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Press Conference With Congressional Leadership At The Opening Ceremony Of The U.S. Capitol Visitor Center


Location: Washington, DC

Copyright ©2008 by Federal News Service, Inc., Ste. 500, 1000 Vermont Ave, Washington, DC 20005 USA. Federal News Service is a private firm not affiliated with the federal government. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold or retransmitted without the written authority of Federal News Service, Inc. Copyright is not claimed as to any part of the original work prepared by a United States government officer or employee as a part of that person's official duties. For information on subscribing to the FNS Internet Service at, please email Carina Nyberg at or call 1-202-216-2706.

SEN. MCCONNELL: Good morning.

You would think that the author of the Declaration of Independence would be a tough editor. Yet when Pierre L'Enfant showed Jefferson an early draft of his plan for the new federal city, Jefferson made only minor edits. And his most significant edit probably seemed minor at the time.

In the space reserved for the new legislative building, L'Enfant had inscribed the words, "Congress Hall." Jefferson crossed the words out and inserted something different altogether. In their place, he wrote the word "Capitol."

Historians tell us that Jefferson's fame rests in large part on his remarkable ability to find the right word at the right time. This was no exception. For him and for everyone else who was involved in carving out a grand new capital city from the wilderness along the Potomac, the building in which Congress met should be no less meaningful than the document that established it.

The new Capitol, as Jefferson envisioned it, would never simply be a place where lawmakers got together. It would symbolize to the entire nation and to the world a radical experiment in democratic self-government to which Jefferson and his comrades had pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor. And by evoking even in its name the democratic models and republican ideals of antiquity, Jefferson was making sure that no one missed the point.

But just in case anyone did miss the point, George Washington would also do his part to underscore the significance of this building. Two years after Jefferson gave the Capitol its name, Washington saw fit to consecrate it in an elaborate cornerstone-laying ceremony at which, according to one account, the president, along with a reverent group of soldiers and patriots, offered a solemn prayer to God for the prosperity of the people and for the growth of the Capitol and the nation.

And today we note with wonder and awe the remarkable degree to which that prayer of our first president and the crowd that gathered with him here, on September 18th, 1793, has been fulfilled.

Washington had passed away by the time Congress first met here in November of 1800. But when a quorum was finally achieved, Washington's successor made another trip down Pennsylvania Avenue to mark the event.

In remarks before Congress, John Adams offered his congratulations and he offered a prediction. The Congress, he said, had assumed a residence not to be changed.

In one sense, Adams was right on target. The permanent home of Congress has not changed. But in another sense, he was wrong, since the building itself has undergone so many changes over the years. Today, we unveil the latest.

Like the Constitution itself, the U.S. Capitol has been, in Madison's word, the work of many heads and many hands. By making it more accessible, to the people for whom it was built, it is our hope that Jefferson's vision is again fulfilled and Washington's prayer is renewed. (Applause.)

SEN. REID: In the early-1960s, I was a Capitol policeman. And I worked the swing shift, from 3:00 to 11:00. And right up above this skylight, a little bit behind us, every summer night, I would go. And one of my assigned duties was to watch the military bands that came to play for tourists here in Washington, D.C.

The President's Own Marine Corps Band of course was here. And they would alternate. The service organizations would come and appear in the Capitol, on the East Front of the Capitol.

I have many fond memories of that assignment.

But the one I remember as much as anything is, every night with rare exception, Carl Hayden would be wheeled in, in his wheelchair. And he would sit and listen to the performance.

Carl Hayden of course is a legend, having served in Congress longer than any other member of Congress in the history of our country. But back then, in the early-'60s, the East Front of the Capitol was basically a parking lot, blacktop with cars parked all over it.

When I came from the House to the Senate, in 1986, Senator Daschle, you will remember this. Senator Bumpers was a great senator. But he had a personality sometimes that was a little unusual. And he thought he was going to become chairman of the Health and Human Services Subcommittee, Labor-HHS Subcommittee, Appropriations. Something went wrong, and he didn't get it.

Well, he was in line to be the chairman again of the Legislative Branch, Appropriations Committee. He said, I'm not taking that committee. I've been here too long. I'm not. Give it to anybody. Give it to anyone you want.

Well, I got it. And I loved that subcommittee. I could do a lot of good things for members. And one of the things that I had in my mind, since the early-1960s, is we need to do something about this ugly East Front of the Capitol. This beautiful, beautiful building to be damaged by having this ugly thing, on the East Front; had to be changed.

So we proceeded to do a little bit about that. Senator Nickles was the subcommittee chair. And we worked to get the get the cars off the East Front parking lot. And that was tough, because that was a prime parking location. But we were able to work. And we finally were able to get all the cars off that.

Well, also it's there that the idea came that we should do something long-term with the Visitor Center, do something about it that would be in keeping with this beautiful Capitol. And that's a short version of how the Visitor Center started coming to fruition.

I didn't do it but I had something to do with it. And there was a committee appointed. And we worked on that, what we're going to do with this. And it was going to be all done initially by private monies.

That didn't go too well. But we worked on it and worked on it. But it went very slowly.

And as John Boehner mentioned, it wasn't until about 10 years ago that two Capitol policemen were murdered. Special Agent John Gibson and Jacob Chestnut were killed when a madman came into the House side of the Capitol, head toward the House -- south side of the Capitol, and they saved the lives of a number of congressional leaders and people in general. But in doing so, they're martyrs for the Capitol.

It was at that time that we came to the realization that time was of the essence. We had to do something about this. With terrorism everyplace, people trying to breach this building, on every day, that security perimeter that had been set up here simply wasn't sufficient. And that was when we got real serious about this construction.

But then 9/11 came along, which changed things altogether. How are we going to maintain the security of this building with this huge construction project here? Well, some great engineering feats took place. A tunnel was dug that's not a mile long, but long, where all the construction equipment was brought into this facility, so it could be checked to make sure it was secure.

And in the process, they were hauling out of this building -- let's see -- 60(,000) -- 65,000 truckloads -- big trucks -- of dirt, this hole here that is now this beautiful facility.

This facility here is really terrific, for lack of a better way to describe it. My staff has always said don't say this, but I'm going to say it again, because it's so descriptive, because it's true. Leader Boehner mentioned that tourists lined up in summer and winter, long lines coming into the Capitol. In the summertime, because of the high humidity and how hot it gets here, you could literally smell the tourists coming into the Capitol. (Laughter.) And that may be descriptive, but it's true. (Laughter.)

Well, that is no longer going to be necessary. (Laughter.) People coming to this Capitol now will see in this five- -- it's five acres. It's a huge facility. It's almost 200,000 square feet. It's larger than the footprint of the Capitol itself. And as many as 20,000 people a day will come into this facility to look at the Capitol.

People coming in previously to take a tour of the Capitol had to depend on the tour guides we have in the Capitol, and they're very good. But really it's difficult to get the idea of what is in the Capitol. Now we have a film. It's 13 minutes long. It is very, very good. It gives people the idea of what happens in this historic building that we're in.

It's a facility that is -- allows people to have a place to go the bathroom. We have many bathrooms here.

We have restaurants, as you can see, where people can take it easy, if they want. They don't have to rush through it, as they have in the past. Souvenirs here are available.

It's going to be a wonderful experience for those people coming into the Capitol. And for the thousands of people that work in the Capitol and the members of Congress, it's going to make it safe, because security is the best possible, anyplace in the world.

I realize how fortunate I am to be one of 648 men and women who have served both in the House and in the Senate. It is a, as I've indicated, terrific honor to be able to do that. But a member of the House and the Senate, Rufus Choate of Massachusetts, has his words adorned on this facility -- the entrance of Exhibition Hall directly behind me. "We built no temple," he said, "but the Capitol; we consult no common oracle but the Constitution." Today, the people's temple shines brighter than ever before.

The approximately 10,000 construction workers who worked long, hard hours in this facility and countless others who contributed to this building, you have earned a special reward, to know that our children and our children's children and your children and your children's children will be those that one day walk the floors of which we now stand and gaze upon these statues and exhibits, including that of Nevada's Sarah Winnemucca.

Sarah Winnemucca was a terrific woman, a wonderful woman. You'll see her adorned right here in her Indian costume, her garb. She's the first Native American woman to have a book published. Her father was Chief Truckee -- (inaudible) -- we have very few rivers in Nevada, but the Truckee River's named after her grandfather. Her father is -- the town of Winnemucca, Nevada, is named after him. She was an educator, a daring defender of human rights. And there's no better place for her to be than in Emancipation Hall.

We've made great progress in emancipating peoples of our country, but Native Americans still have a long, long ways to go. And Sarah Winnemucca, for me, is what this Exhibition Hall, this Emancipation Hall is all about.

So as children and grandchildren of many generations to come view this building, they should feel a special connection to the place where it was built, stone by stone. In those years long from now, the Capitol Visitor Center will become home to statues of Americans perhaps not yet born who, like the men and women enshrined in bronze and marble all around us, will reshape our still-young country in ways perhaps not yet imagined.


MODERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, the speaker of the United States House of Representatives, the Honorable Nancy Pelosi.


SPEAKER PELOSI: Thank you. This -- in this grand Emancipation Hall, we come together to reflect upon our history, the history of our nation and the history of this remarkable United States Capitol.

As our acting architect, Stephen Ayers, can testify, work on the Capitol has not ceased from the moment President Washington laid the cornerstone in 1793 to this very day. Mr. -- Dr. Billington reviewed some of that for us. A more modest building suited to a fledgling republic grew into the grand Capitol that is among the most recognizable structures in the world. And it is the symbol of a small nation that struggled to break free of outmoded ideas and repression and became both a global power and the world's beacon of liberty.

I'm particularly excited about the fact that this grand hall is called Emancipation Hall, and I join Mr. Boehner in commending Jesse Jackson -- Congressmen Jesse Jackson and Zach Wamp for their leadership in bringing legislation to the floor to name it so. That day, we talked about the fact that the Capitol was built by slaves. Today I want to talk about the fact that it's so appropriate that, though long overdue, this Capitol Visitors Center is ready for the -- for 2009, which is the 200th anniversary, the bicentennial, of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator.

Again, Mr. Boehner referenced that above us here the Inauguration of Lincoln took place. The reason it was inside was because it was so very, very rainy those days preceding his Inauguration, his second Inaugural, and the streets were mud -- well, they were dirt to begin with, but they were very muddy. And so all the people who came to the Inauguration dressed for the muddy weather -- that is, all of the white people who came.

The black folk who came to the inauguration were coming to their first inauguration as free people. As a free people. Imagine the excitement. They then, as now, came in their Sunday finery. It was a great celebration for them. And because it was raining at the second inaugural, much of it was moved indoors. And at that time, Lincoln made the second inaugural address. Some call it Lincoln's greatest speech, and as Mr. Boehner referenced, with malice toward none, with charity toward all, often quoted on Veterans Day just a couple of weeks ago. As Lincoln recalled our obligation to widows and orphans of the Civil War, we too honored those who made the sacrifice throughout our history.

But it was a pretty remarkable thing to just imagine. I think the spirit of those people still lives in these halls, and that's why I'm so pleased that this grand hall is called Emancipation Hall.

For all -- for this newest addition to the Capitol, where we appreciate the vision of past speakers and Senate leaders and House leaders, some of them are here, some have been recognized, but I want to acknowledge former Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who played a very major role in all of this; other members, if I may, Senate leaders, acknowledge Byron Dorgan and Senator Lugar and Senator Levin, who are with us. Have I seen everyone? Senator Bennett, is that you there? Senator Bennett. I have the light in my eyes.

And on our House side, our leader, Steny Hoyer, Dick Fazio, a former member but who had a major role in all of this, and the most recent chair of the committee of jurisdiction on Appropriations, Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairman during much of this construction, Jerry Lewis, who is with us. Mr. Mica, thank you for being here. Am I missing any of my -- former colleague Butler Derrick, who is here. I name all of these people -- oh, Ruben Hinojosa from Texas, who is with us as well. Now, speak up, Mr. Butterfield -- (chuckles) -- from North Carolina. Any others? Oh, Mr. Latham. I'm sorry, I was looking -- Mr. Latham from Iowa is with us as well.

I name them because they're here -- we're not in session. This is important to them and they came to Washington for this occasion because it is a special one, indeed. And I think that all of our colleagues should be acknowledged for the role that they played in bringing this project to fruition.

We also want to thank the architectural firm, the construction firm, the over 9,000 workers and hundreds of employees of the architect's office, many of whom are with us today, as well as the many donors who made this day possible. Thanks also to the many who worked hard to make the interpretation here both educational and enlightening.

With this ceremony's close, we will hand the keys of the CVC over to Terrie Rouse, who will oversee the facility's daily operations. Congratulations to you, Terrie.

Terrie will oversee a new Capitol Visitor Center that incorporates many environmentally friendly initiatives, to keep our greening of the Capitol initiative going.

Yet even our efforts to be green and recycle are in keeping with this building's history. As far back as the winter of 1797, carpenters working on the Capitol were instructed to save their chips, from the woodworking, to help heat the homes of the workers on the grounds.

During the CVC's construction, over 50 percent of the waste was recycled. And the East Capitol grounds will even be greener than before, with 85 new trees planted, to revive the vision of Frederick Law Olmsted's magnificent landscape plan. This new addition to our majestic Capitol embodies our nation's ability to adapt while preserving our essential American character.

As members of Congress and visitors pass through the halls of Congress, we literally walk in the footsteps of the giants. We are their colleagues, colleagues with James Madison, Henry Clay, Sam Rayburn, Tip O'Neill, so many others. And we learn from their leadership.

And as both members and visitors enjoy the educational benefits of Capitol Visitor Center, we will be inspired to explore new paths and to write new chapters in our nation's great history. For that is the American way.

Much has been said about the aspirations of our founders, both in declaring independence and which -- by the way, Thomas Jefferson, while he was -- modestly edited the plans, the architectural plans, he was not -- he didn't like being edited himself. He did not like that at all.

In fact, in the Declaration of Independence -- we hold these truths to be self-evident -- others had suggested other words. And a compromise was reached at the time. But in David McCullough's book about John Adams, he talks about how -- actually I'll tell you the story.

So he was unhappy about being edited. So he -- Benjamin Franklin said, don't be unhappy about that. Everyone gets edited. I'm a printer and I edit everyone's work, said Benjamin Franklin.

He said, this man came to me and he said, I want you to make me a sign, for the front of my shop, which is about -- I'm selling hats.

And I want it to say -- whatever his first name is -- Johnson, we sell hats for fair price or something like that, and so -- and had more words.

And then Benjamin Franklin made the sign and gave it to him and it said, "Johnson," with a picture of a hat. (Laughs.) That was his way of saying even the person who originated the idea and the merchandising needs to be edited.

They were great. We were blessed with our founders. Imagine them; imagine their courage. They wrote this Declaration of Independence, edited it, co-edited it, establishing independence from the strongest nation in the world at the time, predicated on a principle that was so new, the equality of each and every person. And then they -- when they won, they wrote a Constitution making us the freest people in the world. Thank heavens they made it amendable.

And then at the same time they designed the Great Seal of the United States. And on that Great Seal, in Latin, it says, "Novus Ordo Seclorum," a new order for the century -- however you want to translate "seclorum" -- century, ages. So confident were they in what they were doing that they said it would be for the ages.

Their optimism about declaring independence and sacrificing everything, their confidence, their faith in God, their faith in themselves, their faith in the future, their faith in this country was something unknown before. And they predicated all of it on the fact that each generation had a responsibility to make the future better for the next. That's what would perpetuate this great democracy.

And over time, it became known as the American dream. And people flocked to our shores. And with their optimism and their determination and their confidence in the future and their insistence that they would make the future better for their families, they made America more American. They still do, because of that confidence in the future.

And so honoring that tradition of our founders, honoring their vision and the aspirations of the American -- aspirations of the American people, as well as honoring the sacrifice of our men and women in uniform, we have the responsibility as we go forward.

In closing, I want to acknowledge also the Chestnut and Gibson families. Mrs. Chestnut and Mrs. Gibson are with us today. Please, let us acknowledge you. (Sustained applause.)

SPEAKER PELOSI: And so, with that reverence for our history and dedication to progress, may this temple of democracy continue to be a place where people of diverse backgrounds and opinions can find common ground for the common good.

And to quote another young president of change, John F. Kennedy, in his inaugural address: As we go forward, let us make sure that God's work will truly be our own.

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