This is part two of a series of stories I started earlier this month. It revolved around two friends who meet at various times throughout the year to discuss the topics of the day. Interspersed within the conversations, are real life events of my past which were shared with my best friend, Jim.
Here is a link to part one if you are interested.
Mark moved quickly thorough the restaurant after requesting their traditional dining location. He took his seat, sipped a bit of water, and breathed slowly, consciously, aware of his breath entering and leaving his body. It was a technique he had been using for decades, one which often occurred without thinking, as if his body felt his frustration from today's events, and was taking the lead to relax his mind.
Through his business, Mark had often been involved in meetings with bureaucrats at various levels, local as well as state. He acknowledged that they had a job to do, that they most likely thought that the roadblocks and endless list of requirements they presented were necessary and proper towards maintaining the public good. But he had been engaged in his business through a revolving door of these men and women, and often times wondered if they passed along notes and thoughts from one to another. If reinventing the wheel was an Olympic sport, well, he had encountered a number of gold medal winners.
The thought of an Olympic competition pitting the various bureaucrats from each country against one another to see who could turn a good idea into a cluster f*ck, made him smile, and reminded him why he was here today.
Forty-five years ago, no, more like almost fifty years ago now, he had been introduced to Bob who had organized a trip to the Montreal Olympics. When his high school soccer friend, John, told him that he had an extra set of tickets for those 1976 games, and asked if he would be interested in the experience, Mark had responded with a resounding yes. It didn't matter that the young men's starry eyed dream needed a lot of details filled in, like how to get there, where to stay, how to travel around Montreal to the events, not to mention all the things they didn't know enough to know they didn't know. He was in!
In the intervening eighteen months, Mark got to know Bob, and their friendship bloomed to a degree that after their shared adventure, Mark and Bob continued sharing adventures while John slowly became someone Mark and Bob once had a crazy and memorable experience with, but in the past.
One of the obstacles conquered by the trio was how to travel to Canada, and where to stay once they arrived. Mark's parents agreed to let him use one of the family cars upon which they had a hitch installed, and through John's family who had spent many a night in RV parks, they decided to purchase a pop-up trailer, then booked 2 weeks at an RV park about 40 miles outside Montreal. They even researched the metro mass transit system that served the city, and concluded that they could drive to one of the outer terminals from the RV park, then take the metro into the city for their events without having to fight traffic and parking.
All in all, by the time the morning arrived for them to leave, the young men had presumably filled in the details, and drove off to the goodbyes of John's family where they had spent the night so they could get off to an early start.
Mark shook his head, wondering if it would even be possible for three high school boys to plan and embark on such a trip today, then shook his head again, wondering how many of today's youth might benefit from such an escapade.
"Are you agreeing or disagreeing with yourself?" asked Bob as he sat across from his friend. "I can't tell if you were shaking your head in assent or dissent."
"I was just thinking of those months leading up to our summer trip to Montreal, and how amazing it is to think how we planned it all as high school boys, convinced our parents to let us go, bought the trailer and booked our camp stay. And how it is a shame that young people today most likely wouldn't or couldn't do what we did."
Bob also smiled at the recollection. It was certainly a unique time in their lives, but also a sign of things to come for both of them.
After a quick update concerning their respective families interspersed with visits from their server to take their order, the friends began the discussion which they had planned.
While neither man had voted for the former president, their past conversations did include political disagreement. Still, they were equally shocked at the events of January 6th, disappointed with the apparent reversal of the GOP leaders who condemned the violence, laid blame at the feet of the former president, yet still bent the knee to that infamous resident of Mar-a-lago. Not to mention the revelation that after 18 months of requests, a vast number of secret documents were found in the former president's Florida residence, despite his lawyers having signed an affidavit that a thorough search was conducted and everything had been returned.
However, like many Americans, the recent revelations that President Biden also had confidential and top secret government files in his possession, at multiple locations, caused them to wonder.
"I can't help comparing the Biden Administration's handling of their revelation that documents were found with a sports team that has the best players, home field advantage, and momentum from previous wins, then wastes their advantages by not showing up for the big game," began Bob.
"Instead of full transparency, instead of telling the public right away that some documents had been found, that further searches would be undertaken, and that everything would be done in full compliance with the Justice Department and the National Archives, all in direct opposition to how Trump acted, first denying having them, then claiming he declassified them, and could do so just by thinking about it, then asking his lawyers to lie that all the documents were returned, which ultimately led to a warrant signed by a federal judge to retrieve them, Biden tried to hide the fact that they were found back in November, all for political reasons related to the upcoming midterms."
"Both had confidential documents, but for the most part, one handled it legally and one did not. Biden should have trusted the electorate to understand the difference in the cases."
"I agree," began Mark, "but remember, the full story of each situation requires accurate reporting on both sides, and it requires the electorate to want to know the details, want to know the differences and similarities so they can make a judgement. With today's polarized political environment and biased news media, far too many people either won't get the full story, or, if they seek info from multiple news sources, won't believe the one which does not confirm their already entrenched biases."
"Biden and his team were wrong not to trust us, but realistic in knowing that too many Americans don't seek news for information, they seek it for justification for their already deep seated beliefs."
Both men thought echo chamber without either having to say it.
"What I find interesting is that not enough air time is being given to the obvious holes in the dissemination, storing and organizing of our national secrets." Bob said those last two words, national secrets, with as satiric a voice as he could muster.
"I mean, just think of it. The former president either had started to squirrel away documents here and there in the last year or two, or just grabbed a boat load of them the last few months, without anyone knowing, or worse, with their help. But regardless of the timing, he was obviously given those documents by someone, yet they never asked for them back. Don't they keep some sort of record as these secret documents are distributed, and then follow up to get them back? Do they just assume the documents will be returned?"
"Perhaps part of the problem is that there are just too many secret documents," said Mark. "Without going too far down the rabbit hole of all the conspiracy theories out there about what the government isn't telling us, aliens, JFK, 9/11, Pearl Harbor, etc, it seems to me that not only is there too much information being kept secret for 'national security', but that many of those secrets remain so long after the release of the information would matter."
"I agree," said Bob. "I think I read that there are literally millions of these documents, and that the number has grown exponentially in the last 50 years. There are appears to be little or no guidelines for something to be 'classified' other than someone believes it should, and even less of a system for declassification. It almost seems that the most powerful driver of removing the 'secret' from secret information is when some group or individual files a Freedom of Information request. In other words, our government institutions only release data when forced to, as opposed to on some kind of schedule."
"Another revealing circumstance of this controversy, is the fact that, while many of the documents found at Mar-a-Lago were actively being sough after, many were not known to be missing. And, I don't think anyone knew any of those found in Biden's possession were missing."
Bob nodded his head at this remark.
"Do you remember," he began, "when we got that flat tire on the pop-up trailer on the way home from Virginia. Not the first one, the one that happened on 695 after we spent the night in the trailer in the parking lot of that gas station in Dundalk, Maryland?"
Mark smiled remembering all too well that they had spent the last of their money on rum and quarter-pounders, stuck at the gas station because they didn't have the money to pay for the tow and tire repair. The first flat had happened on the interstate, the tire was changed, but not far from there, while on the Francis Scott Key bridge, the tire came off and lodged in the wheel well. By the time they stopped, the bridge was marked with a long rubber streak, then a 20 foot gouge where the axle bit into the roadway after the tire's rubber wore away. When the maintenance truck stopped to help them, the bridge worker had made a point of measuring the rubber mark and gouge, the results being communicated with a snarl and comment about damage and cost and an invoice.
Bob continued, "the original patched tire got another flat, and, not having a spare which we left smeared on the bridge, we drove to a nearby department store to buy a new tire."
"But we still didn't have any money" injected Mark, his parents having given them a credit card number over the phone to pay for their debt at the gas station. "We tried to buy a new tire without money, even managed to get a meeting with the manager of the store, who promptly told us there was nothing he could do for us, even if we left a driver's license or some other type of collateral. He took one look at us, and that was the end of the story."
"Perhaps, in reverse, that is the problem with our classified document system. Everyone is trusted to return what they are given. No one asks for collateral, or a signature, or anything. Sounds like they need a really hard-assed bureaucrat, or team of them, who know what is missing, know who has it, and has the balls to get it back, regardless of whether it is in the hands of a subcommittee freshmen representative or a general or the president."
Mark laughed at the thought of a government employee who was empowered to harass any other public servant to return national secrets. It was just silly enough to be necessary.
"I also think," he began, "that there is probably a funding and manpower issue here as well. I bet if we researched it, we would find that the budget for the National Archives has not been increased to match the gargantuan increase in classified documents, so even if they had a real task master in charge, it still might be an insurmountable job to keep it all straight."
"I wonder how it would go over, if someone proposed a voluntary search of the office and house of every congressmen, Senator, Department of Defense, NSA, FBI and DOJ employee to see just how many 'secret' documents are floating around out there, unbeknownst to the National Archives, or to the employees themselves, not to mention the ones that might have been conveniently not returned by someone with nefarious intentions. I know, guilty until proven innocent is not our normal mode of operation, but as public servants, shouldn't they be required to be fully transparent to us, the american public?" asked Bob.
"If we want 'no one is above the law' to be more than just a nice platitude, we need to hold everyone accountable, especially the rich and powerful who have all kinds of resources at their disposal to avoid justice for their errors."
"We had to drive home, leaving the trailer on the side of the road, buy a new tire, then drive back to get the trailer all because we weren't trustworthy to borrow a $40 tire, yet we trust those at the highest levels of our country to handle what they decide as secret information merely on their say so, and without having to prove that trust through some type of check and balance."
As they contemplated the idea of actually holding our political and business leaders to a higher standard, they finished their meal, and settled the dinner bill, unaware that a news crawl was appearing on a number of stations, concerning the disclosure that some classified documents had been found at former Vice President Pence's home.