The last day of my month-long internship at Time magazine's DC bureau was shaping up to be pretty normal--interview someone on the phone, transcribe it, do some internet research. My day would soon become surreal, however, when my friend and former Oberlin Review colleague Sophia came over to my desk.
"Hey Sam," she said, "wanna go to this Senate press conference with me?"
"Umm... yeah!" I said, making sure I had heard correctly.
A quick taxi ride later we were sitting in a small room of reporters and cameramen, awaiting the likes of John McCain, Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham. As we waited I looked around at the media crowd, eavesdropping on their relaxed banter and wondering how they had gotten here, whether I would ever be here again.
The senators' presentation was compelling, but it wasn't the main event which really intrigued me. You can see that on C-SPAN. It was the little things: McCain and Lieberman gesturing quietly to each other while Graham talked; reporters verbally jockeying for position during question time; the subtly supportive comportment of the co-sponsoring senators on stage--Blanche Lincoln, Orrin Hatch, Jim Webb.
As much as I generally distrust that bunch, I found their proposal--that terrorists be tried in military tribunals away from cities--not disagreeable. Maybe it's just that I'd prefer to see the Senate stick to bigger things like health care and the financial regulation. But I think there was something else at work too. I realized that seeing lawmakers in live action had a persuasive effect on me, but also that such an effect would likely diminish with time and exposure.
Later I found myself walking through the media rooms, where reporters from the world's major publications sat typing away their dispatches, TVs at their sides broadcasting some proceeding taking place elsewhere on Capitol Hill. A door in one media room was the one I guessed led to the chamber. It was marked only by a small, ragged sign printed in courier new countless years ago - "NO ELECTRONICS" it read, with skull-and-crossbones to signal the severity of its warning. An adjoining desk indicated that this door was more important than other doors.
"This is my first time here," I say to the secretarial woman behind the desk, "I have to leave my electronics in one of these cubbies?"
"Yes," she says, sluggishly pulling her gaze from the computer screen. "No cellphones, no recorders. Just pen and paper!"
Leaving behind my electronic attachments, I push open the door. The Senate chamber opens beneath me, an overwhelming sight to absorb at once. I feel my stomach rush to my throat as I take in the rectangular room of granite and wood, busts of the indelible American forefathers looking down from the walls upon the perfect semicircle of fifty traditional American desks, all empty at this moment but one. My entrance, so momentous from my own eyes, is noticed by no one. A single senator stands in solitary oration, heard only by people of relative insignificance--aides, hushing whispers from the plush red seats in the back corner of the room; families with nametags flipping through pamphlets from the balcony. I wonder what the stenographer typing calmly at his bastardized keyboard is thinking. Nothing, perhaps.
Whatever the good senator is talking about, he speaks with a resigned frustration: "Anyone watching C-SPAN right now can see that nobody's in here. Nothing is happening. Twenty minutes from now, nothing will be happening."
This is the United States Senate.
But surely something must be happening. On the other side of these walls are more desks, where reporters sit typing away at two computer screens, phones in ears, working to send out a better story faster than their counterparts from other publications--Reuters, CNN, BBC, Time.
I suddenly feel seriously under-dressed in my khakis and button-down shirt, in this stern labyrinth of power where decorum is paramount.
Harry Reid stalks across the floor below me, seemingly deep in thought.
I should go make myself useful.