WASHINGTON — Some Americans still feel the need to witness history in person.
When Andrew Johnson became the first president to be impeached in in 1868, a first-hand account was the only account. Radio was still 30-odd years away from being invented, television another 30 after that, and anyone who wanted to take in the historic vote as it happened had to head to the Capitol to watch it themselves. Plenty of people did. From the New York Times, via Steven Portnoy of CBS News:
“As early as 8 o’clock this morning, two hours before the House met, spectators began to wend their way to the galleries, and in an hour they were full to overflowing and if three thousand were seated, at least ten thousand were turned away, unable to obtain admission. … The crowd in all parts of the Capitol was immense, and the early comers stood and sat their ground, eating their lunches during some dull speaker’s tirade.”
On Wednesday, Donald Trump became the third president to suffer Johnson’s fate, and though technology has rendered an in-person viewing unnecessary, the House Chamber’s spectator gallery was near packed for the entirety of the marathon day of debate. Though a crowd of thousands wasn’t waiting to get into the Capitol, a consistent line of 10 or so excited soon-to-be spectators stood outside the the second-floor gallery throughout the day.
“We were turned away at Woodstock, 10 miles away from the gate,” said Bruce Shapiro, 70, who came down from West Point, New York, with his wife of 50 years, Barbara. “We said if we ever have a historic event that comes up that is as monumental as that that we would be here. So we made it a point to be here to be a part of history.”
“It’s like going to a concert,” Barbara explained. “Wouldn’t you rather be there?”
The Shapiros made clear that they supported Trump’s impeachment, as did a woman from Bethesda, Maryland, named Cecily, who did not want to give her last name. “I think it’s a necessity,” she said, pointing out the serendipity of it being “high noon” when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi first spoke. “I think that one side saying they haven’t had an opportunity to share their point of view, which is not true. I hope the truth will come out.”
Cecily didn’t only come in for the impeachment vote. She also filled a seat in the Capitol for several of the hearings leading up to it. “I will tell you that some years ago I started coming to the Judiciary Committee hearings whenever a Supreme Court justice was going to be confirmed,” she said. “Alito, Roberts. There was just something about it. For [impeachment], I thought it was important.”
Trump had plenty of supporters in the gallery, as well. In front of Cecily in line stood John Sanders, 40, who extended his trip to Washington from Huntsville, Alabama, by a day so he could see the vote. “I love it, it’s a great place to be,” he said before noting that “it’s possible that 100 years from now people from this time period will be looked upon the same way we look upon Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.”
“Possibly,” he clarified.
When I asked Sanders if he had an opinion on impeachment, we were interrupted by Carolyn Sires, 57, who was down from Connecticut. “Yes, we all do,” she said, a bejeweled American flag broach gleaming on her lapel. “Let’s be very honest: It’s a waste of time. It’s a total waste of time.”
“I was here in November working for service dogs for the military,” she continued. “Speaker Pelosi is all about this bipartisan support. They’re going to do all these things that are wonderful. So what happens? Now we wait? Are we putting service dogs in our military on hold for this? You know [impeachment] is never going to happen in the Senate. What are you doing? Let the people vote. Just let them vote him out. You don’t like the president, you wait four years.”
Tuna, the service golden retriever at Sires’ side, declined to go on the record.
Some were visiting the Capitol on the day of the impeachment vote by sheer coincidence. Some made the trip to bear witness to a historic event. Some, like Bo and Cheri Blair, who drove up from Lynchburg, Virginia, were there to show support. “I came to support our president, Donald J. Trump,” said Bo, who clutched a red Make America Great Again hat in his hand because non-religious head adornments are not allowed inside the Capitol. “It’s that important.”
Both he and Cheri wore deep-red sweaters, Cheri with an American flag scarf around her neck. “The economy, look at the jobless rate, look at the stock market — how can you beat that?” Bo explained of their support. “That’s what’s on people’s minds. This junk right here is garbage. Who wants to look at old Nadler all day doing this and that. And Pencil Neck? That’s not life, that’s not America.”
The Blairs were waiting to get into the spectator gallery early in the day, with hours of debate still to come before the vote took place Wednesday night. They hadn’t yet decided if they were going to wait until the vote was final before driving the four hours back to Lynchburg.
“We’ll see how it goes tonight,” Bo said.
“Got a room, though,” Cheri added. “Just in case.”