Adam Goodman: Elijah Cummings is what conscience looks like

The Maryland Democrat rose above the muck to set an example in the House Oversight Committee’s hearing with Michel Cohen.
Published March 8

Times correspondent

If you listened closely you could hear it, rattling off the rafters of a congressional hearing room congested with charlatans and powered by pontificators.

As Michael “The Fixed” Cohen auditioned for seven-figure book and movie deals conveniently wrapped in the ruse of redemption, many of us were attracted by something else, by a melody we hadn’t heard in a long time in the nation’s capitol.

The sweet sound of conscience.

Many might consider Rep. Elijah Cummings, the 23-year veteran who heads the House Oversight Committee, to be too old school, unable to keep up with the rigors of a 24/7 world (and a 24/7 tweeting president).

Yet despite being hobbled by a bad knee and a weakened heart, there was nothing weak about the Maryland Democrat’s resolve.

As if warming to the title bouts this investigative arm of Congress must now confront, Cummings turned into a world class sprinter, running laps around the talking-head partisans who only know how to feign support or fuel rage. Deft and deliberate, he appealed to all of us to seek higher ground, that mythical place we so often say we want but so regularly refuse to embrace.

I found Cohen’s performance repugnant. Here was a con man calling an alleged con man a con man. His overly long, overly scripted broadside on the president was sanctimonious and illegitimate. His constant refrain about shame was rich, coming from a thug who not only threatened people for a living but gloried in it.

Remember, Cohen cheated on his taxes and lied to Congress. He wore wires into meetings with clients paying for his counsel. And when confronted with his documented thirst to get a White House post he was denied, Cohen lied again. He does that so well.

Then came the chorus of partisan punishers, each with their mission clear.

For Republicans, it was to muddy the messenger, for which there is ample and compelling evidence. Yet they did little to advance the search for truth.

For Democrats, it was to prop up this tempestuous bully with syrupy statements about redemption. Others, like that intolerant lecturer from Michigan, used her time to broadside a well-respected member of the opposition with charges of racism. Shameful.

Yet amid the muck, a star was re-born. As a Baltimorean, I’ve long followed Cummings’ career. The son of sharecroppers; the voice for the disadvantaged and dispossessed; the pillar of decency who had not been numbed by bigotry but moved by the belief the nation could overcome it.

Cummings reminded all of us what we had to do, what we were responsible to do, when democracy is threatened. Lose the lawyer-driven drivel and tell the truth, no holds barred. Less sanctimony, more testimony. Then let the American people decide what to do about it.

Let’s be clear about what this was not. Cummings’ was not a liberal libretto from a liberal politician intent on harming to the other side. His was not some calculated performance to drive ratings and incite rantings, or to elevate his stature.

No, Elijah Cummings was coming from a different place. He opened by going right after Cohen, saying any more lies and he would throw open the gates of hell against the transgressor. Given his biblical namesake, a prophet and miracle worker, the congregation was well-advised to heed this.

Then Cummings spoke like a real person dealing with a real issue with openness and candor. Maybe, just maybe, Mr. Cohen – despite his half-truths and full-on lies -- would nevertheless lead us closer to the truth. Maybe, just maybe, Mr. Cohen wanted to repent, in a nation now pushing second chances for offenders.

This day, from the bully pulpit, Cummings spoke to all of us. “I’ve listened to all of this, and it’s very painful. We’re better than this…we’re so much better than this. The greatest gift Mr. President, that you and I can give our children, is to leave them a democracy that is intact, better than the one that we came upon...so they can do better than what we did.”

This is what conscience sounds like.

This is what America can be like.

Sing it, Elijah.

For all of us.

Adam Goodman is a national Republican media consultant based in St. Petersburg and the first Edward R. Murrow Fellow at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

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