WASHINGTON, D.C. — Overlooked during the political theater in last week’s reading of the U.S. Constitution in the House of Representatives was another story: a story of courage and compassion and, ultimately, redemption.
Newly elected Republican Congressman Mick Mulroony was a Tea Party favorite during last fall’s election campaign. He ran on a platform of stridently conservative views that aimed to take America back to its roots. He opposed the rule of the intellectual elite. He wanted creationism taught alongside evolution in the public schools. He didn’t want the federal Department of Education deciding what two plus two equals — he wanted the poorly educated but good-hearted parents of his South Carolina district to decide what their children would learn.
He yearned for a simpler time, when simpletons ruled the land. He wanted a return to a strict interpretation of the Constitution though — okay, if you insist — blacks and women and those who weren’t property owners could maybe have a couple of rights too.
So when it was his turn to read the hallowed words of our nation’s founding document aloud, he was filled with a mixture of eagerness and trepidation. Eagerness, because this was his chance to stand tall for those fundamentals he and fellow conservatives held so dear. Trepidation, because he was a product of South Carolina schools, and barely knew how to read.
“The Cong–, uh, Congress,” he began in halting tones, “when–, when–, whenever … two things … two thicks … two thirds of both Hou–, Houses shill … shall deem it nec–, nec–, uh, necessary?”
The usual bustle of the House floor ground to a halt. Fellow Congressmen of both parties became quiet, turning from their BlackBerrys and their papers to watch their new colleague gamely struggle with words that were somehow, at the same time, both meaningful and meaningless to him.
“…shall purpose, shall porpoise, shall … PROPOSE!” he continued. “Shall propose amend–, uh, amendments to this con–, this constipation, no, this consti–, constitution …”
House members, clerks, congressional aides, spectators in the gallery, everyone strained forward, hoping they could collectively will Rep. Mulroony to the fifth-grade reading level. Though some didn’t agree with his politics, all of them could sympathize with the shame and embarrassment that is illiteracy.
“On the apple, appli–, application of the leg–, the leg–, the legis– …”
Finally, one representative could stand it no longer. Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank, one of the most liberal members of the House, strode quickly to Mulroony’s side, joining the right-wing whack-job at the podium. He whispered briefly in his ear — some who sat close by said they thought they heard “let me help you” — and the two men began reading together.
“… amendments to this constitution, or, on the application of the legislatures of two thirds of the several states,” they read as one, Mulroony gradually gaining confidence, Frank obviously taken with the boyish former real estate developer.
As their voices became even stronger, others in the chamber joined in the recitation.
“…. shall call a convention for proposing amendments which, in either case, shall be valid to all intents and purposes, as part of this constitution,” they recited, “when ratified by the legislatures of three fourths of the several states.”
By the time they had finished the clause, there was hardly a dry eye in the House.
“There should be no shame in illiteracy,” commented Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-Minn.) after the emotional scene had played itself out. “Reading is both fun and fundamental. We need to step up our efforts in the field of adult education so that every American can possess this most basic of skills.”
“I commend Rep. Mulroony for his brave attempt,” said Minority Whip Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.). “Though a dimwit, he stood tall for his convictions.”
After the session had ended, Mulroony told reporters he appreciated the help of his fellow legislators, saying he would “dust off that old ‘Dick and Jane’ book and make my family proud.”
Mulroony then announced he would sponsor yet another symbolic gesture by the House, as soon as his reading skills improved.
“I think we should read aloud the names of each and every American citizen, right here in Congress,” he said. “They are the people that put us here, and we are responsible to them. I know we might not get much other business done on the floor, considering there are probably thousands of these names. But I think it’s the right thing to do.”
Mulroony said he “called dibs” when congressmen got to “all the Dick Janes.”