There are many things missing from American politics these days – comity, civility, common sense among them.
But the critical missing ingredient in our politics is the most basic ingredient – a commitment to character. One definition in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes character as “moral excellence and firmness.” Another describes character as “the complex of mental and ethical traits marking and often individualizing a person.”
As House Republicans were engaged in a circular firing squad this week while attempting to elect a speaker, the party’s leader in Congress, third in line for the presidency, they were forced to postpone swearing in a new GOP member who appears to have entirely fabulized his life. It was the perfect confluence of the lack of moral excellence and firmness. It was characterless chaos.
Kevin McCarthy, the California chameleon who suffered humiliating defeat after humiliating defeat in the speaker contest this week, suffered this special kind of hell because some of the most radical members of his own party simply don’t trust him. McCarthy is, in other words, without character. He’s not alone.
Imagine having your character tested by the likes of a Paul Gosar or Matt Gaetz.
The most damning assessment of McCarthy comes, ironically, from his political mentor, former California Republican congressman Bill Thomas, a tough, brainy former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Thomas, 81-years old, retired and living in Bakersfield, McCarthy’s hometown, told The New Yorker’s Jonathan Blitzer, “Kevin basically is whatever you want him to be. He lies. He’ll change the lie if necessary. How can anyone trust his word?”
Meanwhile, George Santos, the greatest resume padder in congressional history who has already burned through his 15 minutes of infamy, will eventually join the House Republican caucus as the most openly dishonest congressman in decades – and that’s saying something. By now most political junkies know that the 34-year old Santos manufactured pretty much his entire life.
He didn’t work for Goldman Sachs or Citigroup. He didn’t go to Baruch College or New York University. He doesn’t own the real estate he claimed to own. He’s wanted for a crime in Brazil. The lies – Santos calls it “resume embellishment” – tumbled out, while the party of whataboutism reminded everyone that Elizabeth Warren once claimed Native American heritage.
Here’s the trouble with whataboutism when it comes to character. There is no rationalizing moral excellence. There are no degrees of being a good and honest person.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the U.S. Capitol Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell – McConnell’s political biographer entitled his book about the senator The Cynic – claimed the title for longest senator in party leadership. McConnell, a gravedigger of American democracy, had the gall to invoke the leadership of Montana Democrat Mike Mansfield while claiming his self-proclaimed landmark.
For the record, Mansfield served as Senate majority leader – not just in leadership, but leadership of the majority – for sixteen years from 1961 to 1977. Mansfield lead the Senate in admittedly a different time. The parties were much less polarized and partisan. Each party had conservatives, moderates and liberals. Bipartisanship wasn’t a dirty word. And Mansfield worked seamlessly and unselfishly with his Republican counterpart Everett Dirksen of Illinois.
If anything, Mansfield had a tougher job with a much more diverse caucus that McConnell has ever had, yet the Mansfield Senate – with much help from Republican Dirksen – ratified a nuclear test ban treaty, passed historic civil and voting rights acts and created Medicare. Every single issue had bipartisan support.
If there has ever been a golden age in the Senate it was when Mansfield sat quietly at the majority leader’s desk and, as one contemporary said, accumulated power by giving it away. Quite a contrast in leadership styles with the senator from Kentucky, an extreme partisan whose sole accomplishment in office has been to dramatically politicize the Supreme Court. Oh, and McConnell’s survived for a long, long time, survived to the point of being hated by many members of his own party not to mention the aging reality TV host holed up at Mar a Lago.
McConnell’s reference to Mansfield, the former Butte copper miner and college history teacher, was the second time in a week the great Montanan’s name was invoked on the Senate floor.
Retiring Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, the last senator who actually served with Mansfield, remembered the longest tenured majority leader in his farewell address.
“It feels like yesterday that I walked into my first meeting with the person who would become my first Majority Leader – ‘Iron Mike’ Mansfield,” Leahy said. The Majority Leader put a fundamental question to every new Senator: Why do you want to be here? For the title? Or to make a difference to make lives better?
“And though he was a soft-spoken man who listened more than he spoke, and rarely gave speeches on the Senate Floor, Leader Mansfield dispensed one piece of advice that made as enduring an impression as the question he left to each Senator to answer for themselves.
“Senators should always keep their word.
“It struck me that across all those weighty debates, navigating the complicated and contradictory politics of a Senate and a caucus that included everything from social conservatives and segregationists to civil rights icons and prairie populists, Mansfield succeeded because he understood the currency of the institution was actually trust, not ideology.
“Senators should always keep their word.”
Ideology has come to dominate our characterless politics. Too many of us clutch the illusion that the rules and procedures of a democracy protect us from chaos. But characterless politicians don’t follow the rules, they fudge them or ignore them. As Mansfield knew, trust is the gold standard of democracy.
While Kevin McCarthy twisted this week, tied in knots of distrust of his own making, The Talented Mr. Santos was wandering Capitol Hill, a man without a past, avoiding questions that would embarrass and disqualify most anyone, but still secure that he’ll have a place in the party where character is nothing more an afterthought.
When All Is Said by Anne Griffin review – a confident, compassionate debut
I really enjoyed this novel – very Irish, very engaging story.
“Griffin’s novel was apparently inspired by a chance encounter in a hotel bar with an elderly man who confided that he worked in the building as a boy and that he expected the night to be his last. As a novel whose central themes are grief, separation and mental illness it would be very easy for the writing to become bogged down in self-pity. Yet Maurice Hannigan emerges as an engaging, compassionate creation who seems fully aware that he conforms to a stereotype: ‘As for Irish men, I’ve news for you. It’s worse as you get older. It’s like we tunnel ourselves deeper into our aloneness. Solving our problems on our own. Men, sitting alone at bars going over and over the same old territory in their heads.'”
Moderate Democrats Are the Future of the Party
This is a good piece, perhaps because I agree with the premise, and the GOP chaos in Washington this week give Democrats one more big chance to define themselves in the middle of American politics.
Oh, and Jill Lawrence is really smart.
“As a strategic matter, it’s no secret why moderates are crucial. The Pew Research Center classifies only 6 percent of Americans and 12 percent of Democrats as ‘progressive left.’ ‘Democratic mainstays,’ the largest group in the party and the country, are older loyalists with “a moderate tilt on some issues,” in Pew’s phrase. The fact is that Democrats across the spectrum share many goals, among them equitable justice; police accountability; more immigration and a more humane, practical system; voting and abortion rights; and respect for people’s identities, whatever they may be.”
Read all of Ms. Lawrence’s piece here.
See you soon. Happy New Year.