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Tweeting and Twisting the GOP

The internecine Republican feuding has lately become more complicated. It’s still the same old story of the establishment versus the insurgents, the squishy moderates versus the principled conservatives, and the real Republicans versus the Republicans In Name Only, but the days it’s hard to tell who’s on which side. At this point in the plot President Donald Trump is “tweeting” threats against the House of Representative’s “Freedom Caucus,” so all the old labels of establishment and insurgent and principled and squishy no longer make any sense, and who the real Republicans are is very much up for debate.
As a relatively recent Republican Trump won the party’s nomination with a plurality of primary and caucus votes by running as an outsider and populist renegade hellbent on burning down the hated GOP establishment, as exemplified by party chairman Reince Priebus and House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Mitch McConnell, but following his improbable win of the electoral vote he seem surprised to find that he suddenly was the establishment. After running on grandiose promises of repealing Obamacare within days of taking office and replacing it with coverage for everyone at and lower costs and so beautiful it would make your head spin, Trump made Priebus his White House Chief of Staff and turned to Ryan McConnell to make good on his word, then went off to golf at his fabulous Mar-a-Lago resort, as populists do.
That was fine with the plurality of the party that now defines Republicanism as obeisance to Trump, and when it all went down in flames many of them were eager to blame Priebus and Ryan and McConnell and the rest of the hated establishment who had hoodwinked the naive Trump, even if he had also been elected because of his boasts of being both anti-establishment and the savviest deal-maker ever, and there was plenty of blame to be spread around the whole party. Some of those squishy moderates who somehow survived the past six years of insurgent anti-establishment primary purges bucked the party line on the bill because they were cowed by its 17 percent approval rating and all the looming sob stories from the 24 million people expected to lose health care coverage the first three years of premium hikes that were also forecast. More votes were lost from the “Freedom Caucus,” the same insurgent populists who had gained office by running on the original “Tea Party” wave of dissatisfaction with the Republican establishment, as they objected to the bill because it didn’t fully repeal Obamacare and replaced it with something that retained too many of the taxes and regulations and outrageous infringements of free market principles and individual liberty that the entirety of the party had claimed to be against from the get-go.
Trump took to “Twitter” to blame the “Freedom Caucus” members and threaten them with primary challenges by more obeisant Republicans if they didn’t come around. “The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don’t get on the team, & fast,” Trump “tweeted,” adding with similar eloquence that “We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!” Later “tweets” mentioned individual members by name, with similar political intimidation repeated, which leaves us wondering what the Republican establishment but not doubting that it’s likely to be burned down.
The “tweets” don’t seem likely to settle the matter, though, as the “Freedom Caucus” members defiantly “tweeted” back in Trump’s own blustery style. Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie responded with a snarky “#Swampcare polls 17%. Sad!” Virginia Rep. Tom Garrett of Virginia “tweeted” a simple “Stockholm Syndrome?” to suggest that Trump was now stuck with the hated establishment label. None appeared to be at all intimidated, and we can’t see why they should be. It’s easy to resist a populist movement that’s polling 17 percent in the polls, which is truly is sad, Trump’s numbers are hovering around 40 at a time when a president should be getting a honeymoon bump, and most of those “Freedom Caucus” members won their districts by bigger margins than Trump. Some of them really believe what they ran on, too, and can more persuasively argue why they voted against the bill Trump backed than Trump can argue for it.
To the extent that they can’t “tweet” the argument, conservative media ranging from the rabble-rousing radio talkers to the old eggheaded and think-tanky ink-and-paper publications will make it for them. Given that Trump’s remaining support won’t listen to any media that isn’t explicitly conservative, that’s a problem. Some of the conservative media are by now obeisant to Trump, but given their past full-throated supported for the “Freedom Caucus” and its anti-establishment stand they’re going to have some tricky talking to do. There are still enough Democrats hanging around Congress that Trump will need pretty much Republican vote to “get on the team, & fast,” which will be hard to do with a party that prides itself on its rugged individualism and stubborn independence and despite a certain reverence for order and tradition has lately come to regard any sort of establishment as needing to be burned down.
All of which leaves the Republicans with a whole lot of soul-searching about what their party really stands for. Given the current state of the Democratic Party, the country desperately needs the Republicans to get on with it.

— Bud Norman

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Jet-Setting and Leggings

Maybe it’s just because of a slow news cycle while the Republicans recover from their health care fiasco and the Democrats await the next big revelation about Russia or something helpful, but that flap about the two young women who didn’t get onto a United Airlines flight because they were wearing “leggings” is still getting a lot of attention. It’s a story with legs, as we used to say back in the newspaper days, and plenty of what used to be called sidebars.
By now you probably know, thanks to the diligent efforts of United’s crack public relations team, that the airline does not impose a dress code on its customers but does enforce one for its employees, and the two young women were attempting to board on company benefit tickets. There was nonetheless the predictable and understandable feminist outrage about women being told what to wear, and the usual fuddy-duddy but still-reasonable arguments about companies having a right to enforce dress codes, and a plausible counter-argument that the dress code in question is more restrictive of women’s choices than men’s, and a counter-counter-argument worth considering that there are practical reasons for that. The story mostly has legs, though, because it’s being argued across a generational as well as ideological divide.
Way, way back when we were in the early years of elementary school our beloved Pa used to fly almost constantly on business trips for his very big-time aerospace company, and our beloved Ma would often drive us out to greet his return at the Wichita Mid-Continent Airport, and it’s hard to describe how it overwhelmed our childhood imaginations. You could could walk right up to the exit gates without any hassles back then, and Pop would always come through the door in slightly wrinkled but otherwise impeccable business attire with all the weariness and slight smile of someone has just solved a high-tech problem or swung a very big-money deal, and pretty much everyone else looked pretty impressive. Even the returning tourists had a prosperous and classy look about them, which was hard for us to maintain on the long car rides that our family vacations entailed, and it inspired a certain inspiration to be part of what was then called the “jet set.”
By the time we were grown up enough to buy an occasional airline ticket things had changed, though, and the people we found ourselves standing in line with at the departure gate looked pretty much like the people at the nearest bus stop. The “airline hostesses” weren’t nearly so hot as those R-rated “stewardess” movies at the drive-in had promised, the food was just as awful as all the standup comedians said, and “jet set” had somehow been dropped from the popular lexicon. Then came the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and after that airline travel joined dental appointments and colonoscopies on our list of most dreaded activities, and of course the standards of what people were now being forced to undress had also further declined.
Meanwhile we started noticing people showing up at funerals and weddings and Sunday morning worship services and all sorts of places in shorts and t-shirts and ball caps, and a perhaps related decline in public civility, as well as a general lack of aspiration for anything like our childhood yearning of a “jet set.” We’re not so old that we didn’t notice when almost all the young women started wearing those skin-tight pants, although we are old enough that we put “leggings” in quotation marks because it’s still a neologism to us, and we have mixed feelings about that. Some of the young women look quite good in those pants, there are others we’d advise to try something different, but in no case do we feel it’s our place to offer either compliments or advice, and we just try to be civil. Neither do we offer any comment on those young men wearing shorts on the coldest day of winter or wool sherpa caps on the hottest day of summer, even if they do look damned ridiculous, and we always appreciate when no one comments on our slightly wrinkled and decidedly fuddy-duddy attire.
Still, we can’t help yearning for that “jet set” of our childhood imagination, and can still see ourselves seated in suit-and-tie on a carefree flight to an exotic location next to an attractive woman of a certain age attired in a loose but revealing-in-a-flattering-way dress, drinking some well-mixed cocktails and sharing some screwball comedy flirtations while a comely “stewardess” re-fills the glasses, and we’re free to gallantly light her cigarette should she desire one, and a world of elegant possibilities still awaits. If the kids prefer their “leggings,” even the ones who really don’t have the legs to pull it off, we’ll not deny them the choice, but they don’t know what they’re missing. We hope that United Airlines will continue to impose a reasonably fuddy-duddy dress code on its employees, and that a free-market will somehow reward its decision, and that a certain dignity will return to both the airports and the bus spots, but mostly we’re in favor of freedom and will accept its results.

— Bud Norman

Showdown at High Nunes

By now there’s no avoiding the necessity of all sorts of official investigations into the widespread suspicions that the campaign of now-President Donald Trump colluded with Russian efforts to affect the past election, as well as the Trump administration’s various and variously credible counter-claims of all sorts of still-ongoing Democratic skullduggery, but at this point we think its best for everyone if they don’t involve California’s Republican Rep. Devin Nunes.
Nunes is the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, which puts him squarely in the middle of this very muddy mess, but thus far he’s only the muddied the situation even further. He was an advisor to the Trump transition team, then issued a joint statement with the top Democratic committee member that they were looking for “any intelligence regarding links between Russia and individuals associated with political campaigns.” After President Trump issued a series of early-morning “tweets” alleging that President Barack Obama had ordered “wiretapping” of his home in Trump Tower Nunes told the press “I don’t think we should attack the president for ‘tweeting,'” but when the White House press secretary took care to note that “wiretapping” was said in quotes and could therefore mean just about anything from improper leaks about campaign officials’ calls to people who were being wiretapped and another White House spokeswoman suggested it might have been a spying on Trump through a microwave oven Nunes told the press that “I don’t think there was an actual tap of Trump Tower. Clearly the president was wrong,” but insisted that some of Trump’s associated might have been caught up in wiretaps of other individuals, which Trump cited as vindication of “tweets,” and Nunes was compelled to say still didn’t prove the “tweeted” allegations.
Meanwhile, it was all growing muddier even without Nunes’ involvement. The White House press secretary charged that Obama had used a British intelligence agency to do the very much in quotation marks “wire tapping,” which the British government quite indignantly denied, and Trump himself explained during a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel that he was relying on the word of a Fox News commentator, so you’d have to talk to Fox about it, and when the rest of the media went to Fox to talk about it they said they couldn’t confirm its commentator’s assertion. Trump’s National Security Advisor resigned after 24 days on the job following revelations about previously-undisclosed contacts but eventually leaked contacts with Russia, Trump’s Attorney General recused himself from the Justice Department’s official investigation after his own previously denied contacts with Russian officials were leaked, and it was also leaked that there was an ongoing investigation into former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s business dealings with Ukrainian politicians linked the to Russian government, as well as a meeting between Trump’s son-in-law and top-advisor with the Russkies that might or might not have had something to do with the son-in-law’s own family real estate business, all of which gave some credibility to Trump’s thus-far-unsubstantied conspiracy theories about a coordinated leaking campaign against his administration.
Although assigned to the unenviable task of making sense of all of this, Nunes proceeded to make it all the more nonsensical. After inviting the FBI to testify that it had no evidence of Obama wire-tapping or otherwise surveilling Trump but was conducting an ongoing investigation about the Trump campaign and administration’s ties to Russia, Nunes told the press that “We know there was no physical wiretap of Trump Tower” but that “it’s still possible that other surveillance activities were used against President Trump and his associates.” Shortly after that he made secret visit to White House grounds to conduct what he later explained when it was inevitably found out was an effort to “confirm what I already new” about wiretapping. The next day he held a press conference where he refused to cite any sources or provide any documentation, but boldly asserted that “What I’ve read seems to be some level of surveillance activity — perhaps legal, but I don’t think that it’s right. I don’t know that the American people would be comfortable with what I’ve read,” then repeated that no, Obama didn’t literally tap Trump’s phones. He admitted that he’d brief Trump on this bombshell information he’d learned from the White before he passed it along to his House Intelligence Committee colleagues, Trump told Time Magazine in a bizzar-throughout that he felt “somewhat vindicated” by Nunes’ press conference, which he worried wasn’t getting enough attention, and by that point all the Democrats were calling on Nunes to recuse himself of the rest of this mess and so were some prominent Republicans.
For now Nunes is defying those calls, claiming his critics want him out “Because they know I am effective at getting to the bottom of things,” but for now we’ll have to join in with those prominent Republicans who are calling for his recusal from this whole mess. Even if he were to somehow stumble into the bottom of things, as Inspector Clouseau did in all those “Pink Panther” movies, we can’t imagine anyone believing the ending. Which is too bad for everyone, no matter how this convoluted plot turns out.
By now there’s no avoiding official inquiries widespread suspicions about possible collusion between the Trump campaign with Russian efforts to affect the past election, and if it’s true no true Republican should impede that conclusion, and if it’s not true that conclusively true conclusion should be untainted by any suspicion it was reached by partisan motivations. At this point pretty much everyone including Trump admits that all talk about Obama wire-tapping Trump was quotation-marked and not at all meant literally, and that all that stuff about snoopy microwave ovens was pretty much crazy-talk, but even if you’re paranoid that doesn’t mean that all those leaks haven’t been against you, and even if they were from calls monitored on some Russkie’s lines that happened to pick up some Trump associates that doesn’t necessarily prove anything worth fretting about, and if it doesn’t it would do Trump well to have someone more convincing than Nunes make that case.
Trump was reportedly infuriated after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the ongoing Justice Department investigation into all this mess, as it violated his principle of never of apologizing, but we respect Sessions’ principled and apologetic reasons for doing so and it makes us feel somewhat vindicated for the respect we’d long had for his character. Until recently we’d never heard of Nunes, but if he were to recuse himself of any role in the congressional investigation and similarly bow out of this whole mess he might earn a similar measure of respect. By the end of it we expect that as always the truth will come out and pretty much everyone involved will be implicated, so we intend to stand far enough way enough away from it all to be unsullied by any of the inevitable mud, and at this point we advise whatever’s left of both the Republican and Democratic parties to do the same.

— Bud Norman

Running Government Like a Badly-Run Business

One of our least favorite political cliches is the one about running government like a business, which always made as much sense to us as flying a plane like a helicopter or  riding a motorcycle like driving a car. President Donald Trump won election on the argument that his unerring business expertise would result in all sorts of great government, but a few things we’ve noticed in the latest news don’t seem to be proving the claim.
The Trumpian boasts always struck as especially suspicious, given that his private sector record included the New Jersey Generals and Taj Mahal Casino-and-strip-club and Trump University and Trump Mortgage and Trump Steaks and Trump Vodka and numerous other failed eponymous businesses, but his failure to quickly deliver on his campaign promises to provide health insurance for everyone and at much lower cost and be so wonderful it would make your head spin raises further suspicions.
Fox News host “Judge” Jeanine Pirro placed all the blame on House Speaker Paul Ryan, in a diatribe that Trump claims he wasn’t aware she would be shouting when he “tweeted” for all his followers to watch the show, and she exonerated Trump by stating that “No one expected a businessman to understand the nuances, the complicated ins and outs of Washington,” but that is exactly what Trump had led his supporters to expect throughout the campaign. “Nobody knows the system better than me,” Trump  boasted during his Republican nomination acceptance speech, “which is why only I can fix it.” He was never clear about the specifics of how it would be so great, which is probably why he left that stuff up to Ryan, who didn’t have anything nearly so grandiose to offer, but Trump had boasted that his legendary deal-making prowess could get it done.
Trump also intends to bring his business genius to bear on the rest of the government with all sorts of innovative down-sizing, and he’s launched this effort by creating yet another redundant agency in the federal government called The White House Office of American Innovation. Apparently nepotism is one of those time-honored business practices that is needed in government, as the agency will be headed by Trump’s son-in-law, whose own business experience derives from the family real estate company that he inherited when his father went to prison on charges of tax evasion, witness tampering, and illegal campaign contributions. Trump himself frequently boasted during the campaign about the many politicians he’d bought off, and although he never copped to witness tampering he also boasted that if he didn’t pay any incomes tax certain that made him smart, so we’re expecting all sorts of free-market solutions for government to come from this new redundant federal agency of his.
Perhaps we should write this up in a grant proposal and try to make some money off of it, but we’ll go ahead and a offer this pro bono suggestion to the poorly acronym-ized WHOOAI. In recent years Trump’s most money-making business has been licensing his name to anyone who’s will to pay big money for it, and we think the United States of America should start doing the same. The USA is an even bigger global brand name, after all, and there’s no reason a country nearly $20 trillion in debt shouldn’t be cashing in on that. If Lee Greenwood wants to sing “God Bless the USA” or Bruce Springsteen wants to lament that he was “Born in the USA” they should be passing some of those royalties along to the general revenue funds for use of a trademarked name, and all those American flags be waved or worn as jackets at Trump rallies should cost an extra few pennies to pay for the logo rights, which should also bring a fortune from all those flags that the hippies and third-world types are always burning, and with apple pies being the exemplar of Americanness there should be some extra revenue from those.
But what do we know about that stuff? We’ve worked in low levels of government and kept on a watch on government working for newspapers that were just-as-badly run businesses, and we could have warned Trump that one of those nuances of difference between the public and private sectors is that he couldn’t fire congressmen and so-called judges the way he did the B-list celebrities on his game show, but we’re clearly not the businessmen Trump is.
Despite his past numerous business failings at least he’s been on a private sector roll lately, with the vast empire he remains invested in being run by his two older sons, his daughter splitting time between her semi-official role in the White House and running her own lucrative and touted-on-TV-by-White-House-officials line of high dollar clothes and accessories, her husband running a brand-new federal agency of his own while someone else runs what’s still his family business, and such Trump businesses as Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago and the well-used Trump golf courses are profiting from federal and state and local funds spent to protect to the Trump family. The two older Trump sons are also being expensively protected on business trips to far-flung locales where the locals are surely aware they’re dealing with the sons of the President of the United States and the owner of the company they represent, and we expect the younger Trumps have learned enough of their father’s much boasted-about influence-buying expertise to leverage that into a few extra bucks.
We must admit that even after so many years of government work and government-watching we didn’t understand the nuances and the ins-and-outs of the system well enough to ever imagine that anyone would even dare much less actually get away with all that. Perhaps such undeniable savvy will eventually make America great again, just as it’s lately been doing for the Trump brand, but in the meantime we do think that the USA brand that’s being so blatantly extorted still deserves some of the profits.

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Trying to Turn a Defeat Into A Victory, Bigly

President Donald Trump’s so-loyal-he-could-shoot-someone supporters seem to like his penchant for blunt talk, so we’re sure they won’t object that we frankly he note lost “bigly” last week on his first important legislative attempt to make America great again. A hasty and ham-fisted attempt to pass a highly unpopular repeal-and-replacement of the unpopular Obamacare law was called off just before it was clearly about to go down in flames, Trump’s much-touted dealmaking prowess and much boasted-about knack for always winning couldn’t prevent it, and the mainstream media and the late night comics and the rest of the Trump-haters spent the weekend celebrating.
There were some bold efforts, of course, to explain how the failure of a bill that Trump had given his full-throated support to will ultimately prove another one of those victories that he always wins. One theory holds that the fault lies with House Speaker Paul Ryan, who clearly deserves and surely will be saddled with much of the blame for the debacle, and that his weakened position therefore strengthens that of the President who had handed Ryan the responsibility for the first big legislative fight of his administration, but it’s not clear how that pans out. Trump praised Ryan’s efforts, then “tweeted” for everyone to watch a Fox News show where the host happened to spew a diatribe calling for Ryan being removed from the speakership, and at this point it’s not clear who would replace Ryan or how he might have united a fractious Republican Party or otherwise handled the situation any better. Another theory offered by Trump holds that the Democrats are now responsible for the continued existence of Obamacare, which is still widely unpopular in its own rights and absolutely hated by every kind of Republican from Trump to Ryan to such old-fashioned rank-and-file sorts as ourselves, but the bill was also sunk by the more moderate and most conservative Republicans and party rank-and-filers who also found something to hate in its hasty and ham-fisted and form.
The guy who does the “Dilbert” cartoons became famous as a political pundit by predicting that Trump’s ingeniously persuasive rhetoric of schoolyard taunts and barnyard epithets and outrageous boasts and fourth-grade level discourse would win the presidency, and ever since that prediction proved true he’s been explaining how even the craziest things Trump says are part of “4-D chess game” he’s playing against the checkers-players of the political world. To explain how Trump failed to even get a vote on a bill he’d given his full-throated support that would have more or less kept one of his most frequent campaign promises, the guy who does the “Dilbert” cartoons notes that the press is no longer describing Trump as Hitler but is instead calling him an incompetent buffoon, which is supposed to be some sort of victory. Somewhere in the 4-D world of chess that Trump and the guy who does the “Dilbert” cartoons this might make sense, but in the three dimensional world that the rest of the inhabits Obamacare persists and the mainstream press and the late night comics and the rest of the Democrats are celebrating and such rank-and-file Republicans as ourselves are feeling yet another ass-kicking.
Obamacare is still an awful idea headed to an horrendous outcome, but waiting around for enough insurance companies and actual human beings to die for the Democrats to admit it seems a rather cruel political strategy, and the hasty and ham-fisted repeal-and-replace plan that was proposed last week went down despite the best efforts of both Trump and Ryan. Something better should still be possible, even if it doesn’t live up to Trump’s extravagant campaign promises of coverage for everybody and it’s gonna be a lot cheaper and better and you’re head will spin how great it is, and even if Ryan’s grimmer realities about winners and losers and the inevitable payoffs of freedom and equality are frankly admitted, but at this point it doesn’t seem likely. Those conservative Republicans who objected to the pulled bill for conservative Republicans seem suddenly marginalized by Trump, Ryan and and the slightly-less-conservative Republicanism he represents are clearly weakened as well, and if the Democrats ever do feel compelled to come asking for a deal we still worry that Trump the deal-maker will make one that keeps all his campaign promises of coverage for everyone and the government will pay for it and it will be a whole lot cheaper and make your head spin.

— Bud Norman

Health Care Remains, For Now, in the Waiting Room

President Donald Trump might yet grow bored with winning, but it probably won’t happen today. On Thursday the House of Representatives delayed a vote on the health care legislation Trump is backing, lest it go down to certain defeat, and even if they are swayed by his threat to drop the matter altogether if they don’t pass it by the end of this work day it won’t likely count as a win.
The vote was scheduled for Thursday because that was the seventh anniversary of the signing of the hated Obamacare law that the current legislation is intended to repeal and replace, as Republicans have been promising to do for the past seven years, and apparently the irony of the date was too much for the bill’s backers to resist. It came too soon for Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan to round up all the Republican votes needed to overcome the predictably unanimous Democratic opposition, though, and so far it is not apparent why Trump has decided that the matter must be resolved today or not at all. Nor is it apparent that Trump’s threats will sway any reluctant Republican votes, or that it would be a good thing if they did.
Although Trump is careful not to call the proposed plan “Trumpcare,” despite his usual penchant for putting his name on everything, he has fully invested his rapidly diminishing political capital into the project, and he’s threatened any dissenting Republicans with political consequences if they defy him. He’s a president who’s polling in the high 30s and low 40s, however, and the bill he’s pushing was at 17 percent approval in the latest poll, and the Republican dissenters have plenty of perfectly Republican reasons to offer their constituents, and the Democrats in their districts surely won’t mind the nay vote, so the threats rang rather hollow on Thursday and might again today. If even the reluctant House Republicans are cowed by the prospects of presidential “tweets” there’s still a big fight ahead in the Senate, and even if Trump can win over all the Republicans he has slandered in that body the bill he signs won’t necessarily be scored a victory.
As it stands now, the bill has something for everyone but a diehard 17 percent or so of the country to hate. The Democrats can’t stand any alteration to their beloved Obamacare, no matter how obvious its many shortcomings have become over the last seven years, and all us Republicans who were Republicans long before Trump joined the party are disappointed that the repeal isn’t root-and-branch and the replacement retains too many of its most infuriating assaults on individual liberty and economic logic. Obamacare’s promise of coverage for pre-existing conditions makes as much sense as letting people buy fire insurance after their house has burned down, but it polls through the roof and is therefore protected by the bill. The new bill would end subsidies to millions of Americans who rely on them for health care coverage, many of whom who will have undeniably tear-jerking stories to tell the newspapers and broadcast networks, and although most of them are now inadequately covered and driving up costs for others and would happily opt out of a system that’s hurtling toward insolvency Trump and Ryan and the rest of the Republicans have done a poor job of making that case.
There’s bound to something in even the worst legislation to like, and we find favor with the fact that the proposal would eliminate a number of Obamacare’s more ridiculous requirements. For the past seven years we’ve been arguing that the Little Sisters of the Poor shouldn’t be forced to pay for contraception coverage, monogamous married couples shouldn’t be forced to pay for potential sexually-transmitted diseases, and healthy young people earning starting salaries shouldn’t be stuck with anything more than catastrophic coverage, but somehow the Republicans are mangling even that argument for the bill. Our own snarly Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts tried to make the point by sarcastically telling a female reporter that “I’d hate to lose my mammogram coverage,” which was quickly construed to mean that Republicans were against mammograms and their bill would eliminate that coverage for those who might choose it, even though that wasn’t the case at all, and not being a reality star he wound up apologizing via “tweet,” which is pretty typical of how the Republicans’ public relations campaign has been going thus far.
Although Trump is the leader of the Republican that has majorities in both chambers of Congress, he’s not had much luck lining them up behind the bill he’s careful not to call “Trumpcare.” Any concessions he makes to the hard-liners only makes it harder to woo the squishy moderates in purple districts who dread all those inevitable tear-jerking stories about people who lost their healthcare, his threats of political retribution for anyone who defies his will grow more ridiculous with each passing ridiculous pronouncement and every public opinion poll, and Speaker Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the rest of the Republican establishment that Trump vowed to overthrow are looking equally inept. Now seems a good time for the party for stop and think through what it’s doing, but Trump has decided that it has to be done today, which is symbolic of nothing in particular, or that we’ll just have to put up with another four years of Obamacare.
Call us old-fashioned, but we don’t see why Trump and Congress and the rest of us can’t take a few more weeks or even a few more months to come up with something that both makes sense and scores more than 17 percent approval in the public opinion polls and might even get a Democratic vote or two from some purplish district. Back when Obamacare was passed we and everyone else who was a Republican at the time argued that the Democrats were hasty and reckless and obviously over-promising, and thanks to the anniversary-date vote that was planned for Thursday we’re reminded they took a full year to enact that stupid law, which passed without a single Republican vote and has haunted the Democratic Party ever since. We can’t help thinking that if the Republicans take just as much time, and come up with a sales pitch that avoids needless snark and doesn’t promise the coverage for everyone at much lower prices that Trump promised during their campaign, we might wind up with something that’s at least somewhat better.  If that’s not a next-news-cycle victory for Trump and his real estate negotiation style, so be it.

— Bud Norman

Gorsuch and Nonesuch

So far President Donald Trump’s travel ban is still being held up in court, his repeal-and-replace plan for health care seems lacking some crucial Republican votes, the budget proposals are widely opposed and the “tweeted” accusations of treason are getting much ridicule and little support, but at least the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court is going well.
The Democrats and the rest of the left are doing their best to stop it, as tradition requires the opposition party to do, but they don’t seem to be having much luck. They’ve objected to the fact that Gorsuch is an admitted “originalist” in his judicial philosophy, but that basically means he believes the Constitution says whatever a plain reading of it written words say, and ever since Franklin Roosevelt tried to pack the court the Democrats have had a hard time time selling the idea it should say whatever they want it to say at any given moment. There have been no revelations of financial entanglements or college dope-smoking incidents or any of the other assorted scandals that have sunk past nominees, his long history of voting with majority and unanimous decisions during a long tenure as a circuit court judge makes it hard to cast him as any sort of scary extremist, and his performance in the confirmation hearings has been as flawlessly careful and noncommittal and yet exceedingly charming as any we can remember. The Democrats have been frustrated that Gorsuch wouldn’t pre-judge any hypothetical cases for them, just as the Republicans were when they grilled past Democratic nominees, but we don’t expect that the general public will mind that Gorsuch has been answering all the questions exactly as Supreme Court nominees are supposed to do.
The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank was reduced to complaining that Gorsuch seemed all too reasonable and downright personable during the hearings, and was sure that such “archaic phrases” as “goodness” and “since I was a tot” and “give a whit” would only be used an Eddie Haskell sort, who was a smarmy character on “Leave It to Beaver” that only the most archaic pop culture commentators remember. The late-night comedy program “The Daily Show” and its African host sneered that such expressions showed how very white Gorsuch is, but we doubt that most Americans would find that a disqualifying quality in a Supreme Court nominee and we’re quite sure that Trump’s most loyal supporters would find it endearing. Of the thousands of cases Gorsuch have heard the Democrats seized on one where he voted against a truck driver who had violated company policy and wound up frozen as a result and then sued over being fired, but of course the case was complicated and not the sort of thing that be easily conflated into a coming reign of judicial terror.
All the late night comics and the rest of the Democrats have had a far easier time scaring people about the rest of what Trump is to, but they inadvertently allowed Gorsuch to reassure the public about that. He’d already been quoted by anonymous sources as telling Senators that he was “disheartened” by Trump’s attacks on a “so-called judge” and the authority of the judiciary, but reiterated the sentiment under oath, carefully declined to answer any questions about how he might rule in a hypothetical case involving Trump and the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution or any of the other many things that might very well come up in the next four years, and somehow left a clear impression that Trump won’t be able to count on him if the facts and the law of a case favor the other side.
That willingness to defy Trump, along with all the aw-shucks demeanor and apparent reasonableness, have convinced some of Trump’s supporters that he’s picked another one of those squishy Supreme Court Justices that more establishment sort of Republicans have been picking for decades, and they’re still holding out for someone more snarling, but we doubt they’ll derail the nomination. Meanwhile all the Democrats are still made that President Barack Obama’s pick for the post, whose name was Merrick Garland or Garland Merrick or something, didn’t get a confirmation hearing at all, because it was blocked the Republican congressional leadership that all of Trump’s most avid fans hated for caving into everything Obama wanted, so it would be fun for almost everyone if a Supreme Court Justice Gorsuch did wind up ruling against some Trump overreach.
All the big press outlets seem resigned to Gorsuch’s nomination, and mostly unwilling to expend any of their diminishing capital of credibility on trying to portray him as a scary sort of extremist who’s going to bring back Jim Crow and back-alley abortions and all the stuff they once threw at Judge Robert Bork, whose last name is now a verb for such character assassination, so we expect this will be a win for Trump. That’s fine by us, and if it leads a few losses for Trump down the road that will also be fine.

— Bud Norman

Turning Right on Sesame Street

There’s a lot in the news lately other than the latest federal budget proposals, and of course there’s plenty further news within that proposed $3.6 trillion of spending that’s currently up for debate, but somehow the relatively mere pittance of $454 million per annum for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is once again getting column inches and air time. President Donald Trump wants to end the spending altogether, the relatively small but inordinately influential fans of public broadcasting are screaming foul, and it all seems slightly familiar yet somehow different.
Suspicious sorts of conservatives such as ourselves have been leery of government-subsidized media from the get-go back in the Great Society days of the ’60s, we’ve always wondered why the equally paranoid liberals didn’t share our concerns about it, and nothing that has happened since had changed our views on the matter. The arguments against allowing the government to pay for air time are all the more compelling in the age of Trump, as far as our suspicious conservative souls are concerned, and for the life of us we can’t understand why any liberal isn’t at long last seeing the light.
We’re old enough that our first exposure to educational programming for the kiddies was back in the days of the ad-supported Captain Kangaroo, though, and we understand that the subsequent generations that grew up learning the alphabet and other lessons from the Public Broadcasting System’s “Sesame Street” clearly have a different perspective. Our liberal friends of all ages also prefer the classical music and pretentious jazz and those soothing voices and sensitively wrought opinions of National Public Radio to the shrilly shrieked vitriol on the right wing radio talk shows with all the ads for gold sellers and survival food and promised relief from the Internal Revenue Service, and lately we can’t argue much with the preference, even if we’re sticking to old garage rock cassette tapes and the old folks’ AM station with the Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee tunes during our drives around town. There’s also no denying that a mere $454 million is too small a fraction of a $36 trillion budget for us to bother try to calculate, and that somewhere along the line “Sesame Street” might have taught some poor kids the alphabet and that sometimes classical music is the perfect thing for a drive around town, and we don’t doubt that Trump might just be settling a longstanding score with “Sesame Street,” which has apparently been taunting him since he was a minor New York tabloid celebrity, but we’re still comfortable with the draconian budget cut.
All the old arguments still apply, though, especially around here. Public broadcasting was touted as a subsidy to those poor folks who couldn’t afford the high-priced high-brow fare on cable, but our rabbit ears don’t get the local PBS affiliate and nobody we know all over this town can get it, and although the NPR affiliate at the local college station comes through loud and clear it doesn’t seem to be seeking out a low-income audience. Even such low-lifes as ourselves occasionally enjoy the classical music offerings that admittedly can’t be found elsewhere, but we’d happily endure the infrequent ad for contingency fee lawyers to those interminable fund-raising drives and all that Peter, Paul and Mary music. Free market purists assume there will always be a commercial market for sensitively wrought opinions broadcast in soothing voices, especially in the age of Trump, and given that the “Sesame Street” brand and all its toys and bed sheets and coloring books probably out-earns the Trump brand our liberal friends have nothing to free from a true laissez-faire media.
Back in the pre-cable days the local PBS affiliate used to come through to our suburban house with episodes of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” which we are still grateful for, and our friends affluent to still have cable talk of some good high-brow shows on PBS, but we’re not sure it warrants even a mere $454 million dollars. Getting the budget into a sustainable range will require some tinkering with the popular entitlement programs of Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid, which the liberals who love public broadcasting all consider sacrosanct and even Trump doesn’t dare to touch, so we’ll not worry much about this particular line item no matter how it turns out.

— Bud Norman

Who’s Bugging Who?

There’s all sorts of consequential politics going on these days to keep a president busy, what with repealing Obamacare and replacing it with Trumpcare and passing a thus-far unpopular budget and whatnot, but that’s all pretty dry stuff and involves a lot of math. Which makes it all the harder to turn one’s gaze away from the far juicier ongoing allegations coming from all directions about all sorts of international espionage and high-tech skullduggery and assorted movie-worthy twists. Monday alone provided enough plot twists to fill up several sequels.
The already convoluted plot plot started way back during the past presidential election, when Republican nominee Donald Trump was praising the strength of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s leadership and shrugging off the occasional extra-judicial killing and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign was taking a hit from some embarrassing e-mails that had been suspiciously hacked, and suspicious sorts started wondering if that was entirely coincidental. The resignation of Trump’s campaign manager after business ties to a Russia-friendly Ukrainian were revealed and the resignation of a foreign policy advisor for similar reasons did nothing to quell the suspicions, and neither did Trump’s still-unreleased tax returns, and although he nonetheless became President Donald Trump the news hasn’t helped much. His already-controversial National Security Advisor had to resign after a few days on the job because he’d lied to the Vice President about having been in contact with Russian officials, his already-controversial Attorney General recused himself from any role of a potential investigation into the matter of contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials after similar revelations, and the late night comics and other conspiracy theorists have been having a ball with it.
Trump, of course, has been doing the counter-punching he so boastfully prides himself on. On an early morning a couple of weeks ago he “tweeted” a series allegations that past President Barack Obama had tapped his phone lines at Trump Tower, which, if true, would truly be worse than the Watergate scandal that Trump mentioned. That was immediately followed by a “tweet” ridiculing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s paltry ratings on “The Apprentice,” the reality show Trump starred in prior to his presidency, but the president still stands by his allegations. His press secretary has since explained that Trump had taken care to put quotation remarks around “wire tapped” to emphasize that he didn’t literally mean that Obama had tapped his wires, and occasional spokeswoman and former campaign manager Kellyanne Conway further explained that he could have meant that Obama was spying on Trump through the Trump Tower microwave oven, and of course the late night comics have been having even more of a ball with it. Subsequent “tweets” and presidential interviews have promised that would proof would be forthcoming, and that his Republican allies in Congress would provide it through hearings, but so far that has not happened.
Trump still has plenty of supporters in the comments sections of all the internet stories about all of this, and is still cheered on by some old-time Republicans who should know enough to at least hedge their bets with some skepticism, but Monday provided another public relations beating. Those Republican allies in Congress have thus far admitted they don’t have any proof to back up Trump’s allegations, and on Monday they invited Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey to testify that the allegations are untrue and that the Department of Justice has authorized him to say so, and that he was also authorized to says investigations of Russia’s meddling in the past election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign was ongoing, and in the absence of any classified documents that a president could unilaterally un-classify that was bound to be Tuesday’s big headline and the punchline of all the late night jokes.
The more determined Trump apologists will continue to explain how a “deep state” shadow government is still doing the bidding of Obama, and they’ll be quite right that Obama’s administration tapped so many phones and did so many shadowy things over eight years that you can’t put anything past them, and we’ve seen enough Hollywood movies to always be suspicious about those intelligence agencies, but such old-school Republicans are ourselves still expect some proof. All those intelligence agencies and their more boring bureaucratic colleagues are clearly opposed to Trump for reasons different than our own, all the leaks lately have clearly served their agenda, and there’s still some reason to keep most classified information classified, but for now we’re still waiting for proof of Obama’s worse-than-Watergate behavior and something in the way of usual financial disclosure to assure us that Trump’s seeming Russophilia is just bad ideology and not something to do with the global business empire that Trump still owns.
Which is a shame, as far as old-fashioned Republicans such as ourselves are concerned, because Obamacare really does need to be repealed and there’s still some hope that the old-fashioned Republicans left in office will be able to come up with something too imperfect for any hyperbole but at least better than what we’ve got. We find a lot to like in that unpopular budget proposal, too, and would even be cheering if a Republican president had the extra amount of guts to take aim at the popular entitlement programs that are driving the national debt to eventual bankruptcy. Fiscal solvency and other matters requiring hard choices and hard math are always a hard sell, and all the harder when you squander your credibility with claims that are never proved and only cast further lingering suspicion on yourself.
Trump’s supporters can also rightly note that none of his critics’ have yet proved their most damning allegations, but at this moment in the news cycle the claims are at least as plausible as that story about Sen. Ted Cruz’ dad being in on the Kennedy hit and President George W. Bush lying the country into the Iraq War that Trump was never for, or that one about Obama being born in Kenya that Trump took credit for putting to rest, and these days it all a needless distraction. At this point we want Trump to put up or shut up, disprove his conspiracy-minded critics with full financial disclosure and an independent investigation, then lay off the “tweets” and get on with all the boring but consequential stuff.

— Bud Norman

Chuck Berry, RIP

Chuck Berry died over the weekend at the ripe old age of 90, and the rock ‘n’ roll music he championed isn’t faring so well lately, but the aftershocks will still be felt for a while.
It would be going too far to say that Berry invented rock ‘n’ roll, which seemed to spontaneously rise from the American soil and burst forth from the rural honky-tonks and ghetto dives and on to the Ed Sullivan Show back in the mid-50s, but otherwise it’s hard to overstate how much he had to do with it. He was the first honest-to-God rock ‘n’ roller to wind up with Patti Page and Mitch Miller and all the other big-name pop stars on Hit Parade, and he was the very quintessence of the deep-rooted yet newfangled genre. Three simple chords borrowed from the blues, a certain twang taken from country, a couple of those can’t-get-out-of-your-head hooks redolent of the popular standards, all delivered with a hot-rod drive and certain goofy swagger in the sly clever lyrics. The formula yielded a remarkable string of classic American songs, plenty of tabloid scandals, and a broader cultural revolution that is still with us for better or worse.
Chuck Berry was one of those only-in-America stories, which he always gratefully acknowledged, even when he was in jail. He was a more-or-less-happily married 30-year-old aspiring hairdresser when he became the prototypical rock ‘n’ roll star, and was not only black but quite defiantly so at a time when only such refined negro gentlemen as Nat “King” Cole and The Ink Spots got to share space with Patti Page and Mitch Miller on the Hit Parade, but Berry was simply too cool to be denied his place in the spotlight. The extra years in his conveniently located hometown of St. Louis had allowed him to soak up all the blues licks of such southern greats as Muddy Waters, the rollicking style of country that was being played out west by the likes of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, as well the gritty gospel of Chicago’s Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the emerging rhythm and blues sound of Louis Jordan and the other jump bands that were on the air from the coast to coast, and he still had some sex appeal to the mix.
Berry started playing around with his odd melange of music, and on a trip to Chicago he was recommended to Chess Records, a label run by a couple of Polish Jews who had an uncanny knack for finding and recording the blues. They’d scored plenty of hits on the southern and urban R’n’B charts with such all-timers as Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, and had one of the best and scariest of the early rock ‘n’ rollers with Bo Diddley, but Berry had something that allowed the label to start selling to white and black and hispanic and any other kind of restless teenager you might find anywhere in the country. His first hit was “Maybellene,” derived from the old country standard “Ida Red,” which opened with a raucous guitar solo and revved through an all-too-familiar tale of a faithless love. The string of hits that followed included “School Days,” a witty lament about being stuck in class, “Thirty Days,” another chase after a wandering woman, “Reelin’ and Rockin’,” which featured a far raunchier take on romance that somehow made it past the era’s censors, and “Rock and Roll Music” and “Roll Over, Beethoven,” both of which celebrated a brand new music that suddenly seemed to be everywhere.
There were also such classics as “Johnny B. Goode” and “Memphis, Tennessee” and “Sweet Little Sixteen,” not to mention such gems as “You Never Can Tell” and “Come On” and “Little Queenie” that should have been bigger hits, and pretty much every single track on every LP in our prized box set of Berry’s complete Chess recordings is grade-A badass rock ‘n’ roll music. The old bluesman Willie Dixon put together a crack band that included the great Johnnie Johnson on piano, the Chess brothers wisely recorded them in the same rough spare style of their blues acts, and the material came through as something altogether new. Aside from the quirky hillbilly influence that Berry had learned to survive his white honky-tonk gigs, there was also an ingeniously corny quality to the lyrics, which had people keeping their ginger ale in “coolerators” and motorists “motorvatin'” and somehow rhymed “tearing up the road” with “V-8 Foad.” The short stories with the steady beat told all the old stories about cheating women and somehow recalled schoolboy angsts and in sum celebrated a tail-finned and jet-engined and racially mixed and rapidly evolving America of limitless opportunity.
Berry grabbed the opportunity to become a household name and an eventual face on the Mount Rushmore of American music, but the rest of his complicated story was part of the same only-in-America narrative. Despite Berry’s widespread appeal and appearances in Hollywood movies it was the equally talented and slightly better-lookiing and far whiter Elvis Presley who popularized the miscegenation of country and western and rhythm and blues known as rock ‘n’ roll, and he once again found himself afoul of the law. He’d served some time for armed robbery before his show biz breakthrough, and at the height of the rock ‘n’ roll craze he was sentenced to further time for a violation of the Mann Act, which at the time everyone understood to mean something sleazy and interstate involving one of those teenage girls that Berry was always singing about. That was in 1959, the same year Buddy Holly died and Presley got drafted and Jerry Lee Lewis was kicked off the radio for a sex scandal of his own involving a teenaged girl who also happened to be a second cousin.
Rock ‘n’ roll survived the ensuing few years of clean cut white boys and girl groups with white dresses and bouffant hair, then The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan and The Beach Boys and all kinds of rock ‘n’ roll craziness came along, and somehow Chuck Berry remained just as cool as ever. Because of a pretentious aversion to the notion of “cover songs,” meaning the age old practice of great singers and great musicians playing from the repertoire of great songs, rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t really have standards such as the blues and jazz and pop and country singers can draw from, but there’s never been a time when it wasn’t acceptable to play a Chuck Berry song. Back in the earliest days Jerry Lee was a cutting a salacious “Little Queenie” and Buddy Holly was making rock ‘n’ roll safe for bespectacled nerds with a very cool “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” and even Elvis was offering up a still cool “Too Much Monkey Business.” All the hippie bands covered Berry tunes, and we especially like The Chocolate Watch Band’s “Come On,” and “Johnny B. Goode” was an almost obligatory part of any rock performance no matter how pretentious the performer. When the punks came along The Sex Pistols were reviving “Johnny B. Goode,” the oldie but goody about a country boy who could play a guitar just like a-ringin’ a bell, and all of those bands seemed to striving to reclaim that ineffable primitivism of the Berry records.
Berry did pretty well for himself on the oldies circuit, playing with pickup bands in any town that would book him, and in the early ’70s he was back on the charts with a ridiculous little smutty novelty tune called “My Ding-a-Ling,” which put him on an arena tour that included a gig at Wichita’s Henry Levitt Arena where he absolutely wowed our junior high-aged selves. He played a gig at the White House a few years later, went to prison again for tax evasion a couple of weeks after that, was frequently honored with such gigs as an adulatory documentary of a thank-you concert with The Rolling Stones, and kept rock and rolling and paying the rent with it until his ’80s. We heard some good reviews from those shows, and the advance buzz on his last album is hopeful that he had yet another great record in him, and we note it has been dedicated to the woman he was still somehow more or less happily married to.
There were some other unseemly tabloid scandals, and legends about backstage spats with his equally tempestuous rock ‘n’ rollers from the stone age, but what else would you expect from someone so exquisitely attuned to the very heart and soul of America? Should the country ever grow tired of “The Star-Spangled Banner” we’d recommend “Back in the U.S.A.” as a new national anthem, with its revved-up guitar licks and tinkling piano and heartfelt paean to a land where “hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day.” Tail-fins are out of style and jet engines have lost their novelty but America is still a racially diverse and rapidly evolving land of unlimited opportunity, and for better and worse both Chuck Berry and the rock ‘n’ roll music he championed have something to do with that.

— Bud Norman