WASHINGTON – I’m a creature of habit. I trace nearly the same path each night when I lock up FOX’s broadcast booth on the third floor of the U.S. Capitol and walk to my car parked in front of the building on Pennsylvania Ave.
I cut down a flight of marble stairs, hang a hard right at the hideaway office of House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), glide past the Republican cloakroom and busts of former House Speakers Joe Martin and Thomas Reed.
A left at the main doors leading to the House chamber takes me through the center of the Capitol, toward the Rotunda and past the original Library of Congress — now into a suite of offices used by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. A right at the Ohio Clock just outside the Senate chamber leads to more steps.
I finally exit past a unit of Capitol Police officers who are seemingly engaged in a perpetual conversation about the fate of the Washington Redskins.
It’s a walk across marble floors. Between Corinthian columns. Down ornate hallways.
But my nightly exit strategy is really something else.
It’s a walk through history.
When I first emerge from the FOX booth, I snake through a short hallway that leads to the main corridor near the House chamber. And opposite a bank of three elevators hangs a trio of historic paintings.
First there’s Romauldo Pacheco of California, the first Hispanic elected to Congress who served in the House from 1877 to 1883.
Next to Pacheco is Jeanette Rankin, a Democrat from Montana who was the only lawmaker to vote against both World Wars. But more significantly, the first woman elected to Congress. In fact Rankin’s 1916 election empowered her to do something in Washington she wasn’t allowed to back in Montana: vote. Back then, women had not yet secured the right to vote in elections. But as a member of Congress, the Gentlelady from Montana could vote on the House floor.
And then there’s Rankin’s wall-mate: Joseph Rainey of South Carolina. In 1870, he became the first black elected to Congress (Sen. Hiram Revels of Mississippi was appointed to the Senate a few months before Rainey took office).
I doubt most Capitol regulars even know this gallery exists. The triumvirate of firsts lays off the beaten path. But the painting of Rainey serves as a reminder that the election of blacks to the highest federal offices started long ago.
As the first black to secure the nomination of a major political party, Barack Obama stands at the precipice of history. A breakthrough that rivals the accomplishments of Pacheco, Rankin and Rainey. If voters elect Obama, it would complete the journey Rainey initiated in 1870, championed by the late Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-NY) as the first black to stage a nationwide campaign for the presidency and continued by the Rev. Jesse Jackson as the first African-American to truly contend for the Democratic nomination.
And 138 years after Joseph Rainey and Hiram Revels were seated in the U.S. Congress, race remains a central theme in America.
There is a certain percentage of the population that is convinced that Barack Obama is a Muslim terrorist. There is a larger section of the electorate who simply won’t vote for Obama because of skin color. It’s not overt racism. It’s just that they’re not comfortable with electing a black president. In fact, some observers suggest that Obama may have tapped Joe Biden as his running mate because of the exacerbated threat Obama could face if he’s elected. And with 35 years of experience in the Senate and an extensive foreign policy resume, Biden’s obviously qualified to become Commander in Chief
That’s the dark tide of race that churns through this election cycle.
Which brings me back to the evening strolls to my car. Those walks through the Congressional corridors reveal how much race permeates the American story. And many of those battles played out right under the Capitol Dome.
Before I make it to the Rotunda, I pass Statuary Hall. It’s the old chamber where the House met from the early 19th century until 1857. Each day, thousands of tourists wander through Statuary Hall. There they find statues of Robert E. Lee, commanding General of the Confederate Army. Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy. Davis’s Vice President, Alexander Hamilton Stephens. And then, General Joseph Wheeler. Attire makes Wheeler’s statue stand out. He’s clad in Confederate battle garb, complete with a belt buckle emblazoned with "CSA."
Great debates raged in that room for decades over the role of blacks in America. Debates about fugitive slave laws. The Missouri Compromise. The Compromise of 1850.
But watch the tour guides who lead the masses through Statuary Hall. There’s nary a mention of these disputes, let alone the statues of the confederate heroes who stand watch over the Hall.
What do the guides talk to the tourists about? Acoustics.
It’s the most absurd thing you’ve ever seen. Go into Statuary Hall at any time of the day and you’ll find tourists crouched on their hands and knees, whispering to the floor.
The arcade ceiling looming over Statuary Hall captures voices on one side of the room, carries them across the canopy ceiling above the floor and deposits them on the other side. This acoustical carom is a parlor trick that entertains the masses. And distracts them from an historical discussion on race.
On my journey across the Capitol, I walk right past the old Senate chamber. This is where Rep. Preston Brooks (D-SC) almost caned Sen. Charles Sumner (R-MA) to death in 1856. A polished orator, Sumner delivered a blistering attack against the Kansas-Nebraska Act and in the process, excoriated Brooks’ uncle, Sen. Andrew Butler (D-SC). Sumner brutally insulted Butler over his pro-slavery views. He contended his colleague had taken "a mistress who, though ugly to him is always lovely to him." He then declared Butler’s "harlot" to be "slavery."
Debates over slavery, reconstruction, voting rights and civil rights preoccupied Congress for decades. Even non-legislative debates such as the Dred Scott decision — which prevented slaves from becoming citizens or owning property — and Plessy v. Ferguson (which established the separate but equal doctrine) were argued in the Capitol when the U.S. Supreme Court met there until 1935.
As I walk through the transept of Statuary Hall toward the Speaker’s Office, I pass under a marble sculpture depicting Clio, the Muse of History. She rides in her Chariot of Time, a clock chiseled into its side as the wheel. Clio stares down onto the old House floor, tablet in hand, recording the events she sees below, towering over the statues of Confederate leaders.
In January, Clio will document another event: the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States. U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts will swear in either Obama or John McCain on the West Front of the Capitol. And a few weeks after that, the new president will return to Capitol Hill to deliver his first address to a Joint Session of Congress.
This is an historic election year. It could become a landmark election if voters tap Obama to become the first black president.
We’ll know the outcome soon. And then I’ll have something else to ponder as I pack up my things for home, walk past the picture of Joseph Rainey, by the Confederate heroes and pass under the statue of Clio on my nightly walk through history.
Chad Pergram covers the House of Representatives for FOX News. He’s won the Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan. Barone Award for his reporting on Congress.