Newseum visit opens eyes to reality of ‘wall’

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 17, 2000

I wrote a few weeks ago about my recent visit to Washington, D.C., for a newspaper training seminar. The column was about an interesting e-mail message an old friend sent me while I was there but didn’t have much to do with the visit.

The trip to Washington was my first and, six weeks after returning, a couple of experiences have stuck with me.

The first is the overall atmosphere of our nation’s capital. It is truly an awesome place. And whatever cynical feelings one might have about the folks we have elected to work there, there is much to see, much to learn and much to be proud of. I’d like to go back and spend a couple more weeks doing all that.

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The second has more to do with our way of life and its influence on the world around us. Perhaps this experience is best shared with a little story.

It was hot Wednesday afternoon and we had just finished our morning training session at the American Press Institute, lined up for a traditional class photo and boarded a charter bus bound for Alexandria, Va., and the Freedom Forum’s offices and Newseum.

The Freedom Forum, a non-profit organization whose mission is to protec the First Amendment, runs an interactive museum dedicated to the media’s role in American life, its history and its role relative to the Bill of Rights and, of course, the First Amendment. The Forum also operates an outdoor museum called Freedom Park.

We walked the halls of the Newseum for a couple of hours. In a room the size of a large church, 10-foot-tall screens lined the high side of the wall and we watched as Walter Cronkite told us president John F. Kennedy had been shot and as Tom Brokaw told us of war in the Persian Gulf. Below the screens, glass-encased newspapers told of most every significant event since the invention of the media.

It was all very interesting. But by 3 p.m. I was ready for a break.

My friend Neal and I took a walk outside into Freedom Park. It was over 90 degrees and the humidity made it feel like south Mississippi. We were wearing gray suits, unprepared for the tropical weather but determined to get some fresh air and check out some of the outside exhibits.

We strolled along for a few minutes and noticed a yellow and red sign. &uot;Berlin Wall at Freedom Park&uot; the sign read with a small arrow pointing around the next corner. A few minutes later, we walked into an outdoor space the size of a big movie theater — about 40 feet wide and 100 feet deep, surrounded by the 20-story buildings on the right, left and back. From about five feet off the ground to about 30 feet the walls enclosing the exhibit are covered with larger-than-life photo reproductions of the scene at the Berlin Wall as it came down in the early ’90s.

And there, right in front of us, were eight 4-foot-wide by 12-foot-tall sections of the Berlin Wall. I could not believe it: Thirty-two feet of the actual 27-mile wall that kept East Germans in and the rest of us out for decades, the wall that epitomized the oppression of communism

I had to touch it. And as I stood there, leaning against the wall, I felt the rough contour of the concrete and I tried to understand the graffiti that had been painted by notable artists on the West German side. On the East side I stood in the shadow of an actual guard tower once manned by East German soldiers with automatic weapons.

I took in the scenes decorating the perimeter walls: People standing on top of the wall, tearing it down with anything they could find, celebrating its downfall and the greater meaning of it all.

I thought about Ronald Reagan and his famous speech at the wall and wondered if he had seen the same wall sections I was now looking at. &uot;Mr. Gorbachev … tear down this wall!&uot; he demanded of the Soviet leader. It was enough to give a fellow chillbumps. And it did.

Todd Carpenter is publisher of The Democrat. You can reach him by calling 446-5172, ext. 218 or by e-mail at