There is no greater measure of character than how someone acts when conscience points against the winds of popularity, and all they have to gain is harsh criticism and personal loss.
Sen. Mitt Romney faced that challenge this week, and proved himself uniquely up to the test.
The backlash against Romney, including jabs from the president at, of all places, the National Prayer Breakfast, should be proof enough of his courage and conviction in this matter.
But, in the toxic atmosphere of “party matters more than values,” response to Romney’s vote to convict the president has been neatly divided along party lines.
If we can set aside our partisan blinders, though, we see the courage of acting on conviction, and much more frequently, the cowardice of sacrificing integrity for political expedience, are not unique to this time or to either party.
In the 1999 impeachment trial of Bill Clinton, for lying under oath and obstruction of justice, we can see the same partisan hackery as we witnessed this week. I am just as convinced Clinton should have been convicted as I am regarding Trump.
But, not a single Democrat voted to convict Clinton. They followed the predictable and cowardly party line. The only exceptions to party-line voting were two Republicans, senators Susan Collins, who voted to acquit on both counts, and Richard Selby, whose vote was split between the two counts.
Lindsey Graham, then a representative on the House impeachment team, made many cogent arguments for impeaching Bill Clinton. Then, in the ultimate display of party-driven hypocrisy, he refuted all his own arguments to defend Donald Trump.
That is, after all, how the “sausage gets made.” Values and the law are sacrosanct when they line up with your party’s agenda, and are completely irrelevant when they run contrary to the party.
But Mitt Romney, as he’s done before, refused to swallow the bitter pill of chicanery, cowardice and a complete lack of integrity that seems integral to success in American politics.
Speaking before the Senate, Romney grounded his decision to vote for conviction in his faith.
“As a senator-juror, I swore an oath, before God, to exercise ‘impartial justice,’” he said. “I am a profoundly religious person. I take an oath before God as enormously consequential.”
Setting aside partisan preference, and his own desire to vote for acquittal, Romney viewed the case impartially, and came to the inevitable conclusion of anyone more interested in justice than party: “the president is guilty of an appalling abuse of the public trust … a flagrant assault on our electoral rights, our national security interests, and our fundamental values.”
Romney knew he’d be attacked by Trump and his loyalists. But, he chose to act based on integrity and courage, because he realized something most politicians have forgotten — doing the right thing is its own reward.
“We’re all footnotes at best in the annals of history,” Romney said. “But in the most powerful nation on earth, the nation conceived in liberty and justice, that is distinction enough for any citizen.”
There was, however, one statement in Romney’s speech with which I heartily disagree. Referring to his Republican colleagues, he said: “I trust we have all followed the dictates of our conscience.”
With all due respect, Sen. Romney, being gracious and glossing over the truth are not the same thing. And the truth is, Republican senators, with the exception of Romney, were just as willfully blind to the truth as Democrats were in 1999.
Some, if not the majority of, Republican senators may have seen the painfully obvious truth of the president’s guilt, but voted with the party out of fear for their positions.
Whispers from the halls of Congress, reported by CBS News, carried an ominous message for any Republican thinking of putting integrity, and the country, above party: “‘Vote against the president and your head will be on a pike.’”
Sherrod Brown, Democratic senator from Ohio, said in an op-ed in The New York Times the stench of fear among Republicans leading up to the impeachment vote was similar to what many in Congress felt before the vote to go to war with Iraq.
Brown voted against the war — at the time he was in the House — which didn’t make him especially unique among Democrats. For real courage in that vote, I’d point to Lincoln Chafee, the sole Republican in the Senate to vote against that pointless and costly war.
There have been others, like Republican Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, who bucked her own party to oppose Joe McCarthy, and Democratic Sen. George McGovern, who was labeled a traitor for his early opposition to the war in Vietnam.
Women and men like Smith, McGovern, Chafee and Romney continue to give us hope, by willingly setting aside their own interests and fears to stand alone on an island of integrity, to act based on conviction, in spite of the backlash they know is coming.
We should honor and celebrate these men and women, regardless of party. We should emulate them.
Unfortunately, they remain far too outnumbered by weak-souled little men who cannot see beyond their self-interest, and have not the courage to follow the least inkling of integrity. There is a word for them. They are cowards.
And we, if we truly desire to be a free people, who deserve the gift of our freedom, we cannot afford to be led any longer by cowards — of any party.