Custody of the Ears

Almost every work day I take a taxi from the 125th Street Metro North station in Manhattan to Commonweal’s office across town at 120th and Riverside Drive. Frequently, I ride in a livery cab, and there is a group of five or six drivers whom I see regularly and with whom I’ve become casually friendly. We don’t say much, but we often greet each other like long lost friends when I spot them on the street and jump in the car. The cab ride is usually uneventful, although there is much griping about the traffic cameras (and fines for traffic violations) and the bus lanes on 125th Street. One driver, an immigrant from Africa, is usually listening to WBAI on the radio, a station that specializes in leftwing exhortation and conspiracy mongering. One day not long ago the program hosts were trying to raise money by hawking a new book, Demand the Impossible! A Radical Manifesto, by Bill Ayers of 1960s-70s Weather Underground and Fox News-Obama-is-a-Commie-fame. When he was a fledgling politician in Chicago, Obama had some passing acquaintance with the politically radical Ayers. Conservatives insisted that the encounter was a “To the Finland Station” moment, a charge that has been thoroughly debunked.   

On a recent visit to the University of Notre Dame (thanks, John McGreevy and Meghan Sullivan!), I took a cab from the airport to campus. My driver was a talkative seventy-seven-year-old man who wore those wrap-around sunglasses designed to filter out damaging light, and who approached the cars stopped in front of us at a speed seemingly calculated to instill thoughts about the capriciousness of fate in his passengers. He inquired about the purpose of my visit. I told him what I do and that I was going to speak to a class of freshmen at the university. He explained that he was Catholic himself, and had moved to South Bend after a stint in the Navy. But what he really wanted to talk about was how much he disliked “Hillary.” Really, really disliked her.

This was before the first debate, and he was looking forward to having Donald Trump teach her a lesson, and possibly trip her up. “She’s got quite a temper, you know,” he told me. “She likes to throw things. She threw a lamp at Bill. Gave him a black eye.”

“Really?” I said, not having heard of Hillary’s penchant for violence.

“I know because a Secret Service agent told me.”

“Really? When was that?”

“When Obama was here. I drove him [the agent] from the airport.”

“Well, I suppose if anyone deserves a black eye it would be Bill,” I said.

I didn’t want to get any more deeply involved in tales of the Clintons’ lives behind closed doors, but I confess that I thought something about this story did not add up. Do Secret Service agents on the president’s detail really need to catch a taxi from the airport to the speaking venue? I don’t think so. How and why would someone make up a story like that?

A recent New York Times review of a number of hate-Hillary books provides an answer. Evidently there is a cottage industry in writing about Hillary’s violent, vulgar, and generally unladylike behavior when the cameras and the mics are off. Among these books are Unlikeable: The Problem with Hillary, Armageddon: How Trump Can Beat Hillary (by former Clinton adviser Dick Morris!), and Guilty as Sin: Uncovering New Evidence of Corruption and How Hillary Clinton and the Democrats Derailed the FBI Investigation. All attest to the “fact” that Hillary is notorious behind closed doors for swearing like a sailor. The title of one book in particular caught my attention, Crisis of Character: A White House Secret Service Officer Discloses His Firsthand Experience with Hillary, Bill, and How They Operate by Gary J. Byrne. As the Times reviewer noted, Hillary’s “obscenity-laced tirades” are mentioned on the first page, and her volcanic temper throughout.

Now do I think Gary Byrne confided his secrets to my South Bend cabbie? No I do not. I suspect that Byrne, in the run-up to the publication of his “expose,” has been retailing these stories on right-wing radio, to which I assume my driver was a devoted listener. Even grandfatherly cab drivers have been known to embellish a story now and then. 

There has been much lamenting the “epistemic closure” at work on both sides in our politically polarized country. That is a fancy term for how we now tend to get our news and opinions only from sources that share our worldview and convictions. Liberals watch MSNBC or the Lame Stream Media or read the New York Times while conservatives watch or read Fox, Breitbart, or the Drudge Report. Do I believe Hillary secretly swears like a “drunken sailor” and throws things when she’s angry? I doubt it, but who knows? Lord knows, the Clintons have more than their fair share of secrets. Then again, so do the rest of us. I wish we could really “Demand the Impossible!” by insisting on a return to a world where privacy was respected, even the privacy of politicians. Without a measure of privacy, we are barely human. There is still a great deal to be said for that old Catholic virtue called “custody of the eyes.” And ears.

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer. He is working on a book titled Why Do I Go to Church?

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