U.S. Capitol building leaves lasting impression on former staffers

The United States Capitol in Washington, D.C., holds special significance for many Hoosiers in the legal profession who once worked there. (IL file photo)

No matter the number of times they walked through the rotunda, led a group of tourists to National Statuary Hall or coordinated a press conference at the Ohio Clock, Hoosiers who used to work as House and Senate staff members say the U.S. Capitol Building never loses its ability to stir a sense of awe.

Nick Weber, a director at Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath in Indianapolis, said never once during his three years working on Capitol Hill did he take the home of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate for granted.

“The building is such a powerful representation of the good we can do for one another,” Weber said.

Other members of the Indiana legal community, like Weber, can vividly recall the rooms and offices, the sounds and atmosphere in what has been called the “Temple of Democracy.” They use words like “magnificent” and “exquisite” to describe the interior and still treasure the time they were able to spend there.

Their memories contrast with the images Tuesday of an angry mob storming through the 100-year-old doors, breaking windows and meandering across the rotunda. Seeing the rioters laughing, walking onto the Senate floor and sitting at the senators’ desk was horrifying for Gina Zimmerman, executive director of the Allen County Bar Association.

“I take it personally,” she said.

Zimmerman spent 13 years in Washington, D.C., working on Capitol Hill for such leaders as the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-South Carolina, and retired Sen. Jim DeMint, also R-Carolina, and in the Reagan White House.

Working for the senators, she recalled security being so heavy that she had to remove her jewelry to get through to the Senate Floor. Also, she noted the rules that required staff members to sit on the benches in the back of the chamber and allowed one to sit in a chair on the floor only when their senator was introducing legislation.

Weber served as a press secretary for the late Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar. He remembered spending his time in the Senate chamber above the floor in the press gallery. Reporters could watch the action from the gallery then go into nearby room equipped with desks and telephones to file their stories.

He also recalled “the hideaway” that Lugar was allowed to use as an office when he was in the Capitol Building. It was a “very functional workspace” with a table where papers could be spread out.

Another special place for Weber was the former Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing room, S-116. The committee had long outgrown the space but a conference table had been moved in and the room was used to meetings among the senators and with foreign heads of state.

“We need 25-year-olds in America who want to participate in public service and we need people to be in awe of the building where they can sort of toil away for the betterment of the state and the country,” he said. “When we see rioters in the hallways of the Congress, how can we do that? How can we get folks to commit to engaging in civic service?”

Retired Indiana Justice Frank Sullivan was thunderstruck as a 19-year-old summer intern walking up to the Capitol Building in June of 1969. He remembers getting nearer to the “majestic white building” and thinking, “My gosh, I’m going to work there.”

He subsequently spent a number of years in in Washington, first working for the late Rep. J. Edward Roush and then the late Rep. John Brademas, both Democrats from Indiana.

Sometimes, Sullivan would be asked to give a group of visiting constituents a tour of the Capitol Building. He would lead them through Statuary Hall, under the giant dome, and allow them to take a look at the Rayburn Room, just off the House Chamber.

As a young boy, he and his family had actually met Brademas in the Rayburn Room. Arranged with comfortable couches and chairs, the space is where representatives would often meet with visitors from their home districts.

Even now, Sullivan remains impressed that the “magnificent building” houses in one place people from throughout the entire country.

He recalled having lunch as a guest of Brademas in the congressional dining room and being joined by a representative from what Sullivan then considered the exotic place of California. Also, he still delights at the memory of he and his friend riding the subway tram to the Capitol Building while the former vice president and late Sen. Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota asked them questions about Indiana.

“Democrats and Republicans, Californians and Hoosiers are all brought together in this one temple of Democracy,” Sullivan said. “This is the place where people from all 50 states come together to write our nation’s laws.”

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