From Smalltown I returned once again to New York, there to be reunited at long last with Mrs. T, who had finally spent enough hours in bed and quaffed enough antibiotics to recover from her virus. We saw Cyrano de Bergerac on Broadway (she liked it better than I did) and reveled in the uncomplicated joy of being together again. Then we boarded a train to Washington, D.C., where I had a date with the National Council on the Arts.
We came to town two days early to look at paintings and attend a Supreme Court oral argument. I’ve watched a Senate session from the press gallery and visited the White House a couple of times, but I’d never before seen the Supreme Court in action. It’s quite a show. I suppose you can get used to anything–Dostoyevsky certainly thought so–but I’m sure it would take a good many visits before I stopped feeling awestruck when the clerk cries “Oyez, oyez, oyez!” and the nine justices step from behind the red curtains and take their seats at the bench.
Not all Supreme Court cases are interesting, or even intelligible, to the layman, but Mrs. T and I hit the jackpot, for one of the two cases the court heard that morning was United States v. Williams, whose subject was child pornography. (The second case, which had to do with the restoration of civil rights to convicted criminals, was more technical and less interesting.) The last thing I’d expected that day was to hear the phrase “snuff film” spoken from the bench of the Supreme Court, much less to witness a judicial skirmish over the relative merits of American Beauty and Lolita. The press was evidently no less struck by the proceedings, for United States v. Williams was written up the next day by the wire services and the New York Times.
I’m not a lawyer, but having read the briefs in Williams the night before, I understood nearly everything that was said. Nevertheless, I’ll leave it to the lawbloggers to parse the case’s legal niceties, and instead offer a tourist’s-eye view of what I saw:
• The courtroom is considerably larger than I expected. (The Senate chamber, by contrast, was smaller.)
• All nine justices are easily recognizable and act much the way you’d expect based on their reputations: Chief Justice Roberts is friendly but serious, Justice Scalia is a bit of a showoff, Justice Souter is painfully earnest, and Justice Thomas never asks questions.
• The audience was hushed throughout the proceedings–except when Justice Scalia cracked a joke, which he did fairly often, almost always at the expense of one of the lawyers.
• Justices Breyer, Thomas, and Kennedy, who sit together on the left side of the bench, sometimes whisper amusing comments to one another during oral arguments. (Not that I could hear what they were saying–I was on the far side of the room–but I could see that they were chuckling over something.)
• Justices Stevens and Ginsburg, the two oldest judges, look and sound their age–he’s eighty-seven, she’s seventy-four–but give every impression of being more than sufficiently sharp-witted to do their jobs.
• None of the justices seems much inclined to suffer fools, or to spare the feelings of lawyers who aren’t well-prepared and quick on their feet. Counsel for Williams, the kiddie-porn purveyor whose case was before the court, was neither, and had a tough time of it all morning long. I’m sure he was relieved when the red light on his lectern flashed to warn him that his half-hour was up.
After lunch we made our way to the National Gallery of Art for the first of two visits. We saw the Turner and Hopper retrospectives, both of which are major events, though the Turner is both bigger and more significant. I doubt there’ll be a more comprehensive Turner show in my lifetime, and I hope to walk through this one at least once more before it closes on January 6. The show travels to the Met in New York next June, but I expect the crowds there will be intolerable. In Washington they’re manageable, if intermittently oppressive. (This, by the way, is the painting that made the deepest impression on us, though this one ran it a close second.)
The Hopper show, by contrast, is pretty much a greatest-hits affair, containing a remarkably high percentage of his best-known paintings. That doesn’t make it any less satisfying, but if, like me, you spend a lot of time in American museums, you probably won’t find it especially surprising. For me the most interesting gallery was the one that contained a choice selection of Hopper’s etchings, the best of which are comparable in quality to his later canvases. The painting Hilary and I liked most was the very late, breath-catchingly bleak Sun in an Empty Room, which is, appropriately enough, the last piece in the show.
(To be continued)