Last week I had the opportunity to again visit our nation’s Capitol. While I have been there before, it never ceases to impress me with its beauty and majesty. The dignity of the Lincoln Memorial and the impressive stature of the Washington Monument seem to watch over this city of hope and dreams. As we visited the usual sights I loved seeing them through the eyes of my grandchildren who were seeing them for the first time. Visiting the Vietnam Memorial and the new tribute to MLK were reminders of the cost of being who we are. The displays at the Air and Space Museum illustrated our nation’s bold adventurism. However, the highlight of our visit was our tour of the Capitol.
Last Friday, due to the generous efforts of a family friend, I found myself standing in the well of the Chamber of the House of Representatives. I was part of a very private VIP tour of the Capitol consisting of my wife, daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren. The six of us were taken behind signs that stated in bold letters, “NO TOURS BEYOND THIS POINT”. As I stood in the chamber of the “Peoples’ House”, I looked up to the podium from which the President delivers his State Of The Union Address and at the podium behind it where the Speaker Of The House and Vice President sit during that annual address. I looked up at the Gallery to the left of where the President stands and could see the seat reserved for the First Lady. I looked out at the seats on which our Representatives sit as they listen to and participate in debates and vote on legislation. We were surrounded by the symbols of power and authority as we visited the Speaker’s Office and Conference Room, and his private balcony and reception room. We visited all of the caucus rooms and leadership offices. We found ourselves in the middle of the Capitol Rotunda enveloped in the art that depicts our proud national history and the statuary representing each of the 50 states. We were reminded of the national leaders who lied in state in this great hall upon their death. To me, the most poignant was John F. Kennedy. We saw busts of Washington and Lincoln and felt truly in touch with our history. As I stood in this special place two conflicting feelings fought for dominance. First, I was in awe of standing in the Chamber where so many important words have been spoken and so much important legislation has been enacted. I could feel the breeze of history on my cheek. However, my second and competing feeling was one of frustration and disappointment. The wheels of legislative and national progress were no longer turning in this chamber. They had come to a stop against the clutter of petty political self-interest and polarizing partisanship. I wondered if this Chamber would ever again live up to its proud legacy.
As we are aware, Washington is left to the tourists during the sultry days of August. Anyone who can, gets out of D.C. during these hot days. It seems then, that what we are seeing is the shell of our national Capitol, while the substance has absented itself. There is no shortage of beauty to see in that shell, yet if one tries to get beyond that shell it is empty and is lacking. We are seeing the symbols of our past greatness. They are beautifully displayed in statuary, art and documents. The buildings are stately and dignified, yet, aside from tourists and security guards, they are empty. Is the physical emptiness that is so apparent in August symbolic of the emptiness that seems to exist during the other months of the year? Is our national Capitol in a coma, unable to do anything substantive, just merely exist?
The beauty that we saw on our tour of Washington can be brought back to life. The greatness of our institutions can be reawakened and revitalized. But in order for that to happen we must illustrate our demands by electing those who share our vision of what we can become. For the sake of our children and grandchildren we have no choice. We need to make the midterm election of 2014 pivotal and make Washington beautiful again, both inside and out.