Dither Dither Dumpling: A Tribute to John McCain by Nate Haken


Hunter S. Thompson would have cut right through those doilies and canapes. Wander around Washington, DC long enough in a bow tie and a flag pin, you can land any number of free five-course meals replete with stemware and a salad fork. This luncheon was something special though. Mitt Romney talked for a while at the podium about how Obama was dithering on Afghanistan. Never heard the word “dither” used so much before or since that summer of 2011. There are only a few very specific contexts in which a person dithers. Conjugate the word dither in the subjunctive tense (…that I had dithered, you had dithered, he or she had dithered). This was back around the time that President Obama was famously dithering, and the Republicans were lit.

In those days, Republicans cared a lot about things like character, deficits, free trade, and most important of all, American Exceptionalism, whereby the USA carried the great God-given responsibility that comes with power, as Spiderman once said, and owns as a core mission the role of sustaining the international system by backstopping the United Nations, NATO, enforcing treaties, sanctions, security guarantees, and promoting economic development all over the world. The idea was that someone’s got to, and America is for better or for worse, the only one that can. So we better, if we want open shipping lanes, energy security, global networks of fiber optic cables, GPS, and the prevention of violent extremism and mass displacement of refugees. Otherwise the world is doomed to revert to the Hobbesian hellscape we narrowly avoided in 1918 and again in 1945.

According to Mitt Romney, from what I gathered between the chicken and the chocolate mousse, was that President Obama’s unforgivable failing was his apparent unpatriotic belief that America was in inexorable decline and that said decline needed to be managed as a matter of national policy: reaching out to enemies, selling out allies, using drones instead of battalions, and so on, on the cheap. “Hell no!” we shouted and turned to one another and talked about our ancestors who fought in all the wars. We all had stories that we told each other between courses and in the hallways. As for me, my Great Great Great (etc. times six) Grandfather came over on a boat from the Palatinate region of Germany and fought the Revolutionary War. My Great Great Great Grandfather came on a boat from England and worked as a coal miner in Pennsylvania then joined the 46th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers to fight the Civil War (battles of Resaca, New Hope Church, Pine Knob, Kolb’s Farm, Peach Tree Creek, Monieth Swamp outside Savannah, and Battles of Averasboro and Bentonville in North Carolina.) My Great Grandfather came on a boat from England and then fought in World War I as a wagoner. He named his daughter after the city in France where one night, somehow, he got separated from his company during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Scared out of his mind he found a strange tent and slipped inside to hide but when his eyes adjusted to the dark he saw stacks of bodies lying there. That was the place of safety that he named his daughter after and never talked about the war to anybody his whole life.

There were other speakers, too. We all hooted and hollered when anybody on the stage said anything about President Obama being naïve, incompetent, and/or leading America down a path of decline because that pissed us right off. We shook our fists and hooted. We were all jazzed up when John McCain walked up on the stage, because he was a hero. Like the other speakers, he was also pleased to serve up red meat, but unlike the others he did so with a sad and somber affect. So instead of hooting we all shook our heads at the pathetic picture of a dithering President in a time of war.

It was all going splendidly. We all felt great. But then the next speakers after John McCain took the wind right out of our sails – a military analyst from the Brookings Institution and a former CIA agent. They got up and threw a wet blanket over the entire affair. They said as fun as it may be to throw rocks, as far as Afghanistan is concerned, we all had to admit that Obama was in something of a pickle, graveyard of empires and all. And not to be overly-critical of the military, but when he was first elected, the President did ask what they needed for a successful counterinsurgency mission and they said 30,000 troops. He swallowed hard and said semper fi oorah. Now, 9 months later General McCrystal turns around and says he needs 60,000 more? You’d be forgiven for wondering if they didn’t have a good picture in January, did they have better information now? As Commander in Chief, he’d be remiss if he didn’t take a couple months for a deep dive into the intel, analysis, and strategy before a major course correction like that. Anyhow, the military analyst and former CIA agent sure ruined the mood.

Afterwards, I’m wandering around the hotel looking for more drinks and snacks, past soft velvet walls and under chandeliers, and thinking boy howdy, those two guys just torpedoed John McCain’s message to smithereens. When McCain said God damn the dithering and trust the generals, they said, thank God for the leadership and implied that the numbers 30,000 and 60,000 might have been pulled out of the general’s brass.  I’m thinking I sure wouldn’t want to be in their shoes when John McCain gets a hold of them for publicly contradicting what he had just said.

Imagine my surprise when I came out of the bathroom and saw the young analyst right in front of me and John McCain in front of him. When he noticed McCain, he quickly veered towards him and called out, “Senator!” I thought a little apologetically.  I clenched my jaw and bit my tongue and hoped it would all be okay after the dust settled. But John McCain, a short man with big wrinkly smile and a crooked arm from Vietnam, stopped and grasped his hand warmly.  “I’m a big fan!” McCain said.  I believe he was telling the truth.

Nate Haken was born and raised in Nigeria and Cameroon. His nonfiction has appeared in books and newspapers. His fiction and haiku have appeared in several journals, including Witness, Narrative Magazine, The Massachusetts Review, and once published by a Buddhist temple in Japan. Read more at  http://www.natehaken.com. Follow him on Twitter at @natehaken.

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