MAXWELL’S SILVER HAMMER: Chances are, I wouldn’t have known Paul Pelosi had he walked into my office last week. Of course, I know who he is now. Everyone does. He’s House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s 82-year-old erstwhile better half and the one who famously took a hammer blow to the skull by a deranged lunatic and imbiber of various right-wing conspiracy theories and lived to tell the tale. Like everyone else, I was “shocked and horrified” by the attack, though partly for reasons that have nothing to do with the fact that our national political discourse has grown indistinguishable from zombie apocalypse TV shows. For those of us inclined to binge, the $64 million question has become whether we are what we watch or we watch what we are.
For me, there are personal reverberations to the attack. About eight years ago, my oldest brother, Philip, was attacked in his home in Silver Springs, Maryland, and killed by someone wielding a hammer. It wasn’t pretty. His blood was on the walls. His teeth were on the floor.
Readers of this column have gotten to know Philip, albeit osmotically. He’s the one from whom I stole the Theory of Lee. For non-initiates, the Theory of Lee holds that anyone with the first, middle, or last name Lee — or any of its many variants — is disproportionately more prone to commit acts that are either criminal or sociopathic.
Thus far, the Montgomery County police have not managed to crack this case. My brother didn’t lock his doors. He didn’t even bother to close them. He was defiantly extravagant about the precautions he refused to take. Philip didn’t use a cell phone. He didn’t have a computer. If you want to get away with murder, it turns out, this is the profile of the perfect victim.
My brother cultivated many bad habits. He was an unrepentant smoker, enjoying brands like Bull Durham, Lucky Strike, and Camel cigarettes. He ate eggs by the dozen and devoured whole packs of bacon in one sitting. When he went to movies, he doused his popcorn in so much butterine that the kernels all but bobbed on the surface. Yet his cholesterol levels were stellar.
Philip was a great storyteller; he loved the English language and the English language loved him back. This may have been the only requited romance he ever had. Philip was a great writer. He wrote love poems to women upon whom he developed crushes safely from afar. Maybe he wrote the wrong poem to the wrong woman.
Our family and his friends suspect otherwise.
He had a creepy, menacing neighbor who lived in the neighborhood — we’ll just call him Albert — whom Philip allowed to use his basement to store stuff, but after a while, friction ensued. Other neighbors also had had problems with Albert. At least one family reportedly moved.
I asked the person we’re calling Albert whether he killed my brother. “Why would I do that?” he answered. I explained my suspicions. Albert listened. If he was going to kill my brother over a thing like that, he replied, he would have killed a couple of other people in the neighborhood too. The fact that they were still alive, he concluded, was proof that he couldn’t have killed my brother.
He should have been a Jesuit.
In the course of that exchange, Albert told me he had served in military intelligence. As a consequence, he refused to take a lie detector test. He knew how the results could be skewed. Over the years, many well-meaning cops were assigned to the case. “I have his picture up on my wall,” one detective assured me. But there were other crimes to be solved. They cracked a big cold case about a couple of teenage girls who’d been abducted from a strip mall in the 1970s by meth-head carnies and never seen again. They wrote a book about it. The detectives liked Albert for it, they’d tell us, but then MS-13 — the Salvadoran street gang — would kill a bunch of people and they’d be reassigned.
A few months ago, my younger brother Joseph called to report he found a quarter placed with great deliberation on Philip’s gravestone. In some military circles, the placement of coins on gravestones is a tradition; the coin used denotes the relationship of the person who placed it to the deceased. A penny, for example, means merely that the person who placed it knew the deceased. But a quarter? That means the person who placed it was with the deceased at the time of death.
If this were a movie, the hairs on my neck would be standing at attention. The latest detective on the case took the quarter into custody and ran it through all the usual forensic tests. Nothing.
I’d call that creepy and menacing.
My brother was a knee-jerk contrarian. He worked hard never to be pigeonholed politically. He delighted in proclaiming that Sacco and Vanzetti were “guilty as sin.” Joe Hill, too. He just didn’t think they should have been killed. He wanted nothing to do with any causes that required walking in large numbers with other human beings and chanting. He made a notable exception, however, when Barack Obama was inaugurated as president.
A lot of people did. That seems a lot longer than eight years ago.
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Why am I writing about all this? I have no idea. Maybe because I’m writing this on Día de los Muertos. In my honkified upbringing, that’s All Souls Day. Take the occasion to eat something bad for you that tastes good. Try not to get so mad about stupid things. Think kind thoughts.
In the meantime, the Republicans are hunkering down in their respective bunkers, objecting to the obvious crassness with which Democrats are trying to weaponize the attack and tar what once was a Grand Old Party as the circus tent of choice for people who believe in QAnon conspiracy theories, that the Holocaust was a hoax, that the White race is being “replaced” as part of some systematic campaign, or even that the 2020 election was somehow stolen from Donald Trump. One need not dip the brush too deeply into the tar bucket to come to such conclusions. The hammer-wielder — a Canadian immigrant, by the way, in the country illegally — has stated that his operation was overtly political and that he intended to kneecap Pelosi to show the world the price liars like her must pay. (It’s worth noting that the assailant was Canadian; had he been American-born, he no doubt would have used a gun.)
It hasn’t helped the Republican argument any that no less a personage than Donald Trump Jr. has posted a tweet mocking the event, showing a hammer and a pair of underpants as a Halloween costume. For those who don’t read the Santa Monica Observer — a right-wing conspiracy rag for those inclined to stare at the sun too long — this refers to a false conspiracy theory making the rounds that Paul Pelosi was drunk at the time and had been assaulted by a male hooker he had solicited. The underpants reference alludes to another false allegation — reported only in the Observer — that the assailant was only wearing underpants at the time. In fact, he was dressed in his finest ninja warrior black, head to toe. Only the victim — dressed for bed at 2 a.m. — was wearing underpants at the time. Given that Donald Trump Jr. also posts photos of elephants that he has killed for sport, one might wonder how anything he thinks relates to real-world people.
Here’s the problem. The febrile musings of this addlepated brat actually matter. As does the magical realism conjured in lieu of actual news in pseudo pages of pseudo news outlets like the Santa Monica Observer, which has also reported that Bill Gates started a polio epidemic and that Hillary Clinton is dead and that her body double debated Trump in their presidential debate in 2016. At a saner time in world history, it might not matter that a zillionaire like Elon Musk tweeted there was a “tiny possibility there might be more to this story than meets the eye.” Musk would not be the first visionary tycoon made insane by the vastness of his wealth. Henry Ford was an anti-Semitic crackpot; Howard Hughes became an agoraphobic and germaphobic shut-in who collected his urine in jars. But now that Musk has bought Twitter for $44 million, he has access to 450 million active users a month.
It’s worth remembering that Musk has some spooky monsters hiding under his bed. In 2017, he accused the British cave explorer Vernon Unsworth of being a “pedo guy” after Unsworth had just rescued kids trapped in a subsurface cave in Thailand. Unsworth got on Musk’s bad side by refusing Musk’s offer of a submarine at the time. Musk would later rail at reporters who covered the story, accusing them of “defending child rapists.” Unsworth would sue Musk and lose.
Early this week, John Palminteri, Santa Barbara’s most indefatigable and ubiquitous man about town, took a snap of a half-submerged Tesla — the car that made Musk the richest man in the world — that had somehow flown off the side of the road and into the sea off the coast of Carpinteria. At first blush, this appeared to be a story about a car accident. Now, I’m inclined to see it as a political statement, a subliminal act of civil disobedience against the most powerful man on the planet. A rising tide, it seems, won’t necessarily lift all Teslas.
That’s something to be grateful for.
Getting back to poor Paul Pelosi. Yes, I was shocked and appalled. But like all people susceptible to shock and horror when lamenting our sorry state of political discourse, I’m a bit of a hypocrite. A two-face with a double standard. I admit I laughed when Rand Paul, Kentucky’s Big Mouth Republican Senator, was attacked in 2017 by his next-door neighbor while mowing his lawn. I thought it was funny. Paul’s neighbor, a 60-year-old doctor, apparently had “had enough” of Paul blowing his yard waste into his yard. One fine day — as Paul drove his lawn-mowing tractor across his lawn — the neighbor snapped. Paul would say later that he flew 10 feet in the air after being tackled by his neighbor. When he landed, six ribs had broken. One broken rib really hurts; six would be excruciating. Paul would later come down with pneumonia as a complication; the coughing nearly killed him. He would be awarded $580,000 for his pain and suffering, and his neighbor would be sentenced to eight months behind bars and 100 hours of community service.
To be technical, this was not a political argument. This was an argument between neighbors over what neighbors shouldn’t do. So maybe I can get a pass for my double standard. Paul, it should be noted, has been especially vocal in condemning Democrats for trying to score political points about Pelosi’s attack even though it was, in fact, all about politics.
If I can be forgiven, maybe Rand Paul can too. After all, when he got rag-dolled in his own backyard, Nancy Pelosi’s daughter tweeted that Paul’s next-door neighbor had been “right.”