almost in this vein visiting Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidential library back in December. For me, the essence of the American presidency has always been a marvel, has always made America something of a shiny city on a hill, as it were. I make my way to the library the morning after I arrive in the US for this adventure I’ve thrown myself into.
(The nomenclature is important. If I continue to use the word adventure, rather than any of the other adjectives that spring to mind – words like insanity, Quixotic jaunt, aimless quest – it makes me feel grounded and with a sense of purpose. Or, at least, I tell myself it does, and then I believe it, for the most part.)
The trip to the library, in Hyde Park, is a mark in and of itself of commitment. I make my way to the subway in Grand Central Station, near my hotel – the hotel room I wake up in has a king sized bed in it, and consequently is mostly just comprised of the bed, but that’s fine – and travel to Penn Station, where I buy an Amtrak ticket. After getting slightly lost, possibly more than once, and permitting myself a giggle at the fact that I’m taking the 69, I find the queue to board the train. The trip takes an hour and a half, and in that time I manage to congratulate myself multiple times for having navigated to the station and onto the train successfully.
(Congratulating oneself for doing things that literally anyone could do appears to be a vital tool for the upkeep of my mental health, or so I’m finding. I wonder if it’s a consequence of living in another country, where simple everyday things occur as a consequence of an entirely different set of actions and decisions, so public transport and eating a meal become Herculean feats of strength and ingenuity.)
I find a taxi at Poughkeepsie station, and take the trip up to the library. It was the first to be built, and the only one to be used by the sitting president as an office during his tenure. FDR would never see the library after retiring, as he never did retire, instead dying in office in 1945. I ponder as I make my way in that a president who was elected to four terms – and none of them in his best health – was probably not going to leave the White House in any vehicle other than a hearse. I ponder this, and the departure of presidents more generally, as I note the framed photograph of the current president on the wall of the ticket booth in the main entrance.
There’s the usual film at the start of the trip through, which provides context that I was already aware of. I sit alone in the theatre and watch it; it’s a rather cold day, and out of the way, so the complex isn’t exactly bursting with visitors. A few more show up, and we are toured through the house where Roosevelt grew up, and then left to our own devices in the museum and library building.
For me, presidential libraries are not about learning. Presidential libraries are hagiography, modern day temples to men who play at being gods. He signed the Civil Rights Act, He took the United States into war, He brought freedom to the Middle East, with the power of His voice, He lifted up a nation. A museum devoted to a president is not a place of learning, it is a compliment with touch screens and artefacts and sometimes oddly low ceilings. And, by and large, I have loved every single one I’ve visited.
My devotion to the presidential libraries made this trip something approximating a pilgrimage. I had something of a notion of myself as intrepid, seeking out these temples to the divine in such exotic locales Kansas and Arkansas and Michigan and California. But odes to men, real men with dimensions and flaws, do not draw pilgrims. They draw tourists, looking to see something, to read a bit, to get the stamp. That is what I am. The past is a foreign country. So is this one.
So I get the stamp in my passport at the gift shop and borrow the library’s wifi to call an Uber back to the train station. The trip back feels longer, as though I am realising with every minute that brings me closer to New York City that I’m going to have to do this every day for two weeks, finding a reason to get up and head out and do.
(I will be mostly successful. Barring Christmas Day, the day I went downstairs to have breakfast in the morning, watched The West Wing on Netflix, and ate nothing but ice-cream flavoured jellybeans of which I did not have enough to sustain myself, of course.)
I return to my hotel room, promise myself I will not fall asleep, fall asleep at five in the afternoon, wake up four hours later, don’t go back to sleep. I have missed dinner. (I miss dinner the next night as well, and have technically missed dinner for the last two consecutive nights, so by the time I get to Saturday dinner is a myth, and every time I use the word I suspect it comes across slightly reverential.)
But hey, there’s another stamp in my passport.