My first visit to the U.S. Capitol was in 1971. From the moment I set foot in the place, I was captivated by its majesty.
Although impressed with the building's sheer beauty and grandeur, I was awed when I looked down to the floor of the Upper House from the Senate gallery and saw Sen. Edward Kennedy making a speech.
I considered that highlight to be an omen; I was meant to have a special connection with this magnificent place. And I did, in many subsequent visits over the years.
In 1974, I was in Washington, D.C., the day President Richard Nixon resigned. A few days later, I was compelled to stand on the Capitol steps as President Gerald Ford addressed a joint session of Congress. I listened to his speech over portable radios that other visitors had with them that night.
During the summer and fall of 1986, I spent a lot of time in the building while working on a TV documentary for PBS about my congressman, Majority Leader Jim Wright, who was destined to become speaker of the House.
I was given unprecedented access to places, events and meetings, including private conversations between the leader and other members of the House and Senate. Our camera crew, for example, was the first to videotape a meeting of the Rules Committee.
It was an incredible time; people from both parties worked together. Several times I saw Wright and Minority Leader Bob Michel joking around before a vote on the floor although they differed on many issues.
The camaraderie didn't get in the way of leadership; it enhanced it.
I was present in the House chamber the January 1987 day when Wright was sworn in as Speaker. It was one of the proudest days of my life.
Just before leaving his office for the swearing-in ceremony, I heard the leader say to an aide something to the effect of "make sure Bob Michel is treated with respect."
After Wright became Speaker, I rode to the White House with him and Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y. They were going to talk to President Ronald Reagan about a proposed omnibus drug bill.
During the drive to and from the meeting, it was obvious from the conversation that the two Democratic leaders had strong differences with the Republican president, but throughout that political fight they showed incredible respect for the office of the presidency.
I think about those times in that Capitol building and those leaders -- who walked those halls, ate together in the Congressional Dining Room and debated masterfully and respectfully on the floor of the House -- and I wonder: What happened?
Where did the civility go? Whatever happened to statesmanship, much less leadership?
I still love that grand white building, but I've come to despise much of what goes on under its elegant dome. Many of the people who occupy it turn my stomach with their petty and pretentious actions, more concerned about making political points than doing the nation's business.
The shenanigans displayed in the past few weeks during the fight to raise the nation's debt ceiling and to extend the authority of the Federal Aviation Administration were disgraceful.
I'm not the only one who feels this way. The latest New York Times/CBS News polls shows Americans' disapproval of Congress at its highest level ever, a whopping 82 percent. Only 14 percent of respondents approve of the job Congress is doing.
That ought to send a message.
When President Barack Obama called on Americans to contact their congressional members during the final days of the debt ceiling fiasco, they did just that and their representatives heard them. It's too bad our leaders' actions already had damaged the country's reputation and showed the world that we indeed have a dysfunctional government.
The Congress is out of session for a month. That's the good news.
The bad news is members return in September, and it's likely to be business as usual.