Every week, every day, the world lets you know that we are living in the age of the simultaneous. It’s as if history is playing out as a series of events pinned up like clothes on a clothesline, worn by the same people. It’s a land full of echoes, of events flowing into each other almost organically, accompanied by lyrics from old songs and ghost-like slogans from another time.
People and occasions get into each other’s way, sometimes accidentally, sometimes on purpose. Watching and listening to the talk about the last Democratic Party presidential primary debate, only weeks before the Iowa caucuses, you couldn’t help but note that in Milwaukee President Donald Trump was holding forth in one of his boisterous, not entirely coherent rallies, surrounded by a background of MAGA hats and Lee Greenwood music, commenting on what was going on in Des Moines.
It was not a split-screen occasion, although Trump’s comments — especially about the both anticipated and fulfilled contretemps between progressive-wing Democrats and poll leaders Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — were tweeted out for all to read and report on in fairly short order.
The CNN-sponsored debate saw a much smaller sampling than in previous debates (where have you gone, Maryanne Williamson? Et tu, Corey Booker?), with the Trump rally as a kind of sideshow. There was a waning media afterlife of a day or so in the next-day headlines and transactional media analyses.
The looming impeachment process slowly swallowed up everything else. Formally, that occurred with the delivery, on Thursday, Jan. 16, of the two articles of impeachment against President Trump, to wit, that “he abused the power of his office by enlisting a foreign government to investigate a political rival ahead of the 2020 election” and “that he obstructed Congress in its investigation.”
The formal language of impeachment was direct, even brief, and bereft of either nuance or the power of poetry. The actual delivery of the articles, round the Rotunda from House to Senate, by the Democratic prosecution managers smacked of tradition. It was a kind of stately walk, as if those delivering the articles came out of a historical time and place going back to the Founding Fathers (as opposed to, say, a UPS truck).
The process had a way of bringing another thing rarely seen or heard any more in Congress: a stillness and aura of seriousness absent from hearings or State of the Union addresses.
The accompanying commentary, on the other hand, leaned toward the partisan as well as the portentous. There were, after all, matters of witnesses (or not) to be considered, and procedures and pace and new evidence to be weighed (or not). Things begin in full next week, on Tuesday, Jan. 21.
But for now, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) got to say that “we take it very seriously. It’s not personal. It’s not political. It’s not partisan. It’s patriotic.” And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) got to say that the House inquiry had been “unprecedented and dangerous,” and that the Democrats were bound up in “pure factionalism.” Among other things.
The impeachment trial will be third in the nation’s history, not counting the one avoided by Richard Nixon’s resignation over Watergate in 1974. Democrat Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998 and Republican Andrew Johnson was impeached, avoiding being found guilty by one vote, in 1868.
So it is a momentous time. Although some wags are still talking about the Sanders-Warren argument over whether Sanders said in a long-ago conversation that a woman couldn’t win the presidency (which he denied), the debate in some ways was part of the upcoming trial. Sanders, Warren and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) will all be members of the jury in that trial, which may keep them from campaigning at times.
But the debate — the obvious media take aside — showed something, that basic difference between the parties. The Democrats, sometimes to their disadvantage, remain a big idea party, split, but also wearing a coat of many colors, discussing different solutions to different issues with fervor. The contrast with the Trump rally, and for that matter, the stances on impeachment, couldn’t be starker, for better or worse.
There was also time for Trump to sign a partial trade deal with China in the Oval Office, a strangely muted occasion which was a victory for the president, bound to be touted as part of the roaring Trump economy. On Wall Street, the bell ringers celebrated a Dow that went over 29,000, a first.
In a campaign year, and the start of the third decade of the 21st century, all of these events stick to each other like flypaper. If there are still mutterings about the royals, the Oscar nominations or stealing signs in Major League Baseball, this week they remain merely mutterings.
This week, and for at least a week or so to come, we’ll all be hanging on the same clothesline of politics and impeachment.