Elijah Cummings, 1951-2019: The Gentleman Yields
A legislative badass to the end.
Congressman Elijah Cummings, who brooked no nonsense from Republicans from Darrell Issa to Donald Trump, died this morning in Baltimore due to "complications concerning longstanding health challenges," according to his office. Cummings was the chair of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, one of the committees at the center of the impeachment inquiry. He had been in poor health for quite a while, and hadn't attended any roll-call votes in the House since September 11. Famous for his passionate speeches, moral outrage at injustice, and all-around decency, Cummings was also Yr Wonkette's Legislative Badass of the Year twice, in 2013 and 2016 . With Dems in the minority from 2011 to 2019, Cummings spent far more time as the ranking member on committees than as chair, but he never let the Republican majority get away with their rank bullshit.
He was the son of sharecroppers, and when he was 11 years old, he helped integrate a Baltimore public pool while whites cursed and threw bottles at him. Cummings had served in the House since 1996, winning the seat vacated when Kweisi Mfumi left to lead the NAACP. He came to national prominence fighting the bullshit lies put out by Republican Oversight chair Darrell Issa in his "investigation" of the IRS, which Republicans falsely claimed had unfairly scrutinized tea party groups' tax exemptions. Cummings also stood up to the Republicans and Trey Gowdy during the endless Benghazi investigation of Hillary Clinton. In the millionth hour of Clinton's testimony, he offered this apology to her for the ordeal:
I realize that you've gone through a lot, but the fact still remains -- and it bothers me when I hear people even imply that you didn't care about your people. That's not right.
And then I sit here and I watch you. And I saw how you kind of struggled when you were talking about that night. And I just for one want to thank you, and I appreciate what you've done. It has not been easy. You're right, it's easy to sit up here under these lights, and Monday morning quarterbacking about what could have been, what should have been [...]
So I don't know what we want from you. Do we want to badger you over and over again until you get tired, until we do get the gotcha moment he's talking about?
We're better than that. We are so much better. We are a better country. And we are better than using taxpayer dollars to try to destroy a campaign. That's not what America is all about.
So you can comment if you like; I just had to get that off my chest.
Republicans later admitted it was all about hurting her chances in 2016, imagine that.
Following the 2015 death of Freddy Gray in police custody, Cummings spoke at Gray's funeral, mourning that the media only pay attention to young black men when they're killed by police, not when they're alive:
"Did you see him? Did you see him?" Mr. Cummings asked in his booming baritone. The church exploded with applause, and civil rights activist Jesse L. Jackson sat, rapt, behind him. "Did you see him?"
"I've often said, our children are the living messages we send to a future we will never see," he said, his voice rising. "But now our children are sending us to a future they will never see! There's something wrong with that picture!"
When rioting broke out that night, Cummings used a bullhorn to call for calm, insisting the cops would face justice (they were at least charged, but not convicted). Not just any bullhorn -- it was a gift to him from House Democrats, and had a gold plaque reading "The gentleman will not yield," a reference to a 2014 IRS hearing when Issa shut off Cummings's microphone to shut him up.
When Trump was elected, Cummings sought clarification from the General Services Administration on whether it was legal for the "president"-elect to profit from his DC hotel, and stood up for climate scientists who faced being silenced, even before Trump took office. But Cummings still tried, at least at first, to see if there might be anything he could work on with Trump. In the only face-to-face meeting they ever had, he suggested Trump might get the House to help in reducing prescription drug prices, he told the Baltimore Sun:
"Mr. President, you're now 70-something, I'm 60-something. Very soon you and I will be dancing with the angels. The thing that you and I need to do is figure out what we can do — what present can we bring to generations unborn?"
Cummings said he then told Trump that "we don't need to be doing mean things. We don't need to be just representing 30-something percent of the people that like us. You need to represent all the people."
The Washington Post notes Trump eventually just dropped the matter.
"Perhaps if I knew then what I know now, I wouldn't have had a lot of hope," Mr. Cummings later remarked. "He is a man who quite often calls the truth a lie and calls a lie the truth."
This summer, after Cummings expressed his outrage at Trump's call for four congresswomen of color to be sent back to "where they came from," Trump attacked Cummings -- and Baltimore -- on Twitter. Cummings, as you'd expect, defended Baltimore and other cities, calling Republican attacks on Democratic-led cities as the racist dogwhistles they are.
This morning, someone at the White House got to Trump's phone before he did and tweeted this perfectly appropriate thing, which is how you know it was an aide:
My warmest condolences to the family and many friends of Congressman Elijah Cummings. I got to see first hand the s… https: //t.co/IVXZYgOkyg
— Donald J. Trump (@Donald J. Trump) 1571316895.0
The real tweet will come later today or tomorrow, and it will be awful. Trump might notice that Cummings never thanked him for that nice tweet about his death, and then won't there be trouble!
Instead, we'll go out with another example of Cummings's basic decency and humanity. During a July hearing on the administration's immigration horrors, Cummings upbraided (then-) (acting) Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan, pointing out that during last year's family separation shitshow, DHS "did a better job of tracking immigrants' personal property than their children":
I'm talking about human beings. I'm not talking about people that come from, as the president said, s.h.-holes. These are human beings. Human beings. Just trying to live a better life.
During the "zero tolerance" mess, McAleenan had been the head of Customs and Border Protection, and was responsible for the lie that parents could be easily reunited. At the hearing, Cummings had little patience with McAleenan's bland assurance that everything went just fine, since most of the separated families were eventually reunited (after months of pressure from the ACLU and foot-dragging by the entire DHS bureaucracy).
"And therefore, I guess — you feel like you're doing a great job right?" Cummings asked. McAleenan started replying that golly, DHS is "doing our level best," but Cummings had had enough:
House Oversight chairman shouts down Secretary of Homeland Security over border conditions youtu.be
We're going to quote that in full, because here's Elijah Cummings at his best: It's about people, god damn it.
What does that mean? What does that mean? When a child is sitting in their own feces, can't take a shower? Come on man. What's that about? None of us would have our children in that position. They are human beings!
I get tired of folks saying, "Oh they're just beating up on the Border Patrol. Oh, they're just beating up on Homeland Security." What I'm saying is I want to concentrate on these children, and I want to make sure that they're okay. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: It's not the deed you do to a child. It's the memory. It's the memory [...]
We are the United States of America! We are the greatest country in the world. We are the greatest country in the world. We are the ones that can go anywhere in the world and save people, make sure they have diapers, make sure they have toothbrushes, make sure they're not laying around defecating in some silver paper.
Come on. We're better than that. And I don't want us to lose sight of that. When we are dancing with the angels, these children will be dealing with the issues that have been presented to them. How do you say to a two-year-old, "Your mother, we can't find your mother, but we can find her keys"?
Politico journalist James Arkin, in a tweet this morning, recalled Cummings telling him that such bursts of righteous anger weren't planned ahead of time, not at all, as Cummings told him for a 2015 profile:
They are eruptions of pure emotion, driven by the fact he can't stand the idea of going home and asking himself why he didn't speak up.
"When you reach 64 years old and you look at the life expectancy of an African-American man, which is 71.8 years, I ask myself, if I don't say it now, when am I going to say it?" Cummings explained. "I do believe it is those moments that, for me, it's not politics. It's what I really feel. I think people have to respect that, and I think they do. I think they know that it's coming from a place of integrity."
Average white life expectancy in the US, we should note is 78.7 years, and the media has been running lots of think pieces because it's declining somewhat. But today we're remembering a man who died, like far too many of his peers, far too soon. There's something wrong with that picture. Did you see him? Did you see him?