Don't Fence Us Out (extended version)
Updated: Apr 22
Robert Caro, the award-winning writer who has spent more time thinking about LBJ than probably even Lady Bird did, told a story about his frustration at not being able to pinpoint the essence of Johnson, to figure out what made him love Washington and politics as much as he did.
One day during his research, a Johnson congressional aide told Caro that Johnson, as a young congressman from Texas, always arrived at the Capitol from his tiny apartment out of breath. Caro, as any good journalist would, walked the same route from Johnson's apartment, but after several weeks still could not find what he was looking for - why Johnson finished his commute to work with a run up Capitol Hill.
He finally hit upon the idea of walking the same route as Johnson - at the same time of day Johnson did.
He discovered that in the early morning, sunrise struck the white marble of the Capitol Building just so and created the illusion that the entire facade of the building was ablaze - exhilarating Johnson and causing him to break into a trot.
As a former resident of Washington and someone who can still be awestruck by the magnificence of the government architecture there, I knew exactly what Caro saw and meant. Riding the bus or walking to my job bustin' suds at a nearby deli, I used to see that same glow around the Capitol building.
That's why, when some lawmakers and police officials proposed making permanent the barbed wire fencing placed around the Capitol after the January 6 insurrection, my first impression was "Chill, homes."
What's next - requiring fingerprint or retinal scans - I said retinal - to enter the city?
Not only would such fencing make the Capitol, "The People's House," look like an inaccessible armed fortress, but it would deprive future elected officials and suds busters of the breathtaking sight that greeted and enthralled Johnson.
After the recent assault that left a Capitol Police officer dead and another wounded, more people are championing the placement of a permanent barrier around the Capitol. The death of Officer Billy Evans was a national tragedy, and so was the death of Officer Brian Sicknick, even though an autopsy concluded that Sicknick died as a result of strokes, and not being beaten by the insurrectionists trying to overthrow the government. Even though there has been no political or terrorism link to the assault that killed Officer Evans,, calls for a barricade around the Capitol have intensified.
Again, Chill, homes. Whatever sense of security we gain from the fortification, we'll lose something more, something indefinable.
Weeks after 9/11, I drove into Washington and was greeted by a heart-stopping and heartbreaking sight: soldiers atop the Pentagon manning mounted 50-caliber machine guns.
Is this armed encampment really America's capital? I asked myself.
Sadly, it was. But it didn't use to be, nor does it have to be again.
The Capitol I love is the one into which I once strode unmolested, en route to an interview for a summer internship with Strom Thurmond. The president of the college I was attending and for whose student newspaper I served as editor called in a favor with the South Carolina senator and set it up. I, freshly scrubbed and smelling of vanilla extract - hey, I'd run out of Brut - presented myself at his office at the appointed time. I didn't get to see ol' Strom, but his dark-suited aides were full of encouragement and back-slapping bonhomie. They acted impressed and promised to pass along to him my resume and clips.
Since I never heard back from them, I imagine that once they read some of the incendiary editorials I'd written, my chances for an internship melted faster than an ice cube on a D.C. summer sidewalk.
After being ushered out of Sen. Thurmond's office, I got onto an elevator where the only other passenger was Sen. Ted Kennedy. I was too awed to speak to my political hero, but I vividly remember thinking "Boy, if the fellas back at the poolroom in Rockingham could see me now!"
Years later, while publishing my own newspaper in Rockingham, we led a crusade to prevent the school board from erecting a fence around the beloved Leak Street School because of a few incidents of minor vandalism. The school, the Richmond County North Star editorial argued, was too integral a part of the community to be blocked off by an ugly chain link fence: our effort failed.
I hope those who don't want to see a fence around our Capitol don't fail this time. Remember how, after 9/11, some people tried to make every personal grievance a referendum on that terrorist attack?
● If I don't get extra fries with my steak, the terrorists win.
● If the grocery store doesn't honor my expired coupon for Cheez Its, then the terrorists win.
● If I have to take my shoes off to get on this plane, then the terrorists win.
Hogwash, one and all. If, however, we get to the point in this country that we have to start fencing in and blocking off our institutions - making them inaccessible to "we the people" - then the terrorists will win.
Don't miss - Coming soon: My meeting with President Nixon - with picture - that almost shut down my school.