Eighty-three years ago, Mr. Smith went to Washington. Last Tuesday, Lady Ruby too.
Georgia election officials Ruby “Lady Ruby” Freeman and her daughter, Wandrea ArShaye Moss – “Shaye” to her friends – appeared before the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 uprising. Like the main character in Frank Capra’s 1939 film, they have always been guided by a simple value: to serve the common good.
Moss testified that she once enjoyed helping people vote. As an African-American woman, this was especially important to her because “a lot of people, old people in my family, didn’t have that right.” But she and her mother lost the joy of service when Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani snatched them from contented obscurity, made them actors in Trump’s lie about a voter fraud plot.
He called Freeman “a hustler and a professional hustler.” Giuliani fixated on the video of the mother passing the daughter what the latter identified under oath as a ginger mint to claim that they were “sneaking around the USB ports as if they were flasks of ‘heroin or cocaine’. The racist subtext of the language could hardly have been clearer.
The reception of the message is evidenced by the deluge of racist threats that fell on the two women, threats so vile that the FBI advised Freeman to leave his house. A Trump mob even broke into Moss’ elderly grandmother’s home to make a so-called “citizen’s arrest.” In a stunt that clearly speaks to their extreme youth, they repeatedly had pizza sent to the door of the older woman.
Moss and Freeman say they now live in lingering fear, avoiding public places, refusing to give their names to strangers. “Do you know what it feels like,” Freeman asked in video testimony, “to have the President of the United States to target you?”
Russell “Rusty” Bowers also visited Washington last week. The Republican Arizona House speaker testified alongside two Georgia election officials. He too described a life tied to simple values: keeping promises, not cheating, telling the truth. He too went through hell.
For refusing to back false claims of voter fraud — “We have a lot of theories,” he recalls, Giuliani telling him, “We just don’t have the evidence” — he was hit with dozens of thousands of hate emails, voicemails and texts and is the subject of weekly protests at his home, where a billboard truck plays a video proclaiming him a pedophile. This, while her daughter lay inside dying of a terminal illness.
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Bowers was – and, inexplicably, still is – a Trump supporter. But, he testified, “I don’t want to win by cheating.”
Again, simple values. Mr. Smith, you will recall, also had simple values. He ends up getting his teeth kicked by The Way Things Are.
It triumphs in the end – it’s Hollywood, after all – and the film has become that classic you hate to love. It’s cheesier than Kellogg’s, cheesier than fondue, but it endures because it speaks to the aspirations at the very core of American identity – to be decent, to be honorable, to be brave, and to be good.
Tuesday’s hearing reduced the devastation caused by Trump to comparable dimensions of human lives and casualties, and that was significant. But equally important, it illuminated the stark choice forced upon us by his willingness to lie, cheat, and steal his way to victory.
Cynicism and idealism are mutually exclusive. We cannot be defined by both. We can be a nation bound by aspiration to simple values.
Or no values at all.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald.