Politics on the Playground

A prominent member of the House of Representatives has offered a budget proposal, and the President of the United States has publicly called it a “stink burger.”
There’s much to be said about the budget proposed by Wisconsin’s Rep. Paul Ryan, as well as the alternative put forth a few weeks back by President Barack Obama, but we’ll happily leave it all unsaid. Neither proposal has any chance of becoming law, so we find it far more interesting and worrisome that our political discourse has devolved to the point of “stink burger.”
Obama was once widely lauded as the greatest orator since Demosthenes, but surely even his most awe-struck admirers will admit that “stink burger” is not quite eloquent enough to justify that reputation. There were kids on the playground at Kistler Elementary School who could come up with more creative insults, and by the time they had graduated to Brooks Junior High and foul language they didn’t sound nearly so juvenile. We have no idea how taunting is done on the playgrounds of Honolulu’s ritzier private schools or at Columbia University and Harvard Law School, but we had hoped for something a little more high-brow. We certainly expect more of a President of the United States, as we can fondly recall a time when even a relatively low-brow Vice President could come up with something as alliterative and snappy as “nattering nabobs of negativism.”
The “stink burger” slur reportedly went over well with Obama’s audience at the University of Michigan. This does not speak well for the state of higher education, where a higher-toned sort of malicious slander once prevailed, but perhaps they were just grateful to be spared all the boring details of the budget debate. Obama also called Ryan’s budget proposal a “meanwich,” which seems to imply that he finds it parsimonious, which is almost an actual argument, and even a modern-day college student can understand why the president preferred to avoid any specifics.
Ryan’s allegedly radical right-wing proposal is rather tepid stuff, after all, at least by the standards of we actual right-wing radicals. The plan would take ten years to reach a balanced budget, must less begin to eat into $17 trillion of debt, and is mean only the sense that your parents were mean when they wouldn’t give you a pony. You’d probably get that long-awaited pony if the Obama budget proposal were passed, but it is based on the equally fanciful notion that a nation can live happily ever after on trillions of dollars of indefinitely continued debt. That’s a hard argument to make, even to a student full of empty-headed college students, and is best expressed in terms of “stink burger.”

– Bud Norman

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The Second Time as Farce

Dartmouth University rarely attracts our attention, as its sports teams never make the news and the other departments are almost as easily ignored, but we couldn’t help noticing that a group of students there are currently occupying its president’s office. The story brought on a feeling of nostalgia for our boyhood days in the ‘60s, when such student activism was commonplace, but on closer reading it seems the times they are indeed a-changin’.
Back in what the old baby boomer folks call “the day,” the youngsters used to seize campus buildings to protest the Vietnam War and racism and various other things that were said to be unhealthy for children and other living things. These were regarded as serious subjects even by the old fogies who thought that camping in a campus building was a damned fool way of making a point, and it was mostly respectable middle class hippie freaks who were breaking the law, so the practice attracted widespread attention and enjoyed a certain a respectability. The current action, on the other hand, seems simply ridiculous.
The 30 or so occupiers, who call themselves “Concerned Asian, Latino, Native, Undocumented, Queer, and Differently-Abled Students,” are calling for the implementation of what they call a “Freedom Budget.” The phrase sounds slightly right-wing, “freedom” and “budget” both being words often invoked by conservatives, but it is actually a laundry list of loony-left demands even by Ivy League standards. Among other things, the CALNUQD-AS insist that: Every department incorporate “at least one queer studies class”; many millions of dollars be committed to increase “faculty and staff of color” and create a “professor of color” lecture series; require professors to be trained in “cultural competency” and “the importance of social justice in their day to day work”; require professors to use “preferred gender pronouns”; provide “gender-neutral” housing and restroom facilities; and free legal assistance and financial aid to undocumented students.
Oh, and they’re also demanding that “all male-female checkboxes should be replaced with write-inboxes to make forms, surveys, and applications more inclusive for trans, two-spirit, agender, gender-noncomforming and genderqueer folks campus wide,” and that every Dartmouth student be taught he (or she, or it, we suppose) is residing on Abenaki homeland. They insist this is necessary because “The burden should not lie with systematically oppressed students (affected by racism, classism, imperialism, nativism, sexism, heterosexism, cis-sexism, and ableism) to ensure our own well-being, safety, and continued existence at Dartmouth.” Lest you think that the continued existence of CALNUQD-AS at Dartmouth seems assured and probably quite comfortable, they add that “our lived experiences at Dartmouth have been so violent that we were driven to write a plan for such assurance — The Freedom Budget.”
This sounds so outlandish that we must apologize for the computer problems that prevent us from providing the links that would prove we’re not making it all at some exaggerated parody, but we invite you to look it up for yourself. We had to look up “cis-sexism” ourselves, as it’s the only one of the listed isms that we haven’t yet been accused of, and it apparently means a prejudice against transgendered or transsexual people, so if that includes a slight level of discomfort we’re also guilty of that.
Maybe we’re just being racist, classist, imperialist, nativist, sexist, heterosexist, cis-sexist, and ableist, but it all sounds like these poor kids need a war or some actual racism to protest. We feel sorry for the poor Dartmouth mathematician who has to come up with a queer math course. We resent the implication in “professor of color” that white people are colorless, as our own off-salmon pink is indeed a color. We’ll refer to people by whatever gender seems appropriate, and cringe at the linguistic contortions that are required to respect some people’s feelings. We prefer gender-specific restrooms, too. You can check off whatever box you want on Dartmouth’s forms, as far as we’re concerned, but we’re not even going to bother to look up whatever what the hell Abenaki land is.
Back in the ‘60s the campus building-occupying hippies at least got a good orgy out of it, but these CALNUQD-AS probably won’t fare as well. They might get every demand they make, given the state of academia, but before the achieve utopia they’ll probably bore themselves to death.

– Bud Norman

The Debate is Over

The debate about Obamacare is over, according to a presidential pronouncement, and it seems a shame. There was a lot more grousing about it that we’d plan to do, now we’ll have to cancel that sarcastic skit we’d written for the upcoming “Gridiron” show, and the public is stuck with a spectacularly stupid law.
Perhaps the debate will rage on, despite the president’s protests, but he does seem to have an eerie power to end any arguments that he’s losing. The Benghazi scandal disappeared from the news shortly after his Secretary of State declared “What difference, at this point, does it make?” The Internal Revenue Service’s harassment of conservative non-profit groups has been similarly ignored after the president dismissed it as a “phony scandal,” even though the woman at the middle of it of all has quite genuinely invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. The arguments about fiascos from Fast and Furious to Solyndra to whatever happened to all that stimulus spending have all been as abruptly truncated.
All those cancellations of policies and increases in health insurance bills and the death panels passing judgment on grandma and the rest of it will make Obamacare harder to ignore, but the left’s power to put an end to losing arguments should not be underestimated. Even with the coldest winter in memory stubbornly stretching into April after a decade-and-a-half of global cooling the debate about anthropogenic global warming has been declared over, and most of the media have obediently obliged. A relatively recent bout over the five millennia-old tradition of marriage has also been stopped on a technical knock-out, and the half of the country with lingering doubts has effectively been banished from the mainstream of contemporary society. Any debate about the social acceptability of white racism has been thoroughly ceased, which is a good thing, but some very non-racist debate about affirmative action and inner-city crime and other issues that have baleful effects on minorities have also been stopped.
Around the time of the president’s first election Time Magazine declared on its cover that “We Are All Socialists Now,” and that seems to have settled that. If America isn’t quite yet socialist by consensus, we’re at least far enough along that the Majority Leader of the United States Senate can confidently slander the Koch brothers as “un-American” for their pro-capitalism activities and anybody with concerns about that $17 trillion of debt is easily dismissed a radical anti-government kook. Arguments about the basic assumptions of the New Deal welfare and regulatory state were declared over more than 60 years ago, with even such a stalwart Republican as Ronald Reagan being unwilling to do more than try to retain their old limits, and they’ve been barreling towards their illogical conclusions ever since.
We think that these debates never really go away, though, even if they have to be revived by catastrophe. We’d also like to think that Americans still have a stubborn unwillingness to submit to stupid laws, and that enough argument can avert catastrophes, but that’s debatable.

– Bud Norman

Another Darned Deadline

Deadlines are the bane of a writer’s existence, but none have been so annoying as the deadline for enrollment in Obamacare.
Despite our best efforts to ignore it, that seemed to be all that was in the news on Monday. The right-wing radio hosts would grouse about it for most of the hour, raising all sorts of reasonable questions about the numbers the administration was touting, and then the network news feeds would fill a few minutes with a breathless recitation of the same numbers and none of the required answers, and one of the television networks was giddily announcing a new poll that shows almost half the country likes the law. On the whole, the right-wing radio hosts were more convincing.
The law’s eponymous administration is claiming that it might reach a goal of seven million enrollees, but the number is as dubious as that poll show near-majority approval. So far no one’s saying how many of those enrollees have actually paid a premium, or how many previously had insurance that was cancelled because of the law, or how many have put on Medicaid or other programs that pre-dated Obamacare, or how many of them that are the healthy young people forced to buy more insurance than they need in order to subsidize the whole boondoggle, and even the most generous assumptions of governmental honesty and the most optimistic guesses still leave them short of covering all the 20 or 30 million or however many uninsured people they were promising to help. The upbeat coverage of deadline might have left the impression that is all is well, but even the most trusting and optimistic media will eventually be obliged to report more discouraging stories.
In the meantime, we expect more happy talk from the press about Obamacare’s progress. Whatever problems prove too hard to ignore, we expect the Democratic congressional candidates will promise to fix them, and that no one on the networks will ask why they didn’t fix them in the first place. Nor will they ask what’s going to happen when the administration finally gets around to the disasters employers’ mandate, as that deadline can always be put off until after the next elections.

– Bud Norman

Haysville and the Streisand Effect

Over the years we’ve covered countless controversies, but have rarely been in the middle of any of them. Now we find ourselves at least tangentially related to a minor local brouhaha, however, and are not quite sure how we stand on the matter.
As local theater-goers and regular readers of this publication might already know, every year we play a small role or two in the annual “Gridiron” show. It’s an exceedingly amateur production that has been put on the for the past 47 years by the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists as a fund-raiser for journalism scholarships, and features song parodies, skits, topical humor, and enough booze to make it all seem tolerably amusing. The show regularly draws three nights of good-sized crowds to the musty old Orpheum Theater downtown, mostly well-heeled and well-connected regulars who are in on the in-jokes and have come to expect certain recurring gags.
One of the show’s longstanding traditions is making jokes about Haysville, a small community just south of Wichita. These jokes vary wildly in content and quality, but the gist of all of them is that Haysville folks aren’t so sophisticated and cosmopolitan as those of us here in the big city. For years the practice went largely unnoticed, except by the Sedgwick County Commissioner representing Haysville, whose humorous shouted responses from the audience have lately become another recurring gag, but this year several prominent Haysville residents have publicly objected to the practice. Because their angry e-mails were addressed to members of the local media, the story has wound up on the local radio and television stations as well as the daily newspaper, and by local standards it can almost be considered a kerfuffle.
Our first response was that the folks in Haysville are being rather touchy. Most of the Haysville jokes are good-natured, with our own self-effacing contributions to the genre often playing on the absurdity of Wichitans looking down on anybody, and the meaner ones have usually fallen flat. Last year a couple of Okie cousins from Luther came up to catch the show, despite our warnings that about the local humor, and they found the Haysville jokes especially funny because they were reminded of their own disparaged town just north of sophisticated and cosmopolitan Oklahoma City. Besides, Gridiron is so easily ignored that we’d say that Haysville residents have better things to worry about, but that would leave us at the risk of making yet another Haysville joke.
On the other hand, we catch enough Wichita jokes made by the bigger city folks on television to understand the resentment. The jokes have grown rather outdated, too, as the relentless expansion of the Wichita metropolitan area has turned Haysville into a rather affluent bedroom community in the south part of town rather than the isolated rural outpost of ramshackle houses that it was when the jokes started. As insensitive as we are to other people’s feelings, and despite our constitutional traditionalism, our instincts as strictly realist humorists are inclined to find a more appropriate target.
To the extent that we are concerned with Haysville feelings, we think they’d have been better off leaving the jokes unremarked. The resulting controversy has made Haysville jokes more widely known in Wichita than ever before, and no doubt spawned a few new ones. This is sometimes known as “The Streisand Effect,” so named for the widespread viewing of photographs of her palatial home that had been posted on a government web site that was little seen until her objections were widely publicized, and we’re surprised that no one in Haysville was hip to the phenomenon.
Despite our ambivalence about the matter, we’ll continue doing the show the as usual. The only reference to Haysville in any our scripts is a mention of a fictional reality show called “The Real Housewives of Haysville,” and we’ll leave it unchanged because we can’t think of any suitable alterations. The rest of the cast can do as they please, as far as we’re concerned, and we’d like to think that most of Haysville is just as tolerant.

– Bud Norman

The Write Stuff

Back in our newspaper days we watched the typesetters, inserters, many of the pressmen, and even much of the clerical staff gradually fade away from the industry, all victims of the relentless progress of automation. We were especially saddened to see the departure of the typesetters, whose painstakingly learned sleight of hand was as entertaining to watch as any of those plate-spinners who used to perform on the Ed Sullivan Show, but we always reassured ourselves that a flesh-and-ink-stained-blood human being would always be required to write the stories.
Now we learn that even the all-too-human art of writing news stories can be mastered by mere machines. The Los Angeles Times has already run a story written by what is ominously called a “writer-bot,” and according to the chief technical officer of a company called Narrative Science, another ominous coinage, as much of 90 percent of all news stories will be computer-generated rather than human-written by 2030. This is after our hoped-for retirement date, but the apparent advent of the automated reporter is still a sobering enough development to make us reconsider our career path.
It seems a shame to leave so many decades of journalistic experience unused, however, so we’re thinking of getting on this computer-generated news racket. The classical economists’ answer to automation has always been that it creates a new job for every one it destroys, as people as required to design and build and maintain the machines doing the work, so we’ll simply get involved in the program-writing end of the biz. How hard can it be, after all? There’s something to do with algorithms, we’re told, and so far as we can tell that has nothing to do with Al Gore, but we’ll just get some unemployed computer geek to take care of that gobbledygook while we provide the necessary instructions. Many decades of being reprimanded by mainstream news editors have taught us all the rules of modern journalism, and it should be a relatively simple task to get a machine to obey them.
At the risk of revealing proprietary information, we’ll share with any potential investors out there a few of the stylebook entries we’ll have programmed into our machines. By following these few simple rules our computer-written copy should meet all the requirements of modern journalism.
First of all, any political story with the word “scandal” should omit any mention of the subject’s party affiliation unless he is a Republican. Any economics story bearing bad news should include the word “unexpectedly,” unless a Republican occupies the White House, in which case the words “dire” and “cataclysmic” will be added. All reports of Islamist-inspired terrorism must include a reference to the “religion of peace,” as well as some vague allusion to Israeli intransigence. Stories regarding the Internal Revenue Service’s harassment of conservative activist groups will not be written at all, but immediately replaced with the salacious details of the Kardashian clan’s most recent sexual exploits. Partial-birth abortions will described as “what opponents call partial-birth abortions,” at least until proponents can decide what to call it. All stories making reference to the Koch brothers must include the phrase “billionaire businessman, while those mentioning George Soros should use “philanthropist” and “social activist.” Crime stories must omit any mention of race or sex, unless the suspect is white and male, and just to be safe the neighborhood in which the crime occurred should also go unmentioned. Any mention of President Barack Obama should be free of any unflattering adjectives, and any accompanying photographs should be altered to include a suitably hagiographic halo effect.
There are lots more rules, as we have learned through hard experience, but that just means plenty of lucrative work for the aspiring journalistic programmer. The rules keep changing, too, depending on who’s in office, so this scam might yet get us over until the hoped-for retirement date.

– Bud Norman

The News on a Cold and Rainy Day

On a dreary and drizzly Wednesday, with the winds rattling the windows and winter still clinging bitterly to the gray-and-brown landscape, we dipped into the warmth and brightness of the Drudge Report. There was nothing particularly earth-shaking to be found there, unless you’re heavily invested in Twitter stock, but a few items provided the needed distraction.
We noted with some interest that the Democrats are contemplating using marijuana to improve their seemingly poor chances in the mid-term elections. It’s not that they plan to get everyone stoned on the way the polls, although we’ve long suspected a similar plot was involved in the last two presidential elections, but rather that they hope to bring out otherwise unenthused younger voters by putting various sorts of marijuana legalization referenda on the ballots. This seems a plausible plan, as marijuana is polling much better than the president these days, but hardly sure-fire. Even the most addled youngsters showing up to vote for legal weed might be inclined to ignore the Democratic congressional candidates intent on retaining an Obamacare law that redistributes what little wealth the young have acquired to well-to-do baby boomers in need of erectile dysfunction remedies, and a lot of pot-smokers tend to be libertarian types who also insist on gun rights and free speech and low taxes on everything. If the Democrats promise to make medical marijuana available to everyone through Obamacare the ploy would prove very effective, but thus far the Democrats aren’t so desperate.
The big headline of the was that President Barack Obama will be seeking the blessing of Pope Francis. Drudge’s waggish headline writers meant that figuratively, as we read the article, but we suppose an actual blessing from the Pope wouldn’t do any harm and would probably work better than one from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The two apparently plan to talk about income inequality, a topic they unfortunately agree upon, but we hope the conversation will eventually get around to why Obama is forcing the Little Sisters of the Poor to pay for contraceptive coverage. For all his misguided liberation theology about economic issues the Pope is steadfastly conservative on abortion and promiscuity and other causes dear to Democratic hearts, so he should be of limited usefulness to the efforts to bring out those pot-smoking hipsters the party is counting on.
In a sort of sports story, we read that Northwestern University’s football will be allowed to form a labor union. The team’s sluggish and inefficient play over the past several decades had led us to believe they’d been unionized all along, but it appears this is a new development. Sports journalists are speculating that the union movement could sweep across college athletics, and of course they tend to be enthusiastic about the possibility, but we have our doubts. The best football schools tend to be in right-to-work states, which is probably not a coincidence, and we expect that the best players there will simply opt to forgo paying union dues and keep taking their pay under-the-table. Time-outs are already long and frequent enough in college football games, too, and we dread the interminable work stoppages that will no doubt occur in unionized games.
That missing Malyasian airliner seems to have gone missing from the news, and without any definitive answers, and there’s yet another round of strange Obamacare delays and the frightening prospect of immigration reform and any number of other looming disasters, but they’re not fit for comment on such a dreary and drizzly day.

– Bud Norman

What the Other 80 Percent Thinks

As much as we prefer the conversation of our fellow right-wing bastards, we habitually seek out the political opinions of a wide variety of people. It’s an odious chore, entailing dreary hours of hearing the most outlandish nonsense from the most uninformed folks, but it helps avoid the kind of cocooned thinking that afflicts our Democrat friends.
They have a different set of priorities, these Democrats. Not just different from us right-wing bastards, who tend to grouse about individual liberty and the national debt and the deteriorating international scene and other things the Democrats never seem the least bit concerned about, but different from those blissfully apolitical people we usually encounter in our daily lives. Most of the regular folk we run into are worried about Obamacare and getting by, more or less in that order, while the local lefties seem mostly worked up about the Koch brothers and efforts to limit voting in American elections to American citizens.
Given all that’s going on in the world these days this things strike us as rather piddling concerns, but the Democrats are clearly convinced that they will make everyone forget about paying for over-priced Obamacare while trying to find a job. Every time they get together to talk about everyone agrees that these are the greatest threats facing the nation, it seems, and except for our occasional intrusions into their conversation they don’t know anyone who isn’t going to vote accordingly. Should they ever bother to strike up a conversation with the lady in front of them in the Dillon’s check-out aisle or the guy at the next barstool in any workingman’s tavern, however, they’d probably be surprised by the perplexed looks these topics provoke.
Perhaps Wichita is an outlier, as Koch Industries is an essential local business that contributes generously to local causes ranging from the Sedgwick County Zoo to that excellent exhibit of buffalo paintings currently on exhibit at the Wichita Art Museum, and our duly-elected Secretary of State is one of the nation’s most stalwart advocates of electoral integrity, but we have reason to suspect that the nation at large has more pressing worries. We have a brother in Colorado who prefers skiing to politics, which strikes us as quite sensible, and he unabashedly admits that he’s never heard of the Koch brothers, while even our most left-leaning bartenders say they’ve checked enough drivers’ licenses that they can’t see why it shouldn’t be required voting, so that seems a representative sampling. The pollsters survey an ever wider group, and they confirm our suspicions.
Sen. Harry Reid has recently taken to bashing the Koch brothers as way to maintain his increasingly tenuous grasp on the Senate Majority Leader post, but the polls show that most Americans dislike him more than both Koch brothers combined. Offered a choice between the Koch brothers’ conspiracy to keep the government out of everyone’s business and Reid’s conspiracy to run everything, we would expect the public to make the same choice. Even here in Kansas the Democrats are likely to run a candidate against Secretary of State Kobach on a platform of making it easier for illegal immigrants to vote, but the latest poll shows that a whopping 78 percent of the country disagrees and we’re sure that the margin is evening whoppinger here.
The Republicans might well find a way to blow the mid-term elections, as they’re very adept at that, but the Democrats will need to start striking up some conversations with people outside their circles for that happen.

– Bud Norman

The End of the Season

Basketball season is over in Kansas, spring has not yet arrived on these windy plains, and gloominess has settled over the Sunflower State.
Spring will get here sooner or later, we hope, and basketball will be back next year, we can be sure, but for now there’s simply no shaking that pervasive sense of gloom. The collegiate tournament lingers on, the professionals will keep playing until the sun is hot, and the local driveways and park courts will then be full of aspiring young Kansas hoopsters, but another year of diabolical basketball disappointment was entered into the state’s record books this past weekend. Kansas State University’s Wildcat squad went down with a fight in the first round of the tourney to the Wildcats of the University of Kentucky, the University of Kansas Jayhawks lost a close game in the round of thirty-two to the Stanford University Cardinal, and our beloved Wichita State University Wheatshockers missed a last-second three-point attempt in an epic battle to fall at the same point in the tournament to that pesky Kentucky team.
In other states where football or NASCAR racing or surfing some other such nonsense dominate the sporting scene it will be hard to understand, but in Kansas this is a rather devastating development. We take our basketball all too seriously here in Kansas, no matter how the loyalties are divided. The KSU team has enjoyed some notable success over the years, and gave the world Tex Winter and his sophisticated triangle offense, as any stereotypically hayseed fan of that fine cow college will tell you, so first-round losses to even the most storied programs are hard to take there. The KU squad has been playing the game since its inventor joined the faculty and has won the whole she-bang on three separate occasions, as any of its alumni will tell you ad nauseum, so losing to an even snootier school such as Stanford is a bitter disappointment, especially when they had one of those one-and-done pro prospects that was supposed to wow the world. Even lowly WSU has had some good years, too, and although many of them ended in second-round losses there were tantalizingly plausible reasons to believe that this season would be stretch deep into the competition.
The ‘Shockers hadn’t lost since last April, after all, when they took the eventual national champions to the wire in the semi=final round of the tournament. Since then the plucky band of overlooked recruits had beaten all comers, including four tournament teams along with the mid-major nobodies, and after steamrollering a hapless Cal-Poly University squad they went into the second round with an unprecedented 35-game winning streak. It was only unprecedented because Indiana University’s ’76 squad didn’t get as many games, and a couple of UCLA teams from the dynasty days stretched their much longer winning streaks over consecutive seasons, but by any measure it was a good run. Even the most fatalistic long-time ‘Shocker fans were emboldened to an unfamiliar hope, and the city at large was awash in the black-and-gold of the hometown team. Almost everyone around here had become fond of these lads, including a friend of ours who works at a local restaurant where the team had a weekly meal, who swears they’re the most respectful college students she’d ever encountered, and the city seemed to gained a pep in its economically depressed step because of their efforts.
A predictably bad break of bracketing luck had put them against a blue-chip laden team from Kentucky, which has won the whole she-bang five times more than even almighty KU and was the pre-season favorite to add that total, and in the end their height and talent and a some questionable calls and few missed ‘Shocker free-throw attempts made the two-point difference. There was considerable satisfaction in a 35-and-one season, and seeing the our blue-collar local boys put up such a spirited fight against the blue bloods, but we will always look back on this great season with a nagging realization of what might have been. That was a damned good team that could have shown those pro prospect blue chippers how it’s done, and the city will have to take an immense satisfaction in that.
Spring will be here sooner or later, we still hope, and soon our attention will turn once again to the Wichita Wingnuts. Our local unaffiliated minor-league baseball team tore up the American Association’s roster of similarly odd-named teams from similarly mid-sized cities last year but lost in an upset in the championship series, and we’re hoping that another summer of drinking beer in the smoking section of our charmingly antiquated ballpark will provide the same welcome distraction from dreary reality. In the meantime our most wonderful mother is battling a serious illness in a San Diego hospital, and we’re awaiting a call to assure that all is well, and even in this basketball-crazed state we are reminded of what’s really important.

– Bud Norman

The Grand Tour

Way back in our younger days it was a widely accepted truism that only Nixon could go to China, but these days anyone with the airfare and cost of a decent hotel can do it. Even First Lady Michelle Obama, who can simply put the trip on the taxpayers’ ever-swelling tab, is currently on tour on in China.
First Ladies usually get the kid-glove treatment from the press, especially the First Ladies’ of Democrat presidents, and most especially the First Ladies’ of Democrat presidents who can claim some historic ethnic first or another, but this trip has garnered some unusually critical coverage. That’s partly because of Obama’s inexplicable decision to not bring along her usually adoring media groupies, partly because of the explanation that it’s a “non-political” trip makes the undisclosed but easily guessed-at price-tag seem all the more extravagant, and to no small extent because she has come across as what in our younger days was known as an ugly American.
Granted, the sneering coverage has come from British press that is always snarkier and less politically-correct than its American counterpart. The reliably conservative Telegraph headlined that because of the refined behavior of Chinese President Xi Jingping’s wife “China Claims Victory in Battle of First Ladies.” The even snarkier but less reliably conservative Daily Mail reported that the Obama entourage was racking up an $8,350-per-night lodging bill for their 3,400-square-foot suit, and that despite such amenities as a 24-hour butler the First Lady’s mother was driving the hotel staff to distraction with her constant demands and criticisms. The temptation to crack the inevitable mother-in-law jokes must have been difficult for the American press, but they resisted admirably and contented themselves with straight-forward coverage of Obama’s public pronouncements.
Even the most straightforward accounts could not help embarrassing to the First Lady, however. At one point Obama was lecturing the Chinese on the need to tolerate dissent and political criticism, noting with pride the unending tolerance she and her husband have for such lese majeste, but the reports’ failure to mention the Internal Revenue Service’s harassment of conservative groups or its vilification of prominent opponents was conspicuous. Other reports proudly quoted Obama urging the Chinese to undertake educational reforms, with USA Today adding that “she has won praise for her approachability and admiration for her comments supporting freedom of speech,” but surely only the most star-struck readers weren’t reminded of her husband’s obeisance to the teachers’ unions and opposition to charter schools or vouchers or any other serious educational reform. One hopes that the first kids are enjoying the pricey visit, and not proving too much a pain in the neck to the hotel staff, but otherwise it’s hard to see what the taxpayer is getting for his money in this visit.

– Bud Norman

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