Thursday, August 11, 2011

Our nation's Capitol

Jefferson Smith arrived in Washington D.C. to be met at Union Station by an entourage of handlers dispatched by his mentor, Senator Joseph Paine. Immediately drawn to the dome of the U.S. Capitol Building a few blocks beyond the front door of the great railway station, Mr. Smith ditched his attendants and hopped aboard a tour bus to explore the sights of the Federal City.
Capitol Building from the entrance of Union Station
This is a scene early on in Frank Capra's classic 1939 film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Mr. Smith, played by Jimmy Stewart, is a young, idealistic scout leader who is chosen for his naiveté (and presumed willingness to follow orders), to replace a recently deceased senator by the corrupt governor of his un-named state.

In the scene that follows, Mr. Smith visits the icons of our democracy, the Declaration of Independence, the Capitol Building, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Washington Monument. The soon to be Senator Smith is swept away with patriotic fervor and raw emotion as are we, (at least those of us above the Mason Dixon Line), when the scene culminates with a visit to the Lincoln Memorial.

Being a Capra movie, not a stop goes un-pulled in extracting every bit of emotional energy from us as Mr. Smith gazes upon the Daniel Chester French likeness of our fallen president. Not a dry eye in the house when he looks to his right to read the words; "with malice toward none and charity toward all" from the Second Inaugural Address, then to his left as a boy with the help of his immigrant grandfather reads from the Gettysburg Address, inscribed on the walls of the monument. As if that were not enough, cut in between are shots of an elderly African American gentleman who removes his hat as he enters the building and reverently directs his focus upon the massive sculpture.

This montage is contrasted by subsequent scenes involving the cynicism that Mr. Smith encounters from the press, his colleagues in the Senate, and his secretary played by the great Jean Arthur.

All that merely sets the table for what's to come, the classic Capra struggle between the ordinary man and all that is wrong with America, personified by "The Man." In this case, the man is a media magnate by the name of Jim Taylor who has Governor Hubert "Happy" Hopper and the more dignified Senator Paine, played by Claude Rains, wrapped around his little finger. The two elected officials are merely pawns to do Taylor's evil bidding.

By the third reel, Jeff Smith gets wise to the depth of the conspiracy around him and with a little help from a few loyal scouts and the vice president, he commandeers the Senate by means of a filibuster and defeats the evildoers.

Hokey as it may seem today, the film was quite subversive in its time. It is a stern indictment, not of the ideals of American government in the least, but in the people who implement them.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. The message of the film, if not its improbable ending, is just as relevant today as it was 72 years ago.

I bring this up because I just returned from Washington, D.C., my second trip in a year. Now I'm just as cynical as the next guy when it comes to politics and politicians. I've been to Washington more times than I can count, yet like Jeff Smith, the great dome and many of the other symbols of our nation in that town still move me beyond words.

The U.S. Capitol Building, the house of the people, not the president, would become the most important building in the United States. Pierre L'Enfant, the man who laid out the original plan for the city of Washington understood this and chose the most significant spot in the region, an area known as Jenkins Heights, for the future Capitol Building. That spot would form the geographic center of L'Enfant's city and the Capitol Building would be visible from all over the city and beyond, as it still is today.

The dome, the building's second, was begun in the 1850s and completed during the Civil War as a symbol of the continuity of the Union during the time of its greatest tragedy. As such, more than one hundred fifty years later, that dome continues to be a symbol of our country and our government (both the good and the bad) all over the world. Small wonder it was one of the prime targets of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. As abominable as the loss of life at the Pentagon and the World Trade Center were, the symbolic loss of the Capitol Building to this country would have been unimaginable. The attacks of that dreadful day almost ten years ago did take their toll on the building. Before that day the Capitol Building was accessible to the public, anyone could just walk in through the front door. Today you have to enter through the subterranean bunker of the Visitor Center a block away and be led around in a tour group. The Capitol is now a little less of the house of the people.

By all matters of judgment, the dome of our Capitol Building, the work of Thomas U. Walter, the Capitol's fifth architect, is a spectacular piece of architecture, it ranks along with those of the Pantheon and St. Peter's in Rome, the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, the Duomo in Florence, and St. Paul's Cathedral in London as one of the great domes of the world. The interior of the dome forming the great rotunda, is of equal or even greater merit. As architecture does matter, it would be interesting to imagine what symbolic power the Capitol Building would have if it still looked as it did in say, 1846. As stately as the original Charles Bulfinch dome was, I'd say it is very unlikely that it would have the same sway over us .

Now imagine if it looked like this, the notorious Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest.

There may be better, more beautiful government buildings in the world, but I can't think of another that has the power to sum up its nation and its ideals as our Capitol Building, I dare say, great as they are, not even the Houses of Parliament in London.

My own Mr. Smith experience was made complete on this past trip as my expressions of admiration for the building were met with cynicism by my Washington colleagues who saw the Capitol, just a stone's throw away, as the symbol of our recalcitrant Congress and their pathetic attempts to deal with the latest budget crisis.

Undaunted by the slings and arrows of their outrageous (but not unwarranted) cynicism, I trudged ahead with my own personal pilgrimage which I follow every time I visit Washington.

More on that later...

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