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Dermot Cole: Don Young's failure to pay attention embarrasses Alaska

Dermot Cole

The question is not what Don Young was thinking. The question is why Don Young wasn't thinking.

On Tuesday afternoon, as he sat on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives before the world, God and the cameras of C-SPAN, Young put his thumbs in his ears, waved his other eight fingers, stuck out his tongue and shook with laughter.

He staged the clown act at the very moment when a fellow congressman, standing a couple of feet away, uttered this sentence about a Marine from New Jersey: "Staff Sgt. D'Augustine was killed on March 27, 2012 in Helmand Province Afghanistan."

The representatives gathered that day were about to recognize Joseph D'Augustine by advancing a plan to name a post office in his home town in his honor. Young's body was there, front and center, but his mind wasn't.

As the short and solemn tribute continued, Young remained oblivious to the topic at hand. He repeated his facial contortions, giving himself a good laugh while fellow representatives offered a tribute that probably means a great deal to the sergeant's parents and his three sisters.

In such circumstances, a little respect is called for.

That Young failed to show any is an embarrassment to Alaska. Most Alaskans, even those who are not trained lifelong politicians like Young, would know enough to honor the dead.

He needs to call the family and apologize.

I realize that the actions by the House Ethics Committee Friday and the penalties assessed against Young are a matter of greater consequence, but this is also important.

This single moment is far more revealing than a year's worth of press release platitudes.

Young didn't realize he was on camera or that his antics would be broadcast on C-SPAN. I'm sure he meant no disrespect.

His office issued the obligatory semi-apology that he didn't mean any harm and his behavior was aimed at an off-screen "colleague" with no connection to the life and death of D'Augustine.

And Young is a veteran and a "proud supporter" of the military who has a wounded veteran working for him, his office said.

When Young put his own hand in a leghold trap 40 years ago to show that it didn't hurt -- as his hand turned blue after many minutes -- people laughed.

When he spoke to a high school students 20 years ago in Fairbanks and used a vulgar phrase about anal intercourse, people groaned, as they did he waved an oosik or donned a beanie during a Congressional hearing.

It's not that he wagged his fingers from his ears or stuck out his tongue on the floor of the U.S. House that is objectionable.

It's that he didn't have the sense to listen.

He should have recalled the words of Arthur Miller in "Death of a Salesman" about Willy Loman: "He's not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person."

Had Young been paying attention, he would have heard that D'Augustine died two weeks before he was due to come home for his sister's wedding.

And he would have learned that D'Augustine was from Waldwick, N.J. and had served two terms in Iraq and two terms in Afghanistan.

The sergeant handled bombs and land mines all the time, a delicate and dangerous task. The recipient of numerous awards and medals, he died from an explosion in Helmand Province while defusing a bomb.

"At his funeral hundreds of Waldwick residents gathered in the church in his memory and hundreds more lined the streets to pay their respects," said Rep. Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican.

The young man graduated from Waldwick High School in 2001 and joined the Marine Corps the next day. He spent 11 years in the Marine Corps.

New Jersey Rep. Scott Garrett said, "At times such as this, words fail to provide adequate comfort to his family and friends. It is my sincere hope that they know that the prayers and gratitude of this nation are always with them."

For penance, I think Young should never again issue a press release or give a speech about how much he appreciates veterans. From now on, he should leave that to others.

Dermot Cole can be reached at dermot@alaskadispatch.com . He has been reporting on Alaska issues for nearly 40 years.


By DERMOT COLE
dermot@alaskadispatch.com