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Why In The World Is Mike Pompeo Referencing Bob Dylan?

While speaking to the Heritage Foundation’s President’s Club today , Secretary of State Mike Pompeo let the world know he is a Bob Dylan fan — although maybe not the kind who listens for the lyrics.

“It’s great to be here,” Pompeo said, expressing relief to be among the members of a conservative think tank in a time of tumult for the Trump administration. “Everybody remembers the Bob Dylan song, ‘Shelter from the Storm.’”

The line got a laugh, but is a bit of an odd pull for those who do remember the song, from Dylan’s 1975 album “Blood on the Tracks.” While, as in “Like a Rolling Stone,” Dylan is making use of a familiar idiom in the tune, its content is far from generic, painting a bleak, mud-spattered landscape full of malformed creatures, endless suffering and wailing babies that has but one reprieve: An unnamed woman.

I’ll let the poet speak for himself:

“Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood/ When blackness was a virtue the road was full of mud/ I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form/ ‘Come in,’ she said, ‘I’ll give you shelter from the storm.’”

So, a fling? Yeah, probably, though many have taken this song to be something of a requiem for Dylan’s doomed marriage to his fist wife, Sara.

In later verses, after the speaker of the song is “Hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn,” the unnamed woman returns, “standin’ there with silver bracelets on her wrists and flowers in her hair.”

Again the reprieve, “‘Come in,’ she said. ‘I’ll give you shelter from the storm.’”

So, so far, the Secretary of State, were he to follow a strict reading of Dylan’s song, has compared the Heritage Foundation, a Right Wing public policy group for whom Richard Nixon was too liberal, to a free-loving flower child-type. Granted, poetry allows for different interpretations – Dylan isn’t a Nobel Laureate in literature for nothing – but the way the song resolves, one would have to be very generous to see Pompeo’s take on it as anything other than a misreading.

The next time the speaker sees the mysterious woman, he notes “there’s a wall between us, somethin’ there’s been lost/I took too much for granted, I got my signals crossed.”

Given this disconnect, the shelter offered is, time and again, insufficient. Meanwhile the world outside the shelter is crazy, filled with “babies wailin’ like a mourning dove” and “old men with broken teeth.” The song’s speaker has to gamble his clothes away in a hilltop town and sees a one-eyed undertaker blowing a “futile horn.”

“I bargained for salvation an’ she gave me a lethal dose/I offered up my innocence and got repaid with scorn,” the speaker concludes, ending with these thoughts: “Beauty walks a razor’s edge, someday I’ll make it mine/If I could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born.”

Given the themes of the song, we must conclude one of the following things about Mike Pompeo’s choice to reference it: He has actually never heard the song, but is aware that it exists; he has never paid much attention to the lyrical content of the song, but thinks that its title is appropriate for the occasion; or, and this is the most interesting – if least likely of events – he is actually expressing his extreme distress with the current Republican Party.

Maybe Pompeo is saying that, like the comfort of the unnamed woman of the song, the cloak of conventional right-wing ideology no longer hacks it in girding himself from the world around him. Perhaps he is trying to tell us that the horrors outside the Heritage Foundation are so abject and the scandals plaguing this administration so many that no succor can be taken from the old standby of institutional Republicanism. He might also be expressing a desire to “turn back the clock” to Reagan-era first principles, which have been abandoned on the right for Trumpism. It may just be that Pompeo is saying that the conservative project has failed, that he no longer recognizes the values he once held to and that this casual reference is in fact a veiled plea directed at those familiar with Dylan’s discography.

It’s possible that Pompeo understands the song just fine. But, then again, probably not.

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at [email protected].

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