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On Wednesday night I watched the scenes in the US Capitol with the same feelings of national violation as all of us. Those deeply troubling sights also brought back powerful memories. A half-century ago, I was a proud member of the US Capitol Police force.

It was a patronage job for some back then.
A lot of people went to law school moonlighting on the force. For someone with no connections like me it was a way to get started in politics.

Just back from two years in Africa with the Peace Corps, I came to the Hill looking for a job as a senate legislative assistant. It was the job Theodore Sorensen had for John F. Kennedy when he was a young senator from Massachusetts.

Waiting for the senator to appoint me, I agreed to a deal where I spent part of the day working in his office, then begin an eight-hour shift on the Capitol Police.

Thanks to my new, GI haircut I soon looked like every inch a police officer. I had crossed the homefront DMZ from the long-hair anti-Vietnam War faction to that of the gendarmes, changing my appearance from dove to hawk.

In the spring of 1971, the conflict over the Vietnam War was turning ugly, and a massive “May Day” protest was about to take place right outside the Capitol building. A sign of the coming trouble confronted me as I was patrolling the West Front of the Capitol. “Hit ‘em once for me!” a nearby tourist said in dead seriousness. He must have he assumed I was some hate-filled cop out to bash the skull of some anti-war longhair.

I faced a different sentiment from the doves. New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug, who was walking past me one day, stopped to rest. She told me how worried what the police might do to “the kids” out there protesting.

What the country never realized is how “May Day” might have turned out so much worse. What the outside world couldn’t see was the Capitol basement packed with SWAT teams in riot gear, helmet, and shield, ready for face-to-face combat.

In and out of uniform I was still a Peace Corps guy, a recent grad student. I knew well the wide gap that separated me from the permanent police officers, many of them country boys, who surrounded me.

One of them, Leroy Taylor, commuted several hours each day from West Virginia. An ex-MP who never let you forget it. Strangely, Leroy and I got along, enough for him to offer some personal tutoring on the subject of the country’s cultural-political divide.

“Do you know why the little man loves his country?” he inquired one day. He wanted me to know the worldview of country boys like him who’d never known the privileges doled out to the swells of the world. Following a dramatic pause, he let the wisdom flow. “It’s because it’s all he’s got!”

I’ve kept this wisdom close all the years since. It was much like the sentiment of another fellow officer who told me he’d die to protect the Capitol, this living symbol of our democratic republic, even if he said he wouldn’t lift a figure to defend “that riverboat down the street.” He meant the White House. It said it with the gut patriotism of the man without wealth or status who had his flag and often the honor of having served his country in the military.

Those months serving on the Capitol Police made me familiar with the historic building itself. In later years, I liked showing guests the bullet holes in the “British stairs.” They were reminders of how the Redcoats shot their way up into the House chamber during the War of 1812, where they subsequently held a mock vote to burn “this den of Yankee democracy,” and proceeded to do just that. I would also take friends to the deepest level of the Capitol. There, below the stairs leading up to “The Crypt,” is the alcove intended for the burial of George and Martha Washington. Today it holds the catafalque, the wooden platform on which the body of Abraham Lincoln and other historic figures have lain in state.

I was able to glean more recent Capitol history as well. One evening I was standing at the escalators that senators use to enter the Capitol. They descend to the subways that cross under Constitution Avenue. A veteran building engineer was telling me about the snooty behavior of liberal senators who refused to even recognize the Capitol Police officers they passed. There was an exception, a lawmaker who always took time to say hello to the men guarding them, New York’s Robert F. Kennedy.

Chris Matthews

Chris Matthews has worked as a political aide, author, broadcast host, and journalist. He is the author of This Country: My Life in Politics and History and Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked.