Opinion: The difference is always the stand we take

I have The New York Times from May 10, 2017 — the real print edition. I’m reluctant to throw it away. Mark you, I’ve trashed lots of newsprint: KU winning two national championships and even the Chicago Tribune the day after the Cubs won their first World Series in 108 years, but I’m reluctant to throw this one into the trash bin.

The headline reads (capitalized, bolded and italicized in the original): “TRUMP FIRES COMEY AMID RUSSIA CONTROVERSY.” I have fear — no that’s not true; I have hope, is more like it — that this headline will be remembered. There aren’t that many, really, that have been. The beginnings of wars and assassinations, mostly, but there is another: “The Saturday Night Massacre.”

“Nixon Discharges Cox For Defiance; Abolishes Watergate Taskforce; Richardson and Ruckelshaus Out.”

The common thread is that We The People have always been the difference. Each headline is the beginning of a story, but the outcome depended upon us. It always does.

Every year has its seeming crises, its tempests in teapots, but really it’s mostly stuff that comes out in the wash. Run it through an ordinary wash cycle and the stain disappears, completely forgotten only days later. That’s how most of history is, preserved only by historians. But not all of it, and if our national history began on July 4, 1776, how many events are there that even the least historical of us knows?

When Nixon ordered his own attorney general, Elliot Richardson, to fire the Watergate special prosecutor he was refused. The AG and the deputy AG, William Ruckelshaus, resigned rather than comply with the order. Nixon was trying to interfere with the legal process; he was trying to protect himself from investigation. Our representatives in Congress stood tall, and together Republicans and Democrats ignored party lines and joined together in their condemnation. The investigation of Watergate went forward and the result was that Nixon became the only president to resign his office. Congress knew it could not let Nixon get away with it. It knew it was accountable to us. It happened because of us and who we are.

It was reported that the White House justification for President Trump’s firing FBI Director James Comey was his “atrocities.” Really, atrocities? What does that word mean? I’ll leave it to you to look up. Let’s not strip our language of its meaning. Whatever Comey did, there were no atrocities. In apparent agreement with the White House, Kansas GOP Sen. Pat Roberts says the firing was justified. But, should it end there? If Trump is able to appoint the person who will investigate Trump and the actions of his campaign, how can we ever know the truth? Roberts’ eager complicity wouldn’t have been acceptable in 1974 because that is not who we were then. Is it what we’ve become? We are at one of those moments when we will discover who we are.

Whether you think the Russians interfered in our election isn’t the question. Even if you doubt the Trump campaign was involved, you should want the truth to come out. You should want the process to work and to take its due course. Faith in the process is all that stands between us and anarchy. Freedom depends upon it.

Reflecting on The New York Times headline, as I began to throw it into the recycle bin, it occurred to me that this headline would only be remembered, would only be historically significant, if we are as good as we were in 1974. Whether the firing of Comey becomes the dust of our history or one of its turning points depends upon who we are. Wars and catastrophes thrust themselves into our memories regardless of outcomes — Pearl Harbor is as much a part of the national memory of defeat to Japan as it is of victory for us. But the Saturday Night Massacre is remembered because, and only because, we rose to the occasion, we stood tall, we acted courageously, with honor and virtue.

If a Democrat had done this, do you imagine for one single minute that Roberts would give it a pass? This is not about politics, it’s about something much more important. The power is in your voice.

— William Skepnek is a longtime resident of Lawrence. He is a lawyer and taught Honors Western Civilization at the University of Kansas from 1991 to 2010.