For a day at least, we got to see them as people.
Between the fiscal cliff brinkmanship and the Hurricane Sandy throat clearing, we got a glimpse Thursday of congressmen as human beings, and it was a moment worthy of reflection. Indeed, thanks to U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, it was also a moment of inspiration. Of courage. Of humility.
We don't think often about this humaneness of government and the people who serve in it. The political and intellectual battles are so common and so dramatic that they tend to dehumanize political leaders. Our politicians become not just the subjects of the one-dimensional parodies of political satire but the embodiment of them.
So it is that people looking for images of service or determination would rarely think of a politician, or of Illinois, or, especially, of an Illinois politician. And yet, here he was, Kirk, the Highland Park Republican, steadied on one side by the Democratic vice president of the United States and on the other by the Democratic senator from West Virginia with whom he used to have lunch every week in order to retain his sense of political equilibrium. Here he was, flanked by his state's senior U.S. senator, also from the opposing party, who has helped manage his office and his legislative priorities while he fights to recover from a stroke. Here he was, in a frigid January wind, carefully but confidently mounting the steps of the Capitol one by one.
And who was there among the scores of senators and representatives lining the steps to applaud him? Tammy Duckworth, the freshman from Hoffman Estates, who as a double amputee because of wounds she suffered in the service of her country in battle had challenges of her own navigating entry to the halls of Congress.
If you can reflect on the scene without goose bumps, one must pity the depth of your cynicism. Rather for us the scene brought to mind thoughts about beginnings, about the optimism and collegiality that often accompany them. Somehow, we are also transported back 165 years to another time of rancor, among many, in Congress when an irascible representative from Massachusetts, the former U.S. President John Quincy Adams, rose from his seat on the House floor to declare unpopular opposition to a measure honoring soldiers of the Mexican War then collapsed into a coma from which he would die two days later. Among Adams' rare political allies, another Illinoisan, one-term congressman Abraham Lincoln, who would be an honorary pallbearer as part of an outpouring of national grief and honor rivaling tributes paid to fallen Founding Fathers decades before.
Kirk, Duckworth and other political leaders hopefully have many years of public service still ahead of them. Yet, like Adams', their stories demonstrate the frailty of our political differences when weighed against our fundamental personal strengths. We'll no doubt have many opportunities in the months ahead to see the men and women of our Congress as political caricatures. On this day, it was an inspiration to see them as people.