Coming Home to Trump’s America: Annapolis to DC

The writer’s Northeast travels between New York, Washington, and New England during spring 2018. In this essay: from Annapolis to Washington, D.C. and Arlington National Cemetery. 

From Centreville, I took back roads to Queenstown and there picked up Route 301 (careening trucks and the SUV politburo) to flow into the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, the second span of which figured prominently in the bribery scandals of Spiro Agnew (who before teaming up with Richard Nixon was governor of Maryland and for whom the 1968 election was literally in the bag).

Across the bay, I stopped for lunch with a friend who works at St. John’s College—that of Robert Hutchins and the great books—and over a Caesar salad in an Applebee’s, I got excited about redoing my undergraduate years in the company of Archimedes (math), Rousseau (psychology), and Theodore Dreiser (commerce).

To find my Airbnb in downtown Washington, I switched on my Swiss cell phone (in support of roaming charges) and guided the car to the correct 3200 block in Northeast. I collected a door key from the landlady and greeted Hamilton and several of her other cats (an occupational hazard with the Airbnb crowd), and then set off for my lawyer’s offices, in McLean, Virginia. There I was due to sign documents updating my wife’s and my wills. (Half of the Balzac novels I have ever read take place in the offices of French notaires.)

To sign away my life took less time than I had planned, which meant that I could explore the area around McLean, which includes Robert Kennedy’s Hickory Hill mansion, the George Herbert Walker Bush “center” of the Central Intelligence Agency, and Vince Foster’s suicide grounds (he was Bill’s and Hillary’s personal lawyer, back in the quaint days when a scandal involved firing some travel agents so that your cronies could keep the miles).

I missed Hickory Hill, and the CIA is not open for house calls. I did stop in Foster’s Fort Marcy Park but found it eerie, in many senses of the word, and left without doing field research. Instead I drove south to Arlington National Cemetery, which in all my trips to Washington (since grade school) I had never visited.

Such are the sign posts around the capital that it took me two passes to find the parking lot at Arlington. On my first try, my phone GPS dumped me at the front gate of a local Navy and Marine Corps barracks, no doubt housing ceremonial troops for the processions of state burials.

At the Arlington visitors hall, I joined the scrum of elementary school kids, there on field trips, but did eventually connect with a computer terminal, in which I could search the marker numbers of the plots that I wanted to visit.

It took a while to track down all of the names—the computer was of the vintage used by small airlines in Africa. In the end I came away with co-ordinates for the markers of Everett Pope, Richard Seamon, and Herbert Merillat—family friends who are buried in Arlington and men I had known well. Then, of course, I wanted to see some of the more celebrated graves, including those of the Kennedy clan and the markers of William Howard Taft, Robert Todd Lincoln, and Medgar Evers (who knew he was here?).

When I presented my list of co-ordinates to a woman on duty at the reception desk, she took out a map of the cemetery and began marking X’s in many of the burial sections. Then she said: “You can’t walk to all of these. It will take forever. Let me get you a car.”

I had told her of my association with the names on my list, and that, she said, qualified me for a free ride out to one of the graves. I thanked her, but decided to walk, as I had three hours until the cemetery closed, and because I had spent the last two days on a plane and in a rental car.

I might miss William Howard Taft (he’s in section 30) or Audie Murphy, but I would be spared a ride on one of those rolling trains so popular at tourist destinations. Only the sultry Washington heat, of the kind that can lead to violent thunderstorms, would keep me from my appointed rounds.

Arlington National Cemetery: Political Burials

Arlington Cemetery was much larger than I expected, and it took me a long time to find the path leading up a steep hill to the house that belonged to the family of General Robert E. Lee—the grounds of which were seized for the cemetery.

According to some biographies, Lee was there on his portico, overlooking the capital at the beginning of the Civil War, when he decided to cast his lot with the Confederacy.

In an interview Roy Blount Jr., an excellent Lee biographer, said of the Confederate general: “Lee fighting against Virginia is unimaginable, but he let down the side. . . by not at least trying to talk Virginia out of seceding, and then by not trying to talk Jefferson Davis out of continuing the war for so long after it was lost.”

Now Arlington House, as it is called, is getting a makeover (gift shop, wheel chair ramps, etc.), and it was closed. I took in the view of the Washington skyline (a beehive of Marine Corps helicopters that were ferrying various Trumps to Walter Reed Hospital, where Melania was to receive kidney treatment), and then walked down the hill to the JFK eternal flame, which is easy to find from the surrounding swarm of school children.

Someone should write “The Politics of the Kennedy Burials,” as it would make fascinating reading. Jack and Jackie are where you would expect to find them, in the A-list plot about halfway up the hill to Arlington House and with an unobstructed view of Washington. (By contrast, Abe’s son Robert Lincoln is in a cul-de-sac.) But President Kennedy’s two brothers, also buried here, are strangely off to the side, as if some Pentagon admin officer had looked up their service records and decided they were not worthy of a choice location.

Neither of the Senator Kennedys is in the company of other family members, nor that close to each other. Perhaps the Pentagon was fearful of the brothers Kennedy, even in death, coming together to thwart their plans for splendid little wars.

It took me more than an hour of walking until I found all the headstones for which I was searching. All had fought with the Marines in World War II—Pope won the Congressional Medal of Honor at Peleliu; Merillat wrote an early account of the battle of Guadalcanal, entitled The Island; and from the air Seamon patrolled the Atlantic for German U-boats. But each were in different sections.

I wasn’t in a particular hurry that afternoon. As long as the thunderstorms held off, I was fine wandering under the tree canopy that covers much of the cemetery, not to mention the graves of Judge Earl Warren and musician Glenn Miller. A walk in Arlington is a stroll across the contours of American history.

On my ramble, I found the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a gate in honor of Civil War General George McClellan (of whom Lincoln said “he’s got the slows”), a cypress tree in remembrance of the 1983 Lebanon Marine Corps barracks bombing, and many roads bearing the names of celebrated American generals and admirals (Patton Drive, Grant Drive, Sheridan Drive, etc.). Fame more than competence dictates who gets a named boulevard or an arch.

Most disheartening of all at Arlington is to come upon the newer sections (awnings for shade during burials mark their spots) and to realize that these are for the war dead from Iraq and Afghanistan, and that adjacent green fields await the victims of future folly.

Trump Über Alles

The next morning, up early with jet lag, I met a friend for coffee at the Hudson Institute. We had worked together in the 1970s and have casually kept in touch ever since. This morning he had said he would be at his desk early, to field some questions about his new book and an article that was being published in the Wall Street Journal.

For my part, I had only on a few occasions ever been inside a Washington think tank. When I heard that this one was only four blocks from the White House, I jumped at the chance of a visit, much as I would have happily rowed ashore with Herman Melville if invited to look over some Pacific atoll in the Marquesas.

By good luck, which saved me about $25, I was able to park my car on the street in front of a meter. From my spot I could also look across at the Trump International Hotel, a building I liked more when it was the Old Post Office—delivering the mail, not hate mail.

I didn’t try to go inside the Trump hotel, which, I am sure, even at this early hour, was crammed with administration sycophants, job seekers, and various remittance men and glad-handers of the Roger Stone-Sean Spicer variety. How else could Ivanka have pocketed $3.9 million in 2017 income from the hotel, if hanging out there was not part of an administration loyalty oath.

Seeing the words Trump International emblazoned along Pennsylvania Avenue, I realized that the President is not an outlier or freebooter—someone as disassociated from American idealism as was Charles Ponzi or Bernard Madoff, his erstwhile peers—but that the name Trump has become an American brand, up there with Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, CVS, and the Real Housewives of Atlantic City (some of whom must have learned the hard way that push favors the dealer).

As a businessman, or even as a brick-and-mortar real estate developer, Trump was a train wreck—leaving behind a string of bankruptcies, looted public companies, and violated pageant contestants. But when he used his HR reality show to rebrand the name Trump (the Kardashians operate on the same model—selling and franchising their names and sexuality for fame and cable millions), the tweaked trademark carried him to glory.

And there was the brand name on the side of the Old Post Office, as if to make the point that Trump’s political good fortune is another by-product of his primetime exhibitionism.

Think Tanking in Washington

The Hudson Institute is located in the 1200 block of Pennsylvania Avenue, in a new office building with a soaring steel-and-glass atrium at its entrance. It has the look of a new air terminal in Porto or Dresden, complete with escalators up to a suspended-in-the-air mezzanine, where I checked in with security. Everything in the lobby was either white or chrome, and the elevators might well have connected the American civilization with the Starship Enterprise.

Beamed up to the sixth floor, I stood for while outside the reception area, ringing various door bells while staring at portraits of benefactors who have contributed to Hudson’s annual budget of about $21 million.

After a while, I was admitted (although not by Senior Vice President Scooter Libby) to what in Harry Potter would be called the Chamber of Secrets—an expansive suite of modern offices and cubicles, worthy of a Fortune 500 law firm, except—and with due respect—all that Hudson produces (to my knowledge) is scholarly articles, brooding policy reports, and Op-ed pieces.

The academic Herman Kahn (author of many unreadable books including Thinking About The Unthinkable) founded the institute in 1961, as a place where subsidized academics could ponder the future of a world with nuclear weapons.

Since he died in the 1980s and after many Hudson staffers swarmed over the gunwales of the Reagan and Bush administrations, it has become a shadow government, where Washington insiders bide their time out of office, waiting for a change in presidential administrations. The Brookings Institution and the Heritage Foundation operate on the same principle (in the manner that Cuban revolutionaries used to hide in the hills).

My friend, while politically conservative, had aligned himself with #NeverTrumpers during the 2016 election, and for that reason he was consigned to think-tank purgatory, despite the presence of a Republican in the White House. He was concentrating on his books and teaching.

I tried to cheer him up by pointing out that very few freelance writers in my world had access to the power and glory of a Skidmore, Owings & Merrill tower and atrium four blocks from the White House. (Most would be grateful for a coffee machine that is somewhat reliable and an accurate spell-check program.)

When he took a call from a radio station eager for an update on the balance of power in the Pacific, I rode the escalators back to planet Alderaan. (In the words of Padmé, in “Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith”: “What if the democracy we thought we were serving no longer exists, and the Republic has become the very evil we have been fighting to destroy?)

Julia Child’s Kitchen

With time to kill before lunch, I parked my rental car on the Mall (in time to watch a procession of mounted police from around the country ride past) and went into the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, where a friend of mine from college is on the curatorial staff.

I had not called or written to say I was in town, and I caught her on a hellish day—with worries about the health of her husband and mother. We kept our visiting to a minimum, but she did tour me rapidly through Julia Child’s kitchen from her house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which has been preserved in one of the museum’s exhibition centers.

Clearly Julia’s kitchen was put together in the 1960s or 70s, when linoleum was the rage. She used the kitchen to prepare her dishes and tape her TV program, and she gave it all, down to the countertops and Mr. Coffee, to the Smithsonian in 2001.

Somehow Julia managed to transform American cooking without access to an “island,” Henrybilt cabinetry, PentalQuartz countertops, a Dornbrach faucet, stools by Overgaard & Dyrman, or any of the other must-have accoutrements that have transformed modern kitchens into surgical operating theaters… and thus ideal for serving take-out.

The Passionate Life and Strange Death of Mary Pinchot Meyer

Still with time before my lunch, I parked the car in Georgetown and climbed a set of dank stairs from near the Potomac River up to the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Canal, to see where the prominent socialite, and JFK lover, Mary Pinchot Meyer, was killed in October 1964.

For some time I have been interested in her story. For many years after World War II, she was married to Cord Meyer, a CIA senior officer, but moved on, painted in her Georgetown studio, and became one of Jack’s lovers in the last year of his life.

The daughter of a prominent and wealthy political family from Pennsylvania, Mary was, by all accounts, an equal to JFK, who she first met when they were both in prep school. Elegant and outspoken, she was also the sister of editor Ben Bradlee’s first wife, Tony, short for Antoinette, and well known in Washington.

Her killing on the C&O Canal towpath has remained yet another mystery of the JFK presidency and its convoluted end games. One theory—advanced in Nina Burleigh’s readable book, A Very Private Woman The Life and Unsolved Murder of Presidential Mistress Mary Meyeris that a low-life drifter fishing along the Potomac River killed Mary in a botched mugging.

A second, to me more plausible, account of her killing is advanced in Peter Janney’s Mary’s Mosaic: The CIA Conspiracy to Murder John F. Kennedy, Mary Pinchot Meyer, and Their Vision for World Peace, which speculates that a CIA hit team took out Mary, as she “knew too much” about the rogue elements—including her ex-husband—at the CIA and was about to discredit the Warren Commission report.

Whatever the truth, after her killing a posse that included the CIA’s James Jesus Angleton, Ben Bradlee, and Mary’s sister frantically combed through her Georgetown studio looking for her gushing diary (about JFK? about the CIA?), which when it was found was entrusted to Angleton, who, in turn, made it disappear.

Having read both books, I thought, as I was driving through Georgetown, that I would try to find the spot of the killing, to see if the location might reveal some aspect of the strange story that the books had overlooked.

Needless to say, no plaque marks the sad location, and I didn’t have the books with me to cross-reference the exact details. But the general location—on the path under Canal Road just outside Georgetown—did suggest to me that Ray Crump Jr., the drifter charged (and acquitted) of the murder, would probably have looked elsewhere for a mugging victim in the affluent neighborhood rather than along this bleak stretch of the towpath. Walkers and joggers aren’t noted for carrying wads of cash, but then not all muggers have a clear business model. After Crump was acquitted, D.C. police lost interest in solving the crime.

Peter Janney’s insight into Mary came from growing up near the Meyer household, where he was best friends with one of her sons (who was himself killed in a traffic accident on a busy neighborhood road). Mary was his friend’s glamorous, talented mother who, in the 1950s, was in an unhappy marriage with a CIA hierarch (with whom Janney’s own father also worked).

Janney writes of Mary’s love affair with JFK:

Author Leo Damore had become convinced that by the time Kennedy reached the presidency, “Jack was a broken man. He had lived a life as an instrument of his father’s ambition, not his own.” It was Mary, said Damore, who took Jack by the hand. “She could see the brokenness in him, and didn’t need anything from him. In this relationship the power resided with Mary, and it was she, through her love, who bestowed the great gift of healing.” Yet Mary, too, appeared to have surrendered. “She told me she had fallen in love with Jack Kennedy and was sleeping with him,” said Anne Truitt. “I was surprised but not too. Mary did what she pleased. She was having a lovely time.”

The reason Janney postulates that Mary was herself assassinated—not killed during a mugging—is that the shooting itself had professional qualities. He also believes that she had figured out that the CIA had plotted in the killing of JFK and that she planned to speak out publicly. Janney writes, quoting others who also investigated her killing:

As Crowley allegedly told Douglas, “she [Mary] made the mistake of running her mouth … she was threatening to talk.” He also said: “Good old Ben [Bradlee] and his friend Jim [Angleton] went to Mary’s little converted garage studio which Ben just happened to own, and finally found her diary. They took it away and just as well they did. She had it all down in there, every bit of the drug use, all kinds of bad things JFK told her as pillow talk, and her inside knowledge of the hit [Kennedy’s assassination]. Not good.” Crowley’s account of what Mary’s diary actually contained further dovetailed with what Damore had told his attorney, Jimmy Smith, was in the copy of the diary that he (Damore) now possessed. Mary’s mosaic had been completed. She had finally put the pieces together and was getting ready to talk. Alas, it was Mary’s “inside knowledge of the hit” that made it necessary for her to be “terminated.”

One of Janney’s theories is that, before killing Mary, the CIA blocked all the entrances to that section of the towpath—an arrangement that would have been easy to carry out. He also does not believe that the vagrant (Crump) fishing on the riverbank could have delivered the methodical two kill shots, including one to the head, with the flair of a professional hitman. And he points out that Mary was neither robbed nor raped; it was just a rub out.

That said, in her book, set along the same stretch of the canal, Burleigh came to the conclusion that Leo Damore’s speculations were nothing more than figments of his fervid imagination (then in decline). She writes:

After several years of research, Damore began telling his copious interviewees that he was quite certain Crump was innocent. He also boasted that a figure close to the CIA had told him that Mary Meyer’s death had been a professional “hit.” Damore’s never-ending vortex of conspiracy led to nothing solid. He died of a self-inflicted gunshot in the presence of a nurse and a police officer after calling 911. No book was ever published.

Had Shakespeare ever lived in the Camelot of Kennedy’s Washington, I can well imagine that he would have written a play about the life and death of Mary Pinchot Meyer. It would have the intrigue of her CIA marriage, her affair with a president, and even her early experiments with Timothy Leary and LSD. As Shakespeare writes in Hamlet: “For in that sleep of death what dreams may come…”

The Cosmos Club – Inside Washington

My lunch was at the Cosmos Club, and my host was a Washington insider extraordinaire, who as a young man had worked on the Robert F. Kennedy presidential campaign.

Before rolling up to the front door in a jacket and tie, I had been told, by many, that: “The Cosmos is for people with brains, the Metropolitan is for people with money, and the University—or, sometimes, the Army-Navy—is for people with neither.”

While waiting for my friend, I inspected the member pictures on the walls—think of John J. McCloy, Henry Kissinger, and Dean Acheson, although Sinclair Lewis made it—all of whom give the impression that government is a blind trust and they are the trustees.

My friend and I had not seen each other in several years, but the lively conversation picked up right where we had left it—on why the Republicans in Congress got along so well with President Barack Obama…. “Matthew,” he said, “you have to understand. They took this guy to the cleaners every day of the year.”

During lunch we spent a long time speculating about whether or not Donald Trump is broke, whether bank loans are funding the Trump lifestyle of the rich and famous, and whether he ran for president to keep a few steps ahead of the bailiffs. (“Air Serbia would have grounded his old Boeing 757…”)

My friend said: “Have you forgotten all the businessmen who measure their wealth by what they can borrow?” That remark sent the conversation into the extent to which the Saudis and Russians might have laundered their royal slush funds through Trump’s high-rise empire, the world’s most glittering off-shore account.

I assume the conversations were similar at many of the nearby tables. (“Why else would his first trip be to Riyadh?”…. “I’m a little surprised Putin hasn’t registered a mortgage.” … “Only the Saudis would be dumb enough to invest in golf courses…”) To paraphrase Henry IV—a Huguenot who, on accepting the French throne and converting to Catholicism, said, “Paris is worth a mass”—the Cosmos is worth a necktie.

Over dessert, my friend mentioned that he had once lived near Mike Pence. Raising my eyebrows I asked: “An empty suit?” To which he replied: “Why do you so discredit empty suits?”

Next up: Part III – Washington to Gettysburg, New Jersey, and New England.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.