When 100 square feet of eight-inch-thick sandstone slabs broke loose from the west front of the Capitol building, it was a shock heard around the world. Well, at least around the District of Columbia, which sometimes mistakes itself for the world.
Bill Melton, a Capitol clinic technician, was sitting in his office at the time. ''I thought we were under either a heavy thunderstorm or a heavy bombing attack,'' he declared - a man-almost-in-the-street response that registered 10 on the Washington press corps Richter scale.
Still, Melton was millpond-calm compared to Rep. Jerry Lewis, Republican of California, who posed in the rubble beside George White, the Capitol architect, while announcing: ''The reality is that the Capitol is falling apart.''
In fact the reality seems to be:
1. ''No structural damage'' was done to the building. Mr. White himself is the authority here.
2. This menace of the masonry is hardly another '80s crisis. In 1965, 40 pounds of decorative molding fell on about the same spot. The designing flaw dates back to 1892 when Frederick Law Olmsted lowered the earth level to install terraces.
Indeed, congressmen have come and gone as the debate droned on: Should the facade be replaced? Or should a whole new front be built - and extended - providing a few more questionably necessary nooks for the representatives? Only a couple of days before the veneer came tumbling down, a House subcommittee had voted a $70.5 million appropriation toward repair - too late, if not too little.
The safety of human beings must be taken seriously. Nobody would argue that 100 square feet of sandstone falling is not telling us: ''Fix me - and fast.''
Still, there's something about a crumbling monument that seems to bring out the worst in the rhetoric of politicians.
Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Democrat of New York, looked at the case of decline-and-fall as if it were a warning parable and said: ''If our nation has the capacity to do anything boldly and directly, we will agree this month, this week to restore the west front of the Capitol.''
To be sure, it has been a hard time for Congress as an operating body, strangled in filibuster, unable to shake bills out of committee - driving a number of younger and abler members into early retirement from sheer frustration.
One congressman summed up, anonymously: ''If there's a trivial issue, it's handled scrupulously, with hearings and rules. But really important issues are handled in an atmosphere of chaos and pandemonium.''
And now, literally, the walls have come crashing down.
If we can't hold our government buildings together, how can we expect to hold our government together?
The logic appears to follow until one remembers Gandhi, functioning without benefit of any edifice, and Rome, going down to disaster with all its facades in place.
We must remind ourselves of the obvious.
An edifice is not to be confused with what it shelters.
A house, as they say, is not a home.
A church is not the sum of its stones - no geological rock can be the rock it is built upon.
And when sandstone veneer collapses, the power to govern does not collapse with it.
A building is the metaphor - not the other way around.
By all means, let's honor this original wing, for which George Washington laid the cornerstone. By all means, let's get on with the repairs. But let's not make an Aesop fable out of it for the alleged impotence of Our Times.