The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Eugene Goodman should be Time’s Person of the Year

U.S. Capitol Police officer Eugene Goodman pays his respects to U.S. Capitol Police officer William "Billy" Evans at the U.S. Capitol on April 13. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Time magazine was dead wrong. The magazine’s choice as Person of the Year should have been Eugene Goodman, the U.S. Capitol Police officer who stood alone against an angry mob during the Jan. 6 insurrection and taunted rioters into following him away from the Senate chamber.

Bazillionaire Elon Musk, who gazes somewhat spookily from the magazine’s cover, could justifiably be lauded as Twitter Troll of the Year. But Goodman — representing all the law enforcement officers who defended the Capitol on that bloody day — helped save our democracy. He stood firm against an unprecedented attempt to violently overturn the result of the 2020 election and keep Donald Trump, the big loser, in power.

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe bravery in service of one’s country is more worthy of thanks and praise than snarkiness in service of one’s preening ego.

The House select committee investigating the insurrection has done a good job this week in putting the events of Jan. 6 back in the headlines, where they belong. Thanks to the committee, we now know that at least three Fox News anchors — Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity and Brian Kilmeade — were apparently as horrified as the rest of us when they saw the mob invading the Capitol. They sent text messages to Mark Meadows, then the White House chief of staff, begging him to get Trump to make a public statement telling the rioters to go home.

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Shock and horror diminish with time. Trauma fades. After the insurrection, the 24/7 news cycle moved on to the initiatives of President Biden’s fledgling administration, the vicissitudes of the covid-19 pandemic, the tumultuous U.S. exit from Afghanistan, the triumphs and travails of the Democrats’ slim majorities in Congress, and the death and destruction wreaked by extreme weather events that are being exacerbated by climate change.

Still, even with all of that, the biggest and most consequential news event of the year took place on Jan. 6. For the first time in our nation’s history, an organized rabble — egged on by a defeated incumbent and some of his Republican allies — overran the U.S. Capitol seeking to prevent Congress and the outgoing vice president from doing their constitutional duty and counting the electoral votes that certified Biden as the legitimately elected president.

And the mob succeeded, at least for several hours. In the process, the insurrectionists injured scores of police officers and trashed the hallowed building revered as the citadel of our democracy. Chanting “Hang Mike Pence,” they threatened the sitting vice president’s life. They bashed police officers with poles bearing the American flag. They carried the Confederate battle flag through the Capitol rotunda. They despoiled the building with their urine and feces.

Police trying to defend the Capitol were hopelessly outnumbered as the rioters smashed their way inside. For the first time, the most important act in our democracy — the peaceful transfer of power — hung in the balance.

Goodman, a veteran officer with the U.S. Capitol Police, saw a mob ascending a staircase toward an entrance to the Senate chamber where senators were sheltering; Pence had been hustled out only minutes earlier. Goodman coolly drew the rioters’ attention, inviting them to focus their rage on him, as he led them away from the chamber. I have no doubt that by risking his own life, he potentially saved the lives of those senators hunkered down just yards away.

At another point, Goodman encountered Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who was unknowingly walking toward the danger zone. Goodman turned Romney around and sent him toward relative safety.

Goodman was quick and clever enough to avoid injury. Many other officers of the U.S. Capitol Police and D.C. police were not so fortunate as they engaged the rioters in what was described as desperate, almost medieval hand-to-hand combat.

Pence, to his credit, refused to leave the building — he was hidden in the subterranean bowels of the Capitol complex. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) insisted that Congress reconvene to do its duty as soon as the building was cleared and secured. The electoral count was finished in the predawn hours of Jan. 7. Our democracy survived.

This actually happened. A brownshirt-style attempted putsch took place in the capital of the nation that thinks of itself as a beacon of democracy. How was such a rupture possible? Yes, Trump lit the fuse. But the dynamite was already there, ready to explode.

The police officers who protected the Capitol and our elected representatives on Jan. 6 were indeed a thin blue line between democracy and authoritarianism. History should remember Eugene Goodman, representing all of those patriots, as 2021’s Person of the Year — long after Musk and Twitter fade into footnotes.