The Wrecking Ball and the Press

Our local newspaper’s longtime headquarters is slated for demolition this week, so on Saturday they invited all the former employees to drop by for a last look at the place. The event offered an opportunity to see some cherished friends and respected colleagues we haven’t seen in a long while, and some of the conversations were quite convivial, but there was a funereal feel to it that lingered through the weekend.
The paper isn’t going out of business, and the reunion also included a tour of the swank new digs located nearby in the trendy Old Town drinking and dining district right next to the ritzy Warren Theater, where you can watch movies in an easy chair and have waitresses bring you cocktails, but the whole affair was nonetheless a frank acknowledgement of an institution in decline. Although it has ultra-modern and remarkably comfy chairs and two computer screens at every desk and all the steel pipes and chrome doors and sharp angles you’d find in some cutting-edge start-up venture, the most conspicuous thing about the new place is that it’s a whole lot smaller than the last one, and by far the smallest building the paper has occupied since Civil War veteran and founding father Col. Marshall Murdoch moved out of the clapboard printing shop that’s still lovingly preserved at the old-west reenactment Cowtown Museum over in Riverside.
There wasn’t any sense of a cutting edge start-up to the new place, despite all the up-to-date accoutrements, and neither did it suggest a more venerable enterprise. As we walked from the new office to a nearby after-party on top of some young people’s bar, a good friend who used to be a very good aviation reporter for the paper and now gets by on free-lance work remarked that it didn’t seem at all like a newspaper office, as it didn’t have the smell of hot lead and photographic chemicals and cigarette smoke, or the sound of clacking typewriters and telephones ringing rather than warbling, or that big imposing block-long presence that a city’s newspaper is supposed to have, and we couldn’t argue.
The old building was an architectural monstrosity, a concrete and feces-brown blob typical of what was being built for expanding businesses back in 1961, when the paper moved from a smaller but much more elegant building nearby, but you used to be able to walk in from Douglas Avenue and be transported back to a more pungent and noisy and vibrant era of American journalism. Our first visit was on a school field trip, where they took us down to the printing presses and let us watch the typesetters do their Ed Sullivan-worthy legerdemain and see actual reporters shouting into telephones while pounding out the next days stories on typewriters, and it seemed way cooler than the field trips to the Steffen’s Dairy or or the Kansas Gas and Electric Company or the Coleman factory or any of the other very important and now long-gone  local institutions. The folks had already inculcated in us their daily habit of reading pretty much the entirety of both the morning and afternoon papers, and the old black-and-white movies on the late with the fedora-topped reporters shouting “get me re-write” into candlestick phones fascinated us, and we also started noticing that Mark Twain and Walt Whitman and Jim Thompson and Tom Wolfe and most of our favorite writers had worked on newspapers.
And so it was that we walked into the local paper as a newly-hired 20-year-old with all sorts of literary ambitions and romantic notions, way back in the white-hot summer of ’80. We’d dropped out of college and fallen in with the local punk rock crowd, which included a most delightful fellow who’d written for the paper some years before, and he suggested we apply for a newsroom opening he knew of, telling us which people to drop his name to and which not to, and because we could type fast and had a couple of relatively impressive jobs on the resume and seemed very enthusiastic about the newspaper we became “editorial clerks.” That’s a rather fancy term for what the old-timers called a “copy boy,” and although it was hard work it was often fun and a better education than what we’d been getting in college.
We typed up enough obits to fill several cemeteries, answered phone calls from angry readers and people trying to get in touch some reporter who wasn’t around, copied and distributed the daily budgets to all the departments, sorted mail, ran errands, listened to the police scanners and alerted the crime desk to the latest atrocities, watched the local news broadcasts just in case they might have something the newsroom didn’t know about, took dictation from reporters in the field, and reveled in the frantic atmosphere. They were still typing on typewriters back then, with a conveyor belt sending hard copy from the copy desk to those typesetting magicians downstairs, and although the state-of-the-art IBM Selectrics didn’t make quite the right clickety-clack sound it was still pretty noisy, and there was this great old guy developing all the pictures in photographic chemicals back in the dark room, and not only could you smoke cigarettes in the newsroom, pretty much everyone did. It looked and sounded and smelled and had a feeling right down to your bones of a real newspaper, just like in the movies.
Nearly all of the then-numerous reporters and editors and everyone else outranking us on the staff had been more inspired to enter the newspaper racket by “All the President’s Men” than by “His Girl Friday,” and when we all watched Ronald Reagan being elected and started getting the headlines downstairs we were the only ones celebrating, but for the most part they were a good bunch. There was still a lot of the wise-cracking and banter we’d come to expect from the old movies, and some of the same instinctive anti-authoriatian streak, and several of them took a liking to a punk college drop-out and generously shared their considerable knowledge with us. Although we’re still pure-bred prairie Republican goyim our most influential mentors about the craft turned out to be Jewish Democrats from Back East, who really were so common in the press back then they even wound up in such remote places as our hometown, and we also lament that the latest iteration of the hometown newsroom lacks a certain Jewish favor.
We literally fell in love with one of those mentors, a wise-cracking and rule-breaking and very tall woman who reminded us of Rosalind Russell in “His Girl Friday,” and when she split town for a job at the bigger paper in Kansas City we followed her there. Our title at that paper was “dethwriter,” the abbreviated journalese for the guys who wrote death notices and the local’s out-of-town traffic fatalities and the murders too petty for the crime reporters to bother with, and as gruesome as it was it provided enough oft-told stories to make for a novel we hope to write someday, tentatively titled “Dethwriter Takes a Holiday.” The newsroom had these pneumatic tubes that brought clips down from the library upstairs, which usually included some fishy news about the many Italian businessmen in Kansas City whose jukeboxes unexpectedly exploded, and there were a couple of very sound and educational friends on the “dethwriter” desk, but all the reporters seemed kind of snooty, and although we still miss her we had reasons to break off the relationship with the witty and rule-breaking and very tall woman, and we wanted to be back at the hometown paper.
After a short stint of cleaning houses we were back at clerking at the paper, doing a very fine job of it if we do say so ourselves, and angling at that up-from-copy-boy story we’d seen in all those late night movies. Eventually we’d done enough favors to the editors and cleaned up so many of those stories the college kids were phoning in to earn a byline, and then a column about the local music scene, and despite the newspaper’s recent fetish about college credentials we eventually wound up with “Staff Writer” under the daily bylines. We like to think of ourselves as the last of the up-from-copy-boy breed, but it also had to do with the fact that newspapers were so big at the time they could afford to take a chance on a punk kid.
This was at a time when almost every city in America was becoming a one-newspaper town, talk radio and cable and the internet didn’t yet threaten the local newspaper monopoly, and the business of printing all those papers and all that money took up an imposing square block and the building was bustling to the seams. Our paper could be purchased for a quarter in racks everywhere from Kansas City’s Strawberry Hill to Mount Sunflower on the Colorado border, with bureaus across the state providing locals news for the trucks that sped out as we walked home from day. The paper had reporters snooping around every office in City Hall and County Hall and the statehouse, the fashion reporter and the drama critic were flying off to New York City for the latest shows, the aviation reporter was at the Paris Air Show, and several we times found ourselves flying on chartered plains through scary thunderstorms to far-flung stories as we rose through the ranks.
We were there when they started bringing the computers in, which at first were shared by every two reporters. The bosses promised these devices would herald a new gold age of the American newspaper, but the time we left after 25 years it didn’t turn out that way. All those magical typesetters were the first round of layoffs, and then a lot of those deaf pressmen who were hired because they communicate over all the news were laid off, and eventually they figured out how to do a lot of the work we’d done as a clerk, which saved the company a lot of the money that was still coming in. Then the computers started letting people buy classified ads on Craigslist, though, and all sorts of internet news sites were popping up that allowed advertisers to buy more specifically-targeted ads, and then the money started going away.
More lay-offs followed, of course, first in the no-longer viable classified ad departments, and the circulation area was limited to the metro area, which allowed all the statewide bureau staffs to be laid-off, and the cuts eventually reached the metro newsroom. The paper has less than a third the number of reporters and photographers snooping around the city as it did back in our good old days, and a big share of that is devoted to local sports, and they laid off all the pressmen when they outsourced the printing of the relatively few on-paper copies they sell these days to that former rival in Kansas City, which also provides the bulk of the state political news, and even in its shiny new but conspicuously small building the old gray mare clearly ain’t she used to be.
Still, it was nice to see all those old friends and respected colleagues we hadn’t seen in years. Several people we would have loved to have seen weren’t there because there because they’re dead, others had their own good reasons, but one formerly helpful editor came all the way from Florida and a guy we kind of like came in Minnesota, and there were some great stories about all the scandals and screw-ups and general editorial ineptitude at the paper at the over years, as well as a few political scoops and astute theater reviews and off-beat feature stories that did the public a full quarter’s worth of good. There are still a few folks at the hanging on the paper the worked with, some of whom we well regard, especially a couple of photographers and a savvy second-generation editor, and it felt good to offer them our best wishes. After all the fond farewells we walked by the cranes and the wrecking balls that are going to tear down that ugly old building, though, and happy ending somewhere out there on the internet seemed far less tangible.

— Bud Norman

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The Democrats in the Post-Clinton Era

At this point we haven’t had the chance to pick up a copy of “Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign,” a recently released book by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, but it’s being so widely quoted in all the papers that we soon won’t need to read it. We should issue a spoiler alert, but apparently the Clinton campaign was very badly run.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, of course, but the early reviewers have been surprised that it was run even more badly than they thought. The authors were granted complete access to the innermost circles of the Clinton campaign in exchange for an assurance they wouldn’t make anything public until after the election, probably because Clinton wanted someone to chronicle her long-presumed victory, and it looked even worse from the inside than it did to the public. Although Clinton had years to plan and plenty of money to spend, as well an ex-president husband and a decades-old political machine, the book describes a series of amateur mistakes, missed opportunities, and a complete lack of a coherent campaign strategy.
The book describes volunteers being sent out to knock on Wisconsin doors with any campaign literature or training, a campaign manager who declined to spend any money on polling in the crucial state of Florida, a once politically astute husband who agreed that Clinton had the state “in the bag,” and a frustrated aide whose warnings that the director Federal Bureau of Investigation’s statements about her e-mail practices should have prompted a change in tactics went unheeded. There’s also a conclusion that the campaign also failed at the fundamental task of providing a persuasive argument why Clinton should be president.
To be fair, making that argument would be a tough job for even the shrewdest and best-run campaign. Clinton was touted as a former First Lady and Senator and Secretary of State and and presumptive First Woman President of the United States, but her time as First Lady was spending defending her sexual predator husband’s appalling behavior, her brief Senate tenure was entirely unforgettable, and her four years as Secretary of State brought nothing but a lot of baggage about re-set buttons and Benghazi and those e-mail practices the FBI found to be “extremely careless” but not quite illegal. She was indisputably a woman, which some voters found a compelling argument for a candidacy, but that was never going win a majority.
She did wind up winning the popular vote by about three million or so, but that only makes it all the embarrassing she couldn’t figure out how get just a few hundred thousand more in Florida and the Rust Belt states that wound up long the electoral vote. That she lost to Donald Trump, who had plenty of baggage and campaign chaos and no relevant experience and the lowest approval ratings of any president on Inauguration Day, does require a book-length explanation.
We expect that most Democrats will gratefully accept Clinton’s awfulness as a candidate and the awfulness of her campaign as the reason their party couldn’t hold on the White House for another four years, because it doesn’t require them to admit that their party’s control for the previous eight years also had a lot to do with it, and that the party itself is in disrepute some key parts of the country. The 40 percent or so of the party’s primary and caucus voters who much preferred the self-described socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders have already convinced themselves that their guy would have won, and that all the party has to do overcome the Republican’s majorities in both chambers of Congress and most of the nation’s legislatures and governors’ mansions is to become even more insistent on racial identity politics and high taxes and hyper-regulation of the economy and an ever-expanding welfare state.
In other words, do more of exactly what drove just enough voters in Florida and those Rust Belt states as well as all the more reliable red states into the arms of a thrice-married casino-and-strip-club-and-professional-wrestling-and-scam university mogul and reality television star whose only compelling argument for his candidacy was that he was the antithesis of all that.
Had the Democrats chosen former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb or the former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, the relative centrists who were knocked out early in the race while polling in the low single digits, we suspect they might have made easy work out of such a flawed candidate as Trump. Some day we’d love to read the inside account of why the party poobahs preferred such a scandal-ridden and charisma-free nominee as Clinton, who was far enough to the left to scare everyone on the right and a whole lot of people in the center without firing up all those Sandersnistas on the left. Trump was scary enough to the left that they would have preferred anyone with a “D” after his or her name, and he was scary enough to a whole lot of people in the center who would have preferred any number of possible Democrats who weren’t Clinton or Sanders, so the Democrats should ponder that.
Trump is now as unpopular as any president has ever been after such a short time in office, and it’s going to take a lot more winning than he’s done so far to change that, so the Democrats are presented with yet another opportunity to blow. They came uncomfortably close to winning a special election here in Kansas’ Fourth Congressional District a week ago with a candidate who liked to be photographed firing semi-automatic rifles and talking a fairly centrist line, and they still have a chance in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District with a young whippersnapper who’s cultivating a very pragmatic public image, but in such a reliably Republican district he’s also likely to come up short, so all the Democrats we drink beer with will probably conclude they should have gone full socialist with a transgendered bisexual of some indeterminate race.
Clinton was an awful candidate who ran an awful campaign, awful enough to lose to the likes of Trump, but the Democrats would be well advised to admit they have bigger problems than that. The Republicans are bound to have their own problems with Trump, but they once again might not be enough.

— Bud Norman

Spinning Out of the No-Spin Zone

Fox News has fired Bill O’Reilly, and that’s fine by us, as we never did like the guy. The firing is yet another undeniable embarrassment to conservatism, but probably the best way to handle it.
O’Reilly didn’t get cancelled for the usual reason of low ratings, as he remained the most-viewed commentator on cable news, but because 20 of his most well-heeled advertisers had cancelled their buys in the wake of a sex scandal. The New York Times reported that Fox News has spent some $13 million settling numerous sexual harassment suits filed over the years, companies ranging from Mercedes-Benz to the Society for Human Resource Management decided they didn’t want to be associated with such salacious settlements, and with Fox News already reeling from the recent firing of its longtime head honcho Roger Ailes over similar high-dollar shenanigans they reached the same reluctant conclusion.
All the late night comics and mainstream news reporters and the rest of the left are having great fun with it, and there’s really no denying them their unabashed schadenfreude. Fox News is the bogeyman of the left, O’Reilly was its most demonized figure, and both do look pretty damned ridiculous at the moment. Just before the firing President Donald Trump had defended O’Reilly during a New York Times interview as a good guy who never did anything wrong, and of course he’s got his own scandals about grabbing women by the wherever to deal with, so naturally the left is also having fun with that.
All of it supports a leftist narrative that conservatism is nostalgia for the good old days when business moguls used to chase secretaries around the desk with impunity, and we have admit we find ourselves hard pressed to make the case that conservatism still stands for Judeo-Christian tradition and family values isn’t really waging that “war on women” that the left used to run on. There’s a case to be made that settling suits isn’t an admission of guilt, but no one on the right was having any of that back when President Bill Clinton was settling his lawsuits with Paula Jones and the numerous other women who quite plausibly accused him of sexual harassment, and by now anyone on either side who isn’t disgusted by all of it is a rank hypocrite.
Kudos to Fox for not being such rank hypocrites, and we hope that its many fine journalists continue to expose shenanigans on both the left and right with a renewed credibility. The network retains some hypocritical partisan hacks, such as its now most-viewed host Sean Hannity, as well as those apple-polishing sycophants on Trump’s favorite “Fox and Friends” morning show, but it also does a lot of reporting that liberals can’t righty dismiss as “Faux News” the way conservatives tend to dismiss anything unsettling to their worldview as “fake news” from “The New York Slimes” or “the Washington Compost.” On the both the left and the right, and among those news outlets that still claim to be fair and balanced, it’s important than everyone maintain a certain respect for what pretty much everyone regards as proper.
O’Reilly always struck us as a bombastic, loose with facts, self-righteous prig was so easily caricatured that the late night comic Stephen Colbert became a number-one-in-his-time-slot talk-show star by caricaturing him. He’s having great fun with the denouement of O’Reilly’s career, and it’s hard to deny him the pleasure, and by all accounts he’s a happily married and devoutly Catholic and thus-far scandal-free man, so we’ll not deny him his dance on the grave of O’Reilly’s career. We still believe in a conservatism based on Judeo-Christian tradition and family values and not chasing the secretaries around the desk, though, and hope that Fox will help us to keep from anybody dancing on its grave.

Georgia On Our Mind

Although it’s an admittedly odd thing to do on such a pleasantly warm evening as we had here in the Fourth Congressional District of Kansas, we spent much of Tuesday night following the returns from the special election being held far away in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District. It’s the first political test of the Trump era since last Tuesday’s special election here on our home turf, which got a lot of national attention, and the Georgia race is getting a lot scrutiny for pretty much the same tea-leaf-reading reasons, so naturally we were interested to see how it turned out.
It was clear all along that the front-runner in the 18-candidate field was Democrat Jon Ossoff, which is an eye-raising fact in such a reliably Republican district, but given the district’s convoluted way of doing things there was plenty of suspense about whether he’d pass the 50 percent mark needed to avoid a runoff that would probably result in a runoff. By the time we started getting drowsy in a more western time zone the news was that the Democrat had indeed scored a landslide plurality, but failed prevent a run-off against whatever Republican had limped into second place with from the crowded field. The district has been Republican since Georgia’s own Jimmy Carter, and was long held Speaker of the House and erstwhile conservative hero Newt Gingrich, and has been red ever since, so the betting line is that all the Republicans and a sufficient number of the independents will line up against the Republican in the run-off schedule for June 20, but in the meantime we expect the Democrats and all their media allies to do some serious gloating about the outcome in such a presumably safe republican district.
They’re entitled to it, just as they were with the mere 7 point win by the Republican in our own reliably red district just a week earlier, but in the end it probably won’t have any more effect on the upcoming and predictably partisan votes in Congress. The next significant rounds of congressional elections are nearly tow years away, which is so long an amount of time that no sane person should dare any prognostications, but already the Republican pundits are noting that recent trends suggest the Republicans should retain their advantages, and the Democratic pundits are plausibly hoping that the recent past is no predictor of the future in the Trump era but already proclaiming moral victories.
The Democrats have to admit they fell a full seven points short of victory in last Tuesday’s election around here, which sounds like a lot but is a full of 25 percentages shorts of what the Republicans are used to, and they didn’t get the needed 50 percent in that Georgia district, but they did come close enough to crow about the plurality landslide. We don’t know Georgia’s Sixth District nearly so intimately as we do Kansas’s Fourth District, but we have tried to familiarize ourselves with the political terrain there, and from our currently disinterested perspective both parties seem to have their problems.
This Ossoff character in Georgia is only 30 years old, which makes him a disqualifyingly young whippersnapper from our aged Kansas perspective, and he seems a rather traditionally doctrinaire sort of Democrat, which is worse yet as far we’re concerned, but even the conservative media haven’t told us anything about his Republican challenger except that he wound the 15 percent or so necessary to make a run-off. All the local press and big city papers say that Georgia’s Sixth District is an affluent and well-educated and thoroughly suburban area next to Atlanta, and they don’t need to tell us that Kansas’s Fourth District is dominated by Wichita, a reliably Republican but ethnically and economically urban center that went Democratic by a slight majority while the rest of the entirely rural district went Republican enough to ensure that embarrassing 7–point victory margin.
,Both results suggest to us that both parties have plenty to worry about at the moment, and so does the rest of the country.

— Bud Norman

On The Latest Round of Rioting at UC-Berkeley

There was yet another riot at the University of California-Berkeley over the Easter Day weekend, and judging by the all cell phone video footage that quickly wound up on the internet it was a pretty nasty affair. Such unpleasantness on the campus was a staple of the evening news way back in our boyhood, and lately it seems to be another one of those annoying ’60s fads that is back in fashion again.
This time around the violence is somehow different, though, even if it does seem destined to end in the same desultory way. Last time around Berkeley became famous as the birthplace of the “Free Speech Movement” that demanded free expression of an emerging New Left sensibility, but by now the New Left’s pony-tails have turned gray and its radical demands have become the status quo and the tie-dyed diaper baby grandchildren currently attending the university are famous for demanding speech codes and safe spaces from any sort of dissent. Those subsequent ’60s riots were a response to the Vietnam War, the wisdom of which remains debatable but undeniably involved more than 58,000 American fatalities and countless more casualties and was something you could at least understand somebody rioting about, but the previous riot at Berkeley was a response to a campus lecture by an inconsequential alt-right provocateur and self-described “faggot” named Milo Yiannapolous, which is something that most people would sensibly ignore.
Saturday’s riot happened during one of the many peaceable protests occurring around the country demanding that President Donald Trump publicly release his tax returns, which attracted one of the many counter-protests by supporters of the president, but even in Berkeley that wasn’t enough to cause a riot. So far as we can tell from all the cell phone video footage and some fine reporting by Esquire Magazine, of all places, it was the mix of black-masked self-described “anarchists” on the left and some self-described “white nationalist” types on the right that proved more combustible. The conditions for this happening are especially ripe at Berkeley, but hardly unique to that campus.
Most of the left eschews black masks and brown shirt tactics and anarchy, preferring their safe spaces and ’60s-era notions of non-violence, but they do have among them a troublesome number of people who are quite enthusiastic about all that. The vast majority of Trump’s most ardent supporters and pretty much all of the more reluctant ones have no use for white nationalism or its street-brawling ways, preferring law and order and old-fashioned notions about free speech, but by now there’s no denying they also some rather unsavory compatriots in their midst. You’ll find the extremists almost anywhere by now, and if you throw in the complex issues of race and class that you’ll find almost anywhere there’s reason to worry that Saturday’s riots could happen just a neighborhood away from anybody.
In both the distant and recent past we’ve faulted much of the left for making excuses for the more egregious behavior on its side, and been proud of the principled conservatives who took pains to distance themselves from those hippie-bashing hardhats and newfangled white nationalists who claimed the mantle of conservatism, but these days we have to admit that the Republican president did promise to pay the legal bills of anyone at his rallies who punched a protestor and openly longed for the good old days when they’d be carried out in a stretcher. Even the most peaceable sorts on both the left and right can get pretty confrontational in the comments section of any internet news site these days, all the panel discussions on all of the cable news networks seem more a verbal riot than a real debate, and even in the Senate it took the “nuclear option” to get a quite reasonable and even rather boring nominee confirmed to the Supreme Court.
We’re old enough to remember the ’60s, though, and can console ourselves that the country somehow stumbled its way through that tumultuous decade of far more violent and arguably more reasonable riots. The country had to stumble through the ’70s and all the rest of it to get to his damnable moment in time, where both the left and right seem to have jettisoned notions of free speech and full disclosure, and neither is willing budge an inch enough to disavow for their most unsavory compatriots, but for now it’s just a bunch of crazies pushing around trash dumpsters and duking it out on the always-crazy streets of Berkeley. The cell phone footage makes it look something from the last days of the Weimar Republic, but if they’d had cell phone cameras back then, and everyone could see hot very ridiculous it looked, perhaps it wouldn’t have ended so badly.

— Bud Norman

The Point of No Tax Return

President Donald Trump spent an early part of Sunday “tweeting,” as he does most mornings. He wished everyone a Happy Easter, which suited the occasion, and he boasted of a military build-up that is apparently somehow already underway, but mostly he seemed annoyed the previous day’s protests around the country demanding the release of his tax returns.
The first “tweet” once again recounted his “almost impossible” electoral college victory, then asked “Now Tax Returns are brought up again?” His second outburst suggested “Someone should look into who paid for the small organized rallies yesterday, adding that “Election is over!” Both were composed before Trump got around to wishing the country a Happy Easter, so together they suggest the protestors at least succeeded in rankling the president.
Many of the protests were indeed small, and the election is indeed over, but Trump should nonetheless get used to it being brought up again and again. Although he did win electoral college victory Trump lost the popular, many of those who voted against him don’t have to be paid to show up somewhere and wave a sign and chant slogans about it, and Trump’s capitalized Tax Return is too tempting an issue for them to drop it. The protestors allies in Congress and many of the media don’t intend to, and Trump will need better “tweets” to counter their arguments.
Campaign issues don’t end with the campaigns, as Trump should know after the decades he continued to make the same criticisms and conspiracy theories about every president since Ronald Reagan throughout their terms, and there’s no apparent reason this one should. Although Trump is not required by law to disclose his tax returns, with or with capitalization, there are valid reasons that for the past forty years every presidential nominee has done so and solid majorities of the public have come to expect it. Those reasons are all the more valid when a president retains a global empire business that is bound to be affected by what the federal government does over the next four years, as this one does, another break from a longstanding informal agreement that there are also valid reasons for, and which is also something that Trump’s critics can be expected to keep bringing up.
Worse yet, it’s hard to concoct a convincing argument for why Trump doesn’t release his tax returns. The sorts of Trump supporters who don’t need convincing will accept the stated reason that he’s under audit, even though that doesn’t prevent him from making his returns public, and shouldn’t put him in any sort of legal jeopardy, but eventually Trump will need to persuade some more skeptical sorts. His more stubborn apologists point out the educational records and other documents that Obama declined to release, and note that Democrats didn’t seem to mind that lack of transparency, but of course those supporters very much minded, and kept bringing it up throughout and now even after his term, and so did Trump himself, who “tweeted” repeatedly about it, so they also have to explain why things are now so different. For those of us who wanted to see Obama’s grades and Hillary Clinton’s e-mails and anything else we could get our hands on about any any office-holding Democrats, but also want to see Trump’s tax filings and anything else we can learn his or any other Republican politician’s potential conflicts of power, that argument is utterly unconvincing.
Although it will drift on and off the front pages, we expect the stories and and the protests will continue. All the stories about investigations underway into Russia’s role in the past campaign will make mention of it, and so will all the stories about Trump-owned businesses benefiting from some deregulation or tax shift or federal contracts that are bound to come up. There will be plenty of speculation, too, and Trump’s “tweets” and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer don’t seem likely to allay the resulting suspicions. The only way to end it is to just go ahead and release the damned things, the way Obama did with the birth certificate he was pestered about by certain people even long after his victorious election was over.
That would not only put the issue to rest and allow Trump to “tweet” about more important issues, but also quell some of that speculation about what those unseen returns might reveal about Russia or any possible conflicts of interest from that global business empire. Surely there’s nothing the least bit compromising in those documents, after all.

— Bud Norman

A Big Blast in Afghanistan

America’s war in Afghanistan has dragging on for so long that by now most Americans have largely forgotten about it, but it was back in the news on Thursday with a literal bang. The Air Force dropped the Mother of All Bombs on an Islamic State encampment, and that’s not just Trumpian hyperbole but the actual nickname of the weapon.
The official moniker is Massive Ordinance Air Blast, but the initials naturally inspired the more apt term that all the military types apparently use. It weighs 22,000 pounds, packs a net explosive weight of 18,700 pounds, and is said to be the most powerful non-nuclear bomb ever deployed in the long history of war. That’s still probably insufficient to bring a conclusion to what is already America’s longest-running military conflict, but surely enough to have a literal impact on the Islamic State.
Such serious ordinance suggests a renewed American seriousness about the Afghanistan war, and the broader war on terror, so even if it doesn’t serve any broader military strategy that’s good enough for us. There can be no pity for the Islamic State savages that the bomb fell on, who are just one of the problems we face in Afghanistan but a bigger threat in Iraq and Syria and all the places around the globe where they’ve pulled off terror attacks, and it’s hard to pass up such a golden opportunity to eliminate so many of them in one fell swoop. Although the Islamic State usually embeds itself in civilian areas the target was carelessly free of any non-combatants, and the Russians and Iranians and Sunni Arabs and other players that make fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria so complicated don’t care about godforsaken and mostly oil-free and perpetually troublesome Afghanistan, and that big bomb had been sitting around in a warehouse for years with no good reason not to use it. A 22,000 pound bomb can’t be launched from even an almighty B-52 or placed atop even the most powerful missiles and instead has to be pushed out of a cargo plane, meaning it’s only useful against enemies who lack even World War II-vintage anti-aircraft systems, so that’s another reason to grab the rare chance to try it out on the likes of the Islamic State.
Coming shortly after the 59 Tomahawk missiles that were launched at an airbase in the trickier Syrian terrain, it also sends a potentially useful signal of resolve. President Donald Trump’s administration has since sent mixed signals about that Syrian strike, with the Secretary of State warning that anybody who murders young children anywhere in the world can expect more of the same and the White House Press Secretary stressing that what the president had said just a days before about not being the policeman of the world still applied, and those more conventional bombs don’t seem to have stopped that airbase from launching it’s own conventional bombs in its long-running civil war, but the message with the Mother of All Bombs probably won’t be so muddied. Although the Syrian strike eked out a 51 percent approval ratings in the first poll, there was also heated criticism from both the peacenik left and the isolationist right, as well as principled constitutional conservatives who had insisted that President Barack Obama seek congressional approval for such an action and the sorts of intellectually honest liberals who had to admit they had defended Obama’s inaction. Trump himself had also urged inaction at the time, and “tweeted” the missiles strikes were only used to prop up sagging poll number, and plenty of others on both left and right proved just as flip-floppy, and there’s no telling where they might all flip and flop to next.
What just happened in Afghanistan is a whole lot simpler, though, in military as well as domestic and international politics terms. America went to war in Afghanistan because that is where the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 were launched, and similar intolerable acts were still being planned, and not just President George W. Bush but also future Democratic presidential nominees John Kerry and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and the United Nations Security Council and the leaders of pretty much every decent democratic nation agreed that was sufficient reason to wage war there. Since then there’s been plenty of argument about how it should be fought, although the troop levels and casualty rates have lately been so low you wouldn’t have noticed it during the past campaign, but even after so many years there’s still a bipartisan consensus that America remains entitled to drop any old bomb on that troublesome land that it chooses.
Trump’s action was still empowered by the military authorization that bipartisan majorities granted way back when it all started, too, so there’s no trouble with the argument that critics on both the left and right are raising about the constitutionality of that Syrian strike, and it’s not the same betrayal of his isolationist campaign rhetoric, which also included explicit promises to bomb the barnyard epithet out of the Islamic State. The Russians still want nothing to do with Afghanistan ever again, the Syrians and Iranians and their Sunni antagonists have little reason to care, the United Nations and all the decent democratic nations have more pressing concerns, and the Democrats have better fights to pick, so we can hope that he’s taking advantage of a rare opportunity take care of some business in Afghanistan. Should Trump administration articulate how it’s serving some broader strategic purpose, which it very well might, that would also be nice.
There’s really no getting out of Afghanistan until we leave a country that’s unlikely to ever try anything like Sept. 11 again, and even that low bar seems awful high for a long time to come, and unlikely to be achieved even with the Mother of All Bombs, but with low troop levels and relative-to-the-history-of-war low casualties America has kept the country’s long history of hate from infecting the rest of the world for the past 16 years or so. Such small victories aren’t satisfying to any American, and especially to such accustomed-to-winning-big-league types as Trump, but that’s how the score is kept in a season that’s arguably been lasting the Seventh Century or so.
Dropping that Mother of All Bombs on a remote and conveniently civilian-free camp full of murderous Islamic State thugs during a unique opportunity to do so was a good idea, and kudos to the generals who came up with it and the president who listened to them, despite his campaign promise that he knew more about the Islamic State than the generals did. We’ll count it as one of those small victories in a long, long war, and faintly hope that Trump will settle for that claim.

— Bud Norman

This Week, On As The White House Turns

At the risk of damning with faint praise, we have to admit that President Donald Trump’s administration is a lot more intriguing than his last reality show. All the characters are more complicated than those B-list celebrities Trump used to fire, the infighting is more vicious, and we prefer the new format of constantly leaked news stories better than carefully edited one-hour-a-week television episodes.
Lately all the subplots seem to be about Steve Bannon, who makes Dennis Rodman and Gary Busey and all those other flamboyantly crazed celebrity apprentices seem bland by comparison. If you haven’t been following the show, Bannon is an ex-Navy officer turned Goldman Sachs investment banker turned publisher of an internet publication he described as a “platform for the alt-right,” and after that he turned into the “chief executive” of Trump’s campaign and then “White House chief strategist.” Until recently he was also a member of the National Security Council, but he’s been rather unceremoniously removed that position and suddenly there’s a great deal of suspense about whether he’ll be around in any capacity for future episodes.
After weeks of leaks about Bannon’s feud with White House chief of staff Reince Priebus the stories are now mostly about his feud with Jared Kushner, whose White House responsibilities include being an envoy to China and bringing peace to the Middle East and getting the Mexicans to pay for a border wall and solving the opioids crisis and reinventing federal government. The very busy 36-year-old Kushner is also the husband of Trump’s beloved daughter Ivanka, another key character in this convoluted plot who has also reportedly feuding with Bannon, and for now he seems to enjoy the advantage that blood proverbially has over water. Trump told the friendly folks at The New York Post that “I like Steve, but you have to remember that he was not involved in the campaign until very late. I had already beaten the all the senators and all the governors, and I didn’t know Steve. I’m my own strategist and it wasn’t like I was going to change my strategy because I was facing crooked Hillary.”
In the past Trump had frequently spoken of his years-long friendship with Bannon, and often cited him as one of those very best people he promised to surround himself, but if you’ve been following the show you know that Trump’s past pronouncements don’t mean much. Despite Trump’s past boasts about his loyalty he’s fired two wives along with all those other B-list celebrities, as well as two campaign managers, both of whom were described by Trump spokespeople as someone Trump barely knew, and a National Security Advisor, and at this point such an old media hand as Bannon can surely read the writing on The New York Post. Should he find himself on the receiving end of Trump’s “you’re fired” catchphrase, though, it would make for a messy divorce even by Trump standards.
Bannon’s complicated role in this even more complicated plot has been the keeper of the “nationalist populist” and “America First” and “anti-establishment” and vaguely “alt-right” flame that Trump ran on, and as the guy who was fending off all those nasty “globalists” and “neocons” and “establishment” types who suddenly were trying to lure Trump away from the one true faith. According to leaks that probably came from Bannon he was credited with that “American carnage” inaugural speech that fired up the faithful and those travel restrictions that sure seemed to keep the campaign promises Trump had made, as well as the immediate efforts to bring the promised Mexican border wall and all that it implied. All of that played well enough wit the hard-core of Trump’s supporters that there was plenty of credit to go around, but it didn’t play nearly so well elsewhere.
The inaugural speech drew mostly negative reviews and a dismal crowd that Trump embarrassingly lied about at great length, the travel restrictions were halted by a couple of federal courts that thought they sure sounded like a Muslim ban and were therefor a violation of the religious establishment clause in the First Amendment, and all the polls show that despite mixed feelings about illegal immigration most Americans now regard a gazillion-dollar wall across the entire Mexican border as an obviously stupid idea. Whatever value those “nationalist populists” brought to the campaign season they’re currently dragging the new season’s ratings down to a 40 percent or so approval rating, so new characters have been brought in. There’s also Chief of Staff Preibus, who used to be the chairman of the Republican National Committee and the guy whose name all the right-wing talk radio hosts used to pit out to describe that hated GOP establishment, so naturally Bannon had several leaked episodes of feuding with them.
Not to mention Jared and Ivanka, who by this point have at least enough combined political clout to deserve a collective tabloid nickname like “Javanka” or something, and have reportedly persuaded Trump to embrace such hairy-legged feminist nonsense as paid maternity leave and apologizing for talking about grabbing women by the wherever and to launch 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Libyan air base that launched a horrific attack against a nearby village wound up killing scores of men and women and children and some “beautiful babies.” There’s talk they also have something to do with Trump pulling back on his out-dated promises to declare China a currency manipulator and starting slapping 45 percent tariffs on their imports, and serving its dictator steak and au-gratin at his still wholly-owned Mar-a-Lago instead of the Big Mac and fries he promised on the campaign trail, and of course all the true-blue “nationalist populists” are by now feeling betrayed, and the right-wing talk radio hosts are still trying to make sense of it, but Bannon should worry about the overall poll number and those recent Trump remarks to the press.
Should Brannon wound up another one of the very best people that Trump has been forced to defenestrate that would be fine with such old-fashioned Republicans as ourselves. That “alt-right” of his strikes us as the same sort of racist trash that conservatives have long been distancing themselves from, that Mexican border and all it implies seems an overreaction to the admittedly serious but declining-even-before-Trump problem of illegal immigration, that talk of China’s currency manipulation was outdated and the part about 24 percent tariffs was always crazy, the “America First” slogan makes no more sense than it did when used to oppose resistance to the Axis, and except for the undeniable yet recently denied crucial role he played in keeping crooked Hillary from becoming president we don’t see how Bannon has ever done the country much good.
Still, there’s no telling how this story might turn out without Bannon. By the time of the feud with Javanka he had reportedly made peace with Priebus and the rest of the GOP establishment, who were allied against the influence of a couple with no political paper trail except for a long history of generously donating to Democratic candidates and espousing such liberal causes as mandated paid maternity leave for all employees. One of Trump’s sons told the British press that his sister had persuaded his father to launch those 59 Tomahawk missiles against that Syrian air base, which pleased the less constitutionally-minded sorts of “neocons,” and that yet might prove wise, but for all the bleeding-heart reasons that Trump himself outlined and were pretty much the same reasons that President Barack Obama cited when seeking congressional approval for such a strike after a similar chemical attack that killed similarly beautiful babies, which the Republicans in congress and of course Bannon and even the then-unregistered reality star Trump himself found wanting at that time.
We’re pleased by the recent reasonableness of Trump’s China policy, skeptical but open-minded about the Syrian strike, delighted by Trump’s complete retreat from that campaign-season nonsense about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization being “obsolete, and still following all the twists and turns in that ongoing Russkie subplot, but we’re mostly worried that there’s no underlying logic to any of it. Past pronouncements are of course of no use,  except that “unpredictable” remains a goal, and what happens seems to depend largely on what the president saw just on television. The Republican establishment hasn’t done much for Trump lately, that “alt-right” has clearly become burdensome, and we have even less faith in the Javanka faction, and of course theres no telling what those damned outright Democrats might do.. The ratings seem to be driving this plot so far, and that never leads to a satisfactory conclusion.

— Bud Norman

A Relatively Close Call on the Plains

That wasn’t a windstorm that blew through Kansas on Tuesday night to blow away all the smoke from that controlled prairie burn, but rather a collective sigh of relief by the state’s Republican Party. The Fourth Congressional District remains in the loving hands of the GOP, despite a confluence of circumstances that made it harder than usual.
State Treasurer Ron Estes wound up beating attorney and political neophyte James Thompson in the special election to replace Mike Pompeo, who left his seat to become director of the Central Intelligence Agency, albeit by less than seven percentage points. That might seem a comfortable margin in some districts, but it’s a 25-point drop from Pompeo’s victory last November, and it took a big chunk of last minute media money from the national party and a visit by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and robocalls from the President and Vice-President to salvage that. It’s close enough by Kansas standards to give Democrats some hope in more traditionally competitive districts, and inspire a similar nervousness among the Republicans.
Neither party should read to much into it, though, as there were the predictable all-politics-is-local factors that likely won’t be replicated elsewhere. Kansas’ Republican Gov. Sam Brownback is currently the least popular governor in the country, being hated with a red-hot passion by all the Democrats and having spent the past six waging a civil war on the more pragmatic sorts of budget-balancing Republicans who are still quite numerous around here, and for some reason party poo-bahs in the district chose a candidate from his cabinet. Special elections are typically low-turnout affairs every, so when it happens where a highly energized Democratic base and Republican base that isn’t at all enthused by its candidate and no longer frightened by the prospect of President Hillary Clinton or Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is bound to tighten a race.
Estes lacked Pompeo’s stellar credentials and polished appeal and ran an awful campaign, forgoing the usual retail campaigning and skipping debates and constantly running a much-ridiculed ad where he’s wearing waders and standing in a swamp full of alligators and snakes and a harmless-looking turtle. The opponent ran an unusually shrewd campaign, using plenty of shoe-leather at all the obligatory greasy spoon meet-and-greets and showing up at every debate, and his ads took care to mention his military record and show him firing off rounds the very same “assault rifle” that the last Democratic congressman we had here a few decades had foolhardily voted to ban, and for a Democrat a projected a very regular Kansas guy image, and although his party establishment proved stingy he still fired up the base enough to get sufficient small donations to blanket the local airwaves and internet connections with it. Republicans can hope that future candidates won’t repeat the same mistakes elsewhere, and be confident that few Democrats will allow themselves to be seen firing semi-automatic weapons.
Certain sorts of Republicans will tell themselves that President Donald Trump’s last minute intervention turned the tide from what was rumored to be a late polling deficit before that last minute money-infusion, and all sorts of Democrats will be hoping that Trump was largely responsible for that 25 point drop from a mere four years ago, but they’re both only partly right, and the way it played out here doesn’t predict anything about any other race around the country. Trump carried the district by 27 points, but that’s five less than Pompeo’s winning margin and no better than what any old Republican presidential nominee could expect, and he finished a distant third to Cruz in the caucus voting, so absent that terrifying prospect of a President Hillary Clinton there’s not much enthusiasm for him around here. He does have his fans, though, many of them the types who wouldn’t ordinarily be voting in a low-turnout special election if not for a presidential robocall, and the more pragmatic Republicans types who always vote even in April aren’t going to let Trump’s endorsement change their vote one way or the other. We don’t think that Democrats can expect a 25 point drop in any other district due to Trump, as it probably didn’t happen here, but we will allow that there was a certain Trump-related enthusiasm gap here that Trump and the lack of a Hillary Clinton-esque villain had something to do with it.
Any Democrats searching for nuggets of hope from the race should dig deep into the district’s peculiar demographics, and take note that Thompson did wind up winning Sedgwick County, which includes the 50th most populous American metropolitan area of Wichita and most of the district’s voters. He didn’t win it by nearly enough to offset the ass-kicking he predictably suffered in the sparsely populated agricultural counties to the east and west and south, but even a slight edge here should offer encouragement to discouraged Democrats. In a regular election year Wichita’s a reliably Republican city, certainly more so than your usual top-50 American metro area, but pretty much every single ethnic minority and homosexual and college professor and beatnik poet and dues-paying union member and every other statistically-inclined-to-vote-Democrat sort of individual in the district lives here, and as the pundits say it “looks like America” more than the rest of the district, for better and worse. The city’s ethnic make-up and levels of educational achievement and annual income and television viewing habits and consumers preferences are so close to all the national averages that it’s a popular test market, which oddly puts our unfashionable hometown on the cutting edge of commerce, so even in a special election even a slight Democratic win here is something both parties should ponder.
The Democrats should consider finding candidates who shoot guns and act like regular guys and take care not to give offense to the God-fearing white folks when they’re out shaking hands at greasy spoons, even as they fire up all the ethnic minorities and homosexuals and college professors in the base, but they’ll probably go full Bernie Sanders. The local Republicans should remember that just four months ago they easily won Wichita and a whole lot of those ethnic minorities and homosexuals and college professors and dues-paying union members with such as a well-credentialed and polished and uninvolved in the Republican civil war candidate as Pompeo, but they’ll probably conclude that even in a special election beset by the worst complications they can still win by a nearly seven point margin no matter who they put up, and of course Trump will conclude that he saved the day.
We got some free eats at both the Estes party at the Marriott Hotel way over the east side as well as the Thompson party at an old joint just up from The Lord’s Diner on North Broadway, and it was interesting to note how both parties were pretty much exactly as you might stereotype them, and how both were rather ambivalent about the results, but we can’t say we learned anything. Come to think of it, we do’t suggest either party try to draw any conclusions except that nobody seems very happy here in the demographically representative heart of America, and they both need to do better.

— Bud Norman

Something Special in South-Central Kansas

President Donald Trump called our newfangled cellular telephone on Monday afternoon while Texas’ Sen. Ted Cruz was speaking to us on a personal visit, which was also attended by reporters from The Washington Post and The New York Times and a strikingly sultry young hipster woman representing Buzzfeed.com, and that came the day after Vice President Mike Pence called us, so at the moment we’re feeling rather special here in the Fourth Congressional District of Kansas. It’s all because of today’s special election to select a replacement for the locally well-regarded Rep. Mike Pompeo, who resigned his seat to become the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and the surprisingly plausible possibility that an upset of national interest might be brewing.
Ordinarily the congressional elections here in our part of the very heart of flyover country are dull affairs, with the only suspense for the last couple of decades being whether the Republican would win by a two-to-one rout or some embarrassing low-double-digits margin, but this time around there’s an extraordinary collision of circumstances. The Republican National Committee is worried enough that it threw $92,000 into a last minute ad blitz, which will buy a big chunk of air time in this cut-rate media market, and they pestered both Trump and Pence to record the robocalls that have been reaching all the Republican phones around here, and convinced Cruz to fly into town for a rally at a local corporate aviation airport hangar. The Kansas Democratic Committee reportedly declined to spend a requested $20,000 for counter-advertising, probably because they don’t have it on hand, but the editors at The Washington Post and New York Times and Buzzfeed.com apparently sense enough Republican nervousness that they invested their meager travel budgets in a plane ticket and hotel and restaurant bill and other expenses in far-off Wichita. Knowing this corner of the prairie better than any of those Republican politicos or Democratic media bigwigs, there are a few reasons we think it at least slightly possible they might be on to something.
Just a few months ago Pompeo won yet another re-election with something close to that two-to-one score, but this time around the Republican candidate is Ron Estes, and Estes is no Pompeo. The current director of the CIA first won the Fourth Congressional seat back in ’10, when he replaced the reliably conservative but utterly forgettable Reublican Todd Tiahrt, who had resigned the seat to make an ill-fated run primary run for the Senate, and wiped the floor with a Harvard-educated Hindu that the Democrats had chosen just after President Barack Obama’s ’08 win convinced them that foreign names and Ivy League credentials were a winning combination even in Kansas. Pompeo had been first in his class at West Point and the commander of a tank unit on the Iron Curtain, an editor of the Harvard Law Review, the founder of a successful high-tech aviation business, could eloquently articulate the principles of conservatism to the formidable number of establishment Republicans around here and still connect with the more rough-hewn but also formidable Republican types, and he was too darned reasonable to scare even the most skittish liberal. Democrats were losing their entire House majority in all sorts of districts because of Obama at that point, and Pompeo thus easily won election over that smartypants Democrat. After that the Democrats ran a series of sacrificial lambs who revved up the base but didn’t have any potential political careers worth wasting, and suffice to say there weren’t any reporters from The Washington Post or New York Times at the three subsequent nearly two-to-one victory parties. Pompeo was a rising star in the Republican ranks before his elevation to the CIA post once held by President George H.W. Bush, and we dare say you haven’t heard the last of him.
Estes, on the other hand, is a recent State Treasurer of Kansas, which is not an enviable job in these years of annual budget shortfalls, and that’s pretty much all you’d know about him from his well-funded but utterly inept campaign, except that he’s a reliably conservative and otherwise entirely forgettable Republican. He’s declined to articulate his conservatism at any of the public debates that various groups tried to schedule, so Estes is mainly defined by the godawful ads that constantly run on the local talk radio and evening news broadcasts. One features him interacting in soft focus with stereotypical workaday Kansans while a pastel Kansas sunset sinks in the background, with his belly as prominently displayed as any of them, another shows him standing waist-deep in a sickly green swamp full of alligators and promising to drain it, and most of them are attack ads showing his Democratic opponent photo-shopped next to a very scary image of Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
The ridiculous and much-ridiculed image of Estes standing waste-deep in that sickly green water is presumably meant to link him to his robocalling friend Trump and his famous campaign promise to “drain the swamp,” but Trump finished in a distant third in the Kansas caucus and was roundly booed when he appeared here during the event, and he only won the state’s electoral votes because he was running against Hillary Clinton, and almost no one around here believes that Trumpism is the solution to official corruption. Cruz was the big winner of the Kansas caucus, but he only drew 250 or so to the airport rally on Monday, and his speech focused on Supreme Court nominees that the House doesn’t get to vote on and the much-hated Obamacare bill that Trump failed to repeal in his first attempt largely because of conservative hard-liners such as himself, and he threw in some jokes so old the audience was chanting along with the punchlines, and he got a bigger response by noting Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer than he did during the single mention of Donald Trump, although Trump’s Supreme Court pick Neil Gorsuch got a deservedly nice hand. The behind-schedule rally also included speeches by a black Republican and two clean-cut College Republicans and the heads of the Kansas For Life and the Kansas Rifle Association, as well as a forgettable few minutes by Estes himself, but it had the same desultory feel of the rest of the campaign. Those endlessly televised photos of Minority Leader Pelosi are still pretty terrifying, but unlikely to scare Republicans off the couch and off to the polling place the way she did when was she was swinging the gavel as Speaker of the House during a Democratic administration, and there so little connection between Pelosi and the Democratic opponent that it had to be photoshopped. The Democratic opponent has a pretty Kansas-sized belly and photogenic Kansas sunsets in the background, too, and he’s brought in enough small donations from an energized Democratic party to make them pop up on pretty much every internet site a Kansan might visit.
The Democratic opponent is attorney James Thompson, and although he’s a political neophyte he’s not one of those sacrificial lambs that the party has usually offered up. His carefully-crafted ads tell a heartrending story of his impoverished and briefly homeless youth, how he found his way in the world by volunteering for wartime military service, parlayed that into an education and a law degree and a legal career that hasn’t yet yielded any scandals, and feature footage of his burly and hirsute Kansas self shooting a semi-automatic rifle on a rural range and not saying anything at all about the likes of Nancy Pelosi. With help from a a lot of small donors he’s been been able to widely air those ads even on the conservative talk radio shows, and you can’t go anywhere on the internet in this district without them popping up at some site or another. We even got a text message on our newfangled cellular phone that was intended for someone named “Latisha” to remind her to vote for Thompson at polling place over on the northeast side, and we’re old and white male and Republican and familiar with Wichita enough to jump to the conclusion that “Latisha” is a young and black and Democratic woman, which suggests Thompson’s got some sophisticated if hardly fool-proof get-out-the-vote techniques going for him. He’s also done the door-to-door and greasy spoon meet-and-greets and and shown up at all the debates to argue with the Libertarian candidate who’s bound to siphon a few votes away from the Republicans, staked out positions that won’t diminish the enthusiasm of the revved-up minority of local Democrats but don’t unnecessarily provoke any Republicans, and so spooked the state and national Republicans that they’re spending relatively big bucks and getting Trump and Pence and Kansas Caucus winner Cruz involved.
There’s also the fact that Estes is so inextricably linked with Kansas Republican Gov. Sam Brownback that it doesn’t require photoshopping, and Brownback is currently the 50th most popular governor in America according to all the polls, having enraged all the Democrats with his tax-and-budget-slushing agenda, as well as the half of the Republican party he waged civil war on to make it happen, and that even such stingy Republicans as ourselves are miffed he’s managed to discredit our tax-and-budget-cutting principles. You can also throw in the fact that this is one of those April elections where turnout is bound to be low, and at this point the Democratic minority of Kansas is hell-bent for some sort of victory and and clearly winning the yard-sign war even outside our anomalously liberal neighborhood, the Republican majority is either complacent or dispirited or blissfully unaware that we’re holding an election in April of all months, and we can see why the likes of The Washington Post and New York Times and Buzzfeed.com are taking a bet on this election. Should the Republican prevail in this reliably Republican district it will be another dog-bites-man story relegated to a couple of inches on page B-3, with the plane tickets and hotel and restaurant expenses of a trip to Wichita written off, but if the upset does occur it can be spun into a rebuke of Republicans in general and Trump in particular right in the deep-red heart of the flyover country that’s worth space on the front page, so they might as well roll the dice.
The guys who write The Washington Post’s all-knowing “Plum Line” column and don’t have to fly to places like Wichita say that “it would take an earthquake” for the Democrat to prevail here, and we’re inclined to agree with that assessment, and after a lifetime of Fourth Congressional District politics we would advise that’s still  the way to bet, but they might not know that for the past few year we’ve been having earthquakes around here.

— Bud Norman