Some years ago, I sat in the bow of a canoe as it floated into the canyon of Five Finger Rapids on the Yukon River. We were paddling from Whitehorse to Dawson, and the rapids stood between us and our destination. We were well aware of the danger. During the Gold Rush, countless victims in rickety boats met the furious waves of the main channel with fateful decisions to pull into what appeared to be calmer waters of refuge to the side. Unbeknownst to the stampeders, the flat, glassy waters that beckoned them held treacherous undercurrents in their depths, unseen but deadly. Many flipped as they left the main channel, sucked into the maelstrom.
As our canoe dipped into the tumultuous waves, spray rose and fell into the boat, and the strong current set us rocking down into trenches and up again, down and up. I held my breath. My husband, steering from the stern, held his nerve. He understood how deceptive and tempting the tranquil eddies could be. But as an experienced paddler, he knew to find and keep his line.
Today, as our nation faces the turbulence of a president who churns chaos around him, subordinating our national security to serve his own interests and promoting personal enrichment at public expense, there are those who suggest that our salvation lies in the status quo – the quiet pool of doing nothing. But most of us, on both sides of the political aisle, are recognizing that this is not the time to eddy out. If our country is to avoid sacrificing the rule of law to the rule of man – and a deeply flawed man at that – we need to find and hold our line.
For better or worse, the public impeachment proceeding to address the unfolding Ukraine scandal, recently launched in the House of Representatives, is the channel most likely to take us to safety. It’s not an easy route, and the intense push-back against the inquiry shows that many powerful people want to keep what happened, and the complicity of those involved, hidden. Yet mounting evidence shows that the president sought to use his influence over foreign aid to enlist the Ukrainian president to dig up dirt on his political rival. A growing number of officials with both direct and indirect knowledge have testified that the president presented a quid pro quo: no favor, no aid. Even the president’s chief of staff brashly confessed that aid to Ukraine was withheld to secure a partisan political advantage at home.
Despite the mounting record that our president has trampled both our nation’s security and the integrity of our elections, many leaders and members of his party encourage us to say, “so what?” So what if many officials have verified that the whistleblower’s allegations about the president’s egregious conduct – allegations the president consistently dismisses -- are in fact accurate? So what if the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and foremost Ukraine expert for the National Security Council confirm that the president’s conduct threatened national security? So what if the “dirt” about influence peddling by his rival’s son, which the president urged Ukraine to find, was based on conspiracy theories long discredited? So what if the people who benefit most from influence peddling are the president’s own children, who travel the world to advance their business interests with taxpayer-funded security details? And finally, so what if the president denied colluding with Russia throughout the Mueller investigation, only to turn around when the investigation concluded and directly solicit collusion with Ukraine? So what?
To me, those who condemn the impeachment inquiry are like the sirens of Greek mythology, seeking to lure us off course with false promises of peace and serenity, only to watch smugly as we wreck against the rocks. From what we know so far, what they see as calmer water is instead a roiling stew of corruption and self-dealing, held quiet only through secrets and lies. “So what?” is the stagnant slough where American principles go to shrivel and die.
Selling out our security and our democracy for petty political gain, and then trying to hide it, is a deep affront to the president’s oath of office. If the president and his cronies are willing to behave this way, the American people should know about it with as much clarity and detail as possible. If his party is willing to effectively sanction this behavior by looking aside, the American people deserve to know. Contrary to the critics, the impeachment inquiry is not a political dispute by those who would prefer a different president; if that were the case, it would have been launched long ago. Instead, it’s a dispute over whether the most powerful person in our country is above the law, and whether the checks and balances in our Constitution mean anything.
Today, I remember Five Finger Rapids with a mix of exhilaration and terror. It was frightening to face such a dangerous challenge, but thrilling to make it through intact. I wish the same for our country as it navigates the present crisis. We can’t escape what has happened by pretending it is of no consequence. We can’t pull aside and avoid action in hopes that the taint to our nation will miraculously disappear. Our democracy faces unprecedented peril, and we need to marshal the courage and integrity to move forward to protect it. Like raging rapids on a river, the only way past the threat is directly, openly, through it.
Barbara Hood is a retired lawyer. She lives in Anchorage.
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