These days, I often hear people despair of America. They’re afraid our democracy is doomed.
Maybe. But what I was trying to say yesterday was that nothing, nothing, nothing is written in stone until it actually happens. And sometimes, underneath what seems to be a consensus, there is an alternative story developing. When it comes into view, it seems the world turns on a dime.
We have an example of that before us tonight, as Americans are mourning the news that 79-year-old Georgia Representative John Lewis has Stage IV pancreatic cancer. Now a beloved congressman, helping to construct laws for our nation, Lewis began his adulthood breaking the laws of his state: those upholding racial segregation. He organized voting registration drives and in 1960 was one of the thirteen original Freedom Riders, white and black students traveling together from Washington D.C. to New Orleans to challenge segregation. “It was very violent. I thought I was going to die. I was left lying at the Greyhound bus station in Montgomery unconscious,” Lewis later recalled.
An adherent of the philosophy of non-violence, Lewis was beaten by mobs and arrested 24 times. As chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC—pronounced “snick”) he helped to organize the 1963 March on Washington where the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., told more than 200,000 people gathered at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial that he had a dream. Two years later, as Lewis and 600 marchers hoping to register African American voters in Alabama stopped to pray at the end of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, mounted police troopers charged the marchers, beating them with clubs and bullwhips. They fractured Lewis’s skull.
To observers in 1965 reading the newspapers, Lewis was simply one of the lawbreaking protesters who were disrupting the “peace” of the South. But what seemed to be fruitless and dangerous protests were, in fact, changing minds. Shortly after the attack in Selma, President Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) honored those changing ideas when he went on TV to support the marchers and call for Congress to pass a national voting rights bill. On August 6, 1965, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act authorizing federal supervision of voter registration in districts where African Americans were historically under-represented.
New black voters helped to elect Lewis to Congress in 1986. He has held the seat ever since, winning reelection 14 times.
If you had told the angry men beating Lewis unconscious in Montgomery that he would one day serve more than a dozen terms in Congress and the news that he is ill would bring an outpouring of lament…. Well, the world can turn on a dime.
We have had a lull in political news since Christmas, but there were glimmerings today that the past week has shifted some minds in Washington as more and more media outlets are warning that Republican talking points simply echo Putin’s disinformation. This morning, NBC’s Meet the Press ran a special on the techniques of disinformation and Russia’s use of them.
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who has been carrying water for Trump over the Ukraine scandal, has suddenly started to sound more cautious. After asking Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani to testify in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Graham chairs, about whatever he turned up in his recent dirt-digging trip to Ukraine, today Graham warned Giuliani that he should share his information with the Intelligence Community to make sure “it’s not Russian propaganda.”
Graham and other GOP Senators have good reason to be cautious. The extremism and antics of Representatives like Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Devin Nunes (R-CA) made for good theater in the House of Representatives, where they were in the minority. But the Republicans cannot use a similar game plan in the Senate because they are the ones in charge.
Perhaps more important, there was another big development today in the Ukraine scandal. The New York Times reported that Trump’s demand that the Pentagon withhold money from Ukraine at a crucial time in its war with Russia roiled the White House. The hold was implemented from the Office of Management and Budget, and was overseen by Mick Mulvaney. Aides were concerned that the hold was illegal and at one point tried to rope the Pentagon into assuming responsibility for it, prompting one official to respond: “You can’t be serious. I am speechless.” Eventually, lawyers at the Office of Management and Budget began to develop the argument that Trump could override Congress’s law based on his role as commander in chief. (The whistleblower’s report cut that argument short: Trump released the funds once he knew the scheme had been exposed.)
The story reveals that Trump’s own top national security advisors tried to talk him out of his determination to withhold the money. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and National Security Advisor John Bolton met with Trump together to convince him to release the aid because it served American interests. He refused.
It is no wonder he does not want any of them to testify. We can now safely exclude the possibility that their testimony would exonerate him.
It is also appalling that this crisis—one that weakened our ally Ukraine in its war against Russia, thereby giving Russia a huge advantage in upcoming ceasefire negotiations—went on for almost three months without anyone knowing until the whistleblower called it out. That helps to explain Trump’s furious insistence that the whistleblower was out of line to object to the scheme. It also illustrates how much the whistleblower deserves our thanks.
Republican Senators might reasonably be nervous about more revelations continuing to turn public sentiment against Trump and against the GOP in general. So they are continuing to try to suppress votes. In 2013, in the Shelby v. Holder decision, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act… the same law that LBJ endorsed shortly after police fractured John Lewis’s skull as he and fellow demonstrators prayed for voting rights.
As soon as the decision came down, states began to implement various methods to cut down on voting by populations that tend to vote Democratic. This has been a big issue in Georgia, especially after 2018 candidate for governor Stacey Abrams inspired new minority voter registrations. At the beginning of December, Georgia officials purged more than 300,000 voters from the rolls because they had not voted since 2012 (the last election in which President Barack Obama, who turned out new minority voters, was on the ballot). Opponents challenged the purge of about 98,000 of those voters on procedural grounds, but on Friday, the same federal judge who approved the purge rejected the challenge.
Georgia’s Secretary of State, Republican Brad Raffensperger, told a newspaper that “Proper list maintenance is not only required by long-standing laws but is also important in maintaining the integrity and smooth functioning of elections.”
It’s an interesting quotation on a day when we are thinking of Representative John Lewis. “Proper list maintenance,” long-standing laws, and “the smooth functioning of elections” were precisely what he marched against forty years ago.