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At an Aug. 8 meeting of Newport Beach and Costa Mesa Tea Party Republicans, tears formed in Representative Dana Rohrabacher's eyes, his tortoise-like face contorted and his lips quivered, momentarily blocking words from escaping. The audience—an overwhelmingly Caucasian and elderly crowd of about 150 people fond of Orange County's senior, career politician—remained hushed. Never known as a particularly friendly or sensitive man, Rohrabacher looked on the verge of crying.
The 13-term congressman's emotional scene, though odd, wasn't the most bizarre thing. Beginning in the 1950s, this part of Southern California served as a symbolic ground zero in anti-Soviet, anti-communist sentiment. For his campaigns, Rohrabacher—a third-string celebrity on the right-wing's rubber-chicken circuit—expertly strums the political veins of conservative families in these flag-waving neighborhoods.
But Rohrabacher, who skipped military service during the Vietnam War to party and study literature in Los Angeles, did the unthinkable at the Tea Party gathering. He took a story about Chechnyan rebels massacring schoolkids in a Russian city and made it an example of how Americans mistreat Russia's officials. "[The rebels] blew them up," the congressman declared. "One hundred forty kids blown to hell."
Teary-eyed, he paused, looked down and up, then said with a cracking voice, "We didn't do anything to reach out to the Russians when they'd blown up their children."
This fascinating and erroneous assertion underscores the extent Rohrabacher is smitten with Vladimir Putin and Russia. He suggests the fascist Russian president, notorious ex-KGB thug, looter of billions of dollars of his country's assets, unapologetic enemy of individual liberty, police-state proponent and fan of the anti-American antics of Hugo Chavez is a better protector of American security from Islamic terrorists than President Barack Obama. Because of their pathological hatred of the current leader of the free world, this OC crowd—lemmings to a person, apparently—accepted this notion without due derisive laughter.
You might recall the school massacre happened in 2004, and Americans responded with horror that nationalistic terrorists with Islamic beliefs slaughtered innocent children in the former Soviet Union. In fact, Congressman Ed Royce (R-Fullerton) and Tom Lantos, a California Democrat, quickly spoke on the floor of the House, expressing our nation's "heartfelt condolences" and "sympathies" with victims of the attack. Several other Republicans joined in the sentiments on the record.
Rohrabacher? Despite choking up this month about the nine-year-old incident, six days after the Russian tragedy, he gave a speech on terrorism and didn't feel the need to mention it. In fact, according to the Congressional Record, he has never used his stage in the nation's capital to complain about this alleged American failure.
The congressman had another spurious leg in his guilt trip. "Has anyone seen the Russian monument to the victims of 9/11?" he asked. "Does anyone even know about it? They built a huge monument in New Jersey right across from where, uh, uh, where the buildings were, where the towers were. And there's this huge teardrop with a reflection of the World Trade Center on it. We didn't reach out when their kids were blown up."
Here again, Rohrabacher conjured up the idea that Americans display callousness to Russia's kindness. In reality, at the monument's dedication in 2006, ex-President Bill Clinton delivered a passionate, televised keynote address. Remarked Clinton, "I would like to thank the people of Russia for this gift of solidarity in the war on terror."
Rohrabacher is a fascinating specimen to watch because of his willingness to simultaneously espouse hypocritical stances with outward sincerity. For example, he mocks Obama for maintaining a working relationship with the Chinese instead of treating them as future battlefield opponents. "The theory is the more prosperous you make them and more nice you are to them, the tyrants and the gangsters [Chinese officials] will become better people," he told the Tea Party crowd. "It's the hug-a-Nazi, make-a-liberal theory! That's what I call it, and it has not worked!"
This crowd loved the line and rewarded it with applause. A slight smile cracked on the congressman's face. The audience failed to understand he's advocating that same hug-a-Nazi theory for Putin and that he proposed the hug-pro-al-Qaida-warlords theory in Afghanistan by recommending we pay them $1 billion in bribes from the U.S. Treasury, as well as build them a national water system free of charge. "I think we can buy goodwill," he reasoned in 2010.
But there are other problems for Rohrabacher, who claims only idiots share American scientific and technological advancements with the Chinese. The red communists are, he says, hell-bent on "stealing our technology" and using it against us. They don't always have to steal. Two-faced politicians sometimes hand it away. On Oct. 17, 1993, Rohrabacher quietly signed a letter to then-U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, urging the transfer of new American satellite technology to Beijing, a story I broke more than a decade ago.
You know who advocated the hug-a-Nazi theory on China before Obama?
"[Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang's] trip has solidified the goodwill between us, and this morning, we will sign two agreements that represent measurable steps forward in the relations between our two countries," President Ronald Reagan stated in January 1984. "Cooperation between our two countries in the area of science and technology not only contributes to the scope of human knowledge and to China's own modernization, [but] it also cements the ties between the two countries."
(I'm guessing Rohrabacher's hug-a-Nazi line wouldn't have gone over so well with the Tea Party crowd if he had admitted Reagan, his hero and White House boss, practiced the theory.)
At this point, the list of the congressman's boneheaded moves is approaching legendary status: Claiming vibrant democracy would result from George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq; hailing Arnold Schwarzenegger as California's fiscal savior; repeatedly hiring Jeffrey Ray Nielsen, an unrepentant molester of seventh- and eighth-grade boys, as his congressional aide; using public funds in 2007 to "solve" the Robert F. Kennedy assassination that was solved 39 years earlier; backing ally Dave Garofalo for Huntington Beach mayor before the man's corruption conviction; backing Mike Carona for sheriff before that man's corruption conviction; predicting Chris Cox would be a superb chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission before the man lead the agency into horrific scandals; lobbying on behalf of the Taliban as pro-democracy in the mid-1990s, when the terrorist group harbored Osama bin Laden; and claiming no anti-immigrant animus while calling Mexicans "Pedro" and "wetbacks."
But like the proverbial broken clock that accidentally finds the correct time twice a day, the congressman got something right at the Tea Party event: Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who revealed the extent of government snooping. "He tipped off the American people as to what was going on," said Rohrabacher, who refuses to label the revelations treason. "They want to keep a record of every phone call you have ever made and will make. That's baloney! That's garbage! That's tyranny! That's totalitarianism!"
Putin must be tickled he has grabbed Rohrabacher's affection. To this day, the Russian leader speaks fondly of the old Soviet Union, one of the most oppressive systems in world history. It's no secret he climbed the ranks of the KGB by mastering the surveillance of his fellow citizens.
This column appeared in print as "Moscow's Mule: Dana Rohrabacher falls smitten with Russian strong man Vladimir Putin."