Saturday, March 2, 2019

'We have got to get back to normal':
Elijah Cummings' redemption song

EVERY SO often, someone rides to the rescue of America with a cri du Coeur from an unexpected place and puts things in a perspective we couldn’t, or wouldn’t, see coming.

In June 1954, during the dangerous travesty of the Joe McCarthy era, when a voice of sanity was desperately needed from ... anywhere, Joseph Welch, chief counsel to the United States Army during the Army-McCarthy hearings, stepped up and confronted the apostate Republican senator from Wisconsin with one blazingly honest distilling of outrage: “You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?

It’s been said, in a kind of acclimation, that this was the moment when the McCarthy vilification machine began to grind its gears and fall apart, ending one of the more ruinous episodes in American political history.

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The three-ring dumpster-fire train wreck of the Trump administration hasn’t given us many unalloyed profiles in courage; neither, frankly, have most of the people on its periphery in the government. We may have one in the Democratic congressman who heads a subset of congressional lawmakers never more vital than they are today. In Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, there may be the kind of spiritual centering, of faith and reliance in the Constitution, required to advance not necessarily the process of impeachment, but certainly, sure as hell, the process of inquiry.

On Wednesday, Feb. 27, Cummings, chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, presided over the public congressional hearing of Michael Cohen, President* Trump’s former fixer/enforcer now effectively turning states’ evidence with a host of unsavory revelations about his former boss.

The expected highs and lows of Wednesday’s hearing — one of three such public and closed-door events — needed a ringmaster for these feral cats, someone to put things into perspective, and Cummings rose to the occasion. A veteran of 23 years in the House, Cummings took charge as the committee chairman, navigating the usual partisan rancor with a brisk, no-bullshit, businesslike style, and no reluctance to use the chairman’s crowd-control device: the gavel.

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IT THREATENED to go off the rails, all right. After Cohen’s compelling prepared statement, various Republican lawmakers did what they could to discredit him, some more noisily than others (witness North Carolina GOP Rep. Mark Meadows, who got in airtime waving papers around, fulminating and rhetorically foaming at the mouth over having his racial tolerance bona fides challenged. Justifiably, it turned out.).

Meadows went after freshman Michigan Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who broke with House protocol when she called Meadows out for the "racist act" of using the presence of, and a statement by Lynne Patton, a single black woman, to disprove allegations of racism against President* Trump.

Meadows told the committee that he and Cummings “have a personal relationship that’s not based on color and to even go down this direction is wrong.”

“If there’s anyone who is sensitive in regard to race, it’s me, son of former sharecroppers who were basically slaves, so I get it,” Cummings said.

“I could see and feel your pain, I feel it,” Cummings told Meadows. “And so I don’t think Ms. Tlaib intended to cause you that, that kind of pain and frustration.” Cummings got the side-eye from some in the minority media for siding with Meadows on largely procedural grounds, and on misperception, instead of with Tlaib on the basis of fostering an open debate in an open forum.

But Cummings proved himself to be what we’ve always known and believed him to be: an old-school institutionalist, a colleague of long standing in this deliberative body, a stone believer in the system and its possibilities, and its potential for fairness. The system he now helps to direct.

That was worth remembering when you watched the very end of the Wednesday hearing. So much about life during Trumptime has been a matter of making our way through quotidian partisan skirmishes, of dealing with everyday manifestations of “which side are you on?” The partisan divide that played out for eight hours on Wednesday mirrors the same divide that’s alive across the country.

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AT DAY'S END, Cummings gaveled the hearing to a close with a charitable, emotional, powerful statement addressed to Cohen but just as surely delivered to the weary nation beyond. He redeemed at least the process (or this part of it) at or near its best, or at least its most efficient, and rhetorically uplifted its small-d democratic aspirations, as only speaking from the heart truly can:

“You know I’ve sat here, and I’ve listened to all this, and it’s very painful. It’s very painful. You made a lot of mistakes, Mr. Cohen — and you’ve admitted that. And, you know, one of the saddest parts of this whole thing is that some very innocent people are hurting too. And you acknowledged that. And, um, that’s your family.

“And, so you come here today, you… deep in my heart … when I practiced law I represented a lot of lawyers who got in trouble. And, you come saying I have made my mistakes, but now I want to change my life. And you know, if we … as a nation did not give people an opportunity after they’ve made mistakes to change their lives, a whole lot of people would not do very well.

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“I don’t know where you go from here. As I sat here and I listened to both sides, I just felt as if … and you know… people are now using my words, that they took from me, that didn't give me any credit. We are better than this. … We really are. As a country, we are so much better than this.

“And, you know, I told you, and for some reason, Mr. Cohen, I tell my children, I say ‘When bad things happen to you, do not ask the question “Why did it happen to me?” Ask the question, “Why did it happen for me?” I don’t know why this is happening for you. But it’s my hope that a small part of it is for our country to be better. If I hear you correctly, it sounds like you’re crying out for a new normal — for us getting back to normal. It sounds to me like you want to make sure that our democracy stays intact.

The one meeting I had with President Trump, I said to him ‘the greatest gift that you and I, Mr. President, can give to our children, is making sure we give them a democracy that is intact. A … democracy better than the one we came upon. And I’m hoping that, the things you said today will help us again to get back there. ...

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LET ME tell you the picture that really, really pained me. You were leaving the prison, you were leaving the courthouse, and, I guess it’s your daughter, had braces or something on. Man that thing, man that thing hurt me. As a father of two daughters, it hurt me. And I can imagine how it must feel for you.

“But I’m just saying to you — I want to first of all thank you. I know that this has been hard. I know that you’ve faced a lot. I know that you are worried about your family. But this is a part of your destiny. And hopefully this portion of your destiny will lead to a better, a better, a better Michael Cohen, a better Donald Trump, a better United States of America, and a better world. And I mean that from the depths of my heart.

“When we’re dancing with the angels, the question we’ll be asked: In 2019, what did we do to make sure we kept our democracy intact? Did we stand on the sidelines and say nothing? … Come on now. We can do more than one thing. And we have got to get back to normal. With that, this meeting is adjourned.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings spoke truth to power on Feb. 27, the penultimate day of the shortest month of the year. He ended that month with words that helped give that abbreviated month the moral velocity it warrants. He reminded us by accident, he spoke with an understanding that escapes us, many of us, much of the time: Black History Month should be as much about making history as about observing it.

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