In a way they never tell the truth until the concession speech. That’s when nothing they say can hurt them anymore. They’re worn to the bone and they’ve been in a struggle and it’s over, and suddenly some basic, rock-solid, dumb knowledge of what they’ve been involved in—a great nation’s life—comes loose and declares itself.
Rep. Harold Ford of Tennessee, who lost his Senate race, said he’d wanted to be in government since he was 4 years old, that people had taken a risk on him, that he was grateful. “I love my country,” he said. “Don’t lose faith in this great thing called America.”
Sen. Lincoln Chafee up in Rhode Island said America is divided; “common ground is becoming scarce.” He’d miss those in the Senate “who take their responsibility to govern more seriously than their personal ambitions.”
From Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a demonstration of patriotic civility. He praised his opponent as a human being—”a fine man, he’ll do a fine job for the state.”
Sen. George Allen, gentleman of Virginia, said, “We are placed here on earth to do something well.” He vowed to do all he could to help Jim Webb come in and serve in the U.S. Capitol.
Oh, that the new ones would carry in what the old ones have finally learned, or finally meant, or said.
* * *
It was the first real post-9/11 election, in that it was shaped not by the trauma itself but by public response to decisions taken after the trauma. Turnout was high. America is awake, alive, bristles. In the races for Senate, 25 million said “stay with the Republicans,” while 31 million said “no, move on.”
We have divided government. Good, and for many reasons. One: It confuses our enemies. “Who do we hate now?” they ask in their caves, “the evil woman from San Francisco or the old infidel from Texas? Which do we hate more? And if we hate them both does that…unite them?”
We are in a 30-year war. It is no good for it to be led by, identified with, one party. It is no good for half the nation to feel estranged from its government’s decisions. It’s no good for us to be broken up more than a nation normally would be. And straight down the middle is a bad break, the kind that snaps.
We all have things we would say to the new Congress if we could. We are a country that makes as many speeches in the shower as it sings songs. I would say this: Focus on the age you live in. Know what it is. Know what’s coming. The old way is over; the old days are over; the old facts and habits of mind do not pertain, or no longer fully pertain.
This is the age we live in: One day in the future either New York or Washington or both will be hit again, hard. It will be more deadly than 9/11. And on that day, those who experience it, who see the flash or hear the alarms, will try to help each other. They’ll be good to each other. An elderly conservative congresswoman will be unable to make it down those big old Capitol steps, and a young liberal congressman will come by and pick her up in his arms and carry her. (I witnessed a moment somewhat like this during a Capitol alarm two years ago, when we were told to run for our lives.) I would say: Keep that picture in mind. Cut to the chase, be good to each other now.
Make believe it’s already happened. That’s the only attitude that will help us get through it when it does. I do not mean think like Rodney King. We can’t all get along, not on this earth. But we can know what time it is. We can be serious, and humane. We can realize that we’re all in this together and owe each other an assumption of good faith.
There are rogue states and rogue actors, there are forces and nations aligned against us, and they have nukes and other weapons of mass destruction, and some of them are mad. Know this. Walk to work each day knowing it, not in a pointlessly fearful way but in a spirit of “What can I do to make it better?”
What can you do in two years? The common wisdom says not much. But here’s a governing attitude: First things first.
Do all you can to keep America as safe as possible as long as possible. Make sure she’s able to take a bad blow, a bad series of them. Much flows from this first thing, many subsets. Here is only one: Strengthen and modernize our electrical grid. When the bad thing comes we will need to be able to make contact with each other to survive together. Congress has ignored this for years.
Make America in the world as safe as possible by tending to and building our friendships in the world, by causing no unnecessary friction, by adding whatever possible and necessary emollients. In your approach to foreign affairs, rewrite Teddy Roosevelt: Speak softly, walk softly, and carry a big stick.
Much flows from this, including Iraq. This involves a huge and so far unanswered question: How to leave and not make it all infinitely worse. America will never accept a long war whose successful end even its most passionate proponents cannot convincingly envision or articulate. And America will never allow a repeat of the pictures of 1975, with desperate people who’d thrown their lot with us clinging to the skids of helicopters fleeing the U.S. Embassy. We will never get over Vietnam. And it’s to our credit that we won’t.
Those to me are the two big things. Much follows them, and flows from them. But to make some progress on these two things in the next two years would be breathtaking.
* * *
So that is my shower speech.
At the end of the day, or the end of this day, I look at the new Congress and wish them so well, such luck. Don’t you? I want to say: Go, Nancy Pelosi. Be the speaker of whom historians will write, in 2032, “This was her moment, here was the summit, here she found greatness.” Go, Democrats, be great and serious. Go, minority Republicans, refind yourselves. Go, conservatives.
To the freshmen: Walk in as if you’re walking out. Put your heart on your sleeve and go forward. Take responsibility, and love America. No one will think less of you. They will in fact think more, as they do of politicians after the concession speech.