Balding white man with wire rimmed glasses wearing a suit speaking and make a hand gesture

In early September of this year, the Washington Post created what was called an alternative storytelling issue in which it solicited news stories through non-traditional media. The issue included poems, a board game, a three-act play and a Trump-themed Mad-Libs story. It also included an astonishing piece of music from singer-songwriter Ben Folds, a song entitled “Mr. Peepers.”

The “Mr. Peepers” title refers to President Trump’s purported nickname for bespectacled Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Rosenstein, of course, is currently supervising the investigation into Russian election interference headed by Robert Mueller. Rosenstein has been under fire by Trump and some of his allies in Congress who seek to short circuit or at least discredit the investigation by demonstrating that it was started by the political left and/or the “deep state.” As of my deadline Mr. Rosenstein still has a job, but word on the street is that he may be out soon.

I was raised on Phil Ochs and Peter, Paul and Mary, and perhaps as a result I’ve always had a soft spot for protest music. Most protest songs are sermons for the converted or, in modern parlance, intended to fire up the base. They aren’t going to change anybody’s mind, nor are they intended to. The best of them, though, have the ability to just maybe slip through partisan armor and cause someone to rethink things. The greatest protest song, of course, is “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” written by Peter La Farge and made famous by Johnny Cash. That song probably didn’t do much to change how the government treated the Pima tribe in the 1960’s when it was written, but it at least instilled a sense of shame over the treatment of Native Americans which is slowly becoming the majority view in this country. As they say in sports, you’re not arguing that call, you’re arguing for the next one.

Like “Ira Hayes,” Mr. Peepers is a story song, albeit a compressed one. It tells the tale of Rosenstein’s June 28, 2018 testimony to a House Committee in which he was aggressively questioned and berated by House Republicans. What had started as an inquiry into the Justice Department’s response to a congressional subpoena (as Folds says, ‘[y]’all know he can’t comply but that’s the point of course”) devolved into insults and threats at the hands of those anxious to get a little exposure on Fox News and curry favor with the president. Folds simply recasts the exchange as schoolyard bullying, the aggressive tough guys threatening and shoving they guy with glasses to scare him off investigating their boss. 

And the analogy works. By the time the first chorus hits (“[a]nd they call him Mr. Peepers, send their thugs to smash his glasses”) your perspective has been changed. Whereas before you may have been a fan of Rosenstein because he had the vague potential to injure Trump, now your heart reaches out to him as the hapless victim of the same pieces of shit that made your life hell in elementary school. 

Chief among Rosenstein’s tormentors – and the song’s antagonist -- was Ohio’s Jim Jordan “[t]he distinguished wrestler from O-hi-o”). Jordan was previously best known for his role in covering up sexual molestation of athletes while he was a wrestling coach at Ohio State. Following up his sex-crimes cover-up career, Jordan resurfaced as the Congressional Representative for Ohio’s 4th District, a hopelessly gerrymandered piece of northwest Ohio which I swear to god looks like a duck.

Jordan, of course, has no political ideology, let alone a conservative one. Like any other bully, he has an interest in power and is not particular about where he gets it. He joined the Republican Party in rural Ohio because out there they are the ones who run the show. In order to win his party primaries he staked out a position in the conservative lunatic fringe. Too late, he discovered that nobody votes for the extreme right in statewide elections, nor do they get leadership positions in the House. In a play for relevance, then, he and his buddies formed the Freedom Caucus, supposedly the principled conservative purists of the House. But as Folds points out, Jordan had big eyes for Trump’s power and eventually succumbed to “carry[ing] water like a stooge,” nothing more than an attack dog for his master. 

Of course, Rosenstein is not really the heroic bureaucrat the song portrays him as but that’s by the by.  Folds makes you remember what it’s like to be on the receiving end of people like Trump and Jordan, and how much you hated it regardless of your political ideology. He makes you remember that you are a part of the 80 percent of decent people who realized early on that bullying is not just morally wrong but is a problem for society to fix. It’s a stunning achievement. 

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