THE BENNIE THOMPSON CRUSADE
Cold air and hard winds are blowing against the sky. You can almost feel the battening down of nature as winter’s heavy footstep is felt in the pounding outside. A Gothic sort of weather, full of ominous portents. I sat in a chilly living room listening to the proceedings of what may be the final session of the January 6 Committee hearings. The atmosphere was somber, the mood almost melodramatic as many of the nine members got to introduce or comment on a piece of video tape or some quotes from the latest Secret Service findings, some of them poisonous evidence against the former president. It made my skin grow tight to listen to the belligerence, the stubborn, almost maniacal resistance Trump showed in letting the riot on Capitol Hill unfold in all its terror. The closing remarks of Bennie Thompson were so pure in their simplicity and directness, I had to hold my breath: That Trump tried to take away the voice of the American people, to seize power from a venerable democracy after all the recounting had shown the election was valid; that only a subpoena to hear testimony and receive documentary evidence from him would be necessary to understand what occurred on that momentous day when a way of life, a structure holding society together was under serious threat of dissolution. The committee voted unanimously to issue the referral to the Department of Justice and set the wheels turning to bring Trump before the bar. The members filed out quietly as other in the hall stood around with the press and hugged, or shook hands. The wind outside added an operatic bass note to the final rap of Thompson’s gavel. What a day, what a difficult, tormenting moment in our history to witness such raw reality.
I was a young grad student when I spent many of my days listening to the Watergate hearings back in June 1972, when I should have been grinding through the first draft of my dissertation. I couldn’t turn off the TV. I would sit in my second floor room under equally gloomy Philadelphia skies as the voices droned on and the testimony in nasal voices kept amassing evidence against a tormented, paranoid Nixon. When John Dean produced his log and emptied out his prodigious memory of the long saga of that earlier attempt to seize power and crush all the opposition from the left, it was then that an iron grip on the arms of the republic began to give way, little by little, and for the tall, lanky figure of Nixon, his dark eyes glowering at us from the steps of his helicopter, his kiss to all who watched as he stepped inside and gave away his power at last, let us breathe again, but cautiously, slowly, in little pants as we sat there.
It’s hard to walk down a street when there is such turmoil in the national soul. Nothing feels right. There is a profound silence under the throb of cars and the grinding gears of daily life. You don’t quite trust reality; it may reverse itself at any moment. The birds are mere sooty blobs as they perch on the telephone wires above you. They might begin their screeching protests at any moment. The bridge ahead might suddenly collapse into the river. The woman ahead of you might stop and stare at you with a look of terror. She might yell at you or run away, fall into the street as she struggles to escape. You don’t know what logic to depend upon as you pull your jacket tighter around you. The stores are gloomy, the bar hasn’t turned on its Christmas lights yet, but the door hangs open as someone brushes dust into a pan and walks away without looking up. It’s how it is when things go wrong, and you are just a molecule walking on its hindlegs going nowhere in particular.
Trouble is for the young; they can handle it. It might keep them up at night talking on the phone, or slugging some of dad’s whiskey just to push away the pain. But when you are older, the numbness is dangerous. The dark has more menacing eyes staring back at you. You can’t handle the inertia that settles over you. You think of some distant summer when you went swimming with a girlfriend and she kissed you as you stood there chest-deep in the water. That was good. That was what summer is about. But there are such tears in the twilight reality that surrounds you at my age. You fidget, you sit uneasily in an armchair and look around like someone waiting to talk to a detective. You wish you could slip through the cracks of one identity and enter another and walk away, right in front of the duty cop and out the door. But if you could make it to the street, there was still the wind blowing the leaves in the gutter, wrapping your legs with a soggy newspaper. And the headlines on that journal would be about the pillars of government beginning to crumble. There was nothing you could do about it, even if the detectives were willing to let you escape.
I saw a cat sleeping on a window sill in a warm room. It was lying their below its dreams, as still as a pond somewhere in the remote hills. A clock was ticking on the mantle. The dog had died a month before, and there was only the sigh and shuffle of slippers of an old woman coming through from her nap. She would rattle a kettle and make tea, and turn the radio on to listen to some ambiguous music you could hardly hear. A boy knocked on the front door with his gloved hand and gave her the bill for the newspaper he had delivered last month. She would find her coin purse and peel off the six bucks she owed, and the boy would go away a little sore that he wasn’t give a small bonus for his efficiency. So it went. But it was stillness, the monotony of a day easily forgotten, that was a balm to the sore you couldn’t locate on your arm. The morgue-like solemnity of late afternoon in that house was a drink to sip at, a liquor that would make your eyes heavy. You might sit down with your head resting on the cat’s tail and drift off, slowly, out of the shadow of Bennie Thompson’s hearings, as your body followed the current of the creek out to a river. You were not willing yourself to escape from your dull fear, just letting it happen.
I miss all the people I loved who have died, some many years ago, like one of my brothers. He left behind a void I couldn’t fill. He took his last breaths as Washington. DC crumbled under the fury of the death of Martin Luther King. I drove through the traffic and was told to turn on my lights to show my grief. When I did, the horns stopped blowing behind me. I could make it to the other side of town and deliver the camera-ready sheets of the magazine I was editing. Then I doubled back through side streets whose shops were slowly disintegrating into smoldering fires full of black smoke. I made it home and sat in my parents’ basement, taking nips out of a pint of Old Overholt rye whiskey. What else to do. Brother was dead, the capital was burning, the TV was on with a voice mechanically reciting the facts of King’s assassination. Sirens could be heard this far away in the Virginia suburbs. No hand to hold in mine, just a cold vinyl chair and the greasy pint bottle in my grip.
But it was April, in the otherwise placid year of 1968, and Nixon would be coming into power the next year. He would turn up the air conditioning in the White House and light a fire to enjoy some nostalgic moment he remembered back in California. He would sit there brooding on the next moves of his enemies He didn’t believe in his power; he was sure it would be stolen from him and he would fiercely defend his precarious hold on the scepter of a country that had filled the vast landscape of the nation with forts and nuclear arsenals. But Russia was out there; and the Democrats were seething with rage, like some incarnation of Cain eager to murder his brother. He would be on the phone talking to some confidant or other until the dawn began to rise outside the Oval Office windows. Then he would drag himself to bed and lie there in a shallow, dreamless sleep after popping a few pills.
That was the pillar that trembled in my youth, while I banged my head on a manual typewriter in a bedroom study overlooking the roofs of Philly. I had no idea that there were other crises to come. Like the war in Vietnam, the crushing recessions, the forces that were driving the laboring classes into oblivion. No one could heal the wounds that were opening in the muck below the State Department, the vast underworld that was roofed by what was then called Foggy Bottom. When I got to Texas for my first teaching job, I came face to face with the poor Blacks working the cotton farms, raising kids on poverty wages, visiting adult sons in the prisons scattered about the southern prairies. Nothing was right. We would sow dragons’ teeth in that soil, and it would produce an army of white racists who would seek their revenge on liberals when the time came. And it came with their redeemer, Donald Trump. When the January 6 hearings concluded, the unresolved conflicts of a century and a half remained as fresh as when they were first perpetrated. The voices in the hearing room were muffled; the men and women standing there witnessed the national desire to turn history inside out. But could it?