Lost in the White House 1996


January 1, 2018. New Year’s Day is a time of reminiscing and I came across this December 2009 essay in my blogs. It tells the story of a happy experience in the White House in 1996. The Divine M and I met Hillary and Al and Tipper and wandered unsupervised in the historic halls. Back then, the White House was a venue of intellectual stimulation and hope. I only wish I had thought to warn Hillary to be careful with her emails.

When Michaele and Tareq Salahi appeared unexpected (at least by the Secret Service) at President Obama’s first state dinner last week it ignited an international headline frenzy.

The Salahis now say they were invited to the bash, despite White House insistence that they were not on any list of invitees. But admid the confusion, one thing is clear: the couple’s surprise visit to the Obamas remains big news.

For my spouse Martha and me, however, the Salahi’s caper sparked a sense of deja vu. We, too, have wandered unscripted through the ornate corridors of the White House.

What distinguished us from the Salahis is that no one noticed. Sure, our sober business apparel was not as attention-getting as Michaele’s stunning red sari or Tareq’s opulent tux. Photographic evidence provided by the White House suggests we could have been mistaken for Congressional aides or Calvary Baptist Church ushers. Too, it was a different era – first term Clinton Administration – and Plebian populists may have been allowed to wander the White House at all hours. But the Divine M and I contend that we crashed the White House just as brazenly as the Salahis. Even if it didn’t start out that way.

It all began on a chilly, gray day in late winter 1996 — March 4, to be exact. Martha was the official invitee to the White House. As communications director of Church Women United (CWU), she and other ecumenical leaders – including National Council of Churches General Secretary Joan Brown Campbell – were invited to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to accept the First Lady’s thanks for their support of V-Chip technology that controls what children see on television.

I had never heard of V-Chip nor was I invited to be thanked for it. I was, as was often the case in those years, merely tagging along with my spouse on interesting junkets. Even so, when M asked if I would like to tag along to the White House, I weighed the alternative – visiting the mustache wax exhibition at the Smithsonian – and said yes. She called a mysterious contact at the White House to ask if she could bring an escort and I was quickly added to the list.

I can’t remember where our hotel was, but I recall walking most of the way to the White House. I also remember standing next to Joan Brown Campbell at the gate where our IDs were checked. Joan, a friend of ours, was also a front-rank Friend of Bill’s, so she had been to the White House countless times and was probably not as excited about it as I was.

Martha, too, was calm. Her role as director of communication for CWU had placed her in frequent contact with the First Lady’s staff and she had also once stood in the rose garden with Bill and Nelson Mandela. In 1977 I had been among a kajillion religious journalists invited to the Carter White House, but that wasn’t quite enough to qualify as a grizzled old White House hand. The truth is, I was excited.

Thirteen years on, I can’t remember details about the layout of the White House. The invitees were escorted down a historic hallway into what could have been the State Dining Room. First Lady Hillary Clinton, dressed Superwoman-like in a colbalt-blue suit, welcomed the group and introduced Vice President Al Gore and Tipper Gore, both tireless V-Chip advocates. (Bill was not there.)

Hillary thanked everyone for their courageous support for the device that enables parents to prevent children from seeing television violence while I silently fretted about the fate of beloved visions of Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner blood-bouts.

With everyone properly thanked, the First Lady invited us back down the hall (perhaps to the East Room) where a sumptuous coffee break had been laid out before us — long tables laden with silver coffee urns, silver trays filled with scones, cookies, chocolate truffles, cakes, sandwiches and assorted beverages. The spread was so splendid that I wondered if the taxes M and I were filing jointly that year would pay for it.

But before I could stuff my pockets with cookies, we were invited to a receiving line to shake hands with persons I assumed to be future presidents of the United States, including Hillary and Al. We exchanged a few words with Al and Tipper, prompting me to reflect briefly on what historians would conclude if they could record all the meaningless banality that is exchanged between political leaders and their constituents. Hillary, who often seems austere and distant on television, seems gracious, warm and even a bit vulnerable when she’s taking your hand. Martha has met Hillary on a number of occasions and I thought Hillary recognized her as they shook hands. Or perhaps the First Lady was simply recognizing a woman with a smile very much like her own.

As soon as we got through the reception line, the crowd of V-Chip radicals dwindled away. Hillary, Al and Tipper disappeared to wherever politicians go when their duty is finished and Martha and I found ourselves alone in a darkened White House hallway.

I wished I had filled my pocket with cookies, but then I had a more pressing thought. “I wonder if they have a bathroom in this place,” I mused. “In the White House?” Martha replied. “What do you think?” I looked around and saw a young White House staffer walking toward us.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Is there a bathroom?”

“Just down the hall,” the young woman said.

“Are we allowed …?”

“Of course.” And she disappeared.

Martha and I exchanged dubious glances and we began inching our way down the empty corridor. We found the bathroom and pushed open the door. It wasn’t the bathroom equipment that was impressive — the commode and sink probably dated back to the Truman renovation of the White House in 1948 — but the wallpaper looked like it would have added dignity to the Lincoln bedroom. “We’ve got to take pictures,” Martha said, pulling a camera from her purse.

We stood brazenly in front of the commode and flashed toothy Rooseveltian grins, photographing each other in historic stances. “Oh, look,” Martha said, pulling a paper towel out of a glistening silver dispenser. The towel was embossed with the presidential seal. We stuffed out pockets with paper towels (one of which is still suitably framed at home). Outside, the long hallway was dark and deserted. “How do we get out of here?” I asked Martha, whose sense of direction is as bad as mine.

We walked slowly so as not to attract the attention of any presidential ghosts in the corridor. Where was the staff? Where were the tourist guides?

We started peeking through open doorways into rooms that were strangely familiar. Portraits of presidents and first ladies hung on walls. A red room. A blue room. Just as I began to think they had locked-up the White House for the night, we wandered into what could have been the White House green room. I’m not sure about the color, but I recall a portrait of Benjamin Franklin hanging over a white fireplace, and a smaller portrait of Dolly Madison on the adjoining wall.

As we were studying the portraits, a bored young man wearing a pressed suit and an earphone appeared at the door. “You’re really not supposed to be in here,” he said.

Busted, I thought. But Martha quickly handed him her camera. “Would you take our picture?” she asked, flashing a Hillary Clinton smile. “Um. Oh, sure,” he said. Martha and I grinned again and were immortalized in film in an empty White House room.

The young man led us to a glimmer of light at the end of the hallway. We walked out the door into the cold, gray air.

They say the ghost of Abraham Lincoln walks the White House hallways. We didn’t see him, but we got to see the same things he sees. The White House, dark and empty, devoid of people.

March 4, 1996. The day the Divine M and I crashed the White House.

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wenchingandwranglingThe debauchery arc of the universe is long, and it bends toward boys.

At least in our dreams. Even Jimmy Carter said he lusted in his heart, but the only surprise there is that Fox News never found out with whom.

Wicked temptation is particularly rife in adolescence when hormones blaze like bonfires and fantasies of sex recycle every five minutes like Liberty Insurance commercials. But the embers of lust never dim and most of us boys learn early that it’s important to keep our carnal urges under control. My mother’s social code, imparted early to my three brothers and me, was be nice and keep your hands to yourself. As we grew older and left the confines of the United Church of Morrisville, N.Y., we wrote our own codicils to the code. I like the way New York Times columnist Charles Blow puts it: “Consenting adults should feel free to express their attractions as they please without shame or guilt. Just play safe.”

Blow wrote those words less than a month ago amid a deluge of news stories about men who never learned to keep their hands and penises to themselves. In his November 19 column, “This is a Man Problem,” Blow added his own codicil: “But, there is no ‘sex’ without consent. To believe that is a twisting of terminology . . . Rape is not sex; it’s rape. Unwanted touching is not sexy; it’s assault. Sexual advances in a professional environment, particularly from a position of power, are highly inappropriate and could be illegal.”

For weeks following reports that film mogul Harvey Weinstein is an abuser and rapist, thousands of courageous women have decided they have had enough. Inspired in part by the #MeToo social media movement, women no longer hesitate to confront their abuser(s) for fear of losing their jobs or not being believed.

To be sure, the movement has led men to examine their own past to count the number of times their rushing hands and roaming fingers crossed consensual lines. In a recent interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, comedian Patton Oswalt spoke for a lot of us guys:

I’ve had to sit down these last few weeks and I’m going through my head – and I hope every other guy is doing this, of not even, like, physical acts — but, “Was there a remark that I made? Was there a way that I put things?” You’re just constantly now thinking of that. I see a lot of people saying, “Oh what, men are now supposed to triple-, quadruple-, quintuple-think everything that they say and do?” And you go, “Well, clearly women have had to double-, triple-, quintuple- think and say everything that they do, and look at all that they can achieve and do with that load on them! Can we maybe take a little bit of the slack? Will that be OK, Mr. Alpha Male?

Brother Patton makes a good point because confession is good for the soul, not because God is unaware of our bad behavior but because it makes ourselves aware of how far we have strayed. The Psalmist explains it this way: (Psalm 119:26-29)

When I told of my ways, you answered me;
teach me your statutes.
Make me understand the way of your precepts,
and I will meditate on your wondrous works.
My soul melts away for sorrow;
strengthen me according to your word.
Put false ways far from me;
and graciously teach me your law.

Indeed many of the men accused of predatory behavior have confessed their sins and apologized to their victims.

But there are notable exceptions. The nation’s most visible predators have flatly denied their behavior, despite the word of numerous very credible accusers. Congressman John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.) resigned without apologizing to a former staff woman after dismissing her claims of abuse as lies.

And the nation’s president continues to dismiss his several accusers as liars. How long he can do this remains to be seen because he may have to face at least one of them, Summer Zervos, in New York State court where he would be deposed under oath.

Yet Mr. Trump blithely denies a long string of abuse accusations by different women and so far the issue of his moral turpitude has not dismayed his small but loyal Republican base. Mr. Trump’s confidence in his dwindling base has led him to support Alabama Judge Roy Moore, an accused serial pedophile, for a U.S. Senate seat. When supporters of Trump and Moore are asked why they continue to support the two accused malefactors, the common reply is, “What about Bill Clinton?” President Clinton, who has confessed and begged forgiveness for his sins, was impeached for lying under oath but not removed from office.

Most logicians will dismiss as nonsense the idea that it’s okay for Trump to be a sexual predator because Clinton was one, too.

But perhaps it’s understandable that Trump supporters in the deploratude think like that because the history of presidential sexual misconduct goes way back.

According to historian James Thomas Flexner, it began with the youthful flings of our first president.

“Although (George Washington) drank and gambled and (we gather) wenched as did his officers, he was known as a stern disciplinarian in military matters,” Flexner wrote in 1965 in the first of his six volume biography.


The use of “wenched” as an intransitive verb is an effort to shift the onus from the great wencher to the irrelevant woman with whom he went wenching.

If we accept the second dictionary definition of “wench” as “prostitute,” it’s a case of boys being boys.

If, however, we accept the dictionary’s first definition of “wench” as “servant girl,” to use her as a means of wenching sounds more like boys raping.

No one knows whether young George’s women were willing partners, but it doesn’t really matter. Even as a young officer, he was a white aristocrat who probably considered farm and pub girls as his inferiors. He knew he had power over them whether they liked it or not.

George Washington, as Flexner points out, created many precedents as the nation’s first president. Some of those precedents paved the way for powerful men to seek sex from powerless women anytime they got an itch. Jefferson impregnated at least one of his slave women. Cleveland conceived a child out of wedlock. Harding explored hidden spaces in the White House to have sex with a young woman. FDR and Ike were unfaithful to their wives and LBJ had several mistresses. John Kennedy’s sexual appetite was breathtaking; he once told British Prime Minister Harold McMillan that if he didn’t have a different woman every three days he got terrible head aches.

Because bedrooms of yore were private places, we will never really know how many other presidents took advantage of powerless women. No doubt most of the men who occupied the White House were upright men who were faithful to their wives and treated women with respect. I’m sure that list includes Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.

But the aggressive disrespect Mr. Trump has shown for women is migraine inducing. His current support for an Alabama pedophile makes it obvious that he has no plans to change his attitude toward sex and women. Clearly he is not going to sit down and reassess his life and the harm he has done to his fellow human beings, as Patton Oswalt urges all us guys to do.

That’s too bad. Because as thousands of women are letting it be known that they will no longer tolerate crude and abusive behavior by men, we could use a little male moral leadership to speak on behalf of us guys: sisters, you are right, and we have been deplorable. We vow hereinafter to show you the respect you deserve.

But Mr. Trump will remain  smugly quiet. And to be sure, there is little he can say at this point to erase the words that will be carved in granite on the walls of his presidential library:

“Grab ‘em by the pussy. You can do anything.”

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Did McNamara Forgive Himself?

macradarphilp2It has been fifty years since President Lyndon Johnson figured out a safe way to fire Secretary of Defense Robert Strange McNamara.

According to Fredrik Logevall’s recent article in the New York Times, McNamara woke up on November 29, 1967 to learn LBJ had appointed him to head the World Bank.

In “Re-Thinking McNamara’s War,” Logevall notes that Johnson had concluded McNamara had “gone soft” on the Vietnam War. The President feared the secretary was about to abandon the administration to join the anti-war camp of Robert F. Kennedy.

McNamara’s responsibilities at the World Bank effectively muzzled him, but it’s clear that by early 1967, he had concluded that the Vietnam War had been a terrible mistake.

It blows my mind (to borrow a phrase from the era) that Secretary of Defense McNamara realized it before I did. In May 1967, when McNamara wrote a secret memo urging President Johnson to end the war, I was still fighting the Cold War at Bentwaters and Woodbridge Air Bases in bucolic Suffolk, England. F4C Pilots from the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing were routinely assigned temporary duty in Thailand to drop bombs on Hanoi before resuming their duties in the U.K. I’d see the returning pilots in Sunday worship at the chapel where I worked, silently flexing their jaw muscles while grasping their wives’ hands. I’d ask them how it went, and they’d shrug. “Had to be done,” they’d say, avoiding eye contact.

I don’t think any of us understood why it had to be done. I was a 21-year-old chaplain’s assistant who could have been the model for M*A*S*H’s Radar O’Reilly and I got most of my war news from the Stars & Stripes newspaper. All of us, officers and enlisted alike, worked in duty sections that had black-and-white pictures of LBJ and Robert McNamara staring suspiciously at us, hanging below the metallically glistening Air Force motto: “Peace is Our Profession.”

Oddly enough it all made sense: as a product of our profession of peace we dropped bombs on people in North Vietnam because it had to be done. Even if we were inclined to analyze it, we’d be distracted by inspiring speeches at Commander’s Call by officers like Colonel Robin Olds, the Vietnam War’s first flying “ace”, and the awesome Colonel Daniel N. “Chappie” James, later the Air Force’s first African American four-star general. Neither commander encouraged a good debate among their subordinates, so we’d nod and salute.

Meanwhile, and unbeknownst to us, Robert McNamara had digested a CIA report that the so-called enemy was intractably committed to reuniting the country and there was nothing the U.S. could do to prevent it.

McNamara, who was skilled at pursuing facts to their inevitable conclusion, realized his original judgment about the winnabilty of the Vietnam War had been wrong. His memo to President Johnson is quoted in his obituary in the New York Times:

“The war is becoming increasingly unpopular as it escalates – causing more American casualties, more fear of its growing into a wider war, more privation of the domestic sector, and more distress at the amount of suffering being visited on noncombatants in Vietnam, South and North.”

Americans, McNamara told LBJ, “want the war ended and expect their president to end it. Successfully. Or else.”

When McNamara wrote that memorandum on May 19, 1967, I still had 17 months to go on my Air Force enlistment. The Vietnam War itself would continue for another eight bloody years. Nearly 38,000 Americans died in Vietnam in the years after McNamara concluded the war had been a mistake. I didn’t reach that conclusion until September 1968, my first year in college.

Within weeks after his memo to LBJ, McNamara found himself ushered out of the Pentagon and installed as head of the World Bank. Although it’s clear now that Johnson fired him, at the time it looked like he was promoted for faithful service. McNamara gave no indication that he was having second thoughts about the war.

And that’s what I can’t forgive. When his voice could have thundered around the world, he chose to be silent.

There are thousands of gruesome monuments to the price of his silence. Years later, after McNamara finally revealed his regrets, my wife and I visited the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where her immigrant father once worked as a dish washer after he left Cuba. The cemetery at West Point tends to be organized by the war in which the soldiers fell, and as we passed by the graves of Vietnam veterans I became bitterly mindful of McNamara’s change of heart. A lot of those graves were of men and women who died after 1967 – after their Secretary of Defense had concluded the war was unnecessary and unwinnable.

Why didn’t McNamara speak up? Did he feel honor-bound to be loyal to an intransigent president? What were his thoughts when the casualty figures continued to mount: 16,592 in 1968? 11,616 in 1969? 6,081 in 1970? All died for a cause he knew to be lost from the beginning.

In his later years, Robert McNamara was eloquent in his contrition. In a 1995 memoir he declared the war had been “wrong – terribly wrong.” He spent the rest of his life trying – futilely, it turned out – to prevent similar American disasters.

But the terrible question hanging over McNamara’s life can’t be avoided: what if he had spoken up sooner? Would the timely confession by the architect of the war that he had been wrong all along have forced LBJ to halt it? Would it have given subsequent warriors, Nixon and Kissinger, sufficient pause to sue for peace? Would it have saved thousands of lives?

We’ll never know. Personally, I think a public admission by Robert McNamara in May 1967 would have been loud enough to suck the air out of public opinion and silence the bombs over Hanoi.

When Robert McNamara died July 6, 2009, his aged and sallow face appeared once more on our television screens and it was moving to hear the agony in his voice as he admitted his terrible mistakes. Quite evidently he lived in a hell of contrition since 1967.

Other decision makers have been less contrite about the lessons McNamara learned. Logevall writes: “In Austin, Tex., last year, when asked if he had regrets about the war, Henry Kissinger demurred, admitting only ‘tactical mistakes.’”

At least McNamara was contrite. It’s too bad President George W. Bush didn’t have a chance to consult the former secretary before he plunged the nation into other disastrous and unwinnable wars.

Bush, like Kissinger, has yet to express regret about the decisions that were made. But Robert McNamara’s confession has been starkly convincing. No doubt it saved his soul.

I only wish it had come sooner.

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Sanity and Rationality in the Cuban Missile Crisis

October 22, 2017 – Fifty-five years ago today, President John F. Kennedy announced a quarantine of all ships approaching Cuban harbors.

He used the word “quarantine” advisedly because he was actually ordering a blockade of Cuba, which is an act of war. War would have triggered the nuclear arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union. It wouldn’t have mattered that the U.S. arsenal was vastly superior to that of the U.S.S.R. There were enough nuclear weapons on both sides to obliterate life on earth.

I was 16 that dark Monday night when my family and I watched Kennedy’s ominous address. I assume most Americans who had a television were tuned in because White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger had announced the President would address the nation “on a matter of the highest national urgency.” That night at 6:30 p.m. Walter Cronkite couldn’t report all the news until the presidential address began. He started to end the CBS broadcast with his usual sign-off: “That’s the way it is.” But he stopped and looked directly into the camera: “Well, we’ll find out the way it is in a few minutes.”

President Kennedy, speaking calmly but firmly, announced the Soviet Union was installing offensive nuclear weapons in Cuba.

“To halt this offensive buildup, a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated,” Kennedy said. “All ships of any kind bound for Cuba, from whatever nation or port, will, if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons, be turned back.”

The line in the presidential address that frightened me the most was this:

“It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”

It occurred to my uncompleted adolescent brain that we might be on the verge of extinction, but I wasn’t sure what that meant. We had read John Hershey’s Hiroshima in class and knew how devastating a single atomic bomb could be. But by 1962 the bombs had multiplied geometrically and were infinitely more powerful.  It was impossible to imagine the effect of all of them exploding simultaneously all over the world. No doubt everyone shared the thoughts of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara: “When I went to bed that night, I wondered if I’d wake up to see morning.”

We did wake up the next morning, but the crisis had deepened. My Dad and siblings and I prepared silently for school, where Dad was a business teacher. We were scared but silent. Dad may have been expecting the worst, but he tended to keep his anxieties locked up inside. Mom, who often talked about what worried her, was also mute.

In school I sat next to my friend Pam. “My mother didn’t get dressed this morning,” she whispered. “She just sits at the kitchen table in her night gown, listening to the radio and holding her head.”

I nodded. I could understand that.

In history class, Mr. Gourley – a World War II veteran like many of our male teachers – stood in front of the room and seemed to be studying our faces.

“I’ve had my life,” he said. “It will be too bad if you don’t get to have yours.”

He may have drifted into his lesson plan after that, but I don’t remember. I’ve remembered his opening sentence, word for word, for 55 years.

Throughout the next several days, most of us stayed close to our radios, which were the most convenient source of news. I remember John Steinbeck was asked how he learned he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. “I was turning on my radio to see if we were about to be blown up,” he said.

Even now, most people don’t know how close we came to being blown up in October 1962. Decades later, declassified documents revealed the Soviet nukes were armed and ready for use before the quarantine was announced, and Soviet colonels had been authorized to launch them at the first sign of a U.S. attack. President Kennedy’s more hawkish advisors, including Vice President Lyndon Johnson, former Secretary of State Dean Acheson and Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay, urged an immediate airstrike of Cuba. Their bellicosity could have ended the world. No one will ever know if Soviet colonels, who, after all, were human with family and children at home, would have responded as ordered.

There are still hawkish historians who criticize John Kennedy for needlessly creating a military crisis that could have been addressed diplomatically and solving it by backing away from a brink of his own creation. But it was his caution and, to a great extent, his courage to resist the strident calls of his advisors to attack, that prevented a nuclear holocaust. And for that we can be thankful.

In 1962, there were many things I didn’t know. I didn’t know that my future wife, Martha, had already emigrated from Cuba with her parents and that her family was watching the crisis unfold from their five-story walk-up at 452 Ninth Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen. I didn’t know that many primos y primas I would come to love dearly were still living in Cuba and would have been among the targets of U.S. attacks. I didn’t know how close the future we built together came to never happening.

Happily, the Cuban missile crisis passed in 1962 and the world went on.

Fifty-five years later it’s impossible to reflect on that past without thinking of the nuclear threats that are now being hurled back and forth between the U.S. and North Korea.

In 1962, the two men in position to push the nuclear button – John F. Kennedy and Nikita S. Khrushchev – were sane and rational human beings.

I wish we could be more certain that the current nuclear jousters are sane and rational. Because, as we learned decades ago, sanity and rationality are important ingredients for keeping the planet alive.

And only sanity and rationality will assure we will never have to tell our grandchildren that we’ve had our lives. And it would be too bad if they didn’t get to have theirs.

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The response of thousands of women to Harvey Weinstein’s serial abuse of females should come as no surprise to us guys. Harvey and his evil ilk are everywhere, and if we have not been him we quietly rolled our eyes and turned away when we saw him.

He exists in every strata of society, in our offices, in our factories, on our farms, in our schools, in our homes, and – God knows – in our churches. If you’re on social media, especially Twitter and Facebook, the number of women who said “#MeToo” because they have experienced harassment, sexual abuse, or rape may not have surprised you. But it was staggering to see who the women are: our wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, nieces, teachers, colleagues, neighbors, and pastors.

The #MeToo testimonies on social media – one woman posted #All Women as a corollary – were painful to read and guys like me squirmed uncomfortably as we looked for ways to respond. Bishop Robert Rimbo of the Metropolitan New York Evangelical Lutheran Synod posted, “I Believe You.” I have yet to see a guy post “#IDidIt,” and I’d like to believe that most men are not in the Harvey Weinstein category of chronic abusers.

But virtually all men should post #IKnew, because even when we were keeping our hands to ourselves, we knew what some of our brethren were doing.

#IKnew, when I was a student at Eastern Baptist College in 1969, that one of my fellow students, a future missionary, asked a Freshman girl out one night and forced her to have sex. She told her roommate, who told other students. “I was very disappointed in him,” one of my friends, a future clergyman, told me, and we shook our heads sadly. #We Knew. But we maintained the guy code of silence.

#IKnew in 1974, when I was editor of American Baptist News Service, that a high ranking Baptist executive had to be fired because he was a masher and a habitual grabber of women’s breasts. My bosses told me what to write in the press release: “He was so committed to his ministry that he is utterly exhausted and he needs to take a long rest.” #IKnew the truth, but I wrote the lie. Within months, the executives recommended the masher as pastor of a Baptist church. And within weeks he was assaulting women again, and the church fired him. Years later, a member of the church told me, “We never got over that. And we certainly never trusted the denominational offices again.”

In the 1980s, one of my male bosses died after a long, painful struggle with bone cancer. He had been a good teacher of writing about denominational politics, and I was sad to see him go. I called the woman who had been his secretary to give her the unhappy news.

“Oh!” she said. “I hated him! I know you liked him, but he chased me around my desk and couldn’t keep his paws off me. I hated him.”

I was dumbfounded. I thought of him as a sweet and nurturing old intellectual, but he had a shadow side I didn’t detect. And among the things I didn’t detect was that he created a painfully unsafe environment for one of my office friends.

#IKnew, also, that another high-ranking Baptist executive was known for inviting female colleagues into his office, where he would proposition them. One of the man’s staff subordinates confronted him and told him the behavior must stop. But it didn’t stop, and the man was allowed to ease into a comfortable retirement, where he remained active in Baptist activities.

Throughout the years, #IKnew men who were flirtatious with women but didn’t cross what they (and I) considered to be “the line.” No doubt many of the women considered the line crossed, because flirtatious and suggestive banter can be very uncomfortable.

One of the complicating factors in the Harvey Weinstein syndrome is that God created animal magnetism and bestowed it on all of us. Sexual attraction is not only necessary for human reproduction but its pleasure is also a gift of God. Sexual desire is the initial glue of committed relationships and it can also bring couples closer to God. Just as Olympic runner Eric Liddell said he could feel God’s pleasure when he ran, so, too, can God’s intense joy be experienced in the orgasms lovers share.

Even when we lust only in our hearts, as when our eyes discretely follow an attractively lithesome form on television or on the street, we feel pleasure. I can enjoy my spouse’s enthusiastic appreciation of Idris Elba and she will make sure I’m not dozing when Beyoncé appears on late night television. There is no rule preventing any of us from covertly admiring the earthly delights of another human being.

But there are limits to that, and when the line is crossed, it’s usually by us guys. In her #MeToo testimony on Facebook, one clergywoman told of entering a room filled with male clergy. She might have expected to be greeted collegially by her professional co-workers, and no doubt most of the men regarded her with respect. But one looked at her and exclaimed, “Delicious.”

That was a line crossed. The man may have thought he was offering a compliment, but he created an uncomfortable situation that automatically objectivized the woman in the presence of her peers.

I suspect much of the harassment experienced by women is from wolf-whistling men who think they have the right to shout crude compliments at them, in private or in public. I don’t know what can be done to stop men from saying dumb sexist shit, especially if their parents never got around to teaching them to keep their mouths shut and their hands to themselves.

But one of the jarring lessons of the #MeToo movement is that it shows us – as if we guys didn’t already know – how prevalent are the Harvey Weinsteins in our culture.

And one of the reasons they are free to prowl is that other men – those who, due to introversion, or age, or strong mothers, only lust in our hearts – know about it but remain silent.

Clearly the time for silent acquiescence is over, guys. If we see harassment or abuse, we should say something. We should have the balls to look the dude in the eye and say, #IKnow. And it has to stop.

#IKnew. #WeKnew

And we have been silent too long.

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John Woolman, the Great Muslin Hope

John_WoolmanOctober 19, 2017 – John Woolman, the itinerate Quaker mystic who spread his peaceful witness throughout Colonial New Jersey in the mid 18th century, was born 295 years ago today.

Woolman became one of my heroes when I was a student at Eastern Baptist College (now Eastern University), 1968-71. I began classes as a recently discharged veteran of the Air Force but soon began to feel the Vietnam War was a hideous mistake by America’s best and brightest politicians, and an immoral travesty by the presidents who refused to stop it.

I became active in the peace movement and spent hours exploring pacifist ideas with Professor John L. Ruth, a Mennonite minister. One afternoon, John handed me his first-edition copy of John Woolman’s Journal. It was a loan, he said. “I know you’ll treat it gently.”

It was not easy reading because the pages were yellowed, the letter s was stylized f, and the ancient binding made crinkling sounds when I cradled it. But I turned each page with extreme gentleness and read the journal in one night.

No book I read at Eastern had a greater impact on me. Woolman, committed to Christ’s command to love God and neighbor, swore he would never do harm to any living creature. He adjured carriage drivers to treat both their horses and their African coachmen with kindness. He walked in friendship with indigenous peoples in New Jersey. And he was an early abolitionist.

As a notary public, he refused to notarize wills if they included slaves as property. An excerpt from his journal:

A person at some distance lying sick, his brother came to me to write his will. I knew he had slaves, and, asking his brother, was told he intended to leave them as slaves to his children. As writing is a profitable employ, and as offending sober people was disagreeable to my inclination, I was straitened in my mind; but as I looked to the Lord, he inclined my heart to His testimony. I told the man that I believed the practice of continuing slavery to this people was not right, and that I had a scruple in my mind against doing writings of that kind; that though many in our Society kept them as slaves, still I was not easy to be concerned in it, and desired to be excused from going to write the will. I spake to him in the fear of the Lord, and he made no reply to what I said, but went away; he also had some concerns in the practice, and I thought he was displeased with me. In this case I had fresh confirmation that acting contrary to present outward interest, from a motive of divine love and in regard to truth and righteousness, and thereby incurring the resentments of people, opens the way to a treasure better than silver, and to a friendship exceeding the friendship of men.

I will always wonder what it was about Woolman that people found so persuasive. I was used to the concussive debates of the sixties and seventies when we tended to shout at persons who disagreed with us, never expecting to convince them. But Woolman spoke with gentle persuasion and people generally saw he was right.

Incredibly, he could walk into a raucous New Jersey pub, preach about the evils of rum, and convince both the pub crowd and the pub owner that he was right. “When men take pleasure in feeling their minds elevated with strong drink,” he wrote in his journal, “and so indulge their appetite as to disorder their understandings, neglect their duty as members of a family or civil society, and cast off all regard to religion, their case is much to be pitied.” It’s a mystery – and perhaps a miracle – that Woolman was not simply thrown out on his head.

Woolman was eccentric in the extreme. He discovered that the harsh chemicals used to blacken men’s coats were blinding the slaves forced to do the dyeing. He couldn’t convince his fellow Quakers to stop dyeing their clothes, but he refused to do it himself. He wore white muslin clothes as traveled around Colonial New Jersey, snow time or mud time.

That is the image of Woolman I have carried in my head since I returned his journal safely to John Ruth’s keeping. He must have cut a comical figure when he arrived in meeting houses and pubs, wrinkled, yellowed, and stained with soot and sweat.

But it seems unlikely anyone laughed because most people quickly figured out that John Woolman was a prophet in their midst. He’s one of the unsung heroes of U.S. history, and I wish more people would sing about him.

Nearly two-and-a-half centuries since he passed from the American scene, I’d love to see his loving, peaceful spirit, rumpled jacket and all, returning to speak wisdom and nurture to our bitterly divided country.

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The Day I Was a Lazy, Filthy Fogger

foamyThe memory had been lost for fifty years in the dim recesses of my hippocampus. This morning a little dab of shaving foam dislodged it.

There it was, dangling defiantly from the plastic red spigot of my foamy shaving cream can. I gasped and knocked the can into the sink.

It’s not the worst memory I’ve blocked, and now that I’m revisiting it in daylight, in seems relatively harmless. But it’s clearly the source of more than one of my neurotic habits.

The memory dates back to an incident in basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in September 1964.

Our World War II vintage barracks were open-bay with rows of GI bunk beds lined up in precisely measured formation. The beds were covered with olive green GI blankets pulled tightly into hospital corners. The blankets were hardly necessary in the stifling summer heat of San Antonio, but we were required to sleep beneath them anyway.

Most of our earthly possessions were neatly organized in footlockers at the foot of the bed. By neatly, I mean in military fashion. Boxer shorts, T-shirts, and black socks were tightly rolled in rows. Shoe polishing rags were also rolled, and toiletries – safety razor, toothbrush, toothpaste, and a can of shaving cream – were fastidiously cleaned after each use. The shaving cream can had to be dismantled at the nozzle to remove excess lather so it wouldn’t dribble out.

But sometimes the cans dribbled anyway.

Each morning the TI’s – training instructors – conducted a full inspection of our personal areas. The beds had to be firmly made, shoes shined, uniforms clean and hung precisely on a rack, and foot lockers immaculate.

Dressed in white baggy boxers and T-shirts, we’d stand nervously at parade rest while the TI, scowling disapprovingly, would move among the beds.

A1C Elihu Ellefson, a tall, blond, foul-mouthed TI, opened my footlocker and peered in. It looked perfect to me.

But Ellefson reached in, rudely dislodging rows of socks and underwear, and pulled out my shaving cream can. A tiny blob of cream was attempting to escape from the spout.

“What the fog is this?” he asked shrilly, pushing the can onto my nose. (Of course, he didn’t say “fog,” but I decline to use Norman Mailer’s 1946 transliteration “fug.”)

I was silent.

Ellefson glared at me censoriously. He up-ended my footlocker and poured the contents onto the floor. Boxers unraveled among socks and rolled away. My toothbrush clattered on the linoleum, and my safety raiser made a snapping sound. Ellefson picked up the offending can and, staring at me, spewed shaving cream onto the remaining contents of my locker.

“Jenks,” he said, “The only thing I hate more than a lazy fogger is a filthy fogger.”

I was silent. After Ellefson left, I picked up my locker and its contents and went into the latrine to remove the foam and put everything back into GI order. One of other trainees followed me in to commiserate.

“Geez, too bad,” he kept saying. “What a dick.”

Of course, Ellefson was not supposed to be popular with the trainees, and most of us hated him. In 1964, he used racial and ethnic slurs freely, including the N word, and he seemed particularly punitive with Jews. I’m not sure why that was, unless he was angry with his parents for naming him Elihu.

No other GI in our training flight had his footlocker tossed. No doubt Ellefson felt the point had been made.

And, looking back, having one’s footlocker tossed is not a big deal. It probably pretty much of a universal experience for basic trainees in all branches of the service.

Even so, I’m curious about whatever happened to Ellefson. I don’t hold any grudges against him, beyond the fact that he was a racist, homophobic, anti-Semite.

But it was clearly Ellefson who made me mildly obsessive with my personal hygiene habits over five ensuing decades, a habit I may have passed along to some of my children.

And I’d like to thank the son of a bitch.

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