HER VOICE WAS PERFECTLY MODULATED, BUT LEE'S words rang to me like those of Patrick Henry, or Frederick Douglass. I felt a shiver of patriotism for the first time since the 1984 Summer Olympics. Barbara Lee, in her pink suit and clip earrings, was blowing away the War on Terrorism fog that had settled around all of us for months and narrowed our visibility to almost zero. Things had gotten so murky lately, and the War on Terrorism so enveloping, that it felt possible to me that the war -- not institutionalized racism or a two-tiered economy -- might actually be responsible for poor people of color; the war might have shut down my neighborhood coffeehouse and screwed up my last 401(k) quarterly reports. I felt a collective relief in the room as we all returned to something, a worn groove of well, yeah. It didn't make us happy but made us weirdly whole. I wasn't crazy, or off the beat; it was the American polity that had obviously lost its mind. I glanced over at my father, who was busy scribbling notes at the end of our table, something I'd never seen him do. He was feeling some reinforcement, too, maybe recording it. Lee was sweeping a light of truth around the room, but also from afar, assuring us that we were overmatched and had been for eons -- but, in a phrase, so what? There were eons left.
I was charged, and because of that I had another question, something badly in need of an answer right now. With heroes fully in mind I stood up and asked Lee how it was that she had been the only black congressperson to say no to war. I understood that many members of Congress of all ethnic persuasions had very likely not voted with their consciences, that the enormous emotion that built after the attacks quickly crested in a mob-mentality cry for retaliation that overtook more normally prudent souls. Still, I said, given everything black people stood to lose, have always stood to lose in the big picture, given everything you've just described, what of the others? What of Maxine Waters, of John Lewis, an avowed freedom fighter and my last candidate for hero, one I retrieved from history after stumbling onto his recently published autobiography? Lee paused -- her only pause of the morning. She said that she couldn't judge her colleagues on the basis of a single vote. Many had voted the right way on other matters, and it was wrong to discount that. John Lewis had thought very long and hard about his vote, she said, and was 99 percent certain he would vote against the war. "But there was 1 percent of him that was afraid of being viewed as soft on terrorism," she said, almost sympathetically. "And that determined his vote."
Lee meant this as a defense, and in one way, it was. John Lewis' uncertainty was humanizing -- heroic, even, by the standards of literature and 20th-century circumstance. But in real life it was disappointing: I could tack him to my bedroom walls, but only so high. My father asked a question about models of black leadership and how that might change. Lee replied that the goods were all there but they were piecemeal, that all the satellite black leadership had to come together and form a common agenda. Then it was all over and everybody was on their feet clapping and Lee was being spirited away to another stop on her L.A. tour. People stayed on their feet to mingle and talk about what they'd just heard, or felt. My father told me he wasn't entirely satisfied with Lee's answer to his question -- "too pat, too pat!" he muttered -- but he described his dissatisfaction with a vigor that bespoke a broader satisfaction with something else. Barbara Lee told us in her talk that we were in a defining moment. Many of us believed her. If only for a morning, that made heroes of us all.