A Funny Thing Happened on My Way to The Capitol
(Originally published on Open Salon in January of 2011; posted again by request and because it happens to once again be relevant).
I’ve been dying to tell this story for several weeks now, because it is a story about how things will be accomplished in the coming two years of Congressional push-pull, and in fact is how things have gotten done behind the scenes for about 200 years. At first I was concerned about how many people, projects and institutions could be compromised by my writing this. Then I decided to write it anyway, and see what I could do with it. The holidays hit and it got set aside. Then I was reminded of it again and realized I could at least ask the help and/or permission of the person who facilitated this event. I ran my story past him and he, knowing how important it was to me, agreed on the condition that he edit it some. This resulted in some interesting name changes, some details deleted and some others obfuscated. I have become a master of obfuscation anyway, in the course of rewriting a novelized version of another true story as well as having a close relative working in the intelligence field, so I have had a certain amount of practice at obscuring things while getting the story across.
On Friday, December 10, 2010, I became aware, during the course of the day, that Senator Bernie Sanders (I., VT), had begun a “stall session” which was, in effect, a filibuster intended to raise awareness about the extremely weak tax bill (weak in its continuing tax cuts for the very wealthy) which had been presented to the Senate earlier. Everyone was already disturbed at President Obama’s transformation from clever basketball player to pragmatic poker player, and many were disturbed and disappointed that, at this very shaky point in his career, he had chosen, once again, to “negotiate with terrorists” (his own words, to describe the Republican opposition). The bill, just like healthcare reform, was much less than it could and should have been. The desire to get along had slowly mutated into something more like succumbing to bullying and trying to save face. Except for the part where he saves face.
Meanwhile Senator Bernie Sanders had seized the floor and the day, as it turned out, and had begun talking about the fine points of the conscience of a Democratic Republic and what it owes its constituency, what it owes, therefore, itself. As the day wore on the image of Jefferson Smith began to filter into more peoples’ heads and it became clear there was a new Man on a White Horse loose in the Senate. People were riveted by this.
Later in the evening, when no one knew how long the 69 year-old Sanders would be willing or able to hold out, I got a call from a dear friend. I do not remember the original point of the call or if there was one, but during it we began discussing (as we had previously) the opportunity blown by the President, who appeared possibly destined to be a one-termer, to simply grab the wheel and do what he knows is right, to commit, in the words of Bluto Blutarsky, (an eventual Senator himself, if only in cinema fiction), “…a truly pointless and futile gesture.” Why not? What is there to lose but our pragmatism? Why not simply bitch-slap the foot dragging Dems and regressive Republicans and let the chips fall where they may? Why not leave a mark that will be remembered long after the Congressional Record pages have yellowed with age and the fickle public forgotten the accomplishments achieved so far?
Meanwhile there was Sanders up there heroically lambasting everybody for not going for the jugular, for not doing the most good for the greatest number of people, and asking the American public to bring pressure to bear. He looked haggard but also inspired. He wound up talking for 8–1/2 hours.
My Friend asked why there was no outside support, why no flash mob at the Capitol? I said I felt it was equal parts apathy and cold weather. She asked if people were even still allowed on the Capitol steps anymore, and I had to admit I didn’t know, only knew that we’d given up large parts of our free access to the seat of government as a gesture to the fear factor following 9/11, and that now most people approaching the Capitol are directed into the accursed Visitor’s Center, but I had not been in there, I still owned my part of those steps, and I by god would stand on them. She asked the obvious: “Why not do that now? You should go down there!” She knows of my radical past and its having come back to life in recent months with a vengeance. My return thought was Why not indeed? What else did I have going on at that moment but a delightful conversation which had led to these very thoughts? I suddenly felt very foolish, then very energized. Those were my steps god damn it, and Sanders was articulating my position. I said I was going in. She said “Do it!” in that way some girl might have provoked me to start a public disturbance back in the 1960s. It was like cocaine (I’m guessing). I did it.
I grabbed my jacket, jumped in my car and headed out toward downtown. It is a nominal 40 minute drive, but on a Friday night, for a man on a mission, it can be done in half an hour, god willing, etc. On the way I had an inspiration. I had a friend, someone who had been very close to my father, who in turn had been very close to the architect of the Capitol prior to 1997. In fact my father had learned many of the “secret” aspects of the building as outlined in Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol.” This friend, who I shall call Mustafa, has a very important and sensitive job of a diplomatic nature. He resides part-time in the Foggy Bottom area near the White House and George Washington University and has a lot of connections with the University and the Feds. Actually I have a number of friends like that, but this one was just made for what I had in mind. I decided to call him and see if perhaps a flash mob support event could be set off to show some support for Sanders.
Mustafa had been watching the filibuster on TV. I told him my half-baked idea. He said Sanders had relinquished the floor and sat down. “He will likely be leaving soon, because he’s been on his feet, talking, for 9 hours.”
I said “Oh.” Just Oh.
Mustafa said “It still would be a nice gesture, though.”
I asked if he had any ideas as to how to get some bodies, maybe some GW students, to head down there and make some noise. He said he thought it could be done. He then told me to meet him at Calhoun Hall (not its current name, but still known by that as a code name), a GWU building on the corner of 21st. and Eye Streets. I said I was almost there already.
We met on the street. It was, so I thought at the time, terribly cold (I had no idea how cold it would get in days to come). He told me to get in his car, that we were going to the Capitol, that a group of students and some drunks from TGI Friday’s (right on the opposite side of the intersection) had been recruited and were already arriving at the Capitol grounds. I thought this was amazingly cool, not to mention a little disturbing. Mustafa asked me what I wanted to do. I said I merely wanted to stand on the Capitol steps as a part owner of the place along with every other American, and to perhaps convey some respect to Bernie Sanders for what he had done.
In a couple minutes we approached the Capitol grounds but Mustafa veered to the right (oh no!), toward the Botanical Gardens. I asked him what he was doing, that I didn’t want to walk that far in the freezing cold. I was still a wimp at that point.
Mustafa said nothing, but pulled up at the curb behind a black SUV. I kept asking “What the hell are we doing?” He kept saying “Wait a minute.” It was scintillating conversation.
Parking, Mustafa got out and walked up to meet with the driver of the SUV. I stayed put, not much trusting big black SUVs any more than black helicopters. He came back in a moment and gestured to me to come to the SUV. Great, I thought.
“Peter will drive us to the front of the Capitol. Get in.” (I was to learn later the man’s name is not “Peter,” so I can leave that in this narrative). All I could think by then was What the fuck have I done? But I also realized whatever it was, I had already done it. I obeyed.
In moments we were in front of the Capitol building. There was, indeed, a motley looking bunch of mostly young people milling about on the pavement. Again Mustafa asked “What do you want to do?”
I said “I already told you.”
Mustafa said “Then go! Go! They are waiting for you!”
“Those people we paid to come down here.”
We? Paid? I didn’t even ask right then. It didn’t seem to matter. I did ask “Can one still go on the steps?” He said “You already answered that. They are your steps and mine and theirs,” gesturing toward the small group of milling, freezing students and vagrants. I got out and looked back.
“Aren’t you coming?”
“No, I have to wait here. The job, the uh, fraternity. You understand.”
Yes, I did.
“Peter will step in if anything starts to go wrong,” Mustafa assured me. Who the hell was Peter the driver? I asked this then. Peter simply said “Secret Service.” I almost went blank, but gathered myself, having already decided I was ready to go to jail if it meant breaking the taboo about the stairs. I’d done crazier things in my former life. I didn’t bother to ask Peter for any ID at that point.
I jogged up a few stairs and was, unsurprisingly, intercepted by a Capitol Police officer. “Where do you think you’re going?” he asked me without affect.
I said “Right here.”
“I want to show support for Senator Sanders.”
“Oh. Well the Senator has left the building. You need to get down there” (pointing to the pavement at the base of the stairs where the others were now jumping up and down. It looked very funny, this random bunch of mostly college students, either trying to look worked up or perhaps only trying to keep warm).
“Am I not permitted on these stairs?” I asked. The officer did not answer directly but instead said “You can go home or spend the night in jail. It’s warmer in jail than it is here.” I looked toward the SUV and raised my arm in a grand pointing gesture. The cop called for his supervisor. I invoked the name of the former Architect of the Capitol. The cop looked at me blankly. Peter stepped out of the SUV and called to him “What’s the problem?”
The cop took me by the arm and escorted me down the stairs, saw who he was addressing, let go of me, and said “The Senator has left.”
Peter asked “Is there a problem?”
Cop: “No! No no no! It’s just late and…where did these… people…come from?” Peter said “I have no Idea. Why? Is there a problem?”
Cop: “No, I guess not. Not really, no.”
Peter shook his head and rolled his eyes.
Mustafa: “Where is Senator Sanders?”
Cop: “I dunno. I only know he left a while ago.”
“Peter” (breaking away from a cell phone): “He’s at the [prominent hotel not far from the White House]. He’ll go back to Vermont tomorrow. Get in.”
Mustafa got into the SUV then looked at me, annoyed at my uncertainty. I got in, no questions asked. I knew I could trust this man. My father had.
We began driving west. In a few minutes we were at the front entrance of the Hotel. Mustafa got out, sighed deeply, and said “Come on. Jesus!” I came on, followed him into the lobby, then hung back, feeling more and more as though I were in the midst of a strange vivid dream. Mustafa went to the desk. There was some muttering. Peter remained at the curb in the SUV.
Mustafa came back and told me “Have a seat.” Yet again I asked no questions. We sat in silence. Finally Mustafa said “I’m glad you called me.” I nodded dumbly. I wasn’t sure why he was glad.
There was a slight stir as a man in what appeared to be a maroon robe and black PJs and slippers approached. An older man with wild white hair and glasses. He was smiling. I knew who it was.
Surely I am having a stroke, I thought. Surely I will be disappeared soon. Mustafa stood up and extended his hand. They shook, the Senator said “Good to see you”, then Mustafa reached over, grabbed me by the sleeve and lifted me to my feet.
“A.J., Senator Sanders.” Sanders clasped my hand warmly and said “Thank you for the support. I don’t think there was any press there, but what the hell. It was nice to know anyone was paying attention.” As he gripped my hand, I thought he pressed the back of my hand with his thumb. That told me all I needed to know. I said “The whole country was paying attention.” He smiled and asked “You want some pizza? I think we have a couple slices left in the room.” He is a character, Bernie Sanders. I said “Oh god no, thank you. I had no intention of…”
“Mustafa got word to me. I wanted to say hello and thanks. I am wiped out though, so if you’ll forgive me, I’m going to turn in now. We’ll be in touch, I’m sure.”
Mustafa nodded and smiled. I nodded like a bobbled-head doll.
We were back in the SUV. Peter asked “Where to?” glancing at his watch.
Mustafa asked “You would like to stop somewhere for a drink perhaps?”
I almost declined, then a thought hit me and I said “Yes!” enthusiastically.
I said “How about the Venetian Room?” The place is not only lovely but has a special place in my heart for reasons indirectly related to this story. “Oh, you know the Venetian?” I nodded. It is in the little Hotel Lombardy directly across from where I’d left my car parked.
Shortly we were sitting before the fireplace in the little, old, 1940s movie-looking lounge. I asked for a glass of Chardonnay. Mustafa ordered a Scotch.
I said “Excuse me, I need to type a one-word message.” He gestured in the affirmative as he swallowed.I pulled out the BlackBerry, opened the Facebook app, and typed into my status the word “Venetian.” I knew my agent provocateur would understand. It is where we first met in person.
Mustafa and I talked a little while about politics, then our fraternal ties. He berated me for not coming around enough. I agreed I’d been derelict. He said “You know, this is how things get done. There will be more things, truly important things. You will call me?
I nodded in the affirmative and he said “I need to get home. You owe me one. I will see you at the temple then?” He donned his black wool overcoat and white silk scarf. I nodded Yes. He swept out the door with a flourish. I finished my drink, walked across Pennsylvania Avenue, got into my car and drove back to Laurel. When I got home I checked in on Facebook. Under my status my friend had inserted a comment: “JEALOUSING.” Then, beneath that, “If you are buying B. a drink I am really jealousing.”
I smiled, knowing there would be more such spontaneous, seriocomic actions. More important ones. This had only been a practice run. It had a dreamlike quality to it even then.
There are many ways of getting one’s life back. As many, I suppose, as there are ways to lose one’s self. Being a one-man flash mob is one way. Having the old ember of idealism fanned into flame by someone who inspires is another. Being able to see that soft blue light under all the self-pity and inertia, to rediscover the gifts of the dead and living, to feel fully in one’s element again, that is more than a gift. It is a grace.
Standing on the Capitol steps is something else again: It is a right.
Sometimes it may even be an obligation.