From the beginning it was a story marked by the miraculous. It was a miracle a six-year-old boy survived the storm at sea and floated safely in an inner tube for two days and nights toward shore; a miracle that when he tired and began to slip, the dolphins who surrounded him like a contingent of angels pushed him upward; a miracle that a fisherman saw him bobbing in the shark-infested waters and scooped him aboard on the morning of Nov. 25, 1999, the day celebrated in America, the country his mother died bringing him to, as Thanksgiving.
And of course this Saturday, in the darkness, came the nightmare: the battering ram, the gas, the masks, the guns, the threats, the shattered glass and smashed statue of the Blessed Mother, the blanket thrown over the sobbing child’s head as they tore him from the house like a hostage. And the last one in the house to hold him, trying desperately to protect him, was the fisherman who’d saved him from the sea — which seemed fitting as it was Eastertide, the time that marks the sacrifice and resurrection of the Big Fisherman.
[Header] Holiest Time
It is interesting that this White House, which feared moving on Iraq during Ramadan, had no fear of moving on Americans during the holiest time of the Christian calendar. The mayor of Miami, Joe Carollo, blurted in shock, “They are atheists. They don’t believe in God.” Well, they certainly don’t believe the fact that it was Easter was prohibitive of the use of force; they thought it a practical time to move. The quaint Catholics of Little Havana would be lulled into a feeling of safety; most of the country would be distracted by family get-togethers and feasts. It was, to the Clinton administration, a sensible time to break down doors.
Which really, once again, tells you a lot about who they are. But then their actions always have a saving obviousness: From Waco to the FBI files to the bombing of a pharmaceutical factory during impeachment to taking money from Chinese agents, through every scandal and corruption, they always tell you who they are by what they do. It’s almost honest.
All weekend you could hear the calls to radio stations, to television, from commentators, from the 40% who are wounded, grieving and alive to the implications of what this act tells us about what is allowed in our country now. “This couldn’t happen in America,” they say, and “This isn’t the America we know.”
This is the America of Bill Clinton’s cynicism and cowardice, and Janet Reno’s desperate confusion about right and wrong, as she continues in her great schmaltzy dither to prove how sensitive she is, how concerned for the best interests of the child, as she sends in armed troops who point guns at the child sobbing in the closet. So removed from reality is she that she claims the famous picture of the agent pointing the gun at the fisherman and the child did not in fact show that.
The great unanswered question of course is: What was driving Mr. Clinton? What made him do such a thing? What accounts for his commitment in this case? Concern for the father? But such concern is wholly out of character for this president; he showed no such concern for parents at Waco or when he freed the Puerto Rican terrorists. Concern for his vision of the rule of law? But Mr. Clinton views the law as a thing to suit his purposes or a thing to get around.
Why did he do this thing? He will no doubt never say, a pliant press will never push him on it, and in any case if they did who would expect him to speak with candor and honesty? Absent the knowledge of what happened in this great public policy question, the mind inevitably wonders.
Was it fear of Fidel Castro — fear that the dictator will unleash another flood of refugees, like the Mariel boatlift of 1980? Mr. Clinton would take that seriously, because he lost his gubernatorial election that year after he agreed to house some of the Cubans. In Bill Clinton’s universe anything that ever hurt Bill Clinton is bad, and must not be repeated. But such a threat, if it was made, is not a child custody matter but a national security matter, and should be dealt with in national security terms.
Was it another threat from Havana? Was it normalization with Cuba — Mr. Clinton’s lust for a legacy, and Mr. Castro’s insistence that the gift come at a price? If the price was a child, well, that’s a price Mr. Clinton would likely pay. What is a mere child compared with this president’s need to be considered important by history?
Was Mr. Clinton being blackmailed? The Starr report tells us of what the president said to Monica Lewinsky about their telephone sex: that there was reason to believe that they were monitored by a foreign intelligence service. Naturally the service would have taped the calls, to use in the blackmail of the president. Maybe it was Mr. Castro’s intelligence service, or that of a Castro friend.
Is it irresponsible to speculate? It is irresponsible not to. A great and searing tragedy has occurred, and none of us knows what drove it, or why the president did what he did. Maybe Congress will investigate. Maybe a few years from now we’ll find out what really happened.
For now we’re left with the famous photo, the picture of the agent pointing his gun at the sobbing child and fisherman, the one that is already as famous as the picture taken 30 Easters ago, during another tragedy, as a student cried over the prone body of a dead fellow student at Kent State. It is an inconvenient photo for the administration. One wonders if it will be reproduced, or forced down the memory hole.
We are left with Elian’s courageous cousin, Marisleysis, who Easter morning told truth to power, an American citizen speaking to the nation about the actions of the American government. We are left with the hoarse-voiced fisherman, who continues trying to save the child. We are left wondering if there was a single federal law-enforcement official who, ordered to go in and put guns at the heads of children, said no. Was there a single agent or policeman who said, “I can’t be part of this”? Are they all just following orders?
We are left wondering if Mr. Clinton will, once again, get what he seems to want. Having failed to become FDR over health care, or anything else for that matter, he will now “be” JFK, finishing the business of 1961 and the missile crisis. Maybe he will make a speech in Havana. One can imagine Strobe Talbot taking Walter Isaacson aside, and Time magazine reporting the words of a high State Department source: “In an odd way Elian helped us — the intensity of the experience, the talks and negotiations, were the most intense byplay our two countries have had since JFK. The trauma brought us together.”
[Header] What Reagan Would Do
And some of us, in our sadness, wonder what Ronald Reagan, our last great president, would have done. I think I know. The burden of proof would have been on the communists, not the Americans; he would have sent someone he trusted to the family and found out the facts; seeing the boy had bonded with the cousin he would have negotiated with Mr. Castro to get the father here, and given him whatever he could that would not harm our country. Mr. Reagan would not have dismissed the story of the dolphins as Christian kitsch, but seen it as possible evidence of the reasonable assumption that God’s creatures had been commanded to protect one of God’s children. And most important, the idea that he would fear Mr. Castro, that he would be afraid of a tired old tyrant in faded fatigues, would actually have made him laugh. Mr. Reagan would fear only what kind of country we would be if we took the little boy and threw him over the side, into the rough sea of history.
He would have made a statement laying out the facts and ended it, “The boy stays, the dream endures, the American story continues. And if Mr. Castro doesn’t like it, well, I’m afraid that’s really too bad.”
But then he was a man.