During this past week in Washington, the political ideals to which we aspire ran head-on into the reality of the people we have become. It began with the memorial tribute to the late Senator John McCain, whose life was described as being motivated by bipartisan civility and commitment to the higher calling of service to country and fellow man. It ended with unsettling revelations of what an administration official described as a dysfunctional White House headed by a “petty”, “vindictive”, “off the rails” president. The rest of the week was filled with the partisan and profoundly disturbing Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for President Trump’s nominee to serve on the Supreme Court.
I must admit that I watched the McCain service with mixed emotions. As an American, it was impossible not to feel inspired by his life story and his commitment to service. McCain was too young to be part of what is called the “greatest generation” – those who lived through the Great Depression and then went on to fight in World War II. Nevertheless, he embodied that generation’s ideals.
I had deep differences with McCain’s approach to foreign policy and argued with him about his stubborn refusal to recognize the abuses endured by Palestinians as a result of Israeli policies. I also took issue with his penchant, as I once put it, “to never see a conflict that he didn’t want to bomb.” I disagreed with McCain’s conservative domestic policies, as well.
At the same time, I recall his bipartisan efforts in the 1990’s to pass meaningful campaign finance reform and immigration reform and his strong stand against the Bush Administration’s torture policy. On a personal note, I cannot forget how after 9/11 when McCain heard that my life had been threatened, he called and asked what he could do to support and protect me and my family. And when some of his Republican colleagues were attacking Hillary Clinton’s aide, Huma Abedin, accusing her of ties to Muslim extremism, I knew we could count on John McCain to defend her. He issued a strong denunciation of these attacks and he and I spoke of the need to purge our country of this bigotry.
During the memorial, it was former President Barack Obama who best captured McCain’s approach to Washington when he said,
“So much of our politics can seem small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast and insult, in phony controversies and manufactured outrage. It’s a politics that pretends to be brave, but in fact is born of fear. John called on us to be bigger than that. He called on us to be better than that.”
As Obama spoke, the cameras scanned those who were in attendance—Republicans and Democrats—including individuals who served in the past eight administrations and those currently serving in this White House. They all appeared to be nodding in agreement, inspired both by the civility and honor that characterized the life of the man they gathered to remember and Obama’s ability to put into words the very ideal of America.
For a moment, I allowed myself the hope that this might have an impact on our politics in Washington. But it was only for a moment, since I quickly brought myself back to reality—the memorial service was like church on Sunday. We hear the words and say, “I’ll do better”, but then return to work the next day and fall into the same ugly patterns of behavior.
Sure enough, when Congress came back in session on Tuesday, the Senate confirmation hearings opened on a decidedly rancorous partisan note. The Republicans, who are in the majority, appeared to see the entire process as a mere pro forma exercise. They have the votes to push through Trump’s Supreme Court nomination and they have made it clear that they will do it on their terms.
The Democrats complained that they have not been given access to all of the nominee’s files, especially those dealing with opinions he wrote when he served in George W. Bush’s White House. Many of these address issues which may very well come before the Supreme Court. Democrats requested these files and their requests were denied on the grounds that those which could be made public had been classified as “Confidential”. To make the situation worse, it was revealed that the person the Republicans had assigned to review the files and determine which should be marked “Confidential” and withheld from public view was a former employee of the nominee.
Because the Supreme Court is currently evenly divided, the president’s nominee, if confirmed, will be the deciding vote. And because the Court may be asked to rule on issues affecting the president—for example, whether Trump is guilty of “obstruction of justice” or whether he has violated the Constitution’s prohibition on a president profiting from his position or whether he can pardon himself or issue blanket pardons for the growing list of his aides who have either been found guilty or confessed to a wide variety of crimes—Democrats want to be assured of the nominee’s objectivity and commitment to fairness and the rule of law.
Democrats have been denied access to the materials they have requested and so they protested. The Republicans gave no ground. Instead of being an open and deliberative process, the majority’s heavy-handed partisan behavior has made these hearings a farcical fait accompli.
In the midst of all of this rancor, we were hit midweek, by two separate but related bombshells. The first was the release of excerpts of a soon to be published book, “Fear” by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Bob Woodward. Based on interviews with scores of current and former administration officials, “Fear” is a look at the inner workings of this White House. The book quotes senior administration figures who describe the president as “unhinged” and “ill-informed” with these same senior officials asserting that they often find ways to circumvent the president’s orders in order to protect the country from his dangerous impulses.
A day later, the New York Times published an opinion column written by an unnamed “senior official in the Trump administration” which reinforces the thrust of the Woodward book.
In the article, the writer asserts that he agrees with some of the “bright spots” of the president’s successes but notes that,
“Despite—not because of the president’s leadership style, which is impetuous, adversarial, petty, and ineffective… senior officials will privately admit their daily disbelief at the commander-in-chief’s comments and actions. Most are working to insulate their operations from his whims… he engages in repetitive rants, and his impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed, and occasionally reckless decisions that have to be walked back.
The writer then observes,
“It may be cold comfort in this chaotic era, but Americans should know that there are adults in the room. We fully recognize what is happening. And we are trying to do what is right even when Donald Trump won’t.”
The reactions to the book and the Times’ piece were fascinating. Trump termed the op-ed “Treason” and demanded that the newspaper turn the writer “over to the government.” Most senior White House officials immediately stepped forward to say that they didn’t write it and the quotes attributed to them by Woodward were not true. Meanwhile, operating in a crisis mode, we hear reports of a “witch hunt” within the White House to ferret out the “traitors.”
A number of Republican Senators have shrugged off the book and the column, acknowledging that “this is nothing new. We’ve known this from the beginning.” While many Democrats and media commentators appeared to agree with the White House that the writer of the column was a coward, denouncing the “Faustian bargain” some Republicans have made to work for and to support a president they claimed was “unfit to lead” in order to get the tax cuts, deregulation, and the conservative Supreme Court they wanted.
So the week that began on a high note came crashing down all around us. By week’s end, we found ourselves confronting the chaos, partisanship, and paranoid dysfunction that have come to define the real Washington in which we are currently living.