By Gene Lyons
Andrews McMeel Syndication
Unlike now-infamous White House aide Rob Porter, I didn’t have a Harvard professor and presidential confidant for a father. My old man was a New Jersey Irish working stiff who taught me most of what I know about being a man. Among the enduring lessons he’d learned during his service as an artillery sergeant was that ethnic tribalism could be a trap.
Of course, that’s not exactly how he put it.
“You’re no better than anybody else,” he’d growl. “And nobody’s better than you.”
To him, that was bedrock Americanism. A powerful, athletic man, he had personal charisma and a lot invested in his ideas of masculinity. My uncle Tommy once confided that facing down my mother’s stepfather, Pop, had been a key moment in their courtship. According to her youngest brother – Tommy used to babysit me in neighborhood bars after he got out of the Army – Pop made a coarse suggestion one night as my father brought her home from a date, and it took three of her brothers to restrain him.
Whether this actually happened, I’ve no idea. My father never talked about it, and Uncle Tommy was a storyteller. But it’s definitely consistent with both men’s personalities. Pop was a foul-mouthed, hard-drinking man, and once my father’s Irish was up, it would have taken three men to hold him.
Tommy’s attitude was that the old man had it coming.
Something else my father impressed on me was that only drunks and cowards raised their hands against women. He had as little use for one as the other. Regardless of provocation, a man simply could not punch or manhandle a woman. It was contemptible, signifying a weakling.
Believe me, this was not out of some sentimental idealization of womanhood – nothing like White House chief of staff John Kelly’s invocation of women as “sacred,” for example. My mother could be an extremely difficult person, with a habit of fierce invective. So could a couple of my dad’s sisters. In my experience, Irish women are rarely shy and retiring.
Another of my father’s oft-repeated slogans, which drove my wife crazy, was: “You can’t live with them, and you can’t live without them.” Women, that is. As if they were a different species, incomprehensible and dangerous. But he was always kind to Diane, and she eventually understood more or less where he was coming from: matriarchal Ireland, basically.
I think he was always a little wistful about our marriage, a passionate friendship so different from his own. We met in graduate school, not the parish hall. We were drawn together as individuals far from home, a community of two.
She never had to say it, but I always understood that if I raised my hand to Diane even one time, she’d be gone. But then how could I hit her and face myself? I’m roughly twice her size. It would be like punching a child.
Which brings us back to the cowardly, 6-foot-5 wife-beater in the White House. I wonder if Rob Porter has a secret drinking problem. To my knowledge, neither of his ex-wives has said so, but it fits the pattern: courtly, gentlemanly, affectionate, and then abruptly violent, abusive and controlling. A Rhodes scholar who blackens his wife’s eye and punches out windows.
Researching a column a couple of weeks ago, I happened upon this explanation of the psychology of domestic abuse from the terrific country singer Martina McBride:
“A lot of teenage girls will be first dating and they’ll think, ‘Oh he doesn’t want me to see my friends. He just wants me all to himself. Isn’t that sweet?’ Or ‘Oh, he’s just being protective. Isn’t that sweet?’ And then it turns into something else .... They don’t recognize that until it’s too late.”
Of course, neither Colbie Holderness nor Jennifer Willoughby, the two ex-wives who told the FBI about Porter’s violent proclivities, qualifies as a naive young girl. Nor, for that matter, does everybody’s White House sweetheart, Hope Hicks.
Nevertheless, hope abides in the female heart, at least until it doesn’t. “I walked away from that relationship a shell of the person I was when I went into it,” Holderness has written, “but it took me a long time to realize the toll that his behavior was taking on me.”
A Golden Boy who needs absolute control and who lies as glibly as any TV evangelist. A weakling filled with rage and with crippling ego problems. It’s not just a foible; it’s a deep personality defect. Clearly vulnerable to blackmail: a walking security risk.
As for the whole who-shot-John narrative about which White House officials were informed of FBI doubts about Porter’s security clearance, who cares? This White House is filled with vassals for whom Porter’s character faults are minor personal issues. Fealty to Trump is the only thing that counts.
If they thought otherwise, they couldn’t work for the man.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President”.