Eighty-three years ago, Mr. Smith went to Washington. Last Tuesday, Lady Ruby did, too.
Georgia election workers Ruby “Lady Ruby” Freeman and her daughter, Wandrea ArShaye Moss — “Shaye” to her friends — appeared last week before the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection. Like the title character in Frank Capra’s 1939 film, they’ve always been guided by a simple value: serve the common good.
Moss testified that she once enjoyed helping people vote. As an African-American woman, it was especially important to her, because “a lot of people, older people in my family, did not have that right.” But she and her mom lost the joy of service when Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani plucked them from contented obscurity, and made them featured players in Trump’s lie about an election fraud conspiracy.
Trump called Freeman “a professional vote scammer and hustler.” Giuliani fixated upon video of the mother passing the daughter what the latter identified under oath as a ginger mint to claim they were “surreptitiously passing around USB ports as if they are vials of heroin or cocaine.” The racist subtext of the language could hardly have been clearer.
That the message was received is attested to by the deluge of racist threats that fell upon the two women, threats so vile the FBI advised Freeman to leave her house. A Trump mob even pushed its way into the home of Moss’ elderly grandmother to effect a so-called “citizen’s arrest.” In a stunt that speaks vividly to their utter juvenility, they had pizzas repeatedly sent to the older woman’s door.
Moss and Freeman say they live now in lingering fear, avoiding public places, declining to give their names to strangers.
“Do you know how it feels,” asked Freeman in video testimony, “to have the president of the United States target you?”
Russell “Rusty” Bowers also went to Washington last week. The Republican speaker of the Arizona House testified alongside two Georgia election officials. He, too, described a life bound by simple values: keep your promises, don’t cheat, tell the truth. He, too, went through hell.
For refusing to support spurious claims of voter fraud — “We’ve got lots of theories,” he recalls Giuliani telling him, “we just don’t have the evidence” — he was hit with tens of thousands of hateful, emails, voicemails and texts and subjected to weekly demonstrations at his house, where a panel truck displayed a video proclaiming him a pedophile. This, as his daughter lay inside dying of a terminal illness.
Bowers was — inexplicably, still is — a Trump supporter. But, he testified, “I do not want to be a winner by cheating.”
Again, simple values. Mr. Smith, you will recall, also held simple values. He ends up kicked in the teeth by The Way Things Are.
He triumphs in the end — it’s Hollywood, after all — and the movie has gone on to become that classic one hates to love. It’s cornier than Kellogg’s, cheesier than fondue, yet, it endures because it speaks to aspirations at the very core of American identity — to be decent, to be honorable, to be brave and to be good.
Tuesday’s hearing shrank the devastation wrought by Trump down to relatable dimensions of human lives and human loss, and that was important. But just as importantly, 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 the aspiration to simple values.
Or, no values at all.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. firstname.lastname@example.org