A Few Minutes with the Mayor – May 2016

Most of our Jacksonville citizens have never been to one of our City Council meetings. They don’t know what they are missing. It’s true each meeting has an agenda, but that doesn’t always foretell what might happen since human behavior is quite often unpredictable. This was certainly borne out during our last meeting in March. Talk about high drama! It was like a Gary Cooper showdown in High Noon!

We’d done the Pledge of Allegiance, approved the previous meeting’s minutes and the bills, and thought we were ready for public input. No one in the room could have been ready for what happened next. One of our senior citizens, a well known, civic busybody, got up… dropped a bag of marbles on my desk while asking if I’d lost mine… and then gave the Sieg Heil salute while calling me Adolf Hitler. It was a cinema photographer’s dream, though without the cameras rolling.

Everywhere I looked, jaws dropped in total disbelief. Now I know what the phrase “dead silence” means. It was probably the quietest moment in the history of Old City Hall. Still wrestling with the scene in my mind, I wondered if perhaps I really had lost my marbles. Was this a Walter Mitty moment? Was I someone else in a different place and time? Perhaps Leslie Howard in Mr. V in Gestapo headquarters! No! There were no swastikas in the room and I wore no black Nazi armband. Was I Conrad Veidt as Major Strasse in Casablanca? No! Conrad was too tall for me to pull that off. Perhaps Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator! Again, no! I had no mustache… perhaps 5 o’clock shadow, but no mustache. Finally, some semblance of where I really was returned when I saw that the portrait on the wall behind me was that of George Washington and not ‘”Der Fuhrer.”

Fortunately, the job of mayor does not require a wit so sharp and politically honed that one must instantly return an insult with verbal ease. However, many of our political leaders on the world stage do seem to possess this ability, though I doubt most could top Sir Winston Churchill. When accosted by Lady Astor who said, “If you were my husband, I’d poison your tea.” Churchill replied: “Madam, if you were my wife, I’d drink it.”

There are times when it seems prudent to not reply when insults and epithets are thrown about. When our first President, George Washington, was about to retire, he received a letter from Thomas Paine… a former supporter. Amongst his other charges, Paine wrote, “The world will be puzzled to decide whether you are an apostate or an impostor; whether you have abandoned good principles, or whether you ever had any.” George wisely decided silence was a virtue.

The history of political discourse is checkered with rude, if not appalling, behavior no matter where you look. No less than Abraham Lincoln was called the “missing link” and the “original gorilla.” Indeed, every decade of American history has been filled with political speech of the sort we now decry. Jingles about Warren G. Harding’s illegitimate daughter, rumors that FDR was scheming to become a dictator, caricatures of “Tricky Dick” Nixon as a used-car salesman, Ronald Reagan mocked as an amiable dunce, Bill Clinton nicknamed “Slick Willy,”… American political speech has always used insult and personal attacks in partisan disputes over power and policy. Our First Amendment right protects our right of free speech… not its content. In a true democracy there will always be someone spouting invective.

The Seig Heil salute is somewhat different from invective. It conjures up images of death and destruction… anti-semitism and concentration camps… and over 1,000,000 American casualties during one of the worst wars in the world’s history. I remember the Newsreel images… I remember them quite vividly even today. No! Use invective if you must, but there is no place in all of civilization for that salute.

And anyone who would use it should understand that. I fear our busybody has forgotten what that salute really means.