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SHRIBMAN COLUMN: It is time to act on principle

SHRIBMAN COLUMN: It is time to act on principle

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There have been multiple American moments of great drama since World War II. Movements to extend rights to minorities, women, the disabled and gays. Assassinations, terrorist attacks and anti-war protests. Scandals, impeachments and an election that went into 36 days of overtime.

But not once — not even when Soviet missiles were being installed 90 miles from American shores more than a half-century ago — have democratic values been in jeopardy.

The violence against Black protesters during the civil rights movement made continued legal segregation unacceptable. The murder of John F. Kennedy was followed only hours later by a president who was determined to work to achieve the goals of the martyred leader. The Watergate scandal was followed by the ascendancy of an unelected president, Gerald Ford, who asked the public to confirm him not by their votes but by their prayers.

Not for a moment — not even during the Richard Nixon-era controversies — was there a physical assault on the institutions of democracy. Not once was a vice president prompted to say from the rostrum of a Senate chamber that hours earlier had been a crime scene, as Mike Pence put it, “The people’s work continues.”

The siege of the Capitol was a stain on the country, undermining its moral authority abroad, raising questions at home about the “domestic tranquility” cited in the preamble of the Constitution. It provided an angry bookend to the beginning of the Donald J. Trump presidency, when the 45th president spoke of “American carnage.” It left the country breathless, prompting even some of Trump’s most ardent Capitol supporters to separate themselves from the president, though his term has less than two weeks to go.

There were sad ironies in every corner of the capital and country.

Incited by the leader of the world’s greatest democracy, the marchers stormed up a boulevard called Constitution Avenue. A rioter raced through the Capitol with the flag of the Confederacy, which was a domestic rebellion against the Union. A leader who portrayed himself as an avatar of law and order prompted the breaking of the law and violent disorder.

Duly elected representatives of the people were told to hide under their desks — the very advice schoolchildren during the chilliest days of the Cold War were given to save themselves in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack. The president’s greatest defender, and his frequent surrogate, Pence, broke with his patron at the moment when the president needed his support more than at any time in the last four years. Then there was the irony that the sanctity of elections, and the sterility of the vice-presidential role, had been sealed in history by the unlikely figure of Vice President Nixon, who was defeated by John F. Kennedy. From the Senate rostrum, Nixon acknowledged the Kennedy victory, said the Electoral College verdict provided an “eloquent example of the stability of our constitutional system” and spoke of American’s tradition of “respecting and honoring institutions of self-government.”

But of all the ironies of a date of infamy, this may be the greatest:

Lawmakers who for years could not bring themselves to work together, have lunch together, play Capitol gymnasium basketball together, instead huddled together in disbelief and in fear. Then they gathered together to confirm the election of Joseph R. Biden Jr. as the next president.

That may affect lawmakers, but it may not have the same effect on the Trump loyalists, who very likely will take a different message from Wednesday’s events. The dispersal of the rioters and the death of a woman in the confrontation have the perilous potential of becoming a rallying cry for rioters.

“Americans are better than this,” said Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska. “Americans aren’t nihilists. Americans aren’t arsonists. Americans aren’t French revolutionaries taking to the barricades.”

Today the name Fisher Ames (1758-1808) is largely forgotten. He was a Massachusetts congressman and a leading voice of the Federalist Party. Two weeks after the Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated following his defeat of the Federalist John Adams, Ames wrote:

“Party is an association of honest men, for honest purposes, and, when the State falls into bad hands, is the only efficient defence; a champion who never flinches, a watchman who never sleeps ... It would be wrong to assail the new administration with invective. Even when bad measures occur, much temperance will be requisite. To encourage Mr. Jefferson to act right, and to aid him against his violent jacobin adherents, we must make it manifest that we act on principle.”

David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.

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