What Democrats Lost With Elijah Cummings’ Death

“When we’re dancing with the angels, the question will be asked…what did we do to make sure we kept our democracy intact?”

Rep. Elijah Cummings on August 7, 2019Chris Kleponis/CNP/Zuma

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When Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer, testified last February before the House Oversight Committee, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the panel’s chair, closed the hearing with a seemingly extemporaneous eight-minute speech. Expanding on his own earlier statement that “we’re better than this,” in reference to the president’s impact on the country, Cummings remarks were strikingly empathetic to Cohen, openly emotional, and morally urgent. 

“I know that this has been hard,” Cummings told Cohen. “I know that you face a lot. I know that you are worried about your family, but this is part of your destiny and hopefully this portion of your destiny will lead to a better Michael Cohen, a better Donald Trump, a better Untied States of American, and a better world.”

Cummings died Thursday morning in his hometown of Baltimore, at 68, from what a spokesperson described Thursday only as “longstanding health challenges.”

Democrats will find a replacement for Cummings as oversight committee chair, and the panel, which is part of the House’s ongoing impeachment efforts, will continue the work it was doing under his leadership. That included looking into the White House’s use of a classified system to store potentially embarrassing or controversial call transcripts between Trump and world leaders; investigating the president’s alleged violations of the Constitution’s emoluments clause; and, beyond impeachment, looking into prescription drug costs and voting rights. 

But Cummings’ remarks at the Cohen hearing highlight what Congress lost with his death. Elevated by Pelosi to the top spot on Oversight over a more senior colleague in 2010, he offered a sort of innate gravitas and a knack for articulating deeper themes behind legislation and oversight. And he wielded unique moral authority. That the Democrats cannot replace.

Near the close of his remarks at the Cohen hearing, Cummings issued a call to action that speaks to his legacy in public service: “When we’re dancing with the angels, the question will be asked, in 2019, what did we do to make sure we kept our democracy intact? Did we stand on the sidelines and say nothing? Did we play games?” 

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You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

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