We would picnic on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol, my friends and I. Technically it wasn’t allowed, but if you didn’t play touch football or whip a Frisbee around -- if you were discreet about the blanket and food -- you could Renoir away the day on the lush, tree-shaded lawn below the East Front. There was no “security” fence; just knee-high, gray granite borders designed by the great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.
When I came up from Kentucky decades ago to begin my career as a Washington reporter, “security” was not a major concern at the Capitol, or pretty much anywhere else. I took an apartment at Third Street and East Capitol. I could, and sometimes practically did, roll out of bed and race over to “the Hill” to cover a congressional hearing on strip mining or some other regional issue, barging through doors like I was chasing a fire.
Working people of all kinds lined up to catch their eastbound Metrobus on Pennsylvania Avenue, right in front of the White House and in full view of the Marine guard on duty at the door of the West Wing. Members, citizens, tourists and lobbyists alike thronged the essentially unguarded halls of Congress and its campus of office buildings. Jersey barriers were still mostly in Jersey. There were no “unscalable” 7-foot-high steel fences. Metal detectors were still an annoying oddity.
This was, to be sure, a calm respite of political time in Washington: the late ’70s. It was a brief era of good feeling between the cataclysms of the 1960s and Watergate, and the rise of a more polarized, and angrier, form of politics.
My first big assignment for my paper, The Courier-Journal of Louisville, was President Carter’s first State of the Union address. It was a snowy night, quaint as a print by Currier & Ives. The fireplace in the House Press Gallery was working; the superintendent fed it logs from a pile next to his desk. Inside the House chamber it seemed – at least to me, a new kid in the city of his dreams – that America, for that night anyway, was a family, united and warmed by the carefully tended flame of democracy.
Among the many sins of Donald Trump – the needless deaths from COVID, the slashing of the fabric of government, the violence fetishized among his supporters, the cynical enabling of tyrants around the world – turning the Capitol into an armed fortress would not seem to matter much. But, symbolically -- and, in an age of symbols -- it may matter most of all. “Security” first became an issue in the 1980s, and was ramped up considerably after 9/11. But it took the twin Trump catastrophes of a pandemic and an armed insurrection by the terrorist right to shut the people out of the People’s House, and to turn the surrounding greensward it into a Green Zone.
My experience in D.C. is that the combined power of security and bureaucracy creates a remorseless logic: There can never be enough of either. Once the barriers go up, they don’t come down. Which means we’ve lost the People’s House in the living, physical, spatial, functioning sense.
What will this cost us? The first loss is aesthetic. Don’t sneer. It is important. Capitol Hill is a beautiful, ennobling place and to be robbed of seeing it – and viewing this city from it – is a great loss. Pierre L’Enfant knew what he was doing when he designed the brow of Jenkins Hill as the spot. The commanding view to the West, now along the National Mall, is one of the greatest of any capital city anywhere, which is why, in 1981, Ronald Reagan decided to become the first president to be sworn in looking west.
Those of us who go have gone in and out of it almost daily for many years may become inured to, or even contemptuous of, the gilded ornate grandeur of the place. But the architecture, much of it innovative for the time, is noble and the art on the walls – and, in the case of frescoes, in the walls – is spectacular. And endearing. The brass door of an out-of-the-way elevator I used a lot is framed by frescoes of native American flowers, plants and animals. The immigrant artist Constantino Brumidi painted them with the same care and love that Michelangelo had lavished on a famous chapel.
The second loss is in the knowledge of our own history. The Capitol is a living museum, and I am not just talking about the average age of the congressional leadership. It is literally the center of our national saga: both a place built by slave labor and the place where lawmakers argued against slavery and enacted the civil rights bills; a building nearly burned to the ground in the War of 1812; a bivouac for Union troops in the Civil War; where Lincoln urged us to find our “better angels” and FDR declared war on evil. To see and understand what is in it is to know the good and bad about where we came from and how we might find our way to what our hopes still are.
The third loss is the most obvious: political. We are already divided enough as human beings, and cynical enough about our leaders. We don’t need to be separated and isolated physically even more, but that is what is going to happen. Over the centuries there have been plenty of members of Congress – more than we would want to admit – who would rather never meet, let alone confront, a voter in the flesh, or at all. That will be easier now. Members are likely to spend even less time with each other in the building and its adjacent offices than they have been in recent decades.
You could see the very arteries of the body politic in action on the Hill when it was in session: the hallways and offices jammed with everyone from skinny schoolkids to stout farm lobbyists to Pentagon brass. Our country is built on the idea of never-ending arguments, and if we don’t have them face-to-face, we lose the connective tissue of shared culture that keeps the whole thing from flying apart. Congress is where it all meets. Or did.
The last loss is the hardest to quantify, for it is the most symbolic and even psychological. The openness of the Capitol has been a wondrously powerful message that we have sent for centuries to ourselves and to the world: that here, a faith in Constitution-based law makes us unique – and uniquely successful – in the long tale of humankind’s evolving attempts to govern itself with justice, freedom and peace. The images of violent Trump supporters ransacking the Capitol are horrendous enough. Now, and for the foreseeable future, we will all have to keep our distance as we gaze at barriers that, no matter what we say, speak loudly of what we have lost.