Sometimes, the silence says it all.
And so, in a city that runs on rhetoric and bombast, the only moments that really mattered Monday were the ones when no one said a thing. The President stood with his wife, their heads down before the South Lawn, flanked by hundreds of White House staff, from the senior aides in $170 ties to the U.S. Park Service employees in government-issue green ball caps. No one spoke for about 75 seconds.
On Capitol Hill, in the same moments, just after 11 a.m., a mob of hundreds packed the stairway to Congress, Republicans, Democrats, their staffs, all clogging a space so dense that it looked like a rally, or a protest, or some sort of art installation. The whole of the elected United States government stood together, united against the utter stupidity of violence.
In the days since a troubled 22-year-old allegedly carried out his deranged wake-dream fantasy, much has been made of his meaning for our national politics. Eyewitnesses to the crime, local lawmen and mourning relatives have all been deputized as oracles, called upon to interpret the unexplainable. On cable television, the blogs and talk radio, the instinct has been to try to fit the absurd facts of a man upset over grammar, mind control and currency into a cogent political narrative. Pundits have performed close readings of the favorite books that Jared Lee Loughner mentioned on his YouTube page. Did Animal Farm make him a liberal? How does Mein Kampf break along the left-right spectrum? And what can be made of a man who embraces both George Orwell and Adolf Hitler?
It was for the most part a predictably embarrassing spectacle. Conservative Rush Limbaugh accused Democrats of trying “to profit from murder.” Liberal Paul Krugman accused the right wing of “eliminationist rhetoric.” On Fox News, Glenn Beck, predictably, couldn’t help but make the whole thing about himself, with a sprinkling of Van Jones, while junior members of Congress churned out press releases announcing the go-nowhere legislation they would release: to outlaw certain violent or threatening language from political discourse, to raise member allowances to pay for new security, to restrict the sales of high capacity ammunition clips.
But on Monday, all this noise was absorbed by the silence. The simple fact is that the nation’s political leadership, the ones who run both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, have behaved with remarkable poise since the horrors of Saturday.
The leadership has come together, and has mostly resisted the urge to find political advantage in the methods of a madman. Majority Leader Eric Cantor announced a voice vote Wednesday to condemn the killings. Speaker John Boehner and Minority leader Nancy Pelosi invited their colleagues to a bipartisan prayer service.
At the White House, President Obama addressed the tragedy for the second time. “Part of what I think that speaks to is the best of America, even in the face of such mindless violence,” he said. He spoke of the 20-year-old intern who ran toward the violence to help staunch the flow of blood, and the wounded woman who struggled to deny the killer a reload of bullets.
It is easy to forget, in the absurdity of our democratic system, that the people running the show can actually behave as a plurality of the American people want them to behave, responsibly, protectively with more than a particular ideological, personal or professional advantage in mind. It is easy to forget that these men and women who dominate our newscasts are not as rotten as they seem. They just want desperately to win, and feel forced to play the role.
In a matter of weeks, President Obama will travel to Congress to speak to the nation about the State of the Union. He is unlikely to greet a body where a member will shout “You Lie,” or someone in the gallery will question his birthright. Both sides of the aisle will applaud at length, in unity. In short, the union is in a different state today than it was before the deranged shooter pulled his selfish stunt. And though the ruin he has left in his wake is unmistakable, it is not at all clear that his nation is one of the casualties.
Photo: Jason Reed, Reuters