Snickering our way toward violence

Zinke’s comments demonstrate he’s not ready to go back to public office

January 20, 2022 4:07 am

A Facebook posting by Ryan Zinke (Facebook).

I’ve been fooled once.

Shame on Ryan Zinke.

It’s not going to happen again, though.

In 2014, when I was editor of The Billings Gazette, the media in Billings sponsored a candidate’s forum for the U.S. House race in Montana featuring John Lewis, the Democrat, versus Republican Ryan Zinke. For weeks, we had told the candidates that we’d be having this forum with or without them. For weeks, Zinke had said he would not participate, instead opting for a fundraiser in Texas.

We countered that we’d give the entire 90-minute bloc of television and radio to Lewis – essentially an hour-and-half forum for Zinke’s opponent to share his views, unchecked by the other political party, even if Lewis would face questions from journalists.

At the last moment, Zinke arrived, and the debate was on.

For weeks, Lewis, understanding that Zinke would not be in attendance, had asked what we wanted to fill 90 minutes of air time with; he joked about bringing his guitar. But Zinke arrived, and the world will never know what kind of singer Lewis is.

In a backstage coin toss to determine the order of responses during the debate, Zinke and Lewis shook hands. Zinke then quipped, “John plays the guitar. I waterboard people.”

The reference was an oblique response to reports that Zinke had used the controversial technique as a Navy SEAL in Afghanistan. The off-handed remark was said in a moment of nervousness, I thought, behind the stage, away from the microphone or reporters. I was there as the host of the event. I heard the remark, but I reasoned: My role was different than being a reporter and let the comment pass.

Weeks later, I received a call from the Los Angeles Times, which was calling to verify the story that Zinke had joked about waterboarding people.

Sort of, I explained. I couldn’t say exactly how Zinke meant it because I didn’t follow up in intervening 60 seconds before we took the stage. The only other person to hear the comment besides my boss was the campaign manager for Lewis, and so I had a pretty good idea how the story magically appeared in one of the nation’s largest papers.

It did little to hurt Zinke’s successful campaign and even less to help Lewis’.

That vignette was discussed in journalism circles – whether I had failed in my role as a journalist to report the incident. I also found myself in the odd position of having to defend an in-the-moment comment, meant as a joke, no matter how off-putting it would have been.

That  episode has continued to be one of those relived moments in my memory where I felt conflicted – and I found myself vacillating between being defensive and also admitting that maybe I should have done differently.

That was until recently.

Now, I can say that I was undoubtedly wrong – something that is painfully frequent in my flawed life. I should have made more of an issue about that backstage moment.

Last week, there was a brief splash on social media when Zinke once again corked off – this time publicly when he answered the self-asked question on his Facebook page whether being a Navy SEAL was more difficult than politics.

“People often ask me what’s harder, being a Navy SEAL or serving in President Trump’s Cabinet. No contest: As a SEAL you can shoot back,” Zinke said, including a logo with “Zinke for Congress.”

Hardy har-har.

For a moment, setting aside questions of whether Zinke really lives in Montana, and, if possible, setting aside the investigations that took place by the inspector general when he was a member of Donald Trump’s cabinet, this Facebook message may be consistent with Zinke’s worldview, but it has absolutely no place in politics.

I had given Zinke the benefit of the doubt that the remark said years ago was uttered in jest during a moment of nervous anticipation. Clearly, that’s not the case. He means to use this combative, military type of politics.

Talking about “shooting back” in any political scenario, given the backdrop of violence in places like Racine or the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, needs a rebuke.

Previously when liberals rushed to condemn such language, they were often accused of being snowflakes who were too dense to differentiate literal truth from a figure of speech.

That’s exactly the problem, though. There isn’t some bright line that clearly delineates action from hyperbole. And for another moment, let’s assume that as a SEAL, Zinke was called upon to return fire or shoot: We can also hope that there was a strict set of rules of engagement that made foreign combatants different than political opponents.

That line, for Zinke and his supporters, may be dangerously blurred. And as gun violence and political violence has risen, it seems that what we need from our leaders is discernment and more careful word choice. Even if this was meant as a joke or metaphor, Zinke has proven reckless with his words.

I suspect the choice of words was anything but thoughtless. I bet this image of ready-to-shoot Ryan, cleft from the Trump strongman playbook, is intentional. It appeals to our worst, not our best. His words conjure up fantasies of not just beating our political rivals, but shooting back at them – literally.

Zinke then and Zinke now still fails to grasp one of the most important features of our fragile democracy: The military is not the government.

Anyone who misunderstands that should not be hopping back into government.

Again, Zinke fooled me once.

How about you?

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.