“To be a rebel is to court extinction,” slurred the dipso silent-screen siren Louise Brooks late in her life, when she lived in a shabby Rochester apartment writing astringent recollections of the coarse and ignorant moguls she had known and loathed.
Louise was a contender for the title of the most arrogant, erratic, dissipated beauty in the history of Hollywood. She was also a self-dramatizer par excellence, according to my late friend and hers, the Rochester novelist Henry W. Clune. But she wasn’t wrong about where the rebel road led.
In the waning days of the unlamented 115th Congress, I returned to Capitol Hill for the first time in years to chat with two exemplary rebels in the cause of peace and liberty: Republican Congressmen Jimmy Duncan of Tennessee and Thomas Massie of Kentucky, the two-man Upper South Peace Caucus of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Jimmy Duncan I’ve known and admired for 20 years. He was one of just six GOP House members with the guts and sapience to vote against the Iraq war. With that vote he cut a genuine profile in courage.
Sixteen years later, as Duncan prepared to take his leave of Congress, his mates had grown none the wiser: “Most people on our side are gung-ho for whatever the military-industrial complex wants,” he says. “Every chance I get I tell people that it’s ironic that the most antiwar president we’ve had in the last 60 years was the only one who spent his career in the military: Eisenhower. He’d be shocked if he knew how far we’ve gone down that path.”
With Jimmy Duncan, the late great Walter Jones (North Carolina), and fellow skeptics of empire Mark Sanford (South Carolina) and Raúl Labrador (Idaho) absent from the new Congress, the Republican voice against promiscuous military intervention has grown much fainter.
During the Vietnam War, Kentucky senators John Sherman Cooper and Thruston B. Morton made the Bluegrass State the epicenter of bring-the-boys-home Republicanism. It remains so, thanks to Senator Rand Paul and Thomas Massie, the affable cattle-farming libertarian inventor.
Massie is the GOP point man in the forlorn-hope bipartisan efforts to end the endless wars. He names Reps. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii), Mark Pocan (Wisconsin), Ro Khanna (California), and Barbara Lee (also California) as the Democrats most open to cooperation on matters martial. The Republican leadership, however, which can tolerate any apostasy as long as it does not threaten its sacred cows of war and Wall Street, has come down hard on Massie for behaving in the best tradition of Kentucky Republicans.
“I have paid a price,” he says, with an I’d-do-it-again-in-a-minute smile. “They have extracted their pound of flesh. All of the things they can do to you they have done to me.”
Such as? “Call up donors and tell them to quit giving money to you. Block your legislation. They’ve been kicking around in my district trying to find someone to run against me in the primary.” They even swiped from Massie the chairmanship of the Technology and Innovation Subcommittee, a position one might think befits a holder of 29 patents and two MIT degrees.
“I had to reprint all my letterheads after that,” he says, shaking his head. “Better to laser print the header on my stationery rather than preprint it because you never know….”
This is what happens to independent men who refuse to be neutered on Capitol Hill.
Are there reinforcements for those House Republicans who take their cues from George Washington and Robert Taft rather than Dick Cheney and John Bolton? “I’m never good at predicting who the good guys are,” says Massie. “Everybody I endorse comes up here and sells out.” But he praises neophyte representatives Andy Biggs (Arizona) and Warren Davidson (Ohio), and concludes with a story illustrating the potential, so elusive and yet so absolutely necessary to success, of reaching across, or obliterating, party lines.
Jared Polis, the recently elected liberal governor of Colorado, was the “token Democrat” in the House Liberty Caucus. When Polis learned that Massie was going to be in Denver for a Republican meeting, “he cooked up this idea that we should commandeer a restaurant that was closed and bring food that was illegal and eat it. I brought some beef from my farm that had never been through a USDA facility, he brought some raw milk, we had some hemp stuff, some kombucha, eggs from backyard chickens, and we cooked it all up”—in service of a food freedom bill, but also as an act of rebellion, a celebration of that sacred spark of defiance that burns in any man or woman born with a living soul.
Extinct? Nah, I don’t think so.
Bill Kauffman is the author of eleven books, among them Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette and Ain’t My America. He also wrote the screenplay for the feature film Copperhead.