The Veep Is a Creep

One of the questions those snide man-on-the-street interviewers always ask to demonstrate the public’s appalling political ignorance is the name of the Vice President of the United States. It’s the sort of general knowledge that any enfranchised citizen should possess, and we always wince when watching the videotapes of all those public school graduates who aren’t even embarrassed to admit their ignorance, but these days we can hardly blame anyone who does not share our obsessive interest in politics for not knowing the answer. Vice President Joe Biden — which is the correct answer to that trick question, in case you were wondering — is such an inconsequential public figure, and so assiduously ignored by the media, that he’s not a household name.
The man is an utter boob and a heartbeat away from the presidency, however, and sometimes even the most deliberately unseeing media are obliged to take notice. On Tuesday the vice president had to deal with such routine chores as reading some tele-promptered compliments at a swearing-in ceremony and saying some anodyne remarks during a White House summit on carefully unspecified forms of “violent extremism,” and on both occasions he managed to provoke unfriendly coverage from even the friendliest media.
The swearing-in ceremony for new Defense Secretary Ashton Carter should have been a deeply-buried brief in most newspapers, but the lowly scribes assigned to the affair wound up with some prominenst placement after Biden spent an uncomfortable amount of the proceedings rubbing the shoulders, whispering in the ear, and seemingly smelling the hair of the wife of the man being charged with the nation’s defense. No less an administration stenographer than the Associated Press found that “VP’s Odd Move Gives Pause,” the cheekier New York Post described it as “snuggling,” and the unabashedly conservative PJ Tatler was frank enough to call it “creepy.” The New York Post recalled that Biden elicited a similar discomfort among the object of his interest and all onlookers at the swearing-in for Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, whose young daughter is shown in a photograph in an apparent state of discomfort during the Vice President’s kiss on the cheek, and quotes one of innumerable “tweeters” using the term “creepy.
At the White House summit Biden provoked an even pricklier discomfort by attempting to endear himself to a largely Muslim and African crowd with some talk about how about how some of his best friends back in hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, are Somali. He told the crowd that “if you ever come to the train station you may notice that I have great relations with them, because an awful lot of them are driving cabs, and are friends of mine,” and even the Associated Press couldn’t help but admit that the audience “responded with muted, uncomfortable chuckles.” This obligated a recollection of Biden’s famous gaffe from his 2006 senatorial campaign about the Indian-American ownership of convenience stores and donut shops, although they were kind enough to neglect mention of his 2008 observations on rival presidential candidate being a “clean, articulate” African-American. or numerous other similar embarrassments.
The long history of Biden’s boobish behavior was too much for even such an impeccably liberal publications as Talking Points Memo, where a young writer from the sisterhood was allowed space to wonder “Why Does Creepy Uncle Joe Biden Get a Pass From Liberals?” The author admits she feels badly about giving succor to her conservative opponents who have long complained a media double-standard that protects Democrats from public scorn, and worries that she might be a “bad feminist,” but to her credit can no longer hide her dismay that Biden is not such a national laughingstock that even those man-on-the-street interviewees know his name. She notes some other little-noted instances of Biden’s creepiness toward women, rightly calls him out on his foul language to mark to the occasion of Obamacare being signed into law, although she probably thinks it diminished an otherwise august event, and generously concedes that a Republican guilty of the same offenses probably would have drawn more scorn.
We have no doubt that Spiro Agnew, Dan Quayle, Dick Cheney, and even a vice presidential contender such as Sarah Palin would all agree. Agnew did what Maryland politicians, usually Democrats, have always done, but was brought done mostly by the class resentments of those “nattering nabobs of negativism” that he railed against. Quayle once misspelled the word “potato,” and was scolded by an older man that he was no Jack Kennedy, and his reputation as a fool never recovered. Cheney was too obviously smart to be caricatured as dumb, so he was instead portrayed as the evil genius behind the dumb president. We’re still not sure how Palin’s reputation for saying stupid things came about, although Tina Fey did do a very convincing impersonation of her saying very stupid things. None of them were nearly so boobish as Biden, and even the Darth Vader-ish public image that the press managed to hang on Cheney is quite so creepy, and yet all would have been easy answer to those man-on-the-street interviewers.

– Bud Norman

The Joke’s On the Right

An inordinate amount of attention has already been paid to the announcement of Jon Stewart’s departure from television’s “Daily Show,” and we have nothing to add to all the fawning that’s been going on. The smart fellows over at The Atlantic Monthly have seized the occasion to wonder why no conservatives have achieved such satirical prominence, however, and we can’t resist the opportunity for our own lofty rumination on the sorry state of political humor.
Our answer to The Atlantic’s rhetorical query, which they seem not to have considered, is that the people who have the opinion-making power to elevate a satirist to Stewart’s otherwise inexplicable prominence are disinclined to bring any conservative to such heights. Less convincing is the magazine’s theory that “proportionately fewer people with broadly conservative sensibilities choose to become comedians.” The article contends that an abundance of cable channels should surely offer entry to a worthy conservative comic, as if all those channels weren’t run by the same handful of big media companies and a half-hour on any one of them is worth having without expensive promotion on all the others and plenty of hype from the big print and internet media owned largely by the same companies, and it notes that liberals also predominate in academia, journalism, and other writing professions, as if there was no organized resistance to conservatism in any of those fields, but does not explain why “broadly conservative sensibilities” would be less likely to crack a joke. A comedy career requires “years of irregular income, late hours, and travel, as well as a certain tolerance for crudeness and heckling,” the article offers, but we can’t help noticing the same rigors have not conservatives from notable success almost everywhere else in the entrepreneurial world.
Our own broad experience of humanity and comedy and the indistinguishable difference between the two finds little correlation between political inclination and a sense of humor. We have known some conservatives who closely resembled the popular stereotype of a humorless right-winger, and like the article’s authors we have even known some who failed to realize that Stephen Colbert’s tiresome right-wing schtick was parody, but some of the very funniest people we have known derived their excellent humor from the unflinching postlapsarian realism that is the essence of Judeo-Christian-Hellenic-Burkean conservatism. We have shared many a heart laugh with left-wingers, some of whom make for surprisingly pleasant company, but we have also often encountered the living embodiments of the famous stereotype of “that’s not funny” feminists, those whose racial sensitivities are so refined they can’t laugh at “Blazing Saddles,” and plenty of low-information sorts who won’t recognize any joke unless it involves George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, or the term “tea bagger.”
Despite the ideological prejudices of academia, journalism, late night cable television comedy, and the rest of the writing professions, Evelyn Waugh and Robertson Davies and George Orwell and Kingsley Amis and Tom Wolfe still enjoy literary prominence despite their “broadly conservative sensibilities.” In Wolfe’s case his reputation was cemented before the critics noticed that between the lines of his pop art prose was neoclassical politics, and that his straightforward and factually true reportage was devastatingly arch satire, and in recent years the best of conservative humor that has filtered through the popular culture has been as sly. Those of us who like our humor as dry as the perfect martini find this an endearing trait of the better right-wing wags, and we offer it as proof that the highest humor is not incompatible with “broadly conservative sensibilities,” but we ruefully acknowledge it is it not to the public’s taste. Still, we not convinced by the liberals’ ideologically inconsistent and oh-so-smug argument that the market place has spoken. Stewart’s viewership in most markets is less than the equally vulgar left-wing agitprop on the “Family Guy” re-runs, his much-ballyhooed numbers in the much-coveted youthful demographic suggest the susceptibility of his niche audience, and the rest of his supposed influence seems to be his popularity with the more influential media. We’re left wondering if someone who could read tele-promptered jokes about Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or liberalism in general with the same smirking superficiality would do just as well.
Nor do we concur with The Atlantic Monthly’s pondering that “Political humor, in particular, might have an inherently liberal bias.” The article quotes the author of a book titled “A Conservative Walks Into a Bar,” which we have to admit is a pretty good title, as saying “Conservatism supports institutions and satire aims to knock these institutions down a peg.” As much as we like her book title, the woman is clearly delusional. The federal and state local governments and academia, journalism, late night television comedy and the rest of the writing professions, not to mention the public service unions and K-12 establishment and the group identity political organizations and what’s left of the music business, are by now combined as the most powerful institutions in the country, and conservative humor strives to take them all down more than a peg. The institutions of family, church, and individual liberty that conservatism seeks to conserve have all been knocked out of view by the past 100 years of institutionally-approved ridicule, yet a “Daily Show”-sized audience seems not to have noticed that the cutting-edge satire has become mere chest-thumping triumphalism. The audience is invited to share in the victory and membership in hipped crowd, and when accompanied by a knowing smirk that always gets a laugh.

They won’t come right out and say so, but the smart fellows at The Atlantic Monthly seem to believe that a conservative comedian is handicapped by the fact that there’s just nothing very funny about liberalism. They suggest that President Barack Obama, for instance, “is a more difficult target than his Republican predecessor: He was the first African-American president, which meant comedians had to tip-toe around anything with racial connotations, and his restrained personality has made him difficult to parody.” Had the authors known any humorists of “broadly conservative sensibilities,” they would have noticed that it’s impossible not to step into the carnival of white guilt that has sustained the president’s career, and that his “restrained personality” is prone to speaking with his chin aloft in front of styrofoam Greek columns and issuing alternately lofty and harshly partisan pronouncements on the way to the golf course. For those satirists so daringly iconoclastic as to proceed without tip-toeing around anything with racial connotations, the man is a gold mine rather than mine field. Don’t get us started on Hillary Clinton, as we’ve got material for two shows. We’ve got even more on the rest of the Democratic party’s presidential field, but none have the name recognition that would ensure audience understanding. If the cable channels aren’t interested, we suspect there’s something more than afoot than market forces.
We wish Jon Stewart well in his inevitable next endeavor, and are confident there will always be an audience for his knowing smirks, but we can’t help hoping that something a little more anti-establishment might come along in his wake.

– Bud Norman

The Problem That Cannot Be Named

There is much going on the world that we are expected to believe has nothing to do with Islam. Just over the past weekend a symposium on free speech in Copenhagen was attacked by a gunman who murdered a cartoonist who dared portray Mohammad in a satirical manner, and later that same day in that city there was another murder outside of a synagogue where a young woman was having her Bat Mitzvah ceremony. Meanwhile the terrorist army calling itself Islamic State continues its bloody spree across a large swathe of the Middle East with mass executions by the most the barbaric methods proscribed in Koranic scripture, extending its influence into new countries and to within a few miles of the last American troops remaining in Iraq, with similar problems occurring in nations from Yemen to Libya and beyond.
No less a progressive personage than the President of the United States has declared that “the future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam,” and described the Parisian kosher deli where other Jews were recently murdered as a “random” target, and assured the public that the Islamic State is a “jayvee team” of terrorism and “the tide of war is receding,” and insists on the tautology that known of this can possibly have anything to do with Islam because Islam is a religion of peace. He has issued the obligatory statement condemning the murder of the Danish cartoonist, without any mention of what might have motivated it, although he was too busy with golf and fund-raisers to comment on the attack at the Danish synagogue. If if all he knows about that attack is what he read in The New York Times he won’t even know that it was at a synagogue, and he’ll probably attribute that coverage to the same “if it bleeds it leads” journalism that prompts coverage of car wrecks and local crime, but he will no doubt be troubled to learn from that paper’s reports that “anti-Muslim sentiment is one the rise on in Europe.”
Despite his boasts of having pulled all but a relative handful of troops of Iraq, mostly those “advisers” who know find themselves within shelling distance of the Islamic State, and despite his many years of criticizing the congressional action that sent troops to Iraq in the first place, the president has dispatched troops to Kuwait and asked Congress to pass an authorization for the use of military force against whatever is causing this recent trouble. The authorization would only grant three years of military force and prohibits “enduring offensive ground combat operations,” which is facing opposition from both Republican hawks who find it too passive and Democratic doves who find it too bellicose, but at least it represents an acknowledgement that something is causing a problem.
Naming the source of that problem might be a good start toward solving it, but that step apparently must wait at least another two years. In the meantime, we’ll be too polite to admit that it is what the perpetrators insist it is.

– Bud Norman

The Presidential Races and the Growing Realizations

The big newspapers are already full of stories about the ’16 presidential race, and even at this all-too-early point it often makes for interesting reading. There are the inevitable second thoughts about the inevitability of Hillary Clinton’s nomination, some comic relief from Vice President Joe Biden, and even a budding realization that the Republican contest isn’t shaping up according to the conventional inside-the-Beltway wisdom.
Clinton has been deafeningly silent lately, so there’s not been much to report about her except for the polls showing her trailing undeclared candidate Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren in both Iowa and New Hampshire, which does not serve the favored press narrative about inevitability. Warren is a darling of the left wing activists who play an outsized role in the Democratic nominating process, just as Iowa and New Hampshire do, but is little-known outside those circles, so the results are not encouraging for the better-known and far better-funded and better-organized Clinton. The conventional inside-the-Beltway wisdom that name recognition and money and organization will ultimately prevail often proves true, but when such formidable advantages can’t gain an early lead in the early elimination round states against such a fake Indian and even faker left-wing populist of a first-term Senator such as Warren it seems a harbinger of an exception to the rule. The scrutiny that would follow the announcement of a Warren candidacy might well do her in, since even the friendliest media will be obliged to explain the whole fake-Indian scam and her more extreme soak-the-rich rhetoric and her general left-wing kookiness, and the media more friendly to Clinton will be most eager to pile on, but those left-wing activists are clearly unenthused about Clinton and likely to find some other darling to rally around.
He almost certainly won’t be Vice President Joe Biden, as even the loyal scribes of the Associated Press can now see. Biden seems to have no money, no organization, and even after six years of being Vice President of the United States he has little name recognition. If not for being so unfamiliar to the public Biden would be an even more unlikely nominee, as his prolific gaffes would be the popular catchphrases of the day if he were Dan Quayle or Sarah Palin or any other Republican. Biden’s latest gift to the late night comedians was giving a shout-out during a speech to his “butt buddy,” a vulgarism usually understood as describing a homosexual partner, but he can be grateful that won’t be so widely discussed as a misspelling of “potato” or an entirely fictional remark about seeing Russia from his house. No one ever became president by having the press politely ignore him, though, and Biden is unlikely to prove an exception to that rule.
The big newspapers retain an inordinate interest in former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and his inside-the-Beltway rivals, especially former protege and potential rival Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, but they’re slowly wising up to the probability that the Republican race winner will come from far outside the Beltway. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is the darling of the right-wing activists who play an inordinate role in selection the Republican nominee, he’s leading the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, which play that same crucial role in the GOP’s nominating process, and he’s also the favorites of the Republicans who showed up at the party’s annual Kansas Day gathering, who are about are about as Republican as Republicans get, and he’s even got some money and a growing organization, and after three elections and six years of relentless attacks by the labor movement and the Democratic establishment and its media allies he’s even got some name recognition. His prominence in the race is such that The Washington Post felt obliged to run one of its quadrennial back-to-schooldays hit pieces.
The Post’s effort will have little effect on Walker’s chances, we suspect. There are none of the hazing stories that were attributed by the paper last time around to Republican nominee Mitt Romney, and even some quotes from loyal friends who recall that they wouldn’t even let the well-behaved Walker in on their more harmless college pranks, as well as tales of his countless kindnesses to a particularly accident-prone friend, but there is the shocking revelation that the remarkably successful two-term governor was frequently late and largely uninterested in his French classes and remains 36 credit hour short of a college degree. The paper portrays this as a great mystery, and chose to run the story at a time when Walker was overseas on a trade mission and conveniently unavailable to provide the solution, but still leaves open the possibility that he simply chose to begin what has turned out to be an exemplary career in public service rather than pay for another 36 hours of over-priced college education. This will seem a disqualifying failure to the sorts of people who are impressed by Elizabeth Warren’s former post on the Harvard University faculty, but we expect the rest of the country will not find it a matter of concern.
Ivy League credentials are not always sufficient for the presidency, as the last four administrations and numerous previous ones demonstrate, and autodidacts such as Abraham Lincoln and Harry Truman have occasionally distinguished themselves in the office. The story might even further endear Walker to a country largely populated by people who do to have Ivy League diplomas, and inoculate him against the usual charges of elitism and privilege that are invariably made against the Republicans who hod tony degrees. The Post story also reveals that Walker is the son of a Baptist minister who chose to attend a Catholic university, inadvertently burnishing his ecumenical reputation with the Republican party’s religious wing, and will not convince anyone that Walker does not possess a serious intellect. We note elsewhere that Walker has proposed legislation that would permit people in the state’s higher education system to gain credits for life experience, and most people who have experienced both college and real life will agree that the benefits that Walker has brought the state after many years in public office should surely be equivalent to 36 hours of university lecturing.
This is far too early to make any predictions, of course, as the press should have figured out by now, but will venture to say that conventional inside-the-Beltway wisdom should not be trusted.

– Bud Norman

Happy Birthday, Mr. Lincoln

Today marks the 206th anniversary of the birth of President Abraham Lincoln, one those of providential events in America history, and it should be noted. The nation once celebrated the date with a national holiday, but the Great Emancipator was eventually downgraded to sharing a day with George Washington, the Father of Our Country, with the imprecise name of Presidents’ Day suggesting they might also share the honor with some of the lesser figures who have occupied the office, and the lack of attention paid is not only a show of national ingratitude but also indicative a dangerous lack of historical perspective.
Lincoln got some favorable publicity a couple of years ago when Steven Spielberg released a sympathetic bio-pic, which received mostly favorable reviews from conservative critics despite a screenplay by the liberal writer Tony Kushner, and a semi-scholarly history of his administration became a best-seller back when Barack Obama was first running for office and being touted as the new and improved version of Lincoln, but even all the hype attendant to a Spielberg release or an Obama campaign cannot elevate Lincoln to his deserved prominence. A friend swore to us that he had spoken with some young people at the local university about the Lincoln movie when it came out and was told that they liked most of us but were unpleasantly surprised at the end when the titular character was assassinated. Despite the daily reminders of his face on five dollar bills and pennies, and despite his name on cars and tunnels and logs and countless road signs, we suspect that by now most Americans are only slightly more familiar with the story of Lincoln.
There was another recent movie about Lincoln as a zombie hunter, but that probably didn’t fill in many gaps in the public knowledge, and the schools don’t seem to be doing much better. We suspect they’re probably too busy telling their empty-headed charges about Emma Goldman, Malcolm X, Christine Jorgensen, and similarly significant historical figures who are more useful to the narrative of an America exceptional only for its racism and sexism and homophobia muddling along toward the liberal future only because of protest movements and higher taxes and bureaucratic control. To the extent that Lincoln is taught, the lessons are likely to come from Richard Hofstadter’s widely published essay “Lincoln and the Self-Made Myth,” which found the Emancipation Proclamation insignificant and preferred to focus on the speeches Lincoln made to deal with the racist realities he confronted in mid-19th Century America and how they fell short of the standards of late-20th Century liberalism. Such Lincoln-bashing has become something of an academic cottage industry, and is also common in the entertainment industry. When not axing zombies Lincoln can also be found in a trendy art-house flick from a few years back called “Confederate States of America,” which imagines an alternative history in which the Confederacy won the Civil War, and takes the boringly uncontroversial view that things would have gone badly, but with an unmistakable sense of moral superiority it portrays Lincoln, whose visionary leadership was singularly responsible for preventing that historical calamity, as a racist, a rube, a tyrant, and a coward. To our dismay, we have found this is a fashionable opinion.
One must somehow dismiss Lincoln, of course, to sustain that broader narrative about America being unexceptional except in its sinfulness. That narrative must be sustained, of course, to justify America’s retreat from the world and its apologetic unwillingness to bring any of its values to bear on the rest of the world. When the current occupant of the White House tells a prayer breakfast gathering that America should not “get on a high horse” when Islamist terrorists behead or crucify or burn alive their captives because a Christian America once had slavery, it is inconvenient to recall the far more eloquent and explicitly theological words that Lincoln used in his Second Inaugural address to explain a bloody war that ultimately abolished slavery. Because Lincoln cannot be denied credit for preserving the Union of these States, those who decry that outcome because it has failed to meet early 21st Century standards of liberalism must denigrate the accomplishment.
None of these critics are nearly so wise as Walt Whitman, America’s greatest poet, nor did they have the experience of the full horror of Lincoln’s war that Whitman endured as an ambulance driver in the bloodiest battles of that conflict, and neither do they have Whitman’s true vision of America’s once and perhaps future greatness. We’ll let Walt have the final words on this anniversary of Lincoln’s birth:
“This dust was once the Man,
Gentle, plain, just and resolute — under whose cautious hand,
Against the foulest crime in history known in any land or age,
Was saved the Union of these States.”

– Bud Norman

Softball Questions and Their Perils

Public figures should always beware of the friendly interview. Our many years of media servitude have taught us that the most kindly questions tend to elicit the most embarrassing answers, and that an interviewer’s knowing nods of approval will invariably provoke an an unguarded interviewee into even further embarrassment. President Barack Obama, who has a marked fondness for the friendly interview, once again proves the point in his free-flowing conversation with Matt Yglesias at the Vox.com web site.
The president usually prefers to take his case to the likes of the 60 Minutes program, which has boasted it won’t play any “gotcha” tricks on him, or late night television comedians such as Jon Stewart and David Letterman and Jimmy Fallon, who invite him to join in on the hip humor, or the “Pimp With a Limp” radio show, which we suppose offers some sort of “street cred” without any of the “yo’ mama” sort of “dissing” that one usually endures to acquire, but he will occasionally reach out to more respectable but no less respectful publications. The ploy, alas, has never worked out well. Even with a former Clinton apparatchik-turned-ABC correspondent Obama found himself speaking of “my Muslim faith, he couldn’t schmooze with such a genial chap as Jay Leno without making Special Olympics jokes about his bowling skills, an appearance on the “Pimp With a Limp” radio show is humiliating in itself, and such a genteel publication as The Atlantic Monthly recently had him dismissing the Islamic State as a “jayvee team” of terrorism even as it was conquering a large swathe of the Middle East. Chatting with such an obsequious scribe as Matt Yglesias at such a fashionably liberal site as Vox.com was bound to be trouble.
The interview is divided between domestic politics and foreign affairs, and we’ll limit our outrage to the latter. That portion opens with a pretentious attempt to locate Obama’s foreign policy on a scale between “idealism” and “realism,” allowing the president to wisely position in himself somewhere between the extremes of Woodrow Wilson “out there with the League of Nations and imaging everybody holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya’ and imposing these wonderful rules everybody abides by,” and the “realist” camp that is “supporting dictators who happen to be our friend, and you’re cutting deals and solely pursuing the self-interest of our country as narrowly defined.” This is a familiar position for Obama, who also represents the country’s last choice between those who would rape the environment and enslave the working man or those who would do away with commerce altogether, which we assume is the theme of the domestic politics portion of the interview, and he could be confident that Yglesias wouldn’t offer any challenge. We would have been tempted to ask how Obama’s deference to the United Nations is any different than Wilson’s mania for the equally ineffectual League of Nations, or whether he was more annoyed by Wilson’s decision to enter World War I just because of some German sabotage and the sinking of American vessels and the proved plot to lead Mexico into a revanchist war against the United States or the unfortunate situation America would find itself in if the world were dominated by Prussian militarism, and if the deal that the administration is cutting with the dictators in Iran seemingly because they are not our friends is at all “realistic,” but that’s probably why we weren’t granted the interview.
There is much more similarly self-aggrandizing nonsense, including some concerned talk about the problem of “failed states” that neglects any mention of Islamic State-controlled Iraq or Libya or Yemen or Somalia or any of the other basket-cases that were recently cited as the administration’s great foreign policy success, and some talk about how we can nonetheless afford massive defense cuts while our debt service payments largely fund the Chinese military’s ongoing build-up, as well as some bragging about the withdrawal of troops from what is Islamic State-occupied Iraq, and of course Yglesias only invites him to ramble on with more howlers. Most noticed, at least in the conservative portion of the media, was Obama’s grousing about the media’s strange insistence on reporting the latest acts of Islamic terror rather than focusing on ore pressing problems such as “climate change.” Egged on by the seemingly helpful Yglesias, Obama likened it to the “if it bleeds it leads” formula that has your local news station reporting on the big pile-up on the interstate or the double homicide in the poor part of town rather than the colder-than-predicted weather. The president’s priorities seem markedly different than those of the public, which we suspect regards Islamic terrorism as a newsworthy concern, but no one at Vox.com is likely to raise the point.
Lulled by such awed acquiescence the president went on to mention “the folks” who were killed at “random target” in the aftermath of the slaughter of the staff of a French satirical magazine, as if the target that Islamic terrorists randomly chose just happened to turn out to be a kosher delicatessen where the “folks” just happened to be Jews, and that was too much for the even the mainstream to endure. At the White House press conference the unenviable spokesman Josh Earnest endured numerous questions about the characterization, and his efforts to dodge them all make for entertaining viewing. We notice the president wasn’t pressed by Yglesias about such “folks” as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or his countrymen, which we suppose is only polite, the Jewish question being such a sensitive one, but it would have also been fun. That would have lured the conversation into that unfriendly territory where public figures become guarded, though, and might not have been so revealing.

– Bud Norman

When the Music Stopped

A television was on Sunday evening at one of the locally owned stores we frequent, and as we made our purchase we caught a glance of what looked like Madonna cavorting in a skimpy outfit among a chorus line of beefy fellows in what looked like minotaur costumes. We momentarily assumed it was a Super Bowl half-time show before recalling that a Super Bowl had recently been played, with some other scantily-clad chanteuse doing the half-time honors, and we figured there probably wouldn’t be another one until next winter, so we asked the clerk and he explained that it was the annual Grammy awards ceremony honoring the best of the recording industry. That was all we saw of the show, and the snippet of the forgettable song being performed was the most we’d heard of the recording industry’s latest offerings in a long while, and we didn’t worry that we’ve been missing out on anything.
The next day’s news was full of stories about the event, however, with some of them spilling over into the political pages that usually command our attention. This led us to wonder if we were blissfully ignorant of some important cultural phenomenon blasting through everyone else’s car stereos while we’re listening to the monophonic sounds of Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee on the old folks’ station, and if we might soon arrive at some social event and find ourselves in the embarrassing position of being the only ones there not wearing a minotaur costume. Then we headed out to a writer’s meeting for the upcoming Gridiron Show, a satirical song-and-sketch fund-raiser that is our annual amateur theatric experience, and were confounded by all the unfamiliar titles of songs that the younger members of the ensemble wanted to parody. We had thought that popular music was no longer a significant influence on the broader culture, not like in the days when shaggy-haired, shirtless rockers were exhorting the youth of America to burn to their draft cards and speak truth to power and do it in the road and all the rest of that youthful rebellion schtick, but apparently one is still expected to have some familiarity with the sort of music that is being played on those newfangled FM stations and performed at the Grammy’s.
Judging by the breathless coverage of that extravaganza, studded with stars whose names we vaguely recognize, it hardly seems worth the effort. The big brouhaha of the evening involved someone named Kanye West interrupting one of the winner’s acceptance speeches to protest that the award should have gone to someone named Beyonce, which is apparently his habitual practice at these sorts of affairs, although there was also scandalized talk of the outfit Madonna wore off-stage that revealed her 56-years-old but still shapely buttocks. At the edges of the conservative media there was worry that prominent Democrats Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz were in attendance and might have been there on the taxpayers’ dime, and others were mocking the president’s video-taped statement made the dubious claim that one-in-five American women have been raped and urged the audience to knock it off, but at this point it hardly anyone seems to find it worth mentioning that the entirety of the recording industry except for a few studios in Nashville is outspokenly associated with the Democratic party. If these people do exert an influence on the broader culture, all the more reason they should be ignored. This Kanye West fellow strikes us as merely rude rather than revolutionary, even the most callipygian fifty-something should have acquired some sense of dignity and decorum, and with no draft cards left to burn and speaking truth to power no longer required during a Democratic administration all that seems to be left of the youthful rebellion schtick is doing it in the road, which seemed to be the Big Profound Message of that Madonna number we happened to catch at the store, and so far as we’re concerned the Democrats are welcome to it.
We console ourselves with the belief that the popular culture isn’t so popular as it used to be, and that the recording industry’s influence in particular has waned along with its rapidly declining sales. That’s largely because the music streaming freely through the internet has dismantled the industry’s old model of pitching music through a limited number of radio stations and then selling it on long-playing albums or cassette tapes or compact discs or MP3 downloads or whatever the tech guys have lately come up with, but we suspect it’s also because no one thinks it is worth paying money to have the music permanently. The plethora of terrestrial and satellite and internet radio stations has fragmented the market, which happily allows listeners to indulge a taste for doo-wop or Dixieland or polka or Hawaiian slack key guitar or techno-house whatever other obscure genre they might prefer, and no one seems to have a truly mass appeal even if the marketing schemes for them existed. A handful of highly publicized acts still dominate free streaming audience at sites such as YouTube, and cash in with concerts full of elaborate choreography and high-tech stagecraft that fill huge arenas at exorbitant ticket prices, but none are nearly so ubiquitous as Glenn Miller in ’41 or Elvis Presley in ’56 or The Beatles in ’64, and even the most hyped of them will likely have little effect on the sizable chunk of the country that won’t shell out for the over-priced shows.
Although we’re heartened that the likes of Kanye West aren’t a particularly pressing problem, it’s kind of a drag that there isn’t a popular American musical culture. In a golden age that ran from about the early ’20s to the early ’70s there was a flood of great of music pouring out of America’s radio speakers, from low down blues to up-tompo swing to rough-hewn country laments and sophisticated pop standards to fervent gospel and rowdy rock ‘n’ roll straight from the garages, and sharing the experience of the best of it with everyone else was one of the cultural advantages of being an American. We’d love to see that old American musical inventiveness revived, and a new generation of performers emerge who will cover up their buttocks and ditch the elaborate showmanship and share some lovingly hand-made music at reasonable ticket prices, and we’d even shell out for a vinyl record or compact disc or whatever else it takes to put it permanently on our shelves to share with posterity. In the meantime, we’ll be tuned into the old folks’ station.

– Bud Norman

A Guilt-Ridden History

There was so much to abhor in President Barack Obama’s oration at last Thursday’s annual prayer breakfast that one hardly knows where to begin. The sermon featured the usual ahistorical recounting of western civilization’s past sins, the usual attempt to mitigate the contemporary sins of western civilization’s enemies, and the usual haughty air of moral superiority as he urged his subjects to be humble, but somehow it was even more infuriating than usual.
The president took the occasion of the prayer breakfast to tell his audience that “people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ,” and reeled off the usually litany of the Crusades and the Inquisition and slavery and Jim Crow. He seemed to think this a highly original insight into history, although it will come as no surprise to any American who has been subjected to a public education or Hollywood movies over the past many decades, and he made it all sound quite simple and damning.
There was no mention that the Crusades were a defensive war launched nearly 500 years after Islamic imperialism has begun a war of conquest that stretched from the formerly Christian Middle East far into Europe, that it happened in an era of western civilization known as the “Dark Ages” and during an era of Islamic culture known as the “Golden Age” and that the Muslims mostly got the better of it, that atrocities were common to both sides of the conflict, and that western civilization likely would not exist if not for the effort. Perhaps continued existence of western civilization is the president’s main gripe with the Crusades, and although he did not quite go so far as to say that in his address one could detect a profound sense of disappointment. Western civilization is so sexist and racist and homophobic and otherwise falls short of the president’s high moral standards, after all, so he might naturally yearn for the more open-minded attitudes on these matters that he seems to believe prevail in most of the Islamic world.
There was much brutality during the various Inquisitions, especially in the most notorious Spanish one, and at times it even exceeded the harshness of dhimmitude that was imposed on non-Muslims in the Islamic world, even if it has been exaggerated by the popular imagination, so the president can’t help but savor that. We’re still glad that the reconquista of the Iberian peninsula happened, and that it was a re-Christianized Spain that sent Christopher Columbus off to the new world and made the United States of America happened, and we can’t help wondering if the president of those United States of America is as grateful. Slavery will forever be a stain on American history, but that evil institution existed in every corner of the world from the dawn of time until western civilization largely eradicated it on Christian principles, although it remains a feature of life in Nigeria and other portions of the world where a more strident form of Islam holds sway, so it seems rather unfair to single out western civilization for the unique culpability of this sin of humanity. There were Americans who justified Jim Crow according to some strange interpretation of the Bible, and those who are still alive deserve some presidential chiding, but we wonder why the first black president couldn’t acknowledge that the civil rights movement that made his presidency possible was also rooted in the Christian faith.
Our best guess is that the president wants to tamp down any public enthusiasm for a robust resistance to the terrible deeds currently being being committed in the name of Islam. An inconveniently named outfit calling itself The Islamic State has lately been taking over large parts of what were once Syria and Iraq, and by such brutal means as mass executions, beheadings, crucifixions, and even dousing captives with gasoline and burning them alive inside steel cages, so it takes some extraordinary rhetorical exertions to convince a modern western world presently pre-occupied with same-sex marriage and trans-gender rights that it has no moral standing to object to such barbaric behavior. We are assured that the Islamic State is not at all Islamic because Islam is good and therefore anything bad can not be true Islam, a tautology that does not seem to exempt Christianity from the crimes of the Spanish Inquisition, but rather than hectoring an American public that does not by large commit atrocities in the name of Islam it should be making its case to the people who are mass executing, beheading, crucifying, and dousing captives in gasoline and setting them afire in the of the faith. They seem to have settled on a theological tautology that because Islam is good and they Islamic what they’re doing can’t be bad, and it will likely take more than a groveling apology for 500-year-old sins by people to whom we now seem to disavow any cultural connection to persuade them to act otherwise.
Our reading of history suggests it will eventually require overwhelming military force backed by the fierce will of a self-confident civilization, but the president appears confident that his ability to placate even the most implacable foe will suffice. We are advised not to “get on our high horse” and assert the superiority of our modern civilization to the ancient barbarism of the Islamic State, and this from a president who routinely bestrides a higher horse than any American politician of our recollection, and who has never hesitated to attribute the most evil intentions to his domestic political opponents, so we are not persuaded that a more supine position will be effective.
A majority of the Muslim has no appetite for the brutal conquests of the Islamic State, and some of them are bravely fighting it right now, but vast majorities can be disastrously ineffectual when pitted against a fervent minority more thoroughly convinced it is in the right. The United States and the rest of the world should be offering all possible help to the fight against the Islamic state, and surrendering its moral authority to do so can only lead to disaster.

– Bud Norman

War Stories and Apologies

Much ridicule has already been heaped upon NBC News’ anchorman Brian Williams for his exaggerated war stories, and even more for the apology he posted on Facebook, so we’re loathe to add any more to the pile of scorn. Better to take the opportunity of all the distracted attention and favorable comparisons to confess our own exaggerations and offer our own apologies.
Not that we begrudge Williams’ many critics their gleeful mockery, and we don’t condone Williams’ false braggadocio or accept his seemingly insincere claims of contrition. Williams’ embarrassment is a boon to the conservative cause,  as it further calls into question the veracity of his entire reliably liberal network and provides yet another rejoinder whenever some liberal sneers about Fox News, and it even forces the press to recall presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s similarly fabulist tale of zig-zagging across the tarmac dodging Bosnian sniper fire, which is always good for a chuckle or two if you try to envision it, so some measure of schadenfreude would be too much for even the most compassionately conservative soul to resist. There’s also something slightly infuriating to a hawk’s sensibilities about an NBC anchor, of all people, trying to glom on to a bit of Iraq War glory, and when you watch the guy’s newly dredged-up appearance on the Late Night With David Letterman program, holding the audience in thrall with the umpteenth telling of a rocket propelled grenade hitting his helicopter and how “we” brought it safely down and won the day, with the supposedly wised-up host falling for it to such an extent he utters “war hero” as he heads into a commercial break, there’s a certain temptation to find out what five-star restaurant the guy will be eating at tonight and show up to punch him in the nose. Still, we humbly decline to heap any further ridicule.
Who among us, after all, has not “misremembered” being shot down in a helicopter by a rocket propelled grenade? We’ve had some bumpy airline landings in our time, and after all the drinks that it takes us to get through an airline flight we could have easily mistaken any of them for a bombing mission on the Memphis Belle. Perhaps our neighborhood is just getting a bit seedy, but it seems that lately one encounters so many rocket propelled grenades in the course of a day’s chores that it’s hard to remember when it did or didn’t happen. We note that all of the NBC crew that always accompanies Williams on his death-defying missions seem to have “misremembered” the events as well, or at least declined to offer any corrections, and the NBC management seems to have had little trust in the memories of the numerous servicemen who have written over the past 13 years of Williams’ re-tellings to offer an alternative version of events, and anyone who’s seen “Rashomon” knows how tricky memories can be.
Despite our own constant endeavor for truth, honesty, and journalistic integrity, even we have been known to exaggerate our wartime exploits. In the interest of full disclosure we will confess that, despite our claims one beery evening at the old Cedar Lounge, we were not the first to land on Omaha Beach. We were in Omaha once, and were the first to arrive at a picnic on a sand dune along the Missouri River, but the part about taking out a Nazi machine gun nest was apparently “misremembered,” as we have since learned that the D-Day invasion took place 15 years prior to our birth. We offer our apologies to Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks and all the other brave men who made that great victory possible. Contrary to what we once told a rather comely young woman at a cocktail party, we were not among the last holdouts of the French Foreign Legion at Dien Ben Phu. That battle apparently also preceded our birth, so we seem to have “conflated” it with a hazing incident at a Boy Scout camp, and in any case it made no impression on the young lady, who had never heard of Dien Ben Phu, so we regret the error. We find ourselves in the humiliating position of apologizing to the French. To retract a story we once told in a job interview, neither did we ever lead an undersea army against SPECTRE’s nuclear-armed scuba mercenaries to save Miami from total destruction, which is apparently the climactic scene of the James Bond thriller “Thunderball,” although we still insist that could have happened. We offer our apologies to Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, Harry Saltzman, and especially to Sean Connery, who actually was James Bond and actually did that.
We’ll let the taunters “tweet” their tsk-tsks, the satirists spew their snark, the pundits propound their disappointment, and the ravenous pack of press folk eat their own, but we’ll take the high ground. That’s a lesson we learned way back when we served with Gen. John Sedgwick, eponym of our very own Sedgwick County, during the Battle of Spotsylvania against those bloodthirsty rebs, but there’s a rip-roaring a story for another time.

– Bud Norman

To Vaccine, or Not to Vaccine

There’s been a spate of news stories about vaccinations lately, and we’re not sure why. It seems to have something to do with an outbreak of measles that started in California and has since spread to seven other states, Mexico, and the bloodstream of the nation’s politics as far away as New Jersey, as the press has avidly pressed all the prominent public figures about their stands on mandatory vaccinations. Most of the brouhaha seems to involve two of the more prominent potential Republican presidential candidates, rather than what the people who actually make current policy are doing, so we suspect all the coverage might have more to do with partisanship rather than the public health.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul have both been pilloried for offering the opinion that perhaps in some cases vaccinations should be voluntary, with many pundits extrapolating that such anti-science craziness is running amok in the Republican party, but the storyline might lead to conclusions that the press does not intend.
Although we’re not inclined to support the presidential candidacies of either Christie or Paul their comments don’t seem so very extreme, and to the extent they are it’s hardly a craziness unique to the Republican party. Christie reportedly called for “balance” between individual rights and community health and “some measure of choice” before clarifying the comments by saying “there is no question that children should be vaccinated.” Paul waded into deeper waters by claiming vaccinations should be voluntary as they have been associated with mental disorders and saying that parents “should have some input,” which led to the resurrection of earlier quotes likening mandatory vaccinations to martial law, but he’s also done some clarifying by saying that he didn’t mean to find a causation rather than just a correlation between vaccination and mental disorders and the demonstrating his acceptance of vaccination as a medical practice by “tweeting” a photograph of himself getting a booster shot. Both men might be mistaken even in their most carefully clarified opinions, but neither seem to be on the lunatic fringe.
We have no expertise in any medical field that would entitle us to comment on the matter, but our general experience of civilization has inoculated in us a belief that individual liberty and parental rights should not weigh lightly on the scale counter-balancing communal concerns. Nor do we trust blindly in scientific expertise, which has never been infallible and lately seems more fallible than ever. If the people who truly do know what they’re talking about are verifiably correct that such coercive measures as barring un-vaccinated children from school are required to protect the reset of the population from outbreaks of deadly disease we have no problem with those policies, but that conclusion can only be verified by the most skeptical analysis. There’s a long history of public policy and jurisprudence on the question of mandatory vaccinations, with public debate pushing the scales on both sides at various times, and one can only hope that if the debate isn’t shut down prematurely it will lead to the most beneficial outcome this time around.
Skeptical analysis will strike some as a superstitious and anti-scientific attitude, and this may well be one of those occasions when skepticism is overcome by scientific proof, but it is by no means unique to any particular party or political philosophy. The eminently conservative National Review makes an eminently conservative case for mandatory vaccinations, while the anti-vaccination groups are largely funded by liberal donors. Such an influential pundit as Jon Stewart let Robert Kennedy Jr. go on about his anti-vaccination views,  and fellow agitprop comic Bill Maher voiced opinions that go beyond what Christie or Paul ever while said  token Republican guest former Republican Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist was calling him “crazy.” For as long as we can remember the pretty face of the anti-vaccination movement has been former Playboy model and reality television star Jenny McCarthy, and although we’re not sure of her political views on any other topic we doubt she’s a doctrinaire Republican. An instinctive distrust of the medical establishment is now more common among the holistic and homeopathic sort of liberals than it is among those simple rural Republican folk who used to fall for goat-gland quackery but now sign up for insurance that will cover all the latest medical marvels, and if we all die for lack of vaccination it will be hard to pin it on the Republican party or conservatism generally.
This all started in California, as we recall from a few paragraphs ago, and there’s no plausible way to blame the Republicans for anything that happens there. After several giddy stories about Christie’s and Paul’s apparent missteps The Washington Post got around to reporting that even presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton might take a mistaken step in the “political minefield” of vaccination politics, but in her case they worry that her past advocacy of mandatory vaccinations will be a liability and that her brief flirtation with the now-assumed-debunked theory that vaccinations cause autism will also be a problem. Given that Clinton is more likely to be the Democratic nominee than either Christie or Paul are to be the Republican standard-bearer, that story might stick around longer.
In case you’re wondering where the current president stands on this, be assured that a grand total of three reporters among the ravenous pack at the latest press conference put the question to the White House spokesman. It took all three tries and more than an hour, but at they at last elicited the answer that parents certainly should have their children vaccinated, and that therefore every parent will do so,  so the federal government need not force them to do so. This strikes us as very similar to the more controversial remarks by Christie and Paul, and just as incoherent, but it comes from the White House and is therefore assumed to be a very centrist and reasonable position. There were no question regarding the $50 million that Obama’s budget proposes cutting from vaccination programs for the uninsured, but we would have enjoyed hearing the response.
Having no children we don’t have to reach any decisions concerning pediatric inoculations, and unless any of our personal problems can be somehow attributed to some previously undetected form of autism we are grateful that our parents chose to follow the prevailing medical advice of decades past, although we’ve forgone any shots for many years now without any apparent ill effects, but we offer no advice to anyone regarding vaccinations. Whatever you might be forced to choose, you’ll probably make as good a guess as any politician.

– Bud Norman

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