Posted by Matt Carpenter
Of all the words that I can use to describe my week in Washington, D.C. and Gettysburg, the one that won’t leave my mind is lucky; lucky for the surprising and wonderful experiences we had, but also for what I learned about the spirit of the government that inhabits that city and how I see myself relating to it. When I left for D.C. with 24 other 2015 Scholars, I was excited to experience both a monument to history and the seat of our nation’s government, but I hardly expected to find myself being whisked through the tunnel from the Rayburn House Office Building to the Capitol by Congressman Pete Sessions’s staff while passing a Major General and being passed by Congresspersons and their staffers.
I hardly expected to be spoken to by five members of the House Rules Committee in the span of two hours. I hardly expected to spend an hour in a Q&A with former Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee Bill Archer. I hardly expected to sit across the aisle from Gary Kelly, CEO of Southwest Airlines on our flight from D.C. to Dallas. And to conclude it all, I hardly expected to walk out of the terminal at Love Field and see the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile driving past. From start to finish, D.C. was certainly a surprising and extraordinary experience.
I consider us fortunate to have explored D.C. and Gettysburg from an assortment of perspectives. When we first arrived, we saw the sites as tourists and processed the politics of our government from the cynical view of a jaded observer. Our first night, after stopping to look at the White House, we attended a brutally hilarious performance of the Capitol Steps, a comedy group that chooses to deliver their satire of the headlines of the day through parodies of popular songs. Through our laughter we acknowledged the absurdities and hypocrisies that all too often accompany the work of our government, or at least the politics that are presented to us through media outlets, but we also realized that to see D.C. through the lens of selfie backdrops and comedy was only the tip of the iceberg. Fortunately, we would soon have the opportunity to understand Washington more intimately than many citizens care to.
Over the next three days we, among other things, explored many of the monuments, museums, and places of government that form the foundation of the postcard perspective of D.C., yet in them I saw another way of looking at Washington. Walking amongst the colossal Greco-Roman temples we have built to the icons of our nation’s rise, or standing in silent appreciation of the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, or strolling through the Capitol Rotunda surrounded by images of America’s founding and underneath a painting of George Washington in full regalia of a Greek deity, I came to realize that nowhere else had I felt so strongly and so proudly a national identity. As a country with immense regional differences in geography, economy, and culture, and as a people often fixated on the political disputes that drive us apart, we rarely pause to celebrate or acknowledge our shared identity as Americans and our shared drive to build a brighter future for ourselves and our communities. At Arlington and on the National Mall we came in touch with powerful statements of American purpose, dedication, and sacrifice for the ideals of liberty and democracy that transcend occupants of the White House and disputes on the House floor.
Thus it was fitting that we could observe in an immediate and stunning way another commitment to shared ideals. We had the thrilling opportunity to meet sitting congresspersons in D.C., including Eddie Bernice Johnson, Pete Sessions, Dr. Virginia Foxx, Rob Woodall, Doug Collins, and Dan Newhouse. In our conversations with them it became clear that despite the appearances and accusations disseminated through online and broadcast sources on policymaking in Washington, most everyone on the Hill and throughout the government is genuinely invested in doing what they believe is best for the most people, and are interested in collaborating to make progress on important issues. We were incredibly fortunate to see inside the bubble that is constantly beset by tourists. For in the same stunningly adorned halls that tour groups are shuttled through, the machine of government works continuously under the mandate of that same, largely oblivious public. By observing both sides of buildings like the Capitol we expanded our perceptions of government with a perspective most lack the chance to examine.
The final unique vantage point this trip afforded us on the work of our government was best discovered outside of the city, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. From the view from Little Round Top to the path of Pickett’s Charge, we were unnervingly immersed in the struggle that took place on those hills a century and a half ago. Thanks to the deep knowledge and appreciation of the battlefield possessed by our guide Colonel Tom Vossler, we were exposed to the heroic and tragic tales of leadership that covered that historic and hallowed site. In light of the leaders we had met in D.C. and the leaders we all aspire to become, the lessons of the Civil War were exceedingly relevant.
In Washington, D.C. we were connected to the past, present, and future. History is simply inescapable in the city. From the museums that chronicled the tale of our nation’s maturation, to the halls and residences where every step of that story was pondered and debated, to Ben’s Chili Bowl, a testament to the undying persistence of the communities across this nation whose lives, in aggregate, compose that story, the past is more than omnipresent in the city; it’s lived in. And the demarcation between history, memory, and each moment in the lives of D.C.’s residents is vague at best. The furious pulse of the living monument that we so briefly sampled was a constant reminder that the story of America is still being written, and that we may well have a chance to write a page.
Whatever trajectories our futures take, and however different our eventual landing sites are from where we’re currently aiming, we will all face the opportunity to meaningfully impact society, and we will all face the responsibility to do so with the best interests of a community, a nation, or even humanity at heart. Only some of us will face this challenge in Washington, D.C., but we will all be better equipped to surmount that challenge because of what we learned on this trip. I am still digesting the eclectic collection of lessons and inspirations I gathered from hills of Arlington National Cemetery, the committee rooms of Congress, the fields of Gettysburg, and perhaps most importantly, from the 24 other amazing and extraordinary Scholars in my class, but I know that the winds in my sails have already shifted slightly. I can only imagine how it will affect my journey.