After Tucson shootings, lawmakers return to public events - with caution
Tuesday, February 15, 2011; 9:47 PM
LAS VEGAS - When Rep. Shelley Berkley decided to hold a "Congress on Your Corner" event here Friday, her plan was to prove that fear hadn't changed the way Congress works. She wound up proving the opposite.
Berkley's event in a small office building off the Strip featured a folding table, two flags and 60 constituents.
And at least 10 police officers.
"I hope this isn't the wave of the future," the Democrat said as she arrived and saw the officers. She hadn't asked for that level of protection: The Las Vegas police decided she needed it. "This should not be the way we have to do business in this country."
This week, it was.
The shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) in Tucson a week earlier left the powerful on Capitol Hill grappling with a very human fear: Just how risky, they wonder, is a life spent shaking hands with strangers?
For members of Congress, it was a week spent reassuring family members and making emergency plans with their staffs. Whose job is it to call 911? Who knows CPR? They read old hate mail, replayed memories of threats. Should we have reported that guy?
A few members talked about arming themselves. One suggested encasing the House's public galleries in Plexiglas.
By the end of the week, a handful started putting on their smiles and going out in public again. Politics is built in part on illusions, but this was a hard one: Do something that was previously utterly routine - and pretend it still was.
"I thought it was very important to send a signal to my constituents and let them know we're open for business," said Berkley, a congresswoman as loud and pugnacious as her city.
In addition to the police, a man stood behind Berkley as she met small groups of residents. It was her son Sam, 25, who had decided she needed him, too.
Historically, the most dangerous part of a lawmaker's job has been not violence, but travel. At least 29 members of Congress have died in accidents involving planes, automobiles and ships. One, Rep. Larry McDonald (D-Ga.), was killed when a Soviet fighter jet shot down his airliner in 1983.