Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death that late September Friday seemed too much to bear. For about twenty-four hours, I numbed myself by watching “Monk.” Events in our country were taking their toll: The epidemic. Black killings by police. Four year’s worth of Trump’s tromping on Kurdish and European allies; Muslim and Central American immigrants; birds, wolves, the environment; poor people; the Constitution; and anyone who disagrees with him. I felt discouraged, beaten down, in despair.
Nonetheless, I want to write about Trump. I need to do it before elections results (however they turn out) change my feelings about the future forever. Since his election, I have only reviewed one book about Trump: Rick Reilly’s Commander in Cheat, which was published in April 2019. Was it only last year?
What book to review now? Bob Woodward’s Rage? Michael Cohen’s Disloyal? John Bolton’s The Room Where It Happened? Mary Trump’s Too Much and Not Enough? They would all be dispiriting to read. I already know that the president is stupid, cruel, greedy, lying, racist, selfish and willing to throw anyone under the bus. Why read more?
Instead, I chose We’re Better Than This by Congressman Elijah Cummings. I liked the optimistic title, although I am not sure that we are better than our actions. A country that prides itself on its economic success built on free labor from slaves, free land from Native Americans and discounts on women’s work gives me second thoughts about our greatness. But the book wouldn’t be just the piling-on of Trump’s misdeeds.
I didn’t know much about Elijah Cummings, the long-time Congressional Representative from Baltimore who died in October 2019 at the age of 67. His questioning of Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan about the treatment of migrant children in July 2019 made an impression on me. After a little bit of official Q and A, Cummings flashed his impatience. “Come on, man. What is that about? … They [the children in cages at the border] are human beings … We’re better than that.”
(This issue has come back with a vengeance. This week the Justice Department Inspector General reported that child separation was the purpose of the Trump policy, not collateral damage. As Jeff Sessions said, “We need to take away children.”)
Elijah Cummings became the chair of the Congressional Oversight Committee after the Democrats gained control of the House in 2019. I’ll let Cummings describe his job:
“After twenty-four months of the Trump presidency, there was a staggering mass of allegations warranting investigation—collusion with foreign governments, interference and tampering with the election process, business deals that broke campaign finance rules, payments of hush money, conflicts of interest, improper security clearances, an attempted Muslim ban, attacks on the FBI, veiled and overt personal threats, and dangled pardons.
As we began our work, even more disturbing behavior, unworthy of American ideals, came to light—separating families at our borders, turning back asylum seekers, virtual acceptance of white supremacists, flirtations with dictators, rejection of allies, hostile trade wars, a revolving door of important government positions.”
Cummings’s Oversight Committee didn’t overlook anything. He concluded, “Yes, I have to hurry. Every day we don’t do something, this president is whittling away our freedoms.”
Cummings had another reason to hurry. He was very sick. He had a series of medical setbacks starting in 2017 with a heart valve replacement. A severe attack of gout immobilized him and left him in great pain. A knee infection required surgery. He resorted to zipping around on a scooter, even in Congress. In the end, the rare thymic cancer that was first diagnosed when he was in his 40s – and which he was lucky to survive – ate him up.
The circumstances of how this book was written are extraordinary. Cummings knew he didn’t have long to live. He asked writer James Dales to help him tell his story “for young people, especially disadvantaged young people, to show them what was possible.” As Cummings’s condition deteriorated, Dales knew that he, too, had to hurry.
This is a bracing book – for me, a tonic! Cummings’s analysis of Trump’s malfeasance is no-holds-barred. The verdict of a dying man. Dales paints the events of Cummings’s life in broad, sure strokes. No false modesty.
I was impressed by how Cummings used his parents’ and his own life experiences as springboards for action in Congress. His sharecropper parents moved to Baltimore. She worked as a maid, he as a laborer in a chemical plant. They also preached and founded a small church. Yes, Elijah Cummings was a PK, a preacher’s kid.
One of Cummings’s passions in Congress was healthcare accessibility. His grandfather’s story was never far from his mind. As told to Cummings by his father, when his father was only eight, the grandfather crumpled in pain. The doctor, a white man, dismissed the grandfather’s discomfort with, “He’s only a nigger.” Cummings’s grandfather died that same night.
Cummings also realized that the cutting-edge treatment he received at Johns Hopkins and the National Institute of Health for his rare cancer was not something available to most.
Always strategic and practical, Cummings pushed for lower prescription drug prices as necessary and doable. He even had a conversation about this with Trump at the White House soon after the inauguration. He said to Trump:
“Mr. President, you’re almost seventy, man, and I’m sixty-seven. It won’t be too long from now that you and I will be dancing with the angels. Why can’t we join together and get some things done, like prescription drug prices, that will affect everybody and be good for everybody?”
Trump called him a few days after this conversation to say that he was working on the issue. Then, nothing.
Elijah Cummings was one of the strongest opponents of the administration’s desire to include a citizenship question to the Census. He saw it as the administration trying to disenfranchise Hispanic people, who might not participate in fear for their or their relatives’ immigration status. His committee grilled Wilbur Ross, the Commerce Secretary. He was clearly influenced by Black people’s fight for the vote. It was also personal. On her deathbed, his mother had said to him, “Do not let anyone take our votes away.”
Elijah Cummings loved to be a mentor. In Congress, he asked for the newly-elected men and women to be on his prestigious committee. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was one such newbie. He remembered how an attentive sixth-grade teacher realized that he didn’t belong in Special Ed. (I can totally relate. See my experience as a member of the Third Reading Group.)
My favorite story from We Are Better Than This is about Cummings’s character: his persistence and his optimism. It was during high school geometry. He struggled mightily. He’d spend hours trying to solve the problems, failing most of the time. The next day, when a classmate explained the steps, instead of being angry or bitter, he was thrilled. He felt that he could understand the explanations because he had put in the effort.
He made the same effort in tackling problems in Congress for us, the American people. My takeaway lesson is that my efforts, our efforts – protesting, donating, letter-writing, social distancing – are not wasted. We must persist. And, we will.
Go Vote, Everyone!
Tell me: What has given you a sense of purpose in these times?