Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Great Day in DC

Sometimes living in the Nation’s Capital doesn’t suck after all—in fact, sometimes it’s pretty damn cool. Like today, on a sunny, windswept afternoon when I drove my car down to Capitol Hill, parked beneath the shadow of the dome, and walked over to Senate Park for a rally against Social Security privatization.

It was truly heartening to see that despite all sorts of construction and other impediments, despite roadblocks and tight security, out of town visitors were all over the Hill to see democracy in action for themselves. I walked across the west front of the Capitol grounds, entered the park and sat down on a set of bleachers next to an older looking woman dressed in sun hat and t-shirt, who, as it turned out, was also from DC, and was there because she had recently qualified for Social Security and felt strongly about the issue. Surrounding me was a group of female AFSCME retirees—some of them old enough to be my grandmother, I’m sure—who had traveled to DC to take part.

Despite being comprised of a variety of organizations, the rally was well-organized—union people know how to do that—and loud. A staffer from the group in charge of the rally handed me a sign and some bottled water expressly ordered for the event (it had anti-privatization slogans on the label—they don’t miss a trick getting the message out, do they?) Things were running late, as they are wont to do in DC, but about ten minutes later the first group of speakers arrived and, one-by-one, took the pedestal to address the crowd. Having grown up here and having attended many of this type of event, I knew what to expect—a lot of slogans for the media (which was there in numbers, both print and broadcast), a lot of catch phrases and rah rah. Truth be told, if it were just these folks speaking, I might have considered staying at home. But a large group of House and Senate Dems was scheduled to appear, so I stuck around past the scheduled ending time to see the grand finale. (Hey, you don’t get opportunities like this one that often, even when you live here.)

And it was pretty damn grand indeed, even by Washington pomp and circumstance, everything-is-a-photo-op standards. Instead of walking the group of elected officials up to the stage from the side, the rally organizers walked them through the assembled crowd and right past the bleachers where I was seated. I know most people will not understand this, but to many here in the Nation’s Capital, politics is a spectator sport, and these people are its first-teamers. I live here, and I seem them all the time, so it’s very easy to get jaded. But even I was stunned to see the parade of familiar faces that walked so close by me, stopping to shake hands as they walked. Despite the obviously choreographed nature of the proceedings, it was nonetheless awe-inspiring to see the leaders of our democracy walking among “the people,” especially given increased security concerns here in DC. Sen.s Patrick Leahy and Paul Sarbanes, Rep.s Charles Rangel and Barney Frank, all familiar names and faces, heroes to many. There was Hillary, shaking hands, smiling at the dozens of women calling out her name. And before I knew it, there was Sen. Ted Kennedy with his lion’s mane of stunning silver hair, his ruddy complexion glowing as he reached out to greet people.

[Note: My parents both voted for Jack in ‘60 and worked for Bobby’s ill-fated 1968 presidential campaign. I myself worked on Ted’s campaign in 1980, so what follows should come as no surprise to anyone: When Sen. Kennedy walked by, I couldn’t help myself. I reached out and I shook his hand. And I’m not sorry.]

The rally was spirited and lively—Rep. Rangel got by far the most crowd response with his uniquely New Yawk speech and demeanor—but all to soon (hectic schedules being what they are), the busy politicos filed off to walk back across the Hill to their respective offices (after first signing a pledge to protect Social Security to the strains of Tom Petty’s ubiquitous rallying cry “I Won’t Back Down”). Parading in ones and twos, stopping to greet well-wishers and constituents, they walked purposefully back across the sun-dappled lawn toward the Capitol dome. Joining beside them, I was both thrilled and awestruck to finally have the opportunity to shake hands with the great Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a truly larger than life figure who, despite my being a lifelong DC resident, I had previously seen only in history books. This is the guy from the documentary footage, the guy who truly put his body (and his life) on the line that day in Alabama, the guy who got his head bashed in on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The guy who spoke at the March on Washington, one of the founding members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, truly one of the great figures of the modern civil rights movement. It’s not often living history walks right in front of you, and you have to seize these chances when you can. I approached him and mustered something to say—what do you say to one of your heroes?—and shook his hand. He very graciously smiled, responded, and with great dignity went on his way. That right there, I thought, is all that is uniquely American, truly what makes this country great: That figures such as this are still here, and are still, after all we have been through, so accessible, is nothing short of a miracle for which we should all thank our lucky stars every day.

As mind-blowing as this all was to me, even this was all fairly normal, and fairly typical by Washington standards. Typical, that is, until I became aware of a flurry of activity to my right as I continued to walk across the Hill beside the parade of politicians. It was Sen. Barack Obama.

Those of you who do not know who he is yet, I have two words for you—you will. This man is a rock star. People ran out calling his name, chasing after him just to touch him. As I parted ways with the main procession and stood on a corner to cross the street, I encountered a group of kids from the Close Up organization, a group that brings school kids to Washington to witness “democracy in action.” Well they got that and then some when Sen. Obama suddenly appeared in their path. There was a group of about ten kids, probably eighth grade or so, of mixed ethnicity and gender. I have lived here all my life, and I have never—repeat—never seen kids react to a politician like they did to this man. They stood there on the corner in open-mouthed awe, daring each other to step forward and greet the freshman senator from Illinois. Finally, one girl bravely ran up to get his autograph, (which she did) and then ran back to the group screaming like she had just met Elvis (work with me here, no one gets this reaction in today’s music world, at least not that I have seen). I mean, this girl was jumping up and down with a look of crazed adoration I have seen only in footage of Beatles concerts.

Jaded person that I am, this sight truly brought tears to my eyes. Yeah, I am a political junkie and probably place way too much value on these things, and yeah, I have lived here and seen it all, but I honestly thought that the next generation of Americans just didn’t care about anything, that “the kids” were disinterested and disengaged, and that things were in a very bad way as a result. I truly held out little hope that the kind of selfless passion for public service and activism that I had witnessed as a child of the ‘60s would ever return. In fact, I had pretty much given up on the idea that the “youngsters” could be convinced to care passionately about much of anything beyond the latest cell phone accessory. To see them care enough to come to Washington, and to know who these people were by sight, and then to see them recognize them as real heroes–role models even—was positively stunning to me. I really have believed for a long time that one of the biggest problems facing this country is that children today don’t look to public service as a career choice anymore, that they all aspire to be basketball players or musicians, to make lots of money and participate in the greed and conspicuous consumption that have all too sadly become the norm. Today, however, I am happy to report that I have been convinced otherwise. There is indeed hope for America’s future—at least there is as long as there are kids who genuinely care as much as these kids clearly did about the persons who, as duly elected representatives of The People, speak for them.

It’s not every day you get to see history, get to shake hands with one of your heroes, get to have your (ever-waning) faith in humanity and in the future of the Great Experiment that is the American Republic restored. Many days, living here in Washington really is everything it is cracked up to be—a depressing treadmill of sycophancy and dysfunction. And as Washingtonians, we have grown quite accustomed to hearing about how other cities are bigger, better, or just more "real." But on bright sunny, star-crossed days like today, living here in the Nation’s Capital “doesn’t suck” at all—on days like today, it just out and out rocks. (Take that, New York City.)

Oh, and watch out for this Obama fellow, I hear he’s going places.


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