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Observations: Congress, ignorance and better angels

Published on: July 31, 2013

I cannot understand how anyone could stand inside of the Lincoln Memorial and not be awe-struck, let alone how someone could vandalize it. Mitch Traphagen Photo

I cannot understand how anyone could stand inside of the Lincoln Memorial and not be awe-struck, let alone how someone could vandalize it. Mitch Traphagen Photo


My dress shoes clacked in echoes as I walked down the hallway of the Longworth Congressional Office Building in Washington, DC. The noise felt disrespectful somehow but my efforts at silencing it were for naught. Walking down that hallway, or just looking out across the street at the United States Capitol Building, I could feel the weight of history on my shoulders. It was an awesome feeling. I was a mere staffer, one in a sea of staffers, but being there, seeing that, made me want to be a better person, a better American.

Inside the Capitol itself that feeling was magnified to infinity. The history of that place is so thick I can’t begin to imagine how anyone could not see it for themselves. I could not begin to understand how anyone could get caught up in a political scandal. The words of some of the greatest leaders of this great nation still echo in the chambers and in the halls. Those echoes should do nothing but drive people to further greatness.

Stretching out in front of the Capitol Building, the monuments on the National Mall inspire respect and hope. They are a permanent record of great men and women who risked all in the quest for a more perfect union. The war memorials, the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial are all things that should be seen firsthand by every American. A short distance away near the Tidal Basin, the Jefferson Memorial, filled with the words of a founding father and the nation’s third president, inspires a silent awe.

Last week, someone filled Mountain Dew cans with green paint and vandalized the Lincoln Memorial, spreading the paint on the President’s leg and lap and on the granite floor. What is wrong with such a person or persons? Are we truly so lost as a nation that one of our greatest presidents could become fodder for a mere prank, an act of idiocy?

The Lincoln Memorial is open seven days a week, 24 hours a day. It is there for a reason. It stands for us to remember and to be inspired. This nation has prospered and suffered but through even the worst of things, we always emerge better than before. Now I’m starting to wonder if we are capable of continuing that historic trend.

Congress is a mess. Some of the mess is by design. The House of Representatives was meant to be a body that argued and fought things out. Ours is a government by consensus and few get entirely what they want from any piece of legislation. But the rancor has seemingly reached new lows, at least in modern times. From all appearances, party matters more than country and the American people. And it is the American people who are victimized by it. During President Lincoln’s time in office, the mess that is the House had been the scene of physical altercations between Members of Congress. At least today, Democrats and Republicans aren’t duking it out on the House floor, captured live by CSPAN, although perhaps more than a few of us would pay a few bucks to see something like that happen.

Acts of vandalism on the National Mall are extremely rare. In the past decades, only a few incidents have occurred, all involving the Vietnam Memorial (also inexplicable). Yes, there is a strong police presence on Capitol Hill but I prefer to think that we’ve retained some of the decency and respect of our forebears, despite all of the changes over the centuries. At one time, people could walk freely into the White House to ask to speak with the President. Whether or not you would get to speak with him was another matter. Regardless, at one time, we the people could be trusted with such things. Today, it seems some of us are increasingly ignoring our better angels. It seems some of us just don’t care, choosing ignorance, and that lack of care is easily turned to anger by the constant feed of the 24-hour news cycle that in itself is becoming increasingly partisan — taking the sides of parties over the cause of America.

With a popularity rating as low as 12 percent, it seems the only people rating Congress favorably are their own family members — and perhaps not even some of them. Disagreement over issues is one of the fundamentals of this nation, but so is compromise. With all of the really smart (seriously) staffers and consultants running around DC, you’d think someone would point out to the members of Congress that Americans would be a lot happier with less posturing and more respect. It’s not a stretch to assume that we’d feel better about our nation if the nation were the priority again over party, lobbyist money and personal power.

The Lincoln Memorial sits prominently at the far end of the National Mall. On any given day, it is crawling with tourists yet standing inside, gazing up at the President as he gazes out over the Washington Monument to the Capitol Building, is an intensely personal, church-like experience. Rancor and even sound fall away in the presence of one of our greatest leaders. It is inspiring.

At the Jefferson Memorial, his words are literally carved in stone. Among them is an 1816 quote in which he stated, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

We are witnessing ignorance today. That comes in the form of party politics expertly crafted to maximize effect using television, newspapers and social media. It comes in the form of an idiot or idiots who somehow think it would be cool to splatter paint on a monument dedicated to one of our nation’s greatest presidents. Perhaps we the people should demand that our leaders pair up with members across the aisle and take a day to visit the memorials (in the case of House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, we should probably force them to hold hands). Maybe Members of Congress could even help to clean off some of the green paint. But they should stand in awe of shoes they are expected to fill and of what they have been elected (and honored) to represent. They should be reminded at the war memorials of the sacrifices made for their partisan sound bites on Fox or CNN. They should be reminded that the weight of a great and noble history rests on their shoulders. And then they should convene and get back to work for a change, helping to form a more perfect union.