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Janet Langhart Cohen Headshot

Silent Night

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Congress closed its doors this week with a both a bang and a whimper. A controversial tax bill was passed, and the Senate ratified a treaty with Russia to reduce nuclear weapons. But history was made with the repeal of the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in our military.

Finally, those who offer their lives in service to our country can live a life without lies.

There were moments of eloquence and passion on display during the not-so "lame duck" session, but according to recent surveys, the public has given congress a big, thumbs-down in its approval ratings. Watching the song and dance displayed by some of our elected officials, one can understand why they fail to enjoy the sound of even one hand clapping.

Each year, politicians commemorate the 9/11 attack and promise to provide help to the heroic "first responders." But when it came time to provide health care and other benefits to our heroes, some sunshine patriots in the House of Representatives insisted that the potential fraud of a few required the denial of benefits for all. (Fortunately, the Senate rectified a great moral wrong.)

John Boehner, in line to be the next Speaker of the House, recently declared that he was dedicated to finding "common ground" with Democrats, but would never compromise his principles. When pressed to explain the jarring, verbal jujitsu, he simply repeated his mantra of "no compromise." George Orwell would be impressed. The control of language is the foundation for controlling thought. Apparently, the word "compromise" is perceived by ideological zealots to be a sign of impotence and cowardice, and was stricken from Mr. Boehner's personal dictionary and talking points. If this "manning up" commandment is allowed to multiply, the practice of book burning may not be far behind.

Several prominent senators have been vocal in denouncing the existence of "earmarks," a soft and fuzzy word that disguises the art of bringing pork or bacon back to their states. When it was revealed that these very same members had inserted earmarks into a major spending bill about to be voted upon, they killed the bill. Unable to explain to skeptical journalists why they had voted for earmarks before they voted against them, the senators rushed to the exit door and returned to the inner sanctum of the Senate chamber.

Politicians are expected to demonstrate some degree of rhetorical athleticism in their survival skills. But that small band of brothers who insisted that their holiday travel plans were being jeopardized, dropped the limbo bar to a new low. The imposition of such inconvenience, they complained, constituted disrespect for the Senate and trespassed upon the sanctity of Christmas itself!

The notion that our public servants, who have taken an oath to protect and defend our nation, should endure no inconvenience during the holiday season, prompted me to reflect upon the extraordinary service and sacrifice made by others who have taken the same oath. I've had the great privilege to travel the world and visit with the men and women who wear our nation's uniform. I've been with them in the desert heat, at sea, and on the cold and bleak ridges along the DMZ in Korea. I've also been with them and their families at Walter Reed Hospital as they recovered from devastating wounds. How little they ask; how much they give!

When my husband was serving as President Clinton's Secretary of Defense, we had occasion to bring celebrities and famous musicians to entertain our troops in Bosnia. One night, while the entertainment was underway, I walked out to the perimeter of the camp to offer what I had hoped would be comforting words to a soldier who was standing guard. It was a clear but very cold night. It was Christmas time and I could almost touch the sense of loneliness that hung in the darkness. As I expressed sympathy with this young soldier for being separated from his family during such a holy time, he said, "That's all right, ma'am. Somebody has to do it. And besides, I think we're making a difference here."

Maybe his stoicism was a studied reply; military standard issue. I couldn't see his face nor he mine. But in the anonymity and stillness of that moment, I felt an incredible pride in those who serve us in silence and without complaint.

That's the pride I want to feel about all who serve us.