Is this the most masonic city on Earth? I can't helping thinking so, just after one of the more memorable TV interviews I have given, in terms of the setting at least. The topic was the role of a renegade Freemasons' lodge in the downfall and death of Roberto Calvi, the Italian banker found hanged under a bridge in London in 1982.
But where to do the interview? Washington had no links with the Calvi affair (unless of course you believe the whole thing was the work of the CIA). The production director, however, came up with an inspired location: the dark, panelled library of the House of the Temple, the US headquarters of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry on 16th Street NW. Thus it was that I finally got a look at a building I had driven past almost every day for the past five years, wondering what was inside.
I was not disappointed. The place is quite astonishing, designed in 1911 and modelled on the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus in what is now Turkey, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The great bronze external doors are guarded by sphinxes. Inside is a cavernous hall supported by black columns. Everything is polished stone. The designs are geometric, the motifs Egyptian. For the rest, though, the temple defied my preconceptions of Freemasonry.
In Europe at least, Freemasonry is a mystery of secret rites and occult power, the stuff of a million conspiracy theories. None more so, of course, than Propaganda Due, or P-2, the lodge involved in the Calvi case, a veritable state-within-a-state, linked to attempted coups, right-wing terrorism and skulduggery of every variety.
Not so the splendid temple on 16th Street. A guide proudly showed me around, taking me to see the great collection of books owned by the poet Robert Burns and the "Freemasons' Hall of Fame", featuring the likes of the politician Bob Dole and the golfer Arnold Palmer. Then there was the library itself, with 250,000 volumes and a fabulous collection of masonic memorabilia, and the assembly room where the Supreme Council for the Rite's 33rd Degree, its highest, holds its meetings.
In its US incarnation, Freemasonry is primarily a social and philanthropic organisation. "We are not a religion, we don't hold services and pray," I was told. The only requirement is a broad belief in God. Beyond that, anyone - Christian, Jew or Muslim - is welcome. Essentially it is one of those brotherhoods of which Americans are fond.
George Washington was a mason, and so were 13 other Presidents, most recently Gerald Ford. Freemasonry is ideologically entwined with America's birth. Back in the 18th century the movement was identified with the Enlightenment and resistance to the obscurantist rule of the church and absolute monarchies. Of those who signed the Declaration of Independence, nine were masons, as were 13 of the signatories of the US constitution.
Just across the river in Alexandria is the George Washington Masonic Memorial, inspired by the lighthouse in ancient Alexandria in Egypt, another of the seven wonders. There are said to be masonic connections between the White House and the Capitol building; some believe that the entire city is designed on a masonic plan. And look on the back of a dollar bill. The pyramid and "all-seeing eye" above it have strong masonic connotations.
American Freemasonry is no furtive creature of the dark, as far from the malevolent P-2 as you can imagine. But it too has problems - or rather competitors. There are new outlets aplenty for philanthropy and giving. Generation X-ers seem less inclined to take the trouble of joining, while the movement must cope with the resurgence of organised religion. Membership has fallen from a peak of around four million in the 1950s to 1.5 million today.
Paradoxically, mason- ry's lingering mystique could yet rescue its popularity. Templars, masons and other ancient orders are all the rage. Dan Brown has a new book out next year called The Solomon Key, which is believed to deal with Freemasonry, Washington and the Founding Fathers.
Some fear that it will do for the masons' reputation what The Da Vinci Code did for Opus Dei. But in the US, the latter's sinister aura is entirely absent from Freemasonry. And nowhere is this absence more evident than here, amid the broad vistas and handsome buildings of Washington, the mason's city par excellence.Reuse content