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November 27, 2014

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When you work in D.C., the story seems bigger

During the Senate's all-night session on Iraq last month, I stepped outside the Capitol and found myself alone with a Republican senator I had not yet met. I asked about the war. He replied expansively. He wasn't happy with the way the war was going, but the Democrats were making a spectacle with this all-night stunt and a rally with the liberal moveon.org people, he said. Politics like that made him fed up with this place.

I walked across the street to the rally. Spotlights cut through the dark night to the Democrats on stage. Party leaders exhorted President Bush and Republicans to change course in the war. The crowd cheered.

The next morning, however, Democrats again failed to win enough Republican support to pass a bill to draw down troop levels.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told me afterward that he planned to keep taking these votes, because if he didn't try to do something about Iraq, who would? His words captured his time in history, and I wrote about them with that in mind, wondering how he and others would be judged by future generations.

People will tell you that Washington is a lot like high school, a place where seniority matters and alliances form and fray like teenage cliques. Others prefer to see it as Hollywood for ugly people, a land where gray-haired lawmakers count as celebrities.

But what working in Washington really feels like after finishing my first full year here is that we're all living a Ken Burns documentary. What happened yesterday, today and tomorrow forms a 200-year narrative, from Daniel Webster to Harry Reid.

Breathing in this much history is jarring for a reporter from the West, where the past tends to stay tucked away in favor of the new. Americans have always gone West for a fresh start, as pioneers did 150 years ago, as 5,000 people do each month in Southern Nevada. Their bias for things new (or to escape the old) formed an ethos. Westerners still welcome the opportunity to knock down buildings, or jettison identities, for the promise of a fresh start.

If the past survives, it's often by accident. For reporters out West, that means digging out old stories from the memories of bartenders or ranchers or retirees who keep dusty files in spare rooms.

The past is not intertwined with the present along, say, Las Vegas Boulevard. In Washington the past is inescapable. I've come to expect history as a kind of permanent graffiti that keeps showing up even after being painted over by new eras: Take a taxi down Pennsylvania Avenue, where so many presidents have commuted to their first day on the job. Walk the dog through the Capitol Hill greenery of Folger Park, Stanton Park or Seward Square and you are strolling with Lincoln's Cabinet. (Pass Rep. Shelley Berkley's townhouse, with the pink flamingos out front, and smile at a country where a former keno runner can be a congresswoman.)

Washington even has the redolence of history - the Capitol smells like the church hall on spaghetti dinner night when we were kids. No sooner are you making the day's first walk between the House and Senate than the Nixon-era lunch menu wafts through the halls. Fried chicken. Fish. More mayonnaise than anyone needs. It always seems more appropriate for a junior high school cafeteria than the legislative seat of the world's leading democracy.

When I first stepped into the Capitol last year, Republicans were still firmly in control of Congress. Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the Texas exterminator- turned-lawmaker turned-indicted-symbol-of-Beltway-corruption, was just stepping down, the end of an era that had long been coming.

Those were the days when Reid, then leader of the minority party, held sparsely attended news conferences on the Iraq war in the LBJ Room. As he spoke, anyone could see the minefield of irony. Gazing down from a giant oil painting was the president done in by the Vietnam War. At the time, one of my editors who lived through those war years said it was embarrassing that reporters today blew off the minority views that Reid and others expressed.

Then came the November elections. Anti-war sentiment and a disdain for the "culture of corruption" propelled the Democrats to power. Now to hear Reid you have to arrive early at his Tuesday news briefings to get a spot close in. If pushed too far out into the crowd, you can't hear his soft voice. The clicking cameras finally drown him out. (That's another jarring sight. Adults in suits line up early for government hearings that even C- SPAN doesn't show. You see them in the wee hours, slouching against the walls as if waiting for Ticketmaster to open.)

The comparisons to Hollywood and high school aren't altogether off the mark. Washington is filled with bluff and bluster. You learn quickly the currency of confidence - or at least how to recover after you've mispronounced House Republican leader John Boehner's name in a way that sends grown men smirking. (BAYner.) Or how to shrug it off when that Republican senator who spoke to you so eloquently about the war one night brushes you off the next day without a flicker of recognition.

Time passes in dog years. So much history can be made in a week that it feels as if seven just passed. In the past 12 months, congressional power shifted hands, a war more painfully divided a nation, a once-powerful president now battles for his legacy, and the small state of Nevada is suddenly relevant - in the halls of Congress and in the presidential election.

One of the best parts of working in the Capitol is at the end of the day, when the halls are empty except for the statues and paintings. One night as I left the Senate and walked toward the House, I could hear faint music. As I walked, it grew louder. The tune was old, something you'd hear coming from a kitchen radio in one of those black-and white movies about another war. As the corridor opened into the rotunda (or maybe it was Statuary Hall, I can't remember) I saw older people dancing slowly, arm in arm. What's the event, I asked a guard. Dinner for former members of Congress, he said.

Oh, the stories they could tell, I thought. But I had to get home. It was late, and tomorrow would be another day in history.

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