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Martin Schram commentary: The Big Truth — democracy’s secret weapon

Summary: Now this: On Jan. 6, 2022, after Biden finished his tough truth-telling, the TV cameras switched to the House floor. It looked like bring-your-dad-to-work day. Because we saw Rep. Liz Cheney, the Wyoming Republican who has courageously tried to resurrect her Republican Party from Trump’s election lies. And beside her was a white-haired fellow who, even masked, was unmistakably her dad, Dick Cheney. Speaker Nancy Pelosi led a stream of well-wishers who came up to say hello. It’s a start.

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.S. President Joe Biden speaks in Statuary Hall at the U.S Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2022, the one-year anniversary of the siege on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald Trump. (Greg Nash/Pool/Getty Images/TNS)
TNS

President Joe Biden was addressing America from the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall Thursday morning, at a lectern bearing the presidential seal that had been precisely placed in the center of this historic chamber for what would be a most un-festive commemorative ceremony.

Biden noted he was standing not far from where, a century-and-a-half ago, a young Illinois congressman, Abraham Lincoln, once sat at desk 191, back when the House of Representatives met in that grand hall. He was also not far from where, precisely one year ago, that wackadoodle guy in the huge-horned animal head led swarms of shouting, swearing insurrectionists who had smashed windows, bashed doors, and brutally beat outnumbered police hoping to somehow stop Congress from certifying the 2020 election defeat of their hero, Donald Trump. They believed, big-time, his Big Lie about a rigged election. No matter how many times even Trump-appointed judges ruled his claims were false.

That bloody breach of the U.S. Capitol was the historic occasion that America’s 46th president had come to commemorate, at 9:16 a.m. on Jan. 6.

Biden countered the Big Lie pushed by the man he called — 16 times! — our “former president” by telling more directly in public than ever before what Trump has been willing to do to our democracy to avoid being labeled the 2020 election loser.

“For the first time in our history, a president had not just lost an election, he tried to prevent the peaceful transfer of power as a violent mob breached the Capitol,” said President Biden.

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Those words brought me back to a concept I thought of decades ago, about what was so special about our democracy. And how it led me to a kind of mini-scoop.

As a young Newsday correspondent, I had investigated the Watergate scandal that drove Richard Nixon from power. And then when Nixon’s veep, Jerry Ford, was defeated by Jimmy Carter, I realized that we were about to witness a singular moment: a superpower’s peaceful transfer of power, from a Republican to a Democrat. I tried to think of a way I could memorably write about this precise moment when power is transferred — and came up with an idea.

So I called the defeated president’s chief of staff, a very even-handed, low-key fellow named Dick Cheney. I told him I wanted to arrange to be able to observe the moment when the Oval Office is between masters — at precisely noon, during the Inaugural oath-taking. Cheney smiled and made it happen.

As Carter was taking the oath of office at the Capitol, I stood in the doorway of a silent Oval Office. A thoughtful White House secretary who had been there since Eisenhower came in, saw the cold, bare desk, left and returned with some books and things to make the place seem welcoming for Jimmy Carter.

Fast forward four years: Now a Washington Post correspondent, I made the identical arrangement when a defeated Carter was leaving and Ronald Reagan’s team was moving in. Suddenly at precisely noon, as Reagan’s voice echoed from a TV down the hall, the Oval Office erupted in a burst of bustle. A phalanx of business-suited movers entered and began shifting furniture as they had rehearsed. A White House painter did some touch-ups; and no doubt the Reagan team appreciated that. But probably not so much the fact that the painter had forgotten to remove that green and white Carter-Mondale campaign button from his overalls.

Those were days when Ford aides, Carter aides, and Reagan aides could laugh about stuff like that. Indeed, when former President Carter served as an international observer of Panama’s 1989 election, he went there with Jerry Ford! Two experts in democracy at work.

Just a year ago, the horrific abuses committed by Trump’s insurrectionists led me to contrast the Trump effort to reject democracy’s decision with those two orderly power transfers. I ended that January 2021 column by saying: “Here’s hoping our time machine can help Joe Biden, Liz Cheney and all of us go back and recover the lost decency we have left behind.”

Now this: On Jan. 6, 2022, after Biden finished his tough truth-telling, the TV cameras switched to the House floor. It looked like bring-your-dad-to-work day. Because we saw Rep. Liz Cheney, the Wyoming Republican who has courageously tried to resurrect her Republican Party from Trump’s election lies. And beside her was a white-haired fellow who, even masked, was unmistakably her dad, Dick Cheney. Speaker Nancy Pelosi led a stream of well-wishers who came up to say hello. It’s a start.

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Still, our quest to recover that long lost decency remains a work in progress.

Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at martin.schram@gmail.com .

©2022 Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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