Opinion

Long arc of history guides John Lewis in his call for impeachment inquiry

A man who’s been beaten, bullied and jailed would know a thing or two about justice

Rep. John Lewis, left, here with, from right, Reps. John Yarmuth, Conor Lamb and Anthony G. Brown, announced his support for an impeachment inquiry Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

OPINION — No one can accuse Rep. John Lewis of lacking patience. The Georgia Democrat showed plenty, as well as steely resolve, as he changed millions of minds — and history — over a life spent working for equal rights for all. So when he speaks, especially about justice, a cause from which he has never wavered, all would do well to listen.

Lewis was not the only voice raised this week, as all sides raced to place a political frame on the narrative of the undisputed fact that a U.S. president asked a foreign leader to work with him and for him to smear a political opponent, perhaps with military aid in the balance. “I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it,” President Donald Trump said, according to a transcript of the conversation based on notes. He also wanted to rope in his personal lawyer and the attorney general, who, by the way, works for the American people, not Trump.

No direct quid pro quo but plenty of bread crumbs leading to the conclusion that a country dependent on funds to deal with, among other things, an extremely aggressive Russian neighbor, better pay attention.

Still, many Republicans raced to say, “Nothing to see or hear here,” as their Democratic colleagues pointed to the words as damning evidence of something, though exactly what, they hope an impeachment inquiry will make clear. The White House, definitely not concerned with doing the people’s work, has threatened to shut down the legislative process altogether.

Searching for leaders

It became difficult to find leaders in the scrum either searching for or scooting away from the camera’s glare, though in a rare bit of bipartisanship, the Senate voted unanimously to favor a nonbinding resolution calling for a whistleblower complaint involving Trump to be turned over to congressional intelligence committees

North Carolina GOP Sen. Thom Tillis, running close to Trump in what looks to be a tight reelection next year, quickly issued a statement that read in part: “Nancy Pelosi should be embarrassed. The transcript debunks the Democrats’ false claims against President Trump and demonstrates that their call to impeach him is a total farce.”

On the other hand, Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, the man Trump considers a 2012 “loser,” in what in 2019 passes for a profile in GOP courage, said Wednesday: “It remains troubling in the extreme. It’s deeply troubling.”

In a speech signaling her symbolic, significant shift toward favoring an impeachment inquiry, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that Trump’s actions “have seriously violated the Constitution.”

“The president must be held accountable. No one is above the law,” she said. 

Like Pelosi, Lewis was also slow to express his support for an inquiry.

“People approach me everywhere I go, whether I’m traveling back and forth to Atlanta or around our country, they believe, they truly believe that our nation is descending into darkness,” he said on the House floor Tuesday “The people have a right to inquire. … The people have a right to know whether they can put their faith and trust in the outcome of our election.”

Based in his own Georgia, another leader is waging a fight for fair elections, rousing interest in a system that voters are tempted to doubt or give up on altogether because gerrymandering, restrictions and voter suppression or election fraud, which recently roiled a House race in North Carolina, all seem lined up against them.

With her organization Fair Fight, Democrat Stacey Abrams is advocating fair and secure elections in Georgia and across the country after she narrowly lost her own gubernatorial race in the state to Republican Brian Kemp, the man in charge of the election process. Abrams spent her Tuesday, National Voter Registration Day, at voter registration events in Georgia, standing up for the rule of law and up to those who hope confusion spawns apathy in another way.

Finding relevance

When folks start a sentence with “Imagine if Obama did …” followed by the latest outrage from the Trump White House, it starts to get tiresome, I admit. But after hearing and seeing Republicans on the latest laughable Trump apology tour, some of Lewis’ words seem particularly relevant.

“The people of this nation realize that if they had committed even a half of the possible violations, the federal government would be swift to seek justice,” he said.

Imagine if President Barack Obama, unsure of his reelection chances in 2012, dialed a foreign leader — one dependent on U.S. aid to protect itself from a hostile neighbor — asking for the “favor” of digging up or manufacturing dirt on Romney, bragged about the tactic, and sent his version of henchman/lawyer Rudy Giuliani to defiantly defend him on every television show and street corner.

Does anyone doubt the White House-to-prison pipeline would be televised, starting with a perp walk of the first African American president of the United States in handcuffs across the South Lawn?

In Lewis’ words, more a weary sermon than political speech, one heard concern for the everyday American who struggles without the protection of wealth or privilege, who knows that breaking or just bending the rules would not end well. And one hears concern for the whistleblower and those who will follow, people protected by the system — since the country’s first whistleblower statute in 1778 — but vulnerable when they step up.

Lewis led with caution Tuesday when he explained his change of mind. “I have been patient while we tried every other path, and used every other tool,” he said. “We will never find the truth unless we use the power given to the House of Representatives, and the House alone, to begin an official investigation as dictated by the Constitution.”

Leave it to someone who had been beaten, bullied and jailed under the cover of rule of law to view the long arc of history and to return to those documents that provide a path when leaders adhere to them.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.