The past week brought a deluge of reporting, analysis, and commentary on the events of January 6, 2021. Much was repetitive. Much was devoted to competing narratives where in the end each side was preaching to the choir, as the saying goes. Some claims are made in good faith. Some ooze cynicism. Some reveal profiles in political cowardice by people who know better. Some of the commentary is moving.
The PBS NewsHour distinguished itself with three exceptional segments examining January 6, two on Thursday, one on Friday. The observations and commentary by Judy Woodruff and NewsHour correspondents Lisa Desjardins, who was inside the Capitol that day, Amna Nawaz, on the grounds as the crowd gathered, and Yamiche Alcindor, at the White House, were at once professional and deeply personal as they talked about what they witnessed and how they were affected by it.
I blinked back tears during parts of Nawaz's recap of that day (How the Capitol Attack Unfolded), alternately shaken and furious, struck by the heroism of Capitol police officers. Police departments have taken a lot of heat over the past few years. Some of it was earned. It is not a bad thing to be reminded that there is another side to the coin.
In a second segment on Thursday Judy Woodruff led a discussion about the broader impact of January 6 and what might lie ahead with George Packer, staff writer for The Atlantic, Jelani Cobb, who covers race and politics at The New Yorker and is a journalism professor at Columbia University, former Republican strategist Stuart Stevens, author of the book It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump, and Gary Abernathy, contributing columnist at the The Washington Post and occasional stand-in for David Brooks on the NewsHour's Friday feature Brooks and Capeheart (Jan. 6 attack was a ‘warning shot’ and likely a ‘harbinger,’ experts say. Here’s why). One might quibble about the "expert" label, they are no more nor less expert than numerous others, but they have thought long and hard about the impact and implications of what January 6 represents.
The ever affable Abernathy was something of a foil for the others, who took a harder line and darker view even on points where they were in agreement. He is not a member of the radical kook faction headed by Marjorie Taylor Green, Lauren Boebert, Matt Gaetz, Paul Gosar, Louie Gohmert, et al. Rather he is of the party who see themselves with all sincerity and good will as good Republicans, voices of reasonableness and moderation, Trump supporters still glad that Trump was president. Trump's policies were good, they aver, it was only at the end with the election stuff that he went around the bend out where the buses don't run.
Abernathy joined the others in condemning the assault on the Capitol and the former president for not doing more to "tamp down the emotions of that day," but he resisted going further than that. He pushed back against criticism of the Republican Party and asserted that the system actually worked on January 6 because Mike Pence would not go along with the plan. There are degrees of difference, he said, but the four of them are essentially on the same page.
For Jelani Cobb this went too far. Cobb broke in, politely, calmly, but firmly: "We are not on the same page, Gary. And the system did not work, if we think about the law enforcement officers, the Capitol Police officers who lost their lives."
Later Abernathy spoke of respect for different views and the need to communicate, saying we can't just demonize and minimize the 80 or 90 percent of Republicans who think the election was stolen. Stevens, the former Republican strategist, responded that this is a fantasy: "How do you negotiate with the person who is in the Capitol of the United States in a Camp Auschwitz sweatshirt?" He goes on to say:
The solution to this is pretty straightforward. You have to beat these Republicans. You have to have more days like January 5 last year, where you elect Democrats in Georgia, because the Democratic Party, which I spent 30 years pointing out flaws in, is the party that represents democracy in America now.
The rub is that Democrats show little capacity or in some quarters inclination to do things necessary to accomplish that. Moreover, Stevens does not take into account individuals who reject the narrative of a stolen election but still buy into exaggerated and unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud and who like Abernathy appear to believe that the Republican Party is just fine as it is. I know people who I am pretty sure voted for Trump and support his policies, though perhaps with misgivings about other aspects of his presidency. I do not know how to communicate with them about this stuff, and generally dance around it in conversation, but I do not think casting them into outer darkness will get us anywhere. And that still leaves us with the sizable faction infected with mass hysteria.
The third piece I recommend features Judy Woodruff with Desjardins, Nawaz, and Alcindor (What we saw and learned at the U.S. Capitol, White House last Jan. 6). Their reflections complement Nawaz's report, which included video of Desjardins covering the scene with courage, grace, and remarkable composure as chaos descended on the Capitol. Desjardins grew emotional when Woodruff asked the three of them what sticks in their minds when they think back on that day:
I think one that stays with me — this is going to sound so corny — there are two things — it's just the walking away from the Capitol that night.
We were there until 3:00, 4:00 in the morning for the election to finish, and it was so important for all of us to stay there. And I just — I think about that image, and it was just — I just have such faith in the Capitol.
After taking a moment to gather herself, she continued:
I think I just had — it was just — it's a beautiful place.
And I really — walking away from the Capitol that night, looking at it, I just remember that feeling of faith in our Constitution and in that building.
And one more thing. Someone loaned me a phone charger at a critical moment, and that is something I will always hold on to. It is my lucky phone charger.
Old friends reading this may think I have gone soft in the head and maudlin with age when I say that I am touched, genuinely, deeply, by these words. I still subscribe to Samuel Johnson's maxim that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. Desjardins in her conduct, her courage and grace, and with her feeling of faith in these symbols, the Constitution, the Capitol, goes some small way toward reclaiming the refuge of patriotism from the scoundrels.