The CoffeeTable

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Capitol ideas

I first visited the US Capitol in August 1968. My late Aunt Marjorie, divorced and childless, paid for one niece or nephew to visit Washington every summer, and it was my turn. I was awed exploring national monuments on my own. I walked to the Capitol from Marjorie’s townhouse, through neighborhoods and past the Library of Congress and Supreme Court.

The Capitol combines purposes as an art and history museum, a secular church, an architectural masterpiece, and a workplace for thousands of people who work in the legislative branch of our government. Tour guides pause at a particular spot in the Rotunda and whisper—their voice resonates throughout the gigantic open space, to the wonderment of gawking tourists, gazing up at the frescoes, murals, and gigantic paintings.

Every state gets two statues of noteworthy citizens. As a New Orleans resident, I found Louisiana’s heroes—Huey P. Long and Supreme Court Chief Justice Edward White. I went to Senator Russell Long’s office to get a pass to observe the Senate. (Russell was with his daddy when Huey was assassinated on the steps of the Louisiana State Capitol in 1935.)

The 34-story Louisiana State Capitol is one of only two not modeled on the US Capitol. The other is the Roundhouse in Santa Fe, New Mexico, an abstraction based on kivas of pueblo tribes. I have visited those and the state capitols in Indianapolis, Denver, Atlanta, Jackson, Tallahassee, and Little Rock, where I ran into one of my students who was a member of the Boys State program. That’s why people call Capitol buildings “the people’s house.” They belong to all of us, as do city halls, courthouses, libraries, and other public buildings.

In January 1981, I attended a rally at the Capitol promoting naming Martin Luther King’s birthday as a national holiday. Congressmen spoke, and music was celebrated by the gospel-civil rights a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock and Stevie Wonder, who sang his “Happy Birthday” song for Dr. King. Thousands stood in the deep snow, and no one was injured, nothing destroyed.

Every January since 1973, anti-abortion activists have held a “March for Life” at the Capitol, with tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of protesters, addressed by politicians and leaders of their movement. To my knowledge, no violence has ever occurred, just a lot of signs and food and beverage packaging left behind. I don’t agree with these people, but I understand that our First Amendment rights of free speech, press, religion and assembly guarantee we may march up to government edifices and express our views, for or against socio-political, economic, legal, and especially moral issues. Capital punishment, abortion, climate change, civil rights, the continuing execution of Black people by police—we can do that peacefully. We should be respected for our views and our voices, as we gather and protest responsibly to communicate our sincere beliefs.

That didn’t happen at the Capitol last week. Overturning a legal election is neither moral nor legal, and invading the building to intimidate or attack Congresspeople is criminal. Some attendees may have legitimate concerns about election policies, but these had been squashed repeatedly in court challenges and by the 50 states’ certifications.

Those who invaded with destruction on their minds came at the behest of President Trump. Like he, and his Republican enablers, they should be publicly shamed and charged for their criminal activities, as should be “protesters” who brought violence to government properties in Michigan, Portland, New York and elsewhere, whether left-wing or white supremacist.

When my children were of middle-school age, I brought them to Washington to visit the Capitol, Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, and Smithsonian Museums. I am violated that costumed crazies, some with guns, attacked my capitol to smash and loot, pee in the hallways and threaten people who work there. The death count is up to six, the repercussions incomplete.

One cure: Biden should appoint a commission to modernize how we handle federal elections—redistricting, voter registration, tallying, reporting and certification of results. The Trumpification of unfounded denial of legitimate voting will not go away. I’m an optimist, but check your history—the crazies are here to stay.

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