When people hear that I worked on Capitol Hill for a number of years, they sometimes say something like “That must have been awful – aren’t the politicians just terrible people?”
And my answer surprises them – no, they’re not. They’re not terrible people at all. I liked covering Congress and, by and large, I found the people I covered to be sincere, conscientious, and public spirited. Sure there are plenty of big egos, and a few power-mad manipulators, a few hypocrites and some outright criminals. But anytime you get 535 people together – particularly ambitious and well-educated ones – you’re likely to find plenty of individuals who fit those descriptions.
Most of the people in Congress started their political lives just like our local officials here – planning commissioners, mayors, city council members, state legislators. And what’s interesting is that the members of Congress themselves don’t like some of the things that we in the general public don’t like about Congress – I have never met a member who said he or she enjoyed the relentless fundraising, the constant buzz from lobbyists, or the partisan bickering that erupts in the Capitol.
There is nothing that humanizes people like living among them. My wife and I lived on Capitol Hill, one block off Pennsylvania Avenue, so we were constantly surrounded by members and their staffs. Our next-door neighbor was Rep. John Lewis of Atlanta. He is an icon of the Civil Rights movement and a skilled partisan brawler, but he also had plants in his front yard that needed water when he was away, so we’d water them for him.
I used to see then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott using a leaf blower to clear his front yard; often he was shirtless in the sweltering D.C. summer and fall. Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia, famous for his strident prosecution of the Clinton Impeachment case, also happened to like to tell jokes with reporters – and he’s pretty funny too. Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, now the governor of that state and a polarizing figure on the far right of the GOP, is a quiet, humble guy who liked to make small talk with anyone who happened to be nearby as he strolled alone from the Capitol to his office.
It is so easy to project our fears and passions on national figures we don’t know – whether they be politicians or celebrities. It is easy to reduce them to caricatures, making them out to be saints or demons, heroes or villains. It’s easy to conclude that because someone disagrees with us, that person must be evil or means us harm.
But that’s not the reality on the ground. The members of Congress – and the many state legislators and local officials I have known over the years – are humans, with all the fears, frailties, hopes, and joys we have. They aren’t just like us, they ARE us – we elect them and send them off to do the public business.
That’s why this week’s shooting in Virginia was so upsetting to me. It isn’t just that I grew up there and worked in the area for years (I grew up in Alexandria and have friends and relatives who live as close as immediately across the street from the shooting site), and it isn’t that I know any of the injured members (all of the wounded, as far as I know, were elected after I left D.C.).
Instead, it was an extreme example of this tendency we have to create strawmen, to project ill motives and bad intentions on people we don’t know. The shooter seems to have seen these members of Congress as something other than fully human – as if they were invaders or threats that needed to be removed by force.
As troubled and dysfunctional as our government can be, it remains a self-governing republic, where public-spirited people get into politics, serve their communities, and sometimes, move on to higher national office.
The attack on these members of Congress, or on any public official, is a blow to our hopes that a government by the people, of the people, and for the people can long endure.