Opinion

Obama’s eloquence rebukes Trump’s crassness

In this Aug. 7, 2019, photo, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., speaks during a luncheon at the National Press Club in Washington. U.S. Rep. Cummings died from complications of longtime health challenges, his office said in a statement on Oct. 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
In this Aug. 7, 2019, photo, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., speaks during a luncheon at the National Press Club in Washington. U.S. Rep. Cummings died from complications of longtime health challenges, his office said in a statement on Oct. 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

We all have our oddities. For me, I can scarcely bear, these days, to listen to speeches by Barack Obama. The yearning makes me almost physically ill. I still can’t believe, much less emotionally accept, that the brilliant and inspiring 44th president has been succeeded by the most corrupt, dishonest, bigoted, incompetent and inarticulate chief executive in our history. I’ve perhaps studied too long to be an actual devotee of American exceptionalism. Still, I always thought we were more exceptional than this.

But I broke my “no Obama” rule last week to listen to his eulogy for Rep. Elijah Cummings. Obama and Cummings. Inspiration squared. Inspiration on stilts.

Cummings, civil rights hero and “Master of the House,” was the son of southern sharecroppers. His folks picked tobacco and strawberries before seeking a better life in South Baltimore, cleaning houses and working in a manufacturing plant. Cummings went to law school at Maryland, served in the state legislature, and eventually became one of the most respected members in the history of the United States Congress. A few months ago, he famously empathized in a committee hearing with a repentant Michael Cohen and asked the central question of the Trump era:

“When we’re dancing with the angels, the question will be asked: In 2019, what did we do to make sure we kept our democracy intact?”

Cohen teared up. I understand Republican committee members ducked under the table.

At Cummings’ Baltimore service, after he had lain in state at the Capitol, President Obama said:

“It has been remarked that Elijah was a kind man. And I was thinking I would want my daughters to know how much I love them, but I would also want them to know that being a strong man includes being kind. That there is nothing weak about kindness and compassion. There’s nothing weak about looking out for others. There’s nothing weak about being honorable. You are not a sucker to have integrity and to treat others with respect.”

“I was sitting here noticing,” Obama continued, “the Honorable Elijah E. Cummings and, you know, that is a title we confer on all kinds of people who get elected to public office. We’re supposed to introduce them as ‘honorable.’ But Elijah Cummings was honorable before he was elected to office. There’s a difference.”

For almost four years, Donald Trump has so completely occupied the American political stage with greed, perjury, cruelty, narcissism and abuse of power that all the oxygen of aspiration is gone. The president lies and cheats all day. Every day. Republicans either hide or explain that the night, lo and behold, is actually the day. And apparently that any kind of treachery and democracy destruction is worth it so long as they can cling to their pitiful porches of power. They embrace the seeds of totalitarianism out of cowardice and vainglory. As Mark Twain is reputed to have said: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

It is hard to imagine that Barack Obama saying, in memory of Elijah Cummings, “being a strong man includes being kind,” that there’s “nothing weak about looking out for others” or that “being honorable” or “treating others with respect” is worthy — would be seen as a rebuke to the president of the United States. But all the world, of course, sees it as exactly that. Because a rebuke it is. To Trump for his nation-destroying venality. And to his enablers for their cowardly submission. “In 2019, what did we do (to keep) our democracy intact?”

Contributing columnist Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley distinguished professor at the UNC School of Law.
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