“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds” reads the unofficial motto of the United States Postal Service. We now can add to that “nor a national security no-fly zone,” as demonstrated by mailman Doug Hughes. Hughes was doing what he felt was his duty, carrying letters. He had 535 of them: one for each member of Congress, and each signed by Hughes himself. He wrote about the corrupting influence of money in politics. Hughes chose a very high-profile method for delivering his letters, though. He piloted a bicycle-sized helicopter, called a “gyrocopter,” 100 miles from Maryland, and landed on the west lawn of the U.S Capitol, passing through restricted airspace.
Hughes could have been shot down. I asked him if it was worth it. “I’m a father, I’m a grandfather, and I can see the change over the decades as we slide from a democracy to a plutocracy. … Yes, it was worth risking my life, it was worth risking my freedom,” Hughes responded, “to get reform so that Congress works for the people.” His letter opened with a quote from the secretary of state. Hughes wrote: “Consider the following statement by John Kerry in his farewell speech to the Senate—‘The unending chase for money I believe threatens to steal our democracy itself. They know it. They know we know it. And yet, Nothing Happens!’—John Kerry.” His letter goes on with his analysis of the problem of money corrupting the work of members of Congress “before they are elected, while they are in office and after they leave Congress,” he writes.
Hughes’ sensational mail drop—giving a whole new meaning to “Hughes Aircraft”—did not go unnoticed. Much of the media simply ignored the message that this postman was trying to deliver, instead focusing on the security vulnerability that his spectacular landing exposed. Interestingly, he was not entirely condemned by the people inside the Capitol.
“I don’t condone violating restricted airspace and putting innocent people at risk by flying a gyrocopter on the Capitol lawn,” said Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., on the floor of the U.S. House. “Mr. Hughes does have a point about the pervasive influence of money in politics. I’ve seen it get worse and worse in my 20 years in Congress. The Citizens United decision by the United States Supreme Court in 2010 created super PACs and multimillionaires that buy candidates.”
The 2010 Supreme Court ruling that Jones references, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC), and a subsequent ruling in 2014, McCutcheon v. FEC, have opened the floodgates of money, including untraceable “dark money,” into our electoral system. Spending by outside groups exploded from about $15 million in 1998 to more than $1 billion in 2012. And between the Clinton coffers and Koch cash, the crisis will get far worse as the 2016 presidential-election season heats up. Hughes supports a constitutional amendment that would eliminate the influence of money in politics.
The day after Hughes landed his gyrocopter, I asked Florida Congressman Alan Grayson, a Democrat, what he thought about the postman’s protest against money in politics. “I was actually in the courtroom when this disastrous Citizens United decision was decided five years ago,” Grayson told me. “[Now-Senate Majority Leader, Republican] Mitch McConnell was two seats to my left. We were the only public officials who were in the courtroom. Mitch McConnell was the happiest I have ever seen him that day. He was literally chortling when the decision was rendered.” Grayson went on: “I said … that night five years ago that if we do nothing, you can kiss this country goodbye. Well, pucker up, because right now the millionaires and the billionaires and the multinational corporations are calling the shots.”
Doug Hughes is currently under house arrest in Florida. If convicted, he faces four years in prison. He is now the father of three, having lost a son to suicide in 2012. I asked him if the suicide influenced his action. He responded: “His death was pointless. It was a waste. And he had so much potential. I looked at what I had done and accomplished and contributed, and I looked at how we’re going to leave this country and this world if things go on the way they are. I’ve got [three other] kids. I want to hand them a real democracy, so that they have the power to control their destiny and their children’s destiny. And right now they’re losing that. We’re losing that. And it’s in our power to restore democracy, and we can find the solutions to the problems that we have, if the people have control.”
Whatever happens, this postman has delivered his message, completing his appointed rounds.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.
(c) 2015 Amy Goodman
Distributed by King Features Syndicate