Edwin Rios is spending the winter wallowing through the nooks and crannies of Capitol Hill as a mobile journalist as part of the Medill on the Hill program, a 10-week political reporting program out of the Medill News Service in Washington D.C. He will report on affairs in National Security. This is his Dispatch.
"One last browse," I thought to myself.
I sifted through my backpack and marked items off my mental checklist. Camera? Check. Notebook? Check. iPad? Check. Macbook? Check. An unreasonable amount of books? Check.
I didn’t know what to expect on my return to Washington D.C. My father rolled the large tricolored duffle he recently used on his flight to Puerto Rico, though this time it wasn’t traveling to anywhere nearly as beautiful. I carried a compact suitcase filled layers of dress shirts, slacks and suits, fawning modest professionalism - a thought that never passed my mind prior to this trip.
It was the morning of New Year’s Day. The night’s toll resonated throughout the long lines of people waiting for their buses to depart. There were the girls in high heels, the men in sport coats with dress shirts and no ties. There were the elderly couples and the young professionals. I gasped. After all, it was the morning after the annual extravaganza in Time Square, and the streets littered with tourists, some more drunk than others, stumbling to the nearest subway station.
Unable to figure out where to stand amid the commotion, I asked the nearest Megabus employee for where those waiting for the next bus to Washington needed to stand. He motioned to the corner near a Kabob vendor. We walked through the crowd and found ourselves in the middle of the line, waiting.
It just so happened on this pleasant morning I had the opportunity to stand beside one of New Year’s Day’s finest victims. He seemed to have a rough night. His brother, clad in a navy sport coat and jeans, stood in front of him, rarely making contact with him. The victim sat on the ground with his head in between his knees. He looked pale but somehow proud.
Seeing this man’s vulnerability unfold before my eyes sparked one question: what kinds of people would I meet in the nation’s capital? Would they be young professionals, or older businesspeople? Would they be upscale or from the trenches? The last time I visited Washington was around seventh or eighth grade for a leadership conference. My memory from that time is blurry at best. All that stands out is Capitol Hill, an architect’s patriotic masterpiece.
Though anticipation pushed me along, it had been an emotional morning.
As I packed my bags, my dad stood over me and stared. I noticed the glint of light in his eyes. Yet another time his son departs for an extended period of time, only months until he sees him again. Little did he know we would see each under the most unprecedented of circumstances. I folded my dress shirts and primed my slacks, fastened my ties and zipped up my suitcases. My mother strolled around the house, coffee mug in hand, and checked her phone.
“C’mon, Ed. It’s time to go.”
I had to finish my last-minute tasks. I ran up the staircase and snuck into my 13-year-old brother’s room - the same room I once called my own. I watched over him just as I had over the past several months, thinking about him from afar with every chance I had. I leaned over his bed, held his head with my hand and kissed his forehead. “I’ll see you later, buddy,” I whispered in his ear. It was a ritual I had done a countless number of times, but this time it felt different.
The farewell was my attempt at a last-minute sense of security from the real world I was about to endeavor, my last chance to connect to my youth before I embark on the same journey many young professionals thrive on.
It’s been two weeks since I’ve arrived and it has already been a whirlwind of thoughts and emotions. My title has changed from student to reporter. I follow the 24-hour news cycle rather than reading academic text every week. Each morning starts with Politico’s Playbook and ends with the AP Daybook. The morning Post and Times are my best friends - the National Journal, my professor. Though the days of kicking back on the couch may be over for the time being, a new fascination has emerged: understanding the complex network of buildings - and people - on Capitol Hill. I knew, from that moment, the next two and a half months would be exciting, even prepossessing.
Some moments may be taken for granted, but others are remembered forever. In the first couple of days, my housemates and I took a stroll through Capitol Hill. The night sky filled the background of an illuminated Capitol building, its white facade clad in seemingly ancient architecture. A police officer patrolled the rooftops, marching from one side to the next with an assault rifle in hand. We recapped the obvious sensation, the disbelief that we are before the very building the founding fathers envisioned the portrait of truth and justice, and where politicians debate constantly over complicated issues from polarized lenses. We passed the House and Senate buildings where we’ll spend much of our time listening to congresspeople vote and debate on bills, or struggling to find one to comment.
Fragments of history surround us. The Washington Monument looms far in the distance, fathering a nation whose eyes scale to its apex in times of joy and despair. Its base illuminates in the darkness, careful of the modern nation only in principle. The political fervor enraptures, as Congress returns to session. Disgruntled men and women - the 99 percent, they call themselves - stand outside the day it returned, shouting, searching for a solution to their problems.
The mere idea that such a majestic site would fill with suits and tourists by day seems unsettling. It’s an unknown feeling of bittersweet revelation. While the setting feels welcoming, it also feels stressful. Heated debates between suited men determine the nation’s progress, and whether that progress represents the people standing outside longing for answers still remains unclear. But there I sit, an objective observer, seeing the stark contrast between politicians and the people, wondering what will happen next. The question disappears with the night, unwilling to reveal a solution behind the complex reality I’m about to stumble upon.
The multitude of questions we pose, diverse as they may seem, will only skim the surface of truth among the many political faces whose agendas we will attempt to comprehend. The challenge, it seems, is to extract the jargon to find an answer, to reflect not just on what they’re saying but also how they’re saying and understanding what that means going forward. Perhaps this is my Dispatch - the reason to look past the modest historic facade in search of an answer to the question, “why?”
To see how the events on the Hill unfold from a reporter’s eyes is to disregard personal and public opinion for the sake of finding that answer. Over the next few months, I’ll write about what I see on the ground, in the courts and across the Internet and what it means going forward.