As a college student in 1984, I worked as a summer intern on Capitol Hill. Memories of that summer came back to me last week after the U.S. Capitol was assaulted.
In that long-ago summer, I lived a few blocks from the Capitol and walked to work. The sight of the building as I rounded the corner each morning never failed to thrill me. I often passed back by the Capitol on evening strolls. Its famous dome looked best to me in moonlight.
Gleaming like a wedding cake, the Capitol seemed to express a purity of purpose worthy of a great nation. I knew that politics could be tawdry, touched by opportunists and clowns. But to see the Capitol at the start and close of each day was to harbor the hope that the ideals of democracy might be reconciled with the practical realities of governance.
All these years later, I still carry that hope, though it was shaken by Wednesday’s events. As I told my two grown children, seeing the Capitol defiled was, for me, like witnessing the burning of a church or the American flag.
During my internship, I saw up close one sitting president, Ronald Reagan, and a future one, George Herbert Walker Bush, who was then vice president. Each man held strong convictions but stood for basic civility. It’s a blessing they didn’t live to see what happened last week.
On Bush’s presidential inauguration day in 1989, I happened to be reading George Orwell’s famous essay, “Politics and the English Language,” first published in 1946. Inaugurations are great pageants of politics, an occasion to think usefully about the burdens and promise of elective office. But Orwell’s essay, which discusses the responsibility all of us share for civil discourse, proved a timely reminder for me that the work of free people isn’t just for a handful of politicians. In what they say and how they act, ordinary citizens ultimately decide what kind of country we have.
Which is why, since 1989, I’ve reread “Politics and the English Language” each inauguration day. Orwell’s basic message is that what we say can shape how we and others behave, for good or ill. That underscores the responsibility we each have for thinking before we speak or write. “One cannot change all of this in a moment,” Orwell wrote of the declining quality of public conversation, “but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase … into the dustbin where it belongs.”
My distant summer in Washington brought me to work there at the height of tourist season, when visitors from around the world flocked to the nation’s capital.
I saw how inspired they were by the country we’d created. We can still be that beacon, but our work is cut out for us.