"(The) (c)reme de la creme of Washington, D.C. insiderdom." That's how a newspaper columnist described Kate O'Beirne, the Washington editor of National Review and a panelist on CNN's "Capital Gang" about 20 years ago, when I first started working at NR. I thought of that as Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake announced his decision to not run for re-election. I thought of Kate, who died this spring, because politics was never the most important thing in life. That's what endeared her to people with serious political power: She'd remind them of more enduring things.
When Flake went to the Senate floor on Tuesday, he said: "I rise today with no small measure of regret. Regret because of the state of our disunion. Regret because of the disrepair and destructiveness of our politics. Regret because of the indecency of our discourse. Regret because of the coarseness of our leadership." He continued: "Regret for the compromise of our moral authority, and by our, I mean all of our complicity in this alarming and dangerous state of affairs. It is time for our complicity and our accommodation of the unacceptable to end."
A lot of Flake's ire was implicitly directed toward President Donald Trump, his supporters and the circus surrounding them. But there's a lot more that Flake's decision says, including this root principle: Our politics is only ever going to be as good as our culture. And our culture is only ever going to be as good as we demand it to be. And we make demands on our culture not just by picket signs or grand statements and impassioned commentary, but by what we spend our time and money on. There's a complicity that goes beyond sitting senators.
And letting your opinion be known of the president isn't enough. Because while he is president now, and he does happen to be coarse and seemingly erratic, he was elected in spite of those things -- and for some people, because of those things.
The most important part of Jeff Flake removing himself from the senatorial scene, it seems to me, is what it says about Washington, D.C. insiderdom: It's not how we're going to change the world.
There's a new book by Bishop Robert Barron in which, at one point, he talks about "the genius" of Pope Francis. "Don't begin with the true or the good, begin with the beautiful, and it leads you to the true and the good ... begin with ... the kind gesture." He continues: "We all think of the Church as giving laws, wagging fingers and clarifying sexual ethics, but in the great tradition ... the project begins with beatitude, with happiness, with joy."
And while that's not a political project, if it fuels people in politics, people commenting about politics and the people voting, you could see how things could start to look better. Instead of a constant war between the media and the White House and the constant barrage of acrimony and argument, we could be aspiring to work together, to have a debate, yes, but ultimately to respectfully listen, consider and strive for the common good.
In "To Light a Fire on the Earth," Bishop Barron writes: "We no longer dare to believe in beauty, and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness."
I think it's fair to say that most Americans today don't think of any of these words in association with politics. Which is why Sen. Flake is leaving and why we must do better. It's something beautiful we'll fight for and rally behind and become better people for. Remembering that and coming together around it requires more beautiful standards, ones that don't come from politics but from our choices on a whole host of even more important things.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online and founding director of Catholic Voices USA. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org