"You can’t use tact with a Congressman! A Congressman is a hog! You must take a stick and hit him on the snout!"
Henry B. Adams
These are trying times for the first branch of government. Ignore the evident knavery and imbecility of the actual legislation Congress produces. Think of the collapse of dignity that has manifested itself in the physical look of the place, and the comportment of its members duly chosen and sworn.
We are long departed from the days when the graceful neoclassical architecture of Latrobe and Bullfinch reared itself atop Jenkins Hill (the original name of Capitol Hill) amid the sleepy precincts of a provincial border town. Within recent memory, the open accessibility of the Capitol was a blessed relief from the bunker-like greyness and petty authoritarianism of a typical office building belonging to the executive branch. A stroll about the East Lawn of the Capitol, shaded by the stately oaks and elms dating to time out of mind, could refresh one even on the most miasmic summer day.
It is all gone, gone where Saturn keeps the years. The Capitol of this allegedly constitutional republic swarms with cops; is defaced with Jersey wall by the linear mile; is scarred by entrenchments worthy of the Siegfried Line; and, in a crowning insult, is now host to an a-building "visitor center" that is a wonder of bad planning and worse execution.
The Capitol Visitor Center, a $1-billion boondoggle that is debt-financed by your children, was ostensibly intended (and before 9/11) to "improve security," as well as to pander to the peculiar American amnesia about our own history. A distressing trend in the United States is the popular belief that monuments, memorials, and historically significant buildings cannot stand for themselves. Evidently, the gawking tourist needs a Disney-fied exhibition to inform him of the importance of what he sees. Accordingly, the oaks and elms of the East Lawn were bulldozed to make way for a visitor center.
In order to mitigate the destruction of the view, the Architect of the Capitol decreed that the center should be buried in the ground like a bunker. This patronage employee forgot, however, an elementary fact of Washington history: the Tiber River. The Tiber, which suggestively takes its name from the river that flowed through imperial Rome, coursed across the Capitol grounds, down through the malarial flats of the Mall, and eventually debouched into the tidal swamps of the Potomac. It was in due course buried by 19th century engineers.
The result of digging into ground traversed by a subterranean river can be imagined: a scene out of the trenches of Passchendale after a heavy rain. More cost overruns. And all this for a lie: the center was never intended to inform the ignorant tourist.
The primary (if unspoken) rationale for the Capitol Visitor Center was that it would create enough extra space that administrative and housekeeping functions now located in the Capitol building proper could be moved to the center. This action would free up space in the Capitol so that more congressmen could be assigned "hideaway" rooms there, in addition to their official offices in the adjacent House and Senate office buildings. Thus could a duly elected representative of the people sleep undisturbed from the importunings of his staff, or of constituents; or enjoy a fine bourbon in privacy; or perhaps give dictation to a comely secretary free of interruption. At $1 billion, a bargain, considering that that is the amount of money this country expends every four days in Iraq.
Oddly, none of the Bulldog Drummonds who ply their trade as Washington political reporters has commented on the fact that the Visitor Center was launched when former Rep. Bob Ney (R-Incarcerated) was chairman of the House Administration Committee and self-described "mayor of Capitol Hill." A close look at some of those contracts might fascinate an auditor or a U.S. attorney.
The physical defacement of the institution which represents the idea of representative government parallels the decay of its elected representatives. A recent, and topical, exhibit occurred on the occasion of the State of the Union speech.
We have already commented on the morphology of these addresses: their Stalin-era atmosphere of leader worship; the leaden bloat of the address itself, the sheer nonsensicality of the ideas the speech embodies; and the gratuitous inclusion of Joe Blow references to "American heroes" strategically salted in the gallery near the First Lady.
Where Congress has veritably jumped the shark is the fact that its sycophancy is no longer merely in the hallowed political tradition of cement-faced hacks extolling their Führer in a familiar manner. It has crossed the threshold to the realm of the adolescent-erotic. As the Supreme Warlord exited the House chamber at the conclusion of his latest turgid speech, he was besieged by eager representatives; were they asking him about Iraq, or some other weighty issue? Not a bit of it; they were seeking autographs, like teeny-boppers at a Royal Albert Hall performance of the Rolling Stones. Imagine constitutional officers of a co-equal branch of government behaving in this fashion. And one representative, named Michele Bachmann (R-MN), went further into the teeny-bopper motif: she clung to our chief magistrate and tried to passionately kiss him, evoking the erotic tension on display in those old newsreels wherein dirndl-clad maids wept and leapt for joy at the sight of their Leader at places like Nuremberg. While men are rightly reviled for their cretinous attraction to insensate violence and proud stupidity, the role of the weaker sex as enablers of homo sapiens’ worst instincts has been historically underplayed.
The Wikipedia biography of this daughter of the Gopher State is revealing; someone with an obsession for piling on detail felt compelled to narrate the life of this basically unimportant person. Unimportant in herself, but representative of a typology: the type of human Chevrolet who now rises in the American political system, with a little help from Karl Rove and $3 million from the Republican National Committee.
Ms. Bachman is utterly typical of a certain kind of robo-candidate, whose reflexive attitudes cluster in a predictable aggregation: anti-government, but pro-war (the most characteristic and expensive form of government activity); as a school board member, she was opposed to the biological hypothesis of Charles Darwin, but as a U.S. representative she favored social and economic Darwinism by voting against an increase in the minimum wage. Her own campaign blog from last August demonstrates an embarrassing immaturity and reinforces the notion that politics and eroticism are closer together than commonly supposed.
Hundred scores of these Botoxed Golems are abroad in the land, infiltrating school boards, library committees, boards of supervisors, and zoning commissions. With glazed expressions and cheerily vapid smiles, they seek to spread the gospel of the Rev. James Dobson. Like the portrait in The Picture of Dorian Gray, the physical defacement of the Capitol and its grounds mirrors the moral and intellectual decay of those associated with it.
WERTHER is the pen name of a Northern Virginia-based defense analyst.