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John Boehner’s 9/11 Moment

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This surely is not how Republican John Boehner expected to launch his new speakership, or open the new 112th Congress.

He planned to follow the pomp of the first week with a big, partisan vote Wednesday to repeal last year’s landmark healthcare reform law.

But then Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was gunned down on Saturday in a parking lot in her Tucson, Arizona district, and everything changed.

That repeal vote was put on hold, as was the rest of the legislative business planned this week in the House of Representatives.

Just as immediately, Speaker Boehner began addressing the crisis.

Not only did he condemn the attack, he did so with words of solidarity—almost of family—in declaring, “An attack on one who serves is an attack on all who serve. Acts and threats of violence against public officials have no place in our society.”

He followed that eloquent, if pro forma, statement in a way that demonstrated true leadership with a bipartisan conference call on Sunday with lawmakers in which he not only offered further unifying oratory, but also began taking concrete steps toward protecting other members and their staffs.

In sum, Boehner has elevated himself to statesman status.

I say that as a committed Democrat, and one who is not naturally inclined to support Boehner. But I cannot help but be impressed.

On the other hand, I also can’t help but recall a certain other partisan Republican unexpected called upon to demonstrate extraordinary leadership in a time of national tragedy: George W. Bush, following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

After that horrible day, Bush sounded a new call to national unity. I was impressed, then, too. In his case, however, Bush soon not only squandered that leadership, but indeed politicized it for partisan gain.

One has to wonder whether Boehner can and will sustain his new statesmanship, or let it, too, go the way of Bush’s.

The speaker could show some tangible sign he not only is talking the talk, but also walking the walking. He could do this, for instance, by embracing Rep. Robert Brady’s legislation that would make it a federal crime to use language and imagery that threatens or incites violence against members of Congress or other federal officials.

No one is realistically expecting Boehner to just drop his conservative agenda as a result of the Arizona shooting. The question, though, is whether over time, he and his Republican members use respectful rhetoric to advance that agenda, or—once the immediacy of the Arizona murders is past—they forget the need for civil debate.

It’s a point Bill Clinton alluded to last year, speaking on the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, an earlier example of domestic terrorism.

“But what we learned from Oklahoma City is not that we should gag each other or that we should reduce our passion for the positions we hold, but that the words we use really do matter because there are – there’s this vast echo chamber. And they go across space and they fall on the serious and the delirious, alike; they fall on the connected and the unhinged, alike. And I am not trying to muzzle anybody,” the former president says. “But one of the things that the conservatives have always brought to the table in America is a reminder that no law can replace personal responsibility. And the more power you have, and the more influence you have, the more responsibility you have.”

Mr. Speaker, you’ve certainly lived up to your responsibility in the few days since Gabrielle Giffords was nearly assassinated. Will you continue to do so?

We Democrats often criticize Republicans for saying that they want President Obama to fail. When it comes to his leadership in the face of tragedy, this is one Democrat who wants Speaker Boehner to succeed.

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About Scott Nance

  • Randy Walles

    I think all these politicians are just play the words using some synonyms list. All they tell us is lie. Nothing else…

  • John Lake

    Leave it to a thick-headed and misdirected Congress to begin passing laws (which it states here, do not apply to them) to prevent circumstances that are unpreventable. Two days go by, they are altering Americans’ rights to free speech. They have worked hard and long these past days (consider Sarah Palins long speech) to focus the blame away from themselves.
    It goes without saying that a natural outcome of this shooting, and a better solution, would be for speakers to realize that someone somewhere, some confused individual, might actually think they mean what they say!

  • In a stunning example of poor judgment, politically and otherwise, Speaker Boehner chose to skip the AZ memorial and attend, instead, a partisan fundraiser. How quickly he worked to prove me wrong.

  • Boeke

    I object to “…a federal crime to use language and imagery that threatens or incites violence against members of Congress or other federal officials.” because it just gives another special privilege to people who are already over-privileged, whether because of their opportunities to enrich themselves, Cadillac healthcare and pension plans, etc.

    This law would do nothing for the little girl who was killed, or her surviving family.

  • Costello

    Sounds like you aren’t very politically aware then. Look into some history books when you have the time. They can be quite illuminating

  • Zedd, It is true that I do not think at all highly of President Obama; indeed, I consider him the worst president since I became politically aware more than a few years ago.

    However, my focus in the comment was on the proposed legislation and its stupidity; as far as I know, President Obama had nothing to do with drafting or proposing it.

    In the unlikely event that it passes, it should include language somehow depriving members of Congress, the President and other high government officials who enjoy substantial immunity from prosecution for their words and deeds of that immunity from coverage by the proposed legislation. I don’t know whether that would be constitutional or otherwise possible, but since the proposed legislation would be unconstitutional on its face in any event it might be worth trying.


  • Clavos

    You’re right, Zedd, I don’t. Nor do I care. Even a cursory reading of Dan’s comment highlights the stupidity of yours.

  • Zedd


    I’m more than certain you don’t know why I think that that comment was beneath Dan.

  • Clavos

    Zedd @#8:


  • Zedd


    That comment was beneath you. Why do you let Obama do that to you? You repeatedly loose your cool points whenever you try to comment on your President and fellow alumnus.

  • Here is an article dealing with Mr. Brady’s proposed legislation. The legislation would apparently “make it a federal crime to use language or symbols that could be perceived [by a severely bipolar person?] as threatening or inciting violence against a federal official or member of Congress.” Here is a comment I posted concerning it:

    Members of the legislative and executive branches and many other government officials are generally immune to prosecution for offenses committed in the performance of their duties (such as making speeches in Congress), while traveling to and from the places where their respective official duties are performed and in various other circumstances.

    Although I am unaware of any case dealing with it, it seems likely that almost everything done by the President would enjoy the same immunity. Many of President Obama’s statements, cited in the article, could easily be “perceived as threatening or inciting violence against a federal official or member of Congress.” His targets have often included (or could easily be perceived as including) folks in those categories.

    Has the (doubtless) Honorable Mr. Brady sought to include in his bill an exemption from immunity for the President and those members of the Congress, etc. who violate it? That seems unlikely. However, it is probably not important because his bill is so incredibly subjective, vague and so obviously violative of the First Amendment that (a) it is highly unlikely to pass in the new House of Representatives and (b) should it pass any court would likely find that prosecution under it does not even pass the “laugh test.”

  • Arch Conservative

    “The man has issues.”

    Apparently he’s not the only one.

  • John Lake

    If I were to address Boehner, the temptation would be to begin, “You, Sir are no Bill Clinton!”
    This man doesn’t address issues; he only sees the day to day demands for quick remedies. Having seen the crying, the whaling, the boo-hoo-hooing just last week, I already have seen too much of the Gentleman from Ohio. He acts as though he is being awarded a prize for the curing of Cancer. He is one man; the party won a few seats, won the majority in the minor side. Weepy, weepy.
    “First thing to do, put down those darned Dems with their plans and schemes. Who do they think they are? We ruined their efforts to make healthcare more transparent and affordable, they passed it anyway! Are we going to take that sitting down?”
    “Let’s begin by reading the Constitution. That Mr. Smith movie was good, wasn’t it? Boo hoo hoo. Oh my!!!”
    He addressed the shooting in Arizona. Did he consider the root, underlying causes for this single outburst? Did he address the growing discontent with a Congress devoted to each member’s personal or corporate interests, or did he merely make the point that, “Someone could get hurt. This has to stop!” More emotion, wrongly directed, not at the Arizona shooting, but at the Congress being, ( literally,) targeted. “An attack on one who serves is an attack on all who serve. Acts and threats of violence against public officials have no place in our society.” And you write he, “began taking concrete steps toward protecting other members and their staffs.”
    You state that Boehner has “elevated himself to statesman status”; he’ll never elevate to anything beyond the third level wash-room. Oh, and I’m serious. The man has issues.

  • Clavos

    A well written essay, Scott. Props for your impartiality, too.

  • Senator Robert Kennedy showed remarkable statesmanship in the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968. Back then, hatred and hateful speech were quite common, but their mediums of expression were more up-close and personal. RFK was later murdered.

    However, the Speaker has a job to do, part of which is the waste of time the new Republican majority is involved in with passing a bill to repeal a law along strict party lines.

    The bill, when passed, will go to the Senate and, should it pass the Democratic majority there, will go to the President who signed the law in the first place. It will take a two-thirds majority in the House and in the Senate to override his veto.

    Statesmanship is admirable. It just doesn’t last long.

  • Arch Conservative

    The big things like this are easy.

    Both Obama and Boehner have been handling it well.

    That’s not a compliment though. When big things like this happen you have to be appear solemn, sincere and rational because your political future is on the line.

    Obama and Boehner may truly be sincere about this whole thing or they may just be playing the game of politics. Who knows? Who cares? Neither one is going to lay hands on Giffords and make her whole again. And in a few short weeks if neither one of them is doing anything to put the brakes on our nation’s slide into the abyss they can both go to hell as far as I’m concerned.

    The fact that one member of the federal government was shot does not absolve the rest of them for the damage they have done to this nation.

  • Lucas Pauelly

    I read the CNN article linked in your sentence endorsing “Rep. Robert Brady’s legislation that would make it a federal crime to use language and imagery that threatens or incites violence against members of Congress or other federal officials.” However, CNN provides no details.

    As you envision it, how would such a law work? To be effective, it would need to be enforced. But by whom? It sounds like something the FBI or Secret Service might undertake, or perhaps Homeland Security. Which raises all sorts of First Amendment issues.

    And in practical terms, it’s a stretch. Take the Internet, for example. There must be tens of thousands of postings every year that could be construed as threatening or inciting violence against members of Congress or other federal officials. Will each such posting have to be investigated? Or only those by high-profile figures such as Sarah Palin? The term half-baked comes to mind here. Not to mention unconstitutional.