Just when you think maybe we've taken a step toward controlling our political rancor and uncivil meanness, along comes a wild card event to remind you how deep our depravity really is.
The wild card this time is Sen. Tim Johnson, Democrat from South Dakota. He's been in the hospital in Washington since Dec. 13, when he suffered something like a stroke, and last week was still reported to be in "critical but stable" condition. A Jan. 3 statement by his Capitol Hill office indicated he has not regained the ability to speak but has been able to send messages by pressing his wife's hands.
It's not the first time, of course, that serious illness has struck a member of the U.S. Senate. But the circumstances surrounding Johnson's situation may be unique. Control of the Senate, and the power to establish its agenda, has right now fallen by the barest of margins to the Democrats. But if even a single seat shifts from the Democrats to the Republicans, the GOP will retake control. If death or disability should force the Johnson seat to be vacated, South Dakota's Republican governor would have the right to appoint an interim senator to fill the seat until the next election in November 2008. No one doubts he would name a Republican.
Nor, in an avidly politicized Washington, does anyone doubt what's in the backs of people's minds even while they send Johnson their "speedy recovery" wishes. Here's where depraved hearts show themselves at their darkest. In spite of our best efforts, a crass political calculus takes precedence over our humane hopes for the healing of a 60-year-old political opponent. Where we would in almost any other circumstance be cheered at news of a person's quick recovery from critical surgery, here we find ourselves sorting through the political equations-and hating ourselves for doing so.
"You're actually hoping he will die?" I had to ask a friend whose comments on Sen. Johnson's situation struck me as crudely opportunistic and almost ghoulish.
"Well, look at it this way," he countered. "Tim Johnson is a human being, I'll admit-someone I should care for. But he's also a powerful human being. And during his 10 years in the U.S. Senate, he's been on the wrong side at least half the time in all efforts to protect innocent unborn babies. He even voted against the Unborn Victims of Violence Act. He has regularly voted to expand the formal rights of homosexuals. And last year, when he had a chance to vote to protect the life of Terry Schiavo, he looked the other way. Should I get sentimental now about protecting his powerful position? Sure, he's vulnerable right now. What about all the vulnerable people he could have helped over the last 10 years?"
Politics, I was reminded, is a brutal and ugly game. It is not for the faint of heart. Like war itself, there are postures that must be assumed and even actions that must be taken that are so grisly and distasteful that we'd almost rather not mention them out loud.
It's more polite and seemly at this point, of course, to note that Tim Johnson has voted twice to oppose partial-birth abortion, and that he was one of only four Democrats who voted "yes" on confirming Justice Samuel Alito. Why not stress the good things this politically moderate man has done, and point to him as a model of the kind of Democrat in the modern era conservatives are happy to work with?
Except-oh, yes-we almost forgot. So long as Tim Johnson holds onto his seat, clinging to it even from his sickbed, a whole list of his much more radical colleagues will continue to chair committees and set the agenda for all that the U.S. Senate does over the next 20 months.
So what do you hope for? What do you pray for? A good place to start, it strikes me, is both to hope and to pray as our Lord Himself taught us: "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." And the "us" we pray for is big enough to include Tim Johnson, all his fellow Democrats, a lot of very bewildered Republicans, and a terribly needy nation and world.