It is a useful exercise to think about our current moment not from where we are, or even where we will be in five years, but where we will be in 50. Viewed from that perspective, the most important thing about the impeachment of Donald Trump will probably be Mitt Romney’s speech explaining his vote to convict the president of abuse of power.
In the near term, that speech will do neither Romney nor his cause any good. The armies of trolls and sneering louts will come after him, their jeers all the louder because they emanate from a terrified emptiness within. Shambling, tongueless, and invertebrate politicians who deep down know better will resent Romney for having the courage to say what they believed, but dared not utter.
But that speech will last. When future anthologies of great American political speeches are published by the Library of America, Romney’s remarks will be there. The language was American rhetoric at its best: not flowery and orotund, but clear and solid and stark.
Corrupting an election to keep oneself in office is perhaps the most abusive and destructive violation of one’s oath of office that I can imagine …
Does anyone seriously believe I would consent to these consequences other than from an inescapable conviction that my oath before God demanded it of me? …
With my vote, I will tell my children and their children that I did my duty to the best of my ability, believing that my country expected it of me.
That’s neither polished marble nor gold filigree, but New Hampshire granite.
Political speeches derive their power and durability from authenticity, from the way in which phrases and sentences seem to emanate directly from a personality and its vision. That is why Lincoln’s speeches will never lose their force: They captured the dignity, simplicity, and courage of the man who made them. Romney is no Lincoln, but he wrote the speech, and the voice is his.
Yet more is at work here than the powerful words. The speech contained all the elements of drama: the man of quiet faith, whose presidential campaign underplayed his charitable works; the handsome politician, whose political career involved both high office and the failure to achieve it; the public figure, who briefly became a hero to opponents who had shamefully vilified him seven years earlier; the successful businessman, who returned repeatedly to public affairs; the patriarch of a large and loving family, whose own niece repeatedly yielded her conscience to the man he rightly condemned. Comparing Romney with the grifter president and his venal clan yields an instructive contrast.
The Romney story plays to something very deep in the American self-conception, to myth—not in the sense of fairy tale or falsehood, but of something Americans want to believe about who they are and who, because of what they want to believe, they can become. Americans embrace the story of the lone man or woman of conscience who does the right thing, knowing that the risks are high. They remember Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat for a white passenger on a Montgomery bus in 1955, but forget the three other passengers who prudently moved. They relish the staple theme of Western stories and films—John Wayne in Stagecoach saying, “Well, there’s some things a man just can’t run away from.” They honor John Adams for defending British soldiers accused of shooting down his fellow Americans, in an era when tar and feathers could be the consequence of that act. In an altogether different vein, they laud Henry David Thoreau for choosing civil disobedience and marching to the beat of his own drum, resolved to remain indifferent to what his fellow Yankees thought of him.
In this style of lone heroism, the motif is not bravado or impetuous courage. Gary Cooper in High Noon plays a marshal awaiting the return of four killers seeking to settle scores with him. He refuses to abandon a town that abandons him, which leaves his new Quaker bride bewildered:
“Don’t try to be a hero. You don’t have to be a hero, not for me,” she says.
“I’m not trying to be a hero. If you think I like this, you’re crazy,” he replies.
And this may be why the lonely man or woman of courage is so endearing. Such heroes are not crazy, not cheerful, and not necessarily optimistic. The story may turn out well in the end, but it might not. Indeed, John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, and even more so the fine television series that spun off from it in the mid-’60s, featured plenty of politicians whose careers ended in ruin after they took deeply unpopular stances, like battling the Klan, defending the Union, or opposing the creation of NATO.
Communitarians of the left and right have a point. In a very narrow sense, Barack Obama’s 2012 speech in which he said “You didn’t build that,” to small-business owners may have been correct. Somebody has to pay for the roads and the airports, provide the water and the sewer services, keep the police and the courts functioning. But it grievously missed a large point about what Americans want to be, or at least believe in, even when it is not exactly who they are.
Americans, of course, don’t have a monopoly on the lonely figure of faith who sticks to his or her principles no matter what the personal cost: Other peoples have their Wilberforce, their Zola, their Bonhoeffer, or for that matter their Socrates or Cicero. A distinguishing feature of real civilization is that it produces such people, and admires them. But from Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams refusing to yield to the zealots of Puritan Boston to Romney standing on the Senate floor, these have been figures that Americans more than most have admired, even if in many cases they have taken some time to do so.
The trial of Donald Trump taught us nothing new about the man. Similarly, the sycophancy and cowardice of so many senators, their open disregard of their oath to be impartial jurors, taught us nothing new about those who acquitted him. Nor should it be assumed that had the circumstances been precisely inverted, many Democrat senators would have exhibited Romney’s fortitude. Almost by definition, the kind of courage on display in Romney’s speech is a rare, and therefore precious, commodity.
But here’s the thing. In the short run, Donald Trump won his trial. He is now attempting to wreak vengeance on the underlings who spoke the truth, and will be supported by his inflamed mob and a craven political establishment. In the short run, they will crow and seem ascendant, while Romney will be a marginalized and probably harassed figure. All true.
From our grandchildren’s point of view, however—and it is safe to assume that the other senators know this—those who voted to acquit will leave, at most, confused and shallow smudges on the sand. Romney will leave footprints.