Cry, the beloved country.

There have been multiple American moments of great drama since World War II. Movements to extend rights to minorities, women, the disabled and gays. Assassinations, terrorist attacks and anti-war protests. Scandals, impeachments and an election that went into 36 days of overtime.

But not once — not even when Soviet missiles were being installed 90 miles from American shores more than a half-century ago — have the democratic values that the Book of Matthew described as “the light of the world” been in jeopardy.

Not once, until this month.

The violence against Black protesters during the civil rights movement made continued legal segregation unacceptable. The murder of John F. Kennedy was followed only hours later by a president who was determined to work to achieve the goals of the martyred leader. The Watergate scandal was followed by the ascendancy of an unelected president, Gerald Ford, who asked the public to confirm him not by their votes but by their prayers.

Not for a moment — not even during the Richard Nixon-era controversies — was there a physical assault on the institutions of democracy. Not once was a vice president prompted to say from the rostrum of a Senate chamber that hours earlier had been a crime scene, as Mike Pence put it, “The people’s work continues.”

The siege of the Capitol was a stain on the country, undermining its moral authority abroad, raising questions at home about the “domestic tranquility” cited in the preamble of the Constitution. It provided an angry bookend to the beginning of the Donald J. Trump presidency, when the 45th president spoke of “American carnage.”

There were sad ironies in every corner of the capital and country.

Incited by the leader of the world’s greatest democracy, the marchers stormed up a boulevard called Constitution Avenue. A rioter raced through the Capitol with the flag of the Confederacy, which was a domestic rebellion against the Union. A leader who portrayed himself as an avatar of law and order prompted the breaking of the law and violent disorder.

Duly elected representatives of the people were told to hide under their desks — the very advice schoolchildren during the chilliest days of the Cold War were given to save themselves in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack.

Then there was the irony that the sanctity of elections, and the sterility of the vice-presidential role, had been sealed in history by the unlikely figure of Vice President Nixon, who was defeated by John F. Kennedy. From the Senate rostrum, Nixon acknowledged the Kennedy victory, said the Electoral College verdict provided an “eloquent example of the stability of our constitutional system” and spoke of American’s tradition of “respecting and honoring institutions of self-government.”

But of all the ironies of a date of infamy, this may be the greatest:

Lawmakers who for years could not bring themselves to work together, have lunch together, play Capitol gymnasium basketball together, instead huddled together in disbelief and in fear. Then they gathered together to confirm the election of Joseph R. Biden Jr. as the next president.

Immediately a debate broke out about the causes of the divisions that prompted the transformation of the pro-Trump demonstration into a riot. The very targets of the Capitol violence have themselves been unable to breach those divisions.

“Neither party has been able to change that dynamic regardless of the identity of the candidates,” said Stephen Farnsworth, political scientist at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia. “In the past when we have had these kinds of moments, one party or another has been able to break out of the deadlock. We haven’t seen that in the last 20 years. Both parties think they can win each time around.”

Today the name Fisher Ames (1758-1808) is largely forgotten. He was a Massachusetts congressman and a leading voice of the Federalist Party. Two weeks after the Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated following his defeat of the Federalist John Adams, Ames wrote this to Theodore Dwight, a leading Federalist who was the brother of a Yale president, the grandson of Jonathan Edwards and a cousin of Aaron Burr, the newly installed vice president:

“Party is an association of honest men, for honest purposes, and, when the State falls into bad hands, is the only efficient defence; a champion who never flinches, a watchman who never sleeps ... It would be wrong to assail the new administration with invective. Even when bad measures occur, much temperance will be requisite. To encourage Mr. Jefferson to act right, and to aid him against his violent jacobin adherents, we must make it manifest that we act on principle.”

The day before I was born, a group of Puerto Rican nationalists entered the House visitors’ gallery, chanted “Viva Puerto Rico libre!” and opened fire, wounding five House members. Like so many of my generation — and especially those of us in the news media — I have a collection of newspaper front pages, especially the one from my birthdate. For two thirds of a century I have kept a replica of the cover of that New York Herald-Tribune newspaper, and when I became a congressional correspondent many years ago, I never forgot what happened in the chamber I covered.

Cry, the beloved country.

© 2021 David Shribman

Distributed by Andrews McMeel Syndication

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