Our nation’s capital. An armed camp

Our nation's capitol. Too often an armed camp.
Our nation’s capitol. Too often an armed camp.

Thirteen years ago this month, Amy and I sold our condo home of 23 years in Arlington as we began the last steps to move from the National Capital Region to Floyd County.

We began packing up more than two decades of memories of a life that centered in and around Washington, DC — one that included involvement inside the political power structure of our nation’s government as well as reporting on what does and does not happen inside it.

Life there changed a lot from the time we arrived in Arlington in February 1981 in a rented moving truck we drove from Alton, Illinois.  We pulled into the loading dock of the Tower Villas condo complex on 3800 North Fairfax Drive and, with help from two staff members of the office of Congressman Paul Findey of Illinois, unloaded furniture and belongings from most of the day.

We arrived on a Friday and had the weekend to unpack and start trying to put a new life into place before I began work on the following Monday as press secretary and legislative assistant to Findey, a Congressman I had covered as a newspaperman in Alton for the previous 12 years.

Security worries did not dominate life in the nation’s capital in early 1981.  Ronald Reagan took office the month before we arrived.  I caught the subway at the Virginia Square Metro stop just a block away from our condo — a 20-minute Orange Line ride to the Capitol South stop where I walked into an entrance to the garage that led into the tunnel system for a short walk over to the basement of the Rayburn House Office building and a short elevator ride up to the first floor and Findley’s office.

No metal detectors then.  A Capitol police officer nodded at the entrance to the House office buildings as employees, members of Congress and others walked by without challenge or concern.

That began to change quickly in 1981.  John Paul Hinckley shot President Reagan, White House Press Secretary Jim Brady and a Secret Service officer outside the Washington Hilton on March 30 of that year.

Shortly afterwards, new security regulations required us to dig out our Capitol ID cards and show them to police when we entered certain areas of the buildings.  A bombing at the Senate in 1983 led to searches of briefcases and installation of metal detectors.

For a while, those of us who had IDs could bypass the detectors but soon only members of Congress got a pass. The rest of us had to hang our IDs on straps around our necks and be scanned with electronic “wands” if the detectors chimed when we walked through.

Yet when I drove my car with a House parking sticker on it, I could drive into the garage under the Rayburn building nothing more than a nod from the cop at the entrance.  It remained that way until I left my last position on Capitol Hill in 1987 to become Vice President of Political Programs for the National Association of Realtors in downtown DC.

After 9/11, security increased not only in government offices but in private buildings.

At the Pentagon, a soldier manned a machine gun atop a Humvee at one entrance and Virginia state troopers earned overtime pay with around-the-clock watches there while other departments guarded selected buildings around the area.

For a while, a Patriot missile battery sat ready for deployment on the National Mall in Washington.

The Washington we left in 2004 was a very different place than the one we found in 1981.  It was time to go.

© 2004-2022 Blue Ridge Muse

© 2021 Blue Ridge Muse