AN EARLY EDUCATION.
When I was a teenager, I devoured the work of Allen Drury, a political reporter turned novelist. Drury’s original beat was the United States Senate. His experiences fueled a 1959 breakout novel, Advise and Consent, about the confirmation battle over Orrin Knox as a controversial nominee to serve as Secretary of State. The novel claimed a Pulitzer Prize, was a bestseller for two years and Henry Fonda starred in the movie.
Drury turned the novel into a series following Orrin Knox through the twists and turns of the Cold War. None of the sequels packed the punch of the original, but I stayed hooked. Although fictional, those in the know claimed that Drury nailed the atmosphere in Washington D.C. and in Congress in particular. The book series played an oversized role in turning me into a political junkie. When I later watched battles over the Bork and Thomas nominations to the Supreme Court, they felt like the Drury books come to life.
GOOD MEN GONE BAD.
I thought a lot about those books today. A continuing theme in the series was a never-ending battle between those of good conscience and those whose personal ambition drives every action. We are a nation of humans, governed by humans. So, while I am often disappointed in leaders who act against the country’s long-term interests, I am never surprised. Allen Drury taught me that.
As our election saga drew to a close, there are politicians who have their sights set on 2024. Or maybe just self-preservation in their next election. Whatever their immediate goal, these politicians have led or acquiesced in the politics of destruction. For far too long, these “leaders” and their media arms have used fear as their sole motivational tool. One’s political adversary is not wrong; instead the opponent has a plan to destroy America. Brilliant minds, many of them sharpened at our best law schools, parse words carefully so that their charges hold a grain of truth, but bear no connection to the truth.
These are people who know better, yet press on. Their belief system tells them that it is up to their opponents to uncover any errors of fact or logic. In the battle for minds, we owe no obligation of candor. It sounds and is amoral.
Yet, I have no doubt that like many of Drury’s “bad guys,” today’s purveyors of the dark arts started with good intentions. Convincing one’s self that the importance of a cause justifies a venial sin is pretty easy for a skilled debater. Stopping oneself after stealing only one cookie from the cookie jar is near impossible.
THE PAGES SPRING TO LIFE.
Drury was great at planting small moral conflicts and then watching them explode in unexpected ways. As a result, as today played out I felt like I was once again reading an Allen Drury novel. Politics dominated the news as two Georgia runoff elections assumed outsized importance. Congress was to be the scene of engineered high drama where the ambitious would try to win hearts and minds. Underneath all that, just like the novels, however, was the idea that it was theater; nothing of lasting consequence would happen today. To our horror, however, something consequential did happen.
Another Drury theme was that despite our hubris, man often cannot control events after we set them in motion. At our Capitol building today, hubris failed again. For a long time, we stoked the fire that erupted in the rotunda and the chambers. Every allegation that our opponents were un-American; were dangerous; were personally corrupt or were interested solely in power was another log on the fire. Many of our representatives and senators came to work today intending to poke the fire again, to make the flame a little brighter.
Like the actual wildfires that have plagued us over the last twenty years, however, the sparks traveled faster and farther than we understood. No one really knows what turns a crowd into a mob. Perhaps it was last-night’s election results or maybe it was Mitch McConnell finally speaking truth. President Trump’s encouragement, both today and for the last year, certainly did not help. Like a Drury scene, however, the necessary spark found its target.
NO ORDINARY COUNTRY.
Most troubling to me about today is that the attacks strike at the very heart of who we are. We are the first and only global superpower in civilized history without a defining ethnicity. Instead, we have always insisted that our shared allegiance to common ideals–not ideas–made us exceptional. For broad context, we have to remember that George Washington could have been President for as long as he wanted. Instead, he stepped out after two terms to demonstrate the ultimate sign of a democracy, the peaceful transfer of power. That notion, that we can be governed by those we disagree with or by people from a different region, race or gender, became our defining ideal; the very root of “American Exceptionalism.”
That ideal has survived many tests. In 1796, John Adams was vice-president and running against Thomas Jefferson. The electoral count was exceedingly close. Vermont’s electoral ballots were potentially subject to technical problems although everyone knew that the New England state wished Adams to be president. Disallowing Vermont’s votes, however, could hand the election to Jefferson. Adams, as the vice-president presiding over the selection process, faced a terrible conflict of interest. The Congressional record makes clear that Adams waited an unusual amount of time to allow his opponents to challenge Vermont’s votes; despite the opportunity, Jefferson’s supporters remained silent. Adams became president.
It turned out that Jefferson had instructed his supporters to forego the technical challenge, recognizing the injustice that would result from disallowing Vermont’s votes. The conduct of both Jefferson and Adams placed democracy above ambition and policy.
Lincoln’s election precipitated our worst crisis. Even there, however, no one attempted to prevent Lincoln from becoming President. The objectors chose to leave rather than deny the election results happened. When the conflict ended, the victors wanted punishment. Lincoln, however, knew that for the Union to stay bound, the vanquished had to willingly accept the democratic process. Accordingly, he mandated “malice towards none and charity towards all.”
In 1960, many believed vote fraud in Illinois and Texas swung the election from Nixon to Kennedy. His supporters urged Nixon to fight in the courts and Congress. Nixon did the exact opposite, even arranging for Hawaii to switch its disputed votes from his ticket to Kennedy’s. In 2000, Al Gore was tantalizingly close to the White House. When a party-line Supreme Court vote froze Gore 537 votes short of his goal, he told the nation to respect the decision and our laws.
The third thing Drury did, after drawing remarkable characters and placing them in unexpected situations, was to evoke the incalculable human value of American democracy. As flawed as we are, there has never been a more remarkable human institution. In fits and starts, our government has ensured freedom to the millions that live here. As our power grew, the reach of our light spread to billions across the globe.
More than military might, more than economic power, it is the force of our example that makes this possible. Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Lincoln, Nixon and Gore all chose to honor the American ideal over their ideas for America. Read a Drury novel and you feel the urgency of protecting this sacred trust handed down over two centuries. You understand that the men in the monuments in Washington D.C. and even some who fell short are watching over us, praying that their example sustains us.
PAIN AND PROMISE.
Today we fell short, we betrayed that trust. There is blame enough for all of us, but I divide it into two categories. First, those who ask for votes based on fear of other Americans deserve a special place in hell. I could water that sentence down, but I would not be telling my whole truth. Second, those who believe the lies about the other side deserve pity, not scorn. Fight for your ideas and against your opponents’, but demonizing the other side must end. And it stops with you and me ceasing the demonizing, not “I’ll stop when they stop.”
Growing up around Washington D.C. enamored with Allen Drury launched me into a life of reading American history and politics. That knowledge and my own experiences infuse me with vast pride in our heritage and optimism about our future. Other than my family, my belief in the American system is what sustains me. In the four decades since I picked up Advise and Consent no day has tested that belief like an assault on our bedrock principle; not by Tories, Nazis or Jihadists but by our own citizens.
Still, I felt like today brings me full circle. At the end of Drury’s series, Orrin Knox faces an inconceivable choice. His final thoughts were always enigmatic to me; today, I finally understand the point Drury was making through Knox. In explaining Knox’s rationale, Drury wrote that the American dream was “A promise forever worth seeking–but only a promise.”
The blessings of this nation are not guaranteed us, but instead are a promise we must forever seek. The work of doing so requires sacrifice and an understanding that the freedom to choose our destiny inevitably creates disappointments that we must live through. Tomorrow is a new day. Wake with a resolve to be worthy of what we have been given.