Preserving "A Fair Chance For a Free People" - Karl E. Mundt

Washington: City of Contradictions

Mrs. Karl Mundt


To the wife of a new Congress-man fresh from the Middle West, Washington reveals itself both as a city of great majesty and as a place of delusion. The expression which best portrays my feeling concerning our Capital City in this era of crisis is found in "The Tale of Two Cities" where Dickens describes England and France just prior to the French Revolution. You remember be started out something like this: "It was the best of times " it was the worst of times; it was the season of light " it was the period of darkness; it was the age of wisdom " it was the age of folly."1

That is somewhat the way Washington impresses me. When we left South Dakota we were convinced that we were suffering from a depression. Business wasn't good and the farmers weren't getting anything for their crops. All the way along through Iowa, Illinois and Indiana it was much the same story; people were complaining about the depression. Since arriving in Washington I have been told that it isn't a depression at all, but just a recession. Well, there really isn't any depression in Washington. Business is good here. The stores are crowded with shoppers, lavish new apartment houses are springing up like mushrooms to house the hordes of government employees, landlords are basking under the genial smile of the New Deal. 1

I head Congressman Ralph O. Brewster of Maine comment on the prosperity of Washington not long ago when he said, "When business ins bad in the rest of the country, it is good in Washington because people have to come here to iron out their troubles. We need to get out into the hustings once in awhile to see the struggle the folks out there are having just to get along." 1

And yet in spite of all the affluence exhibited in the easy, gracious living of this beautiful city, I have seen more beggars of F Street than in any other city I have ever visited. 1

In many other ways Washington is paradoxical. Not only is business good here, but nature has been kind. Washington is blessed with a mild winter climate and with a beauty in spacious homes, gorgeous flowers and fine old trees that beggars descriptions. However, I am sure that I have seen more unhappy faces here on the streets and in the street cars than in any other part of the country. 1

There is the strange paradox, too, of government employees advocating our adopting some foreign type of "Ism" in place of our form of government while at the same time they are living off the bounty of Poor Old Uncle Sam. 1

I have seen courtesy rise to its heights in the Senate of the United States and sink to its depths when some shopkeeper tried to persuade me to buy something I didn't want. 1

It has long been an American axiom that the government exists for the people and yet here, somehow, one the impression that the people exist for the government. I am thinking in particular of the deference shown to members of the government and to government employees and the indifference exhibited to the average citizen who really pays the bills so that government may continue in its functions. For the first three months after my arrival I carried a card of Admittance to the House gallery the same as any visitor. I found I was sent from door to door. Sometimes I could enter, sometimes I couldn't. Then I learned the magic words " "I am the wife of a member of Congress. Ah, that was the "Open Sesame"! All doors opened then. Personally, I am very grateful for this courtesy. However, I have hundreds of opportunities to visit the House and Senate. The average visitor has doubtless traveled hundreds of miles and has just this one chance out of a lifetime to see his government in action. I should like to see the path made easier for him. 1

Speaking of visitors to the galleries I am reminded of what a strange contradiction must exist between their expectation of "Both Their Houses" and the sight that actually greets them when they see that House and Senate for the first time. 1

I know from their comments that they expect to see, just as I did, their representatives seated sedately in their chairs listening intently to the debate. What a shock it must be to see the various members rushing in and out of the chamber with sometimes only one-fourth of the body seated. And it isn't always easy to explain to these friends from home that much of the work of legislation is done in the committees and cloakrooms. I confess that I often enter the gallery with fear and trepidation, and gaze anxiously down on the floor of the House. What a relief it is when I spy my husband and can point him out to our constituents, seated sedately in his chair, listening intently to the debate. 1

When life in Washington becomes too confusing, I like to think of two things that have impressed me most since my arrival. From out the jumble of this chaotic world in which we live, they remain steady and enduring. The one " the One Hundred Fiftieth Anniversary Celebration of Congress when the President, the Chief Justice, the member of the Cabinet, Senate, and House, all, reaffirmed their abiding faith in the American form of government; the other " to drive down Pennsylvania Avenue on a night in spring and to see the dome of the Nation's Capitol shining resplendent against a midnight sky. Then I know " "God's in His Heaven. All's right with the world." 1

  1. Mundt, Mary. "Washington City of Contradictions." Essay. Karl E. Mundt Archives
  2. Mary Mundt Shaking Hands. Mundt Archives, Madison, SD Card #69-25F
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