Tourists at the Lincoln Memorial this afternoon were surprised to find a very prominent visitor in their midst – President Obama.

Obama made the quick trip from the White House today not to take in the sights, but to make a point.

Obama - Lincoln Memorial - Getty Images
President Obama, Tourist-In-Chief? (Photo: Getty Images)

All of the memorials, Smithsonian museums, and other government-funded tourist attractions would have been closed this weekend if Congress hadn’t compromised on a temporary spending bill.

The District narrowly avoided a government shutdown last night – incidentally on my birthday – when it passed the bill just a couple of hours before a midnight deadline.

This weekend would have been a particularly bad time for a shutdown – the District was awash with tourists for the annual Cherry Blossom parade and street festival.

The precedent for this year’s crisis came in 1995, when a budget battle between Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich shut down the government for several weeks.

That one came at a particularly bad time for me – I was scheduled to do an

Lincoln Memorial closed because of 1995 government shutdown.
The first government shutdown closed monuments, memorials, and museums throughout the District. (Photo: Mark Wilson/AP – Dec. 16, 1995)

externship at the State Department’s Foreign Press Center during my winter break from college. It was going to be my first time working in the District.

The shutdown canceled that – but I would end up moving to D.C. five years later, working in the National Press Building just a few floors from the Foreign Press Center.

Back to today – Obama bounded up the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial and addressed an enthusiastic and stunned crowd of photo-snapping tourists. He didn’t invoke Lincoln’s name or the 16th president’s inspiring words, but the symbolism was clear: Let’s reconcile warring forces for the good of the country.

Ironically, today was the anniversary of the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army to Ulysses S. Grant, effectively ending the Civil War.

The Lincoln Memorial has often been used as a symbol for the modern-day politics of unity. It was the backdrop for Obama’s inaugural concert, “We Are One,” where it had special significance for the first African-American president, also from the state of Illinois. (That’s just one of the many historical similiarities between the two.)

Marian Anderson sings at the Lincoln Memorial on April 9, 1939.
Marian Anderson sings at the Lincoln Memorial on April 9, 1939. (Photo:Thomas D. Mcavoy/Getty Images)

The most famous use of the memorial was by Martin Luther King, Jr., for his iconic “I Have a Dream,” speech on August 28, 1963. One of the special performers that day was Marian Anderson, an African-American opera singer who had made a stand for civil rights at the Lincoln Memorial nearly 25 years earlier.

During a time of segregation in the District, she had been barred from performing at Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the orgnization in protest, and the Roosevelts helped broker a new outdoor concert venue on federal property.

The concert was held at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, seventy-two years ago, today.

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