In 1971, I made my first reporting trip to Washington, D.C. My agenda included an interview with Bill Alexander, who had just begun his second term in the House of Representatives from Arkansas’s First District, in those days consisting almost entirely of Delta counties. After I had run out of questions, Alexander wondered if I had time for lunch. Had I ever tasted the legendary House bean soup?
It was a delightful spring morning, and Alexander suggested we ignore the subway and stroll from his office building to the Capitol and its members (and guests) only restaurant. There, some idle chatter, some tasty political gossip; with the Second District’s Wilbur Mills, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, as his advocate, Alexander already was on the House leadership’s radar, and he willingly shared some of his early insights to the naif from his home state.
In furtive glances I was taking in the muted splendor of the dining room — its huge oil portraits and attentive staff; the recognizable, powerful faces at nearby tables — all the while striving for nonchalance. Alexander caught it. With a knowing, subtle smile and a nod of understanding, he whispered, “This is pretty neat, huh?” I suppose I blushed.
There was more. Our meal concluded, we walked to the street fronting the huge structure, bound for the green space opposite. We had barely reached the curb when a Capitol policeman took note of Alexander, immediately put a whistle to his lips, stepped onto the pavement and halted traffic in both directions. It wasn’t Bill Alexander of Osceola, Arkansas, who wanted to cross (and certainly not me) but Rep. Bill Alexander. An M.C. — Member of Congress.
Waiters and policemen trained to recognize you on sight and by name, the ability to have traffic stopped (literally) at your approach, a staff to answer your phone and handle your mail and make your airline reservations — yeah, it was pretty neat.
That was a different time, and somehow I want to remember it as gentler, notwithstanding its president of one party and Congress of the other; a war still raging in Southeast Asia, and mass protests demanding it be ended; an always bellicose Soviet Union; creeping inflation; a Supreme Court that said, yes, busing for school desegregation was the law of the land.
But this also: Among Democrats and Republicans in both House and Senate there was a growing conviction that the Vietnam War was unwinnable, and the major disagreement with the White House was the speed and the terms of American withdrawal. Members of both parties met in the aisles and helped Richard Nixon craft an agency to clean up the nation’s increasingly unbreathable air and its steadily more polluted waters. They did the same to establish a bureau protecting employees from dangerous working conditions. And they did the same (in the Senate) to adopt a strategic arms treaty reducing the threat of an atomic war. Consider as well that a continuing budget resolution was unheard of and the federal government had never shut down. (There have been 14 CRs in the past 20 years and 10 closures since 1980; the last one, which ended earlier this year, cost taxpayers an estimated $5 billion.)
Only three years after Alexander and I lunched that day, the two parties would find common ground on the most uncommon of grounds: the impeachment of a president who had won a landslide victory just 19 months earlier, a win so sweeping that the incumbent president’s popular and Electoral College numbers pale in comparison. A majority of the Arkansas delegation would have supported Nixon’s removal had it come to a vote; indeed, the Fourth District’s Ray Thornton, a Judiciary Committee member, had voted to send the indictment to the House floor. With Nixon’s resignation came a period of healing. You could feel the calm from Fort Smith to Forrest City and points in between.
Watching the televised House hearings of the past couple weeks I remembered the committee’s impeachment debates of 1974: spirited, sometimes strident, but never vituperative, poisonous. A bipartisanship eventually emerged.
The House Democratic leadership asserts it has multiple smoking guns as evidence and will soon impeach Mr. Trump but, absent a smoking cannon, the Senate Republican majority, sick to its guts of him but fearful of retribution at the polls, will see to his acquittal. Both chambers will divide along party lines, with perhaps a maverick in the House conference. Conviction or no, however, the prospect of calm is distant.
The street at the Capitol steps was sealed long ago. The House bean soup is still wondrous. But I wonder if Alexander, and his contemporaries, would still consider the place “neat.”
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