Feuding 'Family' on the Hill Closes Ranks After Shooting
Liberal or conservative, janitor or Speaker, all feel loss of slain officers.
Like a set of bickering siblings quieted by a sudden loss in the family, the people who work on Capitol Hill are laying aside their partisan and ideological differences to commemorate two fallen guardians of this tight-knit community.
Since last week's shooting at the US Capitol, representatives and senators of both parties have united to honor Capitol Police officers John Gibson and Jacob Chestnut.
Business here largely ground to a halt as members abandoned their usual rhetoric in favor of themes of unity and common humanity.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia and minority leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri asked the US Army for permission to bury Detective Gibson at Arlington National Cemetery, where Officer Chestnut, a Vietnam vet, will also be interred. It was granted.
Congress decreed that the two officers should "lie in honor" July 28 in the Capitol Rotunda - an extraordinary move that reveals the depth of feeling here.
President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore drove up Pennsylvania Avenue to join congressional leaders for a memorial service.
The officers' deaths touched everyone on Capitol Hill. The area, for all its diversity and partisanship, is a tightly knit community.
It has its own post offices, banks, restaurants, hair salons - and police force. People on the Hill spend long hours daily in one another's company, forming what one congressman calls a "special bond." Lawmakers legislate with the help of the staff and lobbyists, under the watchful eyes of press and public and the protection of the police.
"What happened in the Capitol ... was a tragedy for the nation," says Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi. "But for all of us here, it was something more. It was a death in the family."
Gibson was well known in the Senate press gallery: Before he was assigned to guard majority whip Tom DeLay (R) of Texas more than two years ago, he often came in search of a Boston Globe so he could read about his beloved Bruins hockey team.
Chestnut worked at an entrance used daily by congressional leaders and dozens of journalists, whom he engaged in friendly banter.
"I saw J.J. Chestnut every night as I left the building. My enduring vision of him will be of a professional dedicated to doing his duty in protecting the nation's Capitol," Mr. DeLay says. "John Gibson was a member of my security detail, of my staff, and of my family. John and I went everywhere together. We had many long talks about life, about family, about duty, and about country."
On the surface, business goes on. Lawmakers hurry between their offices and the House and Senate floor. Staffers, pages, and journalists scurry through the corridors. Capitol Police officers stand at their posts. Guides in their red polo shirts describe the paintings and statues to the omnipresent tourists.
Yet all is not normal. Everyone here knows what happened July 24: How a seemingly deranged man burst through an entrance, shot and killed Chestnut, then charged into Representative DeLay's office suite and killed Gibson in an exchange of fire that left the assailant, Russell Weston Jr., gravely wounded. DeLay and his staff say Gibson saved their lives.
There is also talk of additional heroism: Chestnut's partner, Officer Douglas McMillan, threw himself in front of tourists and returned the gunman's fire. Sen. Bill Frist (R) of Tennessee, a surgeon, ran to the aid of the wounded, assisting first Chestnut and then a man he later learned was the attacker. Doctors at D.C. General Hospital said July 27 Senator Frist may have saved the man's life.
As the Hill community tries to make sense of it all, leaders vow not to let security concerns turn the "people's house" into a fortress. "For officers Jacob Chestnut and John Gibson, this open Capitol ... this Capitol itself will be their enduring monument," Senator Lott says.