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A Somber Honor for Capitol Shootout Heroes

Memorial: Thousands view caskets of officers in building they defended with their lives. Lincoln, JFK among fewer than 30 given Rotunda ceremony.

July 29, 1998|EDWIN CHEN and ERIN TRODDEN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — A grateful, mourning nation bade an extraordinary farewell to two slain Capitol policemen Tuesday, as throngs of dignitaries and tourists paid their respects to Pvt. 1st Class Jacob J. Chestnut and Det. John M. Gibson in the Capitol's Rotunda.

During the day and into the evening, thousands of citizens and police officers from near and far filed somberly past the flag-draped caskets of the two men, who now join the pantheon of heroes accorded America's highest posthumous honor.

The tribute to the two men: a full-dress memorial service in the Rotunda. President Clinton, accompanied by Vice President Al Gore, joined nearly every member of Congress in the emotional tribute to the policemen.

The officers' caskets were draped by flags that were flown over the Capitol just hours earlier, and they lay side-by-side about 8 feet apart at the center of the majestic building they defended with their lives.

"They consecrated this house of freedom, and they fulfilled our Lord's definition of a good life," Clinton said in brief remarks at the memorial service. "They loved justice, they did mercy. Now and forever, they walk humbly with God."

Fewer than 30 Americans have lain in state in the Rotunda, among them Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Douglas MacArthur, Dwight D. Eisenhower and unknown soldiers from past wars.

Also on Tuesday, authorities provided new insights into what may have triggered Friday's murderous rampage at the Capitol. According to affidavits unsealed in federal court, the parents of the suspect in the shooting, Russell Eugene Weston Jr., recalled that he received a letter from a federal agency two weeks ago that "would have scared their son about the federal government."

The papers did not identify the agency or detail the letter's contents. But the affidavits revealed that the letter was in response to one that Weston had written to the agency "concerning his belief that there were land mines on his property that were placed there by the federal government."

The daylong tribute to Chestnut, 58, and Gibson, 42, obscured a feeling of resentment among some on the Capitol police force that, until now, lawmakers have routinely taken them for granted--an attitude some members concede.

As Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) put it on Monday: "I know . . . how far too often we walk past them; we take them for granted; we don't realize that they really are there for a very important purpose--protection of our constituents and all of us and of this magnificent building in which we serve."

In his closing prayer on Tuesday, Senate Chaplain Lloyd J. Ogilvie alluded to that dismissive mind-set. "Help us to be more sensitive to our Capitol police officers," he said as he brought to a conclusion the half-hour service in a sweltering Rotunda bathed in television lights.

By and large, it was a genuinely nonpartisan day, the likes of which are exceedingly rare on Capitol Hill.

At a noon tribute for Chestnut and Gibson restricted to lawmakers, House members of both parties spontaneously formed a reception line to express their sympathies to House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas). It was in the office suite occupied by DeLay, whom Gibson guarded and befriended, where the shootout ended with Gibson dead and Weston wounded.

Among those who exchanged heartfelt hugs with DeLay were some of his harshest political enemies: Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), the House minority leader.

Even some members of the news media, notorious for their detachment, sported black-and-blue ribbons as a sign of mourning. Some also shed tears while in the Rotunda.

The unplanned receiving line at the noon service caused such a delay that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of congressional staffers had to be turned away because of the invitation-only 3 p.m. EDT tribute led by Clinton. Public access to the Rotunda resumed around 4 p.m., as long lines of tourists, police officers and congressional workers again slowly made their way up the grand steps of the Capitol.

Throughout the day, the public viewing was imbued with a distinctly democratic tone: conservatively dressed congressional staffers stood next to casually attired tourists and law officers from all over America.

Many wept as they shuffled by the caskets, where four Capitol police honor guards stood watch. Police officers saluted as they passed.

In one poignant scene, as VIPs slowly entered the Rotunda for the main service, an unsteady Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), who is 95, clung to the left biceps of Gore. Gore firmly clutched Thurmond's right hand with his left hand as the two men stood during the next 20 minutes or so while others filed into the room. Only when the service began did Thurmond take a seat.

The only others to sit during the service were the widows, children and other relatives of the slain men.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), in his remarks at the service, said Chestnut and Gibson "died in duty to the very freedom that all of us cherish."

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