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Tested by Tragedy, Two Politicians Review Their Records — Mistakes Included

Charlottesville and Democracy Under Siege
By Michael Signer

A Brief History of an Ongoing American Tragedy
By Chris Murphy

Whole forests have been felled producing all the newspaper pages devoted in recent years to the heartbreaking tragedies of Newtown, Conn., and Charlottesville, Va.

The grim facts of both stories are well known. In 2012, a twisted young man with access to an arsenal shot up Sandy Hook Elementary School, killing 26 souls. Five years later, a horde of white supremacists rampaged through a college town, their effort to “unite the right” leaving a young woman dead on the asphalt. Images of both outrages — the surviving children crying as they flee in single file, the speeding car plowing through protesters — are chiseled into our consciences. Do we need to know anything more?

Two of the many politicians who responded to those crime scenes shortly after they occurred have managed to produce worthy memoirs that are not simply rehashes. Tragedies, we learn through their reflective insider accounts, can both make political careers and break them.

Let’s start with the latter category. Michael Signer, then mayor of Charlottesville, worked mightily, as his book “Cry Havoc” makes clear, to try to avert the white supremacist standoff that took the life of Heather Heyer and tarnished the name of his town. But his clumsy leadership was as pronounced as his good intentions. Soon after the racists left, Signer’s two-year tenure came to an unceremonial end. Do not expect to see him on a ballot anytime soon.

More likely to endure is Chris Murphy, who was one minute consoling the parents of fallen children and the next holding a filibuster on the floor of the Senate to fight for tighter gun restrictions. Sandy Hook gave Murphy, who was a newly elected senator from Connecticut, a much-needed cause. He acknowledges in “The Violence Inside Us” that he was a somewhat uninspired politician before he received word from an aide about a mass shooting unfolding in his state. For him, Sandy Hook changed everything.

These are Bill of Rights books: Signer grapples with the limits of the First Amendment and Murphy pushes to rein in the Second. Both accounts raise thoughtful questions with no easy answers. Should provocateurs be given demonstration permits when their objective is to provoke? Signer offers a long rumination on his efforts to stay true to a freedom he holds dear while not giving energy to people who repulse him. And Murphy, despite his vigor when it comes to guns, suggests that some of his gun control brethren go too far in their dismissal of the constitutional right to bear arms.

Murphy begins his story with an act of violence from his past, one in which he and another little boy named Paul faced off after elementary school let out one day. They were both first graders and Paul leveled the future senator within seconds. Murphy’s point is that rage is a natural impulse, which he examined in some detail as he made the not-too-hard-to-argue case that the easy availability of guns has turned America into a global outlier when it comes to slaughter.

As Murphy reacted to mass shooting after mass shooting in Washington, he learned not to blanch at the criticism that would come his way suggesting he was politicizing such tragedies. He was politicizing them, albeit in an effort to mobilize support for lifesaving public policies.

The mayhem on the streets of Charlottesville bruised the idealism of Signer, who had grand ambitions of remaking the normally tranquil college town into a capital of the resistance against the politics of President Trump. Signer was a novice politician, though one with a law degree and a Ph.D. in political science, when the alt-right targeted both him and the city he led. What he lacked in political smarts, he made up for in erudition.

His book is a defense of sorts against the criticism that he and others in the city mishandled the crisis. An independent investigation into what went wrong on the streets of Charlottesville found some of Signer’s actions lacking. And he came under blistering attack on social media, often in a threatening manner. One Facebook post accused the mayor of complicity with the racists: “YOU HAVE BLOOD ON YOUR HANDS. YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE DEATH OF THAT WOMAN.”

That is absurd. But Signer comes off as ill prepared for the tragedy his city endured, so focused on the trees (like the time limit on speakers he strictly enforced in City Council meetings) that he became lost in the free speech forest.

Neither politician has a Twitter habit on the order of the man in the White House — who does? — but both learned the hard way the importance of thinking twice, three times even, before free-associating on social media and, cue the ominous music, pushing send.

After that hate-filled driver ran into a crowd of protesters on that long August day, Signer pulled out his phone to type.

“I put up a tweet calling it an accident,” he writes. “I received a few angry messages saying that it was not an accident, it was intentional — it was terrorism. I could not wrap my mind around that possibility.”

Days later, he took to Facebook to denounce the police chief and city manager for their failure to provide better security at the rally. A revolt by his colleagues forced him to publicly apologize.

Murphy was no better. After the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., in 2015, he posted a tweet that went viral denouncing the thoughts and prayers offered by some in his profession. “I violated my rule of waiting for 30 minutes to allow for a cooling-off period before hitting ‘send’ on angry posts.”

Race figures prominently in both men’s political journeys. They are white elected officials who found themselves uncomfortably wrestling with the issues of their Black constituents.

In the lead-up to the fateful Charlottesville rally, Signer twisted and turned as Black residents demanded that a statue of Robert E. Lee be removed from a prime spot downtown. Signer took a middle-of-the-road position, expressing support for leaving the statue in place but acknowledging prominent African-Americans in memorials elsewhere in the city and putting Lee in a less heroic context. Only after the bigots came to town did Signer rethink that stance.

The mayor who replaced him is a Black woman who had been one of his most vociferous detractors.

Murphy recounts his discomfort taking his gun control roadshow to urban areas of Connecticut, where Black leaders wondered what took him so long. One told Murphy to his face that it was the killing of white children that had captured his attention, not the many Black youngsters who had come to the same fate. “My stomach turned, I unclasped my hands and my gaze plunged to the floor,” Murphy writes.

Later, seeking to understand the urban violence he had up until then largely ignored, he visited a school in Baltimore and experienced a Code Green, in which the lights are turned off and the door is locked. A shooting had occurred somewhere near the school and the senator found himself shaking. “And if I was worried, what were those first and second graders thinking?”

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