Thursday, April 16, 2015

A mailman's flight of fancy -- April 16, 2015 column


A Florida mailman named Doug Hughes Wednesday piloted his “flying bicycle” past the White House and Washington Monument, over the National Mall and landed on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol.

The twitterverse chirped with praise – but not for the police who showed restraint when they could have shot down the unauthorized intruder.

Not for the authorities who took Hughes, 61, of Ruskin, Fla., to jail instead of the morgue.

And certainly not for members of Congress, staffers and others who stayed calm while the Capitol was locked down on yet another frightening day at work. 

Amazingly, the praise was for Hughes, who brought with him 535 stamped letters he had written to protest political corruption. He wanted to deliver his mail to every member of Congress. As if that would ever happen.

Among the tweets:  “Modern American hero.” “One of the Truest Americans of our time.” “My kind of hero.” “There’s not a single American politician with as much integrity or courage as #Doug Hughes.”


Tampa Bay Times reporter Ben Montgomery, who wrote about Hughes,  called him “a mix of P.T. Barnum and Paul Revere (who) wanted to do something so big and brazen that it would hijack the news cycle and turn America’s attention toward his pet issue: campaign finance reform.”

Since 9/11, flying over Washington without special approval has been prohibited, and Hughes deliberately violated the no-fly zone to make news. He insisted he had no violent inclinations or intent.

Montgomery expected Hughes to be shot down, but Hughes had faith in law enforcement.

“I don’t believe that the authorities are going to shoot down a 60-year-old mailman in a flying bicycle,” Hughes told Montgomery last year. The Times held its story until the flight was underway. Hughes also posted his tale on his Web site, The Democracy Club.

The Secret Service, which interviewed him in 2013, doubtlessly will have to explain what, if anything, it did to try to stop the escapade.

Whatever his intentions, Hughes’s flight was a dumb stunt. It could have ended very badly, not just for him but for innocent bystanders. His feat may make him a hero to some, but surely no one thinks that his reckless adventure will jumpstart campaign finance reform.

How he pulled off his flight by gyrocopter -- a small type of helicopter in which the pilot sits in the open air -- seems made for Hollywood. Let’s imagine that there is a movie and it makes a ton of money, which enriches movie moguls who then stuff even more obscene amounts of cash into politicians’ campaign pockets. Congratulations, Mister Hughes.   

Fortunately,  nothing bad happened and nobody got hurt.

In October 2013, Secret Service and U.S. Capitol Police fatally shot Miriam Carey, 34, a dental hygienist from Connecticut, after her car rammed a White House barrier, setting off a chase to Capitol Hill. Carey’s 13-month-old daughter survived without physical injuries in a car seat. The U.S. attorney said the shooting was legally justified and the officers were not charged.

Hughes, who had a U.S. Postal Service decal on his flying machine, did get Washington’s attention.   

“This individual apparently literally flew in under the radar. Literally,” Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson told reporters.

The chairman of the Senate Homeland Security committee launched an investigation of the security breach.

“I am deeply concerned that someone has the ability to fly for over an hour through the most restricted airspace in our country, past the White House, and land on the lawn of the Capitol,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.

If Hughes achieves anything besides notoriety, it may be tighter security and more worry for an already tightly buttoned nation’s capital. In January, a recreational drone inadvertently passed over the White House fence and crashed onto the grounds, raising new questions about how to protect against small devices that could carry lethal cargo.
Hughes’s cause was worthy, his delivery all wrong. Big money dominates our politics, and the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission made the problem worse.

We need campaign finance reform. We do not need “heroes” who take meaningless flights of fancy.

© 2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


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