The occupational hazard of history nerds is the compulsion to rummage through the events of the past in order to illuminate the absurdities of the present.
And so, as if on cue, an event that occurred more than 100 years ago popped into my head without warning or invitation as I watched transfixed as one Republican senator after another debased themselves dodging questions connected to the pointed accusations levied by two of their departing colleagues, Bob Corker and Jeff Flake, to the effect that Donald Trump is unfit for command and so poses a clear and present danger to the Republic. It’s an indictment to which I wholeheartedly subscribe.
The talking point of choice for these timorous Republicans was to treat the retiring senators’ indictments as a personal idiosyncrasy, a distracting yet harmless family feud, proof that everyone is entitled to their own opinion however absurd while the rest of the Republican caucus had more important matters of state to attended to – principally making sure the super rich got even richer.
So, what was this long-distance connection invading my thoughts which somehow brought together the dispiriting events playing out today with some long-forgotten footnote of history?
During the late night and early morning of April 14-15, 1912, SS Californian Second Officer Herbert Stone stood watch during the critical two-and-a-half hours between the time RMS Titanic collided with an iceberg and when the great ship foundered at a little past 2:00 AM on April 15.
In his testimony to the British inquiry led by Wreck Commissioner Lord Mersey a few weeks after the disaster, Officer Stone reported seeing a large passenger steamer -- perhaps only five miles away -- come to a stop just before midnight, presumably to wait until morning to navigate the gigantic icefield that spread out in front of it, just as the Californian had done a few hours earlier.
In response to questioning from Mersey, Stone testified the unidentified steamer’s lights appeared to him “queer,” as if the stern was somehow higher than the bow. He also told the inquiry that the large steamer disappeared and presumably “sailed away” a little after 2:00 AM -- the exact time the Titanic did in fact sink.
But most incriminating of all were the eight white rockets Stone said he observed above the steamer – identical to the color and number of distress flares the Titanic fired later that night. When Stone informed the sleeping ship’s captain about the rockets, the captain speculated they might be company identification flares, but told Stone to contact the ship anyway using the Morse lamp, which was at the time the customary method used by ships to communicate with one another. No thought was apparently given to wake the ship’s wireless operator who had tragically gone to bed just 10 minutes before the Titanic hit the iceberg.
To sum up: Stone testified he saw a west-bound passenger steamer stop at about the time the Titanic shut down its engines to inspect the damage from the iceberg. Stone said the lights on the steamer looked “queer,” which is what Stone would have seen as the Titanic sank fast by the head. There were are also those eight incriminating white rockets. And finally, there is Stone’s testimony that the mystery ship appeared to have sailed away at just the time Titanic foundered.
A lot was riding on Stone’s testimony as he took the witness chair, namely a possible guilty verdict of criminal negligence for himself, the Leyland Line he worked for and for Stone’s fellow officers. Those interests would have been fatally compromised had Stone confessed the Californian’s officers suspected, even just a little bit, that the ship they saw that night might be in distress but did little to validate or allay those concerns while Stone’s ship sat idle until it was time to begin a futile search for Titanic survivors the next morning.
And so, after providing the inquiry with a mountain of incriminating evidence, Stone stubbornly insisted the ship he saw couldn’t possibly have been the Titanic. Further, and even more incredibly, Stone said nothing he saw that night caused him to wonder if the rocket-firing passenger steamer with the “queer” lights might also have been a ship in distress.
The adamant denial of the obvious in the following exchange between Second Officer Stone and his interrogators is what reminded me of the reprehensible behavior Republican senators today. Both Stone and the senators resolutely, and with their own interests foremost in mind, refused to affirm the plain truth sitting right in front of them:
Mersey: Had you, seen white lights?
Stone: Yes. I was walking up and down the bridge and I saw one white flash in the sky, immediately above this other steamer. I did not know what it was; I thought it might be a shooting star.
Mersey: What was the nature of the flash?
Stone: A white flash.
Mersey: You did not know what it was?
Mersey: How long have you been at sea?
Stone: eight years.
Mersey: You know distress signals?
Stone: I know what they are, yes.
Mersey: Was it like a distress signal?
Stone: It was just a white flash in the sky; it might have been anything (“It could have been Russia; it could have been China; it could have been anybody” – Trump).
Mersey: I know, but what did it suggest to your mind? What did you say to yourself? What did you think it was?
Stone: I thought nothing until I brought the ship under observation with the binoculars and saw the others.
Mersey: And how many more did you see?
Stone: I saw four more then.
Mersey: What were they, rockets?
Stone: They had the appearance of white rockets bursting in the sky.
Mersey: What do you think they meant?
Stone: I thought that perhaps the ship was in communication with some other ship, or possibly she was signaling to us to tell us she had big icebergs around her.
Mersey: Possibly, what else?
Stone: Possibly she was communicating with some other steamer at a greater distance than ourselves.
Mersey: What was she communicating?
Stone: I do not know.
Mersey: Is that the way in which steamers communicate with each other?
Stone: No, not usually.
Mersey: You had been keeping this vessel under close observation and saw five rockets go up in fairly quick succession. What did you think at the time they, meant?
Stone: I knew they were signals of some sort.
Mersey: Of course, but signals of what sort did you think?
Stone: I did not know at the time.
Mersey: You knew they were not being sent up for fun, were they?
Mersey: Did you think that they were distress signals?
Mersey: Did not that occur to, you?
Stone: It did not occur to me at the time.
Mersey: When did it occur to you? Did it occur at some later time to you?
Stone: Yes, after I had heard about the Titanic going down.
Reporters interviewing Republican senators about the grave danger of presidential corruption and incompetence voiced by two of their Senate colleagues, were met with no more candor than that which greeted the members of the Titanic inquiry conducted more than a century ago.
A 100 years ago, exasperated questioners trying to get to the bottom of the Titanic disaster were repeatedly told by a senior officer of the ship that might have lightened the horrible loss of life when the Titanic went down that eight white rockets were fired from a ship stopped on the edge of a dangerous icefield but never once did the officers of the SS Californian worry that the mystery ship lying as near as five miles away might, just might, be in some distress.
Today, we are asked to believe that, despite their rumored private misgivings, Republican senators have more important concerns like tax cuts on their mind and haven’t given a moment’s thought to allegations from their own party colleagues that a madman occupies the White House.