Representative Elijah Cummings, head of the House Oversight Committee has died at age 68. And in his passing, I’ve seen clip after clip and quote after quote of the esteemed Baltimore legislator addressing his responsibility to work for future generations. Doing right by his children, it seems, was a constant concern for Cummings. Consider his closing statements during the Michael Cohen hearing in front of the House Oversight Committee, when Cummings spoke of the one and only time he met the president. “I said to him ‘The greatest gift you and I, Mr. President, can give to our children is making sure we give them a Democracy that is intact,’” he reflected in his gravelly baritone. “‘A Democracy better than the one we came upon.’” Those words are a powerful reminder that our most important job as parents is to give our children a better world.
That last bit, “A Democracy better than the one we came upon,” is particularly striking because it’s a phrase that you don’t hear from President Trump, who was Cummings’s biggest adversaries at the end of his life. The President rarely looks forward, to the world that will be left for our children. He prefers to look back at the Democracy that came before and restore a way of life that is fetishized by his voters. It’s a regressive vision of our country and seeks to roll back the clock to a time when people like Elijah Cummings struggled to be seen as vital to the nation’s interests.
So it makes sense that Cummings would worry about the children growing up in America now. It was because of future-thinking leaders, who thought about their own children while fighting to end Jim Crow and advance the voting rights for black people, that Cummings was even able to become one of the most powerful men in Washington. And you can hear that legacy ringing in his words, like those he gave after Robert Mueller’s testimony in July.
“I’m begging the American people to pay attention to what is going on. Because if you want to have a democracy intact for your children, and your children’s children, and generations yet unborn we’ve got to guard this moment… this is our watch,” Cummings said.
Cummings was a father of three, and I don’t think he was making rhetorical hay when he talked about keeping Democracy intact for his children. I think it was the fire that stoked him on, particularly in the last few years.
By contrast, President Trump rarely speaks about what he is doing to make the future better for our children. It seems far from his concern. In fact, when it comes to kids concerned about their future, he prefers mockery — consider his tweets about climate activist Greta Thunberg. “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!” Trump wrote, mockingly.
As a father I want to show my boys leaders they can look up to. I want them to see leaders that are focused on the future — my children’s future, not a past they will never know, full of flaws that countless leaders like cummings fought to correct. Cummings, despite his age and failing health, was laser-focused on the future of this country and what it would look like for our kids. I think we need more of that not only in Washington but in our own lives.
Despite their adversarial relationship, the President managed to tweet an inoffensive offer of condolences for Cummings family. “My warmest condolences to the family and many friends of Congressman Elijah Cummings,” Trump tweeted. “I got to see first hand the strength, passion, and wisdom of this highly respected political leader. His work and voice on so many fronts will be very hard, if not impossible, to replace!”
Trump is right. Cummings will be hard to replace, particularly as long as our leaders look to the past for answers rather than working for a secure and democratic future for our children.