You don't have to adjust your TV or fiddle with your radio dial. If media and political leaders in Washington, D.C, look and sound completely confused about the anthrax incidents on Capitol Hill, and how to deal with the current bio-terror threat, that's because they are. Wednesday's anthrax circus has left everyone uncertain about what is going on in Washington.
The morning kicked off normally enough. I was at the Rayburn House Office Building to attend a hearing. It promised to be a doozy: Eight representatives from the tourism industry were there to demand a bailout -- something along the lines of the $15 billion Congress doled out to the airline industry in the wake of September 11. If folks can't fly they can't get to Disney World -- or Las Vegas or Waikiki or the glorious fall colors in New Hampshire -- according to the people who make money selling these commodities.
Congressmen were eager to listen, taking turns detailing how their own constituents have suffered. But the tone changed near the end of Full Committee Chairman W.J "Billy" Tauzin's (R-La.) paean to the importance of Mardi Gras and the Super Bowl to New Orleans. He noted that the House would adjourn early to allow experts to sweep the Capitol and congressional office buildings for traces of anthrax, a concern heightened by the incident in Sen. Tom Daschle's (D-S.D.) office earlier in the week. A bit later, Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.) ended his quick presentation with the obvious: "I haven't figured out why we're not evacuating now instead of 3 o'clock." If there might be anthrax floating around, wouldn't it be best to get cracking sooner rather than later?
I bolted the hearing early, asking a group of Rayburn guards if the building was being evacuated at three. "No," said one flatly. Another explained that officials were in fact going to empty the building, but no time had been announced. He said security forces wanted to empty the building gradually to avoid a disorderly exit.
The real confusion was manifest outside the Capitol. A groundbreaking ceremony at the National Botanical Garden was walled off by police. More stood guard on the west Capitol steps, directing pedestrians to walk on the outer path. Rounding the building's north end, I encountered an enormous gathering of cameras and reporters in the Senate Swamp, a familiar spot for outdoor press conferences. One reporter told me that earlier in the morning, 25 staffers in Daschle's office tested positive for anthrax exposure. (The total is now over 30.) This was far worse than single the case reported earlier, indicating a much larger threat.
Was it? Daschle and Sen Trent Lott (R-Miss.) were supposed to detail the Senate's plan of action at noon. As yet more reporters converged, the crowd began turning into a rumor mill, a cold, crowded, and ornery one. There was a spirited discussion about what Daschle really meant the day before when he described the anthrax in his office as a more potent strain. One reporter insisted that "more virulent" anthrax pointed to a weapon-grade bug. ("And that means one thing: Iraq," he ventured.) I gathered that the House was going to call off its session until Tuesday, while the Senate vowed to carry on. Other than that, nothing was clear. A legion of security officers milled about, with one checking (almost) everyone's press credentials.
Daschle, Lott, and other officials arrived almost an hour later. At the podium, Daschle assured the nation that, "We will not let this stop the work of the Senate." Offices would be checked, he added, but the show must go on. He also stressed that any exposure from the incident would be treatable. One official countered the previous day's assertion that this was a more potent variety: "It's common variety." Yet no one could address whether the anthrax in Daschle's office was more finely milled -- which would make it closer to the weapon-grade variety.
Neither Daschle nor Lott would criticize House Speaker Dennis Hastert's decision to shut down the House. Hastert later publicly defended his decision, making a series of assertions that weren't even true. He mistakenly characterized Senate staffers as having been infected (they've been exposed), he inaccurately characterized the anthrax as a highly sophisticated strain, and he wrongly asserted that spores had circulated through ventilation systems. It was an appalling display of confusion. Now, Hastert's Web site is claiming that the House isn't shut down at all; it's just "working at home."
Fortunately, other citizens are managing to maneuver above the chaos. As all this was taking place, Washingtonians in Union Station went about their business, many of them watching with pleasure as two Japanese women in kimonos performed an artful traditional dance, gloriously complete with parasols. Theirs was a tableau of normalcy, dancers and audience sharing a moment of pleasure and art, admirably unaffected by the "official" confusion on nearby Capitol Hill.