by Roger Cohen · February 9, 2018
Shannon Kennedy Courtney Asztalos for The New York Times
Syracuse — Shannon Kennedy, son of Jack, retired military officer, ex-stockbroker, voted twice for Barack Obama (“so poised, a really got-it-together guy”) before his conversion to Donald Trump. Now he’s a true believer, even if he thinks “Donald definitely needs to button it sometimes.”
His dad, named John but universally known as Jack, “was such a charmer, he could charm hungry pups from a meat wagon.” Married three times with eight kids, Jack was a Democrat and “a very capable political operative who ran a couple of campaigns here in Syracuse.” For a while he sold used cars at Shamrock Motors, then opened a bar, Kennedy’s Club K, which, his son observes, “was not a great occupation for an alcoholic.”
Jack was dry at the time. He said he’d put tea in the whiskey bottles, nobody would know, and he’d drink from those. That worked, until it didn’t. He was dead at 49.
We are driving around Syracuse, population 143,000. It’s pretty bleak. Most industry and manufacturers are long gone. Poverty and drugs are scourges, as in countless towns across America. Service industries and Syracuse University are significant providers of jobs now. Kennedy recalls a different town in his youth, a thriving magnet to immigrants. After his parents divorced, and his mother died young in 1961, he was raised by his grandmother.
“She was so tight, she wouldn’t spend a nickel to watch the Statue of Liberty swim back to France!” Kennedy says. “She kept me busy. I mowed lawns in summer, raked leaves in the fall and shoveled snow in winter to make a buck. Her message was: Never spend a dime when you can spend a nickel.”
So there’s that in Kennedy’s makeup: the scrappy, can-do fighter who’s known hard times and believes there’s no substitute for a day’s work. Then came the military. He served in Japan, in a naval hospital, from 1970- to 1971, treating war wounded from Vietnam. “We’d get the injured 12 to 24 hours out of Vietnam, generally with at least one limb missing. We’d sew, or suture or ligate stumps. They were my age. My thought was, ‘I could be them!’ ”
Later, he trained at Fort Bragg; was commissioned as an officer; and served in Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Egypt, among other countries, retiring with the rank of major in 1997. He recalls, “When I was in Sinai, I would be asked by my commanding officer, ‘What did you do for the taxpayer today?’ ”
If there’s a main source of Kennedy’s anger, it’s that this has become such a quaint, outmoded question in today’s America of lobbyists and line-my-pockets politics. “Trust the Clintons? Not with the Lord’s breakfast,” he says.
He tells me he leans right, but he believes that every American should have a functioning public transit system (“as in Germany and Japan”) and a good national health service. He thought Obama could be “a breath of fresh air,” and was initially in favor of “Obamacare,” until it “went off the rails because the exchanges were not competitive.”
Then along came Trump. “The thing about him,” Kennedy tells me, “is that there’s forward energy. He’s like a horse with blinders at the Kentucky Derby. If there’s another horse in the way, knock it out and ride the rail. I listened to him, on immigration, on draining the swamp, on lobbyists, and I liked that. As I recall, it was ‘We the people’ not ‘We the empowered.’ ”
Immigration was an important factor in Kennedy’s lurch from Obama to Trump. While he favors the Dreamers program, which shielded some young immigrants from deportation, he says, “There are too many people running around who have no business being here.” America First was important: Too many working Americans have lost jobs to unbalanced trade deals.
A little over a year in, Kennedy remains a fervent Trump supporter. He insists that he has no illusions. Trump is “brash,” a “rogue.” He’s also “a fighter, a scrapper, the kind of guy who says ‘damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.’ ” He’s proving his stamina against the naysayers “who hate the man with a vileness that is very un-American.” He’s draining Washington “of people with contempt for the people they represent.” The tax cut will be “beneficial.”
And what of the president’s racism, lies, warmongering outbursts, vulgarity, and attacks on a free press and the judiciary? “Go beyond the noise,” Kennedy tells me. “Don’t take him at face value. If I thought he was a racist, I’d be off the train so fast you’d have to mail me my shadow. Respect the office of the presidency.”
I disagree. Respect for the office must begin with Trump, who’s sullied it with mendacity, bigotry and autocratic contempt for the Constitution. Still, I respect Kennedy. He’s served his country. He’s a patriot. He’s no “deplorable.” He’s smart. The Democratic Party should listen to him, or risk losing in 2020.
The message is clear. The same old, same old (for example, Joe Biden) won’t work. A whiff of got-the-system-rigged elitism from the Democrats will be fatal. A strong economic program for working Americans is essential. Look to purple-state America, not blue-state coastal America, for a candidate who is grappling with the country’s toughest issues and is strong on can-do, down-to-earth values.