On the plane, I sit next to an old guy, white hair, who is busily underlining the folded pages of USA Today as he reads. I finally have to ask him why. He tells me he reads, underlines and then gives the paper to his wife so she can read it and they can discuss at breakfast every morning. It’s his ritual, but he usually reads the Wall Street Journal. They had USA Today at the hotel where they were staying in Palo Alto. They had attended his grandson’s Stanford graduation. His wife is sitting across the aisle watching video.
We strike up a conversation. He wants to tell me about the Stanford Experience. I wonder to myself if it’s like the Jimi Hendrix Experience. But no. He paints a picture of privileged seclusion on a beautiful campus. The graduation ceremony was impressive. The mass spectacular.
A Catholic mass? At the graduation?
Well, yes, but there were masses for every religion.
I wonder to myself what the atheists did.
He wants to brag about his grandchildren who are serially graduating from colleges around the country, keeping him and his wife busy this season. They live in Florida on the west side. He was originally from Chicago.
I steer him away from grandchildren, who it seems are all whip smart, super athletes and excel at everything.
Stanford teaches critical thinking skills he says. We agree this is important.
What did you do before retiring?
I made a great career in the FBI, starting as an agent and working my way up. I worked all over, headed the FBI in South Carolina, worked in Washington DC for four years.
Ok, this is getting interesting, far better than grandchildren. He starts by condescending. Read, he says, pointing to the paper he is underlining.
I doubt USA Today will tell me about the FBI, I say.
He smiles. Well, you’re right about that.
Did you start under Hoover? What did you think of him?
He looks me over. His eyes are robin egg blue. You won’t agree with me. I never met him. I think he built a great organization.
What about all the people falsely accused during the McCarthy period whose lives were ruined?
No answer to that.
We start on immigration. He tells me he doesn’t think we should let Muslims in to the US. Their law is different from ours. They should stay in Muslim countries, but they all want to go to Germany. They want the free stuff. He starts to lecture about Shia, Sunni.
But don’t we have some responsibility for creating the refugee crisis? Have you seen the pictures of Syria? It’s a bombed out wasteland. Would you want to be sent back there? How is this different from our sending boatloads of Jews back to Germany to face Nazi extermination during WWII?
He says his wife is Jewish. FDR was an anti-Semite.
What about the Japanese incarceration?
In retrospect? Terrible. He doesn’t see the similarity.
He says he loves the Hispanics. They are Christian, they work hard, they come from a similar culture. They can assimilate. Muslims can’t.
What is your vision? Do you see this as a Christian nation? Is this a war for religious domination?
He wants to change to subject back to Stanford, but can’t remember a word. The problem with an old brain, he says, and I sympathize. He taps his wife’s shoulder to ask. She looks annoyed, pulls out an earbud and answers. We talk more about the Stanford Experience, but I can never get him to explain its essence.
Since retiring from the FBI he has worked as a legal ethicist in private business helping businesses to do the right thing.
Yeah, it hurts the bottom line if you’re getting sued all the time.
No it’s more than that. It’s about morals. He thinks Comey should have been fired immediately after Loretta Lynch had the private meeting with Bill Clinton on that plane. I don’t understand this, but get that he is not a Comey fan, that he thinks Comey was unethical.
Sometime later he is still underlining furiously. I wonder if this is a holdover from his FBI work. The headline on the print-out is “Trump’s Cheese in the Maze Strategy.” It comes from a right-wing site called Big League Politics which refers to the media as the Fake News Media.
You should read what I read, he says.
I ask how he thinks Trump is doing.
He wasn’t a Trump supporter in the beginning, but now he’s on board. Likes his style. Likes what he did with NATO. They have to pay their share. Thinks he sent North Korea a message.
He and his wife go to lectures, read about world affairs. They heard a lecture at the World Affairs Council where the speaker thought we ought to ally with Russia. They are another white country he said.
How does he reconcile this with our war in Syria?
The Kurds are doing the fighting. He likes the Kurds. But then there’s Turkey.
Do you think the Kurds should have their own homeland?
He starts to lecture about the history but doesn’t answer. Mentions Israel, Saudi Arabia.
Why are we selling arms to the Saudis? Those 9-11 guys were Saudi. Why are we so close to them? Are we sending them to war with Iran? Where do you see it leading? Will borders change? No answer to that.
What’s your vision? How do you see it ending? Do you think there’s any possible strategy other than war?
We move to history. He thinks we should have kept fighting in Vietnam. We could have won that war with two more weeks.
What was the point? To open a market for American goods? We’ve done that. Do you think it would have been worth the tens of thousand of lives lost?
Yes, if we’d won. Were you against the war?
Yes, I was a protester.
My wife was too. But she’s come over to my side.
I wish I could talk to his wife. Has she come over in the interest of domestic tranquility?
We agree to disagree. It’s been a polite conversation and we agree we could keep talking for days. I’ve been the one asking questions. He hasn’t seemed particularly interested in me. But he asks me why I’m going to DC. I tell him about the Great Labor Arts Exchange and that my chorus is doing a performance about Paul Robeson. Do you know who he was?
No. The name is familiar.
My wife Holly thinks I should always introduce Robeson as the Old Man River singer. People don’t know who he was. I describe him as a football player, then as a singer and actor, a black activist, a communist.
Ah, he was a commie is all he says.
The FBI and US government harassed him and ruined his life.
We talk about travel. He has been to far more places in the world than I. They have a bucket list and are planning a trip to Israel, Jordan and Egypt in the near future.
The topic turns to health care. Beware single payer he says. The Canadians have to wait in line.
But isn’t that better than no healthcare? Rich people always have the option of paying for faster doctor visits. I’m a big fan of single payer and will work to get it in California.
Do you like Bernie Sanders?
I hesitate, thinking about the rift in the Democratic Party. Well, I consider myself a socialist. Yes.
As the long flight ends and we stand up, the people in seats around us chime in. They could hear our conversation. One says it’s just like her family. I say did it feel like Thanksgiving and apologize. Another says she is passionate about single payer. We introduce ourselves. Her name is Toni Rizzo and she has had a radio show in Mendocino County where she’s talked about healthcare often. The look on her face is pained, knowing. She’s talked to other guys like this.
It’s important to be passionate says the man.
As we wait to deplane he tells me all about his workout schedule, how strong he is at 70. I thought he was older. He wants to know if we need help with luggage. Asserting his physical dominance. I think he wants to arm wrestle. The last defense. I demur.
Sing loud he says as he departs.
I am left chilled by this experience. Here is a guy who claims to be a critical thinker, who claims to care about ethics, but who supports Trump, who believes we must exile Muslims, who thinks we should have kept fighting till we won the war in Vietnam, who thinks there is no answer to world problems other than war. We had a civil, respectful conversation. I really wanted to understand his point of view and now that I do, I’m horrified.
The episode reminds me of a favorite lyric from the Indigo Girls song “Tether”
I kicked up the dirt, and I said to my neighbor
We keep making it worse, we keep getting it wrong.
He tucked in his shirt, he stood a little bit straighter
He said we need a few less words, dear, we need a few more guns