Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Gabrielle Giffords — showing up and showing us up on the debt ceiling

By Alexandra Petri, The Washington Post
Original Article
Photo By Tom Williams

The most impressive feature of last night was not the vote itself, acrimonious as usual. It was the slender woman with short dark hair and glasses making her tentative way across the floor of the House. Gabrielle Giffords later said in a statement: “I have closely followed the debate over our debt ceiling and have been deeply disappointed at what’s going on in Washington. I had to be here for this vote. I could not take the chance that my absence could crash our economy.”

So she made her careful way across the floor and voted. For once, the catcalls gave way to applause. This story has already been told again and again, in increasingly rapturous language. Her vote was “an existential declaration,” said a Post piece. The Times spoke of the visitation as though the only more impressive thing would have been if she’d swept in on the wings of actual eagles. But that might have provoked more hobbit comparisons.

Coverage is often rapturous and a little fulsome, but this is a case where it should have been. In the Lifetime Original Movie that the world is just itching to make about Giffords's struggle, this may be among the climaxes — Giffords, on the arm of her astronaut husband Mark Kelly, swooping in to place a vote that stole all the acrimonious thunder away from the debate.

Giffords’s vote is a reminder that sometimes the system does work. Cooler heads prevail. Sausage — whatever you think of the sausage — is made. Congress has done its job.

But her presence reminds us of the price simply doing one’s job can exact. This is all harder than it looks.

It’s enough to make one feel a bit like a heel. Here we are, supposedly hale and sound of limb, squabbling and name-calling about Satan sandwiches and moons of yogurt and brides at altars. And there is Gabrielle Giffords, who has been fighting a far more personal fight — first for her life, then for the ability to walk, eat, speak, perform the myriad simple tasks that we dispatch without a moment's thought. And she is the one who manages to show up and vote.

Democracy, like walking, is something we tend to take for granted. We assume that the complex and garbled apparatus will — until the moment it nearly doesn’t. This was a time when it did. Amid worries that perhaps the process will break down this time, a slender woman walks carefully across the floor and presses “Yes.”

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