A ‘Thriller’ with a Message

Terry McAuliffe’s just-released short book on the deadly Charlottesville, Va., white nationalist rally in August 2017 is a gripping, moment-by-moment “police procedural” bookended by a political autobiography and a prescription for a brighter future. The three parts don’t always fit together perfectly, but their heart (and clearly McAuliffe’s) is so much in the right place that we’ll forgive virtually any small narrative failing by the time we turn the final page.

McAuliffe is no cool, distant, uninvolved observer of the heavily armed white nationalists who came from more than thirty states to attend the Unite the Right event in Charlottesville – home, he reminds us, of the University of Virginia founded by Thomas Jefferson, indeed of Jefferson’s own estate called Monticello and, more centrally to this story, one of Virginia’s 300-plus Confederate memorials, this one honoring Robert E. Lee. It was, in fact, the city’s plans to remove that statue that inspired the rally in the first place.

McAuliffe was serving as Virginia governor at the time and, according to his telling, more concerned about the event than his counterparts at the city level, who had the legal responsibility to handle whatever took place. There is tension, there is conflict, there is foreboding. The facts support the former governor’s sequence and his view, since he had the National Guard assembled and ready to move in the moment the clash between violent protesters and peaceful counterprotesters turned dangerous.

This Unite the Right event was indeed the one you’re picturing – long columns of white males, mostly in their 20s and 30s, carrying ridiculous WalMart tiki torches and chanting slogans that mixed anti-black, anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi hatred in a disgusting brew that was, as McAuliffe points out, only familiar if you know much about Germany in the 1930s. The protest eventually took three lives – a young woman killed by a protester speeding his car into the peaceful crowd, as well as two state employees monitoring the violence for officials from a helicopter, which crashed. McAuliffe lets us get to know all three people in his narrative, making their deaths and their sacrifice for their country both tragic and inspiring.

The opening chapters, understandably, tell the story of how McAuliffe came to serve as Virginia governor – “jobs, jobs, jobs” – and indeed, how a man from upstate New York came to become a Virginian, along with his wife Dorothy and their children. Many know of McAuliffe already, of course, from his service on CNN and his earlier high-profile work for the national Democratic Party. He comes across in these pages, whatever the tenor of current Democratic debates, as a reasonable, rational leader who loves his country and especially Lincoln’s “better angels.” The better angels, he still believes, form a clear majority.

Perhaps the most compelling part of McAuliffe’s journey is his oh-so-gradual understanding of the dark side of the South. He clearly viewed Virginia, the long-ago heart of the Confederate rebellion, as just another under-utilized economic resource that needed a few great minds and lots of outside investment to become the Silicon Valley of the East. He says the same thing several times, watching the tragedy unfold: I thought we were long past this. Indeed, the book’s introduction by Congressman John Lewis (he of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma) reminds us we’re not, spoken by one who knows.

The “police procedural” core of the book is a breathless read, even though we already know “whodunit.” The gathering of the two sets of protesters, McAuliffe’s frantic efforts to convince city officials that more needed to be done, and the slow, sickening forward motion of white nationalists moving beyond all their permits, marching more often in more places with more weapons (and more anger) than the city had approved. Reading between lines here and there, there are plenty of cautionary tales for law enforcement elsewhere faced with such protests.

McAuliffe offers a series of heartfelt correctives, especially in his book’s final section. Most importantly, for anyone who doesn’t know but is still willing to listen, he states the facts about (and the case against) Lost Cause mythology in the South. The Civil War WAS about slavery, as Confederate leaders always made clear in their own letters at the time, and the “Civil War memorials” around the South aren’t Civil War memorials at all. They are Jim Crow threats erected over the white-controlled century that followed Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

McAuliffe’s suggestions will strike most Americans as common-sense. In fact, most Americans are already “long past this” and, as he points out, only a small, pathetic and cowardly platoon of domestic terrorists are capable of doing this much damage. Knowledge, information, understanding, communication – McAuliffe’s ideas echo the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, particularly its triumphant peaceful wing led by Dr. Martin Luther King and inspired by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi.

Terry McAuliffe is a leader, and not merely in his own narrative. Charlottesville happened during his watch if not, by law, on it, and he takes its losses personally. In the end, as we know, he tossed aside the law books and moved in anyway. In repeating here the despicable non-response of Donald Trump – that the evil in Charlottesville was the fault of “many sides” – the former governor makes it clear that 1. That’s a lie. And 2. America had better face the fact that it’s a lie in order to build, without any help from the current White House, a safer, better and fairer future for all its citizens.

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