David Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics. He teaches at McGill’s Max Bell School of Public Policy.
The day I was born, newspapers across the world were filled with the fresh news that Puerto Rican nationalists had invaded the Capitol, clambered to the gallery above the chamber of the House of Representatives and begun shooting at lawmakers on the floor, wounding five of them. Like so many people of my generation, I have a copy of the front page from the day my parents – one an American, one a Canadian – believed I had entered a world of great promise in the United States, a country that celebrated the virtues of self-government.
Some time later my grandfather, himself an immigrant who believed he had fled to the Promised Land itself, gave me an oversized pamphlet with another cover that marked me. On the front was a gleaming picture of the U.S. Capitol, lit ethereally, almost like the religious cards that I would see in the racks at the drugstore down the street. I kept that, too, though only this week, more than a half-century later, would I fully realize why.
Years passed and I became a Washington newspaper correspondent, working in that very Capitol whose light, shining when I left each day for home, seemed a powerful metaphor. There were, to be sure, rogues and reprobates under that dome, and vestigial segregationists and more. Some of the lawmakers would later be found to be felons, fools or, that lethal combination, both. Like the people we covered, we often took ourselves too seriously; that is a mutation of Potomac fever. But always there was the sense that the work in that building was important and ennobling, which led those of us who worked in the press gallery to the belief, or conceit, that our work was, too.
It was in that building that I saw Ronald Reagan, recovering from an assassination attempt, show the resilience and optimism that defined him, and that defined the country. In that building I talked with senator John H. Glenn, the onetime astronaut, and senator Jake Garn, who had flown in space nine months earlier, in the minutes after the Challenger space shuttle was destroyed after liftoff. It was there that I spent late-night and early-morning hours witnessing the preening and prolix rhetoric of the interminable debate that sometimes fills the small print of long-forgotten legislation.
And it was outside that building that I heard George H. W. Bush speak, in his 1989 inaugural address, of his hope that he would preside over “the age of the offered hand,” never imagining that 32 years later one of the indelible images of the siege of that very Capitol would be the outstretched arm of police officers gripping pistols at the barricaded door to the House of Representatives.
In all those years, I never thought to attend the opening of the Electoral College ballots that Vice-President Mike Pence engaged in this week. The event was a formality, a meaningless ritual. There was always truly important other work to attend to – the announcement of the new president’s cabinet, the shuffle of the transition – or vital domestic chores to attend to, which is to say resuming the rituals at home that had been abandoned during weeks of campaign coverage. The American political system seemed rugged, not rigged. There was no need to look at the box score – for that is what the January tallying of the ballots most resembled – after having witnessed all nine long innings of the presidential race from the grandstand.
As the mayhem grew at the Capitol this week, I could not repress the memories of how hard it sometimes was to move from the House side to the Senate wing, the passage being so clogged with tourists and school groups. They were there, in those days, as in the ones before the virus shut things down, to witness the work of the nation, and they left with a sense of wonder, their faces sometimes seeming to shine the way the Capitol dome did after sunset.
And that shine, in the hours after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, seemed to possess a special power.
On the third day of the First World War, in 1914, Sir Edward Grey of the British Foreign Office looked out on the gas street lamps of London. “The lamps are going out all over Europe,” he said. “We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” On the dark Wednesday this week, the dome still glimmered in the gloom, but somehow the shine was off, perhaps for our lifetimes.
The great Washington correspondent Mary McGrory, who knew those halls as well as any Senate Majority Leader, used to say that when she died, she wanted to be buried in the Speaker’s Lobby, where the correspondents would gather to interview House members leaving the floor. “That way,” she would say, “I know there will always be someone who wanted to speak with me.” Ms. McGrory died 16 years ago. Her fantasy died this week.
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