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October 20, 2017

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A lesson from Gabby Giffords’ resignation

In the end, they acted like Americans.

Last Wednesday, Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords resigned from Congress with an emotional farewell from the floor of the House of Representatives.

No, this wasn’t the typical farewell the American public has become used to over the past few decades in which an ethical, marital or criminal lapse in judgment has forced the resignation of a member of the House or Senate, ending what might otherwise have been a long career of public service.

The folks who leave for those reasons don’t deserve a standing and prolonged ovation from the entire House and the kind of tearful farewell that was Gabby Giffords’ to enjoy.

You see, Gabby was an honorable public servant, a person committed to the well-being and energetic representation of her constituents in Southern Arizona. And it is for that reason she resigned: because she was convinced she couldn’t tend to both her own rehabilitation and the full-time, full-throated representation of her district, for which she had taken an oath.

Gabby, as you all recall, was shot in the head in a Tucson massacre last year that left six people dead and the country wondering, if only for a moment, what our role had been in creating an environment that allows people to believe that murder and mayhem should be part of American civil discourse. Sure, the fellow who pulled the trigger was nuts — you have to be to do what he did — but somewhere behind all of his demons was an attitude that suggested that guns and violence was a G-d-given right.

I watched the events of last Wednesday morning unfold as Gabby slowly and carefully made her way to the well of the House chamber to officially resign. It took a long time because the chamber erupted in sustained applause as every person present — and it appeared they were all there — rose to his or her feet and gave her the kind of standing ovation Americans reserve for people who go above and beyond in service to their country.

In Giffords’ case, she did far more than that. She not only crossed the aisle more times in a day than most freshmen legislators will do in their careers in the pursuit of representation of her constituents, but she did it in a way that showed respect for even the most irrational opinions that, these days, seem to permeate the hallowed halls. In short, she came to Congress to better people’s lives and not just mess with them.

The day Gabby was shot and was assumed left for dead, every person who has given themselves to public service — and especially the folks in Congress who are boasting one of the lowest public approval ratings ever — cringed with fear. So when the news came that she was alive, and as the entire country took each life-sustaining step with her as she struggled to survive, her miraculous recovery and the determination and courage she exhibited along the way imbued every elected official with a bit of the spirit that made her the special person she is.

When she stepped into the well of the House, that is what her colleagues saw. They didn’t see a Democrat or Republican; they saw a courageous colleague doing what she knew to be the right thing for the right reasons in keeping with her oath of office. They saw in her a demonstration of the kind of courage that each of them wished they possessed and could display, should the need ever arise. And they witnessed the kind of strength and resolve that defined her as the kind of American they all believed they were.

Many of them also saw a dear friend struggling to regain a life that was so brutally taken from her and, then, miraculously returned.

That is why they could not stop applauding her as she and her dear friend, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, addressed that once-revered body in a final goodbye. In doing so, she brought a moment of reverence back to the House as they all thought, however briefly, of someone other than themselves.

To me, though, the moment at which I knew there was hope — and there was reason to believe that, at some time, in some way and somehow, this country would right itself and make right the way it conducts political discourse and service — was when Giffords climbed the short stairs to the podium to officially tender her resignation to House Speaker John Boehner.

Boehner is known as a crier. He admits, as I do, to being one of the first to shed tears in a heart-tugging movie or for a heart-warming story. Some guys — I suggest the real men — are like that.

On Wednesday, there was a real-life event unfolding before him that had all the elements of a quintessentially American story. It would have been impossible not to cry.

And so he did. As Gabby struggled up those stairs to hand him her letter of resignation, and as he embraced her and held her hand high in triumphant respect for a wounded colleague, it was clear to all who saw him that his emotions had gotten the best of him.

And, I suspect, those emotions got to all of us who were watching. At that moment, we were all Americans. The rhetoric that oftentimes overtakes our good sense and the vitriol that has defined our democratic system of late gave way to the American spirit that celebrates those who accomplish and desire to help those who can’t quite make it.

In the speaker’s eyes and behind his quivering jaw stood a man who knew what was really right and wrong. It took a courageous and incredible Gabby Giffords to make that happen. And all of America could see it with their own eyes.

One Democrat and one Republican acting as human beings. How refreshing.

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