By Jay Kim
“Do you solemnly swear that you will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that you will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that you take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that you will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which you am about to enter?” “I do.” “So help you God.”
It was a moving moment full of emotion. As I answered “yes” to House Speaker Thomas Foley’s reading of the Congressional Oath of Office, my official term as a House Representative started. It was Jan. 4, 1993, two months after my win in a fierce contest, when the 103rd U.S. Congress went into session and I stepped onto the House floor for the first time as a Congressman.
Not only was this a day of personal glory, but it was also a new chapter in the history of Korean immigration. Exactly 32 years had passed since I first arrived in America with $200 in my pocket from Korea, then one of the poorest nations in the world.
My mind was full of excitement and pride as I walked toward the Capitol Hall, not as a tourist but as a Congressman. There were 110 first-term Congressmen (including myself) sworn in at that ceremony, the highest number since World War II.
The grandeur of the U.S. Capitol draws the admiration of everyone who visits. There is a big dome in the center of the building, flanked on either side by two smaller domes. These domes sit atop the House Chamber (on the southern side) and the Senate Chamber (on the northern side).
Under the larger dome is a rotunda, which ceiling and walls are covered with paintings depicting events in U.S. history. The smaller rotundas are full of statues of famous historical figures. I was amazed to learn that this incredible building was built in 1846. It’s hard to believe that this grand building was constructed with horses and ropes, in a time with no electricity, cell phones, or computers.
One street over to the south, there are three House office buildings; to the north, there are three Senate office buildings. To the east, there is the U.S. Supreme Court, and to the west, there are two Libraries of Congress.
All these buildings are connected underground, and the underground walls are built so thick and sturdy that they can withstand a nuclear bomb attack. The underground passages are also so complicated that a great many tourists get lost there.
For the first three months of my term, I would get lost as well. The Senate and House office buildings are all connected by the Capitol’s subway system.
As long as there is no vote in the Capitol, tourists can also ride this subway, and there are always long lines waiting for this famous historical subway ride, as the Capitol is usually full of tourists. Whenever I would walk through the building, Asian tourists would stop me and ask me to take pictures with them.
On the first day of my term, I slowly walked into the House Chamber, welcomed by Republican lawmakers. The chamber was full of people, even in the audience balcony on the second floor. What really surprised me was that many lawmakers had brought their young children with them to the chamber.
Most children stood with their fathers, but some were carried by them. Some of them were bored and could not help yawning, some were fussy due to probably being hungry, and others were shouting to their families on the second floor.
There were even infants crying loudly. It reminded me of a traditional Korean market. I was surprised at this, since I’d expected a solemn opening ceremony, and got something akin to an entrance ceremony at an elementary school.
Seven years to that day, I visited the Capitol as a tourist while in DC on business. It felt like yesterday that I looked down on the House Chamber from the public balcony, but now I was looking up at the balcony for my family and friends.
Suddenly, I remembered my first arrival in the U.S., when my cheap travel bag broke open at the LA airport and all my stuff fell out. A bottle of red pepper sauce my mother painstakingly made for me had broken.
Seaweed flew everywhere, and I had to pick them up one by one. I vividly remembered that shameful moment, like it was yesterday. I told myself I was going to be the best Congressman in U.S. history.
After the oath, House Republican leader Newt Gingrich suggested I become the first speaker to the 103rd Congress. Just 40 minutes after the oath, I stood at the podium on the Congressional floor and gave a brief speech.
In those days it was unprecedented for a first-term lawmaker to speak first on the opening day of term. Since then, it has become a custom to give the floor to a first-term lawmaker at the opening ceremony.
My speech was a strong opposition to the opinion that the delegates from five U.S. territories should be given the same voting rights as U.S. Congressman. Because of this, I was hated by five delegates and Democratic lawmakers on my first day as a Congressman.
In retrospect, I realize I’d made a fool of myself with my ill-advised brashness for no good reason, making hundreds of enemies right out of the gate. I even considered the idea that I’d been taken advantage of by my own party. But isn’t it the case that politicians should have thick skin? From that first day, I could feel my skin thickening rapidly.
Jay Kim is a former U.S. congressman. He serves as chairman of the Washington Korean-American Forum. For more information, visit Kim’s website (www.jayckim.com).