I began a three-decade congressional staff career 51 years ago this month. I’ve been retired for two decades and understand all too well today’s Hill staffers work in an environment quite unlike the one I enjoyed. Comity in Washington is a spirit that is in retirement as well.
Jan. 6 was a sad time in American history and will forever be called another day of infamy. Our democracy was under siege just as it was at Pearl Harbor 79 years ago. I was spellbound before my television and computer screens showing chaos in the U.S. Capitol.
I shook my head in horror as domestic terrorists paraded through the place where I worked. They invaded space open only to members of Congress and senior staff. It was frightening to see them rampage and assault our democracy.
I shall never forget seeing police aiming their handguns at the rioters rushing the House chamber at the very doorway where I shook the hand of Lyndon B. Johnson as he exited the chamber after his final State of the Union speech before a joint session of Congress. The excitement of that moment at that place still rings in my memory as the first time I shook the hand of a president and the first time I had been at the House chamber!
As time went on, I shook the hands of six more presidents and walked those halls countless numbers of times. Trying to absorb the history of the House chamber where I was offered the privilege of sitting in the chair of the speaker one weekend afternoon many years later, I wondered what my great grandparents — who as teenagers fled the tyranny of the czars of Eastern Europe in the 1800s for the freedoms of America — would think of seeing one of their offspring at that moment in the center of the greatest democracy in the world!
That is an experience I shall never forget. I wonder what the founding fathers would think about the turmoil of recent days if they were offered the same privilege.
I know we would agree the Capitol is not just a building. It is a hallowed symbol of freedom recognized throughout the world.
An attack on it is an attack on democracy itself. It carries a strong message worldwide.
While I was a young father of two young daughters in Washington, I always tried to impress upon them that most American kids would never have the opportunity to do what they did in the 1970s — to see the Capitol up close let alone run around its plaza, pose for pictures on its steps with their puppy or watch a spectacular Fourth of July fireworks celebration on the Mall from a picnic blanket on its lawn. For me, just being under the dome and its Statue of Freedom brought a feeling of awe that has never gone away.
Fast forward to today: So what went through my mind when I saw rioters smash windows, trash offices and parade Confederate flags through it for the first time in U.S. history? I was shellshocked and am still angry.
How could they penetrate the post-9/11 security barriers? How did their insurrection overpower the Capitol Police? Why was one police officer taking selfies with the thugs? How could this happen?
The answer is obvious: The U.S. Capitol Police were unprepared, understaffed and overwhelmed. Somebody, somewhere above their pay grade ignored all the intelligence gathered over the preceding days and weeks signaling that something destructive was on the horizon. And when it was obvious that it was happening, somebody, somewhere did not call for reinforcements until it was too late.
The new Congress and administration will examine the “whats” and “whys” in the months to come. They already know it was an attempted coup by domestic terrorists. Demonstrations in D.C. are nothing new.
In the 1970s, I took my cameras to the mall to capture for posterity images of the emotions of protests of the war in Vietnam. I did the same two decades later at the Million Man March. I photographed them for hours at a time. They were just as angry and committed but they did not set out to storm and ransack the Capitol. They did not threaten our democracy.
Today, the good news is that America survived a four-year narcissistic embarrassment occupying the White House and an attack on its greatest strength, our democracy itself.
We always have and always will survive.
Our democracy is stronger than any single man and terrorists of any stripe. That is the real America.
What we must never forget, though, are the names and excuses of the congressional enablers such as New York’s Elise Stefanik — seditionists, the apologists without backbones who failed to stand up to a president who for four years poisoned the minds of a cult of followers-turned-terrorists.
Cary R. Brick served as executive assistant to U.S. Rep. Robert C. McEwen and congressional chief of staff for U.S. Rep. David O’B. Martin, both of St. Lawrence County, and John McHugh of Jefferson County during a Washington career spanning 30 years.