In the mid-1970s, I was working as a journalist in Washington, D.C., a job that took me daily to Capitol Hill. Our nation was in the midst of an energy crisis which had led to shortages and long gas lines around the country. Both the Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives held hearings, many televised. Senator Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson of Washington State, a colorful figure who served as the chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, grilled the heads of the nation’s large oil companies. While the executives decried Jackson’s hearings as being run like a “criminal trial,” these daily events made great theater.
The Capitol building became my second office. During a recess, I would retire to the periodical press gallery where I could begin working on my stories. If there was debate on the House or Senate floor, I would observe and take notes. There was always pressure to meet a deadline, but it was good pressure and exciting. What made the experience truly special, however, was being in that historic building nearly every day. Walking through the rotunda, down the hallways, was always awe-inspiring. I would often stop to watch tourists gazing around, trying to take it all in and think, “I know how you feel.”
I was on the elliptical in my gym when the scenes of rioters coming into the Capitol began to play out on television. I found myself weeping as I watched fellow citizens show little respect for a building that not only represents our democracy, but belongs to all of us. The destruction they wrought as they passed through the rotunda, breaking glass windows, tearing down signs, and trashing offices, will take a long time to repair. Because this is an historic building, repairs must be made properly. Workers will not be able to replace glass by going to Home Depot.
When I worked in Washington, the city was more open than it is now. I could drive down Pennsylvania Avenue, pass by the White House where a simple fence did not distract from the view. These days for security measures, Pennsylvania Avenue continues to be blocked off. In front of the White House, the street is essentially a pedestrian mall, patrolled by various law enforcement officers. Protests and demonstrations, particularly last summer’s Black Lives Matter events, have not been violent, yet strong-armed tactics were used to clear away peaceful protesters for a photo op in front of a church. Many have pointed out, and rightfully so, that’s not what happened to the mostly white rioters who stormed the Capitol on January 6. Those who came meant to cause harm. And they did, not only to their surroundings, but to others, resulting in five deaths. The FBI has already arrested many and will continue to do so.
One of the things that impressed me when I worked in the Capitol was the access journalists had to Senators and members of Congress. It was possible to pass a lawmaker in the hall, particularly in those well-traveled underground passageways, and ask a question. Going forward, there will have to be increased security inside the Capitol. Journalists, however, should still be able to do their jobs.
I remember one conversation I had with a member of the Capitol Hill Police. Senator Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut, passed by and smiled at both of us. Ribicoff was one of the most admired and respected members of the Senate. I thought about the police officer’s comment the other day as I watched members of the Senate refusing to accept the results of our 2020 election. “I think,” the cop said to me, “there’s no greater calling than to be a U.S. Senator.” That should still be the case. Besides restoring our historic building, many who take up residence there for the duration of their terms need to restore their reputations, too.
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