WASHINGTON — One lazy, sultry afternoon in 1947, two years after the United States helped trounce the Nazis, my father arrived at our family’s modest summer house on the Severn River near the Naval Academy.
He had come from his job as a police detective in D.C., still wearing his suit and his service revolver.
“Get your shoes on and come with me,” he told my 10-year-old brother, Martin, his Irish lilt edged with a steel that caused his son to scramble. “I have something to do and I want you to see it.”
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The town, Herald Harbor, Maryland, had its share of “old country hicks,” as Martin called them. It had been founded in 1924 by The Washington Herald, a newspaper owned by William Randolph Hearst. The Herald gave one of the first cottages to Margaret Gorman, a vivacious curly-haired 5-foot-1 Washington teenager who had gone to Atlantic City in 1921, sponsored by the paper, and won a beauty pageant. She was crowned “The Most Beautiful Bathing Girl in America” and awarded the Golden Mermaid trophy. The next year, she competed again and won a new title. She became the first Miss America.
My father liked Herald Harbor because, with its woods and water, it reminded him of his native Ireland. He planted potatoes in the garden and nailed up a sign naming the property Fanore, after the tiny village in County Clare where he was born.
He had a couple extra houses for relatives, but when they married and stopped coming, he sold them. Word quickly spread through the cloistered town that Mike Dowd had sold to Jewish families.
Crosses began appearing on the new neighbors’ yards. At night, men skulked around in their Ku Klux Klan sheets, or what my sister, then 8, called “ghost outfits.”
The head of the local Klan, a man who delivered ice in the town, began mouthing off about how he didn’t want Jews in the neighborhood.
My father explained to Martin that his best friend in the town, a boy a year younger, was the son of the Klan leader. He told Martin that they were going to talk to the man. They walked to the top of the road, took a left and went to the third house.
“I was sort of excited and paralyzed at the same time,” Martin recalled when I talked to him about it Friday. (I was not yet born.) “I thought what the hell do we do if the guy comes out with a shotgun?”
My father had his jacket open so his holster was showing.
“I hear you’re looking for me,” he coolly told the scrawny man who answered the door.
“I’m not looking for you,” the man replied.
“These are wonderful people, wonderful people,” my dad said of our neighbors. “And I don’t want you to think that you can get in their way coming in here. I just want to pass that along. I’m going to be keeping an eye on you.”
My brother knew, and the Klan leader found out, that my father was not one to be trifled with. He had already tangled with the Klan once on police business in West Virginia, when they
overturned his partner’s car because it had a sticker supporting Al Smith, the first Roman Catholic to run for president on a major party ticket.
The Jewish families never had a problem again.
“He was totally unafraid of everyone and everything,” Martin marveled. “He was just a spectacular person.”
I was thinking of that story the day Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009 because it was the first time I had seen my hometown seem truly integrated. How amazing that within my brother’s lifetime we had vanquished all those hideous ghouls in ghost costumes. How magical and modern our future would be.
The next day, I roused my reluctant houseguests for a dawn trip to the Lincoln Memorial, with croissants and champagne, to celebrate the spectacular odyssey from Lincoln to Obama.
But we were naive. We should have known it would not be that easy. There were ugly things rumbling beneath the surface and, fueled by that bigotry, Democratic incompetence and Republican longing for a conservative Supreme Court, Donald Trump found a narrow portal to crawl through to get to the Oval Office.
He did not come to the White House with any moral authority. And unlike some other presidents, such as JFK and Ronald Reagan, he did not embody our aspirations.
He was simply a rough instrument to smash the capital. Republican nihilism and Democratic neglect and arrogance had bred a virulent strain of nihilism in the electorate. Many voters wanted to tear down the house.
There will be a lot of pain while this president is in office, and the clock will turn back on many things. But we will come out stronger, once this last shriek of white supremacy and grievance and fear of the future is out of the system. Every day, President Trump teaches us what values we cherish — and they’re the opposite of his.
My dad, a war veteran and decorated police hero, used to divide men into men and “weasels.”
When Trump buoyed the Ku Klux Klan and the neo-Nazis who had marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, with Tiki torches, Confederate flags, Nazi slogans, swastikas and banners reading “Jews will not replace us” — even as one of their leaders told a Vice News reporter how disgusting it was that Trump’s “beautiful” blond daughter was married to a Jewish man — the president made it clear which category he is in.
For all the things he thinks make him a tough guy — his macho posturing, his Twitter bullying, his swaggering and leering talk, his vulgar references to his anatomy — he’s no tough guy if he can’t stand up to the scum of the earth. He followed the roar of the crowd to dark, violent places, becoming ever more crazed and isolated and self-destructive, egged on by the egotist and erstwhile White House strategist Steve Bannon but really led by his own puerile and insatiable ego.
Trump has shown a fatal inability to listen to his better angels and stay on the side of the angels.
Or, as my father would say, he’s a weasel.