‘You didn’t fly here to celebrate me,” Marco Rubio announced from the stage of the Ronald Reagan Building (naturally) in Washington, D.C.
The comment could have been a bit jarring coming from Rubio. Hours after being sworn in as a United States senator, this former insurgent candidate who bucked his party’s establishment to challenge its minted candidate — a sitting governor — presented himself as nothing but a workman starting out in a new office, albeit something of an emergency room. Here, the newest hot ticket in town, widely considered any Republican presidential candidate’s favored running mate, was turning on the humble. This was the party, though relatively austere, to be at. Everyone seemed to drop by — even liberal Minnesota senator Al Franken posed for pictures with some of this Tea Party king’s most loyal supporters.
In his remarks, Rubio echoed a campaign theme of his: “It’s not about me.” People supported his candidacy, the new senator contended, because they worried about the fate of their nation. Relaying some of the touristy things he had done with his wife and children since arriving in our nation’s capital, Rubio recalled — with a savvy “Señor Smith Goes to Washington” appeal — visiting some of the Founders’ memorials in and around town. They stand as reminders and even rallying cries. Those who fought and died to establish this country, those who worked on its founding, believed that “every single human person had inherent rights that came from God,” he reminded the crowd. And “those principles still bind us as a nation today.” We are the “one place on earth” that can be relied on to stand as a beacon on these things. And what the 112th Congress does will help determine, Rubio insisted, whether, “when my children are my age,” they will come back here to admire the monuments of our core national values, or merely be “looking at relics of a once-great nation.”
I couldn’t have been the only one to picture the Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes — and without feeling entirely absurd.
Our national government, he reiterated, “Spends more money than it takes in.” This city, he pointed out, “is filled with people who believe that senators and congressmen and presidents create jobs.” So many in the room who supported him, he said, are the actual job creators, who are being hurt by Washington’s paternalistic good intentions.
Rubio declared: “The world is a safer and better place when America is the strongest.” He stated his intention to “work with anyone and I mean anyone who stands with these things.” But not without adding that if you don’t, he’ll “work against you.”
His message was a Miami version of the one with which the new speaker of the House of Representatives, Ohio’s John Boehner, opened the new session. “The American people have humbled us,” Boehner said — after talking about Ash Wednesday in an almost-penitential rite of an opening address. In a quick version of newcomer Rubio’s tourist reflections, he continued: “They have refreshed our memories as to just how temporary the privilege to serve is. They have reminded us that everything here is on loan from them. That includes this gavel, which I accept cheerfully and gratefully, knowing I am but its caretaker. After all, this is the people’s House. This is their Congress. It’s about them, not us. What they want is a government that is honest, accountable, and responsive to their needs. A government that respects individual liberty, honors our heritage, and bows before the public it serves.”
Time will tell if the men of these bodies will be true to their word and charge. The humility point was underscored by Sarah Palin — of all people, considering some of the commentary about her — in her recent book America by Heart. She cites evangelical pastor Charles Stanley, from his book How to Reach Your Full Potential for God. “If something is presented to you as ‘you must decide right now or the opportunity ends,’ take that as a sign that your answer should be no. An opportunity tied to a rushed or ironclad ultimatum is rarely from God.”
In the wake of a congressional year that began with a manipulative health-care vote of monumentally unsustainable proportions and ended with a nuclear-proliferation treaty and rushed military policymaking, it’s a warning that Washington should heed. The town is overrun with ghosts of men who let themselves be corrupted by power. But power only tends to corrupt. It’s not a given. A tendency in the opposite direction is fostered through listening to the right advice, keeping the right influences around you, remembering why you were sent to town.
Palin could have been comfortable at Rubio’s celebration. As she wrote, “we’d do well to quit thinking we’re the center of it all — the center of our circle of friends, our office, our softball team, our political party. No, we are part of a much larger body.”
Or remember the example of the men who came before you whose very names are synonymous with selflessness, who had no identity issues, confident in their callings, not letting themselves be deluded by power. Men like Thomas More, the aide to Henry VIII who displayed saintly courage of conviction. The day after the swearing-in, one congressman’s constituent pointed to a statue of More directly across from the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, at St. Joseph’s Church: “Don’t forget him.” In the wake of Representative Gabrielle Giffords’s shooting this weekend, the sainted martyr’s memory is an especially heavy one in these beginning days of a new congress. Members of Congress are not called to give their lives, but they certainly ought not surrender their souls. And, as Rubio reminded, the stakes involve just that: our very nation, heart and soul.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is an editor-at-large of National Review Online. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column is available exclusively through United Media.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been amended since its initial posting.