David Zurawik

The media power and moral authority of Elijah Cummings

If there is one Democrat with a potent enough presence in the media to challenge and possibly even take down President Donald Trump, it’s not Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris or any of the the other presidential contenders at this point.

It’s Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings, one of very few prominent Democrats who hasn’t shown any interest whatsoever in running for the White House in 2020.


But between now and then, Cummings could turn out to be Trump’s worst nightmare based on the Baltimore resident’s powerful position in Congress as chair of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, his widely-praised recent media performances and shifts in the zeitgeist that have thrust Cummings into the role of being Liberal America’s new best hope (alongside Baltimore-born Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi) of reining in Trump.

Trump’s lawsuit Monday alleging that Cummings exceeded Congressional powers with a subpoena seeking years of the president’s financial statements elevated the contrast between the two men to the level of the symbolic with Cummings representing the legislative branch of government and Trump the executive. The conflict looks to be headed for a Constitutional showdown in the courts the likes of which have not been seen since the Watergate days of Richard Nixon as Trump stonewalls and Cummings calls him out for “a massive, unprecedented, and growing pattern of obstruction.”


Symbolic could become mythic.

Nowhere was the contrast more apparent on the screen than at the end of the Feb. 27 Congressional hearing chaired by Cummings that featured testimony from Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal attorney and fixer, about the lies, misrepresentations, threats and possible crimes committed by and at the direction of his former boss.

It was an ugly day, full of partisanship that made me despair about the state of American politics. But at the very end, Cummings brought redemption with a poetic plea for a better America. As I noted at the time, it was one of the most inspirational moments I had seen in my decades of writing about media and politics — and many others felt the same way.

The next day, Larry Gibson, the University of Maryland School of Law professor and longtime Democratic strategist, posted a picture of Cummings on his Facebook page with the caption: “Aren’t we all today proud of Elijah!”

It generated 776 likes and loves, 262 shares and 234 comments.

Many of the comments referenced integrity and moral leadership.

“A man of character, integrity and honesty. Praying for him to stay in good health. He has lots of work to do,” one commenter wrote.

“Every once in a while, a critical moment in history is indelibly printed in our memory,” wrote another. “Such was seeing our dear brother, friend and congressional moral voice pound his gavel and begin and end a moment that will go down in the history books!”


A letter to the Sun printed in Wednesday’s paper suggested the way Cummings is being perceived beyond Maryland today.

“I just watched Congressman Elijah Cummings on ‘Face the Nation’ and am struck by what an amazingly courageous and great American he is,” John Turner wrote. “That may not be news to anyone in his district, but what maybe is news is that many here in San Antonio, Texas, and many more around the country than you might be aware of, support him … “

After writing about them for decades, I have come to believe winning media images are as much a matter of alchemy and timing as expertise. You can construct what experts will describe as a perfect image, but the temper of the times will determine how it is received once it comes out the other end of the camera.

Media-consultant conventional wisdom says the TV loves nothing more than youth and lots of hair. Just look at the anchor desks in most smaller television markets for confirmation of this fact.

But Cummings has neither, and cable news TV has loved no one more in recent months.

I believe that’s the result of Cummings having something far more valuable and in such short supply these days: moral authority and righteous passion. The amoral behavior of Trump and his minions chronicled in the Mueller report released last week has only heightened the hunger for a voice like Cummings’ to rise up in opposition to Trump.


And it’s not just moral authority. Cummings has shown empathy and compassion at a time when the Trump administration is showing more and more cruelty to immigrants seeking asylum at the Southern border and others looking to the federal government for help.

For me, one of the most powerful moments of Cummings’ closing remarks at the Cohen hearing came when his voice soared in anger and pain as he recounted a hearing before his committee earlier this year in which a mother testified about her child dying because she could not get $333 a month to buy insulin for the girl.

At that moment and others — such as when he insisted “we are better than this,” or talked about how our actions in 2019 will be remembered when we are “dancing with the angels” — Cummings’ language transcended that of a committee chair in a government hearing. He was speaking in the elevated voice of a minister, specifically one working in the tradition made so much a part of national memory by the late Rev. Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders with strong church backgrounds. That voice had a moral thunder directly at odds with the kind of transgressive behavior described in that hearing, such as Trump using Cohen as the conduit for $130,000 in hush money to a woman with whom the then-candidate committed adultery.

The 13-term congressman’s image was also enhanced in a more traditional TV way that day by the way he handled two of his younger and nastier opponents on the committee, Republicans Jim Jordan and Mark Meadows, as they tried to disrupt the hearing to keep Cohen from testifying before it even started. If Cummings ended the hearing in the voice of a minister, he began it by looking like the older CEO in a prime-time TV drama beating back two upstart villains trying to wrest control of the boardroom from him. Don’t mess with this lion in winter.

Since the day Robert Mueller was named special counsel, a narrative has been building that the former F.B.I. director who was everything Trump was not was going to ride in on a white horse and drive Trump out of office with his report.

Well, the report’s arrived, and while it might ultimately spell Trump’s demise, the president is still in office — and full of defiance. Mueller, meanwhile, looks like he is going to remain radio silent as he steps back into private life.


As a result, there is a void, at least among some liberals and cable news producers, for a figure who can assume the symbolic place Mueller held in the popular imagination. That need for a new hero figure to challenge Trump is also part of what’s making Cummings such a popular figure on cable and network TV these days.

As much as social media has made us a culture of instant loves and hates, a media image as resonant as that of Cummings usually isn’t created overnight. Thirteen terms in Congress can make for a lot of turns on the national stage.

I think one of the pillars on which the congressman’s current image is built involves those nightly, live, cable TV images of him standing on the streets of Baltimore during the uprising in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray four years ago as he tried to provide some calming leadership.

But the power of his image today derives primarily from his role as one of the point persons in the Constitutional struggle with Trump. After all, also on the streets with Cummings during the uprising in 2015 was Catherine Pugh, and look at her image today. (Cummings found himself directing a bit of his moral authority her way on Thursday, after federal investigators raided her home, office and other locations tied to her as part of the Healthy Holly scandal. Cummings did not explicitly call on her to resign but urged her “to put the best interests of the City and its residents first and foremost” and reminding her that Baltimore “needs and deserves leadership that is above reproach.”)

I am surprised Trump has not yet come after Cummings in his usual ugly, personal way, tagging him a nickname intended to insult, mock and demean him.

Maybe it is wishful thinking. But I think Trump might be afraid of Cummings.


Or, since everything Trump seems to know he learned from watching cable news, maybe it’s the power and moral authority of the congressman’s TV image that scares the president.