WASHINGTON, D.C. — Washington, D.C. was padlocking the nation’s treasures as I flew in last week for my high school reunion in neighboring Montgomery County. My scheduled meetings were cancelled, so I took a few hours Wednesday afternoon to survey the consequences of shutting down the federal government. The Mall was eerily empty as barricades prevented tourists from parking along the frontage roads serving the museums that stand shoulder to shoulder between the Capitol, and the Washington monument. Only a handful of joggers could be seen pounding along the sward that is usually crowded with visitors picnicking and shuttling between exhibits.
At the west side of the Capitol tour buses regularly spilled their contents, mostly young Asians, who would swarm onto the lawn to snap pictures. It was evident they were aware of the government shutdown that was preventing them from touring the building itself. A reporter from something called Radio Free Asia approached me with a microphone to ask whether I was disappointed that I couldn’t visit the national museums behind us? I responded with, “I’m actually more disappointed about what is happening here,” pointing at the Capitol. She then asked who I felt was responsible for the closure and I told her “political terrorists” — considering the startled look on her face, I wonder whether that phrase was translated into Mandarin accurately?
A swarm of television cameramen and their yapping reporters approached the barricades on the Capitol stairway where Capitol police blocked their progress. House Republicans had apparently called a press conference for the west steps, and the cops were telling these TV crews to walk back around the Capitol and enter from the east side, passing through the Capitol building, a hike of probably half a mile. The minions of the electronic press went berserk. One particularly belligerent producer told the police to advise Republicans they had exactly five minutes to either make an appearance or arrange access for the press through the barricades. Otherwise they would simply leave and boycott any announcement. When I started snapping pictures of this contretemps, he turned and warned me to stop taking photos. Congressman Kevin McCarthy, the Republican majority whip, suddenly appeared and conferred with the police. They shortly began to inspect the electronic gear before escorting the press delegation up the steps.
A nearly empty National Mall looks towards the repairs being done on the Washington Monument.
The following afternoon a deranged young mother from Connecticut, who had led D.C. police on a chase down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, would reverse her car at this same spot before fleeing around the Capitol building. Jittery law enforcement officers, recently off the nearby Navy Yard killings, would trap her vehicle and then gun her down. Then the day after that another troubled citizen doused himself with what was presumed to be gasoline and lit a match. Joggers attempted to smother the flames with their singlets, but their efforts proved for naught and the victim died from his burns at the hospital. It was hard not to wonder whether Washington wasn’t spinning off into some Twilight Zone episode. Between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, groups of veterans were pushing aside the barricades along the reflecting pools and the World War II and Viet Nam memorials. I did the same and took a minute to run my finger across the etching of Freddy Liziewski’s name as I do each time I visit the Wall.
Washington thrives on rumor. On Wednesday, the conventional wisdom was that the shutdown would be over by the weekend. By the weekend, with no respite in sight, the rumor du jour was that Tea Party Republicans were jonesing for an excuse to impeach the President. House Republicans were allegedly hell-bent on forcing the debt limit because the president had requested a legal opinion from the attorney general that would authorize him to guarantee the “full faith and credit” of the U.S. Treasury without Congressional approval. As soon as Obama started paying the nation’s bills, they would file impeachment charges. The theory seemed to be that the Clinton impeachment had so weakened the Democratic brand that George Bush was able to capture the White House. Why not try the same trick again?
Whether this story actually had any basis in fact is anyone’s guess. The White House found it necessary to say they have no such legal opinion and curtly admonished Congress to do its job. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post reported that Speaker John Boehner has privately told his caucus he will not permit the government to crash through the debt limit. Ink was barely dry on the Saturday morning papers before the Speaker’s staff denied these reports. Apparently the Speaker was indeed willing to walk away from the tab — or was he? Pondering these rumors, it is evident there’s a whole lot of lying going on — and plenty of reason to poison the well with plausible fabrications.
It was one thing to impeach Bill Clinton, even when a majority of Americans were opposed to the exercise. You didn’t have to be a Puritan to sense that a little public embarrassment wouldn’t be an entirely bad thing for our Philanderer-in-Chief — but, to deliberately engineer a confrontation that paints the president in a corner, forcing a choice between protecting the interests of the American people and respecting the prerogatives of Congress? That’s an ugly piece of political business. Could any members of Congress really be that stupid? That question, of course, answers itself.
That’s why it makes for such a great rumor. It’s sufficiently nasty that it might be what the intelligence community calls disinformation? Who benefits by floating the notion that the president has been trying to find a way around Congress? Conversely, who benefits by alleging that Republicans are a ravening mob intent on impeachment? Would any member of Congress intentionally mislead us regarding the motives and intentions of their adversaries? That question also answers itself. Tighten your life vests for we seem to be navigating choppy and uncharted seas.