Coolness and wisdom: Impeachment day under the Capitol Dome

A Capitol Visitor Guide shows off the Apotheosis of Washington under the Capitol dome. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
A Capitol Visitor Guide shows off the Apotheosis of Washington under the Capitol dome. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted December 19, 2019 at 10:00am

“If people see the Capitol going on, it is a sign we intend the Union shall go on.”

That was President Abraham Lincoln’s response to Union Chaplain John Eaton when asked about constructing the Capitol Dome during the Civil War. As costs piled up in the midst of war, some questioned the wisdom of expanding the Capitol. But for Lincoln it was a symbol that the Union had a future beyond the war.

While the impeachment saga is nowhere near as contentious as the American Civil War, anyone who has followed politics lately knows that passion is straining this country’s bonds of affection. But on Wednesday, as the House prepared to impeach President Donald Trump, I wanted to see how people under the dome were going about their daily duties.

So naturally I signed up for a Capitol tour.

“We’re moving with coolness and wisdom,” said a redcoat tour guide as he shepherded a group of elementary school children through the Capitol Rotunda. It’s his way of calming the anxiety of small children overwhelmed by such a large place, he told me later. I’m not going to comment on the House’s wisdom, but judging by the hours of theatrical floor speeches, there was little coolness.

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Capitol tours begin in the visitor’s center with a 13-minute welcome video that doubles as a crash course in civics. Against a backdrop of the swirling movie trailer music ubiquitous during Oscar season, a solemn-voiced narrator explains the legislative process and Congress’ connection to the people.

“Finding our common ground is the challenge a free people face and the job of those we elect to Congress,” she says. “The price of becoming an independent people is pain and the blood of soldiers and sacrifice of families.”

Many of the tourists, children and adults, didn’t seem to register the historic nature of their visit, according to the tour guides. After all, people plan these trips months in advance so there was no way to know they’d be here to see the third presidential impeachment in U.S. history. They were just happy for a chance to get a peek inside the Capitol building.

“I’ve never been here before,” declared one tourist as she craned her neck to see the Apotheosis of Washington, Constantino Brumidi’s fresco that adorns the top of the Rotunda. “Oh my goodness, it’s amazing.”

But some visitors have been following the proceedings closely, even those not from the United States.

“I personally think it’s a great step because I’m not a big fan of the current president,” said Mark, a 22 year-old student from Germany. “I know that it’s going to be super hard, especially because the Senate probably won’t accept that.” But Mark and his friend Alex, also from Germany, both said that the process actually gave them more faith in America. “I definitely think it’s a positive sign because otherwise people just go on doing stuff they shouldn’t do, and without any consequences,” said Mark.

And as the hour inched closer to impeachment, many of those standing in line for the House gallery were there specifically to watch the vote, including Doug Graney, a teacher at Stone Bridge High School in Loudon County, Va. Graney saw the day as an opportunity for outside-the-classroom learning and decided to bring his students.

Kate, one of those students, said she expected to see “a lot of passionate people with differing opinions,” on the House floor. The students have discussed the investigation every day in class, according to Kate. And even though they weren’t alive during President Bill Clinton’s 1998 impeachment, the students understand the gravity of the current situation.

“If he doesn’t get impeached maybe someone else can get away with it as well,” said Becca, another of Mr. Graney’s students.

All day Republicans and Democrats used their speeches to invoke the founders, each claiming to be the true inheritors of that legacy. Some called the proceedings a “tragedy.” One Republican compared Democrats to Pontious Pilate. As in the governor who ordered the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The claim is at once extraordinary and quotidian. Much like the business taking place in the Capitol on a regular, historic Wednesday.