In late November 2005, I was writing my first big feature for The Hotline, a look at rising stars in each state (subscribers can see that story here.) I called a state senator everyone told me was going places in politics, and Gabrielle Giffords answered the phone.
It was the first of perhaps two dozen conversations I've had with Giffords. She launched her first run for Congress less than a week later, after then-Rep. Jim Kolbe announced his retirement.
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I have always come away from those talks with the same impression -- of a public servant eager to do right by her constituents while spending an inordinate amount of time inquiring about the well-being of others.
The shocking assault on Giffords and her constituents on Saturday has focused attention on the nation's gun control laws, on the harsh rhetoric that pervades our political language, and even on inadequate funding for mental health care. What deserves equal recognition is a fact that's less fashionable in an age when 24-hour attack machines and politician-bashing are the rage: No matter how unpopular Washington is, those who come to Congress do so to serve. Those who represent the people are people, too.
"They come, they stay, they make their mark, writing big or little on their times, in the strange, fantastic, fascinating city that mirrors so faithfully their strange, fantastic, fascinating land in which there are few absolute wrongs or absolute rights, few all-blacks or all-whites, few dead-certain positives that won't be changed tomorrow; their wonderful, mixed-up, blundering, stumbling, hopeful land in which evil men do good things and good men do evil in a way of life and government so complex and delicately balanced that only Americans can understand it, and often they are baffled," as Allen Drury put it in his 1959 novel, Advise and Consent.
Living in Washington, among members of Congress, one can witness the stark difference between the Beltway as portrayed on cable news shout-fests and the way Washington really works.
During the lame duck session of Congress, a group of Democratic members met for dinner at a bar and grill about eight blocks from the Capitol. Along with half a dozen others, Reps. Jay Inslee of Washington, Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida and Steve Kagen of Wisconsin -- serving out his final days in the House after losing in November -- bemoaned their party's losses in the midterm elections. (When a server dropped a plate, Inslee piped up: "That's how we feel!" The room erupted in laughter.) In the middle of dinner, Rep. Tom Price wandered over. Price, a conservative Republican fairly described as a partisan, exchanged warm embraces with his Democratic colleagues, both those who were returning and those who were departing.
A few weeks later, a senior Republican communications director was leaving his position to take a job off Capitol Hill. Hearing the news, a senior Democrat who frequently battles the Republican called me, unsolicited, and offered to give a glowing comment about an honored competitor.
Giffords, a smart, active member of Congress with a bright future ahead of her, is an example of what's right about Washington. There are those who have legitimate differences with her -- 51.3 percent of her district voted for another candidate in 2010 -- but few doubt her sincerity or good intentions. Witness Rep. Trent Franks, a fellow Arizonan and a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, who was near tears as he spoke of his colleague on Saturday.
Politics is fundamentally a contest of ideas and an industry of personality. Those who put forward their ideas should argue their cases forcefully. But politics is better when it respects the personalities of those who enter the arena.
"Some are big names, some are little," Drury wrote, "spoiled for the Main Streets without which Washington could not live, knowing instinctively that this is the biggest Main Street of them all, the granddaddy and grandchild of Main Streets rolled into one."
Here's hoping Giffords gets her chance to return to Washington and compete once again on the grand stage.