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The desecration of the House

The sacrilege lay not in the invasion of the Capitol but in the fact that it had been incited by the president of the United States.

Trump supporters climb inauguration scaffolding outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

(RNS) — Fifty-four years ago this month, in the middle of my junior year in high school, I went to live on Capitol Hill for a six-month appointment as a page in the House of Representatives. Every weekday morning, I’d spend a few hours at the Capitol Page School on the top floor of the Library of Congress, then walk over to the Capitol. 

Its architecture might be supersized Greco-Roman, but the furnishings were high Victorian, with heavy drapes, stenciled glass doors, dark wood and stuffed leather chairs and couches. Squatting beside many a door was a metal spittoon, there to accommodate the few members who still chewed tobacco. 

Our job as House pages was hardly glamorous. We spent the day walking from office to member’s office, fetching and delivering envelopes. From time to time we’d trek across to the Senate side for gallery passes, to the Supreme Court for an opinion, to the Library of Congress for some legislative research. Now and then something had to be rushed over to a member on the floor of the House chamber.

Assignments were handed out by a senior page sitting at a little desk in the back corner of the floor, just outside the Democratic cloakroom. With its bank of phone booths and lunch counter, the cloakroom was a hive of activity. 

One day I was filling in for Ray, the Black counterman, when another page came rushing up with word that the Speaker was on his way. John McCormack (D-Mass.), then 75, had decided he wanted a chocolate milkshake and that it was my job to make it for him. He tipped me a dime.

And there in the cloakroom at the end of the Six-Day War was L. Mendel Rivers (D-S.C.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, holding forth: “Now, I don’t want to hear anyone saying anything bad about my Jews. Why, I’d trade 100 F-111s for one Mo-shay Day-an!”

For me, the Capitol was an endlessly fascinating workplace filled with curious customs and characters — the World War I vet with the crippled arm who’d gotten his sinecure as doorkeeper to the windowless “pages cloakroom” in return for running a doomed congressional campaign against Fiorello La Guardia; the huge congressman from Tennessee who’d lumber into the cloakroom on Saturday mornings for a nap on one of the couches; the middle-aged document clerk with his Phi Beta Kappa key dangling from the lapel of his three-piece suit as he pushed his cart through the hallways; the bevy of gorgeous secretaries in the Illinois member’s office who seemed to do nothing all day but file their nails.

In June, I went over to the White House Rose Garden to watch Lyndon Johnson give the president’s annual greeting to the Page School’s latest graduates. Johnson, who had worked in the Capitol for 26 years as congressman, senator and vice president, loved the place and managed, in a few words, to let us know that we, in bearing messages throughout its length and breadth, understood it in a way that no one else did. Wow, we thought, the man really gets us.

Maybe it’s because I worked there as a teenager that I’ve never thought of the Capitol as a site of American civil religion.

Sure, the Rotunda has a shrine-like hush, and Statuary Hall is a demi-Pantheon. And sure, that’s where “the people’s business” gets done — up to a point. But the building lacks the intentional sacrality of the Washington Monument, the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, the war monuments, Arlington Cemetery.

Then, on Wednesday, came the video of red-white-and-blue-garbed rioters breaking the stenciled glass and bursting through the Capitol doors; the still photo of plain-clothed police holding the mob back from the House floor with pointed pistols; the report of members huddled in the cloakroom; the scenes of paper-strewn offices, of broken and piled up furniture, of contemptuous shouting and laughter.

Apparently, it’s sacrilege that takes the measure of sacredness and brings it home.

But in fact, the greatest sacrilege lay not in what was done to and in the Capitol but in its having been incited by the president of the United States himself. There he was, standing outside his whited sepulcher, telling lies and falsely promising his acolytes that he’d be accompanying them on their march up Pennsylvania Avenue.

A little later, as the Capitol was being ripped apart, he dared tweet that “these are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long.”

After the Maccabees recaptured the Temple in Jerusalem, they cleansed the premises and declared a holiday. Once the rioters were cleared out of the Capitol, senators and representatives returned to their chambers and finished accepting the results of November’s presidential election.

But there will be no holiday until the White House is cleansed of the Desecrator-in-Chief. It cannot happen soon enough.