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The Radical of America Goes To Washington City: Part 2

September 20, 2008, 9:23 pm

OK, so in my title I am once again ripping off Lauren Berlant, who was ripping off Harriet Jacobs to evoke the historic trope of the pilgrimage to our Nation’s Capital. But one of the ways you can tell I am a real political historian is that I just love Washington. I love Washington like my nephews love a Six Flags theme park. I am a sucker for that transformative moment of recognition that occurs when confronted with the instruments of my own citizenship: the White House, the Capitol Building, the Supreme Court. The Lincoln Memorial makes me weep. Sometimes I think this is because I am the child and grandchild of immigrants: my maternal grandparents came to this country in 1936, as middle-class bankrupts, with two children, and my grandfather thought he was going to die of tuberculosis. Instead, they got back on their feet with a little help from Dr. New Deal and became regular middle-class people again. My grandfather thought Franklin Roosevelt was the greatest man who ever lived, and that he had saved our family.

I wrote my first book about the New Deal.

When I am in Washington doing research, and have a little time, I go visit the Constitution. You know which one I mean: that copy that is supposed to sink deep into the ground, into a bomb-proof shelter when the red phone rings and Vladi or Nikki or Dr. Strangelove on the other end lets you know that the Big One is only five minutes out and we are all going to die. I love it that the rest of us might flame out in cinders and smoke, but the Founding Document will be preserved for eternity.

I have loved Washington since I came here decades ago with my school friend Cornelia Dayton (now also a historian) when I was in the tenth grade or so, escorted by her mother, who took us to all the things we desperately wanted to see: the Kennedy Center, the Senate, the House of Representatives, and a special treat, watching Meet The Press being filmed. You would have to ask my friend what she remembers but I, at least, was in heaven. At one point, when we were in the Senate gallery, there was a roll call vote, and all the Senators filed down one by one. Their names were called, and they voted “Aye” or “Nay,” not like in the House where everyone punched a button. I saw Teddy Kennedy; I saw Hugh Scott, our senator from Pennsylvania who was the Republican minority whip. I saw Sam Ervin, the conservative, segregationist Democrat from North Carolina, who was presiding over the destruction of Tricky Dick Nixon. When they called Ervin’s name to request his vote, he had just lumbered into the chamber and was making his way down the aisle. Everyone else stopped talking, he looked up dramatically, and said firmly: “AH!” Which was Carolinian for aye. It thrilled me to the core.

You think I’m kidding, don’t you? Well, I’m not. It really was my idea of fun. After all, I was the one who skipped most of a summer of wiffle ball in 1973 and stayed inside, eyes glued to the TV, as the Watergate testimony unfolded before the unforgiving, disdainful eyes of Ervin. I yelled at the TV as Nixon’s henchmen perjured themselves: I scorned them almost as much when they gave up and told the truth. I sat rapt the following summer as Representative Barbara Jordon, who in 1972 had been the first Black woman to be elected to the House from the former Confederacy, spoke of her love for the Constitution as a member of the House Judiciary Committee considering the articles of impeachment. Here’s the first part of Jordan’s famous televised speech:

And the rest:

My family thought this was more or less a very odd, although harmless, set of interests; and the Mother of the Radical (MOTheR) had detested Nixon ever since he had smeared Helen Gahagen Douglas in 1950, so she thought it was about time that others came around to her point of view. Besides, other children spent their evenings poring over the day’s testimony to fine-tune the chronology of events that would prove indisputably that the President knew about — had ordered — these illegal acts. Right?

Who knew that I would grow up to find the one career where regular pilgrimages to historic sites and rifling through the papers of the powerful would be a required part of the job? Sadly, I don’t have time for research on this trip, as I have to get home and answer a few thousand emails. But tomorrow before I get on the train, having completed my work on the American Historical Association committee that I am on, I will take a little stroll down to the Capitol just to make sure the Bushies know we are watching them and we do not forgive them for what they have done to our country.

We, the people, that is.

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