The Humanity of Our Elected Officials
A reflects on celebrity sightings and very normal people with extraordinary power and responsibility.
Spring has finally sprung in Washington, DC. Last week, the cherry blossoms along the Potomac River were in full bloom, and they brought people from all over the world and the United States to the capital city.
My family was in town, so we did some sightseeing on one of the first truly warm days of the year. I was walking past the Lincoln Memorial, which sits at the foot of the National Mall opposite the Capitol Building. To my surprise, I ran into the Majority Leader of the House of Representatives, Steny Hoyer, who was also visiting with his family. Congressman Hoyer was deeply entrenched in reading an excerpt from Abraham Lincoln’s second and final inaugural address, which he delivered right after the end of the Civil War, and just before his assassination.
He stood there quiet, pensive, and respectful, taking in the grandeur not for the benefit of cameras or onlookers, but presumably as an act of communion with the past. Several officers in suits and plain clothes stood at such a comfortable distance that I would not have noticed the presence of the second highest ranking member of the House if I didn’t encounter him frequently at my place of work. None of the tourists around me sensed anything out of the ordinary and continued to pose for selfies in front of a the huge statue of our sixteenth president that sits in the middle of the memorial.
As I walked back to the metro, I was still reeling from the surreal experience of seeing a very famous person in the wild, when Senator Elizabeth Warren and her husband power walked past me wearing casual workout clothing. She smiled at me, and I gawked in her face, trying to reconcile the usual version of her wearing sharp suits with this woman in a baseball cap strolling around in the sunshine. She passed me by, and on the back of her sweatshirt the word “PERSIST” was written. I have passed Senator Warren in the hallways of the Capitol many times, but somehow seeing a presidential candidate out on a spring afternoon in her civvies threw me for a loop.
I had just assumed that these people with unnaturally high salaries and access to national security secrets had no interest in monuments and leisurely springtime jaunts. It had never occurred to me that they could be tourists as well, and that sunshine and fresh air could be just as essential to their happiness as it is to mine. In fact, I had not considered their happiness to be of any importance, and instead focused primarily on their ability to get things done for the American people.
A few months ago I found myself in an elevator with a republican congressman who was visibly anxious. The house had been deadlocked over the federal budget, and everyone was staying overtime trying to pass a bill before the deadline and avoid a government shutdown. I said hello and tried to make myself small, and for some reason, maybe because of the intimacy of the close space, he decided to confide in a complete stranger. He said he was supposed to go home for the weekend, but didn’t think anyone was going to be able to go home now. His daughter was texting him angrily because he was going to miss her sporting event again.
Sometimes it is hard to remember that our congress is made up of imperfect human beings. It’s hard to empathize with suits and soundbites. Even though I see these people every day when they think no one is watching them, I still can’t help myself from feeling partisan anger toward them. I read the news or watch male senators harass sexual assault victims on national television, and I find it hard to believe that these same people have families that love them, that they were once children, that they get scared or sick sometimes.
This is my daily conundrum working in a building which is meant to represent our highest values of freedom and equality—a building which was constructed by enslaved people. Congress is at once a lofty and regal national institution and a conflicted and hypocritical body made up of very average human beings. I wonder how those people grapple with that duality, and how they sleep at night with so much weight on their shoulders.