I don’t remember when I started dreaming to live and work in DC, but I remember my first opportunity to realize that dream. The summer of 2004, I was accepted into the Arizona State University’s Capitol Scholars program. I would come to DC for 10 weeks, taking a class from a professor, and interning for a Member of Congress for 8 weeks. I was starting to live my dream.
The experience was typical for any Hill intern: boring work while wearing an ill-fitting suit in a cramped space, all for no pay. I loved it. I loved showing my badge every day to get into “Member and staff only” areas, spotting the most random celebrities roaming the halls in support of their pet cause, and even getting the honor to listen to Rep. John Lewis speak to a huge room full of other interns for 90 minutes about his life and struggle.
While my list of amazing experiences I will forever remember vividly includes some big events, I’d wanted to share the one constantly at the front my mind the past few days. While I was an intern, the intern coordinator wanted to give me and the other intern a brief tour of the Capitol grounds. This was in part to train us if we needed to go to these places, but also part as a thank you for agreeing to intern. We walked all over the massive Capitol complex, and ended up outside of the Speaker’s Lobby.
The Speaker’s Lobby is just off of the House Floor. If you’re watching the State of the Union, on the other side of the wall you see behind the President, Vice President, and the Speaker of the House is where the Lobby is located. It’s a place for Members to wait between votes or before a scheduled time to speak. It’s a great place for Members to talk about everything from legislation to personal updates, and everything else. One feature of the Lobby are portraits of former Speakers of the House. Most of them have dark tones, a former Speaker sitting in a leather chair, or standing by their desk, maybe a fire burning in the background. During that tour, the intern coordinator pointed out former Speaker Newt Gingrich. Set outside, bright colors, a smiling speaker. Didn’t seem to fit in.
The highlight of this tour was a giant painting, tucked away on the landing of one of the ornate marble steps on the Senate side of the Capitol. The painting, Battle of Lake Erie, by William Henry Powell is over 16 feet high by 26 feet wide. The thing that attached this painting to my mind was I was told the artist couldn’t afford more than one model, so if you look carefully at the faces, they are all the same. Some have darker skin or longer hair, but all the same. When I later worked on the Hill, when friends or family would visit DC, I would always make a point to show off this painting.
As strange as it may sound, this painting gave me a personal connection to the epicenter of my dreams. I felt as if this painting was my secret. In my mind, hundreds of people walked by it every day. If any of them had the time to stop and look at it, I believed they would simply see a depiction of an event in our nation’s history, and never discover the secret. When I would give my tour, I would spend equal time talking about this painting as I would about the Rotunda. To me, it was proof that Congress was important, but accessible.
I have tried to put my thoughts in order after the events of the Capitol on Wednesday, January 6th. All day I thought back to, 12 years earlier, sitting in the House Chamber watching a joint session of Congress tallying the Electoral College votes making the victory of President Barack Obama offical. It was one of those amazing events I will never forget that I mentioned at the start.
As I watched, in horor, as hundreds of people launched a coup, breaching the Capitol, I was furious and sad. It wasn’t until I saw next picture, that I felt myself feeling despair.
I asked myself if I was I wrong about my choice in careers? Was I naive to believe this country was a shining example to the world? Is it possible to ever have faith again, after seeing that picture?
“Our democracy must be not only the envy of the world but the engine of our own renewal.There is nothing wrong with America, that cannot be cured with what is right with America.” This is a quote from President Clinton’s first inaugural address, one I think of frequently. America is an idea, millions before me have fought and died to protect it, nurture it, and give it room to grow. In the aftermath of the attempted violent coup, the public outrage didn’t bind the country together the same way 9/11 did, but it has brought the two sides closer together than in years. Late into the night, Congress returned to finish their job of collecting and tallying the Electoral College vote, and declare what most of us have known since early November, Joe Biden will be our president at noon on January 20th.
As I look to the future, the hope I feel is vastly overshadowed by my anger and fear. However, I can feel it growing, a little at a time. I know, with time to heal and effort to fix the problems we face. As the 15th anniversary of my move to Washington D.C., to pursue impossible dreams, I try to stay strong, positive, and hopeful. My most effective method to combat my feelings when I look at that heartbreaking picture is to remember that I don’t think, I know, that there is nothing wrong with our country that cannot be fixed with what is right with out great country.