Pallbearer's snub of McConnell at Cummings' service is tied to Camp Lejeune water deaths
By ALLYSON CHIU | The Washington Post | Published: October 28, 2019
WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., cocked his right arm, ready to deliver a handshake. A man in a navy suit, who had been working his way down the line of leaders gathered for the late Rep. Elijah Cummings's memorial Thursday at the Capitol, was fast approaching.
Instead of stopping to acknowledge McConnell, though, video showed the man walking straight past the Republican senator to address House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. While the man and Pelosi chatted, a stoic McConnell stared ahead, clasping his hands in front of him.
This fleeting moment, immortalized in a now-viral clip, prompted many to dub the man — later identified as Bobby Rankin, a close friend of Cummings — as their "hero" for casting "well-deserved shade" at McConnell. By early Monday, the 16-second video had been watched nearly 6 million times as a number of people said that they too would have passed on shaking McConnell's hand.
"Thank you brother for doing what most Americans want to do," a Twitter user wrote.
While many assumed that Rankin had acted out of loyalty to Cummings, the longtime legislator from Maryland who had clashed repeatedly with President Donald Trump before his death on Oct. 17, he told The Washington Post his reasons were much more personal.
"When I saw Mitch McConnell, all I saw was my brother's face," said Rankin, 64, of Charlotte, N.C., one of Cummings' pallbearers.
Rankin's brother, Jerry, died last October from cancer after being exposed to contaminated water while serving in the Marines at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. Jerry did not receive the veterans' benefits he was owed before he died, Rankin said — and he blamed McConnell in part for that family tragedy.
"Elijah Cummings reached across party lines trying to help my brother get his military benefits, and Mitch McConnell was one of the persons he reached out to," Rankin said.
McConnell did not respond to multiple requests for comment on Rankin's claims.
Rankin said his brother was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer that causes malignant cells to accumulate in bone marrow, more than a decade ago, after leaving the Marines. Multiple myeloma is one of 15 health conditions linked to Camp Lejeune's tainted drinking water, which contained industrial solvents, benzene and other chemicals for roughly 30 years beginning in the 1950s, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Veterans who were exposed to the water and later developed any of the conditions can qualify for benefits, including free health care and disability compensation, VA said.
On Thursday, Rankin said his brother was already on his mind when he spotted McConnell, noting that Friday marked the anniversary of Jerry's death. Rankin wasn't clear about exactly why his brother didn't receive VA benefits or McConnell's precise role in Jerry's battle to get them after his cancer returned in 2016.
"I could not put my hands in the man's hand who refused to help somebody who served his country," Rankin said, later adding, "I couldn't do it, because I was thinking about my brother."
Rankin had no idea that the moment, which was captured on live broadcasts of the memorial ceremony, would turn him into an online sensation, sparking the hashtag "#thehandshakethatneverwas." In the clip, Rankin could be seen engaging with the senators and representatives lined up alongside McConnell, before skipping over the GOP leader.
"This might be the best thing I've ever watched," one person tweeted.
Keen-eyed social media users also pointed out that Rankin wasn't the only person to "shade" McConnell during Thursday's event. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who was standing next to McConnell, appeared to smirk at the Kentucky Republican after witnessing the failed handshake.
Meanwhile, Rankin didn't even see the video until a Washington Post reporter called.
"I don't know what people are saying," he said.
Rankin's relationship with Cummings began with a chance meeting at a gas station in Baltimore more than two decades ago. The pair struck up a conversation while pumping gas and by the time their tanks were full, a friendship was born.
They stayed close as Cummings ascended in politics, garnering national attention for "his principled stands on politically charged issues in the House, his calming effect on anti-police riots in Baltimore, and his forceful opposition to the presidency of Donald Trump," as The Post's Jenna Portnoy wrote. In the months before his death on Oct. 17, Cummings and Trump engaged in public spats that included the president calling the congressman's Baltimore district a "disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess." Cummings, in his position as chairman of the House Oversight Committee, also helped lead the Democrats' ongoing impeachment inquiry against Trump.
Cummings was buried Friday following a funeral in Baltimore attended by thousands, including former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. As politicians and Cummings' family members remembered the congressman, Rankin had a private parting message for his friend.
"When I carry him to his grave, if I could say something to him, I would say something I said to him many, many times before," Rankin told The Post. "What a mighty, mighty man he is."