Pelosi, Democrats should take lasting lessons from the dinner that wasn’t

A party that aspires to a higher standard shouldn’t be playing by different rules during a pandemic

Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office should have anticipated how bad a celebratory indoor meal in the Capitol would look when Americans are being begged to forgo large Thanksgiving celebrations, Shapiro writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office should have anticipated how bad a celebratory indoor meal in the Capitol would look when Americans are being begged to forgo large Thanksgiving celebrations, Shapiro writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted November 17, 2020 at 6:00am

Let’s begin by anticipating the objections from House Democrats:

The dinner planned for Statuary Hall in the Capitol should never be confused with the “super spreader” events that have made an invitation to Donald Trump’s White House as risky as a sightseeing tour of Syria. As Nancy Pelosi’s office stressed, there would have been enhanced indoor ventilation and the arrangements had been approved by medical authorities.

Even more important, the sit-down dinner in honor of new Democratic House members was canceled at the last minute.

In a nation where the pandemic rages out of control and a defeated president spins outlandish conspiracy theories that undermine democracy, why should we care about this nonevent?

Because sometimes in politics small things can reveal larger patterns and problems.

It remains baffling why no one in Pelosi’s office anticipated the powerful symbolism of a celebratory indoor meal in the Capitol when American families are being begged to forgo Thanksgiving with their extended families.

Democrats should have noticed that Joe Biden won the presidency, in part, by presenting himself as an adult who believes in science, in contrast to Trump’s disdain for the health of anyone at his rallies or on his staff.

This was the worst moment for Pelosi and the House Democrats to send an ill-concealed and ill-conceived message to the voters: Congress plays by different rules than ordinary mortals.

Do as I say, not as I do

California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom made a similar mistake when he violated his own health recommendations by attending a 12-person outdoor dinner at French Laundry, a Napa Valley restaurant that may serve the best food in America.

After the San Francisco Chronicle highlighted Newsom’s dining misbehavior, the governor issued a statement that read like it had gone through 22 drafts. “While our family followed the restaurant’s health protocols and took safety precautions,” Newsom stated, “we should have modeled better behavior and not joined the dinner.”

I love Newsom’s buzz words: “modeled better behavior.” This is a pandemic — not “Project Runway.”

Why is it so hard for prominent Democrats to understand the stakes, as America girds for what may be the hardest winter of our lifetimes?

The way that Republicans are playing Russian roulette with the coronavirus defies rationality. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem brags that she will resist any Biden mask order even as her state’s hospitals are reeling from COVID-19 cases.

Somehow under Noem’s calculus, a protective piece of cloth is an affront to freedom but death and dire disease aren’t. It’s as if Nathan Hale said, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose to remain mask-less.”

In Missouri, according to The Kansas City Star, the state Senate was forced to shut down in the face of an outbreak of coronavirus cases. Last week, Republican legislators — most of whom were photographed mingling without masks — attended an indoor retreat near Branson.

Democrats, in contrast, aspire to a higher standard. Which is why everyone in the party from Biden on down should behave as if all Americans are in this together.

Sharing the burden

“We Do Our Part” was the slogan of the National Recovery Administration, or NRA, established by Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 to battle the Depression. It was also chosen as the title of a 2017 memoir by Charles Peters, my editor starting out at the Washington Monthly and one of the most influential figures in the last half-century of journalism.

Discussing the power of shared sacrifice, Peters wrote, “That attitude led millions to march during the winter of 1933-34 in support of the NRA, and millions more to collect scrap metal, buy war bonds, and share the burden of military service during World War II.”

It was not easy to muster national unity in the face of first the Depression and then World War II.

Back then, Americans could live in their own news silos, as most major cities boasted newspapers to fit any political point of view. The radio waves were filled with anti-Semitic hatemongers like Father Charles Coughlin. Instead of neo-Nazis, there were real Nazis as the German American Bund filled Madison Square Garden in 1939 for a pro-Hitler rally.

The terrors in that era were alarming. But there was also a sense of patriotism that went far deeper than the ritualistic wearing of American flag pins.

The other day, I watched for the first time Frank Capra’s 1941 classic film, “Meet John Doe,” starring Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper. The movie, at times cynical and at times inspirational, was an ode to the ordinary people — the John Does, if you will — who made America great.

In a key scene, Cooper, an injured minor league ball player, earnestly declares, “You can’t be a stranger to any guy that’s on your own team. So tear down the fence that separates you. Tear down the fence and you’ll tear down a lot of hates and prejudices.”

Yes, it was mawkish. And I’m not denying the prejudices in 1941 towards Blacks and the limited opportunities for women until — suddenly — they were needed in the workforce during the war.

But I refuse to accept the fatalistic view that the nation is currently helpless in the face of the pandemic. That somehow Trump, Fox News and distrust of scientists have made us collectively unable to take simple steps to safeguard public health and save lives.

But part of the way forward is setting the right example. Which is why I hope that Democrats — both in Congress and the soon-to-be Biden administration — have learned a lasting lesson from the seated Statuary Hall dinner that wasn’t.

Walter Shapiro has covered the last 11 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.