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Arizona shooting inspires the best of politics

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House Speaker John Boehner opened a session of the House by honoring victims of Saturday's shooting in Arizona, saying "our hearts are broken, but our spirit is not." (Jan. 12)

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Wednesday, January 12, 2011; 8:36 PM

On Saturday, one member of Congress took a bullet to the head - and 434 of her colleagues stared into the abyss.

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On Wednesday, chastened lawmakers returned to the Capitol vowing to change their hostile ways.

There was virtually no finger-pointing at anybody other than the crazed man who killed six and wounded 20, including the assassin's target, Arizona Democrat Gabby Giffords. Yet there was also agreement that even if this tragedy wasn't directly caused by political speech, the leaders' overheated words are endangering the health of the republic -- and the lives of its legislators. Their grief was compounded by Giffords's role as a centrist lawmaker who worked to overcome the partisan bitterness.

And so, a day that was originally supposed to see a fiery clash over repealing the health-care law turned out to be the most uplifting day in Congress at least since the Sept. 11 attacks. Breaking only for a prayer service, the members spent eight hours exchanging vows to do better by each other.

Rep. Trent Franks, the Arizona Republican who not long ago called President Obama "an enemy of humanity," said the shooting "was a reminder to me of... just how important it really is for each of us to seize every moment and to speak kind and loving words to each other while we still can."

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), among the chamber's bomb throwers, said he decided that "we need to be respectful of the fact that people on the other side of major issues are as intelligent as we are and as moral as we are.... Let's be kinder to each other, and let's send that as a present, a get-well message, to Gabby."

Though the victim was from their side of the aisle, Democrats made no attempt to wave the bloody shirt, instead vowing, as minority whip Steny Hoyer put it, "to reflect on our own responsibility to temper our words and respect those with whom we disagree, lest the failure to do so give incitement to the angriest and most unstable among us."

Had it not been brought about by tragedy, the members' behavior would have seemed downright corny. They spoke of each other as family, as brothers and sisters. They crossed the aisle through the day to praise each others' tributes. For once, all but a few kept their BlackBerrys in their pockets and listened to the speeches. A few of them wept.

"She represents a beacon of hope, perhaps our last, best hope to restore civility to the important public debates of our day," Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) told her colleagues. "So the next time that a debate heats up and threatens to get ugly, let's remember our responsibilities as leaders.... Let's take a deep breath and agree to disagree agreeably. Let's do that for Gabby."

As it happened, the best and worst of American politics was on display Wednesday morning. The ugly side emerged a few hours before the debate in the form of a Facebook posting by Sarah Palin. Rather than soften her own excesses (in this case, the map showing bull's-eyes over Giffords' and other districts with accompanying instructions to "RELOAD") Palin defended her actions and inflamed the debate further by accusing her opponents of a "blood libel" - a reference to centuries of anti-Semitism.

Happily, the lawmakers did not fall for Palin's provocations. Speaker John Boehner, who distinguished himself with his original response to the shooting - "an attack on one who serves is an attack on all who serve" - began Wednesday's session with an admonition that "we gather here without distinction of party."

The notoriously weepy speaker, sitting alone in the front row of the chamber, wiped a tear from his eye as the clerk read the resolution and choked up as he spoke. But this time, he had company in his tears.


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