When I was 10 years old, whispers spread around my school in suburban Washington, D.C. -- there had been a shooting in the Capitol. The nuns tried to keep the news from us, since several of us were children of the men (and it was almost entirely men) who served there. Even then news spread, and we were terrified.
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We children of congressmen knew each other well, went to school together, played in each other’s houses. Our fathers represented opposing political parties and we would sometimes go at it in history classes, or during a campaign season. But that didn’t stop us from being fast friends.
What a different time, in so many ways. After the 1954 shooting in the House chamber, security at the Capitol ramped up a little. But we “congressional brats” were still free to explore the many secrets of that magnificent building where we spent much of our childhoods. The Capitol Police force, so professional in their response on that ballfield in Virginia, was made up of amateurs, often college boys working their way through school thanks to a patronage position.
There just didn’t seem to be any real danger, no fear that politics could kill. Our dads might disagree with each other, think the other fellow was wrong-headed but not evil. They respected each other (for the most part) and partisan differences didn’t stop many of them from forming close friendships. So, in addition to my outrage at the horror of an attack on men at play, presumably because of their political beliefs, I am just so sad that this little happy outpost of bipartisan fun -- the congressional baseball game --literally came under fire.
Many members and their kids look forward to the game all year. One of its great supporters was the longtime Republican manager, Silvio Conte, who led his team to 11 straight victories, giving him bragging rights over one of his best friends -- Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill. Conte once went to bat on crutches, cigar clenched in his teeth and hit a double. And the next day he took to the well of the House to recite some silly doggerel about the glorious victory.
That’s the spirit of the game. That used to be part of the spirit of the House as well. People could go to bat against each other and then sit down at the end of the day and enjoy each other’s company. Now if they tried that and some of their constituents learned of it the members would be accused of consorting with the enemy and threatened with a primary challenge.
So the sense of common purpose that brought the House together in the wake of the shooting will likely not last despite the best intentions of some members. Reeking with hatred and vituperation, it’s the voters on the extremes and their spokesmen in both public and private spaces who drive the attitudes that keep the congress from cooperating.
And if anybody had any doubt about it before now, a shootout in the early morning on a sunny baseball field shows just how dangerous those attitudes can be. We have sadly reached the place in this country where politics can kill.
Cokie Roberts is a political commentator for ABC News. Opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the views of ABC News.