I’ll never forget the moment when my sense of professionalism as a journalist failed me most.
It was Jan. 25, 2012. I had raced to the corridor behind the back door of the House chamber to catch a glimpse of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona. A year had passed since a deranged lunatic fired a bullet into her brain and killed six others in a Tucson parking lot, and Giffords had just resigned her House seat.
Before the shooting, I’d spent a fair amount of time chatting with her in the halls of Congress, and we’d attended a black-tie dinner honoring female journalists together. She was someone I liked, both for her good nature and her surprisingly ribald sense of humor.
In the year since the shooting, I had felt heartbroken by what had been taken from her, and deeply moved by both her resilience and the work her staff and fellow lawmakers, most notably now-Sen. Jeff Flake, had done to ensure her constituents were represented in the House.
As she made her way for the exit, I’d gone down to the second floor of the Capitol because I wanted something to remember her by. I figured I’d take a picture with my phone as she shuffled away. But rather than walking past me, she angled in my direction and reached out to put her arms around me. “Baby, baby, baby,” she said — someone had told her I’d had a son since the last time we had talked, before the shooting. “Good friend,” she continued. I hugged her back lightly, concerned both about knocking her over and about the optics of embracing someone I covered.
When she was gone, I paced quickly back down the hallway toward John Bresnahan, a colleague at Politico, where I worked then. As tears filled my eyes, I remember saying, “I’m going to f—ing lose my s—, Bres.” I didn’t want anyone to see me. I tried to hide behind him, even though I’m a little taller and much wider. On one level, I didn’t want anyone to see me failing to have the detachment of a seasoned reporter. On another, I just wanted to hide from the brutal reality of what had happened to a congresswoman whose vitality could light up any room and who made friends with just about everyone she met, regardless of ideology or party affiliation.
While the failed assassin’s ravings defied any political categorization, the massacre had taken place on the heels of a charged election year in which constituents had angrily confronted lawmakers at town hall meetings — an environment similar to what we’ve seen both in the run up to the 2016 election and in its wake.
It was impossible not to be reminded of that moment with Gabby outside the House chamber Wednesday, after a gunman opened fire on Republicans practicing for the annual Congressional Baseball Game, one of the last vestiges of bipartisanship and comity remaining in Washington.
I don’t know Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., as well as I know Gabby — nor do I know the others who were shot — but I’ve had the pleasure of talking to him in Capitol corridors and always found him to be gracious. I’ve felt the protection of a Capitol Police force that has the next-to-impossible job of maintaining security for elected officials without creating a wall between them and the journalists and constituents who rightfully want access to them.
That’s why I was heartened by something President Trump said today: “We may have our differences, but we do well, in times like these, to remember that everyone who serves in our nation’s capital is here because, above all, they love our country.”
Sadly, the country has already gotten back to partisan finger-pointing about guns and whether the left or right is more responsible for the acts of madmen.
Far too often, it is the politicians themselves who, for their own political benefit, stoke fear, anger and, from those who can’t tell the difference between rhetoric and calls to arms, violence.
I am not optimistic that Wednesday’s shooting will lead to better policymaking. If Gabby’s experience has taught us anything, it’s that when their own are targeted for assassination, members of Congress are more apt to cling to their ideological beliefs than to abandon them in favor consensus solutions. I’m not even confident that lawmaking would really prevent assassination attempts.
However, I am hopeful that President Trump’s message will be heard not just by the general public but by elected officials. They can make a difference by toning down their rhetoric, by acknowledging that their differences end at the edge of civilized debate, and by denouncing even the suggestion that any form of violence is tolerable in our political system.
Two shootings of members of Congress in less than seven years is two too many.
Roll Call columnist Jonathan Allen is a co-author of “Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign” and has covered Congress, the White House and elections over the past 16 years.
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