Commentary: Will we come through?

Keith C. Burris, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Political News

What have we learned?

—After two presidential impeachments in the space of a year and two months?

—After another close and divisive election during a global pandemic, and an electoral aftermath like no other. The incumbent president created and propagated an enormous lie — that the election was stolen. The lie was believed by millions. And then the president himself tried to steal the election.

—What have we learned after watching our beloved Capitol, cathedral of liberty, be stormed and desecrated?

—After seven people died and 140 were injured in that siege?

—What have we learned after the second, riveting and painful, impeachment trial?

What have we learned?

Well, first, we learned, again, sadly, that we are two countries — inhabiting two self-contained realities.

There is an invisible wall between them.

Almost no one crosses back and forth.

And both believe the other to be the aggressor in the cold, and sometimes hot, war between them.

In the shadow of the Vietnam War (1972), the great political philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote a book called "Crisis of the Republic." It dealt with three manifestations of the legitimate political system breaking down — civil disobedience, lying in politics and violence as a response to broken politics, or what she considered to be the absence of true politics.

We have been in that crisis for the past four years.


Vietnam seemed to rend us in two. A "little" war that we were supposed to win handily (we would see more of those), had gone terribly wrong. A party's presidential nominating convention turned into police rioting and chaos in the streets (in 1968). Prophets were assassinated (also '68). And then a "law and order" president was elected whose own disrespect for law brought him to the brink of impeachment — "Watergate."

To many of us, from about 1966 to 1976, it felt as if the country were two countries, and the two hated each other.

Cops were called pigs, and spat upon. Soldiers too. They left their uniforms at home if they wanted to walk the streets of Washington, D.C.

Peaceful protesters, also, were threatened and spat upon and called filthy hippies who deserved to die protesting (George Wallace).

In my little Ohio hometown, I went to Sunday school on the weekend after the killing of four students at Kent State University, and the godly man who taught the class told us, "They should have shot more of them." That would put an end to it, he said. It being the right to assemble and speak and protest.

I told my mother, who ran the program, "I am not going back to that man's class." And I told her why. She agreed.

But we both knew that many of our fellow Ohioans, and Americans, felt precisely that way.

The 1960s weren't "cool." They were violent and polarized. Americans could not hear or see each other.

We knew it wasn't as bad as the Civil War and that the divisions were cultural and political, not geographic or, we hoped, foundational.

But the divide was great and bitter. And we wondered if the center could hold.

Today we wonder once more. And this time it is geographic, as well as foundational.

Do both countries believe in free speech, for all? Do both renounce violence, by all? Do we accept elections when the other America wins?

Our cultural divide is profound, and, again, with little common ground. People on the right are deeply suspicious of anything or anyone international or cosmopolitan. They are suspicious of science. They hate the same federal government they depend upon.

People on the woke left sneer at tradition, at love of country, and even at love of God.



The 1960s ended in 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected — chosen, in good ways and bad, to take us back.

In a way, the fever broke. In a way, the counterculture wore itself out. In a way, it became a commodity.

And Reagan, by sheer dint of charm and amiability, pulled the politics of the country center-right, while the universities went more and more left.

But the other thing that happened is that the system exerted its own grace. Our institutions held firm, and our politics righted itself.

One reason that happened was that a few politicians met the test. They were institutional men, most of them, trying to defend the institutions and the norms of the republic.

Eugene J. McCarthy took the Vietnam War to the people because, he said, the Senate had failed in its duty and needed to be reattached to our founding document.

Walter Lippmann wrote: "The mission of Sen. McCarthy is to do whatever a gifted and honest man can do to stop the rot in the American political system."

Jerry Ford, a decent and grounded man, a man of the U.S. House, the people's house, became president. And he acknowledged the elephant in the room when he said of Nixon and Watergate, "our long national nightmare is over." He gave us decency and dignity in the presidency again. He restored the presidency.

We need those qualities in a president, it's clear. We want our president to be decent, and to be able to call decency out of us.

Whatever other capabilities he had, Donald Trump could not do that.

My prayer for President Joe Biden is that he not get too bogged down in demands for change. Be Ike, Mr. President. Be Ford. Be Jimmy Carter. Give us decency and dignity and let the country breathe.


What feels different about now is that after "Vietnam/Watergate," we felt we'd come through.

We had the feeling that we had been through a national trauma, we'd been tested, our system had been tested, and we'd come through.

We'd had a long and difficult national civics lesson and had found a few, new true leaders, and we were wiser and stronger for it.

Sam Ervin defended the Constitution. Hannah Arendt's friend, Mary McCarthy, a cold-eyed novelist and public intellectual of the left, wrote a series of reports for The New Yorker on the "simple country lawyer" from North Carolina. Ervin taught the nation that presidents are not kings and that we are a nation of laws and not men.

We are unusually lucky in America, in that, during a crisis of the republic, we usually find the right person for the moment: Lincoln and FDR being the greatest examples, but McCarthy, Ford and Ervin being others.

Of course, the nation did not see any of them that way in their own time.

But does anyone, now, feel that our long national nightmare is ending?

Our institutions seem, quite literally, battered.

Well, maybe there is more hope than we think.

Maybe the fever is breaking and we just don't see it yet.

In weeks, President Biden has restored efficacy and competence to the executive branch. He works at being decent and dignified. He is attempting to restore the presidency.

Mike Pence, under threat of political extinction, not to mention actual death, did his duty. My daughter once shrieked when I called him a good man. But, yes, he is.

And what is Rep. Jamie Raskin, the lead House impeachment manager, but an honest man trying to stop the rot?

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