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The Trout in Robert Menendez’s Milk
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The Trout in Robert Menendez’s Milk

Too many politicians feel no shame, much less express it.

Sen. Bob Menendez and his wife Nadine arrive at a Manhattan court after they were indicted on bribery charges on September 27, 2023, in New York City. The couple are accused of receiving money and other gifts in a corrupt relationship with three New Jersey businessmen. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Hi,

“Some circumstantial evidence is very strong,” Henry Thoreau observed, “as when you find a trout in the milk.” 

That line came to mind when I heard about the Robert Menendez allegations. You can come up with all sorts of explanations—maybe even some plausible ones—for why he had hundreds of thousands of dollars stashed in various jacket pockets in his closets. Where else would you keep walking around money? But those gold bars are not just literally but also figuratively, gold. When comedy writers really hit paydirt—a term from goldmining no less!—we say that’s gold! Well, having gold bars whose serial numbers indicated they’d been registered to one of his co-consprirators, well, ain’t dross. I’ve been trying to come up with more hilariously damning—albeit circumstantial!—evidence and the only thing I’ve been able to come up with is if he had a thick sheaf of German-bearer bonds stolen from the Nakatomi tower or maybe an envelope with the words, “Bribe money” on it. 

I am enjoying watching Republicans insist that the—now suddenly legitimate—legal process be allowed to play out while Democrats insist that Menendez needs to resign immediately. Still, shorn of partisan and political motivations—which there are plenty of—both positions have significant merit. Of course, people deserve their day in court. The problem with all the familiar arguments on that front for Republicans is that it is taken as a given that Donald Trump shouldn’t even have to appear in court because the Department of Justice—which just indicted a prominent Democrat—is hopelessly partisan. Some of the usual suspects even contend that the DOJ is prosecuting Menendez solely “to create the appearance of impartiality so that they can continue their jihad against Donald Trump.”

How this would work, exactly, is something of a mystery. The investigation began years ago. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a permanent Bob Menendez Division at Main Justice, complete with letterhead and softball team jerseys. Was this all done in anticipation of Trump’s prosecutions? Moreover, did the DOJ plant the gold and cash? If so, you’d think Menendez would say, “That stuff was planted!” and not “I have a perfectly good explanation for all that cash and gold and all of those text messages and letters I wrote!” (Or words to that effect.) 

And that gets me to my bigger problem(s) with even the most sincere arguments from both the champions of due process as well as those who argue that the voters should decide the fate of elected officials caught up in serious scandals like this. The first point is about individual character, the second about institutional character. 

We don’t know for certain that Menendez is guilty. But you know who does know? Bob Menendez. One of the worst things about this epistemically craptacular political era is the inability of disgraced politicians to feel shame, never mind express it. Disgrace long ago lost its religious connotations, but it’s worth at least remembering that dis + grace = being separate from, or opposite to, being right with God. Even if—by some amazing, and frankly unimaginable set of circumstances—he broke no laws, Menendez behaved in a way that appears profoundly corrupt, especially for the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. If he’s guilty, or even if he narrowly evaded the letter of the law in a way to avoid conviction, the honorable thing to do would be to resign for that alone. There’s nothing noble about brazening it out. 

Then there’s the Democratic Party—and to a lesser extent, the Senate itself, which is bound by different considerations. I am with Noah Rothman entirely. There are times when the group is wrong to screw the individual for the good of the many. Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was right and everyone else was wrong when they tried to screw him. But there are other circumstances when it’s perfectly fine—even proper—for the individual to be forced to take one for the team, even involuntarily.  Again, maybe Menendez is in some bizarre way technically innocent. He can prove that in court. But I see nothing wrong with the Democrats—or, again, the Senate if it were possible—with saying “get the hell out of here.” Losing a Senate seat is not a criminal punishment, it’s a loss of a privilege. From what we already know, he behaved with a reckless disregard for the honor and reputation of his party and his office. Nothing wrong with throwing him under the bus for that. 

Of course, the same goes with Trump. Back when he first started claiming the election was rigged, a lot of people, including a lot of very harsh Trump critics, took great pains to say he has “every right” to challenge the results in court. And that was true. But having every right to do X doesn’t mean doing X is right. He sent out people to lie for him, impugn the electoral system, and to drag the courts into his lies. He did it all for selfish purposes. That should have been enough.

Similarly, he has every right to run for office. And the Republican Party has every right to say, “Not under our shingle.” I know a lot of Trump-drunk people think it’s incredibly important to claim that Trump didn’t think he lost. I don’t buy the claim. They also think it’s incredibly important to claim that Trump didn’t break any laws or think he was breaking any laws. I don’t buy that bilge either. But even if both claims had a little merit— I can’t even entertain the hypothetical that they have a lot of merit—there’s nothing wrong with a party saying, “I know this seems unfair to you, but we gotta do what we think is best for the GOP.” If you were about to hire a school principal or bank manager, and they were credibly indicted, there’s nothing un-American or unjust about saying, “I’m sorry but we can’t take the risk” or “this is too much bad publicity for us,” or simply, “sucks for you.”

I think sometimes we put so much emphasis on our legal and constitutional rights we become blind to our moral and ethical obligations. If Menendez went to the floor of the Senate and spewed an undiluted string of obscenities, including all manner of bigoted remarks, he’d be entirely within his rights to do so. And the Senate—and the Democratic Party—would be entirely within their rights to condemn him or even punish him for it. I don’t see any relevant difference between your right to a fair trial and due process and your right to free speech. 

Finding enchantment.

Okay, I’m done with the punditry. There will be a lot of that after tonight’s debate. Let’s talk about that trout in the milk. I’ll wait a moment for everyone who doesn’t want to indulge me to leave the room. (That’s my subtle way of saying, don’t complain to me about being made to read what follows. No one is making you.)

I’ve always loved that line about the trout in the milk and I’ve quoted it often. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I discovered it wasn’t as nonsensically awesome as I thought. Apparently, Thoreau experts believe this one-sentence non-sequitur found in his journal was a reference to the practice of unscrupulous dairymen who would water-down their product—i.e. if a trout is swimming in the milk, that’s probably a good sign that it’s been watered down. Sort of like a drug dealer saying, “Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find the bottle of baby powder in the cocaine.”

I was disappointed to learn this because I liked it better as an open-ended statement that let us not only imagine what he meant, but imagine all the weird ways a trout in the milk would be evidence of … something. 

One of my favorite books is Chris Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. It’s a children’s book that features one beautiful illustration after another, all of which hint at a story with a fascinating background and an almost limitless future. That’s all you get: a hint at what the mystery is and what it might mean. The rest is up to you. My favorite drawing is called “The Seven Chairs.” It shows a starkly lit cathedral with a nun in a chair floating half-way to the vaulted ceiling. The only clue: “The fifth one ended up in France.” 

That’s how I read the “trout in the milk” line. It’s a bit like the old saw about the “turtle on the fence post.” You don’t know how it got there, but you know the turtle didn’t get there by its lonesome. 

It might surprise some to learn that I’m a bit of a romantic about this kind of thing. I like the idea of living in a world of little mysteries, weird coincidences, funny ironies, suprarational loyalties, and other signs that there’s more enchantment to the world than meets the eye. 

In 2003, the New York Times—which at the time still paid lip service to the idea that it was New York’s hometown paper—editorially endorsed the Boston Red Sox against the New York Yankees, so that the Red Sox could finally make it to the World Series. This infuriated me for a number of reasons. One reason, not particularly relevant here, is that the Times has long been extremely prissy about conflicts of interest, full disclosure, and other panty-tightening ethical rules. But the Times didn’t feel it necessary to disclose that its parent company owned a stake in the Red Sox.  

But another thing that bugged me, beyond the late-capitalism, cosmopolitan disloyalty to New York’s hometown team and the ethical lapse, was that I liked that the curse of the Bambino endured for nearly a century.  I thought the world was a more interesting place when the curse endured. 

One can go down a lot of spiritual and religious rabbit holes exploring this instinctual preference for a more magical world, and I don’t want to discount or dismiss any of that. But I think one of the benefits of living in an enchanted world is it makes the world funnier. 

Just for the laughs.

There are three classic explanations of where laughter comes from. The first, which comes from Plato but really should be ascribed to the Germans, is that laughter comes from that feeling of superiority we enjoy at the expense of others’ misfortune. This is why it will never stop being funny to see men hit in the crotch with a football. Plato thought laughter was mostly evil and malicious. This view stemmed at least in part from the fact that Plato was a bit of a dick. 

Which brings me to a second theory that we get via Sigmund Freud and Herbert Spencer. We laugh to release “nervous energy.” This, they explained, is why we laugh at bawdy and scatological things (“He called Plato a ‘dick!’ Haha!”). The small taboos about bodily functions and sex are like little tension wires and when we cut through them, we laugh. 

A third explanation for laughter is closest to what I’m getting at. A lot of humor—like a lot of wisdom—revolves around pointing out the seeming incongruities or oddities in our lives and finding solutions, commonalities, or pointing out our shared experience of them. Lots of observational humor falls into this camp. “Did you ever notice…” that people named Todd smell like elderberries? Shopping carts always have one bad wheel?  People who drive slower than you are idiots and people who drive faster are maniacs? Etc. 

The thing about a lot of observational jokes—not all—is that the biggest laughs come when the audience has that “I’ve noticed that too!” or “I’m not the only one!” epiphany. There’s a combined sense of release and relief that comes with realizing you’re not alone in finding some things absurd.  (That’s one of the great things about political humor: It gives voice to shared grievances or concerns about the people running the show. That’s why those old jokes about life in the Soviet Union were so awesome. And that’s why I think Bob Menendez’s gold is gold.)

That’s what I always loved about Thoreau’s trout in the milk line. Not knowing why a trout in the milk would be evidence in support of your claim makes it funnier. And that it’s only circumstantial evidence opens up all sorts of possibilities. While a trout in the milk is merely circumstantial evidence, a snapper or mackerel? Well, that would be proof! 

Of what? I have no idea. And that’s the magic. 

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.