When I was a teenager in the '60s, I never told people that my father was a cop. It wasn't cool.
In the Vietnam era, with the National Guard killing kids at Kent State, with the Chicago police billyclubbing yippies, with the stench of tear gas and class hatred everywhere, the last thing you wanted to do was admit you were related to someone in a uniform.Cops were pigs. The military was fascist. Shaggy-haired Ivy Leaguers like Bill Clinton were protesting Vietnam and writing letters about "loathing the military."
It seemed easier to say my father was in politics. After he retired from the police force, he was an aide to a senator and a congressman.
For his last 13 years on the force, he was an inspector in charge of Senate security. In those days, D.C. detectives were assigned to guard the Capitol, and the Capitol police worked on a patronage system.
It wasn't a high-risk job day to day, compared with his earlier assignments walking beats or in homicide. The most treacherous part was the temper of the Democratic Senate leader, Lyndon Johnson, who would fire underlings at any provocation.
But sometimes crazy people, or people made crazy by a cause, would show up. And then the job of guarding lawmakers and tourists could suddenly turn very dangerous.
On March 1, 1954, three Puerto Rican nationalists pulled out guns and randomly fired down from the spectators' gallery above the House floor. Five congressmen were wounded. My father ran over from the Senate and wrestled one of the shooters to the ground.
He marked the Puerto Rican's gun by carving his initials with a penknife on the handle. Later, at the trial, when the defense lawyer superciliously grilled him about how he could be sure that the gun in evidence was the same one used in the crime, my father told him to look on the bottom of the handle. There was the "MJD."
That bloody day 44 years ago was the most famous outbreak of violence in the Capitol until last Friday, when two Capitol police officers died heroically trying to stop a crazy man from shooting up the place.
There has been an intense emotional response to the deaths of John Gibson and Jacob Chestnut. So much that happens in Washington now seems trivial and craven and tawdry. But these two men died doing something large and brave and important, defending freedom.
As I watched their memorial service, it struck me that my generation had come a long way from the days when anyone in uniform was a fit target for an epithet. Clinton may have once shunned the military, but as president he has given respect and support to police and armed forces. His eulogy for Officers Gibson and Chestnut was spare and elegant. "They consecrated this house of freedom," he said.
Some who came of age in the painful Vietnam era are now making movies glorifying the military and TV shows celebrating cops.
Law and order, once a phrase that elicited elitist contempt, is now the coolest entertainment pitch going. Old Mayor Daley is dead. Long live Sipowitz and clans of Irish cops.
Steven Spielberg has been giving interviews, talking about having made "Saving Private Ryan" to honor the men who fought in World War II and risked so much for freedom.
Suddenly, baby boomers realize that, despite a buzzing economy and a passel of luxury goods, we are going to die without experiencing the nobility that illuminated the lives of our parents and grandparents. They lived through wars and depressions, life and death, good stomping evil. Our unifying event was "Seinfeld."
We live in a culture more concerned with celebrity than morality, more centered on self than others.
Seeing the flag-draped coffins in the Rotunda, the thousands of mourners, it seems a long time from the days of cops as pigs. Seeing the long queues for the patriotic "Saving Private Ryan," it seems a long time from the days of the military as fascist.
We understand now that it was the politicians who sent out the Chicago cops and the Ohio National Guard. It was the politicians, Johnson, McNamara and Kissinger, who sent all those young men to die after they knew Vietnam was unwinnable. We may be more cynical. But we're no longer demonizing the wrong people.
Nowadays, I never say my father worked in politics. I simply say, with the greatest possible pride, that he was a cop.