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THOSE OF YOU NOT already skeptical of the ability of the press to obtain and report the facts without error or bias might turn to Brian Steinberg’s story about Carol Vaughn, the tap dancer who claims to have tapped her way down the 897 steps in the Washington Monument (Artifacts, 10/29). The story is absurd in what it reports and how it reports the “facts.”
Consider the “how” first. Any reporter who assumes the perspective of an omniscient third person narrator should be immediately suspect—it’s a sure sign the reporter did not go to the trouble of searching for the facts. To compensate for this fundamental failure, he or she can sound informed simply by reading the minds of any and all participants. Colorful diction is also suspicious behavior, but word choice can reveal bias just as much as it can reveal ignorance.
In Steinberg’s story, National Park Service interpretive rangers are called both “guards” and “troopers.” Anyone who has visited a Smithsonian museum would have seen guards, recognizable by the distinctive uniform and thesidearm each carries. Anyone who has ever visited a national park would recognize a park ranger, very few of whom carry weapons. Visitors to Washington’s parks will see park police. They carry weapons, but are not guards or troopers; they are police officers. Adhering to these distinctions would have prevented Steinberg from making it seem as though Vaughn had encountered men armed with weapons who were prepared to arrest her. Because Vaughn chose to remain anonymous until after her stunt, her appearance at the Monument occasioned neither drama nor much reaction beyond a few rolled eyes and several warnings to the tour group. Instead of guards, she encountered the interpretive park rangers, who have neither the right nor interest to arrest visitors. Instead, they are there to share their knowledge of American and Monument history with all comers, including Vaughn, if only she were interested in such matters. Instead of being interested, she displayed the same sort of attitude as the fellow who, on the Fourth of July, ignored directions to the bathroom, snuck into the Monument, and shit on the lobby floor.
Steinberg next describes a member of the “Monument’s public affairs office” as “vigilant.” Now what this seems to convey is the idea that he was monitoring the radio for suspicious goings-on out there in radio land. A more likely scenario is one that has him halfway listening to Weekend Edition above a mouthful of Cap’n Crunch and the squawking of the baby in the next room. And by the way, there is no such entity as a Washington Monument public affairs office.
Far from adopting a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach, I told members of the tour group that there would be no tap dancing down the stairs, though characteristically I made a wisecrack about the stunt. Had Steinberg listened to my words and read my mind correctly he would have learned what I actually thought of the stunt—that it was a lame joke and that it was prohibited.
As for what I heard and didn’t hear, knew and didn’t know, Steinberg is way off base. So absorbed was I in “lecturing” and so uninterested in the threatened stunt that I had utterly forgotten the prospect of Vaughn’s “guerrilla action.” I conducted the tour not for her benefit, but for the benefit of people interested in the Washington Monument. During the tour I certainly heard nothing in the way of scrapes and thumps, and I certainly did not know what was going on. Perhaps Vaughn’s conspirators were indeed successful at running interference; I was convinced the questions and comments I was receiving were genuine and that the visitors on the tour were genuinely interested in the histories I was willing to share. Guess they made an ass out of me.
As for what happened on my tour, had Vaughn bothered with the “lecture,” she might have come away with a better understanding of her phrase “god-awful phallic tower.” She might have learned about the Jouvenals and the Bastables, the Washington Light Infantry, the Association of the Oldest Inhabitants, the death of President Zachary Taylor, aluminum, gold, jade, copper, stone-carving, steam-powered elevators, riggers climbing 25-year-old ropes, and a camp song called “Under the Shadow of the Rock.”
As for what else went on, well, I would take Vaughn’s story of tap dancing the 897 steps with a large dose of salt. When I saw Vaughn’s picture in the paper, it was the first time I recalled seeing her face. Neither she nor Steinberg introduced themselves. Having stood at two separate doorways and watched and counted the tour group file by, I can affirm that there was no tap dancing on the approximately 68 steps adjacent to the doors. I cannot account for what happened on the remaining 829 steps; perhaps she did linger behind. You have to wonder, though, about a tap dancer who dances without taps and “scrapes and thumps” her way through a performance. Couldn’t have been pretty. But that’s OK, Ms. Vaughn—some weeks ago when the elevator stalled at 500 feet, Ranger Victor Leyva and I carried a handicapped woman down every one of those 897 steps and we certainly did our share of thumping and scraping.
In this age when the attempted assassination of a president, the beating of a motorist by a gang of police officers, and your cat being divebombed by a mockingbird all are captured on film and broadcast to a worldwide audience eager for such diversions, you might wonder when the video of Vaughn actually tap dancing in the Monument will be released. You will be disappointed. The “considerable advance preparations” undertaken did not include the standard camcorder carried by nearly every other tourist in Washington. You see them filming starlings and overfed rodents by the dozen, but you won’t see any video of the artistic performance by Vaughn. In the absence of such evidence, you only have her word. How much would you credit a person whose ethics seem to rest upon adolescent principles such as “I’ll do what I want, when I want, no matter what you say” and “if you don’t see me, then you must approve.” I happen to believe that furthering one’s career through subterfuge, by breaking the rules, and by making a fool of others is unethical.
This Tap America Project of Vaughn’s will soon bring her to your hometown. You might wonder whether this will be a good thing, since doing a jig on ground you consider hallowed or kicking up her heels in monuments you have set aside as spiritually or historically significant is her stock in trade. Let’s see, after tackling national historic sites like the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial, she might try her Clinton on Gays in the Military on the top of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Next stop will be the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and, to show how far women have advanced toward political and social equality, she might try the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in New York state.
There are many persistent myths about the Washington Monument and I have enjoyed studying and debunking them. Vaughn and Steinberg have tried to foist another upon us. I hope that my effort has at least encouraged those of a skeptical nature to think twice about the nonsense broadcast as news.