If Ambassador Bill Taylor didn’t exist already, we’d have to invent him.
With a made-for-TV voice filled to the brim with gravitas, a thoughtful mien, and an almost pathological aversion to be found taking a side in the brazenly partisan circus unfolding before his bespectacled eyes, the West Point grad and career public servant was the living embodiment of everything we hope for from our government employees.
Taylor, a Vietnam veteran and Bronze Star recipient, unflappably told Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee Tuesday that he didn’t “consider myself a star witness for anything,” even as they peppered him clearly leading questions on the opening day of the panel’s impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.
Next to him sat George P. Kent, the State Department’s senior official for Ukraine. With a scholarly bearing complimented by his bow tie, the Harvard graduate and career diplomat spoke movingly of his family’s long history of public service.
It was hard not to be awed as Kent told lawmakers that “there has been a George Kent sworn to defend the Constitution continuously for nearly 60 years, ever since my father reported to Annapolis for his plebe summer. After graduating first in his Naval Academy class in 1965, the year best known for his Heisman-winning classmate Roger Staubach, my father served a full 30 years, including as captain of a nuclear ballistic missile submarine.”
He went on to add that, “Five great uncles served honorably in the Navy and in the Army in World War II. In particular, Tom Taggart was stationed in the Philippines at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor; he survived the brutal Bataan Death March and three more years in a Japanese Prisoner of War camp, unbroken. He returned to service as an Air Force Judge Advocate, upholding the rule of law until his death in 1965.”
After three years of listening to President Donald Trump carp groundlessly about biased judges, the “deep state” and witch hunts, as part of his daily assault at the very bedrock of our national institutions, the deeply knowledgeable public servants who spent five hours before the cameras, were a visceral reminder of the crucial durability of those institutions and of why they need to be protected from the wrecking ball in the White House.
To listen to Kent dispassionately unspool the reasoning behind the United States’ support for Ukraine and the vital importance of protecting it against Putin’s rapacious Russia was to be reminded of the intellectual black hole sitting behind the Resolute Desk and of the 45th president’s complete ignorance of history and his utter disinterest in learning about world affairs.
After all, it was Trump who once marveled that many people “don’t realize” that President Abraham Lincoln was a Republican (everyone does) and offered that many people also don’t know that the Korean War hasn’t ended, either.
It’s actual, palpable evidence of what conservative author (and vocal Trump critic) Tom Nichols aptly described as “the death of expertise,” in his 2017 book of the same name.
” … we’re proud of not knowing things,” Nichols wrote. “Americans have reached a point where ignorance, especially of any public policy issue, is an actual virtue.”
Contrast that against Kent, whose stores of knowledge and appreciation for history appeared bottomless at times.
The veteran diplomat vividly connected such foreign-born public servants as Lt. Col. Alexander Vindland and former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch — who have served with dignity and distinction, and who became the targets of smear campaigns — to indispensable foreign-born partners of American history.
“They are the 21st century heirs of two giants of 20th century U.S. national security policy who were born abroad: my former professor Zbigniew Brzezinski; and his fellow immigrant Henry Kissinger,” Kent said. “Like the Brzezinskis and Kissingers, the Yovanovitches and Vindmans fled Nazi and communist oppression to contribute to a stronger, more secure America.
“That honorable transatlantic tradition goes back to the very founding of our republic: our 18th century independence would not have been secured without the choice of European officers — the French-born Lafayette and Rochambeau, the German-born von Steuben, and the Poles Pulaski and Kosciuszko — to come to the New World and fight for our cause of freedom, and the birth of a new country free from imperial dominion,” he concluded.
And then there was Taylor, who remained as impassive as Jack Webb’s Sgt. Joe Friday character on the old “Dragnet” TV show. As The Washington Post reports, Taylor rarely strayed beyond a “Yes, sir,” in his answers.
Though it was Taylor who offered the chief bombshell during the hearing’s first day, describing a phone call in which “Trump spoke to another diplomat and checked on the status of the investigations he had urged Ukraine to pursue,” the Post reported.
At the end of their testimony, it was tough not to yearn for an America that seems to be receding into the rearview mirror: One where expertise and knowledge are still revered; one where public service, dedicated to the U.S. Constitution and not the Dear Leader, is honored and elevated, not brought low and attacked.
But in Scott and Taylor’s even tones and reassuringly professional manner, there was the hope that those qualities are still in government, and that they, along with the rest of our public institutions, will yet survive this aberration of a president.