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Playing Tough in a Tough Game

The late and great comedian Rodney Dangerfield had a joke we liked about how tough his high school was. “I’m telling you, it was really tough,” he’d say, tugging nervously at his collar before adding, “after the football team sacked the quarterback, they would go after his family.”
That jibe somehow came to mind as we were reading about the newly installed Democratic majority in the House of Representatives’ wide and widening investigations into the businesses and campaign and transition team and inaugural committee and administration of President Donald Trump. Letters of inquiry and warnings of subpoenas have been sent not only to Trump’s longtime personal secretary and senior vice president of the Trump Organization and the longtime Trump Organization chief financial operator and keeper of secrets, as well as White House associates Hope Hicks, Sean Spicer, and Steve Bannon, but also Trump’s namesake son Donald Trump Jr. and other son Eric Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner.
We’re telling you, politics is really tough — tug nervously on your collar for full effect — and that newly installed Democratic majority in the House of Representatives seems ready and eager to play it tough.
Which is not to say that they’re wrong to do so, and we guess that as Trump tugs nervously at his collar he gives them some begrudging respect for it. Trump has always prided himself on his toughness, and as recently as last Saturday was describing his critics as “very sick people” who “hate America” and are “like a crazy person.” He’s alleged all sorts of criminal and downright treasonous crimes against previous presidents and other political opponents, Republican and Democratic alike, and he’s not been shy about going against their families. Back when the Republican nomination was down to him or Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Trump “re-tweeted” an internet “meme” with an unflattering shot of Cruz’ wife juxtaposed against a gauzy glamour photo of Trump’s third trophy wife, and threatened to “spill the beans” on the relatively homely housewife. When one of Trump’s longtime lawyers started spilling the beans on Trump’s hush money payments to porno performers and other business practices, Trump “tweeted” to the Justice Department and the rest of the country that it was more important to find out about the lawyer’s father-in-law’s dirty dealings. We almost forgot, but he also directed everyone’s attention to a National Enquirer scoop that Cruz’ father might have been in on the assassination of President John Kennedy, but by now even such a rock-ribbed Republican as Cruz seems have for forgiven and forgotten and bended to Trump’s will.
Politics is indeed a tough game, with some very tough players on both sides, but for now the rules of the game seem to favor that ruthlessly tough Democratic majority in the House, as well as some well-established matters of fact. Longtime Trump lawyer Michael Cohen is soon headed to a three-year stay in federal prison for various crimes, so he had nothing to lose when he stopped by a congressional hearing to testify that he committed his various crimes on behalf of and at the request of Trump, and he had various documents to back him up, and he credibly named the Trump Organization’s longtime secretary and vice president and its chief financial operator as corroborating witnesses, so letters of inquiry and threats of subpoena seem reasonable. We’re not at all Democrats, even if at this point we’re not blindly Republican, and we’d also like to hear what those potential White House witnesses have to say under oath and penalty of law.
At this peculiar point in history, we don’t even mind that those damned Democrats are going after the family. Donald Trump Jr. has already coughed up an e-mail chain admitting that some Russians he knew to be tied into the Russian dictatorship had told him they had some dirt on Trump Sr.’s opponent as part of “Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” to which he replied “I love it!” The younger Trump took that meeting, it’s now acknowledged, and after a number of now-acknowledged lies have been told about he seems fair game for another round of congressional testimony. Eric Trump is one of the executives in charge of President Trump’s still wholly-owned businesses and a trustee of the recently ended family charity, and given that the Justice Department’s southern district and the special counsel investigation and the many media inquiries into various matters about that he also seems a fair target.
As for that son-in-law, he frankly reminds us every son-in-law joke we ever heard. As it turns out the very best person that Trump could find to bring about peace in the Middle East and end America’s opioid crisis and reinvent the federal government was his son-in-law, who according to a credible and mostly undenied New York Times report got a top level security clearance from his father-in-law despite the objections of the intelligence and national security agents who had investigated him. What with politics being such a tough game we’ll add that Kushner’s dad is a felon who was on c0nvicted on tax evasion and witness intimidation charges by Trump’s short-lived transition chief and former federal prosecutor and New Jersey governor and vanquished campaign rival Chris Christie, and that the story is even tawdrier than that. If those damned Democrats haul him before Congress to testify why those intelligence and national security investigators didn’t want to give him a top secret security clearance, we won’t mind a bit, and will be eager to hear his live-on-television and under-oath and penalty of law answers.
Politics is indeed a tough game, but with no particular dog in the fight at the moment we’ll sit back and see how it plays out. We still retain a rooting interest in America and the truth, though, and will anxiously await the outcome.

— Bud Norman

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Oh, How Trump Does Go On

President Donald Trump spoke for more than two hours on Saturday at the Conservative Political Action Conference, and toward the end he bragged that nobody left early. We’ll take Trump’s word about that, but figure it’s more a testament to the loyalty of his fans than the quality of the performance.
The speech was mostly a longer than usual reprisal of all his campaign rally speeches. Like a rock star with no new album to promote, he gave the fans all the hits they came to hear. As always the show started with Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American” and ended with the odd choice of the The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What Your Wants, and in between here was much bragging, severe denunciations of his critics, some dubious economic history and few outright falsehoods, a couple of barnyard epithets that thrilled the crowd, and the familiar of chants of “build that wall!” and “lock her up!” and “USA! USA!”
Trump bragged about the size of his electoral college victory without mentioning his popular vote loss, took full credit for a slight Republican gain in the Senate during the mid-term election without accepting any blame for a lopsided loss of seats in the House of Representatives, and boasted of his standing-room-only crowds wherever he goes. Of course he also claimed full credit for the currently healthy state of the American economy, falsely claiming that the stock markets were falling and unemployment was rising when he was elected, and further bragged about not having gray hair and all the rich friends who call him “Mr. President.” He further bragged that California Gov. Gavin Newsom has told Trump that he’s a great president and “one of the smartest people he’s ever met,” although he complained that Newsom won’t admit it. Oh, and he also bragged that his rambling and disjointed speech was unscripted, telling the crowd that “If we don’t go off script, we’re in big trouble.”
Much of the speech, as usual, was spent hurling insults demeaning nicknames at his perceived enemies. Trump excoriated the past several decades of American leadership, both Republican and Democratic, accusing them of “blunders and betrayals, serious betrayals.” The crowd was assured that the reporters who write unflattering stories about Trump are “sick people, very sick people.” The Democrats in Congress who are launching oversight investigations of Trump are also “sick people,” and Trump added that “We have people in Congress who hate our country. We can name them if they want, they hate our country.” He didn’t name any of them, although he earlier had said that Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii — or Ohio, as Trump didn’t seem sure — was “like a crazy person,” and counted “Shifty Little (Rep. Adam) Schiff” was one of the “sick people.” At least Trump didn’t call Schiff “Adam Schitt,” as he’d done in a “tweet” that the fans thought hilarious, but he did tell crowd that the Democrats are “trying to take me down with bullshit,” which got the biggest laugh of the night from the crowd of self-described conservatives.
It wasn’t just Democrats and other sick America-haters who came under fire. Trump mocked the southern accent of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, which got a rare mixed reaction from the crowd, and while he didn’t mention the name he also railed against Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell as “a gentleman who loves raising interest rates, loves quantitative tightening, loves a strong dollar.” Of course Trump didn’t mention that he’d appointed both Sessions and Powell to their posts, and of course the crowd didn’t notice. He also boasted that the Republicans who occasional object to Trump’s policies and behaviors are politically endangered, and said the “Never Trump” portion of the Republican is “on mouth-to-mouth resuscitation,” which he liked so much he repeated it twice.
From time to time the speech would address matters of public policy, and although the crowd got a bit bored it didn’t seem to mind that much of what Trump was saying either poorly reasoned or simply untrue.
In defense of his protectionist trade policies, Trump recalled “The Great Tariff Debate of 1880,” which he said was mostly about how to spend all money that America was making from tariffs. We assume he meant the tariff debate of 1888, which then as now was mostly about whether tariffs help or hurt an economy, with industries in need of protection from foreign competition taking one side and export industries in need of free trade on the opposing sides. Since then the American economy has evolved to a point that domestic industries are more competitive and the export sector has significantly grown, the Sixteenth Amendment that created the income tax means the federal government no longer depends on tariffs, and the debate of 1888 isn’t quite so instructive to the adoring crowds as Trump seems to think.
Trump also took aim at the unabashed socialism of several Democratic stars and their proposed “Green New Deal,” and while we also decry that leftward drift we’d prefer the more honest criticisms that might persuade the vast majority of the public that isn’t cheering at the CPAC rally. He ridiculed the Democrats support for wind power, suggesting Americans wouldn’t be able to watch television on a calm day, and although we have our doubts about wind power subsidies we do know that the electricity they generate is stored in batteries for such contingencies. He also overstated the support that the “Green New Deal” and “Medicare for All” currently has in the Democratic party — he once again insisted on calling it the “Democrat party,” by the way — and had no kind words for the centrists resisting such policies, as they presumably also hate America.
There are a few hidebound Republicans left in Congress who object to Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to re-appropriate funds for that big, beautiful wall Trump has promised on the southern border, as they argue it septs a precedent for a future Democratic president to make a similar power grab for liberal purposes. Trump rebutted that by saying that the Democrats would do that anyway, so the only thing to do about it is keep Trump in the White House forever, which seemed to make sense to the crowd. The national emergency of illegal immigration took up much of the two hours, with Trump seeming to think that other countries are choosing which of their citizens will try to immigrate to America, and although he has some good ideas about immigration policy reforms we think he’ll need a more fact-based and less brazenly xenophobic sales to persuade that vast majority of Americans who aren’t at the CPAC rally.
Trump also tried to claim his recent summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un was a huge success despite no deals being made, and assured his fans that Kim, unlike those America-hating sickos in Congress and the press, is really a terrific guy at heart. He didn’t repeat his recent statement that he accepted Kim’s assurance that he had nothing to do with the death by torture in a North Korean dungeon of American Otto Warmbier and was greatly saddened to hear about, but he did have kind words for Warmbier’s parents despite their outspoken criticism of the statement.
There’s more, of course, including Trump’s entirely untrue claim that he coined the nickname “Mad Dog” for his defenestrated Defense Secretary James Mattis, and that all of the world’s leaders have told him how they respect that he’s finally standing up for America after the past decades when they were able to take advantage of America’s “ruling class,” even if though won’t so say in public. We could probably go on all night, but our fans aren’t so indulgent as Trumps.

— Bud Norman

Sometimes No Deal is the Best Deal

President Donald Trump came home from his big summit in Vietnam with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un without a great deal to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, much less a Nobel Peace Prize, but it could have been much worse.
In the days leading up to the summit Trump had touted his close personal relationship with Kim, saying he “fell in love” with the “honorable man” who is notorious for his brutal repression of the North Korean people and is clearly intent on building a nuclear stockpile to protect his family’s dictatorship, and there were worries that he’d wind up singing on any old deal that Kim proposed. Kim wanted either a complete or partial lifting of economic sanctions in exchange for a cross-his-heart-and-hope-to-die promise to end his nuclear weapons program, and to Trump’s credit he walked away from the negotiating table. Trump could probably have spun that deal as a great win to his die-hard defenders, even if more objective observers would have realized its worthlessness, but his more seasoned remaining foreign policy advisors apparently talked him out of it, and we’re glad they did. The die-hard Trump defenders were able to compare him to President Ronald Reagan and his famous walk-away from a summit with the Soviet Union in Iceland, and although we don’t think either president or the situations were very similar Trump does deserve our begrudging respect for leaving the summit empty-handed, and we hold it hope it ends as well as it did Reagan and western civilization.
Trump’s sales pitch that he could negotiate America out of any crisis with his irresistible charm and “Art of the Deal” negotiation skills never much impressed us, although it did take in a lot of suckers over his long career as a real estate and casino and pro football and airline and scam university operator, and we never expected it to end the decades old stalemate on the Korean peninsula. The past three generations of the Kim Jong dictatorships have left North Korea an impoverished a miserable nation, but the’ve been pretty good to the Jim Jong dynasty, and they’ve await been backed up the Chinese nuclear arsenal and lately have nukes of their own, as well as plenty of of conventional artillery within range of the populous South Korean and and Japanese capitals, and that leaves them with a pretty strong negotiating position with even the most charming and skillful negotiator.
Trump and his apologists can rightly claim at that least North Korea isn’t lobbing any more missile tests over south Korea or Japan or toward Guam and other American lands, and that high-level negotiations are underway, and that all the rhetoric about “fire and fury like no one’s ever seen” and who’s nuclear button is bigger has been tamped down, and although tat’s clearly a good thing we’re not much impressed. So far as we can tell the North Koreans have temporarily suspended their missile tests because they’re satisfied with the results so far, the high-level talks have been no more successful than the traditional low-level talks would have been over the past decades, and the various Kim Jong dictators were always eager for high-level negotiations even before Trump started “tweeting” all his trash talk. None of Trump’s predecessors dating back to President Harry Truman were able to solve the tricky situation on the Korean peninsula, and all of them saw North Korea’s military steady position improve, but they can all make the boast as much as Trump that at least South Korea was thriving and mushroom clouds appeared on their watch.
We’ve been living with that uneasy situation all our lives, though, and by now we’re so inured to it we assume it will outlast even Trump’s presidency. If it comes down to a nuclear exchange America and it allies have always been the presumptive “winner,” and despite Trump’s trade wars and other tough negotiating tactics with America’s allies we expect that scary balance of power will prove more persuasive to the North Korean dictatorship than Trump’s personal charm and artful negotiating skills.

So far there are no mushroom clouds, which means the news will continue to focus on Trump’s longtime lawyer’s testimony to Congress and other embarrassing domestic matters, and although we hold out the best for the future for now we’ll happily settle for that.

— Bud Norman

Kim, Cohen, Trump, and the Other Questionable Characters Currently on the World Stage

The three most prominent names in the news Wednesday were North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, American President Donald Trump, and Trump’s longtime lawyer and “fixer” Michael Cohen.
Cohen took time before starting a three year federal prison to testify to a congressional committee that Trump is “a racist, he is a con man, and he is a cheat,” along with more specific claims about Trump’s hush money payments to a pornographic video performer and various other unseemly businesses and potentially illegal business practices, including some suspicious thing that have occurred during Trump’s presidency. Trump took time out from a high-stakes summit with Kim in Vietnam to “tweet” that Cohen is a lying liar who is represented by “Crooked” Hillary Clinton’s lawyer, while his allies back in Washington cast similar aspersions on Cohen’s character. Kim is a brutal dictator who has murdered close family members and imprisoned hundreds of thousands of his people and subjected most of the rest to severe poverty and starvation, but Trump has declared him an “honorable man” and gushed that “We fell in love,” so Kim somehow got the best press of the day.
The public opinion polls show that a majority of Americans had already concluded that Trump is a racist and a con man and a cheat, and there was already ample evidence for the conclusion. Trump found “very fine people” on both sides of a deadly neo-Nazi hate rally, has paid millions of dollars in settlements to victims of Trump University and various other scams, and boasted to tabloids and radio shock jocks about his extra-marital affairs, and once told a presidential debate audience that even if he doesn’t pay any income taxes “that makes me smart.” By now there’s really no reason for denying any of it, as the die-hard fans don’t seem to mind a bit, but Trump can credibly point to the human failings of his many critics, and he always enjoys doing so.
This Cohen fellow that Trump long hired to do his legal work certainly seems as flawed a human being as the next guy in the news. He’s pleaded guilty to tax evasion and campaign finance violations and filing false financial statements, as well as lying to Congress about it all, not to mention that he was long hired by Trump for legal services. The Republicans at the committee hearings made much of that, with one having a large sign saying “Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire” behind his seat, and another parking a black woman who works for Trump behind his seat to rebut the charges of racism, and while the die-hard fans probably loved it we don’t expect that anyone else was convinced. The lawyer that Trump long hired to handle his hush money payments to porno performers and possible campaign finance violations and alleged false financial statements does seem to have been rather sleazy in going about it, but that doesn’t logically refute his charges that longtime client Trump is a racist and a con man and a cheat.
As unsavory as both Cohen and Trump seem to us, we still think that Kim, the “honorable man” that Trump “fell in love with,” is probably the worst of the three men who dominated Wednesday’s news. The heads of all of America’s intelligence agencies have testified to Congress on live television and provided a written report that Kim continues to pursue a nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile program, but Trump then denied that they said any such thing, and in any case is always more inclined to believe the assurances of Kim. Trump clearly doesn’t mind a bit about the imprisonment and poverty and starvation and suffering that Kim inflicts on his people, as he doesn’t consider it any skin of his or America’s ass, and when asked once about Kim’s murder of relatives with anti-aircraft guns and other tactics Trump expressed admiration that “If you can do that at 27-years-old, I mean, that’s one in 10,000 who can do that. So he’s a very smart guy. He’s a great negotiator. But I think we understand each other.”
Trump has called Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “weak and dishonest,” accused German Chancellor Angela Merkel of being a deadbeat debtor, engaged in “twitter feuds” with the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and hung up on the Prime Minister of Australia, and imposed punitive tariffs on pretty much every other democratic ally, and is generally more inclined to take the word of more authoritarian and dictatorial advertises over his putative allies and duly appointed intelligence chiefs. He’s praised Filipino dictator Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese dictator Xi Jiping for their extrajudicial executions of suspected drug dealers, refused to believe the intelligence agency’s conclusions about Saudi Arabian dictator Mohammed Bin Salman’s dismemberment of a American resident and Washington Post journalist, assured his rally crowds that Russia dictator Vladimir Putin is “terrific,” and has had only good things to say about the rise of authoritarian populism in Poland and Hungary and Italy and Brazil and other formerly liberal-in-the-best-sense-of-the-term allies.
Trump’s apparent antipathy for ethical and legal norms and affinity for ruthless types such as himself haven’t always worked out for him, as his longtime lawyer’s convincingly damning testimony to Congress on Wednesday demonstrates, but we worry it might work out even worse for the rest of the world. There’s always a chance that Trump will persuade Kim to give up his nuclear ambitions in exchange for a business deal to build Trump-branded resorts and golf courses on its beautiful beaches conveniently located between the prosperous economies of communist China and capitalist South Korea and and Japan, which indeed would be a good deal for North Korea and the world, but the intelligence agencies aren’t betting on it, and neither are we.
We’ll hold out hope that Trump comes up with something in Vietnam to knock his domestic problems out of the headlines, but it will have to be pretty darned good. Our Republican conservatism goes back even farther than the great President Ronald Reagan, whose ultimately successful negotiations with the even scarier Soviet Russkies were informed by a philosophy of “trust, but verify,” and we’ll hold out hope that any agreement that Trump and Kim reach will meet that same standard. Reagan negotiated a peaceful end to the Cold War with the support of the international military and economic alliances that America had long carefully cultivated, which still seems best, but we’ll keep our fingers crossed that Trump’s more counterintuitive approach is just as successful.
Back on the domestic front, though, Trump’s affinity for similarly sleazy characters doesn’t seem to be working out.

— Bud Norman

The Character Questions

Michael Cohen, one of President Donald Trump’s many longtime personal lawyers, will be on television today testifying to a congressional committee, which will likely be one of the highest-rated epodes yet in our ongoing political reality show. He’s expected to dish some damning dirt about Trump’s businesses, campaign, and sex life, and how they’ve all run occasionally afoul of the law, so Trump and his defenders are preemptively raising questions Cohen’s character.
There are plenty of questions to be asked, of course. Aside from the suspicious fact that he was admittedly one of Trump’s longtime lawyers, Cohen is soon heading to a three year stay in federal prison for lying to congress and various other crimes, and he’s long relished his reputation for ruthlessness. Trump loyalist and Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz also “tweeted” on Tuesday that Cohen has also cheated on his wife.
“Do your wife & father-in-law know about your girlfriends?” Gaetz “tweeted” to Cohen. “Maybe tonight would be a good time for that chat. I wonder if she’ll remain faithful while you’re in prison. She’s about to learn a lot.”
Some of Gaetz’ congressional colleagues thought it was tantamount to witness intimidation, pretty much of all the rest thought it was tacky at the very least, and we can’t imagine anyone thought it a compelling argument. Cohen is undeniably a convicted liar and criminal, and we wouldn’t be much surprised to learn that he has cheated on his wife, but that’s a problematic argument to make in defense of Trump. Our president has been proved to tell an extraordinary number of lies even by presidential standards, Cohen has receipts to prove that the crimes he’s confessed were carried out at Trump’s request, and some of them involve hush money payments made to a pornographic video performer and a nude model who had alleged affairs with Trump, and although Trump denies the allegations he had frequently bragged to tabloid newspapers and shock jock radio hosts about similar extra-marital affairs, and we’re inclined to believe the porno performer and Playboy playmate rather than the President of the United States..
When forced to choose between the claims of two liars and alleged adulterers and generally sleazy characters, we’re inclined to believe the one with nothing to lose and documentary evidence to back him up. Cohen is expected to testify that he was pursuing a deal for a “Trump Tower” in Moscow at a time when Trump was assuring Republican primary voters that he had no business underway with Russia, and by now Trump is going to need some pretty damned convincing documentary to make us disbelieve that. There’s a report in The Washington Post that Cohen will also testify that Trump knew of his longtime and recently indicted friend Roger Stone’s contacts with the Wikileaks organization that was leaking damning hacked e-mails on Trump’s behalf during the presidential election. Cohen is constrained from some testimony about what he knows about the “Russia thing,” as he’s still a witness to an ongoing special counsel investigation in the matter, but we’re inclined to believe whatever it was he told the investigators.
If today’s highly-rated episode in this reality show is even half as soap operatic as the press has promised, Trump and his spokespeople and talk radio apologists will have a lot of explaining to do. They can rightly claim that Cohen is a liar, but they’ll be hard pressed to make that case that Trump isn’t. Cohen is a convicted liar and criminal, but he’s also one of those “very best people” that Trump brags he’s always hired.

— Bud Norman

A Slow News Day Spent Mostly Waiting for the Coming Faster News

There was the usual amount of news afoot on Monday, but most of it was about the Academy Awards and a vote in the House of Representatives about the little noticed National State of Emergency and other matters of fleeting interest. Most of the media seemed bracing for the big summit in Vietnam between American President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, and what might follow that.
The conventional wisdom at the moment is that “Russia thing” special counsel Robert Mueller is politely withholding his report as a by-the-book courtesy to a president abroad conducting foreign affairs, and that when Trump arrives home something more important than North Korea’s ongoing nuclear program will happen. Try as we might to always be contrarians, this time the conventional wisdom seems wise to us.
Except for a whole lot of pomp and circumstance — or pomp and circumcision, as the great malaprop comic Norm Crosby might have more aptly put it — we don’t expect much earth-shaking news to come out of Trump’s summit with Kim. We mean that in the most optimistic and best way, as we don’t much worry about any mushroom clouds arising as a result, but we also don’t expect it will result in the elimination of the nuclear threat that Trump has already bragged about eliminating. Each of Trump’s national security agency chiefs have given sworn and live-on-television testimony to Congress that they believe Kim is not likely to give up his nuclear program, and submitted a 40-page written report stating the same thing, and although Trump has claimed that they were misquoted and misconstrued by the “fake news” we think they’re likely right. We hold out some hope that our former fourth district Kansas congressman and current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is on the job, as he’s always seem grounded-in-reality fellow, but our faith was somewhat shaken when he denied to a cable news interviewer that Trump had ever said anything like what he undeniably “tweeted” about the North Korean nuclear threat already being eliminated, and assured us he was still hopeful.
We’re hopeful there at least won’t be any mushroom clouds, but Trump seems rightly worried that whenever the Mueller report lands it will be a significant bombshell. The Democrats now running the House Oversight Committee have impolitely summoned Trump’s soon-to-imprisoned longtime personal lawyer Michael Cohen to testify while the president is abroad and attending to important foreign policy matters, and that will likely steal some attention. Cohen can’t talk about the “Russia thing” due to the ongoing investigation, but he’s expected to talk about his role in arranging hush money payments to pornographic video performers and nude models so as to get around campaign finance laws, along with other ethically and legally problematic business practices he has witnessed over his many years as counsel to Trump.</div>
It will take quite a breakthrough in Vietnam to keep that out of the news,

— Bud Norman

No Hoorays for Hollywood

Way back in our younger days we used to take the same rooting interest in the Oscar contests as we did in the American League’s eastern division pennant races, but these days we don’t even know who or what the nominees are. There are still great movies being made from to time, we ¬†assume, but it no longer seems worth the effort to sort through all the dreck to find them. One of Wichita’s premier musicians was giving a final jazz concert at Kirby’s Beer Store on Sunday night before heading off to Poland, of all places, so that’s what we did instead of watching the interminable Academy Awards ceremony on television.
Which is sad, as we always have and still truly do love the cinematic arts. We’re the perfect age for a movie buff, having grown up in the ’60s and ’70s when the still elegant movie houses were showing some very memorably innovative films, and all three channels on pre-cable television were broadcasting the best of the ’30s and ’40s Golden Age of Hollywood during the afternoon and late night hours that the networks didn’t fill, and as teenagers we frequented the art houses and university theaters where the arty and international and silent-era stuff was showing, so by now we’re admittedly hard to impress. Even so, and being as generous to the youngsters as we can muster, we have to say the movies these days seem to reflect the same civilizational decline as the rest of American culture.
So far as we can tell from our occasional perusals most of the movies these days are non-stop computer generated fight-scene action adventure flicks featuring mostly comic book super heroes, deliberately rude comedies starring former “Saturday Night Live” performers, and what have come to be called “chicks flicks.” Friends of ours have highly recommended much of it, with some of our geekier friends insisting that the comic superheroes have something serious to say about modern society, other low-brow types talking about how funny some of those supposedly anti-establishment comedies are, and some man-bashing women we know endorsing those “chick flicks.” As much as we like these friends, we think they’re too young and easily-impressed to know what they’re talking about. At this point in our grumpy middle age, we think the same about the Academy of Motion of Picture Arts and Sciences and its gaudy awards show.
One of the “best picture” nominees this year was a comic book superhero flick called “The Black Panther,” and it got such rave reviews from some of our friends and several of the supposedly more serious movie critics that that we gave it a try when it showed up on Netflix. It had some interesting ideas about a spiritual African culture possessed of highly advanced Western scientific knowledge, but it was mostly improbably buff actors and actresses staging prolonged fight scenes with help from computer generated images, and we quit watching about halfway through. We’ve nothing against action-adventure flicks, and can readily name “The Professionals” and “The Great Escape” and the silent-era “Thief of Baghdad”and the Sean Connery era of the James Bonds movies and countless other as masterpieces of the genre, but all those computer generated images can’t quite compensate for the characters and dialogue and plots and often valid points about the human condition that those movies had.
Some of those rude comedies with the “Saturday Night Live” performers do get a few much-appreciated laughs out of us, but we’ve seen “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World,” and enough of the Preston Sturges and Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder and W.C. Fields and Marx Brothers and Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton movies for that to satisfy our comedic tastes. We’ve also read Twain and Swift Perelman Jerome, and know all the most fatalistic jokes, and we’ve come to expect more than occasional laughs.
Back in the ’30s and ’40s Hollywood used to make what was called “women’s pictures,” and when we watched them with our Mom during the afternoon hours of our summer vacation we shared her love of the genre. Some of the of the “women’s pictures” were “screwball comedies,” about dynamic women wooing handsome yet innocent men, and they were the stuff of our earliest romantic fantasies. Other pictures of the genre featured aggressively heroic newspaperwomen and aviatrixes and businesswomen and nurses and nuns, which was also pretty fantastic to our formative selves. Most of the “women’s pictures” were melodramatic dramas about women making selfless sacrifices for themselves and the men and the children they loved, which now renders them politically incorrect, but we still find them more heroic than anything that today’s computer generated images can come up with. We’ll long remember Barbara Stanwyck as the working class single mother watching her daughter marry a nice rich guy from behind the window on a cold and snowy street in “Stella Dallas,” or that ending in “Imitation of Life” where Mahalia Jackson sings the funeral song for the selfless mother whose mixed-race daughter had abounded her selfish reasons, and we defy anyone to watch either flick without teary eyes.
Today’s “chick flicks” — and the term’s undeniably sexist devolution from “women’s picture” should offend our newfangled feminist friends as much as it does old-fashioned selves — seem mostly about women empowering themselves to abandon such inconvenient obligations of the human condition. We’re in no position to judge how any woman should handle the admittedly difficult situations we all find ourselves in our human condition, but we must admit a certain nostalgia for the days when “Casablanca” and other Hollywood movies celebrated both Bogie and Baccall’s selflessness in an even more troubled time in human history.
We stayed up late enough to read that “The Green Book” had won the “best picture” Oscar from the Academy, and as we have’t yet seen it we’ll offer no opinion about that. The entertainment press we still occasionally peruse tell us it’s about a working class white guy driving a talented black musician through the segregation-era south, sort of of the reverse of the the Academy-loved ’80s-era “Driving Miss Daisy,” about a working class black guy driving some rich old white woman around the same area of the human condition at the same time, and as far we can tell both are still controversial in these contentious times of political correctness. We’ll take a look when “The Green Book” eventually shows up on Netflix, but until then we’ll happily have nothing to with Hollywood’s race problems, and regret that Wichita’s most talented black musician is suddenly heading to Poland, and hope for the best for American popular culture.

— Bud Norman

There are Tougher Jobs Than Yours

As much as you might hate your job at the moment, please take some comfort in knowing that it could be worse. You could be Jussie Smollett’s agent, or the head of public relations for the Nike shoe company.
We must admit we’d never heard of Smollett until he recently alleged he was attacked in Chicago by two white men wearing Make America Great Again ball caps and shouting President Donald Trump’s campaign slogans and homophobic slurs, but apparently he’s a black and openly homosexual actor on a reportedly popular show called “Empire.” His story seemed suspicious from the start, even if several news outlets were quite eager for politically correct reasons to believe every word, and over the course of the ensuing investigation the story seems to have fallen apart. On Thursday Smollett was charged with filing a false report, his bond was set at $100,000, and Chicago’s Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson rather angrily laid out what looks to be a pretty damning case against the actor.
Johnson said the Chicago cops are in possession of a $3,500 check written by Smollett to a black “Empire” extra and his brother, who have reportedly confessed to helping stage the attack, and can be seen on the only videotape of anyone in the area of the alleged attack at the time it allegedly occurred, which does require a lot of explaining by Smollett’s lawyers. If we were invested in Smollett’s career, the best we could come up with is that no one with any Hollywood experience would so ineptly stage anything. There are surely plenty of white guys in Chicago that Smollett could have hired to play Trump-loving racist gay-bashers — late night television wag Stephen Colbert suggested finding them at a Blackhawks hockey game — and what kind of cockamamie criminal conspiracy pays by check?
Smollett is still considered innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, but when that probably happens his agent will be getting 15 percent of no income. All the Trump-loving Americans will boycott the career they’d not previously been aware of, and all those less favorable to Trump will be angry that he handed a news cycle to the Trump-lovers. Superintendent Johnson, who also happens to be black, was understandably angry that Smollett has made it harder for his police force to successfully investigate and prosecute the very real hate crimes against minority Chicagoans that are bound to happen sooner or later. By now faked hate crimes are so common that we always wait a while for evidence before weighing in the matter, even though actual hate crimes seem somewhat more common, so we sympathize far more with Johnson than Smollett. Sometimes hate crimes are faked in a sincere if horribly misguided effort to draw attention the problem of actual crimes, but in this case Johnson argues that Smollett was attempting to exploit America’s racist history to get a bigger salary from his popular television show, and we can’t blame Johnson being especially irked about that.
Meanwhile, over in the sports pages, Nike was enduring some dreadful headlines as well. In the early minutes of a very big-time college basket game between the blue-blooded arch-rivals of Duke University’s Blue Devils and the University of North Carolina Tar Heels, star Duke forward Zion Williams’ drive to the basket caused one of his high-priced Nike shoes to completely fall apart and sent him crashing to to the hardwood floor. Williams is expected to recover from the resulting “Grade One” knee sprain in time for the Blue Devils’ inevitable appearance in the national championship tournament, but several National Basketball Association players and other experts are advising him to not risk the big bucks contract that he’s expected to get after being a top pick in the upcoming professional draft, and our guess is that he’ll sign a big bucks endorsement deal with some other shoe company when he does.
Nike is a hugely profitable company, despite that it’s long been considered a pariah by the political types on both sides of the spectrum. Although the company headquarters are based in Oregon and it’s formidable advertising machine is located mostly in New York, Nike makes its shoes in low-wage Asian sweatshops and markets them to poor but status-conscious youths in the inner city, so the left regards Nike as a corporate villain on par with Wal-Mart and Koch Industries and the Monsanto Company. The sorts of conservatives who proudly sport Trump-branded and made-in-Asia apparel also resent the offshoring, and lately they’ve been further enraged that Nike gave a big endorsement deal to former National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who seems to have been blackballed from the league after he started all that mishegas about players kneeling during the national anthem. The kids who overpay for Nikes don’t seem to care about any of that, but they’re more likely to notice that projected college basketball player of the year because one of his nikes completely fell apart on him.
We have to admit that our cutting moves to the basket don’t put the same stress on a pair of basketball that those of the six-foot-eight inch and conspicuously well-muscled 280 pound Williams do, but even when we younger and in somewhat better shape, and could actually hold our own in a Wichita or D.C. pickup game, we never blew out any of our ugly but affordable Chuck Taylor Converse All-Stars. To this day we remain faithful to the made-in-America brand, which remains a traditional favorite of both wholesome farm boy hoopsters and ironic punk rock fashion hipsters, and we’d urge those status-conscious ghetto youths to give them a try.
In any case, we’ll get through whatever today brings with the comforting knowledge that at least we don’t have to make any explanations for either Smollett or Nike to make a living. We’ll also be pleased we’re not one of Trump’s lawyers, but that’s another story for another day.

— Bud Norman

Waiting on the Robert S. Mueller

The last two years of America’s political news have sometimes seemed like an interminable performance of Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play “Waiting for Godot,” with everyone either anxiously or eagerly awaiting the conclusion of special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the “Russia thing.” In the play the title character never arrives, but in real life Mueller’s investigation has always been bound to conclude eventually, and there’s plausible speculation in the news that it might be sooner rather later.
The press has been reporting uninformed opinions that the investigation was soon winding up for at least the 18 months, but this time around around there seems to be something to it. The investigative team has recently been downsized according to public documents, President Donald Trump has lately ramped up his attacks on the investigation, the indictments and convictions and guilty pleas have come uncomfortably close to Trump, and there are more than the usual number of unnamed sources saying that Mueller will issue a report in two week’s time or so. Already everyone on all sides seems to be preparing for what will be reported.
Trump and his apologists are still holding out hope that Mueller has concluded we should perish the thought Trump might have had anything to do with Russia’s meddling on his behalf in the last presidential election, and that it was all the result of the Democrats being sore losers, but just in case they’re continuing their insistence that it’s all a “deep state” “witch hut” and “coup d’tat.” Given all the indictments and convictions that the special counsel has already racked up in American courts of law against Trump’s lawyer and campaign manager and national security advisor, Trump and his apologists are right not to be too hopeful.
Trump’s more numerous critics have reason to hope that long-awaited report will prove damning, but we’d advise them to admit that one never knows. By now we do know that the report will conclude the Russians meddled on Trump’s behalf in the last presidential election, based on the indictments it has already won against 13 Russians, and that Trump’s lawyer and campaign manager and national security lied about their contacts with Russian, based on the convictions and guilty pleas the investigation has won in American courts of law, but as of yet there’s no proof that Trump himself had anything to do with it. Even if he did, Trump and his apologists will be inclined to blame the conspirators who found it him out, and they might just prevail.
In any case, we’re both as anxious and eager as ever to see it finally come to some end or another.

— Bud Norman

The News on a Cold and Snowy Kansas Night

Kansas was cold and snowy on Tuesday, not to mention the ongoing official national state of emergency, so we hunkered down at home and read up on the latest news. None of it, alas, was the least bit warming.
We read all the way to the end of a very lengthy New York Times account of President Donald Trump’s long efforts to thwart the various investigations in his businesses and campaign and transition team and inaugural committee and administration, and found it all too believable. There’s bound to be something in such a long story that will eventually will require a correction, but the general gist of it, that Trump doesn’t like anybody asking questions he’d rather not answer, and is willing to resort to ruthless and arguably constitutional methods to stop it, by now seems undeniably true.
Over at The Washington Post there was a story that speculated Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats will be the next defenestrated administration official, and we hated to hear that. Coats was a longtime Senator from Indiana who served on the Senate’s intelligence committee, a former ambassador to Germany, and is widely considered one of the last of the wise old foreign policy hands who tried to restrain the Trump’s worst gut instincts. He’s joined with the rest of the intelligence community in publicly disagreeing with Trump’s dubious claims about North Korea and Iran and the Islamic State and the threat at America’s southern border, and Trump clearly does not like his advisors disagreeing with him, so the Post’s speculation seemed plausible enough.
None of which was quite so depressing as the damned weather, or a certain sense that there’s nothing to be done about any of it.
What the Trump critics call “obstruction of justice” the Trump apologists call “fighting back,” and even if that Times story had run as long as the history books that will eventually be written it wouldn’t have changed anybody’s mind. Trump fans don’t want answers to those pesky questions anymore than Trump does, and they also share the president’s preference for his set of facts about North Korea and Iran and the Islamic State and the threat at America’s southern border. Trump’s critics and more noisome administration officials seem to have more factual facts on their side, but lately that doesn’t seem to make much difference.
On the other hand the stock markets were slightly up, and local forecasts call for above-freezing highs temperatures in the coming days, and the sports pages had reports from baseball’s spring training. Spring always eventually arrives, and although that usually brings tornados and other severe weather to this part of our great country we’re always happy to see it.
The truth always eventually arrives, too, and we expect that despite the best efforts of Trump and his apologists we will someday read the results of all those various pesky investigations in lengthy news stories and even longer history books. Our guess is it will be the equivalent of a Kansas tornado on the great plains of American history, but that’s what it takes to get the lazy hazy crazy days of summer around here, and there’s nothing we can do about that.

— Bud Norman