At the entrance to the senators' private dining room sits an easel draped in black cloth, holding the picture of a smiling middle-aged woman. Hers is the only smile in the room.
Gray-suited employees and senators look at the picture reverently, remembering one of the most popular people they knew, Vividell McDonald. On Feb. 16, this smiling lady died of gunshot wounds in a murder-suicide involving her husband of only a year.
The item rated only a small mention in the local news media. After all, she was no one important in the sense that Washington considers people important. She was the longtime maitre d' of the out-of-the-way dining room that caters to the top 100 of the Capitol, important to them and to her friends and colleagues, but unknown to almost everyone else.
But now her picture sits draped in black as a monument to power. Not the power that one normally associates with the Hill; she never held office, and as far as anyone knows never tried to influence legislation despite her entree to the brokers of power. Hers was the power of friendship. And, although it will come as a surprise to some, the coin of the political realm on Capitol Hill is not power or schemes or back-stabbing, but friendship.
"She was so nice to us all," said Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.). "It's really a shock. My wife and I have had trouble going into the dining room." When friends from Arizona came through town for lunch, he said, and asked to eat in the private dining room, he couldn't. "I made reservations at the Monocle," he said.
DeConcini and his wife, Susan, have particular reason to be sad. They were among her best friends, and they had become her surrogate family.
When she was married, DeConcini gave her away. And, like a family, the DeConcinis paid for the wedding in a local hotel, a hefty bill that an aide said they'd rather not discuss because "they're extremely private about it. They're sensitive to looking like they're grandstanding."
The wedding was some affair. The 6-year-old daughter of Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) was the flower girl, and a large number of senators returned from a recess to be there.
"I lost my first wife in an accident, and Vividell was very kind to me," Stevens said. When he remarried and his daughter Lily was born, he said, Vividell organized her first birthday party, and every birthday party since, an event that has expanded into an annual Senate staff party.
The wedding sort of mushroomed from the original idea, which was to have been a small ceremony in the dining room where she worked. But use of Senate facilities for such purposes is a jealously guarded right, and her request was denied.
No one might have known had not Susan DeConcini found her weeping.
Susan DeConcini "instantly said, 'You can get married at our home,' " her husband said.
It became obvious quickly that the DeConcini home wasn't big enough for the crowd that would want to come to Vividell McDonald's wedding. So the DeConcinis turned to the Key Bridge Marriott.
That was quite an experience for a woman of humble beginnings who "was really a self-educated person," according to DeConcini.
Almost no one can remember immediately any one kindness. Kindness seems to have been a constant with her. "She just brought joy to people's lives," said a coworker, struggling to explain why her death hit so hard. "She was loved around here."
Friends said that she was happy for a while, but things began to go wrong in her marriage. On the night of Feb. 16, one of her sons went to her home to determine why she hadn't gone to work. Police called it a murder-suicide. They wouldn't say exactly what had happened, but friends said later the evidence at the scene indicated that she did not pull the trigger.
Stevens said he is arranging for a plaque to be placed in the dining room in her honor. But he said he is uncomfortable with the temporary black-draped photo.
"You don't think about Vividell in anything other than hues of gay colors," he said.