This surely is not how Republican John Boehner expected to launch his new speakership, or open the new 112th Congress.
He planned to follow the pomp of the first week with a big, partisan vote Wednesday to repeal last year’s landmark healthcare reform law.
But then Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was gunned down on Saturday in a parking lot in her Tucson, Arizona district, and everything changed.
That repeal vote was put on hold, as was the rest of the legislative business planned this week in the House of Representatives.
Just as immediately, Speaker Boehner began addressing the crisis.
Not only did he condemn the attack, he did so with words of solidarity—almost of family—in declaring, “An attack on one who serves is an attack on all who serve. Acts and threats of violence against public officials have no place in our society.”
He followed that eloquent, if pro forma, statement in a way that demonstrated true leadership with a bipartisan conference call on Sunday with lawmakers in which he not only offered further unifying oratory, but also began taking concrete steps toward protecting other members and their staffs.
In sum, Boehner has elevated himself to statesman status.
I say that as a committed Democrat, and one who is not naturally inclined to support Boehner. But I cannot help but be impressed.
On the other hand, I also can’t help but recall a certain other partisan Republican unexpectedly called upon to demonstrate extraordinary leadership in a time of national tragedy: George W. Bush, following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
After that horrible day, Bush sounded a new call to national unity. I was impressed, then, too. In his case, however, Bush soon not only squandered that leadership, but indeed politicized it for partisan gain.
One has to wonder whether Boehner can and will sustain his new statesmanship, or let it, too, go the way of Bush’s.
The speaker could show some tangible sign he not only is talking the talk, but also walking the walk. He could do this, for instance, by embracing Rep. Robert Brady’s legislation that would make it a federal crime to use language and imagery that threatens or incites violence against members of Congress or other federal officials.
No one is realistically expecting Boehner to just drop his conservative agenda as a result of the Arizona shooting. The question, though, is whether over time, he and his Republican members use respectful rhetoric to advance that agenda, or—once the immediacy of the Arizona murders is past—they forget the need for civil debate.
It’s a point Bill Clinton alluded to last year, speaking on the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, an earlier example of domestic terrorism.
“But what we learned from Oklahoma City is not that we should gag each other or that we should reduce our passion for the positions we hold, but that the words we use really do matter because there are – there’s this vast echo chamber. And they go across space and they fall on the serious and the delirious, alike; they fall on the connected and the unhinged, alike. And I am not trying to muzzle anybody,” the former president says. “But one of the things that the conservatives have always brought to the table in America is a reminder that no law can replace personal responsibility. And the more power you have, and the more influence you have, the more responsibility you have.”
Mr. Speaker, you’ve certainly lived up to your responsibility in the few days since Gabrielle Giffords was nearly assassinated. Will you continue to do so?
We Democrats often criticize Republicans for saying that they want President Obama to fail. When it comes to his leadership in the face of tragedy, this is one Democrat who wants Speaker Boehner to succeed.
Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade. Capitol Idea is his regular column from Washington. This article was first published as John Boehner’s 9/11 Moment on Blogcritics.