One must have a heart of stone to have heard Michael Bennet on the floor of the Senate two weeks ago without wondering whether this, at last, could be the kind of leadership the country has been seeking – someone who can speak without notes or any other obvious preparation, who can summon from within himself, not fists or fury but a wounded pride in America. You have to wonder if perhaps this is what making America great again might mean, having tried the alternative.
If you have not seen the speech, take a look. It was broadcast by C-SPAN, which posted it to the web with the headline “Michael Bennet destroys Ted Cruz.” That is unfortunate. We have had enough of the public need to treat serious oratory and the Ultimate Fighting Championship as the same thing.
There are other reasons, good ones, to hear these 24 minutes of a man struggling to come to terms with what has become of our government.
Cruz, the senator from Texas, spoke first, in advance of the Senate votes on two bills to end the shutdown over President Trump’s border wall. Cruz pleaded for Coast Guard funding.
This was a bridge too far for Bennet, who rose to say that when Republicans such as Cruz shut the government in October 2013, because they could not cut funds for the Affordable Care Act, Colorado was still suffering the deadly effects of that year’s September Front Range floods.
Now, the government was being held hostage to a wall that Bennet, looking for a term of great abuse by his lights, called “medieval.” You have to love that.
“We’re here with the government shut down,” he said, over Trump’s “broken promise, while the Chinese are landing spacecraft on the dark side of the moon!”
It was as though Bennet had returned from the future to warn of our folly.
Warming to his subject, he spoke of a 2013 Senate bill with $46 billion for border security that never got a hearing in the House “because of the stupidest rule ever created, called the Hastert rule.”
The rule was an understanding between Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert and his party that no legislation would come to the floor for a vote unless it had the support of a majority of Republicans – named, Bennet gratifyingly pointed out, “after somebody who’s in prison!”
It was a little bit of Howard Beale, the distraught news anchor in the movie “Network.” It was a dollop of Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
In visibly searching for words, through long pauses, and in finding them in whole paragraphs, Bennet showed us what an intelligent man with a conscience does. No circus-wagon certainty or glib sloganeering from him.
The literary critic Harold Bloom once said that before Hamlet, humans did not know they had inner lives. What Bennet gave us was a tonic for the troops. Before we heard it, we did not know we were in an army, but we are enlisted.
“If you have the facts, you bang the facts,” Cruz responded. “If you have the law, you bang the law. If you don’t have either one, you bang the table.”
The senator from Texas is mistaken. This was not table-banging. This is what a flickering inner light looks like.
Bennet has flirted with the idea of running in 2020.
Welcome to the race, senator.