Remembering when the Capitol was a place for people, not mobs

I spent a lot of time in the nation's Capitol during our 23 years in Washington. A lot has changed over the years.
"Red sky in morning, sailors take warning." That nautical thought was on my mind when I shot this photo of the Capitol on a storm day in 1991.

When I walked into the Rayburn House Office building on Capitol Hill in March 1981 to begin work as a press secretary to Rep. Paul Findley of Illinois I nodded to the police officer at the desk in the lobby without any metal detectors or security.

Same for when I went to the clerk’s office in the Capitol to be photographed for my ID. The subway under the Rayburn Building took me to the Capitol without any security stops along the way.

I felt a sense of awe walking through the hallway of the Capitol. On a warm day later that month, I decided to walk home, a trek that took about an hour and a half. I walked through the National Mall, stopping more than once to look at the Smithsonian Building, the Washington Monument.

The Lincoln Memorial. Always a good place to photograph.

Crossed over to Pennsylvania Avenue and walked by the front of the White House, then walked over to M Street that led into Georgetown before crossing over the Potomac River on Key Bridge to walk up Wilson Boulevard for the final segment to home at 3800 North Fairfax Drive, our condo that was our home for the next 23 years.

Capitol Hill became more security conscious in 1983 when a bomb exploded outside on the cloakroom in the Capitol. Those coming into buildings had to stop at the desk and let the officers examine the contents of their briefcases.

That wasn’t required for those who had parking spaces in the garages of their office buildings. I drove into my spot in the Rayburn and took the elevator up to the first floor to reach our offices without going through any security checkpoints.

As the years progressed, metal detectors stood at the House office entrances for the public but staff with IDs could bypass them. That ended when a staff member in a Congressional office was caught with a concealed weapon and staff had to go through the detectors.

Had metal in my hip and legs from a helicopter crash long before starting work on Capitol Hill and the metal detectors light up like a Christmas tree. After an examination by the House physician, I was given a card to show the officers that explained the metal that set of the alarms.

Security had tightened even more the time I left Capitol Hill in 1987 to become vice president for political programs for the National Association of Realtors. It was more relaxing to walk into the NAR building on 14th Street, NW, without the need for ID badges or briefcase searches.

Shortly after leaving “government service,” Rep. Manuel Lujan, the ranking member of the House Science and Technology Committee, where I served as his special assistant for three years, was appointed Interior Secretary for incoming president George H.W. Bush, called me and offered me a top job with him.

I thought about it but declined.

I thanked Manuel, who remained a friend until he died last year in retirement in his home state of New Mexico, for his offer.

“For one thing, I’m making far more than your job pays,” I said. “But that’s not the real reason. I like being able to go to work in the morning without having my briefcase searched, police using mirrors to make sure nothing explosive is attached to the bottom of my car, or having to display and ID.

“I don’t blame you,” he said before offering me a spot on his informal “kitchen cabinet.” We gathered two or three times a month for talk issues, politics and other things that had nothing to do with government.

And we met at restaurants where we did not have to go through any metal detectors or security.

Of course, we all had to go through “background security checks,” by the Secret Service, who also provides protection f0r members of a president’s cabinet.

Then 9/11 turned Washington into an armed encampment. By that time, I was working in journalism again, with an ID badge around my neck and constant checks through security checkpoints.

Today, more than 16 years after we left the National Capital Region and moved to Floyd County, we see the Capitol surrounded by a security fence topped with razor wire that erected “for the time being” after a mob of thugs stormed the building, shut down Congress for a while, threatened Representatives and Senators and killed a Capitol Hill police officer.

Friends of ours who still live and work in DC say they doubt that fence will ever come down.

Damn. It was a lot more open and fun back in 1981.

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