In a dispiriting reminder that the more things change, the more they remain the same, Rep. Jeff Landry (R-La.) plucked a page from former Rep. Tom Delay’s playbook, denouncing federal civil servants as “the Gestapo” because when he popped into a local office unannounced and without an appointment last week, staff kept him waiting for 20 minutes. When federal deepwater drilling permit chief Michael Bromwich objected to Landry’s appalling rhetoric, the Representative doubled down on idiotic and demanded that Bromwich apologize. Both Landry’s campaign and his congressional websites featured his pugnacious reiteration of the comment when checked immediately before this blog was posted.
First things first. I am a Jew. The extended family on my maternal grandmother’s side was wiped out by the Nazis. I had a typical upbringing for those born within a couple of decades of the Holocaust: the horror was deeply embedded in our memory and our emotional framework. I think most any Jew of our age—actually, of any age—cringes and feels like someone has walked over her ancestors’ graves when any person in public life bandies words like Gestapo and Nazi about. Louisiana most certainly has a Jewish population, and my hunch is that it will be more than a little interested in Landry’s over-the-top-while-still-down-in-the-gutter rhetoric. For that matter, lots of non-Jews in the state will be likely be embarrassed to hear that one of their elected representatives is so breezily invoking such a hateful institution as the Gestapo. (Landry’s office numbers are at the congressional website I linked to a bit earlier, for anyone inclined to make a call.)
Second, rhetoric fatigue definitely afflicts the nation. We are so accustomed to people saying ridiculous things that we barely pay them any attention. In this context, though, we need to take more seriously the excoriation of people who work for the government. Remember the Oklahoma City bombing? In its tragic wake, President Bill Clinton gave a somber talk to mourning families in which he spoke words we cannot afford to forget:
This terrible sin took the lives of our American family, innocent children in that building, only because their parents were trying to be good parents as well as good workers; citizens in the building going about their daily business; and many there who served the rest of us — who worked to help the elderly and the disabled, who worked to support our farmers and our veterans, who worked to enforce our laws and to protect us. Let us say clearly, they served us well, and we are grateful.
Let us let our own children know that we will stand against the forces of fear. When there is talk of hatred, let us stand up and talk against it. When there is talk of violence, let us stand up and talk against it. In the face of death, let us honor life. As St. Paul admonished us, let us ‘not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.’ …
There is nothing patriotic about hating your country or pretending that you can love your country but despise your Government.
Last but not least, we have the reality that demagogues like Landry work so hard to obscure. Far from being mighty and fearsome, the regulators who work for Mr. Bromwich at the unfortunately named Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (pronounced “bummer” by inside-the-Beltway wise guys) are both underfunded and outmatched by an oil industry as energetic in its relentless demands for drilling permits as it is in annual profits. The Wall Street Journal has reported that a “small cadre” of regulators armed with “checklists and pencils” had failed to make much of a dent in overseeing offshore operations throughout the Gulf: “inspectors have been overruled by industry, undermined by their own managers, and outmatched by the sheer number of offshore installations they oversee. Inspectors come into the job with little or no hands-on experience in deep-water drilling, learning as they go.” And the Associated Press recently reported that so many people work for the oil industry near the Gulf that the government is hard-pressed to find new hires who do not have conflicts of interests because family and friends work for the companies they are regulating.
Our political system is so polarized that participants think they can say anything, anywhere, to anybody. But it isn’t so. Ask Tom Delay. But hurry. His “I’m a Member of Congress, I can do and say what I want” approach got him on the wrong side of the law, and he’s frantically appealing a money laundering conviction that will likely land him in prison.