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Laid-back

There was an abundance of news on Monday, but two stories in particular caught our attention. Neither was at all surprising, and compared to a bench-sitting basketball player publicly declaring his homosexuality they might not seem very newsworthy, but the juxtaposition of two was fascinating nonetheless.
One was a report that President Barack Obama has thus far devoted twice as much time to golf and vacations than to meetings devoted to the economy. We spotted this at the cheekily conservative Breitbart.com web site, which was predictably indignant about the presidential schedule, and at Britain’s primly conservative The Telegraph, which seemed to find the president appallingly lazy even by British standards, but lest you suspect these right-wing muckrakers were making it up they both cited an analysis by the Government Accountability Office. The agency is famously non-partisan, which means they tend favor Democrats, and it made generous estimates of how long it takes for Obama to complete a round of golf and how much time he devotes to business while on vacation, so the muckrakers are likely understating their case.
The other item that caught our eye, appearing in Vanity Fair, took a decidedly different view. The glossy magazine for glossy readers, which recently hosted the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner after-party for “Hollywood A-listers and Washington insiders,” ran a “photographic investigation of the ‘lean-back’ president.” A fawning introduction gripes that “Barack Obama receives ample flak from critics who say that he is too buttoned-up and reserved to thrive in an office that historically has required its fair share of cajoling, socializing, and even arm-twisting,” but insists that “Obama can, in fact, be remarkably laid-back.” We’re not sure who those critics are who lament Obama’s reserve and lack of haranguing, schmoozing, and Chicago-style political tactics, although they are probably to his left, but apparently even Brietbart.com and The Telegraph have already noticed that he can be laid-back. To further emphasize the point, however, Vanity Fair’s photographer shows us the president with his feet atop the Oval Office’s historic Resolute Desk, sitting tie-less with his advisers, more shots of the feet on the desk, and another shot with his feet on some non-descript coffee table, all of which invite the reader to marvel at very cool the president can be.
There’s something to be said for a laid-back personality, which is quite endearing in poets, musicians, and certain other occupations, but it’s not a quality that is necessarily well-suited to a president. When the president is spending more time on his golf game than the economy that is laying back a bit too far. On the other hand, with this particular president the less time he spends meddling in the economy the better.

— Bud Norman

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Comforting the Comfortable

There’s an old newspaper adage that a journalist’s job is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Journalists are so fond of such nonsense that if you spend any amount of time with them you’ll soon grow weary of hearing it. After 35 years of working with newspapers we have vowed that the next time we hear anyone repeating this balderdash we will immediately go in search of a sockful of horse manure with which to pummel him.
It’s not so much how the adage negates a superior notion that a journalist’s job is to accurately report what is going on in the world, without regard to who is comforted or afflicted or by the truth, but rather that it’s so very out of date. The phrase apparently originated with Finley Peter Dunne, who wrote an Irish-accented column as “Mr. Dooley” way back in the good old days of yellow journalism when ethnic humor was respectable and journalists were not, and we wonder what the ink-stained wretch would make of the oh-so-comfortable scribes in attendance at this past Saturday’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.
You’ve heard of the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, of course, even if you make a point of avoiding all that boring political stuff in the news. The annual black-tie event has joined the Golden Globes awards and the global warming alarmist movement as one of those things that every self-respecting celebrity simply must do, and it now receives the same saturation coverage as any other show-biz event. This year Vanity Fair rushed to the internet with pictures of the “Hollywood A-listers and Washington-insiders” who attended the magazine’s after-party bash at the Kalorama residence of the French ambassador, and even the most staid news outlets were similarly star-struck. New York Magazine found it newsworthy that the First Lady wore a Lacy Monique Lhuillier gown, which is apparently some sort of fancy dress, and it  could not restrain itself from adding that “damn does she look good.”
Each year’s dinner features a monologue by a well-known comedian who is expected to poke fun at both politicians and reporters, thus allowing both groups to demonstrate what good sports and regular folk they are, but tradition also dictates that a gentler brand of humor be employed regarding Democrats. This year the honor went to late-night talk show host Conan O’Brien, who hewed rigorously to tradition. One of his few Obama jokes made mention of the fact that both he and the president attended Harvard University, and he ended with a heartfelt thanks to the president for helping his hometown of Boston “heal” from the bombings at the Boston Marathon. Whatever healing powers the president exerted might not have been necessary if the Federal Bureau of Investigation had been less sensitive to Muslim sensitivities when following up on Russian warnings about the bombers, an aversion to Islamophobia that has been imposed from the very top of levels of government, but O’Brien’s partisan fun-poking should have been expected. We well recall that during the Bush administration O’Brien used to regale his television audiences by doing a presidential imitation that involved mimicking a mentally retarded person and saying “duh,” a Swiftian sort of satire that the proud Harvard man could have just as easily learned on the playgrounds of Kistler Elementary School.
The president also spoke, which is another yearly feature of the event. Tradition dictates that the presidential monologue be self-deprecating, but Obama seems unable to make fun of himself lest it be considered racist. He acknowledged an embarrassing 2-for-22 shooting performance on the basketball court during the White House Easter egg roll, but only as a set-up for a joke about the NBC ratings, and most of the jokes were aimed a political opponents such as a wealthy Republican campaign donor. The watchdogs of the press politely roared, of course, and by all accounts everyone seemed very comfortable.

— Bud Norman

The Unfriendly Skies

The Democrats’ argument is that the slightest cut to the federal government’s spending will be unbearably painful to the general public, what with the stingy $3.7 trillion of funding being so effectively and essentially apportioned, and when they blundered into “sequester” cuts of $44 billion from planning spending increases they seized the opportunity to prove their point. They couldn’t affect the promised end of the civilized world, but they made sure that minor inconveniences ranging from cancelled White House tours to campground closings were imposed and prominently blamed on those awful budget cuts.
Inflicting some of the pain on America’s air travelers has apparently proved politically counter-productive, however, as the Democrat-controlled Senate voted on Thursday to allow the Federal Aviation Administration to keep air traffic controllers on the job. A previous policy calculated to cause flight delays at several of the country’s busiest airports was unpopular, as per plan, but the weary travelers waiting around the airport lounges weren’t blaming the right people.
Despite the best efforts of much of the media, it was hard to hold the Republicans responsible. The idea of the sequester originated with the White House, could have been avoided by a White House concession on further tax increases, and could have been more painlessly administered by the White House under legislation offered by the congressional Republicans. Nor did the relatively slight cuts in the rate of increase in spending have to be noticeable at all. The FAA’s post-sequester budget of $15.999 billion is more than it requested, for example, and should be more than sufficient to carry out its duties. When the Republicans offered a specific remedy to the FAA’s feeble claims that it had no choice but to furlough air traffic controllers without regard to the traffic at the airports where they worked, the Democrats faced a public relations debacle if they resisted.
Not that the Democrats liked doing it, of course, and they seemed especially galled that the air travelers were spared the pain of budget cuts while other programs to suffer the cruel cuts of sequestration. Rep. Rick Larsen of Washington complained to C-SPAN that “no 3- or 4-year-old is going to call my office and say, ‘I’ve been kicked out of Head Start, replace that money,’” and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island groused to Politico that “I doubt the most disadvantaged citizens are flying on commercial aircraft.” Larsen hasn’t considered the possibility that even 3- and 4-year-olds are shrewd enough to question the value of Head Start and wonder if there aren’t some administrative costs that can be trimmed in its mammoth budget, and Whitehouse apparently doesn’t fly coach, where the guy in the next seat might well be wearing a barrel these days, but no matter. Even if Head Start weren’t a boondoggle, and even if the “Jet Set” were still a meaningful term, it would still be a peculiar notion of fairness that everyone has to be miserable even when it can be easily avoided.

— Bud Norman

Bush Reconsidered

The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum will open today with much fanfare, including the presence of every living president, and it seems to coincide with a strange new respect for the much-maligned leader.
All the late night talk shows will make the predictable jokes about coloring books, and the still-seething critics will make their snarky comments across the internet, but red-hot Bush-hatred now seems as embarrassingly out of date as a five-year-old pop hit or commercial catch phrase. The coverage of the library opening has thus far been polite and occasionally even complimentary, with former Associated Press honcho Ron Fournier going so far as to write in The National Journal that Bush was a nice enough guy to hang out with, and even the usual critics in the mainstream media have been far more restrained in their histrionics than when Bush was in office. Blaming Bush for everything remains a favorite policy of the current administration, but they rarely mention the name these days, and even Obama himself felt obliged to accept an invitation to the big opening.
When Obama and Bush meet today they will have about the same standing in recent opinion polls, which will not provide either of them with much to brag about. The rough parity in the polls represents a dramatic turn of fortune for both men, though, as Obama came into office as a sort of messiah just as Bush exited as history’s greatest villain. Elite opinion still favors Obama, and still holds some sway over the great unwashed masses, so it’s all the more remarkable that public opinion is now about evenly split.
One explanation is that all presidents become more popular over time, but Bill Clinton was one of several exceptions to this rule. Another theory grudgingly concedes that Bush has done an exemplary job of leading a dignified private life and not meddling in public affairs in his retirement, which could also explain Bill Clinton’s declining poll numbers. Our pet theory is that the relentless demonization in both the news and entertainment gradually tapered off after Bush’s departure, some hard realities were exposed by the light of Obama’s glow, and the country moved on from Bush hatred.
We were supposed to hate Bush because of the Patriot Act and Guantanamo Bay and the toppling of Middle Eastern dictatorships and drone strikes and of course those half-trillion dollar deficits, which Obama denounced as “irresponsible” and “unpatriotic,” but it’s hard to hold those grudges while maintaining a proper respect for the successive administration. The Iraq War will also remain controversial, although the “blood for oil” shtick and many other arguments against it have been definitely disproved and the notion that everything would be hunky-dory if only Saddam Hussein was still in power is also losing luster. There’s still the economic collapse of ’08 to hang on to, but much of the public has gotten word that that happened not as a result of mythical de-regulation but rather a sub-prime mortgage boondoggle that Bush tried to avert, and the recovery that has since been affected has not been impressive.
The perspective on the Bush presidency will continue to change with the events of time, and with comparison to subsequent presidencies, then yet get another look if another Bush seeks the presidency. We have our criticisms of Bush as well as our praises, but we expect them to change and over time and we hope he enjoys his big event today.

— Bud Norman

Another Day, Another Tax

The proposed sales tax on commercial transactions conducted through this newfangled internet machine is not a matter of personal interest. Being old-fashioned sorts we prefer to handle the merchandise in some brick-and-mortar establishment and then make our infrequent purchases face-to-face with a friendly clerk, which also provides a much-needed reason to get out of the house, so the tax would have little affect on our finances.
Nor does the proposal strike us as especially outrageous, despite our instinctive aversion to taxes of any sort. Given the ravenous appetite for revenues of the federal, state, and local governments, it seems more remarkable that they hadn’t decided to take a bite out of this tempting e-commerce pie long ago. There’s even an argument to be made about fairness, as sales taxes are charged at all those traditional shops that employ brick-layers and mortar masons and friendly clerks. We suppose that internet shops also employ people, although for all we know they’re run with robots or trained monkeys, but in any case it is hard to see why the law should grant them a competitive advantage.
Still, there’s something unsettling about the recent enthusiasm for all manner of new taxes. In addition to the internet sales tax, President Barack Obama’s budget proposal includes caps on income tax deductions, further cigarette tax increases, limits on the tax breaks for contributions to individual retirement accounts, and a change in the way inflation is measured that also amount to a cut in the earned income tax credit. These follow the wide variety of other taxes hidden within the thousands of pages of Obamacare regulations, the cost of new regulations that the affected businesses will pass along to customers, as well as the countless new taxes cooked up at other levels of government, and although it doesn’t come close to balancing anyone’s budgets it does add up to a lot of money.
Obama famously vowed in his first presidential campaign that he would not raise any taxes on any making less than $250,000 a year, which is apparently the threshold of avaricious greed that merits punitive taxation, but even such friendly media as Politico and the Huffington Post have noticed that these tax increases reach down much further into the middle class. That vow wasn’t so famous as George H.W. Bush’s “read my lips” pledge, which the Democrats somehow successfully used to sink his re-election chances after he capitulated to a Democratic demand for higher taxes, but it was well known enough to have helped Obama get elected. Many people will be less enthusiastic about the president’s vastly expanded government if they understand that they’ll also be asked to pitch in more, along with those all those nasty rich people, and the sooner the realization occurs the better.

— Bud Norman

Taking Both Sides

One might have gleaned from the past election an impression that Islamist terrorism had vanished forever after President Barack Obama personally killed Osama bin Laden with his bare hands, but apparently this is not the case. The bombings at the Boston Marathon and the Canadian government’s thwarting of an al-Qaeda plot to commit mass murder on a train heading to the United States are only the most recent events indicating that Islamist terrorism remains a problem.
Thus far the reaction to these events has been largely apolitical, as most of the country remains in one of those moments of post-terrorism unity that punish any attempts at partisan point-scoring, but the necessary arguments about how to proceed will soon commence. Already the well-rehearsed rationalizations are being trotted out in the liberal media, along with the usual hand-wringing about the great Islamophobic backlash that is ever feared but never realized, and the conservative press has begun easing into a full-throated critique of administration policies. All of the familiar points will be reprised, but the debate will be complicated this time around by the shrewdly political nature of Obama’s policies.
Obama has presented himself as a hard-nosed hawk who has continued such Bush-era protocols as indefinite detentions at Guantanamo Bay and the Patriot Act, ordered a surge in Afghanistan and prolonged the withdrawal from Iraq along the Bush timetable, prosecuted a terrorist-killing drone war with a ruthlessness that even Bush didn’t dare, and endlessly reminded the public of bin Laden’s death. At the same time he has cultivated a reputation as the Nobel Peace Prize-winning antidote to that awful cowboy Bush, and the impresario of conflict resolution who ordered a decrease in troop strength in Afghanistan and got us out of Iraq, won over Muslim hearts with his exotic background and eloquent apologias to Islamic culture, and banned such nastiness as the enhanced interrogation techniques that led to bin Laden’s death. As political strategy it has been a stunning success, with critics on both the left and right muted and the non-ideological center well satisfied so long as nothing was blowing up. A radical Islamist shouting “Allahu Akbar” killed 12 people at Fort Hood, Texas, but that was easily dismissed as just another instance of workplace violence, and an Islamist terror group killed an ambassador and three other Americans, but that was in some far-away place called Benghazi, Libya, and the Islamist governments being welcomed into power by the administration were reportedly an “Arab Spring,” so it seemed to be working.
Now things are blowing up, and too close to home for the media to ignore, and the policies don’t seem to be working to anywhere near the extent that the president and his supporters have promised. Specific questions will now be asked about the immigration rules that allowed the suspects into the country, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s aborted inquiries into one of the suspect’s increasing radicalization, the legal procedures being used to try the surviving suspect, and other matters arising from the Boston bombing, but there will also be a broader debate about the totality of the administration’s policies. Some will blame the hard-nosed protocols carried over and expanded from the Bush administration, while others will blame the tendencies to legalism, appeasement, and accommodation, but it will be most interesting to hear Obama defend his combination of the two.

— Bud Norman

Impolite Facts, Impolite Words

All those people who hoped that the Boston Marathon bombers would turn out to be right-wing extremists were doubly disappointed to learn that the culprits were in fact Islamist terrorists. This unsurprising turn of events not only deprives these people of an opportunity to smear all of their ideological opponents as blood-thirsty terrorists, it also obliges them to once again trot out all the familiar bromides about how the acts of certain individuals shouldn’t be held against an entire group.
They’re quite right, of course, that most Muslims are not terrorists. A rote acknowledgement of this obvious fact is by now a rule of polite political discourse, and we are happy to oblige, although the ritual does become tiresome after so much repetition. Knowing that no such stipulations will be required when some arguably right-of-center psychopath inevitably goes off makes the obligation all the more wearying for those of us of a conservative bent, but the contortions of logic and rhetorical acrobatics that the frequent acts of Islamist terrorism require of the liberals must be downright exhausting.
One example of how very embarrassing it can become is found in Saturday’s edition of The Boston Globe, which assures the readers of its terrorized city that “Islam might have had secondary role in Boston attacks.” The piece by staff writer Lisa Wangsness doesn’t posit what might have played the primary role in the attacks, but it does claim to have found a few academic types to bolster its insistence on “a complex picture of the brothers’ religiosity.” A fellow at Harvard University’s Program on Global Society and Security explains that “The story that seems to be developing here is more along the lines of standard alienated man goes out and commits atrocities, much more like the school shootings we’ve seen than organized Islamic insurgency,” and a University of Oxford professor opines that “I think these are two young men who never adapted. It’s a combination of nationalism mixed with self-styled jihadism, and some young men who had a hard time adapting to American culture.” Other reports indicate that the bombers enjoyed comfortable lives in the country that had welcomed them from their war-torn native land, provided them with the best of educational opportunities, and offered them unlimited economic opportunities, much like other Islamist terrorists who have committed similar bombings around the world, but at The Boston Globe this only enhances the complexity. The article acknowledges abundant evidence that by 2012 one f the bombers “had begun dabbling in radical Islamism,” but surely that played on a secondary role in the poor lad’s difficulties in mean America.
Over at the once-prestigious Atlantic Monthly, they don’t seem to care at all if the bombers were Muslim. Writer Megan Garber actually argues — in a piece helpfully headlined “The Boston Bombers Were Muslim: So?” — that the bombers were so much more than just Muslims or terrorists that it would be mistaken to “label” them as Muslim terrorists. After plowing through the same press reports we’ve read about the bombers she takes note of such interesting details as a graduation from the prestigious Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, skateboarding around tony Cambridge, prom dates and athletic exploits, and although it seems to undercut the Globe’s poor-losers-in-an-unfriendly-land theme she seems to find this information every bit as relevant as the fact that they had deeply-held Islamist beliefs and murdered three people and injured scores more with a home-made bomb. Although the brothers are by any definition of the word terrorists, Garber writes that it would be wrong to call them terrorists lest “We turn people into caricatures — we decide they are ‘crazy’ or ‘disturbed’ or ‘ideologically motivated’ or ‘radical’ — so we can distance their actions from our own.”
Dealing with the problem of Islamist terrorism will be greatly complicated if any attempt to describe it in precise and meaningful terms is scolded as “labeling,” but as Garber notes in her closing sentence, “We have to embrace complexity.”

— Bud Norman

A Good Week for Conspiracy Theories

Others might prefer a good old-fashioned whodunit, but for purely recreational reading we relish a good conspiracy theory. They have plots as carefully contrived as any mystery novel, feature villains and heroes every bit as clearly cut, and offer the same refuge from reality with the same reassuring implausibility.
The past week, however, has brought forth more conspiracy theories than even the most avid buff would want. Bombings at the Boston Marathon, ricin-laced letters sent to a senator and the president, an explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant, and the culmination of the gun control debate in a series of Senate votes on Wednesday all had the conspiracy theorists working overtime. There is no reason to believe that any of these events are related, but their unlikely confluence in the span of a few days seems to have heightened the suspicions of the conspiracy theorists nonetheless. Coincidences do no occur in conspiracy theories, a strict convention of the genre, and even the most random dots can somehow be connected.
A quick arrest in the ricin-laced letters case has blunted much of the speculation about the case, although any details that emerge might yet inspire more conspiracy theorizing. The suspect is an Elvis impersonator, a plot twist that the most ingenious mystery novelist could not invent, and thus far it is unclear what motives he might have for his alleged crime. He is reportedly a registered Democrat, which will no doubt come as a disappointment to those eager to blame such events on right-wing extremism, but the choice of a staunchly Republican senator and President Obama as victims suggests a bi-partisan sort of craziness that does not easily lend itself to conspiracy theories. Other reports suggest that the suspect is a conspiracy theorist, however, so perhaps his views will eventually spawn a good legend.
An accident is always a more probable explanation for an explosion at a fertilizer plant than a terrorism attack, especially when the plant is located in such an unlikely target as the small town of West, Texas, but that has not stopped the conspiracy theorists from all sorts of suspicious speculation. That the explosion occurred so soon after the Boston Marathon bombings fueled the speculation, as did the town’s proximity to Waco and it’s upcoming anniversary of the tragic conflagration that resulted when federal agents conducted a raid on a religious cult there, and within hours of the explosion there were several web sites dedicated to the possibility of terrorism.
Terrorism clearly occurred at the Boston Marathon, so all of the conspiracy theorizing has been devoted to identifying a possible culprit. Some are openly hoping that it turns out to be white people with extremist right-wing views, while others are assuming that Islamist radicals are to blame, and thus far neither camp has any real evidence for their theories. Photographs of two possible suspects released Thursday by the Federal Bureau of Investigation are a sort of Rorcshach test for conspiracy theorists, grainy and indistinct enough that one camp will look and see two white men while the other will immediately spot two men of Middle Eastern appearance, and in any case the men are only suspects and their ethnicity provides no proof of their motives. For what it’s worth the men’s rather hip-hop style of clothing strikes us as incongruous with right-wing extremism, but perhaps the right-wing extremists in Boston are more fashion-conscious than the ones we encounter here in the heartland. The debate will rage until some definitive proof emerges, and even then the true believers will continue to insist on their original suspicions.
As with every tragedy of this sort, allegations of a “false flag” government theory are also proving popular. The FBI news conference where the photographs were released was constantly interrupted by one of the more prominent peddlers of this theory, which is based solely on the usual wild conjecture and fevered fear of a government conspiracy behind anything bad that happens, and the notion is also gaining currency on some of the more fanciful talk radio programs. It’s a comforting notion that a nefarious cabal is secretly running the world, at least when compared to the sobering reality that the world is far too vast and complex for even the most diabolical genius to successfully run and tragedy is therefore beyond anyone’s control, and conspiracy theories of this sort will always appeal to the anxious people at both ends of the ideological spectrum. The side that is out of power, as the largely forgotten “9/11 Truth” movement demonstrates, will always be more prone to such conspiracy theories.
Which is not to say that people do not conspire with one another to achieve their common goals, a point that was acknowledged by both sides of the recent gun control debate, but these are usually limited conspiracies conducted in plain view and without any cloak-and-dagger conduct. In a petulant and peevish speech in the White House rose garden Obama seemed blamed the Senate’s failure to pass any of his pet proposals on the “gun lobby” convincing the public that his “common sense” measures were part of a government conspiracy to disarm the citizenry, which is a sort of conspiracy theory itself, and his vice president mocked anyone who doubted his good intentions as a paranoid gun nut and member of the “black helicopter crowd.” There are plenty of politicians and activists who do wish to disarm the citizenry, however, and there are reasons to suspect that Obama is among them, so it isn’t paranoid for those who cherish their gun rights to organize against an organized effort to do away with the Second Amendment.
Guarding against a government’s natural inclination for more power is not the same as suspecting a government plot behind every tragedy, and doing so through the democratic process as in the defeat of the gun control proposals is patriotic rather than treasonous. All these crazy conspiracy theories, alas, tend to discredit the valid ones.

— Bud Norman

How to Peeve a President

On another cold and gray day in a winter that seemingly will never end, with both thunderstorms and snow in the forecast, it gave us a sunny and heartwarming feeling on Wednesday to hear President Barack Obama sounding very irked.
A proposal to expand background checks for gun purchases had just failed to win a required super-majority in the Senate, effectively ending all legislative attempts at gun control until the next media-fueled public frenzy, and the president was clearly displeased. Speaking in the White House rose garden shortly after the vote, Obama had a scowl on his face and anger in his voice as he claimed his opponents had “willfully lied” about the proposal. Looking as if he were about to spit, as we say out here in gun country, Obama declared it “a pretty shameful day for Washington.”
Except for the slightly higher than usual dudgeon, the speech was typical of Obama. Characteristically unable or unwilling to acknowledge the possibility of an honest disagreement with him, he accused the senators who had voted against the proposal of political cowardice. He also cited “some polls” to claim that 90 percent of the public was in favor of the plan, making it odd that a political coward would defy such an improbable majority of public opinion, but apparently the “gun lobby” induces much fear in the hearts of weaker men.
Obama vowed to continue his quest for further gun control measures, but for the moment it looks unlikely that he will succeed. The Senate also voted Wednesday on a bill banning “assault weapons,” which is Democrat-speak for semi-automatic rifles that look somewhat like actual assault weapons, but it went down with only 40 votes. A few more modest proposals also fell short of a super-majority, with several Democrats who face re-election battles in heartland states defecting from the party line on every vote, and all of the proposals would surely fare even worse in the Republican-dominated House of Representatives.
Nor will there likely be a more propitious moment for such gun control measures in the near future. The defeats in the Senate followed an all-out media blitz after a deranged gunman’s horrible massacre at a Connecticut school, the full efforts of Obama’s reputedly irresistible powers of persuasion in a series of cross-country speeches, as well as concerted campaign by the well-organized and well-funded anti-gun lobby, and they will all find it difficult to sustain the effort. A poll not cited by the president suggests that 96 percent of the country thinks the government has better things to do than pass more laws for law-abiding gun owners to abide, and the public is likely to grow even wearier of the debate in the wake of Wednesday’s votes.
Despite all the hoopla, the vote also came at a time when there were plenty of distractions to provide cover for any Democrat feeling party pressure to vote against his constituents’ wishes. Wednesday’s news cycle was dominated by contradictory and quickly-retracted reports about the bombings at the Boston Marathon, along with the strange case of an Elvis impersonator from small-town Mississippi allegedly sending ricin-laced but bi-partisan hate mail to a Republican senator from his state and the president, and much of the media would have been quite content to let a total gun ban go unremarked.
The failure to pass anything under such favorable circumstances will be considered a significant political setback for the president, and we suspect that’s why he seemed so very angry in the rose garden. Obama insisted that the proposals would somehow save some unspecified number of lives, and he no doubt believes it, but lives were also at stake in Benghazi and Fort Hood and Fast and Furious and at the Boston Marathon, and he never seemed so thoroughly peeved when making speeches on those matters. It takes a political defeat to really get under the president’s thin skin, and that’s why it gives us a sunny and heartwarming feeling to see it from time to time.

— Bud Norman

Jumping the Gun

The horrific bombings at the Boston Marathon dominated the news again Tuesday, even though there was nothing new to report. There were the sympathetic portraits of the victims and celebratory tales of the kindness and heroism that also occurred, both of which are obligatory rites of journalism in the aftermath of such tragedies, but nothing to answer the crucial questions of who was responsible.
Journalists are obliged to write something about such events, however, and after 35 years of working for newspapers we can attest that most of them are loathe to admit when they have no answers. We’ve had numerous editors over the years who insisted on answers to unanswerable questions, apparently under the impression that the ultimate truth is just another phone call and any failure to provide it is a dereliction of journalistic duty, and in today’s dwindling labor market too many reporters are eager to oblige them even without any sound proof. There are always the sympathetic portraits to write, which make for grim duty but contribute some small human aspect to the truth, as well as the celebratory tales of kindness and heroism, which are also a true part of the story and certainly merit celebration, but in his heart the typical reporter of our experience wants to be able to point a finger of blame.
All the better if one is able to point that dreaded finger at the preferred villains, which explains the eagerness of so many in the establishment media to note that the culprit might be a right-wing extremist. At this point it is quite true that it might be so, given that no definitive evidence has been uncovered to prove otherwise, but it would be just as true and just as pointless to note that it might also be a left-wing extremist or an Islamist extremist or any number of other sorts of extremists. The main evidence offered for the right-wing extremist theory is that the attacks occurred on the day that income taxes are due, but the more pertinent fact would seem to be that it occurred on the day of the Boston Marathon.
Other sources would prefer to implicate Islamist terrorists, which seems at least as plausible as any other explanation. There is some circumstantial evidence for the theory that is worth reporting, such as the similarity of the bomb to the improvised explosive devices that have been used against American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it does not constitute proof of anything. Should the theory be proved it will surely be followed by reminders that the work of a few extremists should not reflect poorly on a broader ideology, a point that those blaming right-wing extremism have not made on behalf of conservatism, but to much of the press Islamist terrorists are not the preferred villains.
Journalists needing something to write about as they await real information about the Boston Marathon bombings have no lack of material. The on-going debates about guns and illegal immigration have been so completely overlooked in the aftermath of Monday’s bombing that a savvy Senator might well choose to rush through something that would provoke widespread public outrage in different circumstances, and there’s a trial of an abortion doctor going in Philadelphia that much of the press has been looking for reasons to ignore.
The bombings in Boston are of the utmost importance, of course, but that’s all the more reason to wait until there are hard facts to report.

— Bud Norman