After a day of raw, nasty, partisan mud wrestling that made you want to weep at the sorry state of American politics, Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings stepped up at the end of the Michael Cohen TV hearing and redeemed the whole sad spectacle with his passionate and poetic plea for a better America.
It was one of the most inspirational TV moments I have seen in more than 30 years of writing about media and politics. What a moment for Cummings and the nation.
As chairman of the House Oversight Committee, the veteran Democratic leader had all he could do to keep the rancor, which was coming mostly from the right with GOP Congressmen Jim Jordan and Mark Meadows, from disrupting or even destroying the chance for America to hear President Donald Trump’s personal attorney.
Cummings managed that task as well as could be expected, given the intense polarization and bare-knuckled tactics of some on the panel.
But a lot of chairpersons could do that. I suspect some might have been even more forceful in keeping the likes of Jordan and Meadows in bounds.
But few could do what Cummings did in those closing moments when he spoke for the best in us rather than the partisan worst, and when he went from Baltimore expressions, like “I’m just saying” in one sentence, to talking about “dancing with the angels” in the next, letting his language soar.
“I’m sitting here listening to all this, and it’s very painful, very painful,” he began addressing Cohen. “As I sat here and listened to both sides, I just felt as if … we are better than this. We really are. As a country, we are so much better than this.
“I don’t know why this is happening for you, but I hope a small part of this is for our country to be better,” Cummings continued. “If I hear you correctly, you are crying out for getting back to normal. Sounds to me like you want to make sure our democracy stays intact.”
Cummings went on with his cadence building with more and more emotion.
“The one meeting I had with the president, I said, ‘The greatest gift we can give to our children is making sure we give them a democracy better than the one we came upon.’ ”
And then his voice broke a little as he said, “I mean, come on now, according to The Washington Post, our president has made 8,718 misleading or false statements. That’s stunning. That’s not what we teach our children.”
Referring to the president calling Cohen a “rat,” Cummings tried to explain how far that is out of bounds in civilized discourse.
“I know it’s painful to be called a rat,” he said. “Let me explain. A lot of people don’t know the significance of that. But I live in the inner city of Baltimore, all right? And when you call somebody a rat, that’s one of the worst things you can call them, because when they go to prison, that means a snitch. I’m just saying. And so the president called you a rat. We’re better than that. We really are.”
But Cummings was not done yet.
When you call somebody a rat, that’s one of the worst things you can call them, because when they go to prison, that means a snitch. I’m just saying.— Elijah Cummings
“And I’m hoping all of us can get back to this democracy we want and we should be passing on to our children, so they can do better than we did,” he said. “When we’re dancing with the angels, the question will 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?’ ”
Elijah Cummings did something Wednesday. He stood at center stage in American life for few moments, and he stood tall with those inspirational closing remarks — a model for what a member of Congress should be.