There's so much to dislike about Rep. Lee Zeldin, the conservative Republican congressman from New York's CD1, who "represents" me in the House of Representatives. He's my congressman, but he certainly doesn't represent my views.
One distasteful trait is his fawning Trumpishness, most recently displayed in a photo on his Facebook page: himself, the "president," and a folded flag. Then there are the two former denizens of the current White House, headlining a Zeldin fund-raiser in Smithtown. Zeldin would argue that he has pushed back occasionally against the current occupant of the Oval Office. But on balance, he's totally on board with this "president."
Then there's his voting record. In his current term, to cite just two examples, he has cast a vote that allowed people to hunt hibernating bears and one that did away with a rule protecting streams from the debris of mountaintop-removal coal mining—without really understanding either issue. Now, another awful vote: a yea on the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018, which imposes new work requirements on food stamp recipients. In this Washington Post column, E.J. Dionne explains why that bill is so heartless. The final vote was 213-211. So Zeldin's vote really meant something. Oh, and by the way, do you think there are any poor people in Zeldin's district, including its heartland, Mastic-Shirley? The bill was so bad that even Pete King voted nay.
Then there's Sen. AWOL, Tom Croci.
Twice now, Croci has gone AWOL, leaving behind an elected office and the people who elected him, in order to be reunited with his first love, the United States Navy. In the first case, he was serving as supervisor of the Town of Islip, but took a leave from that job to return to active duty in Afghanistan. While he was away, the news broke that someone had been illegally dumping toxic materials in Roberto Clemente Park in Brentwood, which had to be closed for three years during the cleanup.
The question is: Did Croci tap the Navy on the shoulder and ask for active duty, or did the Navy reach out to him? Will Van Sant of Newsday dug into that issue with this excellent article. You can read it and decide for yourself, but to me, it looks as if Croci just wanted to get out of town. Why? Was it political squabbles? Did he know something about the toxic dumping before the story broke? (Lower-level town officials, it turned out, had been warned.) Or was it simply that his longing to be in uniform outweighed his duty to the people of Islip? Unclear. But this much is crystal clear: Croci's time in Afghanistan did not bring that endless war to a conclusion. It went on without him, went on with him, then continued when he returned to Islip.
One thing Croci should have learned from the military is this axiom: The commander is responsible for everything the unit does or fails to do. As the "commander" of Islip, one can argue, he was responsible for the dumping that took place on his watch. But when the news of the scandal broke in May 2014, Croci was on active duty, on the other side of the pond. The scandal didn't help the candidate the Republicans chose to run for the Senate seat that Zeldin held before running for Congress. Councilman Anthony Senft served as the town council's liaison to the parks department. Oops! The whiff of the dumping ultimately led Senft to drop out. Croci, who was AWOL from the town when the scandal broke, came home from not ending the war, just in time to run in Senft's place and win a Senate seat.
As if going AWOL from one job were not sufficient, Croci helped tie the New York State Senate in knots by disappearing at the end of this session, the worst possible time, in order to return to active duty—again. What are the chances that his latest tour of duty will be any more successful at ending the war than his last one was? Slim? Infinitesimal? None?
Zeldin and Croci—and Senft, for that matter—have something in common: They can lay legitimate claim to being a military veteran. And Zeldin was not shy about spreading "Vote for a Vet" signs around his district during his last campaign. But their time in politics is evidence that being a veteran, all by itself, does not guarantee that someone will do the right thing in office.
Other veterans who spring to mind are Lee Harvey Oswald (presidential assassin), Timothy McVeigh (Oklahoma City bomber), Jeffrey Dahmer (serial-killing cannibal), Benedict Arnold (traitor). And the list goes on. No, I'm not saying that either Zeldin or Croci has been even remotely as heinous as that parade of horribles. I simply argue that, when a candidate seems to be claiming that his or her time in the military should be a golden ticket to public office, voters should ask: "Fine. But what else do you have to offer?" In the case of Zeldin and Croci, not much.
Our glorious "president," perhaps under the influence of Melania (who turns out to have a heart), said he'll "sign something" to fix the horror he has created on the border, then signed an executive order that may or may not clean up the disaster. As a public service, let me suggest something else for him to sign: his acceptance of Stephen Miller's resignation.
This obscene family separation on the border is the brainchild of the child brain of Miller, a "senior adviser" to the "president." Miller is a thirty-something whiz kid, but in his brain, he is still a high school senior (hence the "senior adviser"), delighting in trolling everyone around him. This piece in the New York Times lays out how Miller and Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III are having the time of their lives creating this cruel chaos.
Miller is no more than a high school prankster stalking the halls of the White House. He should use that brain of his to reflect on how his great-grandparents came here from Belarus, to flee anti-Semitic pogroms. As my friend Sol Wachtler points out, in writing about Miller, a pogrom is a particularly virulent form of gang violence, and gang violence in their home countries is exactly what the parents of these children have been fleeing. But Miller and Sessions no longer consider escaping from gang violence a valid reason for seeking asylum. Miller and the "president" want immigrants to have high levels of skill. If that were the rule when his great-grandparents wanted to come here, with little money and no discernible eminence, they'd have been stuck in Belarus and in great peril.
If Melania is truly influencing her husband, the "president," she should be whispering in his ear that it's time for Miller to return to his first love: unemployment.
Any Mets fan worthy of the name remembers the thuggish slide by Chase F. Utley of the Los Angeles Dodgers that seriously injured Ruben Tejada, the Mets' shortstop. In the years before that ugly event, Utley had truly earned his F. It's the same middle initial assigned to Chipper F. Jones and Freddie F. Freeman, to name just two in a long line of Mets-killers who earned that F. (No need to spell out what it stands for. You get the idea.)
As a member of the Phillies, Utley had been a stone-faced assassin for many years. Efficiently and expressionlessly, he had murdered the Mets on too many occasions to count. Yes, he has a charity for dogs, but no true Mets fan is charmed or fooled. He's still a killer. Then he slid into Tejada in the 2015 National League Division Series between the Mets and Dodgers, ending Tejada's season. Here's what that felonious slide looked like.
A few months later, in May 2016, Noah Syndergaard zipped a fastball behind Utley's butt, and the home plate umpire promptly threw him out of the game. This really ticked off Terry Collins, the manager. Now we have video of that event, complete with the uncensored dialogue between Collins and the umpires.
In the grander scheme of things, what does this all mean? My theology of baseball: Yes, we are called to forgive those who trespass against us, and we try. But that's in life, not in baseball. Once you have earned your F, you're stuck with it. And Utley will carry that initial to the grave. Until then, we can daydream about throngs of Mets fans attending his funeral. As his body is lowered into the ground, they'll unanimously boo.
Seoul is still in my heart.
It's been a little more than fifty years since I first set foot on Korean soil, on a snowy day in January 1968. In the thirteen months that followed, I developed a love for the Korean people—not to mention for their delightfully spicy national treasure, kimchi. I taught an English conversation course at the radio station in Chunchon and made some good friends. So I am pleased that, for the moment, they don't face an imminent bombardment of Seoul, even if it means a false glow of unearned triumph for Cadet Bone Spurs, our "president."
Last year, we were treated to the potentially planet-ending, omnicidal spectacle of a long-distance insult contest between two crazy supreme leaders, both with bad hair and nukes. So, this latest spectacle, two crazy supreme leaders with bad hair and nukes in a made-for-TV lovefest, was far less unnerving.
The early judgment on the Singapore summit, like this Nicholas Kristof column, seems to be that the American supreme leader gave up far more than he got, while the North Korean got the long-sought meeting with an American "president." Kim Jong-un didn't even seem to mind that the "president" he got to meet actually lost the popular vote—a humiliation that Kim can't even imagine.
One of the items that the American "president" promised was a cessation of "war games," the joint military exercises involving American and South Korean forces. This concession appears to have caught the Pentagon by surprise. In due course, the generals and the admirals will have to figure out what their commander-in-chief actually meant and how they can obey.
As to the nearly 30,000 American troops remaining in Korea, the question arises: What real protection they are providing to the people? Back in 2005, Camp Page, the military installation in Chunchon where I lived and worked for thirteen months, closed. At the time, one city official said that the base had "hampered the development of the city." Talks between the the United States and the Republic of Korea had also scheduled other bases to be returned to Korean civilian control. In the years since Camp Page closed, I hope the city of Chunchon is flourishing. Here's a photo of me with some of my friends at the radio station in 1968.
The question remains: How much does South Korea really need the remaining Americans? Setting aside the question of nukes for the moment, it's no secret that North Korea has an overwhelming force of conventional artillery that could rain down death on Seoul in a matter of moments. Those rounds would simply fly over the heads of American troops and land with devastating effect on the huge, vibrant city of Seoul.
So, if this summit did anything to lower the likelihood of conflict between North Korea and its neighbor, it was worth the trip. But the American "president" should not be too quick to boast about his accomplishment. Will the North Koreans move toward total "denuclearization" on the Korean peninsula, as he appears to believe? Or will Kim weasel out of the vague terms of the brief document that emerged from the meeting? We simply don't know. Meanwhile, as our "president" is fond of saying, "We'll see what happens."
Among the many questions swirling around us in this troubling time, here are two especially puzzling ones: What were the evangelicals thinking when they supported—and continue to support—the current "president"? Why do so many evangelicals seem to be on the wrong side of the gun control issue? A new book by an evangelical minister sheds some much-needed light.
The book is Costly Grace: An Evangelical Minister's Rediscovery of Faith, Hope, and Love. The minister is Rob Schenck, who became famous as a ferocious opponent of abortion, but turned his attention in recent years to gun violence and the evangelical community's embrace of the gun culture. The title echoes The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian executed by the Nazis, whose theology powerfully influenced Schenck. In that book, Bonhoeffer wrote about "cheap grace" and "costly grace." In this blog post, Schenck discusses at length how his "bromance" with Bonhoeffer has shaped his own thinking.
His story is becoming more widely known. First, Abigail Disney captured the arc of his life in an award-winning documentary, The Armor of Light. Now the book lets him tell his own story. It earned a starred review in Publishers Weekly, and Schenck is the subject of this interview about his journey in Mother Jones. Read about the book now, then read the book itself. Costly Grace deserves a wide and receptive audience.
So many nicknames, so little time.
The first good one, offered by Stephen Colbert, was "presidunce." Perfect. It fit nicely today as a description of the presiduncial phone call with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The subject was tariffs and the damage they'll cause Canada. The presidunce is reported to have shot back with a wildly inaccurate barb about the War of 1812: "Didn't you guys burn down the White House?" Um, no, Mr. Presidunce, that would be the British.
Another Colbert nickname is based on the presiduncial encounter with Stormy Daniels, who reportedly whacked him on the butt with a magazine: President Spanky.
Then there's the one hung on him by Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois), who lost her legs in Iraq. Earlier this year, when the presidunce gave his State of the Union address to Congress, he only half-jokingly hinted that those who declined to applaud with sufficient adoration might be treasonous. Using the presidunce's favorite weapon, the tweet, Duckworth responded: "I swore an oath—in the military and in the Senate—to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, not to mindlessly cater to the whims of Cadet Bone Spurs and clap when he demands I clap."
The origin of that great nickname was his failure to enter the military, purportedly because he suffered from bone spurs. In his own mind, though, he was a sort-of soldier. He went to a military school, after all. And, in an interview with Howard Stern, he actually compared his struggle to avoid sexually transmitted diseases, in his multiple encounters with women, with the dangers of Vietnam: "It’s like Vietnam, sort of. It is my personal Vietnam. I feel like a great and very brave solider.”
I'll bet you do, Cadet Bone Spurs. And there he stood on Tuesday, his hand over the place where most people keep their hearts, singing the unsingable British drinking song, lyrics by a slave-holder, that he loves so much. Doubtless, he was feeling like a very brave soldier indeed, for snubbing the Philadelphia Eagles and putting together a bogus display of patriotism, to play to his jingoistic base.
The musical accompaniment, of course, came from members of the United States Army and the Marine Corps (which the spelling-challenged presidunce once tweeted as Marine Core). Cadet Bone Spurs loves being around soldiers. He loves generals, with all those shiny stars and chests hidden behind row after row of "decorations." At least he loves them until they try to tell him what to do, as four-star Marine John Kelly has attempted to do.
The whole display of bogus patriotism took just a few minutes. The highlight was the moment when Cadet Bone Spurs couldn't quite sing all of "God Bless America." It must have been those sneaky Canadians, fresh from burning down the White House in 1812, dropping some sort of amnesia-inducing drug into his water.
Actually, though, this isn't funny. It's the Cadet Bone Spurs version of the Nuremberg rallies: Worship the flag, sing the anthem, or else. He also loves that old trick: Make everything about the troops. Anyone who doesn't stand, hand over heart, hat off, and sing loudly and proudly, is dishonoring the troops.
That sort of obligatory obeisance is dangerous stuff. And it's particularly galling, coming from someone who didn't love troops enough to become one himself, but embraces them as a useful prop to pump up his base. In the army, we used to use an acronym and a sentence to make fun of some of the more annoying aspects of army life. The acronym was WETSU. The sentence was We Eat This Stuff Up. (Except we didn't say "stuff.") And Cadet Bone Spurs eats this stuff up too: the phony patriotism, the flapping flags, the singing Marines, the prancing generals. Next, his big military parade.
All this poop and circumstance—yes, I meant poop—is his sick definition of patriotism. The definition that I like best came long ago from the Rev. Jesse Jackson: Patriotism is loyalty to the highest ideals of the nation, not to the person who happens to be in the White House at the moment. Amen.
Now that our "president" has all but declared himself the king of the United States, the all-powerful one who can pardon himself for crimes he has not yet committed, but might enjoy committing anyway, this question remains:
What king does he resemble?
Is he, for example, Henry VIII? Well, maybe. He does, after all, have the same portly—OK, fat—image as Henry. We don't know a lot about Henry's diet, though his journey to obesity obviously did not involve either the Big Mac or French fries. What we do know about Henry is his collection of wives. King Donald aspires to an equally grand aggregation of women, serially bound to him by the force of the carefully worded pre-nup. And perhaps his love affair with the burger and fries will foreshorten his reign.
Or is he King Charles I? If you've read David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens, you know that one of the characters, the intellectually challenged Mr. Dick, was obsessed with King Charles's head, separated from the king's body after his unfortunate conflict with Parliament. Charles believed in the divine right of kings, much like Donald the Worst. But that belief, combined with the power of the Parliament, cost him his head. Bottom line: The current Congress is not at all like that lethally assertive Parliament. So Donald is not Charles.
Or is he King Solomon, who famously listened to the dispute between two women who argued which of them was actually the mother of a baby. His idea: "Cut the baby in half! That way each of you can have part of him.” That exact situation has not presented itself to King Donald the Worst. But he has chosen to separate mothers from their children at the southern border of the United States with Mexico. So, is he Solomon?
If not, maybe he is Edward VIII, who abdicated the throne of the United Kingdom in order to marry an American commoner, Wallis Simpson, a woman who remains deeply unpopular in England for her role in the abdication? If only. Whatever it takes to make King Donald the Worst abdicate the throne, the only hope to save our republic is that he somehow becomes a deposed king. Whatever it takes.
Or maybe, when all is said and done, he is simply the Burger King.
First in my class in Officer Candidate School. Late to the conclusion that our attitude toward the military is idolatrous.