On Jeff Flake, and Looking Beyond Politics for a Better Politics

Sen. Jeff Flake (Reuters photo: Joshua Roberts)
His decision and speech drive home that Washington insiderdom is not what’s going to improve our culture.

Crème de la crème of Washington, D.C., insiderdom.” That’s how someone in a newspaper column described Kate O’Beirne, the Washington editor of National Review and panelist on CNN’s Capital Gang. It was about 20 years ago, when I first started working at NR. I thought of that as Arizona Republican senator Jeff Flake announced his decision to not run for reelection. I thought of Kate, who died this spring, because politics was never the most important thing in her life. That’s what made her good there, with access to people with serious political power: She’d remind them of more-enduring things.   

When Flake went to the Senate floor, he said: “I rise today with no small measure of regret. Regret because of the state of our disunion. Regret because of the disrepair and destructiveness of our politics. Regret because of the indecency of our discourse. Regret because of the coarseness of our leadership.” He continued: “Regret for the compromise of our moral authority, and by our, I mean all of our complicity in this alarming and dangerous state of affairs. It is time for our complicity and our accommodation of the unacceptable to end. In this century, a new phrase has entered the language to describe the accommodation of a new and undesirable order, that phrase being the new normal.”

Now he was no-holds-barred defiant in the face of Donald Trump, tired of Republicans who “go along.” But there’s a lot he says through his decision, by his very action. It’s something that former White House aide Steve Bannon would agree with, if interaction with him over the years is any indication: Our politics is only ever going to be as good as our culture. And our culture is only ever going to be as good as we demand it to be. And we make demands on our culture not just through picket signs or grand statements and impassioned commentary but through what we spend our time and money on. I didn’t know about Harvey Weinstein and the way he treated all variety of women, but Harvey Weinstein, as powerful as he was, wasn’t the only Harvey Weinstein, and I’ve seen more than a few motion pictures in my time. There’s a complicity that goes beyond sitting senators.

And letting your opinion be known of Donald Trump isn’t enough. Because while he is president now, and he does happen to be coarse and seemingly erratic, he was elected despite that, in many cases. And he didn’t start the fire there. (If I had a dollar for every politician who seemed to be enamored with House of Cards in recent years — though I suspect that Jeff Flake wasn’t among them. And I’m not going to blame Frank Underwood, either.)

The most important part of Jeff Flake’s removing himself from the senatorial scene, it seems to me, is what it says about Washington insiderdom: It’s not how we’re going to change the world.

There’s a new book by Bishop Robert Barron in which, at one point, he talks about “the genius” of Pope Francis. “Don’t begin with the true or the good, begin with the beautiful, and it leads you to the true and the good. . . . Begin with the beau geste, the kind gesture.” He continues: “We all think of the Church as giving laws, wagging fingers, and clarifying sexual ethics, but in in the great tradition, . . . the project begins with beatitude, with happiness, with joy.”

And while that’s not a political project, if it fuels people in politics and people commenting about politics, and the people voting, you could see how things could start to look better. Instead of a constant war between the media and the White House and choruses loving and hating one or the other, we could be aspiring to something together, desiring a comity that robustly debates but can sometimes agree on something of a common good.

In To Light Fire to the Earth, Bishop Barron writes: “We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness.” I think it’s fair to say that most Americans today don’t think of any of these words in association with politics. Which seems part of the message of Senator Flake’s leaving and why we must do better. It’s something beautiful we’ll fight for and rally behind and become better as a result of. Remembering that and coming together around that requires more beautiful standards, ones that don’t come from politics but from our choices on a whole host of the even more important things. 

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