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An Ill-Fitted President in an Ill-Fitting Suit

On his first day of a state visit to the United Kingdom President Donald Trump committed his usual number of offenses against longstanding diplomatic protocol, continuing his “twitter” war against the mayor of the host city, offering opinions on British political affairs that are none of America’s business and he doesn’t seem to know much about, and taking the occasion to hurl insults and threats from abroad at perceived enemies back home. The worst of it, as far as we’re concerned, was the outfit he wore to a fancy dinner with the Queen of England.
He was wearing a white tie and tales, which is appropriate dress for state dinners with royalty and those other very rare occasions in life when a black tie and tuxedo is insufficiently highfalutin, but surely such a rich man as Trump claims to be could have found a more adept tailor. The suit made him look far fatter than he and his doctor swear he is, even more so than his golf gear, with the coat cut higher and showing conspicuously more white cummerbund than any of the more elegant-looking other male guests, and along with Trump’s behavior on the trip it put us in mind of Burgess Meredith’s portrayal of the “Penguin” on the old “Batman” television series.
To be fair we must admit that only Fred Astaire ever looked great in such a get-up, and that we are by no means fashion icons ourselves, but we couldn’t resist joining all the jibes that many of the commenters at various internet news sites were making. Our observation might seem one of those ad hominem attacks we routinely accuse Trump of making, but on his first day in London he making fun of the mayor’s diminutive height, and his fans seem to that sort of plain-spoken bluntness and cheap shots.
Also, it seemed yet another dispiriting example of how Trump just isn’t very good at this state visit and international diplomacy stuff.
All the past presidents of our by now very long recollection were obviously striving for a certain dignity and decorum and paying exquisitely careful attention to all the infinitesimal details of international diplomacy while abroad, but Trump seems to pride himself on demolishing even the most time-tested traditions. He shoved the prime minister of Montenegro aside to get to the front of a photo at a summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization members, sided with brutal Russian dictator Vladimir Putin over the consensus of his intelligence agencies at a meeting in Helsinki, lavished unnecessary praise on the even more brutal North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un during negotiations in Singapore, and went out of his way to insult the democratically-elected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a G-7 summit north of the border.
Trump was on his best behavior during the dinner with the Queen and the rest of the royal family. He wisely refrained from reiterating his opinion that the recent biracial American member of the clan is “nasty,” which he now denies saying even there’s audio evidence that he did, and he seemed quite sincere in such over-the-top flattery of the Queen that she was probably embarrassed about it. Trump clearly loves pomp and circumstance, a tendency he has said he learned from his Scottish-born mother, who seems to have had a greater affection for the royals than your average Scot, and although he’s willing to wage petty and pointless feuds with all of the democratically-officials in the UK and the rest of the western world he clearly appreciates the red carpet treatment he routinely gets from the world’s hereditary monarchies and dictatorships.
The rest of Trump’s brief stay in England will include mass protests by a public that has about an 18 percent approval of him, including a blimp that portrays Trump as an obese and diapered baby holding a “twitter” machine, as well as outgoing and up-and-coming politicians who won’t be so polite as the royal family, and we expect that as usual he’ll want to punch back ten times harder. He’s got stops in France and other European locations where he’s also widely unpopular with both the public and their democratically-elected leaders, and we expect it will all play better with the fans back home than with our erstwhile crucial trading and military partners.
Trump fans love his bold willingness to disdain the longstanding traditions they believe has constrained America’s power, even though the past decades of business as usual have actually made America the economic and military and cultural leader of the free world in the post-World War II era, but we think there’s still something to be said for dignity and decorum and friendly relationships with the democratically-elected world leaders rather than its most brutal dictators. There’s also something to be said for hiring a tailor who won’t make you look so fat.

— Bud Norman

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‘Crazy’ Bernie Sanders, Crazy Like on Fox

More pressing matters kept us from watching independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sander’s two-hour “town hall” on the Fox Network Monday night, but despite an infuriatingly busy day of play rehearsal and car troubles on Tuesday we couldn’t help hearing about it. President Donald Trump was apparently watching, as he “tweeted” quite a bit about it.
Trump is usually a big fan of Fox News’ programming, but was quite displeased about it giving Sanders two full hours to make the case for his presidential run. “So weird to watch Crazy Bernie on @FoxNews,” Trump “tweeted,” adding “Not surprisingly, @BretBaier and the ‘audience’ was so smiley and nice. Very strange, and now we have @Donnabrazile?”
In case you’re only a casual fan of the media game, the
@” thing with the missing spaces is newfangled internet lingo, “Crazy Bernie” is Trump’s usual nickname for the duly elected Senator, along with Chris Wallace Bret Baier is one of the few Fox News journalists who occasionally poses hard questions to the Trump administration, and Donna Brazile is the former Democratic National Committee chairwoman recently hired by Fox News to add some balance to its panel debates. The audience Fox News chose for the “town hall” reflected the mix of Republicans and Democrats and independents and right-wingers and left-wingers that make up the swing district in the swing state of Pennsylvania where the broadcast took place, and although it was hardly “so smiley and nice” we can see how it was a bit too civil and fair and balanced for Trump’s tastes.
As old-fashioned Republicans wer’e not at all fans of Sanders’ self-proclaimed socialism, but neither do we care much for Trump, and as old-school newspaper journalists we reckon that Sanders got the best of it.
The town hall was held in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, one of those de-industrialized Rust Belt towns that have been left behind in high-tech and service economy, and a majority of its citizens twice voted for President Barack Obama based on his promises of a futuristic revival, and when that predictably pan out a majority voted for President Donald Trump’s promises turn back time to the good old days of his steel-making and coal-mining and less-Mexican youth. Now that those promises are predictably proving hard to keep, the district and the state’s sizable and potentially crucial 20 electoral votes are one again up for grabs. Sanders’ unabashed tax-and-spend and even more-socialistic-than-Obama shtick almost certainly won’t work out well for the people of Bethlehem, but they’ve already fallen for both Obama’s pie-in-the-sky futurism and Trump’s for Technicolor promise to turn back the clock to the good old days of hard and sweaty and life-shortening labor in the steel mills and coal mines, and “Crazy Bernie” might well convince them he couldn’t do worse.
Sanders was shrewd enough to not describe those Rust Belt Obama-voters-turned-Trump-voters as racist “deplorables,” as the last Democratic presidential nominee stupidly did, and he emphasized his policy disagreements with Trump more than the president’s undeniable character flaws and countless scandals. Sanders has his own character questions and political scandals, including an out-of-wedlock son he recently declined to endorse in a Vermont political race, and a wife who runs a currently bankrupt college, but in an age when the sitting president is a boastfully adulterous womanizer who apparently cheated on his nude-model third wife a porn star, and an openly homosexual mid-sized city mayor is climbing in the Democratic primary polls, that sort of old-fashioned stuff doesn’t seem to matter much.
At times got Sanders got some big applause from all segments on the Bethlehem audience, at other times he got some boos and hisses, so we can well understand why Trump didn’t like what Fox News was doing. He’s come to rely on the highly-rated Fox News network for unceasing hosannas, is understandably perplexed why they should hand over two hours of prime time to someone who could very well beat him the crucial state of Pennsylvania, and why they should fine air time for that awful Brazile woman. As old-fashioned Republicans we can empathize, but as old-school newspaper journalists we have no problem with how Fox News handled it.
As crazy as he quite arguably is, Sanders is a leading contender for the Democratic nomination, and seems to have a good chance of knocking off Trump in Pennsylvania and the rest of the Electoral College next time around, so that’s a solid reason for Fox News or any other journalistic outlet to grant him a couple of hours to expound his crazy ideas. Bret Baier and his co-host did ask some pretty tough questions, and if they were civil if not quite “smiley and nice” about it, that doesn’t bother us a bit.
One of the other character questions about Sanders is that the self-proclaimed scourge of the millionaires and billionaire and 1 percent has learned more than a million dollars over the past two years, putting him well into hated 1 percent, so the self-proclaimed billionaire of course “tweeted” about that hypocrisy, given that Sanders got a huge break from Trump’s tax reform bill. Trump should have noticed that even Brett Baier asked about that, and that Sanders accurately responded he’d voted against the bill. We’re no fans of Sanders’ soak-the-rich socialism, nor Trump’s wildly overstated tax cuts that worked out best for the wealthy, but we have to admit that Sanders voted against the bill and his self-interests and seems to have the courage of his quite arguably crazy convictions, which is more than we can say for Trump and whatever convictions he’s espousing today.
There’s been some grumbling among the Democrats that Sanders would boostt ratings in two highly-rated hours for the hated Fox News, and the Democratic National Committee has determined that none of its primary debates will be aired on the network. Most Republican politicians these days are similarly wary of the Cable News Network and MSNBC and the rest of the widely-watched broadcast and cable and print media, but they’d probably do well to follow Sanders’ example and wade into enemy territory. They won’t find a nice and smiley audience, to be sure, and there are likely hard questions to be asked, but it will likely be at least civil, and we still hold out hope an old-fashioned Republican who doesn’t make grandiose promises should be able to make a persuasive case to at least some of those people in such crucial places as Bethlehem.
In an ideal world there’d be an old-fashioned Republican party telling the white underclass what its been telling the brown and black underclass for decades, that it needs to get off its lazy ass and relocate and reinvent itself for the modern economy, but that now seems unlikely, and the damned Democrats don’t have anything better to offer. For now we have little regard for either side of the political divide, but we still hold out hope that a free and open press might somehow hold the center.

— Bud Norman

The “Russia Thing” Comes to an End

The nearly two-year-long special counsel investigation into the “Russia thing with Trump and Russia” has come to an anticlimactic conclusion, with a four page summary of its findings issued by the Attorney General stating that it did not find President Donald Trump or his campaign guilty of conspiring with the Russian government to affect the last presidential election. That’s great news for Trump and his fans, who are claiming complete exoneration, even if the four page summary of the voluminous report issued by Trump’s own Attorney General says that “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, “it also does not exonerate him.”
For now Trump and his fans can plausibly claim vindication, however, and we’re sure they will. The special counsel’s investigation concluded the Russian government did meddle in the past election on Trump’s behalf, and brought an indictment against 12 specific Russians, and it won indictments and guilty pleas and convictions against Trump’s campaign manager and deputy campaign manager and campaign foreign policy advisor and other campaign operatives for lying about their numerous contacts with Russians during the campaign, among other things, but it’s still a big deal that no one named Trump was indicted at the end of the investigation. For now it’s a huge disappointment to the Trump foes who had so dearly hoped the special counsel investigation would end the Trump presidency, but we’re sure they’ll keep trying.
There’s bound to be something embarrassing to Trump in the voluminous full report that didn’t make the four-page summary issued by his Attorney General, and in the coming days the big story will be the congressional Democrats’ efforts to make it all public, and the Trump administration’s effort to keep it out of view. Some of the report will surely be redacted so that the investigation’s counter-intelligence sources and methods aren’t revealed, but we expect that eventually the president’s foes will feast on the rest of it. Press reports indicate that the special counsel handed off a number of suspected crimes outside its scope to various jurisdictions of the Justice Department, mostly to the very aggressive Southern District of New York, and there will be no way of keeping that out of the news.
Trump and his supporters will continue to insist that it’s all a “witch hunt” and a “hoax” and “witch hoax,” but the fact that the “deep state conspiracy” declined to frame them for “collusion” somehow undermines their claims. Special counsel Robert Mueller remains a decorated Vietnam war hero and former Federal Bureau of Investigation director who earned bipartisan praise and appointments over his long and distinguished career of public service, and if Mueller’s conclusions disappoint his Democratic fans they also make his Republican critics’ slurs against his character look slanderous. The rest of Mueller’s work will play out in American courts of law, and we expect that in the end Mueller’s character will fare better than Trump’s.
Nothing in the Attorney General’s four-page summary of the special counsel investigation’s report exonerates him from the already proved charges that his campaign associates repeatedly lied under oath about contacts with Russian operatives, or that he himself lied to the public during the campaign about his business dealings with Russia, or that he broke federal campaign laws to cover up alleged affairs with a pornographic video performer and a Playboy playmate, or that his foreign policy has been unaccountably friendly to Russia and other authoritarian regimes. Nor does even the four-page summary of the report indicate that Trump isn’t a vulgar and dishonest and bullying and entirely self-interested fellow.
Nothing in even the four–page summary of the special counsel’s report indicates that Trump’s trade wars and budget deficits and feuds with longstanding allies are making America great again, and the latest economic data suggest they are not, and that’s what will probably decide the next election not matter what scandals beset Trump. For now the Democrats seem intent on nominating some some suicidally socialist candidate who could easily lose to Trump not matter what scandals might accrue, so for now we will glumly await that conclusion without any expectations.

— 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

On the Ongoing Border War

There’s little in the news these days except the debate over a border wall and its resulting partial government shutdown, which might or might not be good for President Donald Trump. The upside for Trump is that no one’s paying much attention to the latest developments in the “Russia thing,” or talking about what Trump’s longtime lawyer will soon tell an open congressional hearing on his way to federal prison, and Trump’s die-hard fans can console themselves that at least he fights, which they seem to find quite consoling. The downside is pretty much everything else.
Despite the best efforts of Trump and his talk radio apologists, the president is taking a beating on the public relations front.
Past partial government shutdowns have been short-lived and gone largely unnoticed, but this time around is far longer and harsher than usual. The “fake news” media have come up with some all-too-real sob stories about the 800,000 or so federal workers who won’t be getting paid today, scary tales about air traffic controllers and airport security officers calling in sick to protest their lack of pay, and trash and human feces piling up at America’s national parks. There are few more hundred thousand employees of government contractors who also aren’t getting paid, too, and plenty of footage of farmers who are having trouble getting the subsidy checks they were promised when commodity prices dropped in the wake of Trump’s trade wars.
Both sides always play the blame game during these partial government shutdowns, but Trump pretty much gave that away when he invited all the cameras from the “fake news” to record him telling Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and now-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi “I will be proud to shutdown the government for border security.” By “border security” Trump clearly meant the big and beautiful border wall he promised he would build along the entire southern border, but the public seems to have figured out that America can have border security without a wall, and that even the biggest and most beautiful wall won’t secure the country’s borders.
Trump has resorted to some easily disproved falsehoods about how all the past American presidents supported a sea-to-shining-sea border wall, and even Fox News has challenged his administration’s claims about the number Islamist terrorists crossing the southern border. He’s bragged about his magnanimity as he’s back downed from previous promises of a concrete to a mere American-made steel fence, and he’s been forced to say that he never really it meant it when he said that Mexico would gladly pay for it. Trump still insists that Mexico is indirectly paying for it by the great yet unratified trade deal that he has so brilliantly negotiated, but even it does raise enough federal revenue to pay for a wall it’s still money that could have been spent elsewhere if Mexico had actually paid for Trump’s big and beautiful border wall.
The objections aren’t just coming from those damned open borders Democrats, who we have to admit have offered billions for all sorts of border security efforts that don’t involve a big and beautiful wall along the entire border, but also some Republicans with old-fashioned pre-Trump conservative notions. The remaining Republicans in the House representing districts along the border are opposed to the idea, as many of their constituents own border land and don’t want a wall on it. Along most of the border Americans have happy and profitable relations with their neighbors to the south, and Trump should note that at one point a golf course would be cut in half, and that pre-Trump conservatism takes a dim view of eminent domain seizures of private property.
Trump is now threatening to use his presidential powers to declare a national emergency and divert funds from the defense budget or money appropriated for disaster relief and efforts to prevent further hurricane damage in Puerto Rico and Texas, but the few remaining pre-Trump conservatives will object on on old-fashioned constitutional grounds, and everyone in the country but the die-hard fans probably won’t buy into that. On Thursday’s photo-op at the southern border Trump riffed about how the wheel proceeded the wall back in the Medieval Age, and he looked even more ridiculous in his white “Make America Great Again” baseball cap and national emergency windbreaker and white slacks, and he seemed to realize the photo-op was a waste of time, as he’d already predicted to some reporters who leaked the off-the-record comment.
Trump is losing the argument in all the opinion polls, that awful but undeniably shrewd Pelosi woman clearly understands her advantage, but Trump can’t back down for fear of what the talk radio hosts might say, so those hundreds of thousands of government employees and government contract employees going without paychecks and the local business that depend on their patronage should probably hunker down for the long haul. Despite Trump’s claim that he’s backed by the entirety of the Republican there are already some dissenting votes, and of course all of those damned Democrats are against anything he wants, and although we have to admit that at least Trump fights he seems to be losing another round, and he won’t keep that “Russia thing” out of the news forever.

— Bud Norman

Some Inadvertently Un-Redacted Facts

That pesky partial government shutdown seems almost certain to soon set a new record for duration, and thus continues to dominate the news, but we still try to follow the “Russia thing.” Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the matter has been admirably if infuriatingly leak-proof, but fortunately almost everybody else involved continue to keep the story in the bottom-of-the-fold headlines.
Thanks to some sloppy computer work on a court filing by the lawyers for Paul Manafort, the former campaign manager for President Donald Trump and confessed felon who currently resides in a federal prison, we now know that Manafort stands accused of sharing polling data with a Russian named Konstantin Kilimnik who has ties to the Russian intelligence agencies. We also know, from Manafort’s lawyers accidentally un-redacted filings on his behalf, that “After being shown documents, Mr. Manafort ‘conceded’ that he discussed or may have discussed a Ukraine peace plan on more than one occasion” during the campaign.
This isn’t a “smocking gun,” as Trump spells it, but it does look pretty darned bad.
Trump’s defenders are already that there’s nothing illegal about sharing poll data with even a Russian operative, as poll data is readily available from the news media, but the more specific internal polling of a major party presidential campaign is usually a carefully protected secret, and in this case raises suspicions. All of America’s intelligence agencies and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, backed up by all of the Trump appointees to head them, agree that the Russian government attempted to interfere in America’s last presidential election on behalf of Trump. One of the alleged efforts was an internet disinformation campaign, which all of the major social media platforms have told Congress did happen, and it seems to have been effectively targeted to the states and counties where Trump wound up winning his electoral majority, so one wonders how the Russian could have known to choose this spots on the map.
One needn’t wonder why the Russians were meddling on Trump’s behalf, as Trump was one of the very few American politicians talking about lifting the sanctions the had been imposed on Russia after its invasions of Ukraine and Georgia. Trump had even spoken about the legitimacy of Russia’s claims to the territory, and we expect that any discussions Manafort might or might not have had about a Ukraine “peace plan” were to Russia’s liking, and that Russia would surely appreciate the precinct-by-precinct sort of polling that a major American political party does during a presidential campaign. Maybe it’s not a “smocking gun” of a criminal quid pro quo, but it’s hard for Trump’s die-hard defenders to explain.
Eventually they’ll probably wind up blaming everything on Manafort, who seems likely to wind up dying in federal prison anyway, and insist that the brilliant and always in charge Trump had no idea of what his campaign manager was up to, but there’s still a lot of explaining to do. Lately Trump has been excusing Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan with some revisionist history, might or might not be pursuing a retreat from Syria that would would greatly strengthen Russia’s power in the Middle East, and is still open to lifting the sanctions on Russia for it’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty.
Perhaps there’s some perfectly innocent explanation for all this, but for now we’re not betting on it.

— Bud Norman

Joe Rio, RIP

Sunday was another one of those bittersweet winter days we sometimes get here on the harsh Kansas plains. Until the sun set in beautiful pink pastels the endless prairie sky was brilliantly blue, the temperatures were as moderate as one can hope for this time of year, and our day began with another invigorating worship service at the West Douglas Church of Christ over in the rough Delano neighborhood, where we joined the small low-church congregation in singing “Go Tell It on the Mountain” to celebrate the upcoming anniversary of the earthly birth of Jesus Christ.
A good friend of ours delivered the communion message, and he spoke eloquently of how a good friend of his had recently prevented another good friend of his from committing suicide, and the guest lay preacher’s sermon was about Christ coming to earth to redeem all of us sinners, so we went home with a hopeful feeling. During our usual post-church nap we had a very modern nightmare about losing our debit card, however, and then were obliged to head to one of the musical joints in the rough Old Town neighborhood to attend a memorial service for a weird but dear rock ‘n’ roll friend of ours who recently shot himself in the heart.
You’ve probably never heard of the guy who called himself Joe Rio, but judging by the standing-room-only crowd at Barleycorn’s on Sunday afternoon he had a lot of friends around here. One of them, a fellow we vaguely know but can’t quite name, asked us how well we knew Joe, and we had to admit we only knew him well enough to appreciate his unique creativity, and to consider him a friend, and to appreciate the friendship he generously extended to us, and to sympathize with the obviously troubled life he chose to end. That was more than enough, though, to make Sunday one of those bittersweet Kansas days.
Joe wasn’t a notably gifted musician if you’re judging by strictly technical standards, but he always added an irresistibly human thing to the old-timey country and post-punk bands he played with in Wichita’s roughest musical joints, and even his most talented former band mates were at Barleycorn’s on Sunday to attest to his expressive gifts. He had a knack for the visual arts, too, and we also enjoyed his similarly primitivist verbal skills, and we’re told that in his younger days he was one hell of a skateboarder. He more or less made a living for himself as a handy-man, plastering all the dives in town with stickers promising that “If I can’t fix, I know who can,” and although he never came through on that promise for us for us we know he was a an undeniably resourceful fellow. For all the undeniable flaws that everyone at Barleycorn’s could to attest on a bittersweet Kansas winter Sunday, Joe was an irresistibly likable fellow, even if he never much liked himself.
Joe had tattoos up to his neck, a scary surgical scar running down his body from the shoulder to the belly button, and deeper psychological scars from an unhappy childhood in small town Kansas. We were also “Facebook friends,” and every Father’s Day we’d read Joe’s posts about the drunken old man who would daily beat him. We’re even older and dearer friends with one of Joe’s ex-wives, who is also the mother of one of his children, and she’s a Wichita school teacher and we trust her confirmation of every tragic detail. Joe apparently ran away at a young age to the big bad city of Wichita, where he lived for a while under one of the bridges over the Arkansas River, and given everything we’d have to say he made the best of it for a while.
By weird coincidence today is the 85th birthday of our beloved Dad, who is about the best earthly father one can hope for, although he still he insists that his own beloved Dad was the better man. We can’t brag much about what we’ve made with that blessing, however, so we’ll leave it our merciful heavenly father to judge how Joe Rio played his hand. We wish the best to all those friends of Joe who showed up at Barleycorns in their biker gang jackets and neck tattoos, and those who brought food and donations and pamphlets with the 1-800-273-TALK suicide help line, and especially to all of the children he has left without any earthly  father. We also wish  a Merry Christmas to all of us sinners in need of Christ’s redemption.

— Bud Norman

A Great Leap Backwards

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, as George Santayana once famously remarked, and President Donald Trump does not strike us an astute student of history. This doesn’t necessarily doom us to repeat history’s worst mistakes, but it has often proved embarrassing for Trump, at least for those of who do study history.
Trump has made public comments that suggest he believed Frederick Douglass was still alive and is recently getting the credit he’s long deserved, was surprised to learn that President Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, and that the slave-whipping President Jackson of Trail of Tears infamy had a “big heart” and would have averted a Civil War if only he’d been president a couple of decades longer, retold some disproved tales about General “Black Jack” Sherman executing Islamist prisoners with pig’s-blood-soaked bullets, and he continues to believe that he’s a historically popular and successful president despite all evidence. He also seems either unaware or unconcerned that his “America First” slogan was coined by the pre-World War II isolationist movement that thought America could peacefully coexist with an Axis-dominated world, and that the term “nationalist” is by now associated with other unsavory movements, and that a “leap forward” has certain unhappy connotations when used in the context of Chinese-American relations.
Trump has recently negotiated a cease-fire in the trade war he launched against China, which for now has a salutatory effect on the international stock markets, but it remains to be seen what the eventual armistice will look like. Trump is already touting major concessions, the Chinese are saying otherwise, and Trump’s underlings are putting the best face on it, and Trump is “tweeting” that it’s a “big leap forward.” Both Chinese and English-speaking people of a certain historical bent could help be reminded of China’s previous “Great Leap Forward,” Chairman Mao Tse Dong’s forced-collectivization policy that resulted in mass starvation and cannibalism and a human-made humanitarian disaster that rivals anything in history, Stalin and Hitler notwithstanding. Perhaps it’s just an unfortunate turn of phrase, as when the flawed but undeniably humane President Jimmy Carter said he thought a second term would have brought a “final solution” for Israel, but it’s still the kind of a thing that a well-educated president should know to avoid.
Meanwhile, back on the home front, the “Russia thing” seems to be heating up, and Trump seems to have forgotten all the lessons he might have learned from the “Watergate thing,” if he’d been paying any attention. That commie bastard Karl Marx famously remarked that history always repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce, and we’ll be angrily annoyed if he’s proved correct once again.

— Bud Norman

Burt Reynolds, RIP

Burt Reynolds died on Thursday at the age of 82, and we were sad to hear about it. He was in a few movies we quite liked, a few more that were forgettable but well worth a couple of hours and the ’70s and ’80s prices for a movie ticket, and even in the lousy movies that made up the most of his filmography he was always an appealing figure on the screen. Also, his passing makes us feel old.
At our age we can remember way back when the handsome and hunky and hirsute Reynolds was the biggest box office star and premier male sex symbol of the day, and suddenly it seems a long time ago. Reynolds was good-looking in a hyper-masculine way that is out of fashion with women in these oh-so-sensitive times, and he offset it with a self-aware sense of humor that today’s tough guys eschew, and his biggest hits had a low-tech earnestness about them that will probably strike the current crop of movie-goers as downright corny. There’s something to be said for such modern sensibilities, perhaps, but we hopefully expect that the best of Reynolds’ work will endure in our popular culture.
After an injury ended his promising career as a football player at Florida State University, Reynolds joined the theater department at the school in hopes of meeting hot co-eds, and thus began an acting career that started with co-starring roles in “Gunsmoke” and other television shows, followed by co-starring roles in some forgettable low-budget movies. He got his big break when he was cast in “Deliverance,” a hard-to-watch but must-see classic, and gave a clean-shaven and critically acclaimed performance as a hyper-masculine city slicker on an ill-fated canoe trip in hillbilly country, and after that he was for several years a very big movie star.
The eventual hero of “Deliverance” was the oh-so-sensitive character played by Jon Voight, and despite Reynolds’ nuanced performance it was his undeniable on-screen machismo and charmingly self-deprecating wit on all the talk shows that made him a much bigger movie star. Reynolds had a long run at the the top of the box office with the likes of “Smokey and the Bandit,” an extended car chase involving Reynolds’ macho-but-self-deprecating “Bandit” character trying to win a bet involving a six pack of Coors while a stereotypical southern sheriff played by Jackie Gleason pursues, and it’s not nearly so bad as it sounds. Another big hit was “Cannonball Run,” which has a cast of B-list all-stars on a coast-to-coast interstate highway race, and you could do worse on a rainy day of movie watching, although we can’t say the same for “Cannonball Run II.” He also made movies such as “Gator” and “The Longest Yard” for the southern white boy exploitation drive-in market, which were also huge hits, and despite our art house tastes we can heartily recommend “The Longest Yard.” Reynolds quite convincingly portrays a wisecracking football star who winds up in prison, where he leads an excellent cast of tough-guy character actors to victory over the guards’ semipro team, and it’s a faded color testosterone-laden little flick that is far better than it sounds.
While he was hot Reynolds also directed and starred in “The End,” a very dark comedy about a businessman with a terminal illness, and although it bombed at the box office we and the rest of the critics agreed that it was well worth watching, and that Reynolds really could act when given the chance. After years of relative anonymity his last round of critical acclaim and Oscars came with “Boogie Nights,” a very fine film about the pornography industry of the late ’70s and early ’80s, with the the graying but still-handsome Reynolds playing a pornographer with with artistic ambitions he could never achieve.
Although he always seemed a likable enough enough fellow to us, he was such a fixture of the news for so many years that we also read about what a jerk he could be, and we don’t doubt that at least some of it is true. He was married to Judy Carne, the British actress who went on to be the bikini-clad “Sock it to me” girl on “Laugh In,” and after the divorce and at the height of his male symbol status he dated the 20-years-older diva Dinah Shore, followed by a well publicized romance with “Smokey and the Bandit” co-star and America’s Sweetheart Sally Fields, and then a very public and acrimonious divorce from the blond and buxom sit-com star Loni Anderson. He always admitted everything in his self-deprecating way, however, and we’ll miss having him around in America’s increasingly crazy popular culture.

— Bud Norman

Feuding with Allies and Adversaries

President Donald Trump is in Singapore today, finishing his final preparations for tomorrow’s high-stakes summit with North Korea’s anti-American and nuclear-armed nutcase dictator. We’re holding out hope that it goes well, but the debacle Trump made of a routine meeting in Canada with six of our most stalwart allies over the weekend is not heartening.
Trump arrived late for the Group of Seven’s annual gathering, was tardy to or skipped altogether several of its planned meetings, and left early with trade wars and “Twitter” spats brewing against the other six nations and complaints that Russia’s anti-American and nuclear-armed nutcase dictator wasn’t invited. He was especially harsh about the host country’s pro-American and democratically elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, calling him “weak” and “dishonest” in in a series of “tweets,” and one of his advisors telling the Sunday morning shows that “there’s a special place in hell” for world leaders who dare invoke the wrath of Trump. He even rescinded America’s routine endorsement of the ritual “final communique “these things usually end with, and although Trump boasted that on a scale of zero to ten America’s relationships with it’s most stalwart allies was a solid ten, and blasted the “fake news” for saying otherwise, the world’s stock markets and most other objective observers around the globe will likely agree things did not go well.
America suddenly finds itself in a war of words and tariffs with Canada, of all places. Canada has an annoying tendency to punt on third downs during their football games and hold its news conferences in both English and French, and they can be awfully smug about their single-payer health insurance program, which we don’t want here, but that hardly seems reason to be feuding with its pro-American and democratically-elected Prime Minister at a time when Trump is lavishing praise on the anti-American dictators in North Korea and Russia. Except for that brief “fifty-four-forty or fight” contretemps way back in 1846 the Canadians have been polite and reasonable neighbors, and given that the size of the population and economy of the country is much smaller than America’s we don’t see them as an economic threat to the United States. Trump might well have some legitimate gripes about existing trade policies over soft lumber or dairy products, but those have always been worked out through existing world trade courts and other institutions without any personally insulting “tweets,” and given that Canada has been stalwart ally in nearly every actual war America has ever fought we can well understand why they resent Trump starting a trade war on the grounds of national security concerns.
Trudeau bluntly told the international press, in both English and that annoyingly redundant French, that although the Canadians pride themselves on being polite and reasonable they won’t be “pushed around,” and that he would go to to the trenches in any old trade war that Trump might want to start. The newly-and-dubiously elected populist leader of Italy agreed with Trump about letting Russia back in the former Group of Eight gathering, but he and the other five heads of states all agreed to retaliate against any tariffs Trump might impose. If this is a ten on a zero-to-ten scale of relations with our most stalwart allies, we shudder to think what a zero might look like.
Trump’s die-hard supporters will love it, of course. Over the weekend we talked with one who regards Germany’s previously pro-American and still democratically-elected Chancellor Angela Merkel as America’s most formidable adversary, and is glad that at long last we have a president who stands up to those snooty Europeans. On all the Sunday morning news shows Trump’s spokespeople were talking about Canada “knifing us in the back,” and explaining that it was a brilliant three-dimensional chess move meant to warn that nutcase North Korean dictator that if Trump is so hard on his most stalwart allies they should surely fear what awaits his adversaries. We can’t shake a lingering worry, though, that Trump is instead playing 52-card pick-up with the post-World-War-II order.
We also can’t shake an even scarier worry that this is all somehow personal for Trump, and has little to do with the more important geo-political and economic realities. Until he rode down that escalator in Trump Tower to launch his presidential campaign we never paid much attention to the failed casino-and-strip-club mogul and reality star, but since then we’ve watched him carefully enough to note that he takes things personally, and that he cares little for geo-political and economic reality. All of the other six heads of state in the Group of Seven, including that populist and dubiously-elected Italian, clearly regard Trump as a boorish and uneducated vulgarian intent on disrupting the post-World-War-II international order, and Trump surely knows that they make fun of of him when he’s not around, just like those swells on Manhattan’s social used to do when the vulgar usurper from Queens once showed up at their gatherings,
There’s also no shaking a worry that Trump’s peculiar antipathy to Trudeau is because the Canadian Prime Minister is objectively a more physically-fit and full-haired and handsome fellow than Trump, with bi-lingual skills and far better poll numbers in his homeland since his feud with Trump started, and that Trump can’t stand that. It’s especially worrisome when Trump segues from his Canadian debacle to that hight-stakes summit in Singapore about the Korean peninsula.
Kim Jong Un is several inches shorter than Trump, and even fatter, with just as ridiculous a hair-do, but we don’t expect he’ll be intimidated. He’s got nuclear weapons and inter-contintental ballistic missiles on his side, as well as an imbalance of power of conventional weaponry poised within range of South Korea’s essential-to-the-world-oder capital, and Trump’s trade wars with the more intimidating nuclear power of China haven’t yet yielded the expected negotiating advantage, even if they have enriched the Trump family’s various businesses. The fact that Trump is feuding with America’s most stalwart allies probably doesn’t worry him at all.
Still, we hold out hope.

— Bud Norman