I am a ninth-generation American. My ancestor John Purdum came to Maryland from Wales in the early 1700s. My great-great-grandfather Samuel Purdum, born in Montgomery County in 1801, saw the light in the sky when the British burned Washington in the War of 1812. Now I know how he must have felt.
As a teenage House page in the late 1970s, I roamed the halls of the Capitol every day—even climbed the tiny, curving stairs to the top of the dome—and have returned repeatedly as a reporter in the decades since, most recently a year ago to cover Donald Trump’s impeachment. I once witnessed a near fistfight on the House floor. I saw Rupert Murdoch and a passel of well-dressed Republicans run for their lives down the steps of the Senate when a stray airplane (it turned out to belong to the governor of Kentucky) unexpectedly breached Washington airspace before a memorial service for Ronald Reagan in 2004.
But like every other American now living, I have never seen anything like what happened on Wednesday, and I still can’t get over it. The soaring rotunda—where Union troops were bivouacked in the Civil War, and where during lulls in the long debate over the 1964 Civil Rights Act, bipartisan squads of Senate aides played touch football to break the tension—was overrun by a threatening, angry mob. Televised images of the mayhem shocked millions of viewers worldwide. But perhaps only veterans of the Capitol’s worn old corridors could truly appreciate the degree of desecration.
I once witnessed a near fistfight on the House floor.
Whatever the follies and vices perpetrated daily in its chambers by members of Congress, the Capitol’s physical spaces are maintained with the solemn sanctity of a cathedral. In the third decade of the 21st century, the Senate is so fusty that inkwells and blotting sand still rest on each mahogany desk, in gentle homage to the days of quill pens. Laptops, cameras, and other recording devices are strictly banned from the press galleries and many public spaces, and it was instantly apparent that some of the most harrowing pictures of Wednesday’s invasion were taken in spur-of-the-moment violation of those ironclad rules.
Just how the rioters breached the perimeter of a bastion that is guarded with automatic weapons, and that—especially since a shooting left two Capitol Police officers dead in 1998—is a virtual fortress, will surely be the subject of vigorous investigation and debate. And the result will doubtless be an even more thorough walling off of one of the last remaining buildings in Washington where journalists could still roam freely, buttonholing senators and representatives at will to hold them accountable as they dart between elevator banks and their chamber floors. And that will be a shame—and another crushing, needless loss of the freedoms and accountability that the lumpen insurrectionists purported to be fighting for this week.
I first set foot in the Capitol as a tourist on a bright June morning nearly 50 years ago, and was awed, as I have been ever since, by the paintings and the statues and the noisy hush of democracy in action. A few years later, I spent a summer as a House page, watching Speaker Tip O’Neill order a lunchtime “frankfurt” from an aide in the Democratic cloakroom, and fetching the freshly issued Supreme Court opinion that ruled the University of California’s quota system in admissions was unconstitutional. On my first day, wiseass older pages conned me into believing that the raised platform of the Speaker’s rostrum—where the presiding officer sits—could sink beneath the floor in the event of an attack. If only it could have on Wednesday.
Another crushing, needless loss of the freedoms and accountability that the lumpen insurrectionists purported to be fighting for this week.
After a floor debate on censuring President Jimmy Carter’s U.N. ambassador Andrew Young—in a discussion of Soviet dissidents, Young had said the United States itself had hundreds of “political prisoners”—two members almost came to blows as I removed discarded papers from the floor of the near-empty chamber. Ron Dellums, a towering Black Democratic congressman from California, suggested he could teach John Ashbrook, a runty right-winger from Ohio who had led the charge against Young, a lesson. Dukes were put up and ancestries impugned, before cooler heads separated the pair. That vivid image came to mind as I saw photographs of plainclothes police officers with guns drawn at the center door to the House floor holding rioters at bay—and hooligans posing in the presiding officer’s chair in the Senate where Mike Pence had been sitting minutes before.
My old friend Win McNamee, chief news photographer for Getty Images, captured one of the riot’s most arresting moments: a gloved invader hanging Spidey-style from the rear balcony of the Senate chamber, in front of one of the gilded mottoes carved in the dentil molding, ANNUIT COEPTIS. The same words appear on the reverse of the Great Seal of the United States, above the all-seeing Eye of Providence depicted there. The standard translation: “Providence has favored our undertakings.” In this case, I think not.
It isn’t really true that I know how my forebear felt in 1814 when he saw the awful glowing evidence of the last sack of Washington in the night sky. He would have been just a boy, 12 or 13 years old, and the devastation he witnessed was wrought by an invading foreign power—one that his own grandfather, John D. Purdum, had signed up to fight when he enlisted as a private in the 3rd Company, Upper Battalion, of Montgomery County’s troops, in 1777. What the world saw this week was an invasion of our country’s most hallowed institutions by deluded hordes of our fellow citizens—incited by their own president, and ours. It’s an unsettling question as to which is the greater threat.
Todd S. Purdum is the author of several books, most recently Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution