Longtime D.C. resident and novelist Buckley (No Way to Treat a First Lady, 2002, etc.) turns his wry gaze on our nation’s monuments and museums, ostensibly leading four walking tours of major sights.
Our first tour begins in Union Station, runs through the Capitol Building and on to a good number of museums on the Mall. Along with a tidy summary of the original vision and prickly personality of city designer Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the reader gets a general history of the Capitol, and extended practical advice on how best to tour the West Wing of the National Gallery of Art. A swing through the National Air and Space Museum cues Buckley to reminisce about the day when, as a lowly speechwriter flying on Air Force Two, he was accidentally handed Vice President Bush’s list of top-secret nuclear code words. Detours such as these are what make the book. One particularly memorable digression chronicles the misfortune of a stone donated by Pope Pius IX toward the completion of the Washington Monument; a posse from the Know-Nothing party tossed the “fiendish ‘Pope Stone’ ” into the Potomac. Tour two leads the reader through the great monuments and discusses the scuttlebutt behind the erection of each and every one, from Washington to Lincoln with stops in between at the Vietnam Veterans, Korean Veterans, FDR, and Jefferson memorials. The third walk takes a short jaunt through Lafayette Square, former front lawn of the White House, to Ford’s Theater, which prompts a short, moving report on the night Lincoln died. Continuing that somber note, the final tour visits Arlington National Cemetery, where Buckley’s patriotic verve gets plenty of room to move.
As much a love letter as we’re ever likely to get from an author who usually prefers satire to sentiment.