Tracing the roots of democracy in N.Y.
A statue of Washington overlooks Wall Street and the New York Stock Exchange, at right. (Richard Derk / LAT)
It will be hard not to notice the president and his colleagues from Aug. 30 to Sept. 2 for the Republican National Convention at Midtown Manhattan's Madison Square Garden. But politics still is just one of many facets of a town where something is always going on, which makes things tougher for the visiting political junkie.
I admit to being one of those; it's an occupational hazard for someone like me who works in the District of Columbia. As do all addicts, I end up craving more. It took a little work, but I found more than enough to satisfy me on a June trip.
Armed with a subway pass and a tourist map, I explored Manhattan, seeking political sites in a town better known as the country's financial, fashion and communications capital. And I found that political New York, although not as obvious as the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building, is a rewarding place to tour.
New York, after all, was the first capital of the United States. This sometimes surprises people who certainly recall something about Philadelphia and the summer of 1776. But the first capital of our nation — if you define the nation as the one operating under our present Constitution — was New York. The first presidential inauguration occurred here, on April 30, 1789. The Bill of Rights was written here. The first Congress met here.
So why weren't there crowds of patriotic tourists in Lower Manhattan lining up with me to scrutinize Federal Hall, the building that was our Capitol for the first year of our constitutional government? Well, probably because it's gone. In 1812, someone determined that Wall Street was too narrow and that widening it required the demolition of the crumbling hall.
I saw the history of the sadly vanished building displayed at Federal Hall National Memorial, built on the same spot in the city's Financial District. In this onetime federal customs house, done in Greek Revival style and now a National Park Service facility, I reviewed the often-overlooked story through old engravings and preserved artifacts, including Washington's inaugural Bible (a Masonic edition of the King James version), which has an interesting career of its own. That Bible was used when Presidents Warren G. Harding, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush took their oaths of office.
Exhibits in the hall describe the 1735 trial of newspaper publisher Peter Zenger, which established the country's tradition of a free press, and show the operation of early printing presses. Even after architect and engineer Pierre-Charles L'Enfant expanded the building for use as a Capitol, it was still not much bigger than your typical Econo Lodge. It's hard to imagine, given the massive federal presence in Washington today, all of our early government functioning out of those tiny quarters. Actually, not all: The departments of State, Treasury and War operated out of a nearby tavern. More on that later.
As I walked north, I noticed tourists preoccupied with looking down rather than up. Instead of craning their necks to see skyscrapers, they were examining the markers on the sidewalks along lower Broadway that identify the recipients of ticker-tape parades held here. A sample of honorees: the shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi; aviator Amelia Earhart; French Gen. Charles de Gaulle; Gen. Douglas MacArthur; and South Africa's Nelson Mandela.
The international nature of the city is realized best at the United Nations. Technically, its few acres on the East River aren't part of New York — or even America; this legally is foreign territory. Regardless of your feelings about the U.N. and its decisions, it's an impressive place to visit, with its soaring Secretariat tower and vast meeting halls.
Passing through a security station comparable to an airport's, I joined an English-language tour group of about 20. Our guide asked where we were from. Netherlands, England, Sweden, South Korea, Italy, Canada came the responses. Wasn't anyone from the United States? she asked. I alone raised my hand.
The big Security Council chamber, like so much in the complex, looked as if it had been furnished out of an Ikea catalog. (Well, it was a gift from Norway. And the Economic and Social Council's room was donated by Sweden.) Many diplomatic dramas have been played out here — arguments by Secretary of State Colin Powell for war with Iraq were made here in February 2003; Adlai Stevenson's 1962 confrontation, as the chief U.S. delegate, with the Soviet Union about Cuban missiles — but our guide spoke instead of refugee relief and medical efforts.
As we moved among the building's meeting halls, including the cavernous General Assembly chamber, I picked up on a recurring theme. The corridors in the building are filled with artwork urging peace and cooperation, including a Norman Rockwell mosaic titled "The Golden Rule," made of Venetian glass and presented to the U.N. in 1985 by then-First Lady Nancy Reagan.
Politics, here and there
Another mandatory stop on the political tour of New York is the Museum of Television & Radio in Midtown Manhattan. It has a trove of political goodies from electronic media. As the people around me enjoyed Carol Burnett sketches or Plácido Domingo arias on their individual monitors, I relished the historic political commercials: fatherly old Dwight Eisenhower going negative on the Democrats; John F. Kennedy and Adlai Stevenson stiffly reciting lines in an obviously scripted "interview"; the Lyndon Johnson ad showing a little girl counting daisy petals, implying that the election of Barry Goldwater would mean nuclear annihilation. I viewed sections of Edward R. Murrow documentaries on McCarthyism. And I watched the first Nixon-Kennedy debate, marveling not only at the youthful JFK but also at a Richard Nixon who seemed fresh from a high school student council meeting.
Across town, on the west edge of Central Park, the Henry Luce III Center in the New-York Historical Society holds odds and ends dating to the days when New York was New Amsterdam. It is as though everyone in town donated the contents of their attics: one of Franklin Roosevelt's leg braces; George Washington's inaugural chair; life masks of Aaron Burr and Abraham Lincoln, made in the days someone stuck straws up your nose and smothered your face in clay.
The museum has a display of political memorabilia called "If Elected." I got a preview of some of it in the Luce Center: political buttons, posters, flags. And a campaign device seldom seen in today's races, the political kerchief, just the thing in the late 19th century for waving in the crowd while yelling a hearty "Huzzah!" for Grover Cleveland or Benjamin Harrison.
A review of political New York also must include a trip to ground zero, the World Trade Center site. Future historians may well conclude that American politics changed forever here on Sept. 11, 2001. But now it is a place of quiet reflection and respect. People approached, lively and chatty, then grew silent as they read the victims' names inscribed above the fence.
I crossed the street to St. Paul's Chapel, which escaped major damage and served as an emergency shelter after the attacks. Inside I saw tokens of honor: uniform patches from police and firefighters around the world and senbazuru (peace cranes), chains of multicolored origami birds.