There are moments when the U.S. Capitol feels like a sanctified space, a holy temple dedicated to ideals that transcend the partisan squabbles of the politicians who work there. The enormous paintings that tell the story of America, normally like wallpaper to those who work in the building, demand attention as if they are being seen for the first time. The marble likenesses of great men — and too few great women — seem to come alive.
Thursday was such an occasion, as the body of Elijah E. Cummings, the Maryland congressman who died last week at 68, lay in state in one of the Capitol’s grandest spaces, Statuary Hall. There was a sense of great sadness and loss but also an even more powerful sense of history and purpose.
Cummings was the first African American lawmaker to be accorded the honor of lying in state at the Capitol. That his casket was positioned not far from a statue of a seated Rosa Parks would have made him smile.
Something Cummings once said seemed to echo in the soaring room: “When we’re dancing with the angels, the question we’ll be asked: In 2019, what did we do to make sure we kept our democracy intact?”
Cummings was able to give an answer he could be proud of. What about me? What about you?
He was the son of sharecroppers who left South Carolina to seek a better life in the big city of Baltimore. When he was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, Jim Crow segregation was still very much alive. Angry whites threw rocks and bottles at him when, at age 11, he helped integrate a previously whites-only swimming pool. He attended Howard University, where he was president of the student government, and graduated in 1973. A friend of mine who was his classmate told me it was obvious even then that Cummings was on a mission to make a difference in people’s lives.
He got his law degree from the University of Maryland, went into private practice, served in the Maryland House of Delegates and was elected to Congress in 1996. At his death, he was the powerful chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee. But the reason he was so influential, and will be so sorely missed, has less to do with his title than with his integrity and humanity. In floor debates and committee hearings, he fought his corner fiercely. But I don’t know any member of Congress, on either side of the aisle, who did not respect and admire him.
A roster of the great and the good came to the Capitol on Thursday to pay their respects. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Cummings “our North Star.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell spoke of Cummings’s love for Baltimore. Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, an ideological foe, teared up when he spoke of Cummings as a personal friend. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said “his voice could shake mountains, stir the most cynical heart.”
The scene was a sharp contrast with what had happened one day earlier and two floors below. The House Intelligence Committee was scheduled to take a deposition from a Pentagon official as part of the impeachment inquiry into President Trump’s conduct. The closed-door session was to take place in a basement room designed to be secure from electronic surveillance. Before the deposition could get started, more than two dozen members of Congress — including some of Trump’s staunchest and most vocal defenders — made a clown show of barging into the room, ostensibly to protest that the deposition was not being taken in an open session.
Some of those who participated in the sit-in had the right to attend the hearing anyway; some didn’t. But the protest had nothing to do with substance. The point was to stage a noisy, made-for-television stunt in Trump’s defense that could divert attention, if only for a day, from the facts of the case. The interlopers ordered pizza and brought in Chick-fil-A. Some took their cellphones into the secure room, which is very much against the rules.
I have deliberately not mentioned anyone’s party affiliation, because the contrast I see between the juvenile behavior in the basement and the Cummings ceremony in Statuary Hall is more fundamental. It is between foolishness and seriousness, between nonsense and meaning, between trying to win the news cycle and trying to serve the nation.
Cummings knew the difference. We have lost a great man. The angels must be lining up to dance with him.