After shooting, Washington embraces unity

Julie Pace
Associated Press

Washington — The president called on Americans to set aside their differences. One of his fiercest critics prayed for him and the safety of his family.

For one afternoon, Washington appeared to be knocked back into a lost era of solidarity in times of trial. Still, it felt naive to think it would last.

Wednesday’s jarring shooting of a top House Republican during a baseball practice both punctured the deep polarization in the nation’s capital and provided an instant reminder that such moments tend to be fleeting.

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After incidents far more deadly, and at times even less riven with division, the moment of unity inevitably fades, replaced by the capital’s familiar infighting and harsh, personal attacks.

That was the case after the horrific shooting of 20 elementary school children in 2012. And after the 2011 shooting of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was holding a constituent event in a supermarket parking lot when a gunman opened fire, killing six people.

The nation was divided then, too, still struggling to recover from a devastating economic crisis that exacerbated the gap between haves and have nots, and from the bruising political tussle over health care reform. Mark Kimble, who worked for Giffords then, said that for a period “that now seems all too brief, there was an unbelievable amount of unity across party lines.”

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“If this happens the way it did after Gabby was shot, I think it will last for a while, but I don’t think it will be any kind of sea change in how Washington operates,” Kimble said.

The calls for change were frequent on Wednesday.

House Speaker Paul Ryan urged his colleagues “to come together to lift each other up and to show the country, show the world that we are one House, the people’s House, united in our humanity.”

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Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi decried the violence as “an injury in the family.” She offered her prayers for Trump and his own family.

But the answer to how long Washington can embrace this moment of unity may well rest with Trump, one of the most divisive figures in recent American political history.

Trump, in brief remarks from the White House Diplomatic Room, was scripted and restrained. He made no mention of the fact that the shooter had a history of lashing out at Republicans.

“We may have our differences, but we do well in times like these to remember that everyone who serves in our nation’s capital is here because, above all, they love our country,” he said. “We can all agree that we are blessed to be Americans, that our children deserve to grow up in a nation of safety and peace and that we are strongest when we are unified.”

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Trump stepped into the role of unifier with historically low approval ratings for a president at this stage of his tenure. Overall, 64 percent disapprove and just 35 percent approve of the job he is doing as president, according to a recent poll conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Trump has been a particularly polarizing figure since the moment he stepped onto the political stage. And there’s no doubt that he has contributed to the increasing corrosiveness that has gripped American politics.

As a candidate, he urged his supporters to “knock the crap” out of protesters who attended his rallies. He called Hillary Clinton, his Democratic rival in last year’s election, a “nasty woman” and vowed to throw her in jail if he won, a pledge he has not followed through with.

To be sure, Trump’s presidency has also prompted intense criticism from Democrats, who have excoriated him as incompetent and unqualified. Earlier this week, Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., circulated proposed articles of impeachment.

Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., said all the things that used to bring members together seem to be slipping away, contributing to the gulf between left and right.

“All the chances to interact with each other outside our suits, and outside floor debate, are few and far between,” said Doyle, who manages the Democratic baseball team.

The annual congressional baseball game, scheduled for Thursday, will go on as scheduled, lawmakers announced.