More than 30 years ago now, I was selected as my high school’s intern for our local Congressman. I spent a week working from the Capitol Hill office of Representative Bruce Morrison, a Democrat who represented the third district of Connecticut.
Though he was running for Governor of Connecticut that year, he still kept a very full schedule, and as Chairman of the House Immigration Subcommittee he was working on a bill that was instrumental, for better or worse, for bringing in tech workers from outside the U.S.
Bruce Morrison did not win his contest for governor, though I turned 18 that year and I am proud to say that the very first vote I ever cast that year was for him. The winner, Independent Lowell Weicker, instituted a deeply unpopular state income tax, was hanged in effigy in Hartford and did not run again; the Republican candidate, John Rowland, later became governor and wound up serving time in federal prison for bribery and campaign fraud, so Connecticut judged extremely poorly that November. Rep. Morrison did not run for political office again but left a lasting legacy. Among his many credits is that he was instrumental in helping bring about the Irish Peace accords by normalizing relations between the U.S. government and Ireland’s Sinn Fein.
I was only working in Congress for one week, but it was thrilling to be at the center of our country’s government, being part of what was making the news and seeing the workings of government up close. I helped write a letter to a woman in Mystic about the Women Infants and Children program, sent faxes to other Congressional offices, and did tasks that were menial office tasks but felt like they carried the gravitas of democracy nonetheless.
I would spend hours after work in the visitors’ galleries of the House and Senate, watching the debates. It was thrilling to see Senators and Representatives argue their positions with eloquence and mutual respect. The formality of how they addressed one another, as “Senator” on the Senate and “Gentleman” or “Gentlewoman” in the House, lent grace and dignity to the proceedings, even amid what counted as partisan rancor in 1990.
Among the tasks was going around to various offices collecting signatures on a letter to the Secretary of State in the wake of army killings of students in Zaire, which later resulted in Congress cutting military aid to that country (their dictator would be overthrown in a coup seven years later). I walked the halls of the House office buildings, finding my way to the various offices and sometimes meeting the different Representatives along the way—I usually only handed the letter to a staff member who would go into the inner sanctum of the office and return with the signature of the Congressperson, but chatted with a few in person. At one point while gathering these signatures, I ran into my sophomore year English teacher, Mr. Degenhardt, and my high school’s former Principal, Gilbert Cass, and showed them to our Congressman’s office.
At another point, a Congressman who pledged to sign the letter was on the floor of the House. I was not allowed to go there. Only Representatives, pages, and certain other staff were allowed. Luckily, someone—I think it was another Congressman—ran the letter to the floor and back for me.
The floor of the House of Representatives was a kind of sacred ground; it was for people who got elected, who entered by the will of the people. It is not another part of the office, or a fancy perk Congress gave itself. People died to keep it free. In fact, the British burned the U.S. Capitol and the White House during the War of 1812.
So last month when Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, it took on a kind of unfathomable horror. There was an element of watching something we didn’t think could happen here. Even in the most depraved days of Trump’s two presidential campaigns, I had a higher level of faith in his rank-and-file supporters than to think they could be led so far astray from reality.
The past several years have shown us that the fringe elements of our politics have gained traction among the mainstream and have no allegiance beyond their own ideas. The history and honor of our country mean nothing to them, as they see themselves as elite warriors correcting injustices rather than as citizens with obligations and responsibilities. Whatever destruction they or their allies cause is considered justified by the morality of their cause.
What the last four years have laid bare is that both political parties are broken, with great swaths of voters and activists that will be led to violence based on misinformation and propaganda.
Overwrought self-styled patriots, who thought Donald Trump was the last bastion of defense of law and order and America itself, stood with crowds that attacked police officers in an attempt to thwart a democratic election. Self-indulgent social justice advocates, who looked the other way as mobs burned down police stations and created “autonomous zones” in major cities, posted tributes to fallen Capitol police offers and talk of meting out punishment for sedition.
The partisans stuck with extremists in their midst want to blame someone else. Trump supporters claim these were really Antifa activists in the Capitol on Jan. 6, and Black Lives Matter supporters would have us believe it was secret Trump “Boogaloo” militia burning and looting U.S. cities last summer.
Two central tenets can guide us forward out of this decades-long quagmire:
- There must be an absolute and unwavering respect for and obedience to the truth.
- American institutions deserve our utmost care and protection, not because they are perfect but because they are ours.
The truth knows no political allegiances and always disappoints dogmatic partisan politicians. Our institutions were created in different times by different people than comprise America today, but they were made to last and have survived multiple wars and upheavals. If we respect them, they can thrive again.