He had been washing his pickup truck (naturally) and listening to country music on the radio (ditto). It was blindingly bright Saturday morning in August in New Hampshire, and we were out knocking on doors for our candidate, Hillary Clinton.
The beard squinted. He grunted.
(Photo: Jennifer Photography Imaging via Getty Images)
My wife and I worked on Clinton's presidential campaign in Maine and at her Brooklyn headquarters. But this was the first time we had gone door-knocking for her in a heavily Republican district. "If we don't get shot by a right-wing lunatic carrying an assault rifle, we will have had a good day," I told my wife, as we approached the beard and his truck.
Lisa asked him if he planned to vote Democrat, up and down the ticket. He grunted.
"Can we count on your support for Hillary?" she said, sweet as pie. My wife isn't just beautiful and smart, she's sweet, too.
The beard looked like he wanted to spit. "Clinton's a crook," he said, as the interstate hummed nearby. "She should be locked up."
U.S. President Donald Trump. (Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
We had already heard this many times that morning, and not just from bearded Republicans. A few registered Democrats had said it to us, too.
Lisa was undeterred. "But Trump has got a few ethics problems, sir," she said, still smiling at the beard. "He's under all sorts of investigations."
The beard shrugged, looking like he wanted to return to his pickup truck or shoot us with an assault rifle. "She's a crook," he insisted. "But Trump is going to start a war."
Afterwards, Lisa swore that she did not recall the heavens parting at that moment or a host of angels heralding the arrival of a political epiphany. She insisted we walked away and went to the next door in search of votes. But I swear -- I swear! -- an epiphany is what I experienced, in spades. I was practically thrown to the ground, Damascus-like.
For months, Hillary Clinton's campaign had been dutifully reminding everyone that Donald Trump was a vile, venal racist groper. Every day, Clinton and the mainstream media said that: "Donald Trump is a racist jerk."
War was Donald Trump's thing. He liked it.
Except there was a problem. Having lived in the Deep South as a kid, I knew what it was. It was this: Donald Trump may have been a racist jerk, sure. But millions upon millions of Americans were racist jerks, too. Racism -- from slavery, to Jim Crow, to segregation, to the assassinations of Dr. King and Malcolm X, and beyond -- was woven through their history of the United States, like a foul, feral snake.
By calling Donald Trump a racist jerk, Hillary Clinton was merely reminding millions of other racist jerks why they needed to vote for him. It wasn't an attack, you see. It was a Get Out The Vote strategy in reverse.
Two U.S. destroyers fired a total of 59 cruise missiles April 7, 2017 at a Syrian military airfield in retaliation for a chemical attack that killed scores of civilians that week. The attack was the first direct U.S. assault on Syria and the government of President Bashar al-Assad in the six-year war there. (Photo: Ford Williams/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)
But war? The war that the Trump-loving New Hampshire beard had mentioned? War -- having lived in Texas during Vietnam, and having been taught to take shelter under my school desk in the event a North Vietnamese fighter jet figured out how to travel 8,584 miles without refuelling or being spotted -- was what every American, of every political stripe, feared most. Racism was what divided the states. But fear of wartime was what United the States.
And here was Donald Trump, saying on the campaign trail that NATO was useless, or sort-of calling for someone to shoot Hillary Clinton, or repeatedly praising violence at his rallies, or wondering why the U.S. had nukes if it didn't use them, or threatening wars and walls against all and sundry. War was Donald Trump's thing. He liked it.
William Owens, clutching a photo of son Ryan, the SEAL killed in a January commando raid ordered by U.S. President Donald Trump's White House. (Photo: Emily Michot/Miami Herald/TNS via Getty Images)
The United States had been here before, of course. In 1964, the Republicans had anointed Barry Goldwater as their presidential candidate. Goldwater was Trump before Trump was Trump. He was a racist, too, and he praised extremism and the John Birch Society and guns, and promised to use nukes against the Commies.
So what did the LBJ-led Democrats do about Goldwater? They didn't go after him about racism, so much. They went after his fetish for war.
They put together an ad called "Daisy" -- I know this, because I named my consulting firm after that ad -- and warned everyone Goldwater wanted to start wars. The people listened. The ad only ran once, but it destroyed Barry Goldwater. LBJ was re-elected in a landslide.
As I watch Donald Trump giddily dropping the "mother of all bombs" on Afghanistan, or bombing Syria, or sending a U.S. soldier to his death in Yemen, or threatening war with North Korea -- as I watch all those things -- I think of that bearded guy in New Hampshire, washing his pickup truck one sunny Saturday morning in August. He warned us. He warned Hillary Clinton.
We didn't listen.
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