By David Kurlander
Five people died last week in the attempted pro-Trump coup in Washington D.C. Vigils emerged near the Capitol Building, but the polarized nature of the violence—and the relative silence from President Trump—has denied a more unified memorial. This vacuum in collective mourning is in sharp contrast to the cathartic scene that followed the July 1998 killing of two United States Capitol Police officers. The poignant memorials that followed the deaths of Officer J.J. Chestnut and Special Agent John Gibson grew into a painful referendum on extremism that came at an already-tense crossroads in the history of American national security.
On the afternoon of July 24th, 1998, with the Capitol Building full of tourists and legislators, Russell E. Weston, a 41-year-old man wearing a green fedora with a feather, burst past the security checkpoint at the Documents Door entrance. It’s unclear whether Officer Chestnut moved to confront Weston, but within moments the assailant had shot Chestnut in the head. Agent Gibson, assigned to the security detail of House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, was in the congressman’s office as his staff drank champagne to celebrate the passage of a GOP-led health care bill. Gibson heard the gunfire and rose just as Weston reached the door. Agent Gibson and Weston shot and hit each other, both collapsing to the floor.
Tennessee Senator Bill Frist, a vaunted heart surgeon, heard news of the killing and immediately ran toward the Rotunda from his offices in the Dirksen Building across the street. He saw paramedics wheel Officer Chestnut out of the Rotunda and helped them to ventilate through a breathing tube but recognized the futility. “This severe a head trauma, I have seen nobody survive,” Frist told the Washington Post. Frist then made his way to DeLay’s suite, where he found Weston bleeding on the ground. Frist performed CPR on the gunman and quite literally reached into his heart to keep him breathing. He rode with him in the ambulance unaware he was the shooter. “In that kind of situation,” Frist later said, “nothing registers but the work you do.”
Reporters and investigators feverishly reconstructed Weston’s biography. He had long been afflicted with paranoid schizophrenia. He believed that his own wristwatch had been bugged, that he and most other people were clones, and he was somehow intimately involved with the JFK assassination. He had shown up at CIA Headquarters in 1996 to convey some of these messages and had ended up on a low-level Secret Service threat list. He had spent the preceding years in a small cabin in Rimini, Montana, and near his parent’s house in Valmeyer, Illinois, obsessively chopping wood for deliveries and working other odd jobs. Why he had acted on his delusions remained a mystery.
As Weston laid shackled to his bed at D.C. General Hospital, Washington mourned the loss of Gibson and Chestnut. The two fallen men had both been 18-year veterans of the Capitol force. Chestnut had served in the Air Force before that. He was the first Black man to receive a memorial in the Capitol. In fact, the men were the first ever to “lie in honor” with caskets in the Rotunda—a new distinction for civilians. Up until that point, Capitol public viewings were reserved for famed government and military officials and the Rotunda was not used.
On July 28th, President Bill Clinton offered a eulogy at the Rotunda, in the presence of Chestnut and Gibson’s families and much of Congress. “They remind us that what makes our democracy strong is not only what Congress may enact or a President may achieve,” he said. “Even more, it is the countless individual citizens who live our ideals out every day. It is the quiet courage and uncommon bravery of Americans like J.J. Chestnut and John Gibson.”
Three days later, 3,500 mourners filled Ebenezer A.M.E. Church in Fort Washington, Maryland, for a final farewell to Officer Chestnut. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the once-segregationist South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond sat behind pioneering Black D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and across from Attorney General Janet Reno. “There’s a bright side,” Chestnut’s brother Harry told the congregants. “Even politicians got together.”
Columnists situated the shooting alongside other acts of extremism that had rocked the country over the preceding years, from the Oklahoma City bombing to the mailed explosives of the Unabomber, who lived near Weston in Montana. Newsweek journalist Jonathan Alter penned a column, “A Different Kind of War,” that decried what he saw as a larger cultural turn in which “the strong and secure look weak, and the weak and paranoid get famous.” Alter predicted that these trends would intensify into the 21st century and change the nature of national security: “The enemy used to be a standing army; now it’s some unhinged individual in our midst, sometimes backed by groups or governments, more often not. Alter ended his piece with a call for common-sense gun control legislation and a poignant summation of the American condition. “Last week, as tourists described ducking and covering in the Capitol, we all became refugees from yet more skirmishing in our ongoing war at home.”
Despite the horror of Weston’s shooting, the Capitol remained open. In fact, many legislators argued against stepping up security. Indiana Senator Dan Coats—who would eventually serve as President Trump’s first Director of National Intelligence, expressed a common sentiment: “We all know how vulnerable we are, but unless you build a wall around Capitol Hill and turn it into an armed fortress, you’re never going to make it totally secure. … You have to live with it or you’d be paranoid all the time.” Delegate Holmes Norton, who had been touring a group of young children through the Capitol when Weston began shooting, expressed a similar frustration, saying, “We must not overreact so that the people’s house is no longer that; so that we are barricaded.”
Even with these encomiums for accessibility, security at the Capitol would ultimately be scaled up, spurred on both by the shooting and by the horror of 9/11 three years later. As the insurrection last week highlighted, however, the fragilities that Alter examined 22 years ago have taken on startling new forms in our current political arena. And even if the intensity of American violence since the Capitol shooting makes the reaction seem almost quaint in retrospect, we must hope that some similar feeling of shared idealism can emerge as we move forth from the events of January 6th and into the Biden administration.
The original Washington Post coverage of the shooting remains up on their site—a remarkable time capsule. For more, check out Roll Call’s article and video reflection and Senator Frist’s Forbes remembrance, both released on the 20th anniversary of the tragedy in 2018.
To receive Time Machine articles in your inbox, sign up to receive the CAFE Brief newsletter sent every Friday.
Catch up on the Time Machine’s deep dives into history, which offer context to understand our present challenges, including these recent pieces: