Adam Fisher: Douglas M. Hughes’ air mail message of protest

Last modified: Tuesday, May 19, 2015

NORTHAMPTON — I wonder if Hillary Clinton or Rand Paul or Jeb Bush or Bernie Sanders or Ted Cruz will show up tomorrow.

May 21 is the day when Douglas M. Hughes is due back in a Washington federal court, accused of various offenses related to his April 15 gyrocopter landing on the Capitol lawn. Landing on the Capitol lawn is illegal.

“It’s the safe money bet,” Hughes wrote in an email to me Sunday, that the arraignment will result in a trial date based on his perceived infractions.

Will the high-rolling and high-profile politicians be in the courtroom to either defend or decry Hughes’ risky but peaceful protest against the sale of American democracy to the highest bidder?

The 61-year-old Florida letter carrier literally took his life in his hands to bring 535 letters to the seat of American power — one letter for each member of Congress. The substance of his message was lost on a media consumed in the prop wash of excitement surrounding his landing.

Politically, Hughes is a hot potato. He may generate a following that any presidential wannabe would covet, but his message is too hot to handle in a world that relies on the political money he decries. My bet is that those eying the “for sale” sign on the White House lawn will stay home in droves.

Is Hughes another lapel-pin patriot, another Tea Party wing-nut waving the flag with great sincerity and little substance? I kind of doubt it, though I do not know the man.

Hughes planned his flight for two years, so to assume his was just a cranky, off-the-cuff adventure won’t wash. Right, wrong or indifferent, Hughes was deliberate.

“... I did not commit this peaceful protest thoughtlessly,” he asserted May 15 in The Washington Post. “The most important requirements were met: No one was hurt, no property was damaged and the message was delivered.” At every written turn, Hughes seems willing to take responsibility for what he did. American democracy is just plain more important than the slogans or purchase of political clout or the acclaim anyone might seek in life, his message seems to say.

Hughes’ action does not appear to have been grounded in any applauding or catcalling group. Hughes made up his own mind and went alone because ....

Well, why?

Was it because, as the French writer Albert Camus once suggested, “too many people now climb onto the cross merely to be seen from a greater distance?” Was it for acclaim? Was it some outraged anger that the Supreme Court had declared political donations “free speech” in its Citizens United decision? Was it because there was only so much he could stomach of the bits and pieces of legislation that let banks and brokerage houses off the legal hook after they helped create what the media insist on calling the “Great Recession” — mostly because “the Great Depression” is already in use?

What motivated Hughes and how appropriate are his concerns and criticisms?

The news media have no time for the news — the background that would bring context to Hughes’ actions. As with the issue of “terrorism,” investigating what might have prompted Hughes’ protest is left in the media shadows. Digging into the causes of “democracy for sale” or “terrorism” would require journalistic heavy lifting. How much easier and cheaper to focus on the excitement of a gyrocopter landing or another wispy and unsubstantiated story about the arrest of some addled teenagers bound for terrorist training in the Middle East.

Nor can I claim to be privy to Hughes’ willingness to get into his gyrocopter, leave supporters and detractors behind, and, all by himself, land in the Capitol lawn.

But from where I sit, one possibility nags and whispers: For Hughes, it was a matter of honor, an old-fashioned word that implies a willingness to do what individuals might prefer not to do and to do it because it is right. Honor does not come cheap. It is more expensive than a lapel pin or a speech about “heroes.” Honor sometimes demands personal sacrifice. Honor has its imperatives and, to my mind, Hughes is meeting his.

Hillary Clinton, Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz may avoid Hughes’ court appearance and simultaneously lay claims to honorable pursuits. But at what point will any of them leave supporters and detractors behind and jump, like Hughes, into an honorable fire?

Hughes landed his gyrocopter on April 15.

April 15 is the deadline for Americans to pay their taxes.

I wonder, with Doug Hughes, what those taxes will buy.

Adam Fisher lives in Northampton. His column appears on the third Wednesday of the month. He can be reached at


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