In the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol at the memorial service for William (Billy) Evans, the Capitol policeman who was recently killed, the U.S. Army Quartet sang “Like a Bridge Over Troubled Waters.” The ceremony was solemn, serious and dignified –– a mood that could swallow the moment when President Biden picked up a fatherless child’s fallen toy from the floor and handed it back to her.
In the spring of 1973, when I lived in Washington, D.C. for three months in a studio apartment at 3rd and C Southeast, I walked the three blocks to the Capitol nearly every day. On Tuesday nights one of the military bands, Army, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, provided a concert for the people sitting on the steps of the Capitol. No one checked the identity of the audience; there were no concrete barriers or barbed wire separating the citizens from their Capitol building. We listened and applauded, reveling in the music and majesty of the special Tuesday nights.
While in Washington I walked through that Rotunda many times, staring in awe at the ceiling, checking out the famed acoustics spot, impressed that our country could own and freely display the paintings and statues. Hoping to spot one of my Senate heroes, I wandered, avoiding tourists, and basked in the joy I felt to be in this hallowed building, my Capitol of the United States.
Several Capitol Police recognized me as a frequent visitor to the Senate, where I went several times a week hoping to spot my heroes, Sen. Ted Kennedy, Sen. Joe Biden, Sen. Walter Mondale, Sen. Hubert Humphrey, Sen. Edmund Muskie, Sen. Adlai Stevenson. When I was a delegate in Miami for the 1972 Democratic Convention, a rumor spread that if one was faltering in dedication to George McGovern, that information would be forwarded to Warren Beatty, and then he would phone the wavering delegate to encourage him or her to stay with McGovern. Standing 10 feet from Sen. Kennedy was more exciting than any phone call from a mere Hollywood celebrity.
After the Jan. 6 invasion of the Capitol, I felt only sorrow. Windows were broken, paintings were defaced, furniture was scratched. Traditionally senators autograph the inside of the desk they use while they serve in the Senate, and the thought of rough hands rummaging through items in these desks brings on that kind of sorrow where the throat constricts and the pain courses through the body. Some things are sacred. Leaving excrement on the floors of that building symbolic of our country’s glory is not sacred.
Putting barriers between our government and its citizens is criminal. No wonder many people don’t respect their government officials. Nearly 50 years ago on Tuesday nights on the Capitol steps, a supporter of Strom Thurmond might have sat next to a devoted follower of George McGovern, with no need for loud voices or cudgels. Back then I traveled alone from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial at dusk, and when I arrived I walked up the marble steps and then, standing behind the giant statue of Lincoln, I read the words inscribed on the walls: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” I thought those words were true.
My three months in Washington D.C. will probably never be duplicated, or even imagined. The city then had an old-fashioned southern charm. It was a city where in 1909 the Japanese wanted to send the gift of cherry trees, a gift not only of trees but the gift of relaxing walks under the trees, and the ability to inhale that lovely scent. The trees are still there, but with the environmental warming each year, they bloom earlier, and sometime in the future they too will be dead and gone — or covered with barbed wire to discourage vandals.
I miss my old world of gentility and courtesy, and, more importantly, for my grandchildren and for all children everywhere I mourn this dearth of gentleness. With limited TV coverage, as a child I never saw anyone killed, other than the bad guys in the Roy Rogers movie, and even they died without any bloodshed. Like the battle to save us from COVID-19, I believe the “gentleness gene” must be supplied by our governments, national, state and local, and we must never forget that “good and fair government” is an empty framework and has no real identity until the offices are filled with officials willing to pick up a dropped toy for a child.
Award-winning columnist Phyllis Henry lives in Gig Harbor.
UNDERWRITTEN BY NEWSMATCH/MIAMI FOUNDATION, THE ANGEL GUILD, ROTARY CLUB OF GIG HARBOR, ADVERTISERS, DONORS AND PEOPLE WHO SUPPORT LOCAL, INDEPENDENT NONPROFIT NEWS