The hours bled from afternoon into night last Wednesday, as I remained transfixed by the television images of rioters laying siege to the U.S. Capitol, this majestic building I love so much, where I used to spend so much time as a Washington correspondent for a group of Florida newspapers in the late 90s and early Aughts.
I listened to stories from reporters who described being pulled from the press gallery into the Senate chamber to shelter in place, and remembered my own time in that gallery and the House gallery on the other side, running up and down the stairs to catch Members coming off the floor for quick interviews about whatever I was writing that day.
“You know the movie ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington?’ There’s a scene set in there [the Senate Press Gallery], and it looks just exactly the same today,” said my friend Tammy Lytle, the former DC bureau chief for the Orlando Sentinel, a fellow member of the Florida press corps who’s remained a close friend.
Most of all, I remembered the decorum, the shared respect all of us – Members, staff, reporters – held for this place, temporary figures in a centuries-long continuum of democracy playing out within these hallowed halls.
“It sounds kind of old fashioned to say ‘sacred spaces,’ but you’re working in a museum, as well as a functioning government,” said Frank Davies, a former correspondent for the Miami Herald who went on to work for the House Ethics Committee, whose offices were in the main Capitol at the time.
Frank watched on TV as rioters overran the police at the lower-level Crypt — originally designated to be the final resting place for George Washington (though his family declined the invitation). “That’s where I walked by every day to go to work,” Frank told me, noting that this small space contains the state statues from the original 13 colonies.
Like Frank, I don’t say “hallowed halls” lightly, nor would anyone else who’s spent any time there. We all have our memories, our reflections upon this building and, to borrow from Lin Manuel Miranda, the rooms where it happened.
“The contrast between what we saw yesterday and how I remember it gave me an appreciation for rules, for procedures, for tradition,” said Sylvia Smith, a former correspondent for the Fort Wayne, Ind., Journal Gazette. “To have that breached, you just see how close we are to total chaos. At the end of the day, there is a value in decorum.”
Donna Leinwand, another fellow Florida reporter who covered the state’s congressional delegation for Knight Ridder, echoed that sentiment when she shared her memories of being in the press gallery, looking down on the House chamber during each State of the Union address. “Being there in person was the most uplifting experience I’ve ever had covering something,” she says, “because it dawned on me that they’ve been doing this for over 200 years — that this democracy continues to thrive.”
Mark Abraham, the deputy director of the Senate Press Photographers’ Gallery, sent me a picture he took of the State of the Union Address when Speaker Nancy Pelosi presided over a wave of newly elected Democratic women, all in white. You can really get a feel for the grandeur of the House floor and its upper galleries:
This weekend, I dug up my copy of Time Magazine, dated Oct. 1, 2001, with Osama Bin Laden’s face filling the cover. In it is a photograph of President Bush addressing a joint session of Congress in the House chamber, nine days after the September 11 attacks. I was in the gallery that evening (fifth person from the caption):
I had forgotten about that huge headline that runs across David Burnett’s picture, and I just hope that it rings true today as we combat virulent far-right nationalism, white supremacy and domestic terror as it did when we were recovering from a foreign terror attack.
I cherish the press pass I held for that somber event.
I started crying as I watched those people break the windows and climb inside, ransacking antique furniture, vandalizing art, and casually draping themselves in chairs occupied by the nation’s leaders. Sickening.
I know that repairs will be made and the Capitol will once again be beautiful. But there will be no forgetting what happened there.
As you can see, I’ve been reaching out to old friends and colleagues I worked with at the Capitol to gather their memories and impressions about what the building means to each of them. I’ve also contacted some of the city’s best photographers who’ve celebrated the Capitol with images that are themselves works of art.
This has been my therapy in an attempt to replace the recent destruction with the beauty of what I hope will soon be restored.
Former Rep. Mark Foley, who represented the Florida Treasure Coast area where I had newspapers, told me that he used to cross himself every time he climbed up those wide steps. “I would bound up those steps as if every step was a new step and a new day,” he said.
Most people probably don’t know that the Capitol complex once housed the Library of Congress before it got its own building, or that the original Supreme Court was located here:
“You just marvel at the incredible grandeur and the personal feeling of intimacy there,” Mark said. On one hand, the Rotunda is high enough to fit the Statue of Liberty, but if you have a Member’s pin, a staff ID or a press pass, you also know all the labyrinthine tunnels underneath it, the “hideaway” offices for senators in back hallways, the secret stairways, and the little nooks you can sneak into.
Years after the Clinton impeachment, in fact, I spotted Linda Tripp, former friend of intern Monica Lewinsky, in those halls — and pulled her aside into a private alcove to ask her questions about how the intervening years had treated her. I got a cool little story out of that.
Speaking of that impeachment, Tammy told me that during the Senate trial, when we were there on a Saturday, she remembers having to race from the House to the Senate side. Because the tourists weren’t there, the quickest way to do this was to go right across the Rotunda.
“As I was running back, I passed through the Rotunda, and I literally stopped in my tracks because I was the only person there,” she said. “I stopped in the middle of the Rotunda amid all the beautiful art and the grandeur of that dome, and I felt like such a little person in history.”
I know what Tammy means. During a reporting fellowship in the 90s, we got to take a field trip to the top of the dome. We circled the balcony just under the frescoes (where you can see how huge those painted figures are!), and then stepped through a door to climb steps between the inner and outer domes until we got to the tiny outside balcony circling the base of the cupola underneath the statue of Freedom. Talk about feeling small!
“It’s a majestic dome up close and from a distance — visible from miles away if you happen to be driving along the Potomac river,” said Peter Urban, who used to cover Washington for the Connecticut Post, among other regional newspapers.
That’s why so many photographers continue to photograph it, and it looks different every time, depending on the time of day and the mood each photographer creates around it.
This one captures the quiet, soft beauty of winter:
While this one takes on a gritty, urban vibe. It feels very Watergate to me:
And while there’s a cloudy sky in the one below, it just feels hopeful in a way, with all those lush green trees lining a park plaza that leads up to the Capitol’s west front.
Andy Feliciotti, also known as @someguy on Instagram, has a killer highlight feed dedicated to all his drop-dead images of the Capitol. Here’s one of my favorites:
I’ll end with a shot by Birch Thomas, which now strikes me as deeply ironic. Let’s all hope going forward that our democratic temple will be adequately guarded, both literally AND philosophically.
No wait, how can I end it that way? Let’s reclaim the Patriot badge in a glorious way with this shot by Mark Abraham.
My sincere thanks goes out to all my friends and these incredible photographers for letting me share their words and images. Love and peace to you all for a better 2021.