From child refugee to Green Beret — to a seat in Congress?

Jeff Jacoby | Boston Globe | August 18, 2018 |

Historical references crop up with surprising frequency when you talk to Joe Schneider.

I spent some time recently with Schneider, the Republican businessman and former Green Beret who is challenging Representative Seth Moulton in the race for the 6th Congressional District on Massachusetts’s North Shore. We hung out for a couple of hours in a noisy Beverly diner, talking about politics and why Schneider wants to leave his successful management consulting firm, which has been advising the aerospace and defense industries for more than 30 years, to go to Washington as a freshman congressman.

Again and again, Schneider spoke of the past to make a point about the present. When our conversation turned to presidents and foreign policy, he invoked Dwight Eisenhower’s response to the 1956 Hungarian uprising. Discussing the government’s inability to compel economic equality, he remarked that the breakup of Standard Oil caused John D. Rockefeller’s net worth to double. Ruminating on what American decline might mean for the world, he made a pungent point about the Dark Ages that followed the fall of the Roman Empire.

“If you visit a castle in Bavaria or elsewhere in Europe from that era,” Schneider told me, “you see that the sanitary conditions of a prince in medieval Germany was far inferior to the sanitary conditions of a mere plebeian a thousand years earlier in Rome and Pompeii.”

Henry Ford proclaimed that “history is bunk,” but Schneider knows better. Indeed, it is Schneider’s own history, even more than his politics, that is at the heart of his campaign for Congress.

Schneider was born in Romania in 1950, and the experience of living under a communist regime left him with a hatred of dictators and a reverence for America’s tradition of liberty. He was only 10 when his family managed to emigrate to the West, but the memories of those early years haven’t faded. “You cannot imagine the kind of fear that people lived with in those days,” he says.

He tells a story, both amusing and chilling, about the time an uncle who had left the country years earlier for Israel came back to Romania for a family visit. Schneider’s parents made a little party, and invited friends to come and meet the visitor from abroad. When word of the planned party reached the security police, a “telephone repairman” was dispatched to the Schneider household to “fix” their phone — which even Joe, then just a child, knew was a euphemism for installing a wiretap.

On the day of the party, his parents tried to circumvent the bug by piling their guests’ coats on top of the telephone. But Big Brother wasn’t stymied. A security officer called the Schneiders’ number, and it was Joe who answered when the phone rang. “I’ll never forget,” he told me, “how the voice said: ‘Whatever you’ve put on the telephone, please take it off.’ ”

By the time Schneider arrived in America he was a fervent anticommunist, as he recalls today without embarrassment. He won an appointment to West Point, and as a new cadet in 1968 earned the nickname “Nuke ‘Em Joe” — a testament to the intensity of his anti-Soviet animus. In Schneider’s words: “Overthrowing communism was my Number 1 objective.”

He did his part to make it happen. He became a paratrooper, then a Ranger, then a Green Beret. He was in the Army’s Special Forces for 13 years, part of them spent supporting the Afghan effort to repel Soviet invaders. The Iron Curtain hadn’t been toppled by the time Schneider left the military, but Ronald Reagan was in the White House, and the USSR was on its last legs.

Armed with graduate degrees from Harvard and USC, Schneider went on to build a successful consulting firm, with hundreds of employees on two continents, and corporate and government clients at the highest levels. If ever an immigrant has lived the American Dream, Schneider has. So why embark now on a race for Congress? Why run as a Republican in a state as Democratic as Massachusetts? Why get into politics at a time when politics has grown so ugly?

Schneider’s answers to these questions come across as completely corny — and utterly sincere.

He bemoans the “hyperpartisanship” of the current political climate, in which Republicans and Democrats automatically line up against each other and hurl accusations of bad faith. He laments Donald Trump’s “cult of personality,” but also, he tells me, the fact that opposition to Trump is “so unreasonable.” He is alarmed by the disappearance of civility and honor from the public square. Political discourse in America “resembles more and more what I witnessed in my youth under communism,” Schneider writes on his campaign website, “where the skillful use of lies, deception, and misrepresentation was the norm.”

In person, “Nuke ‘Em Joe” comes across as avuncular, cheerful, and empathetic — the very opposite of an ambitious politician on the make, which is what he thinks Moulton has turned into. Like any challenger, Schneider casts the incumbent in a harsh light. But he criticizes Moulton less for his stands on any particular issues than for the speed with which the two-term Democrat turned into just another Capitol Hill player angling for attention and blindly loyal to his party. It offends him, he says, that his congressional district is represented by a rubber stamp. He seems to mean it.

With good reason, Massachusetts has been called the bluest state. The 6th district hasn’t elected a Republican to the House since Peter Torkildsen defeated John Tierney for a second term in 1994. (Torkildsen lost a rematch two years later.) On the other hand, the 6th district has strongly supported Republicans in other, more recent, races: It backed Charlie Baker for governor in 2014. It went for Scott Brown and Gabriel Gomez in the US Senate elections in 2010, 2012, and 2013.

Still, there’s no blinking reality: Moulton is a popular congressman with many political allies. Schneider is an unknown challenger with no experience as a campaigner. For the GOP to win the 6th district, Schneider would have to pull off a minor miracle. But as a one-time refugee from communist Romania who lived to see the fall of the Evil Empire, Schneider knows: Miracles sometimes happen.