Columns

Just saying: My Capitol

As I sit, it’s Sunday, three days before Biden’s inauguration. Three little days, but it might as well have been three years given the mind-numbing range of what might have happened in that slender time period.

The air was thick with the talk of pardons. A friend tossed out the idea that a blanket pardon could be issued for all those who mobbed the Capitol last week. An absurd notion, to be sure, but absurd and unthinkable are terms that have nearly lost their meaning in the years when irrationality had become the new term for business as usual.

Of all the Washington scenes I’ve witnessed in the past few days, none was more disheartening than the draping of concertina wire on top of the new fencing girding the inauguration zone. The scenes of recent brutality and mayhem are impossible to set aside, but the stringing of concertina wire, in its awful banality, spoke so profoundly to our present situation.

We are at war.

Like many of us, I watched the sacking of the Capitol in real time. But more than most, the Capitol Hill tableau where it was unfolding was familiar to me. In the early ‘90s, my wife and I were transferred from Los Angeles to Washington, she as the night editor in the D.C. bureau of the L.A. Times and I a Times Capitol Hill correspondent covering House members from Southern California.

Bush the Elder was on his way out the door and Clinton was about to begin his first term as we got there. I had spent some time on the Al Gore “bus,” journalist’s lingo for the campaign plane that jetted all over the country making stops in a dizzying sequence of locales, once somewhere in New Mexico during a hot air balloon race. It was pretty clear that the Clinton/Gore ticket was going to win, and every now and then both candidates wound up at the same place with their wives, and the crowds went bananas.

The Capitol Hill complex was several Metro stops away from the L.A. Times office, and when you got there, at the Capitol South station, you emerged to encounter the three House office buildings where the Congress folk labored to do the people’s business. Usually, you got to the Capitol itself through one of the many tunnels that lace Capitol Hill.

It’s difficult to convey the complexity of the corridors and rooms, mostly subterranean, that make up the Capitol. After six years, I still would find myself on a minor mission of discovery to find a group of bored lawmakers in an obscure space processing some arcane legislation.

But on the main floor you walked through spacious halls filled with statues and paintings and historical artifacts that were distinctly museum-grade. At first I was rightly awed at the grandeur of my part-time work space. Then I got used to it.

But I never got tired of watching the House and Senate in action from the press galleries above. Or running into a new and seemingly sacred place like the Old Senate Chamber, one of the most venerable parts of the Capitol. The Senate outgrew the chamber and the Supreme Court took it over from 1860 to 1935. Now it’s a grand museum.

The year 1992 was called the “Year of the Woman” for the surge of female office-holders sworn in that year in Washington. California Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer were part of that class and they cut quite a path in the early years of their terms.

Feinstein pushed through a bill that protected a vast swath of Southern California desert, and Boxer made a name for herself doggedly pursuing Sen. Bob Packwood for some sexual indiscretions.

President Clinton and GOP Speaker Newt Gingrich went at it hammer and tong over budget matters and managed to shut down the government twice. Yet even with the historic Republican takeover of the House, there was hardly a whiff of the vile toxicity that envelopes the Hill today.

The poohbahs of both parties found the time and inclination to share cocktails in their respective lairs, the absence of a practice that is often cited as one of the most telling signs of congressional dysfunction today. In short, the political combat of the early ‘90s appears as child’s play, compared to the mindless nuclear exchanges of today.

As I sit, it’s Sunday. Three days to go. So much might have happened in that eternity. I can’t stop thinking about the concertina wire. But I am so thankful the mob didn’t find the Old Senate Chamber.