Ten Days of Sorrow in Congress

Posted May 23, 2005 at 7:00pm

The 19th century poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once wrote: “Into each life some rain must fall, some days must be dark and dreary.” It’s a sentiment that also applies to the life of the United States Capitol.

In the 211 years since George Washington laid the Capitol’s cornerstone, the seat of American democracy has faced its share of dark days.

The Capitol has been burned to the ground, seen Members attack each other within its hallowed halls, narrowly avoided capture by the Confederacy and been the site of massive riots. And that was just in the building’s first 100 years.

In the half-century since Roll Call was born, we have occasionally had to find some meaning in days where death, panic, fear and sorrow have reared their ugly heads at the Capitol. What follows is a chronological list of 10 “dark and dreary” days.

March 1, 1954
While Roll Call has only been in operation since 1955, no listing of the most tragic days would be complete without including two terrible events in 1954. So we will begin this list one year early.

No quorum call has ever been so ordinary, yet so ominous, as the one summoning House Members for a vote on a run-of-the-mill piece of farming legislation on March 1, 1954. In an instant, the usual banter of Members was cut short by screams from the visitors gallery. Then, some 30 bullets suddenly rained down on the nearly 150 Representatives gathered on the House floor. Members dove for cover behind desks and ran for the doors as shouts of “Freedom for Puerto Rico now!” echoed through the chamber.

The gunmen — Puerto Rican nationalists — had smuggled their weapons into the gallery in packages, which in those days typically went unchecked. By the time the three men and one woman were captured, five Members lay wounded. Reps. Alvin Bentley (R-Mich.), Ben Jensen (R-Iowa), Clifford David (D-Tenn.), George Fallon (D-Md.) and Kenneth Roberts (D-Ala.) all suffered bullet wounds. Bentley’s was the most severe — a shot that pierced his lung and diaphragm. But all eventually recovered.

The four terrorists were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 25 to 75 years. All four were released when President Jimmy Carter commuted their sentences in the 1970s.

June 19, 1954
As the wounds of the attack by the Puerto Rican nationalists began to heal and the 1954 election cycle heated up, Republicans held a Senate majority by a razor-thin margin. And after making enemies with red-baiting Sen. Joe McCarthy (R-Wis.), freshman Sen. Lester Hunt (D-Wyo.) found himself in a targeted race.

With control of the Senate on the line, two McCarthy allies, Sens. Herman Wexler (R-Idaho) and Styles Bridges (R-N.H.), threatened Hunt: Unless he bowed out of the race, they would go public with information that Hunt’s 20 year-old-son was arrested in July 1953 for soliciting prostitution from a male undercover police officer in Lafayette Square.

After initially refusing, Hunt eventually ended his re-election bid on June 8, citing health concerns.

Eleven days later, on a cool Saturday evening, Hunt showed up at his Capitol Hill Senate office with a .22 caliber long-barrel, bolt-action Winchester rifle under his arm. He sat down on his office sofa, put the gun to his right temple and ended his life.

Hunt left a note to his son explaining that the suicide had nothing to do with his arrest. Newspapers of the day explained that the Senator had been suffering from serious and quickly deteriorating health problems and blamed the suicide on Hunt wanting to take charge of how his life would end.

But in his eulogy of Hunt, Sen. Edwin Johnson (D-Colo.) seemed to place blame for the tragedy on the the vicious atmosphere of the Senate that year. Hunt was a quiet and proud man, Johnson said, but “was ill prepared for the cruel, brutal, rough aspect of national partisan politics.”

Nov. 22, 1963
“Capitol Hill was quiet and nearly inactive on a quiet Friday afternoon when news that President Kennedy had been shot exploded like a bombshell,” began Roll Call’s coverage of the president’s assassination in Dallas. The headline: “Capitol, Like the Nation, Was Stunned by the News.”

Initially, Roll Call reported, the information was sketchy, gleaned from fragmentary news on the radio. “As word passed from office to office and along Capitol corridors, nobody kney (sic) whether the President was dead or merely wounded,” Roll Call wrote. “A House Office Building guard, catching an early news flash on a small radio, raced along halls informing Congressmen of the shooting. In the House cafeteria, food servers told stunned patrons of the tragedy.”

Many Congressmen and employees headed for nearby churches. “Speaker John McCormack (D-Mass.), eating lunch in the House dining room, was told of the shooting by a newsman. He immediately went to the House press gallery, sat hunched before a teletype machine until definite word came that President Kennedy was dead. Then, ashen-faced, the Speaker left the room.

“Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass), brother of the President, was informed of the atrocity while acting as presiding officer of the Senate — traditional duty of freshmen. Hurriedly, he left to be with family while Sen. Spessard Holland (D-Fla.) volunteered to take his place in the chair.”

April 4-8, 1968
In the days following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., some 30 cities were devastated by riots. The violence began in Washington, D.C., when, on the evening of April 4, crowds of mourners began to move through the city demanding that local stores close out of respect for King. Though peaceful at first, the mood soon turned threatening, and widespread looting began that evening. The following day, crowds clashed with police and dozens of fires were started throughout the city.

At the height of the violence, upwards of 20,000 rioters overwhelmed local police, and President Lyndon Johnson sent more than 13,000 federal and national guard troops into the city to protect federal buildings and bring the crowds under control. Marines mounted machine guns on the steps of the Capitol building and, on April 5, rioters came within blocks of the White House and Congress.

In an oral history interview by the Senate Historical Office, Christine McCreary, an aide to then-Sen. Stuart Symington (D-Mo.) recalled the racial tension she felt as a black staffer in those days: “When the riots took place in 1968, after Dr. King was shot, I couldn’t get home that night. Because if a black was seen in a car with whites they would try to turn the car over. I had to get Sen. Symington’s administrative assistant, Stanley Fike, I had to get in his car, in the back, down on the floor, and put a blanket over my head, for him to drive me home.”

Peace was restored on April 8, after 1,200 buildings had burned and $27 million in damages were wrought.

June 5, 1968
After securing several victories in his bid to win the Democratic nomination for president, Sen. Robert Kennedy (N.Y.) seemed poised to follow his brother into the White House. Then, in the early morning of June 5, after Kennedy had addressed a large group of supporters in a ballroom at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Sirhan Sirhan, a Los Angeles resident of Palestinian ancestry, opened fire on Kennedy and his entourage with a .22 caliber revolver. Kennedy died as a result of his wounds the following morning.

While other Members’ lives had been cut short due to natural causes or accidents while in office, a sitting Senator had not been killed since more than a century earlier, when, during the Civil War, Sen. Edward Baker (R-Ore.) died while fighting in the Battle of Balls Bluff in Virginia.

Kennedy was buried on June 8 near his brother in Arlington National Cemetery.

After the shooting, with Kennedy’s fate still unknown, Roll Call founder Sid Yudain wrote an emotional piece on the newspaper’s front page. It closed with these words: “The times call not for panic, not for the adoption of a police state, but for action to curb the trend away from the American principal, to re-establish the basis for a democratic land insuring for all the opportunity to pursue his individual endeavors — whether it be walking to the corner store at night or running for the presidency — in the absence of fear.”

March 1, 1971
At 1 a.m. on a Monday, the Capitol operator received a chilling phone call. On the other end of the line, a voice said: “Maybe you have received calls like this before, but this is for real. Evacuate the building. This is revenge for Laos.”

Half an hour later, a bomb exploded in a men’s lavatory on the Senate side of the Capitol, about 100 feet from the Rotunda dome room. The blast ripped through several small offices, blew out skylights several floors above and destroyed a barbershop across the hall. Fortunately, no one was injured.

While the Senate-wing bomber was never found, a radical group known as the Weather Underground took responsibility for the blast, claiming it as a retaliation for American military actions in Cambodia.

The day of the bombing, Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott (R-Pa.) took to the floor to assure the nation that no terrorist action could ever shut the American people off from their seat of government.

“The Senate wing of the Capitol will again be opened to the public just as soon as the damage can be cleaned up,” Scott said. “I am sure that we should not interfere with the right of our people to know what is going on in their Capitol. Indeed, that may be the purpose of this kind of terrorism, to lead us into some kind of excessive or repressive action. … This is not the way by which the Senate of the United States will make its decisions. We are certainly not going to be terrified by these would-be terrorists.”

Nov. 7, 1983
In an eerie replay of events from 12 years earlier, a late-night phone call to the Capitol switchboard — and another to The Washington Post — threw the Hill into a panic. That night, an unidentified caller claimed that a bomb had been planted in the Capitol and was about to go off. The caller said the bomb was intended to support the struggle against American military “aggression” in Grenada and Lebanon.

This time, the bomb exploded just six minutes later.

The blast, at 10:58 p.m., ripped into a public corridor near the Senate Republican Cloakroom, damaging a wood-paneled conference room near the Senate Chamber, ripping the doors from the office of Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and causing $265,000 in damages. Once again, no one was injured.

The next day, Roll Call reported, Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) said the blast “was like a shrapnel explosion.” He said that it would have likely resulted in “an extensive loss of life” if the Senate had been in session.

Seven members of a self-described “communist politico-military organization” were charged in the bombing. Three women — Laura Whitehorn, Linda Evans and Marilyn Buck — were convicted and received sentences ranging from five to 20 years in prison.

July 24, 1998
The usual hum of tourist activity on a Friday afternoon was shattered when gunfire echoed through the Capitol. When it was over, two Capitol Police officers lay dead, the assailant and another bystander critically wounded and the nation stunned that such violence could take place in one of its most sacred buildings.

The tragedy began when Russell Weston — a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic who had been on a Secret Service watch list since making threats against President Bill Clinton — entered the Capitol at about 3:40 p.m. After setting off a magnetometer, Weston pulled a .38 caliber revolver from under his clothes and, without a word, shot and killed Officer Jacob Chestnut, an 18-year Capitol Police veteran.

Weston then proceeded through the first floor of the Capitol toward the office of then-House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas), where staffers had been gathering to celebrate the passage of a piece of health care legislation. It was there that Weston literally ran into Special Agent John Gibson, a plainclothes officer guarding DeLay’s office who was running toward the sound of the shots.

“Gibson, who withstood at least two gun wounds, managed to shoot and down the gunman. … Gibson’s last bullet dropped the gunman in a pool of blood,” Roll Call reported. Gibson, however, succumbed to his wounds.

The following Monday, scores of Members took to the floor of the House and Senate to try to make some sense of the previous Friday’s tragedy.

“They died defending this Capitol building, this temple of law, where armed violence is a sacrilege against our democratic institutions,” then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said. “We search for words to comfort their families, and it is not easy to find them. Some losses stay with us forever.”

Five days after the shooting, a solemn ceremony was held in the Capitol Rotunda, where the two officers were given the honor of lying in state.

Today, Weston is being held in the Federal Correction Institute in Butner, N.C. He has so far been ruled incompetent to stand trial despite nearly three years of court-ordered medication.

Sept. 11, 2001
In what might seem like a familiar headline to today’s Members, the lead story in the Sept. 10, 2001 issue of Roll Call was about Senate Republicans actively encouraging President Bush to mount a more forceful attack against Democrats over the judicial nomination process.

The front-page photo that day was of a smiling Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) posing in his Capitol office with a bull shark he had caught on a fishing trip in Florida.

By the time the next issue of Roll Call was published three days later, the world had become a very different place.

“Amid what may be remembered as the single greatest tragedy in our nation’s history, Congress stood fast,” read the editorial in the Sept. 13 edition. “On the darkest of days, gestures matter, and the show of defiance orchestrated by House and Senate leaders Tuesday stood out as a beacon for millions of citizens groping for answers in the wake of the senseless barbarism perpetrated in New York City, rural Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon. The light inside the Capitol Dome never flickered.

“The 150 lawmakers who gathered on the steps of the Capitol served as physical evidence to back up Speaker Dennis Hastert’s (R-Ill.) assertion that, ‘When America suffers, and when people perpetrate acts against this country, we, as a Congress and a government, stand united, and we stand together to fight this evil threat.’

“The mere presence of these people was not a casual act. … The men and women who work on Capitol Hill received a taste of terror, but rapidly resolved that they would not bend.”

Oct. 15, 2001
Within weeks of the 9/11 attacks, the nation was once again seized by fear — this time through the mail.

Beginning on Sept. 18, letters containing the deadly anthrax bacteria were mailed to media and government offices around the country. The final pair of anthrax letters, bearing a Trenton, N.J., postmark, were addressed to two Democratic Senators, Tom Daschle (S.D.) and Patrick Leahy (Vt.).

The Daschle letter was opened by an aide on Oct. 15, prompting a three-month shutdown of the Hart Senate Office Building. The Leahy letter was later discovered in an impounded mail bag on Nov. 16. During the building’s closure, Environmental Protection Agency investigators tested 26 buildings on or near the Capitol complex and found evidence of anthrax in seven.

“After the anthrax incident, everybody who worked in this building was without an office,” recalled Associate Senate Historian Donald Ritchie, who works in the Hart Building and and experienced several of the Capitol’s darkest days firsthand since he joined the office in 1976. “It was a real period of camaraderie. … Republican offices took in Democratic staff, Democratic offices took in Republican staff. People were determined they weren’t going to stop working. We made due with it.

“But it’s not like we’re different from the past,” Ritchie added. After the Capitol was burned down in 1814, “by gosh, they built a temporary building across the street, rebuilt the Capitol and moved back in. They never gave up on Washington as a city. I think there’s always been this sense that we’re not going to let something like that triumph.”