A: I first became interested in writing about the Capitol in 1998. I was covering Congress at the time for The Washington Post, and most of what we would do that year involved the impeachment of President Clinton. A lesser reported event, but ultimately more important for me, was a decision by the Architect of the Capitol, the appointee responsible for construction and maintenance of the congressional properties on and around Capitol Hill. These include, besides the Capitol itself, the Library of Congress, the Government Printing Office, the congressional office buildings and assorted other holdings.
The architect, Alan Hantman, determined that the cast iron dome of the Capitol was cracked, leaking, rusty, covered with too many layers of paint and had suffered badly from years of bird droppings and other indignities. It needed a total facelift. A detailed survey was made and a report sent to Congress (the Senate Rules Committee). This event went almost totally unreported, but I was able to write a front page story on the troubles plaguing the Capitol and the difficulties involved in repairing a one-of-a-kind national icon. You have to think everything through before you start, and you can't make any mistakes. "Oops," is not an option.
In writing the story I became hooked on the building and learned a little bit about its history. My plan was to check back with Hantman once the project got underway so I could report its progress, but in the end, the project was postponed for a decade because of 9-11. After that the Architect's number one priority was to design and build the Capitol Visitor's Center. Everything else was put on hold. The dome was sealed up and forgotten. Curiously enough, however, the facelift finally began last year and will resume after President Obama's second-term inauguration.
Q: What surprised you most in the course of your research?
A: I undertook to write Freedom's Cap in 2008 after a conversation with the editor of Farrar Straus and Giroux. I was interested in selling him a completely different book, and over lunch I could tell he wasn't interested at all. Instead he asked me what were the ten most interesting things I had come across during my years at The Washington Post (I had taken a buyout and retired in 2006, and was working as a freelance writer at the time).
As I mulled this question it suddenly occurred to me that the story of the modern U.S. Capitol would make a great book. I knew it had never been done, and I knew immediately what the obvious selling point would be. Jefferson Davis, as a senator and as secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce in the 1850s, had, I knew, been an active promoter of what was at the time called the "Capitol Extension."
Once I began the research I discovered that Davis was the leading political patron of the project for the entire decade. This amazed me because it required a national vision possessed by few people in the United States at that time. Davis, quite simply, believed that a great nation deserved a great seat of government. This sentiment was not shared by his congressional colleagues, most of whom were interested in getting post offices for their districts, breakwaters for their harbors and subsidies for their railroads.
Q: As a former congressional correspondent, how would you compare the politics during the years leading up to the Civil War to those of modern times?
A: Eerily similar, both in style and substance. It took me two years to research and write the book. I spent a lot of time reading the Congressional Globe, the forerunner of today's Congressional Record. The style of debate and the political gambits and strategies of lawmakers in the 1850s are exactly the same as what we see today.
You have bait and switch: demanding an amendment that you never expect to see passed simply so you can withdraw it later and leave what you really want in the bill. Ballet: in which senators or congressmen decide how they're going to present a measure, then carefully choreograph the floor action to win the outcome they are all seeking. Riders: senators and representatives were shameless in tacking on tidbit amendments on large bills to give favored constituents a break on some local issue.
As far as substance is concerned, slavery, of course, was the major issue of the day, and debate over its rightness or wrongness escalated with increasing savagery over the decade. Southern sectionalists often couched the slavery question as a debate over states rights versus the power of the federal government. This was just as much a core issue for the young United States, but not as explosive. I find that today's debates over health care, gun control and other hot topics are frequently cast as cases of the federal government treading where it does not belong. Some dissenters are once again even floating the idea of secession.
|Capitol's Freedom statue|
A: The liberty cap is a soft, fore-and aft hat used as a symbol of liberty during the American and French revolutions. It is derived from the Phrygian cap of classical antiquity, the mark of a manumitted slave. Sculptor Thomas Crawford made three plaster models of the Freedom statue, and the second one had a liberty cap. Davis did not like liberty caps because, as he wrote the engineer in charge of the project, they only worked for a people had been slaves and were now free, and in the United States people had always been free.
I am unable to see this as anything other than mealy-mouthed nonsense. The fact is that it would have been hard to put a manumitted slave atop the dome--literally the pinnacle of American democracy--in a country that at the time held 40,000 people in bondage. But because of Davis, the statue does not have a liberty cap. Check out the other two plaster models, which are on display at the Capitol complex (pictures in the book, as well), and make your own judgment.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am writing magazine pieces mostly on scientific topics at the moment and thinking about another book. I have a couple of good ideas and should reach a decision in the coming months.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Freedom's Cap was chosen one of the top ten non-fiction books of the year by Jonathan Yardley at The Washington Post (I have never met the man), and one of the top 100 non-fiction books of the year by Kirkus Reviews.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb