WARETOWN – They still play bluegass down here in the Pineland lungs of a state otherwise ravaged by overpopulation and the myriad self indulgences of modern existence. The occasional hurricane can also still remind the puffed off mortals who play the political game about the real meaning of the word boss as it pertains to these parts.
In the Trump era of unexpurgated ego, that elemental attachment for the people here has a decidedly less than anthropomorphic feel, as though the wind and sea both conspire to mock the self-adulating howls of man. Into this mood tonight at the local firehouse stepped U.S. Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-3), the soft spoken millionaire Republican congressman who looks like he could be the lead guitar player for a 1990s reanimated rock act.
As Trump continues to tweet from the White House, moneyed and mild mannered Republicans like MacArthur continue to ever so gently cringe, shying away as much as possible from the volatile subject; a strategy that won town hall shy U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11) a new round of critics and U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance (R-7) praise for placing himself under the buzzsaw of public opinion.
Now it was Macarthur’s turn, even as his fellow Republicans prepare to take action to scrap Obamacare, and one could see with the room filling to the soundtrack of golden oldies that most in attendance – lumberjacks, soldiers, Joint Base personnel, guys with big unlaced boots and beards – appeared less than hostile to the congressman, most of them even downright visibly friendly to a comer in the party and rumored 2021 candidate for governor of New Jersey.
This was evidently not going to be that public occasion when MacArthur would feel an existential dislocation from the rest of humanity and the abiding loneliness of leadership as a mob hurled hateful epithets, punishment for his admission in a party that also claims the President of the United States. MacArthur apparently would not find himself subjected to the immigration executive order-backlash of rage and anger that Lance found himself swamped in two weeks ago at his own town hall event at Raritan Valley Community College.
This would not be that hour when MacArthur would hear the haunted wind in the pines and the searing sound of the ocean combined. It was just, dammit all, a town hall.
The next question then from a political standpoint was would this event be sufficient to sharpen the plot lines and polish the fine points of MacArthur’s less than completely shaded-in story, the increasingly common story in New Jersey of a little known businessman who rises suddenly to prominence on the strength of his coziness with certain cash-poor political machines?
Lance had taken that moment feared by every staffer in Washington and, by simply showing respect in the face of disrespect, calm in the face of rage, turned it into a heroic moment, as if he were Henry Clay refashioned in lone and proud but finely disinterested – in the truest sense of that word – juxtaposition of the hyrda-headed crowd, Coriolanus unperturbed by the masses.
After having initially apparently scorned a town hall in favor of the Frelinghuysen route, then reversed himself to hold this forum, what marker might MacArthur post in the pine desolation of lower Ocean; what would he leave tonight and achieve in a controlled and friendly environment that would add to his as yet undefined and – we are told – ambitious – developing political story?
As it turned out, the crowd was not a stacked deck of pushovers or friendlies here to throw softballs.
It was just a sedate group, who saved their passion for precision questions not aimed at embarrassing the principal as much as engaging him in a real discussion.
They were sedate, and MacArthur was sedate.
They were substantive, and he was substantive.
As the event unrolled, a conversation ensued.
Would mild-mannered substance and careful needle threading on each issue be MacArthur’s contribution to a sense of national turbulence in the Trump era, and would that be enough to gain attention and sustain CD3 affection?