WASHINGTON – Some of my friends abandoned me a few weeks ago.
John McLoughlin of Oregon. Wade Hampton of South Carolina. William Borah of Idaho. Esther Hobart Morris of Wyoming. Po’pay of New Mexico. Philo T. Farnsworth of Utah. Jack Swigert of Colorado. And a certain K. Kamehameha of Hawaii.
No, these aren’t retiring members of Congress. But they are friends I’ve gotten to know from years of covering the Capitol. I see them almost every day. And depending on my assignment on Capitol Hill, I may find myself hanging out with some of them for hours at a time.
They’ve gone away. But fortunately, not too far.
My friends are statues. And over the past few weeks, usually late at night, workers have hoisted, lugged, scooted and shoved my friends from the Capitol to the underground Capitol Visitor’s Center, scheduled to open December 2.
I’ll miss these guys.
But to be honest, the Capitol’s hallways grew cluttered with these folks. Each state is allowed to place two statues of historic figures in the Capitol complex. An orator there. An inventor there. But most of them seemed out of place. Shoved against the walls, sometimes at odd angles, facing one another.
Their stations were anything but regal.
Hawaii’s statue of King Kamehameha strikes a pose reminiscent of a Roman general, one hand thrust in the air, the other clenching a spear. Hawaiians sent him to Washington because he unified the chain of islands.
But at 15,000 pounds, Kamehameha is the heaviest statue in the collection. They had to find a spot strong enough for the floor to handle his girth. So Kamehameha presided over an alcove featuring a defunct fireplace in a dark corner of Statuary Hall.
Hardly a place fit for a king.
So they’ve moved my friends. Kind of a low-tech version of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."
The first statue I got to know personally was Wyoming’s Esther Hobart Morris. It was late 1996. I worked at C-SPAN and was producing a segment on retiring senators. I asked then-Sen. Alan Simpson (R-WY) to walk us around to his favorite locations in the Capitol. He swung us by the statue of Morris, standing between three portals that run between Statuary Hall (the old House chamber) and a corridor that heads to the Speaker’s Office. Simpson was particularly proud of this statue. Not only was it from home state, but his father Milward Simpson advocated the state to recognize Morris in the Capitol when he was Wyoming’s governor in the late ‘50s.
Morris was a women’s rights pioneer. In the statue, she wears a long, flowing skirt and cradles a sheaf of grain in her left arm. Morris is cast in bronze and positioned at a heavy traffic area. Sen. Simpson pointed out that the base and parts of Morris’s skirt is now patinated from the millions of tourists, aides and lawmakers who’ve rubbed against it as they walk from the Rotunda to the House wing.
As an homage to my first statue friend, I always make sure I brush my arm across the base as I walk past — sometimes five or six times a day.
But I can’t do that any more.
Over the years, I’ve befriended William Borah of Idaho. A former Republican senator known for his lengthy oratory, President Calvin Coolidge declared that "Sen. Borah is always in session."
Called "The Lion of Idaho," Borah will still be in session. But rather than in a hallway near the Senate chamber, Borah will take up residence in the Visitor’s Center too. Borah was an isolationist. And appropriately enough, I miss the wedge of seclusion his statue and a little wall provided. When senators, staff and journalists crawl the hallways on Tuesdays when the Senate breaks for party lunches, I could always find some privacy next to Borah to take a sensitive cell phone call or chat off-stage with a source.
I’ve probably gotten to know Wade Hampton of South Carolina as well as anyone up there. I’ve certainly spent the most time with him.
Hampton’s place was in a connecting corridor just off the House chamber best known for a statue of humorist Will Rogers (representing Oklahoma). TV news access is limited near the House. But cameras are always allowed for interviews and press conferences in what they call "The Will Rogers Area."
Granted, Will Rogers is a bigger name than Wade Hampton. But the for news purposes, the hall should be known as the "Wade Hampton Area."
If you’ve seen a televised press conference or interview near the House floor, it was right next to Wade Hampton. Many a House member has rested their BlackBerry and pager at his feet while on the air. I’ve leaned against him; set cups of coffee and soda against him. I’ve even seen news photographers prop their up their feet against the South Carolinian, killing time before an interview.
Hampton’s disliked today because he owned thousands of slaves and was a Confederate Cavalry commander. But I always had a fondness for the statue because he shares the name of my 11-year-old Welsh Corgi, Hampton.
And then there’s John McLoughlin of Oregon.
King Kamehameha may weigh more. Statues in the Rotunda of George Washington and Andrew Jackson carry more historical value. But when it comes to statuary, no one cuts a better figure than John McLoughlin.
Long-positioned next to Hampton, McLoughlin strides with a cane in a three-piece suit. His mane of hair is slicked back. He clutches a top hat in the other hand. An enormous, floor-length cape billows in his wake, blown by a permanent, imaginary wind.
"That’s what I want my statue to look like," said my intern Katie Sagona.
From Quebec, McLoughlin is known as the "Father of Oregon." He was the United States’ main authority in what is now the American Northwest.
You can imagine my surprise one night when I came around the bend to see McLoughlin suspended about 10 feet off the ground by a miniature crane, en route to his new post in the Capitol Visitor Center.
The scene was surreal. The team of workmen charged with moving McLoughlin sat on the floor taking a break. They nonchalantly devoured baloney sandwiches and sipped coffee from a green Thermos. Meantime, McLoughlin, his face frozen in a riveting scowl, swung sideways, his cape, defying gravity, floating behind him. I was tempted to tell the crew they can’t just let my friend hang there like that. But they seemed very unimpressed with "The Father of Oregon." And certainly unaware of our longstanding friendship.
When it comes to Capitol statues, anyone can become friends with big names like Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Hamilton or Thomas Jefferson. But working in the Capitol each day, I’ve been lucky enough to befriend other figures from the more obscure side of American history.
I wish I could have thrown a going-away party for some of them. Some cake. Some ice cream. Maybe a goofy Hallmark card.
But the best part is, they’re not going too far away. And like any good friend, I’ll be sure to visit them there soon.
Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting from Capitol Hill.