At one point, Matthew McConaughey slammed his fist on the podium, flashing anger and frustration all at once, the kind of emotions that White House press secretaries generally try to bottle up, bury deep, or better yet avoid altogether when talking in front of cameras .
Celebrities are commonplace at the White House, but usually they are brief and more reserved. McConaughey was neither. His comments were lengthy and impassioned.
He was born in Uvalde, Texas where a gunman with an AR-15 murdered 19 fourth-graders and two teachers at Robb Elementary School two weeks ago, and he told reporters Tuesday how the rounds of that rifle left children “not only dead, but hollow.” Uvalde is the town where he first attended school – his mother was his kindergarten teacher at a school a mile away. McConaughey recalled how he’d learned to shoot in that city, first an air rifle then a .410 shotgun, and he said it was the place where he was taught “to revere the power and the capability” of guns. He had just mourned with grieving parents there, and he reported how families told him they want “secure and safe schools” and laws that “won’t make it so easy for bad guys to get these damn guns.”
McConaughey had come to the White House as a gun owner calling for stricter gun control, and while some of the reforms the actor laid out in an op-ed for the Austin American-Statesman overlap with what President Biden wants, his message to lawmakers was that the country wants them to meet in the middle already.
“This should not be a partisan issue. There is not a Democratic or Republican value in one single act of these shooters,” he said.
People in power, he added “can’t truly be leaders if we’re only living for reelection.”
“We’ve got to get some real courage and honor our immortal obligations instead of our party affiliations. Enough with the counterpunching. Enough with the invalidation of the other side,” he concluded.
A bipartisan group of senators has been negotiating behind closed doors, and while there is hope that the result of those talks could lead to gun reform, any compromise would have to survive an uphill slog before making it to the president’s desk. The Senate remains split, and it is an open question as to whether Biden and Congress can actually meet the McConaughey moment.
The president signaled his support for those talks. And at first, Biden kept his distance. White House aides said he was giving lawmakers space to negotiate. Then, he reversed course in a prime-time speech last Thursday calling for a host of reforms – bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and stronger background checks and safe storage requirements and federal red flag laws and weakening firearm product liability protections – that he had previously supported.
Lawmakers weren’t surprised by the proposals. Many had worked with Biden when he was vice president and was leading the Obama administration efforts on gun control. What reportedly irritated Republicans this time was that the president was calling for changes that few conservative lawmakers could support, like banning assault weapons outright, and which Democrats were not seriously pursuing given the 50-50 split in the Senate.
That, and the shot Biden took at the GOP, saying “the fact that the majority of the Senate Republicans don’t want any of these proposals even to be debated or come up for a vote, I find unconscionable.”
And in those same prime-time remarks, the president seemed to threaten Republicans, warning them that if they didn’t compromise and Congress didn’t act, they’d be punished at the polls. “I believe the majority of you will act to turn your outrage into making this issue central to your vote,” Biden said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham quickly replied that he was ready to vote on each of the proposals Biden put forward and encouraged Majority Leader Chuck Schumer “to bring them forward for votes.” Knowing that in all likelihood those provisions would fail, the South Carolina Republican, who is involved in bipartisan talks, added that he was “ready to work across the aisle to find common ground – something that was absent from President Biden’s address to the nation. ”
The White House maintains, meanwhile, that the president is looking for the best possible deal they can get on the issue and that the president remains willing to compromise. Elsewhere, the usual partisan fireworks continue.
Rep. Eric Swalwell of California demanded in committee last week that his Republican answer whether they were “here for our kids, or are you here for the killers?” The California Democrat, who ran unsuccessfully for president, said that if his GOP colleagues were there for the children then they would support a host of reforms from banning high-capacity magazines to increase the purchase age for an AR-15. “But if you’re here for the killers,” Swalwell continued, “you would do everything to make it easier for the next school shooting to happen.”
Republicans were understandably incensed. “How dare you?” Reply Louie Gohmert. “You think we don’t have hearts,” the Texas Republican added, calling Democrats “arrogant people” who were “attributing murder to those of us who want to do something to stop it.”
Nothing got done in that committee meeting, just like nothing was accomplished the last time Congress seriously took up gun control in 2014. And yet, after making the rounds on Capitol Hill, McConaughey reported to the press back at the White House that he saw signs of movement. “This time, it seems that something is different,” The actor said. “There is a sense that perhaps there is a viable path forward.”
He knows the political arithmetic as well as everyone else in Washington, specifically how Democrats only have 50 votes in the Senate, well shy of the filibuster-proof majority needed to get new gun rules into law. But outside of the DC Beltway, addressing his remarks directly to the country, McConaughey said, “I promise you America, you and me, we are not as divided as we are being told we are.”
When the actor was finished, he did not take questions from reporters, but later in the day after leaving the White House, he sat for an exclusive interview with Fox News.
“I’m not blowing smoke here,” Brett Baier said before telling McConaughey that his remarks were the “the best, the most authentic, most complete presentation delivered from the White House podium in many administrations.” That said, the anchor continued, was McConaughey considering a bid for public office? Despite considering a bid for Texas governor previously, he said no.
“I’m not someone from the entertainment industry that decided to swing by for an open cause,” McConaughey replied. “I got the call. It happened in the town I was born in, so it got very personal for me.”
The words that he kept hearing after days spent huddling with lawmakers was “consensus” and “momentum.” McConaughey said that this time things might be different because there are lawmakers on the right “willing to not staunchly say no.” And just as important, there were members of Congress on the left willing to say: “You know what, we may want the whole loaf, but, okay, we’ll take a slice of bread.” He supports red flag laws and waiting periods and stricter background checks and increasing the purchase age from 18 to 21 years old, but like he had at the White House, McConaughey spoke with Baier more about his conversations with Americans outside Washington than the horse-trading on Capitol Hill.
He talked about going back to his hometown to grieve with the families, people who hugged him so long that “I’m a different man now.”
He recalled his talks with gun owners, staunch Second Amendment types, who told him they can get behind some reforms like mandatory waiting periods, what he called “pause after purchase.”
Congress lives on the left and the right, looking for differences and drama, he told Baier, but America lives in the center: “Damn right, I believe that.” It was time to drown out the “extreme right and extreme left,” he said, to “kick them off democracy’s boat.”
The work should begin in the middle, and McConaughey urged the country to “compare before contrast” and to find areas of agreement. “Too many of us see that as being too boring,” he said. “Well, I say ‘tough.’ Let’s get on with that – double down on that,” he added. “Put gas on the fire on what we agree on,” he concluded, “and let’s fly forward.”