First, my credentials. I have read the Mueller report, which — unlike some Republican members of the two committees who grilled its nominal author — I never for a moment imagined he sat down and personally wrote. I watched every excruciating second of the two hearings, followed along on Twitter and endured as much of the post-game TV chatter as I could stomach. This use of my time qualifies me as either a fanatic, an idler or — by my reckoning — a bona fide expert compared to many.
Second, my agenda. I do not support or oppose any Democratic candidate in the upcoming presidential election. My only preference is for someone likely to defeat our current president, and to that end I would even welcome the opportunity to vote for any number of Republican hopefuls I have rejected in the past.
But back to Mueller. His performance was declared a “disaster” by commentators for both NBC and Fox News — a rare consensus. It is undisputed that he seemed uncomfortable and, at times, confused. The commentariat on the right was brutal in its dismissal of this dignified, honorable American: doddering, senile, feeble. The other side wasn’t much kinder.
I know absolutely nothing about Mueller’s physical or mental condition. But I do know that his testimony is entirely explainable without resorting to dementia or deep-state conspiracy theories.
For starters, the man made it clear when he announced his resignation in May that he had no interest in speaking publicly. Democrats took that option away by demanding his appearance. Then the bipartisan committees created a speed-dating format wherein each politician was allotted five minutes to supposedly elicit responses from a wary, reluctant, hardened witness. Predictably, almost all used their time to drive home points of their own in front of a giant TV audience.
Mueller, who has testified about 90 times to Congress, knew all this in advance but showed up anyway, report in hand. One side desperately wanted him to somehow change the course of American history in a single bound, with some longed-for, Joseph Welch-style moment that would galvanize the nation, convince millions that they had this all wrong and lead the march to impeachment.
The other side, scripted to the hilt by the likes of Sean Hannity and God-knows-who in the Trump camp, came to taint a public servant and military hero, a lifelong registered Republican, as part of their incalculably bizarre theory that the FBI is a nest of liberals. (Really? The FBI? Have they ever met the FBI?)
Neither side succeeded in accomplishing either goal, largely because Mueller didn’t support either side. But both sides managed to insult, besmirch, belittle and impugn a good man.
So, if he is not, as some now say, addled, how else to explain this miserable performance?
Mueller is not nearly as young as he used to be. He will turn 75 next month. And not unlike many other players in our current political arena, he is showing some signs of that aging. Clearly, he cannot hear so well — especially in a noisy room. It happens to most of us. Give any 75-year-old (especially a veteran of combat or rock-and-roll) a hearing test.
He seemed slower than he once did in processing what was being asked of him — much of which was confusing, multipart loaded questions — and in formulating his responses. In my aging mind, his slowness is easily explained by a heightened sense of deliberation, a determination to answer politically charged questions with careful and precise answers and thus avoid traps for headline writers to distort his report one way or another.
He seemed resigned to his fate. Even when trying to respond after a pause, he was often talked over by a preening inquisitor. Some ignored that he was trying to speak. Others, even Democrats, would interrupt him to say, “In the interest of time, sir,” and then start speaking again. In the interest of whose time? The nation’s? Mueller’s? No. Their time. Mueller just shrugged. This is the resignation of wisdom brought on by attaining a certain age.
One final explanation for Mueller’s performance is only indirectly related to his age. He is simply too decent and too serious to stoop to the reality-television standards that rule our era. He made one wry joke that gave us a peek into his contempt for the whole affair, when asked by one congresswoman if she could expect a jail sentence had she done such-and-such. “Yes,” he said. Then he added after a pause, “Although it’s Congress, so …”
This is not a man who doesn’t know where he is and what’s going on.
When the hearings ended and this lifelong public servant stood, slightly stooped, to walk out of the room, I tried to imagine what he might be thinking. I couldn’t. We’re not that far apart in age, but I can’t know what’s inside a man like that. For American men of a certain age, some phrases carry meaning beyond the stated fact. “Decorated, wounded, surviving Marine rifle platoon leader in Vietnam” is one of those phrases.
We should be deeply ashamed of the thanks our country has shown him for his efforts. But Mueller is not merely aging, he is wise. I take comfort in telling myself he doesn’t care about such things. And never did.