The Capitol I knew

January 7, 2021

One afternoon in the summer of 1998 I was sitting in my cramped broadcast booth in the Senate Radio & TV Correspondents Gallery in the Capitol, where I spent my days reporting on Congress for listeners all over the world on the Voice of America. I had just filed a routine story when the gallery’s director came on the intercom: “We have a report of gunfire in the Capitol.”

I grabbed my tape recorder and ran to the East Front of the building, where the shooting took place. I quickly found and interviewed several tourists who’d heard the shots and witnessed the chaos, one of them telling me, “It was like a movie.” But it was real. A schizophrenic man named Russell Eugene Weston had walked up to a door and fatally shot the Capitol Police officer who tried to stop him. He then ran inside and mortally wounded a second officer who returned fire, which allowed others to capture him.

As people fled and police swarmed in, I did a live cellphone report, then raced down Capitol Hill to the VOA newsroom, where I threw together a story with tape of the tourists and my own observations. I was never in danger and I think I sounded calm on the air, but was still shaken. It felt worse than 9/11 when I ran out of the building with everyone else because Flight 93 was inbound.

In those times, even cynical journalists and hard-edged partisans shared a feeling of respect for the Capitol and what it stood for, what President-Elect Biden called, “a citadel of liberty.” For many, the Hill was like a big, loud, sometimes dysfunctional family. That day, two members of the family died and our sense of comfort and sanctity was briefly shattered.

Yesterday, January 6, 2021, was flat-out horrifying. It was like watching your old house burn to the ground. I can’t imagine what it was like to spend hours sheltering from the president’s fascist mob.

However, I recognized the resolve in the faces and voices of the lawmakers who returned to the House and Senate to finish counting electoral votes and denounce the terrorists and their supporters. I saw the same resolve on the morning of 9/12, when a frail, 83-year-old Senator Robert Byrd stepped to the podium and brought the gavel down hard, a resounding signal that Congress and the nation would not be cowed.

The last time we had a disputed election, the 2000 race between Bush and Gore, it ended up across the street from the Capitol in the Supreme Court. While the justices heard arguments I was outside, talking to peaceful protestors on both sides. Like today, some were angry about how ballots were handled, including the man quoted below in an excerpt from my story. But they all had the same answer about how they’d react to the final outcome of the case.

“Another Bush backer, Mark Elrod, says he spent 28 years in the armed forces and was incensed when the Gore campaign challenged absentee ballots cast by troops stationed overseas. (Tape of Elrod) ‘It made my blood boil. And I’ve been at just about every rally for Bush and Cheney ever since that I could get to here.’ Still, Mr. Elrod says he would accept Mr. Gore as president should he prevail in court. The Democrats say they would also accept Mr. Bush, even though some say that might be difficult.”

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David Swan

Writer, editor, ex-journalist, all-around communicator. Comfortable in real and fictional worlds. Always on the lookout for a great story.