The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The fleeting moment of decency in Washington over Elijah Cummings

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.)at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 4. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

A measure of the singular qualities that Elijah E. Cummings brought to public service was the fact that something astonishing happened when Washington got word Thursday morning that the Democratic congressman from Baltimore had died. Decency broke out.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer summed up how pretty much everyone felt when he went to the House chamber and said of his fellow Marylander: “In a time of confrontation and disagreement and anger and, yes, sometimes hate, he was a beacon of civility, of fairness, of justice.”

But some notably moving tributes also came from those with whom Cummings had fought most fiercely in his role as the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Reform Committee, a panel at the flash point for many of the Capitol’s most contentious and politically charged battles.

“Elijah Cummings was one of the most powerful, beautiful & compelling voices in American politics. The power and the beauty came from his authenticity, his conviction, the sincerity with which he held his beliefs,” tweeted former South Carolina congressman Trey Gowdy (R).

Cummings and Gowdy were the chief combatants in a Republican drive to drag down Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton with a two-year investigation of her handling of the deadly 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, which occurred on her watch as secretary of state. The episode was one of countless in which Cummings delivered his sonorous admonition: “We are better than this.”

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It was just a few months back that President Trump attacked Cummings as a “brutal bully,” whose congressional district was “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” where “no human being would want to live.” Trump sneered when Cummings’s house was robbed.

But even Trump briefly interrupted his raging about the House impeachment inquiry to sound an uncharacteristically graceful note on his Twitter feed about the tenacious character of a man who would have been a key figure in that investigation: “I got to see first hand the strength, passion and wisdom of this highly respected political leader. His work and voice on so many fronts will be very hard, if not impossible, to replace!”

Undergirding that strength and passion and wisdom was a faith in human potential, which came from Cummings’s own life story. The son of onetime sharecroppers, he had been told by an elementary school counselor that he was too slow and inarticulate to ever live his dream of being a lawyer. Others, however, saw his potential and encouraged the drive that propelled Cummings from the special-education classes of his early years to Howard University, where he was Phi Beta Kappa.

As ranking member and then chairman of the oversight committee, Cummings was known for leaving rancor behind in the hearing room. When he and his aides prepared for hearings, Cummings would say he wanted to open with an “I believe” statement, something that would remind everyone that there were principles on which they agreed.

He was known for unfailing consideration and sensitivity, not just for other members but also for their staffs, regardless of political party. When Kurt Bardella, chief spokesman for then-chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), was fired in 2011 for mishandling emails from reporters, Cummings sought out and comforted the humiliated young aide who had been working against him on nearly every issue.

“There was such a respect, no matter where you sat on the aisle, for Cummings, because he was a fundamentally decent guy, and a fair guy,” Bardella told me.

During a hearing early this year, Cummings calmed tempers when Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) accused fellow committee member Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) of stationing an African American Trump administration official to stand behind him as “a prop.”

Cummings asked Tlaib to clarify whether she was calling Meadows a racist — she said she wasn’t — and told Meadows, one of the House’s most conservative members, “You are one of my best friends . . . and I can see and I feel your pain . . . and I don’t think Ms. Tlaib intended to cause you that kind of pain.” Later, Meadows sought out Tlaib, thanked her for being gracious, and the two shared a hug.

Sure, moments like that are fleeting, and growing rarer.

Just minutes after Trump’s tweet offering condolences to Cummings’s family and friends, the president began firing off a new series ranting about a “witch hunt.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) held a news conference in which she struggled with her emotion as she recalled her fellow Baltimore native who had “lived the American Dream and he wanted it for everyone else.” But the topic quickly turned to impeachment and Trump’s “meltdown” during a White House meeting with congressional leaders the day before.

All of which suggested that Cummings didn’t really have it right. We aren’t better than this.

But if we hold close the example he set, there is always the possibility that we could be.

Read more:

Joe Scarborough: Elijah Cummings did more than serve Baltimore. He gave hope to the hopeless.

Donna F. Edwards: Elijah Cummings was a giant among legislators

The Post’s View: As long as he had breath, Elijah Cummings spoke out

Colbert I. King: Elijah Cummings was the keeper of the nation’s conscience

Gillian Brockell: A white mob attacked Elijah Cummings for integrating a swimming pool. He was 11.

‘A giant of integrity and knowledge has fallen’: Washington reacts to the death of Rep. Elijah Cummings