By Tom Henderson • Staff Writer • 

No need to worry; it can't happen here

 

I thrill to the adventures of fictional journalists such as Lois Lane and Tintin. They comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable and generally speak truth to stupid.

Guest Writer

Tom Henderson covers city government, social issues and general news for the News-Register. He has been a newspaper editor and reporter for the past 40 years and is a former president of the Oregon and Idaho chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists. He has won more than 100 awards for his work. Views expressed by individual News-Register employees in Viewpoints beyond editorials do not necessarily reflect the official views of the paper.

DC Comics saw me coming several light years away when writer Greg Rucka and artist Mike Perkins launched a limited series of “Lois Lane” comic books.

“I know a little about truth,” the Daily Planet’s star reporter says in issue No. 4. “I know you have to deliver big truths in small pieces — not because the liars will stop you, but because all those people who said they wanted it actually didn’t. And they will absolutely kill the messenger, and not just figuratively.”

Jeepers, Miss Lane, I love that kind of talk.

I must admit, however, I am no Lois Lane. Someone shot at me 31 years ago, while I was pursuing a story for the Woodburn Independent. All things being equal, I prefer to get through my work day, shall we say, “unpunctuated.”

As fictional journalists go, Doremus Jessup is more my speed. I relate to this guy. He appears in Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel, “It Can’t Happen Here.”

Doremus is a newspaperman hovering around the age of 60 who works for the community paper in Fort Beulah, Vermont. Lewis tells us it’s “a town of perhaps 10,000 souls, inhabiting 20,000 bodies.”

A husband and father, Doremus never strays far from his small-town newsroom and confines his journalistic interests to the events down at city hall and upcoming pie sales and quilt raffles.

He doesn’t afflict the comfortable. He is the comfortable.

I may be Lois Lane in my heart. However, after almost 40 years of community journalism, I really am Doremus Jessup, and in ways that turn my blood cold.

Why? Don’t get the idea Lewis’ 84-year-old novel is dull. It’s actually a horror story the equal of anything written by Stephen King. Quite frankly, I would rather face Pennywise the Clown than the terror that is Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip.

Fortunately, as the title of the novel reassures us, “It Can’t Happen Here.”

Windrip is a senator who runs for president on the slogan, “Every man is a king, so long as he has someone to look down on.” And he certainly affords his supporters plenty of reason to look down. His base is a group whose members call themselves “The League of the Forgotten Men.”

They feel neglected and discarded for the sake of immigrants and other minorities who whine about “equal rights” while taking all the jobs. And Windrip manipulates their bigotry masterfully.

But it can’t happen here.

Windrip makes an unlikely messiah. “The senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected and in his ‘ideas’ almost idiotic while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture,” Lewis tells us.

But it can’t happen here.

“He would whirl arms, bang tables, glare from mad eyes, vomit biblical wrath from a gaping mouth,” Lewis continues. “In between tricks, he would coldly and almost contemptuously jab his crowds with figures and facts -- figures and facts that were inescapable even when, as often happened, they were entirely incorrect.”

Windrip is elected president, but feels frustrated by the constraints of his new office, saying: “The executive has got to have a freer hand and be able to move quick in an emergency and not be tied down by a lot of dumb shyster-lawyer congressmen taking months to shoot off their mouths in debates.”

But it can’t happen here.

Windrip reserves particular contempt for journalists, telling his supporters:

“I know the press only too well. Almost all editors hide away in spider-dens, men without thought of family or public interest ... plotting how they can put over their lies and advance their own positions and fill their greedy pocketbooks by calumniating statesmen who have given their all for the common good and who are vulnerable because they stand out in the fierce light that beats around the throne.”

But it can’t happen here.

While many studied people are taken in by Windrip, Jessup sees the truth. Yet he shrugs it off. America occasionally produces political blow-holes like Windrip, he reasons, but discards them soon enough.

Jessup eventually actively opposes Windrip, but by then, tyranny has taken root. He writes an editorial opposing presidential overreach, but is terrorized by pro-Windrip goons in response. You know the old saying: “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required.”

Even when all Windrip’s promises of economic prosperity begin to unravel ... well, I don’t want to divulge too much of the plot. Suffice it say, it’s a terrifying scenario.

It can’t happen here, of course.

Nonetheless, it’s a good book — one well worth reading. There are many great lines, including: “A country that tolerates evil means — evil manners, standards of ethics — for a generation will be so poisoned that it never will have any good end.”

That’s sage advice for some other country, some nation of undereducated unquestioning rubes that would allow themselves to be manipulated by an unhinged, egomaniacal idiot who would command people to look down to see the source of their problems.

What scares me about my similarity to Doremus Jessup is the fear it’s people like him, not the likes of Windrip’s so-called Forgotten Men, who ultimately allow evil to flourish.

“The tyranny of this dictatorship isn’t primarily the fault of big business nor of the demagogues who do their dirty work,” Doremus says, berating himself after the fact. “It’s the fault of Doremus Jessup. Of all the conscientious, respectable, lazy-minded Doremus Jessups who have let the demagogues wriggle in without fierce enough protest.”

If someone even vaguely like Buzz Windrip ever came to power in the United States, I fear I would be a Doremus Jessup in a time crying for Lois Lanes.

Would I speak out in time? Would I tell people that their president is a contemptible fraud, a man who has made (as tallied by The Washington Post as of Dec. 16) 15,413 false or misleading statements, a man who hasn’t demonstrated a shred of decency, morality or humanity after almost three years in office?

Would it even do any good?

This might be the kind of demagogue who could convince a large segment of the population that reporters are “the enemy of the people.” He might be so deranged that he would even lash out at a 16-year-old girl, should she threaten his ego.

I just hope I would do the right thing soon enough if I ever found myself in the position of Doremus Jessup. Lord, grant me the strength to be Lois Lane and at least deliver big truths in small pieces.

Not that it matters. Sinclair Lewis’ old book is just a work of fiction.

It can’t happen here.

Comments

Sponge

Very clever. Dystopian novels have been useful tropes against tyranny for centuries. The words of Jonathan Swift, Aldous Huxley, and George Orwell have permanently suffused the lexicon of the politically aware. Ignorance and apathy are two of the greatest threats to enlightened self-governance. We would all do well ensure that “it can’t happen here.”

Joel

I feel too lazy today to try to mount a robust rebuttal to your article as a whole, Tom, but I cant help but respond to your hand wringing concern about President Trumps supposed "deranged lashing out at a helpless sixteen year old girl" who did nothing more than "threaten his ego." Back up from what you wrote and take the time to honestly listen to the snarling attacks that this young woman regularly hurls at a variety of targets...and then read what President Trump wrote about her. He simply questioned why she seems so angry.
When journalists paint with such a broad and biased brush on simple things like that, it makes it hard for us readers to trust the rest of what they write or say. It's true that President Trump has some glaring short comings, but so do you. Your perception of events is not crystal clear and untainted. I know, because i also suffer from that same problem. So lets try to be more fair. I wont write any more. Ive never seen you comment here and so it seems likely that you dont even read these comments. But if you do, peace be upon you and best wishes for a hapoy new year!

Treehouse

On October 7th of 2016, more than a month before the election, a ten year old tape recording of a lewd conversation between then reality television personality Donald J. Trump and an entertainment gossip reporter was made public. On the same day that the tape became public, candidate Trump gave a video taped statement addressing it. He said the tape was indeed real. It was accurate. The words spoken on the tape were his own true words. He said he regretted saying them. He said he was wrong. But he made it very clear that the words heard on that tape were his own. Mr. Trump said so. That is being fair.

In the days that followed he said other things too. He said the words didn't really matter because it was a long time ago. He said it was private. He called the words "locker room banter".

But given the various explanations offered for those words by then candidate Trump and by campaign surrogates, all of us were left to decide for ourselves a very much less than comfortable question.
Did Donald J. Trump, as he was recorded on that tape, admit to a history of violent sexual assault against women?
Or did he admit to fabricating violent fantasies about sexual assault in order to impress a minor celebrity and his producers?

That's also being fair. It's a fair question. Because however much any one of us might prefer not to really think about it too much, one of those two things is more or less true. Has to be. The things he described either happened or they didn't. Either he did the things he described, or he made them up to impress his hosts. And every single person who heard that tape and voted for him had to decide between one of those two choices, and then choose to put that person in the White House for four years. That isn't a very "comfortable" thing to think about either, or at least it shouldn't be. But one way or another, it is true. And it will be true forever.

Joel

Much respect, Tree. Just so you know, I'm not a Trump supporter and I didn't vote for him (didn't vote for Hillary either) and I won't vote for him in the upcoming election. If the Dem's could put forward a centrist candidate other than Biden I would seriously consider voting Dem for the first time in my life. I'm hoping Mayor Pete might be that guy. If he gets out of the primary as the nominee and moves further to the center I'll give him a real serious look. The rest of them (with perhaps the exception of Cory Booker just come across tome as being unhinged).
I too was horrified at what Trump said in the access Hollywood tape. And I agree that he is a jerk and that he seriously taints and stains the office of president with his rude, bullying style of leadership. That said, it really bothers me when people react to him in an apocalyptic way (like this article does). It reminds me too much of the bizarre way that Glenn Beck acted towards Obama.
I really wish those in the media (on both sides) would do a better job of checking their bias at the door and would try to be more objective. I'm sure it's really hard to do...but I wish they did it better.

Bill B

One would think that the idea of a “Viewpoints” section would be to provide differing views, perspectives on issues, but all I see from this writer (who appears very frequently in this section) is the liberal perspective. McMinnville, based on statistics I’ve seen, is fairly diverse on a political basis, yet all we seem to see is one perspective. Why is that?