The Day Politics Spiraled Out of Control

Charlie "Chuck" Cook
January 12, 2021

I would have preferred here to focus on the outcome of the Senate runoffs in Georgia and the Democrats’ takeover of the chamber, but Wednesday’s events make that impossible.

Like a lot of other people in or deeply involved in American politics, Wednesday was one of the most distressing and disturbing days of my life. I felt nauseous, then appalled, then outraged. But my final emotion was a sense of sorrow for what we all had witnessed.

In early June, after George Floyd gasped his last breath under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, I watched the local live television coverage of what had been thousands of people, including families, peacefully marching through downtown Washington. But after nightfall, once the peaceful demonstrators left, they were replaced by vandals and arsonists bent on destruction, on streets that I had grown so familiar with since moving to Washington in September 1972 to go to college. Those streets now looked like a war zone.

Seeing thousands of miscreants laying siege to the Capitol building on Wednesday, then rampaging through the halls, offices, and even the Senate chamber, was too much. I recalled first walking those same hallowed corridors on my first trip to Washington in June 1970, to attend a three-week summer high school debate camp. In my first full day in the city, I walked from the Georgetown University campus past the White House and all the way to that majestic Capitol, in complete awe the whole time. I then hiked the length of the Mall past the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, and over Memorial Bridge to Arlington Cemetery, then back to Georgetown, tired but elated.

Fifty years ago this month, as a second-semester college freshman, I started working part-time in the Russell and Dirksen Senate office buildings, and in the Capitol itself 10 years later.

That Capitol occupies a special place in our federal city. President Abraham Lincoln insisted that construction of the dome continue despite the outbreak of the Civil War. Under that same dome, Lincoln was the first of 12 presidents to lay in state, an honor also granted to generals of the Army like John J. “Black Jack” Pershing and Douglas MacArthur; the Unknown Soldier from the Vietnam War; statesmen like Henry Clay, Everett McKinley Dirksen, and Hubert Humphrey; and most recently John McCain and John Lewis. To see photographs of Capitol Police and other security agents aiming guns to protect the center door of the House Chamber from barbarians trying to break into the same room where President Franklin Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war after Pearl Harbor was deeply disturbing.

The building, in fact, hadn’t seen such a day since the British tried to burn it down in 1814. A similar event occurred in October 1967, when the Army’s 82nd Airborne (including one of my brothers-in-law) was deployed from Fort Bragg to encircle and defend the Pentagon from an estimated 50,000 anti-war protesters led by Abbie Hoffman. But unlike Wednesday, the building was never breached, nor the violence as severe as what we saw Wednesday.

A few weeks after my hike around D.C.’s landmarks, I witnessed another battle on the Mall. Mired in the Vietnam War, President Nixon had the idea of putting on a grand patriotic show for the Fourth of July. “Honor America Day” saw Rev. Billy Graham presiding over a religious service in the morning in front of the Lincoln Memorial, and ending with a nationally televised show near the Washington Monument hosted by comedian Bob Hope and featuring a dozen or so other performers. It drew an estimated 350,000 to the Mall, mostly parents with their kids in tow.

To my Mom and Dad back in Louisiana, it was quite a show. But behind the cameras, there was a different kind of show. Anti-war protesters began hurling rocks and bottles at the Park Police, who returned fire with tear gas. All of those moms, dads, and kids began to flee, leaving picnic blankets and baskets strewn over the mall, as they (and I) got a taste of tear gas for the first time.

But while I make light of that Fourth of July 50 years ago, there was nothing on Wednesday to make light of. We have seen America at her best but on much of Wednesday, we saw her at nearly her worst. The solace didn’t come until late Wednesday night and into the early hours of Thursday morning, when Congress returned to finish its work. The debate over, and ultimate acceptance of, Arizona’s and Pennsylvania’s electors evoked some reassurance that sanity would ultimately prevail. Yet the eight senators and 138 members of the House who voted for at least one of the challenges will need to explain how they could do that after the tragic events of the day.

Our country is in a very delicate place right now. Now is the time for everyone, whether Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal, Never Trumper or Forever Trumper, and yes, journalist, to stand down, lower the temperature, cool the rhetoric, get past the outrage, and skip the gratuitous potshot no matter how deserving the target may be. This has all gotten out of control and it will take everyone taking a deep breath and using their inside voices to get past this.

This article was originally published for the National Journal on January 8, 2021.