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Marie Yovanovich represents something Americans are desperate for: decency

The Guardian logo The Guardian 18/11/2019 Art Cullen
Marie L. Yovanovitch wearing glasses: ‘Trump could not resist bursting out his tweet trying to defame her. © CNP/REX/Shutterstock ‘Trump could not resist bursting out his tweet trying to defame her.

President Trump finally jumped the shark on Twitter last week when he smeared former Ukrainian Ambassador Marie Yovanovich while she was testifying to the House Intelligence Committee.

Immediately the words of Joseph Welch, a native of Primghar, Iowa, and general counsel to the Army in 1954, sprang to mind:

“Have you no sense of decency, sir?”

They were written on her stunned face and echoed in the standing ovation Yovanovich received as she was escorted from the capitol hearing room on Friday.

This woman of understatement and restraint has become a symbol of something America yearns for down to its very core, as it did in the McCarthy era ended by Welch’s seven words of exasperated pleading.

Decency.

Marie Yovanovich was cloaked in it.

You could hear it in the timbre of her quiet voice and see it in her downward gaze as congressmen, even Trump’s most ardent backers, praised her patriotism and selflessness for 33 years of diplomatic service — including five hardship postings in places like Somalia.

Trump calls her “bad news” to world leaders. He told the President of Ukraine that she would be going through some things.

She felt threatened. She was told by a friend to watch her back in Kiev. What does that mean? Get home on the first flight, she was told at 1 am. What is going on? She took the call not long after her corruption-fighting Ukrainian patriot friend had been murdered by acid. We imagined her fear.

Why did Trump and Giuliani smear her? To what ends will they go? And, what will stop their recklessness and lawlessness?

Yovanovich and others of courage stood erect, raised their right hands to tell the truth, and defied Trump’s orders not to testify.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent and current Acting Ukrainian Ambassador William Taylor provided a sober recitation of the facts on the first day of the impeachment hearings: President Trump demanded that Ukraine investigate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, on trumped-up corruption charges already proven baseless. We knew that before the impeachment hearings. Public opinion was not going to change by repeating the facts out loud. What, or who, could move the Senate Republican caucus still standing firm with a corrupt but feared President?

The daughter of refugees from the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, that’s who. An immigrant, no less, who earned her citizenship.

America knew from the moment she spoke that she represented honesty and true loyalty to the Constitution, that safe harbor we always seek in a storm. Yovanovich is our lodestar, just like Joe Welch, himself the son of immigrants.

She said that her service is an expression of her gratitude for what this country gave her family, and what she seeks to spread to Ukraine through diplomacy: freedom.

That’s the powerful stuff that we were taught in school to believe. Who could rebut her? Not Representative Jim Jordan in shirtsleeves, certainly.

Trump could not resist bursting out his tweet trying to defame her. That’s where the reality TV circus stopped.

Yovanovich told Congress she felt threatened and intimidated. Devastated.

She looked down at the table and moved the paper cup from her right side to her left, took a brief sip through parsed lips, and then looked up and sideways wishing to avoid the attention. Most right-thinking Americans — truth be told, secretly some Republican senators — wanted to embrace her right then.

Or name her ambassador to the United Nations. Or Secretary of State, if she would take it for the needless scars already suffered.

House Republicans could not defend Trump in the face of this 61-year-old single woman whose song was her work in the cause of freedom by means of rooting out corruption.

She rooted out Trump in the middle of the hearing as he blurted more bile. It changed the course of the impeachment hearings. It will change the course of politics, just as Joe Welch did. We were reminded of the redeeming power of decency, which properly resides in a healthy sense of shame that is very much alive right now. It will take down Trump and revive the Republic.

  • Art Cullen is editor of The Storm Lake Times in Iowa and won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing. Cullen is the author of the book, Storm Lake: A Chronicle of Change, Resilience, and Hope from a Heartland Newspaper

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