Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be. But what will happen in all the other days that ever come can depend on what you do today.
- Ernest Hemingway
In the days and weeks that followed the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the nation came together as never before. Democrats and Republicans put aside their petty squabbles, joined hands and placed country before party. As if by divine providence, our leaders summoned the political courage that too often had alluded them throughout their careers.
It was a marvelous moment; one that made me proud to be an American. But, alas, it was fleeting. By the following spring, it was business as usual. Those very same Democrats and Republicans, who sang God Bless America on the steps of the Capital, were back at each other's throats. Nothing, not even the deadliest terrorist attack in our history, could alter, fundamentally, who and what they had become.
Watching the funeral service for John McCain on Saturday reminded me of that moment of unity we all experienced 17 years ago. It was gratifying to see leaders from both political parties come together to pay their respects to a comrade who, on more than once occasion, showed us all how this grand experiment in Democracy is supposed to work.
Make no mistake about it, McCain was a Republican, through and through, and he voted with his party 90 percent of the time. But if there is such a thing as a maverick, McCain personified it. He was a royal pain the ass to his party's leadership and a thorn in the side to his political opponents. In the spirit of Jefferson and Adams, he fought the good fight, but he also sought compromise where he thought it was appropriate. At a time when the overwhelming majority of his fellow Republicans wanted nothing to do with immigration reform, he reached across the aisle to champion it. He fought tirelessly for campaign finance reform. And even though the bill that bears his name, along with that of Russ Feingold, was eventually ruled unconstitutional in the Citizens United case, he remained committed right till the end of his life to eliminating the role soft money plays in our political system.
I have no illusions about what took place at the National Cathedral in Washington. The words that were spoken so eloquently by former presidents George Bush and Barack Obama and passionately by his daughter Meghan were poignant and, I believe, accurately captured the essence of the man as well as the malady that besets the country he loved so dearly. It isn't a stretch to say that more than just a man was laid to rest this weekend.
The challenge for the leaders of this broken and corrupt political system could not be clearer. What will they do once they return back to work on Tuesday? Will it be business as usual, just like it was after 9/11? Or will they put into practice those high-sounding words they drummed up the nerve to utter over a casket none of them are worthy to carry? Hemingway reminds us that we have the power to affect the outcome of tomorrow by what we do today, or, as has been the case for far too long, what we don't do today.
Do not be fooled: this is not about partisan politics. The nation has had partisan politics ever since its early days. And we've had episodes in our history where honest disagreements got out of hand and led to unintended consequences. Teddy Roosevelt so despised Howard Taft that he ran as an independent and, as a result, Woodrow Wilson won the presidency in 1912. The founders never intended us to sing Kumbaya.
But they did intend for the Republic to function in spite of the internal divisions from within. President Obama spoke of all of us being on the same team. I respectfully disagree. I've always thought it was more like two football teams knocking heads in a fierce battle to win a game both needed to qualify for the playoffs. The only difference is that after the football game, players from both teams gathered at the 50 yard line to hold hands and pray together. Whatever animosity they exhibited during the game was now gone and all they had left was a profound respect for one another that transcended the sport itself.
That is what is missing from Washington these days: a healthy respect for the right to disagree. It is not the battles that take place on the floor of the Senate or House of Representatives that are the problem; but the lack of regard for procedures and decorum that has been the hallmark of our democracy for more than two centuries.
Few, if any, senators or congressmen bother to know one another or even care to. Once a bill gets passed or defeated, they retreat to their "lorckerrooms" and either gloat over their victory or whine about their loss. There is no sense of camaraderie; in short, the battle goes on and on. Like some Vulcan mating ritual, the contest is to the death.
Cable news outlets and social media perpetuate this constant state of war. Both sides are terrified of saying or doing something that could upset their respective bases. So the bombast becomes more and more personal until finally the tribal politics consumes everything in its path. Partisanship inevitably leads to a form of paralysis where nothing gets done because neither side will give an inch. The lights stay on and bills are passed along strict party lines with simple majorities. Gone are the days when major legislation passed with 70 or more votes. A government that can't pass a ham sandwich now settles for nibbling on a crouton.
It would be convenient to lay all of this at the feet of Donald Trump. Certainly no politician has benefited more from the use of divisive rhetoric. But to paraphrase Billy Joel, he didn't start this fire. Sure he toasted a few marshmallows on his way to winning the presidency, but this malady started years before he came to power. I have said this on more than one occasion: Trump is more a symptom of what's wrong with our political system than the actual disease itself. Simply voting his out of office - or impeaching him, as some have suggested - won't cure what ails the country. If the forces that paved the way for his ascendancy are not exorcized from our political system, the next would-be despot that comes along will have the privilege of being able to finish what he started.
This should frighten any and all who care about this country. What keeps me up nights is the very real possibility that it might already be too late. John McCain is dead and buried. His mourners now wait and see if there is enough room in his casket for the United States of America.