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How did we get here?

SoVaNow.com / May 31, 2018
I’d like to make an early nomination for 2018’s most prophetic headline, from a full eight days ago at Slate.com: “What Is Even Going on With GOP Congressman Tom Garrett?” Funny you should ask: On Monday, Garrett dropped the bombshell that he is battling alcoholism and will bow out of the November election to keep the 5th District seat in Republican hands. On paper, at least, this thing is up for grabs.

The Slate piece was penned by the news site’s political correspondent, Jim Newell, a solid writer although not someone whose work I’d generally put atop my reading list. Still, credit where credit is due: After Garrett gave a press conference on Thursday to rebut speculation that he was about to drop out of the race — this was prompted by a Politico report the day before that described Garrett as being in a state of “turmoil” — Newell wrote this about our congressman: “How is one to tell when Tom Garrett is in ‘turmoil’? He’s an emotional, garrulous personality who could be confused for someone mid-breakdown when he’s really just living another day of his life.” A few days later, we find out what “just living another day of his life” means for Garrett: battling demons almost no one had any idea about.

Look, I wouldn’t give you ten cents for Tom Garrett’s political leanings, but no one should wish him anything but the best with his health, his family and his state of mind. It’s easy to lose a grasp of basic tenets of humanity and decency in these hyped-up, strident times, but at the very least we can wish the congressman well as he copes with his addiction. Most of us know someone in our life who has struggled to escape the grip of booze, and the process goes sideways more often than not. Let’s hope Garrett’s recovery is straightforward and swift.

So what now? There’s a decent chance the next few days will be strange ones indeed for 5th District Republicans. The choice of a GOP nominee to hold the suddenly open seat against Democrat Leslie Cockburn (pronounced KOH-burn, by the way) rests in the hands of 37 local unit chairs and district insiders who will meet Saturday to make their decision. Some of these people, to be charitable about it, are kinda out there. In Halifax County, the unit chair is Korey Snead, a smart and likeable young Republican activist who inherited the mess created when the previous chair, Centerville Baptist pastor Todd McClure, bailed on the job that he and allies inside and outside the county fought so hard to wrest away from the previous longtime county unit chair, Pat Barksdale. You may remember that little local political brouhaha from May 2016: Hundreds of local Republicans gathered at The World of Sports to take sides in a full-tilt battle to overthrow the party “establishment,” represented in the form of the aforementioned Barksdale, an ardent pro-Trumper whose sins consisted of doing much thankless work on behalf of Halifax County Republicans over the span of a decade. None of her diligent effort was ever my cup of tea, of course, but props to the longtime GOP unit chair for walking the walk even if some of us may think it’s down the road to perdition. Considering Barksdale’s treatment at the hands of some of the party’s most aggressive (and aggrieved) activists, you can only wonder what kind of 5th District candidate these folks might put up in the fall. Especially since it’s exactly some of these types of folks who will be voting on Garrett’s replacement.

We’ll see what happens. No one in charge of picking the candidate is listening to my advice, but here it is anyway: For once, I agree with our local delegate, James Edmunds, who said he’d like to see the party choose someone “who is willing and able to work across the aisle on some issues because I think that’s what constituents are demanding.” This, by the way, is pretty much the opposite of the role that Garrett took on in Washington as a member of the House Freedom Caucus, Capitol Hill’s self-appointed arsonist detail. Y’know, it’s not like there aren’t laudable and upstanding Republicans in important national positions to use as a template here: I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by the senior U.S. Senator from North Carolina, Richard Burr, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee and has worked especially well with Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner to keep the investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election on a bipartisan track. Unfortunately, for every solidly conservative Sen. Burr, there are five members of Congress who are bug-eyed nuts, including such notables as Virginia 7th District Rep. Dave Brat. In a better world, the likes of Brat couldn’t get elected dogcatcher. Yet he just might be the inspiration for the pending 5th District GOP nominee. Party leaders have promised to make their decision by Saturday, so we won’t have long to wait to find out.

***

Back on May 5 when Democrats chose Cockburn as their nominee, I was curious to see what line of attack Republicans would use against her in the fall campaign. Liberal journalist who’s out of step with rural conservative Fifth District voters? Carpetbagger candidate who parachuted into one of the district’s smallest redoubts, Rappahannock County — practically a D.C. bedroom community — from her perch in the elite media universe? Hollywood candidate-mom? (Cockburn is the mother of television and film actress Olivia Wilde.) Since it’s easy to imagine any of these riffs gaining at least some traction in the 5th, you can imagine my surprise when Republicans went with a curveball in throwing out their smear: Cockburn is an anti-Semite.

What?! Setting aside matters of fact and fiction (we’ll get to those in a second), and given everything we know about the 5th District, this depiction of Cockburn strikes me as being about as relevant to the average voter as … I don’t even know what. Republicans are playing their usual game of culture war politics, and if the past few years have taught us anything it’s that the immediacy and emotional freight of this sort of garbage can’t be automatically dismissed. Still, cultural appeals work best when they line up with the lived experience of the target audience. Not to be politically incorrect, but there just aren’t that many Jewish voters in the 5th District. Who even thinks about this stuff?

OK, there is a weird world view that connects evangelical voters to the hard-right Israeli Likud Party, but you could still poll 5th District voters on the issues that matter most to them and fear of anti-Semitism and defense of Israel wouldn’t make the Top 50. No way. So what’s really going on? The likeliest answer requires some explanation: Before neo-Nazis descended on Charlottesville last summer, Rep. Garrett held an office visit with Jason Kessler, one of the organizers of the despicable Unite the Right rally, which is not the type of association that’s easy for a politician to live down, especially when photos exist. When the Republican Party of Virginia uncorked the anti-Semite charge against Cockburn on Garrett’s behalf (the congressman wasn’t doing much himself to advance his campaign), it was logical to think this was simply the RPV’s way of trying to immunize the incumbent against inevitable accusations that he plays footsie with racists and bigots. In the words of the great Pee Wee Herman, “I know I am but what are you?”

Is Leslie Cockburn an anti-Semite? It’s a ridiculous claim, based on a book she wrote with her husband, fellow journalist Andrew Cockburn, back in 1991 called “Dangerous Liaison: The Inside Story of the U.S.-Israeli Covert Relationship.” The book got a bad review in The New York Times, and who knows, maybe it really was bad. Could be. Would not be the first. Point is, I’d be willing to bet that no one making (or repeating) the charge of anti-Semitism against Cockburn has actually read the source material, because the book sank like a rock two decades ago and it hasn’t grown in popularity since. Heck, I haven’t read it either. But I know specious political beeswax when I see it.

Here’s the thing: Journalists have an obligation to present both sides of a political argument. But what should news organizations do when they are asked to pass on a line of attack that is patently without merit? The question is tougher than one might think. This said, stenography is not the answer — reporters have an obligation to do more than pass on obviously false claims without regard for facts or reality. Alas, it takes time to sort through fact and fictions in matters such as these. Somebody might have to read the damn book. So stenography wins.

On Wednesday, The New York Times waded into this fake controversy with a so-so article buried under a terrible headline: “Democratic Candidate Who Criticized Israel Faces Charges of Anti-Semitism.” It all sounds so credible, huh? I don’t know why The Times chose to engage the right-wing echo chamber on this matter, but the nation’s newspaper of record has a long history of propping up phony-baloney scandals pushed by conservative operatives (the crowning example was The Times’ generally deplorable coverage of the Clinton Whitewater affair.) The Times justifies its inquiry on the Cockburn campaign by connecting the dots all the way to U.K. and the Labor Party’s dalliance with anti-Semitism in jolly old England, but, I’m sorry, this stuff fails the laugh test. What the heck does any of it have to do with the 5th Congressional District of Virginia, or, for that matter, the Democratic Party of America?

I’ll wait for someone — anyone — to provide an answer that doesn’t just drive the ludicrous quotient higher. Fortunately, Leslie Cockburn is a smart, tough and fearless candidate, whatever else you may think about her as a fit for the 5th District. She’s fully capable of dealing with this nonsense on her own. And it helps that the Republican attack leaves the field open for her to talk about stuff that actually matters to people, like health care and jobs. Still, in the absence of actual evidence that Cockburn is an anti-Semite, and in the sure knowledge that everyone is being cynically played with this fake scandal — reporters especially — I have one question for The New York Times: Don’t you folks have better stories to work on?





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