Headed into Washington, DC yesterday morning to do a bit of exploring, curious to see how preparations were going for the upcoming Inauguration and to check out an old haunt, the U.S. Capitol. Many, many years ago I had the honor and privilege of serving as a Congressional Page in the U.S. House of Representatives. Each morning I'd make the short trek up New Jersey Ave., SE from my dorm in the old O'Neill House Office Building, walking to the Capitol itself when the heat and humidity wasn't insufferable, cutting through the Cannon House Office Building and taking advantage of the overzealous air-conditioning when it was.
The area around the Capitol is much different now, with the O'Neill building long since torn down, the surrounding streets closed off by barricades and monitored by law enforcement on pretty much every corner. The Capitol itself, at one time both stately and welcoming now looks tired, foreboding and cold; massive renovations putting on a new veneer but unable to hide the signs of age. Police with high-powered weapons stand on the Capitol steps; DC Fire and EMS vehicles stand poised to respond to any incident... and House Pages no longer raise the American flag over the Capitol each morning.
When I served on the Hill it seemed a much brighter, warmer, and welcoming place. No doubt my age, enthusiasm and wide-eyed wonder helped to filter my perception, as did working at a time of monumental geopolitical and social change. We were "witnesses to history," and, to paraphrase a song of the era, had front row seats watching the world wake up from it.
Twenty-eight years later both the world and Washington, DC are markedly different; the Information Age, 9/11 and years of war contributing to a landscape where a caustic brand of partisanship, rancor and self-righteous exceptionalism has tested, frayed and torn our social fabric as a nation. Collectively we don't know who to trust or who to believe; virtues such as integrity, humility and generosity seen more as defects rather than exemplars of character.
D.C. both looks and feels tired; it's not how I remember it.
But here's the thing: Good people will always come to Washington and emerge the better for it. For every public servant who seemingly garners attention for all the wrong reasons there's an army of selfless individuals toil anonymously for the right reasons. Interns, legislative aides; speechwriters, researchers... people who in some cases work for nothing and don't receive much in the way of appreciable compensation do good work for the right reasons; because they want to make the world a better place and/or because they want to make a difference.
Its for these reasons that - no matter my current feelings about the incoming administration, state of Washington and beyond - I remain hopeful and encouraged. From my Page "class" alone any number of friends have continued their service to our country and citizens. The friendly kid from Texas with the big smile is now a respected Texas Court Justice and community leader who somehow finds time to play violin in his local symphony. There's the soulful young woman from Arkansas who ended up in The White House, her gift of writing and ferocity of spirit serving not only her sensibilities, but the First Family. There's our mutual friend who, once having shared her music collection, now shares stories from years in the U.S. Department of State and helping promote U.S. educational opportunities in the Middle East and North Africa. There's the longtime, state representative in Louisiana who honors his one-time Page sponsor through his work ethic and integrity... and there's the bankruptcy attorney and rights advocate in North Carolina who, in addition to playing a mean guitar, taught me long ago that, "It's never goodbye, it's see you later."
They are people of character who also happen to be characters; my kind of people.
I'd like to think that Washington is preparing to accept and influence a similar crop of young people no matter their political persuasion or personal beliefs; people whose passion and energy will ultimately serve to help us see life as being more than simply black or white.