Campbell Column: Love letter to the U.S. Capitol building

Reba Campbell

Posted Jan. 15, 2021

By Reba Campbell

Lots of Americans probably sat in front of their screens on January 6 like I did. We watched the events unfold in complete disbelief with the feeling that the attack on the Capitol was personal. It is, after all, the people’s house – our seat of government, safe and welcoming, open and accessible to all.

The U.S. Capitol is a magical building. The majestic entrances. The mysterious tunnels. The history that reeks from every nook and cranny. The ghosts of past debates, statesmanship and diplomacy. The odd architectural quirks. The winding hallways, hideaway offices and expansive staircases. The imposing statues of American heroes. The massive artwork that tells the story of our country’s history.

My first “real life” job out of college was working on Capitol Hill as the receptionist for a freshman SC congressman. Our office was less than two football field lengths across the street from the Capitol. I passed it daily for almost ten years and never lost my awe of working right at the center of American government.

Among my duties in this first job was giving tours of the Capitol to constituents visiting the Hill. At first, I was a little disappointed to discover my job description included this task. It seemed beneath a “professional” to do what I considered intern level work. 

But it didn’t take long for this to become one of my favorite job duties. Back then Congressional staff had access to almost all parts of the Capitol. Except the for the dome and the chambers, we could go just about anywhere, as long as we knew the guards.

I quickly became intrigued digging into the historical context of the building and its ties to the Palmetto State. I loved helping South Carolina visitors make a connection to the real-life experience of lawmaking. I learned how to show visitors the Speaker’s private office and navigate the best underground path from the House buildings to the Senate buildings. I could demonstrate the spot in Statuary Hall where one person could throw their voice to someone on the other side of the room. I took visitors to the empty burial chamber beneath the Rotunda and told the ghost stories related to it.

To a 20-something young professional, this was pretty interesting stuff – and that knowledge carried over into jobs many years down the road. After returning to SC, subsequent jobs frequently took me back to DC for Capitol Hill visits. I was happy to use my knowledge of the Capitol complex that let me be the navigator and tour guide again.

Even when visiting DC on personal visits over the years, I always made sure to walk through the Capitol grounds. The building continued to draw me in with happy personal memories and a strong connection to our country’s history, strength and stability.

I never once considered the Capitol building, the symbol of what our country stands for, could be attacked. Because of that, January 6 pierced my heart. I couldn’t stop watching the news reports. Every camera shot showed familiar scenes – not just places I’d been before but places that are forever part of who I am. That building is in my blood, and on January 6 my blood ran cold watching it being attacked and defaced.

I had climbed the magnificent marble steps next to where rioters scaled the walls. I had watched proceedings from House gallery in the same seats where House members hunkered down in a gas masks. I had witnessed four inaugurations on the west lawn where insurgents ripped down scaffolding prepped for this inauguration. I had walked the halls to the Speaker’s suite where protesters ransacked the office. I had led constituents, friends and family members on tours through Statuary Hall where rioters attacked law enforcement officers.  

Even after all these years, I knew that building like my own neighborhood, my own home. I knew it was safe.

But it wasn’t until January 6 that I realized the sense of safety I felt related the Capitol went far beyond my own personal space. The Capitol symbolized the nation’s safety and security, the laws of our country, of our right to freely (and peaceably) assemble and to freely (and peaceably) speak our minds. I didn’t fully appreciate the security that building represented to me until I witnessed it being torn apart.

Thankfully, after rioters compromised the Capitol on the afternoon of January 6, Congress quickly re-assembled to finish its work of certifying the election. Security will certainly take on a whole new meaning and access to our seat of government will likely forever be limited.

But the building stands. Majestic on a hill – it’s bruised but not destroyed. I am grateful to share a little piece of my own history with this building and look forward to the day I can again step my feet on its grounds and cross its threshold to bask in its history and dignity.

Reba Hull Campbell started her career working on Capitol Hill in 1983. After 35 years working in politics, communications, government and non-profits, she retired in 2019 and is currently teaching, consulting and writing. Read her other work at Random Connect Points.

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