I was writing a rather stern column about the mess in Washington, but I got kind of swept Thursday by the beautiful bipartisan tribute to Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings, in Congress’s Statuary Hall, a ceremony held just before his burial back in Baltimore.
I want to get beyond the merely sentimental. Everyone seems to have liked him a lot; I knew him slightly and liked him too. I would only add to his enumerated virtues the power of his warmth. I met him at an event five or so years ago and when we were introduced I went to shake his hand. He’d have none of that and enveloped me in a hug.
I don’t remember what we talked about but it seemed important to the two of us, in one of those nice moments that sometimes happen, that we show a mutual appreciation for who the other was. We did, and held hands. I just found to my shock that remembering this leaves me a little choked.
There was something not sentimental but poignant and half-grasped in the tribute to him. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell spoke movingly about how Cummings came to Washington not to be a big man but to do big things.
Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said, “He was strong, very strong when necessary. … His voice could … stir the most cynical hearts.”
Cummings’s friend Republican Rep. Mark Meadows said he had “eyes that would pierce through anybody standing in his way,” and like the others read Scripture. It was nice to hear the Bible read in Statuary Hall; the religiosity had a great sweetness to it. “In my father’s house are many mansions,” Meadows read, and suggested the Baltimore boy was in a grand new home.
What was poignant was how much the speakers enjoyed being their best selves. Congress knows how hapless it looks, how riven by partisanship and skins-vs.-shirts dumbness. For many of them it takes the tang out of things. They know it lowers their standing in America. They grieve it. It embarrasses them. They’d like to be part of something that works, something respected.