SURE signs of springtime along the Potomac are the celebrated cherry blossoms, accompanied by hordes of Americans seeking their historical roots. Most tourists, however, find a visit to Washington far more entertaining than enlightening. There are two kinds of historical tourist attractions known to man: those that commemorate the site of an important event and those that don't. This is a crucial distinction for Washington-bound tourists and one that can best be demonstrated by comparing Washington with another popular tourist town, Boston.
It takes but one turn around Boston's Freedom Trail and a few stops at places such as the Old State House, Faneuil Hall, the Old South Meeting Hall, and the Bunker Hill Monument to realize the city is chock full of places on which or in which major historic events took place. Here the tea party gathered for its march to the wharf; from that balcony the Declaration of Independence was first read in Boston; or, on that hill, the order was sounded: ``Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes.''
At each location visitors, for an instant, become participants in a long-past event by actually being there, where it all happened.
Historical attractions around the world owe their significance to a unique geographic setting. A businessman ignored this principle a few years ago and moved the London Bridge to Arizona, hoping it would become a popular tourist attraction. Predictably, the venture flopped without the River Thames flowing below. Likewise, if Faneuil Hall were carefully moved to Washington and reassembled exactly as it now stands in Boston, something of great importance would still be missing.
Now, compare Boston's atmosphere with the mood found in our nation's capital. Visitors to Washington are hard pressed to find a monument resting on the actual site of a past event. They find, instead, a beehive of activity so utterly complex, noisy, and disjointed that even longtime residents and career bureaucrats shake their heads in disbelief. Washington is the ship of state under full sail in a gale-force wind. Its main deck is center stage for never-ending dramas performed live and with a supporting cast in the tens of thousands.
A tour of the FBI does, certainly, treat tourists to certain historical facts from the agency's past. But for what reason? To help them better appreciate what the agency is doing today. A stop at the White House or the Library of Congress demonstrates nicely how one summertime tour after another is accommodated without interrupting the year-round work of the bureaucracy.
The fact is, past events are all but lost when laid before the momentum of acre upon acre of governmental machinery in Washington. This nonstop, assembly-line process so dominates the town that only an occasional backward glance at past events is tolerated.
Washington's utilitarian ``monuments'' are dedicated to current, not historical, events. They harbor thousands of workers needed to generate a sea of daily events. Washington specializes in launching, molding, and controlling events that take place elsewhere.
For the weary visitor overloaded with Washington's utilitarian shrines, the Mall - Washington's Central Park, if you will - offers a respite - a place of entertainment and leisure. Since little of historical significance has actually taken place on the Mall, it has been ringed with one museum after another.
The Mall's dominant purveyor - the Smithsonian Institution - specializes in the show-and-tell business with displays of artifacts collected from all over the world, ranging from space exploration to dinosaur bones. Smithsonian museums are patterned more after Disneyland than serious historic study. The focus is on things, not events.
Museum fever along the Mall knows no limits, and there is no end to the tug of war among competing factions. Currently the Afro-Americans and the American Indians are fighting over who will get the final prime parcel of land sandwiched between the Botanical Garden and the Air and Space Museum.
Tourists hoping to find the ``on-this-spot...'' type of historical markers in Washington are apt to go home disappointed. They learn, instead, that the ``hothouse'' climate found in Washington favors the birth of seedling events, not the aging of these young sprouts into mature historical shrines.
Only in the more stable, nurturing atmospheres found in Boston, Philadelphia, or Gettysburg can the historical aging process proceed uninterrupted. It is there, not in Washington, that America's historical roots are treasured, preserved, and awaiting our arrival.
Ronald Fraser is a Washington-based writer and free-lance commentator for Navy Times.