WASHINGTON — Loss can come at you all at once, leaving you free-falling into a new land without a map.
Three things I love — politics, trains and newspapers — have seen better days. That was so dramatically illustrated this week that not even I, the rosy optimist, could deny they took a palpable hit.
Within 24 hours of the State of the Union, a train carrying Republican members of Congress crashed into a truck, killing one man in the vehicle. What a terrible “jolt,” a senator said. Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., was riding on that train. Many lawmakers brought their families. Thankfully, most passengers emerged shaken, but unharmed
Six were injured, and two doctors, members of the House, treated them at the wrenching scene in Virginia. The journey began as a high-spirited party jaunt out of the capital for the annual retreat in the scenic West Virginia country.
A bright day — so it seemed — to build unity. Nothing like this has ever happened on the annual retreat for either party. What kind of dark omen is that? It was an Amtrak train, my favorite way to travel.
How surreal the wreckage was on the morning after Trump gave his crowing speech to the chamber, half cheering, half silent. Republicans greeted him like a conquering Roman emperor. Democrats looked they were about to be thrown to the lions.
Trump never heard that a House divided cannot stand. He doesn’t mind, anyway, what Abraham Lincoln said some 150 years ago, on the eve of the Civil War. The champions of the young immigrant “Dreamers,” such as Senator Richard Durbin, D-Ill., looked aghast as Trump compared this set of 800,000 immigrants to gang murderers.
Cutting against political custom, the president said nothing directly to Democrats to reach out for common ground. The word “bipartisan” was said only once. One Ohio Democrat, Senator Sherrod Brown, later said that Trump has no interest in anyone that didn’t vote for him. I think that’s right.
So, Tuesday night was not a high-class performance. Trump’s words were short, hard, simple. The appeals to the flag and national anthem were swipes at those NFL players who chose to kneel at the playing of the national anthem — to protest police violence against black men.
No, it wasn’t my first rodeo. Up in the press balcony, we hear the president’s voice. More to the point, we see the entire sweep of lawmakers’ faces. For an hour or more, we read them. (Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders was not that hard to read.)
Starry solo artist President Barack Obama generated a sea of lawmakers clambering to shake his hand, on both sides of the aisle. I’m told George W. Bush and Bill Clinton loved the love-in, knowing in their DNA it’s important for democracy to gather in a theater of harmony once a year. Amid policy, each strove to strike a high note of togetherness, especially Clinton.
I’ve never seen so few (frozen) handshakes across the lines. When the speech was over, Democrats stole away in a silent protest of their own. I did not see a senior member of the Senate, Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. She had pressed Trump for a clean (standalone) bill for “Dreamers.” He said yes on Tuesday and no on Thursday.
So democracy is crumbling. Train travel is stressed, as Republicans like building roads much better. My northeast trips up to Philadelphia and New York are a pleasure, the train half the fun for a California girl. Crossing the Susquehanna River tells me I’m nearing the Mason-Dixon line.
And The Los Angeles Times is waning — worse yet, “unraveling.” I read the story on The New York Times front page: What a slight.
Newspapers go with me on my way, like many train travelers. I’ll admit, I noticed newspapers were read more closely when I crossed east.
But don’t go; don’t leave all at once.