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The Show and the News and Real Life Go On

An otherwise successful opening to the annual local Gridiron Show was marred by a family medical emergency that occurred just afterwards, and instead of drinking it up with our fellow cast members we spent the remainder of Thursday night and the first two hours of this morning in a nearby hospital.
So far as we can tell from the doctors’ carefully worded statements, things will likely turn out just fine, although our beloved Dad wound up spending the night in the hospital for a night of observation. At his stubborn insistence we took our beloved Mom home and then returned to headquarters for a glance at the news, hoping to keep our years-long writing streak intact with at least a brief post.
The lately essential Washington Post’s web site was filled with the usual depressing news. China has escalated its recent trade war with America, although this time the stock markets didn’t seem to mind. During a campaign stop in West Virginia President Donald Trump literally tossed out the carefully worded script that had been prepared for him, complaining that he found it “boring,” and instead went on one of his usual stream-of-consciousness rants full of taunts against his perceived enemies and plenty of outright falsehoods. There was also an interesting piece about the final statements of some recently ousted Trump administration officials, and their all-too-credible accounts of Trump’s chaotic management style.
At the bottom of the page we found the most depressing report, that Kevin Williamson has been fired from The Atlantic Magazine after just one column. If you’re not familiar with the name, Williamson has a long history in newspapers and magazines and was most recently a prominent columnist for The National Review, where he frequently annoyed many of that venerable conservative journal’s readers with his principled conservative Never Trump stance and by advocating the same tough-love solutions for the white underclass that conservatives have always advocated for the black underclass, and as far as we’re concerned he’s the best political polemicist of the day, our own formidable selves notwithstanding.
Although Williamson’s principled conservatism had so annoyed National Review’s Trump-loving readers, his hiring by The Atlantic outraged it’s more stridently liberal readers. As the oldest and most venerable monthly magazine in The Atlantic has published influential and widely anthologized essays by still-famous writers on both the left and the right over it’s more than 150 distinguished years, under the leadership of legendary editors from both sides of the political spectrum, and Williamson’s keen analysis and elegant writing is well worthy of that august tradition, but of course there were angry e-mails and “tweets” and some attention paid by more traditional media.
These days, liberals are no more interested in reading keen analysis and elegant writing from some damned conservative than conservatives are in reading any keen analysis and elegant writing from some damned liberal.
Eventually Williamson’s critics came up with some off-the-cuff and not all written-down comments three years ago on a couple of internet “podcasts.” Like most conservatives and a large chunk of the country at large, Williamson has moral objections to the practice of abortion, based on his widely-held belief that human life is sacred and begins at the moment of conception. In those unearthed “podcasts,” Williamson took this belief to its extreme but logical conclusion that the law should therefore consider abortion murder, and despite his his usually carefully considered writing he conversationally used some controversial language about hangings.
Despite our own moral objections to the practice of abortion, this is taking things further than we’re comfortable with, and many conservatives agree, and so does the biggest chunk of the population at large, including all those outraged liberals who have some equally extreme ideas of their own about abortion and the sanctity of life, so of course it was too much for the venerable Atlantic. We can hardly blame the magazine, given the current political climate, but it does seem a damn shame.
At the end of a long, long day we expect that such a formidable writer as Williamson will land on his feet, and that such a formidable fellow as our beloved Dad will do the same. Until next Monday, you beloved readers, we expect the news will continue, and the show must go on, so we wish everyone the best.

— Bud Norman

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Abortion at the Bottom of the Page

Strolling down to the bottom of The Washington Post’s opening web page, we happened upon a story about Mississippi enacting the nation’s most restrictive abortion law. The law bans most abortions after 15 weeks of gestation, allowing exceptions for risks to the mother’s life or “bodily function” but not for cases of rape or incest, which is as far as you go from anybody’s reading of the Roe v. Wade decision, and once upon a time that would have been at the top of everybody’s front page.
A lawsuit was filed within an hour of the governor’s signing of the bill by the last remaining abortion clinic in the state, and the activists on both sides of the issue paid rapt attention, but we couldn’t help noticing how little attention was paid by most of the media and the public at large. The absence of coverage was conspicuous to us, as we well remember a time a when abortion was the most heatedly debated issue in America.
Especially around here. Wichita, Kansas, was once the very epicenter of the abortion conflict, to the point that it often tied up traffic and turned neighbor against neighbor and even hastened the end of a couple of marriages we know of. Kansas is a conservative and church-going state that somehow has the least restrictive abortion laws almost anywhere, and people used to fly in to Wichita from around the world to have very late-term abortions from one of the few doctors willing and legally able to perform the grisly procedure, so it was bound to happen.
Back in ’91 an anti-abortion organization called Operation Rescue came to town and rallied support for acts of civil disobedience to shut down the city’s last remaining abortion clinics, all of which were by then owned that internationally-known late-term abortionist. Their “Summer of Mercy” turned out tens of thousands of supporters at the local university’s mostly unused football stadiums, several hundred God-fearing and tax-paying and lawn-mowing types who were willing to be carried on to a police bus and be booked at the county jail for the misdemeanor of blocking public access by effectively shutting down the business. It was not only the big story of that very hot summer around here, as one of the clinics was inconveniently located on busy Kellogg Avenue and everyone had a unique opinion about all the ruckus, it was above the fold on newspapers everywhere and at the top of the hour on the nascent cable channels.
We were on the job for the local newspaper at the time, and wound up having burgers and beers at a bar next door to one of the abortion clinics with reporters from some of the biggest and swankiest newspapers. They were an OK lot, as far as we were concerned, and when we read or watched their accounts of the weird happenings in Wichita we couldn’t dismiss them as fake news, as it was pretty much what we’d witnessed, but they never quite conveyed the local viewpoint. They weren’t steeped in the history of “Bleeding Kansas” and its abolitionist zeal, which is still the state’s greatest boast, and they didn’t seem church-going types, and they didn’t understand what it’s like to live in an otherwise peaceable time with a bunch of church-going and very fine people and a doctor who has performed very late abortions for women from around the world. They understood that there were a whole lot of locals who are grateful for the abortions he provided at a more legally-protected and arguably more morally point in the pregnancy, which is worth noting, but their work didn’t have that discombobulating imbalance the story required..
Operation Rescue’s civil disobedience tactics polled badly, just as we predicted to all those big city newspaper types, and as it faded into obscurity the more mainstream anti-abortion organizations went into retreat. The abortion issue dropped to the back pages for a while, but we were having burgers and beers with the big-city newspapers again after a women came down from Oregon and unsuccessfully tried to kill that late-term abortionist. We were second string on that story to a woman who wound up writing a non-fiction bestseller about the radical anti-abortion movement, but we scored an exclusive interviewer with a protestor outside the courthouse who was supporting the accused assassin’s actions as justifiable homicide, and when we asked him why he hadn’t killed an abortionist he replied “Well, maybe I will.” About a year later all the papers were running the photos of a guy who’d shot and killed a couple of abortion clinic workers in Pensacola, Florida, and we immediately recognized the mug shot. That also polled badly.
The next time we ran in to the big city newspaper writers was when someone came down from the Kansas City suburbs and assassinated that local late-term abortionist. He walked into a lovely Lutheran church over on East 13th and shot the abortionist as he routinely attended services, shot his victim in the head, and didn’t deny it. All the big city newspaper writers asked worriedly ask if the the defendant would get off, given what a conservative state and city this is, and we correctly predicted that it’s the kind of conservative state and city where you’re not going to get away with walking into a church service and shooting a guy in the head, no matter what tate guy did for a living. Elsewhere the shooting polled even worse.
Since then the abortion issue hasn’t been so prominent here or elsewhere. Around here there’s still no Republican who dares run in a primary without taking a staunch anti-abortion stand, but they’re no longer expected to stress it, and most of our fellow church-going Republican types are presently more concerned with making excuses for their recently pro-life president’s apparent tawdry affair and hush payments with a pornographic video performer. The pro-abortion rights crowd has grown complacent after so many years of retreat by the anti-abortion side, too, and probably won’t be much aroused by a setback in a state such as Mississippi. Last year that lone Mississippi abortion clinic performed 78 abortions after the 15-week gestation period, which in most cases would have been obtained in neighboring states, and in the grand scheme of things that’s not such a big deal as President Donald Trump’s latest “tweet” or any the rest of the top-of-the-page news.
Abortion is a damned complicated issue, for both those personally involved and the public at large, and it involves complicated issues of law and liberty and a higher morality, and we can well understand why most people would rather not talk about it. Most of the right that scoffs at the notion you can prohibit firearm ownership also holds that you can effectively prohibit abortions, most of the left holds that can guns be eliminated but abortion cannot be, and at the moment neither side has much to gain from raising this uncomfortable topic.
Abortions and the abortion debate will continue, of course, and there will be setbacks and victories on both sides, depending on what red or blue state you live in. We’re still not sure where we stand on the issue, although we’re sure it’s not at either extreme, and we’re not at all eager for the next opportunity to talk about it.

Bud Norman

Feminism, Trumpism, and Political Reality

During his recent trip abroad President Donald Trump gave an interview to the British broadcaster Piers Morgan, a former winner of Trump’s “Apprentice” game show, and although it doesn’t air until tonight the good stuff has already leaked out. So far, the least surprising news is that Trump does not consider himself a feminist.
No, I wouldn’t say I’m a feminist,” Trump told Morgan. “I mean, I think that would be, maybe, going too far. I’m for men, I’m for women, I’m for everyone.”
That’s not so shockingly sexist as what Trump said when he was yukking it up with Billy Bush on the “Access Hollywood” bus, and we suppose he deserves some credit for not boasting that he’s the least sexist person you ever met, but it’s likely to further infuriate a lot of his female critics. The fans will love it, of course.
Feminism has a reputation in some circles as a man-hating and abortion-loving philosophy that is as hectoring as it is humorless, due in some part to that small but significantly pesky number of undeniably hectoring and humorless feminists who actually hate men and have a slightly morbid enthusiasm for abortion. Most people simply nod silently and walk away from those sorts, and have happy and mutually respectful encounters with the far greater number of feminist women who simply hold to the belief that they’re entitled to equal civil rights and fair treatment in the workplace and mutually respectful interactions with they men they have to deal with.
In some circles even that reasonable sort of feminism is resented, though, and we can’t blame any woman for thinking that Trump travels in those in circles. He did once boast during a Republican primary debate that nobody has more respect for women than he does, but that got a big laugh out of even a Republican primary debate audience, and the claim that he’s not an out right old-fashioned male chauvinist pig, as the man-hating and humorless sorts of feminists used to call them back in ’70s, is by now laughable. All the networks have endlessly replayed that “Access Hollywood” boast about grabbing women by their “wherevers,” as Trump more politely put it on that endlessly replayed tape of an interview where he sure seemed to imply that Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly had asked him a question about his past derogatory comments about women’s looks because she was menstruating. There’s a rich trove of audio from Howard Stern’s shock-jock radio show, too, with Trump opining unfavorably on small-breasted women and bragging about letting all three of his wives do the diaper-changing and other child-rearing chores and giddily recalling the times he invaded the dressing rooms at his teenage beauty pageants.
There are also all the women who have put their reputations on the line to publicly allege that Trump grabbed them by their wherevers or invaded their teenage beauty pageant dressing rooms, too, and the column inches of Archie Bunker-era male chauvinist piggish quotes in press interviews and his own ghost-written memoirs would stretch from Trump Tower in New York City to the White House in Washington, D.C., and the audio and video clips could fill a couple of 24-hour news cycles.
Some very reasonable and perfectly respectable Republican friends of ours freely acknowledge the fact of Trump’s male chauvinist piggishness but have somehow reconciled themselves to it. They’ll argue that Trump is merely critiquing the man-hating and abortion-loving style of feminism, and taking the very reasonable and respectable pro-everybody stand, which will quickly lead to talk about how the “Black Lives Matter” movement’s moniker seems to imply that other lives don’t matter or at least matter less, and they’ll have their points. When reminded of the freely admitted fact that Trump is pretty much a male chauvinist pig as well as pretty much a racist, stone cold and old school, as the kids the used to say, they’ll note the currently low unemployment rates for women and black people. On each point, we’ll admit they have a valid point.
The friendly sorts of feminists and black empowerment types we’ve befriended over the years have some valid points, too, and we’ll not argue with them for the sake of the likes of Trump. As much as we wish the “Black Lives Matter” movement would heed our advice to stress that of course all lives matter, and find that middle ground between preventing cops from using unnecessary force and prohibiting the necessary force to deter all the criminals who would otherwise take a far greater toll of black lives, we don’t worry that making black lives better need result in making our own white lives any worse. Despite those admittedly annoying man-hating and abortion-loving sorts of feminists, neither do we worry that to whatever extent feminism is pro-woman it is necessarily anti-man.
Our reasonable and respectable yet Trump-supporting friends have convinced themselves that Trump gets that, but we think he’s playing to those circles who still expect the little woman to have dinner on the table when the man comes home and do all the diaper-changing and other women’s work. In our experience they’re a dwindling population, as most guys have by now reconciled themselves to the fact that they have to go along with most of the the past 50 years or so feminism if they’re going to get any, but they’re still out there and make up an important chunk of Trump’s fan base.
There’s that Republican candidate for the Senate in Missouri who was caught on tape opining that he expected the little woman to have dinner on the table when he got home and do all the rest of the women’s work around the house, and that Republican nominee for an Alabama Senate seat who thought that constitutional amendments abolishing slavery and giving women the right to vote were bad ideas, and was also quite credibly accused of once being the creepy thirty-something guy hanging around the local mall hitting on teenage girls. Both had significant support, too, and although some of bearded-yet-sensitive “Bernie Bros” who backed the self stand accused by the sisterhood of failing to support that harridan Democratic nominee and presumptive First Woman President Hillary Clinton we have to admit that most of the remaining troglodytes are Republicans and Trump voters.
Despite Trump’s full-throated support for that pro-slavery and anti-women’s suffrage and credibly accused child molester of a Republican nominee somehow lost a race in Alabama, of all places, to a Democrat, of all people. The Missouri race will be against Democratic incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill, who is considered vulnerable because Trump won the state in the last election, but the last time she ran the Republican nominee had also carried the state in the most recent president election and she won because the Republicans had nominated a nut job who went off on audio tape about how the victims of “real rape” could not become pregnant and therefore the complete ban on abortions he wanted should make no exceptions for rape. If the Missouri Republicans go with the make-me-a-sandwich-damnit candidate this time around, we think that even with Trump’s full-throated support the more reasonable and respectable sorts of Republicans will have blown another opportunity.

— Bud Norman

The Press Strikes Back

Say what you want about The Washington Post, that hated embodiment of the establishment press, but they won their latest battle with their anti-establishment critics in a rout. Despite our frequent criticisms of the newspaper, something in our Republican souls relished the victory.
One of the unfortunate features of this moment in American history is the average person’s tendency to dismiss any story he doesn’t want to hear as “fake news.” It’s an old and bipartisan problem, but lately it seems more problematic among too many of our fellow Republicans. President Donald Trump didn’t create the problem, nor did he coin the phase “fake news,” as he improbably claims to have done, but he and his most die-hard apologists have been eager to exploit it.
To hear Trump and his die-hard apologists tell it, anything you might read in The New York Times or The Washington Post or almost any newspaper or magazine, or anything you might hear on any broadcast network other than Fox News or the Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh radio shows, can be dismissed as purely fabricated propaganda. To hear the more die-hard apologists tell it, they’re doing it at the behest of a cabal of “deep state” “globalist” “elites” and other “establishment” types who seek to oppress all the real Americans, and the president himself has repeatedly refuted any stories he doesn’t want to hear calling them “fake news.”
There are valid criticisms of the press coverage Trump has received, and God and the internet archives know we’ve also done our own share of media criticism over the past years, but far too many of those “fake news” stories have lately been corroborated by sworn testimony before congressional committees and a special counsel investigation, or been backed up by court documents or other official records, or acknowledged after the release of audiotape and videotape evidence, to dismiss them all as purely fabricated propaganda. The right-wing radio hosts like to sneer about the “The Washington Compost,” but it has lately had a far better record for accuracy than Trump’s “tweets” or his AM band apologists.
Which brings us back to the Post’s latest win by a rout. The story starts with that special senatorial election down in Alabama, where Republican candidate and self-proclaimed champion of Christian values Roy Moore was heavily favored until the Post ran a story about three women who claimed Moore had pursued them when he was a 32-year-old assistant district attorney and they were teenagers, with of them claiming he molested her when she was 14 years old. All three women gave their names, the paper had dozens of unnamed women who recalled the women giving the same accounts contemporaneously, another six women came forward to various media on the record with a slew of unnamed women recalling the same contemporaneous accounts, and other media found mall employees and district attorney’s office workers who recalled Moore’s reputation for liking them young.
Following Trump’s successful playbook Moore as his dismissed it all as “fake news” and assailing the liberal reputation of The Washington Post, and although the race has clearly tightened the wildly disparate polls suggest it just might work down in Alabama. Elsewhere it doesn’t seem to be playing as well, so an anti-establishment media outfit calling itself Project Veritas set out to discredit the post with one of its sting operations.
If you’ve not been following the anti-establishment media over the past many years, Project Veritas is a small but well-funded group that prides itself on such guerrilla tactics as ambush interviews and undercover hidden camera investigations of left-wing foes. They made quite a splash with their widely-disseminated video of a white actor posing hilariously as an inner-city pimp to seek help starting his prostitution at a notoriously left-wing community organizing scam, which led to the scam losing its congressional funding and at long last going away, so although Project Veritas wound up paying a six-figure settlement due to some admitted selective editing they were widely hailed as conservative champions.
Since then Project Veritas has pretty much proved a bust. The guy who runs the outfit wound up pleading guilty to a misdemeanor for his attempt to bug a congressman’s office, over some controversy of the moment we can’t recall, and since then his biggest hit was a non-viral video of himself crossing the Rio Grande dressed as Osama bin Laden, and after that his latest failure was some video of some Cable News Network workers saying they don’t agree with everything their employers do. Hoping to regain his anti-establishment mojo, he apparently hired a woman to tell The Washington Post that Moore had an affair with her when she was 15 years and persuaded her to abort the ensuing love child. Had the Post fallen for the scam it would have been humiliating, and a grand route for Project Veritas, but it didn’t work out that way.
We can vouch that the reporters at any old mainstream paper, such as the double-A and triple-A ones we long toiled for, are mostly damned liberals, but there and especially at such major league papers as The Washington Post they’re not damned fools and they know it’s not good business in the long run to purely fabricate propaganda, so of course they checked out their sources. In this case the amateurish if well-funded scam quickly fell apart, with the undercover operative caught on embarrassing videotape and the guy who runs Project Veritas being surprised by a videotaped interview and winding up telling his donors that he got caught and therefore needs their money all the more. All those stories in the Post and elsewhere about Moore’s proclivities for teenaged girls as a 30-something prosecutor seemed all the more believable, too.
There are reports that Trump is lately telling friends that the embarrassing “Access Hollywood” tape he once acknowledged and even apologized for is fake, and that even after saying that “Barack Obama was born in the States, period” he still has doubts about it, and he’s still insisting he was robbed of the popular vote by millions of illegally-cast ballots even as the commission he assigned to prove it is falling apart, and he’s “tweeting” links to to the magapill.com website that provides the real news about all his accomplishments and all the nefarious and far-fetched conspiracies trying to thwart them.
We still have no affinity for the Post’s undeniable liberalism, but at this point we’re no fonder of Trump or Moore or a a disturbing portion of our Republican party, and by now our only rooting interest is in the truth. On matters ranging from the growing nuclear threat on the Korean peninsula to the whole “Russia thing” to the ongoing problem of how some men treat women, we expect the truth will be a story that none of us will want to hear, but we’ll gird ourselves and hope the truth somehow wins out at the end of this dreary story.

— Bud Norman

Hollywood’s Hypocrisy, and Everyone Else’s

By now you’ve surely heard of Harvey Weinstein, the only name that can lately nudge President Donald Trump out of the news.
Weinstein is the heavyweight Hollywood movie mogul who stands accused of decades of sexual predatory behavior, ranging from mere boorishness to outright rape, and although he’s not yet been charged in a court of law he’s already been convicted in the court of public opinion. The company Weinstein founded has kicked him out, A-List actresses have come forward to corroborate the accounts of countless lesser-known accusers, some very disturbing audio has been leaked from a suspiciously-dropped investigation by a New York City district attorney, he’s issued a statement acknowledging he could have behaved better and is seeking therapy, and no one is denying that he’s long been a very sleazy fellow.
Hollywood’s constant scandals have been big news since the silent days of Fatty Arbuckle and Clara Bow, but this one comes at an especially opportune time for its culture war adversaries on the right. Over the past decades the entertainment industry has manufactured many movies and television shows that delight in the exposing the frequently scandalous behavior of self-appointed guardians of morality on the right, so it’s only fair the right should delight in a scandal that exposes the frequent hypocrisy of Hollywood’s self-appointed exemplars of sexual equality and social justice. Weinstein’s sleaziness was apparently an open secret in Hollywood for years, with only a few brave comics willing to acknowledge it, and despite the recent deluge of A-Listers piling on the entire industry is indeed implicated.
We’ll happily pile on Weinstein, as well, as we have our own instinctive and longstanding disgust for his alleged behavior as well as most of the past few decades of sleazy Hollywood fare in general, but we don’t expect it will help the culture wars come to an end any time soon. There’s yet another juicy scandal that exposes Hollywood’s social justice pretentious are utterly predictable, but we can’t deny that Hollywood’s wags still have plenty of hypocrisy on the right to work with.
A couple of weeks ago a happily little-known Republican congressman who’d run on a staunchly anti-abortion and pro-family-values platform announced he wouldn’t run for re-election after his mistress told reporters he’d urged her to get an abortion during a pregnancy scare, with the text messages to back it up, and there’s no denying this sort of hypocrisy happens all too often on the right. The fair and balanced Fox News Network has kicked out its co-founder and top-rated commentator kicked for Weinstein-like behavior, and the Republican president has been caught on audiotape bragging about how he can grab women by their wherevers because he’s a television star, with numerous women alleging he did just that and countless others testifying to his at least boorish behavior, and Republican party loyalty cannot compel us to deny it.
The real shame of it is that both the left and the right should be able to agree that all such sleazy behavior and outright hypocrisy is unacceptable, no matter which side of the political divide it lands on. The firm hand of our fundamentalist Christian mother taught us to always treat women with a careful respect, which served us well in our relationships with the fundamentalist feminists we always found ourselves drawn to, and it doesn’t seem so much a matter of left and right as one of right and wrong. These days, however, we expect that both sides and all their sleazier members will continue scoring points.
The few brave comics who dared expose Weinstein’s sleaziness included Tina Fey, the insufferably liberal but undeniably funny woman who made his sleaze a running gag on her well worth watching “30 Rock” television show, and we count ourselves among the many commenters on the right who have always acknowledged when our side has been caught in similar scandals, so we’ll hold out hope there’s still a principled middle ground most of us occupy that acknowledges you just don’t treat women with a sexually predatory disrespect.

— Bud Norman

Nat Hentoff, RIP

The first notable death of the year is that of journalist and author and critic Nat Hentoff, who died Saturday at the age of 91, and although that’s a ripe old age we wish he could have stuck around a bit longer. For the most of his seven-decades-long career and even right up to the end he was one of those durned back east big city liberals we’re always railing against, but he was one of the rare principled sorts who really did believe in life and liberty and individualism and everything else that liberalism claims to champion, so such principled conservatives as ourselves will need such stubbornly independent allies in the coming years.
Hentoff was born to Russian and Jewish immigrant parents in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, which way back then was a hotbed of both orthodox Judaism and radical politics, and by the age of 12 he was spending Yom Kippur conspicuously eating a salami sandwich on his tenement’s porch steps to signal his affiliation with the latter influence. A star student at America’s oldest public high school, Hentoff went off to Northeastern University, where he ran in to trouble as the student newspaper’s editor by publishing accounts of anti-Semitism at the the school, but still graduated with honors and started a career in journalism.
The jazz-crazed Hentoff’s first gig was as a music columnist with Downbeat, at that time the very Bible of jazz criticism, but despite an avid readership he was forced out after a few years because of his outspoken insistence the magazine hire more black writers. He then started a short-lived but briefly influential jazz journal of his own, and would later write several important books about the subject, and although he liked all that noisome be-bop and modernism more than we did his writings celebrated the glorious freedom of both the old and new jazz with a passion that’s still worth reading.
After that Hentoff wound up at the Village Voice, which was then as now the very Bible of radical chic liberalism, and at that point he was so eager to get out of the contentious field of jazz criticism that he started covering politics. He mostly concerned himself with any governmental attempts to restrict freedom of expression or pretty much any other freedom, and way back in the ’50s and into the ’60s he could find plenty of material about censorious right-winters and foul-mouth comedians and gay bars and Watergate to satisfy his avid liberal readership. He was still at it when we first started reading him in our junior high’s library in the ’70s, and although we picked up the Village Voice mostly because it gave our teenaged punk sensibilities a certain satisfaction to refute its radical chic liberalism we usually had to admit that the Hentoff guy had a point. Something in our own much-later prairie protestant upbringing in a hot bed of conservative orthodoxy had imbued a similar philosophy of First Amendment absolutism, and we vowed not to abandon that even for the sake of our side.
By the time we started our own journalism career in the early ’80s the liberals had been in charge for a while, at least in part because of Hentoff’s compelling arguments, and we already were noticing that they were suddenly the censorious and bossy ones. Conservative speakers were being literally shouted down at campus appearances and orthodox religious viewpoints were being excluded from public discussion, and all sorts of folks were suddenly confronted with new rules and regulations they never voted on. Hentoff couldn’t help noticing, either, and we have to admire that he wouldn’t abandon his First Amendment absolutism even for the sake of his side. He wrote column after column excoriating the rescinded commencement address invitations to conservative speakers, the silliness of a campus culture that insisted on ideological purity, the charges of racism leveled against any who dared speak out against the ostensible consensus on race, or the charges of homophobia against anyone who hewed to traditional religion, or any of the familiar rest of it. Of course it didn’t play well with his erstwhile avid readership on the left, and neither did it gain him much from respect from his erstwhile enemies on the right, but that’s all the more reason we’re going to miss the guy.
In his final years Hentoff was still as outspokenly atheistic as ever, but he was every bit as anti-abortion as any Orthodox rabbi, making a case for life from the very moment of conception to the end that was probably all the more convincing to many readers because it was grounded in the scientific and secular principles he’d always championed, and he even wound up writing admiringly of the radically anti-government Republican Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul during that past crazy election year. Although we’re not so crazy about Paul ourselves neither are we crazy about the Republican president-elect with the censorious streak and the crazy idea that his government can make America great again, and although Hentoff was still a back east big city atheist liberal to the end we think we could have used his help in a time when principled conservatives few few and far between. In any case we wish Hentoff well, and hope that the God he never believed in will nonetheless welcome his soul to the perfect freedom he always wanted for the rest of us.

— Bud Norman

Pining for the Pre-Depression Days of Al Smith and Herbert Hoover

One of the great traditions in American politics, at least during the more normal presidential election years, is the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation’s dinner in New York City. Named for the four-time New York governor who became the first Catholic presidential nominee as the Democratic standard-bearer in the ’28 race, the foundation raises money for Catholic charities and hosts an annual swanky big-bucks white-tie affair that always attracts the cream of New York’s political and business and media and social elites, and every leap year’s dinner features both presidential contenders taking a night off from the campaign’s acrimony to make self-deprecating jokes about themselves and lighthearted joshes about the opponent.
In this crazy election year, of course, it didn’t work out that way.
This year the dinner was inconveniently scheduled the day after what turned out to be an especially acrimonious debate between Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican rival Donald Trump, and both candidates were facing a tough crowd. Some hacked computers files made public by Wikileaks have recently revealed some of Clinton’s staffers making anti-Catholic remarks, and the New York press has recently quoted some high-ranking church official’s taking exception to Clinton’s maximalist positions on abortion. Trump’s unpopularity with New York’s political and business and media and social elites is more longstanding, and his recent rhetoric about how they’re all part of a system rigged against him hasn’t helped. Throw in that Trump doesn’t do self-deprecation or light-hearted joshing, and Clinton has no apparent sense of humor of any sort, and the affair was off to a bad start before the first glass of wine was served.
Trump was given the first opportunity to prove how very charming and witty and likable he was, but for some reason chose not to even try. Coming on to polite applause, Trump got a laugh by pointing out a couple of pols and talking about they used to love him back when he was a Democrat, got another laugh by noting how many people in the room have known and loved for so many years, bragged how they use to seek his donations, then groused that they all hate him now that he’s a Republican. Noting the tradition of making self-deprecating jokes, Trump got a few laughs about how uncharacteristic that would be, did some joshing with the Cardinal seated nearby how they both have fancy buildings on Fifth Avenue, and humbly conceded that “nobody can compete with God, is that right? No contest.” He then launched into Clinton with a joke about her bumping into him and saying “pardon me,” and how he had offered him an ambassadorship to Iraq or Afghanistan, and noting that she usually charged more for speeches to rich people, all of which was in the spirit of the event and got a few polite chuckles. Then he compared Clinton unfavorably to his long-time tabloid nemesis Rosie O’Donnell, which clearly made the crowd uncomfortable, and made a joke about how the assembled media were working on Clinton’s behalf, which came off rather bitter.
He shifted back to self-deprecating mode with a joke about how the media will praise Michelle Obama for making a great speech but criticize his wife for making the exact same speech, which got a good laugh, but it was mostly deprecating his wife, and isn’t likely to help his gender gap in the polls. From that point on the joshing was noticeably less light-hearted, as Trump started snarling jokes about Clinton telling her father confessor at the Federal Bureau of Investigation “she couldn’t remember 39 times,” and such gems as “Hillary is so corrupt, she got kicked off the Watergate commission. How corrupt do you have to be? Pretty corrupt.” There was some further criticism of her corruption that didn’t seem a joke at all, then a line about how she was invited by e-mail but didn’t learn until Wikileaks revealed, then another non-joke about Clinton taking public and private positions, which set up what he seemed to think was a joke about Clinton “pretending not to hate Catholics.”
The material probably would have killed at one of Trump’s rallies, where the crowds are adorned in “Make America Great Again” ball caps and “Trump That Bitch” t-shirts, but the white-tied and elegantly gowned crowd of New York’s elites were loudly booing him by that point, which kind of deflated a closing joke about “Hillary Clinton’s isn’t laughing as much as the rest of us.” He made a slight recovery with some kind words about the good works done by Catholic charities, and left to some straining-to-be-polite applause, but the press was already rushing to print negative reviews about Trump’s “screed.”
Few politicians in American history have ever had greater need to come across as witty and charming and likable than Clinton, and we’ll have to concede she was savvy enough to take full advantage of the opportunity. She started by noting that Al Smith’s running mate was from Arkansas and a boyhood hero of her husband, which seemed to endear her to the Catholics in the crowd, then launched into the old self-deprecating shtick with a joke about she’s taken time off her “rigorous nap schedule” to be there and provided her own joke about she usually charges big bucks for a speech to rich people. She got a few laughs with a subtle joke about being up against a stained-glass ceiling, bigger laughs an inside-New York joke about the mayor and the governor’s rivalry, polite twitters with a josh about formal pantsuits, flattered the crowd that they were a “basket of adorables,” and then launched into Trump. She invited him to stand up and shout “wrong” while she was talking and had something about him letting her take the stage in “a peaceful transition of power,” which got a few laughs, and remarked that after hearing Trump’s speech she was “looking forward to hearing Mike Pence deny that he ever gave it,” which even we thought pretty clever. The jokes got more barbed at that point, suggesting that Trump would think the dinner had been rigged, and how he looked at the Statue of Liberty “and saw a 4, maybe a 5 if she dropped the torch and tablet and changed her hair.”
The crowd was a little nervous at that point, even though they cheered her line about how “a good number for a woman would be 45,” as in the 45th president, but Clinton shrewdly shifted back to self-deprecation, joking about how it took a village to right her jokes and how she’s been the life of every party she’s ever attended, “and I’ve been to three.” Veering back to attack mode, she spoke of how difficult it is for Trump to read from a teleprompter when he has to translate from the original Russian, and how sensible mainstream Republicans are now known as “Hillary supporters,” then offered a bipartisan jape about how at least the election will be over. She tossed a few friendly jabs at the assembled Democratic grandees, a less friendly jab at former Republican New York City mayor Rudy Guiliani, and responded to Trump’s recent allegations that she’s using performance enhancing drugs with a joke about he hadn’t prepared, another joke about Trump’s reputation for stiffing his contractors, another joke about Pence, a line about shortening the election season that got applause even from Trump, another sharp jab about Trump’s feud with Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan. Much of it pushed up against the event’s collegial traditions enough to render the laughter slightly nervous, and the quality of jokes varied wildly, but the delivery was low-key and amiable enough that even the pro-Trump outskirts of the press will have a hard time calling it a “screed.”
Clinton ended with a more serious few moments about the anti-Catholic prejudice that Al Smith faced during that long-ago presidential race, threw in some lines about Pope Francis’ recent remarks about “building bridges instead of walls,” and seemed to assure the assembled Bishops and Archbishops and Cardinals that whatever their disagreements regarding abortion she didn’t hate Catholics. Off course the political and business and media and social elites were already assured she didn’t hate them, so she walked off to a much bigger hand than Trump received, at which we point we were composing our own joke about which candidate had the bigger hands. All in all we’d say she came off ¬†somewhat more witty and charming and likable than Trump, which is not saying much, and at this point in this crazy election we’d say that’s pretty darned bad news for Trump. America deserves better than these two jokers, and so does the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation’s fancy-schmantzy dinners.

— Bud Norman

On What Was Thankfully the Final Debate

We tuned into the final presidential debate of this crazy election year loathing both participants, and by the end of it we were loathing both even more, so we’re inclined to call it a draw. The target audience was whatever slight portion of the country is still holding out hope that one of these two awful people is at least somewhat less awful than the other, however, and with that in mind we’d have to say that awful Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton probably got the better of awful Republican nominee Donald Trump.
All the pundits in the traditional press seemed to agree that for the first 30 minutes or so Trump sounded like the sort of politely boring old-fashioned Republican who would probably be 20 points ahead of Clinton in all the polls, and that for the remainder of the debate he started acting like the proudly impolite and you-have-to-admit-at-least-he’s-not-boring candidate that overwhelmed all those politely boring but vastly more accomplished primary challengers and is currently six points or so behind in a general election race. Being politely boring old-fashioned Republicans ourselves we’d like to think we could have done better on the policy stuff, and would have come off far less awful during the rest of the debate, but we bitterly admit that this time the conventional wisdom is probably correct. Both candidates were at last forced to confront the fact of America’s crippling national debt, with the Democrat ludicrously asserting that the rich folks who currently pay an inordinate share of the nation’s taxes can pay off a mere $20 trillion or so of debt and the Republican ludicrously asserting that he’ll somehow create a 5 percent annual increase in the gross domestic product that will make it all go away, and both pretending that reforms to the entitlement programs that comprise some 60 percent of government spending aren’t needed, but we have to admit that the frank talk we believe in probably wouldn’t have done either any good. They were also asked about abortion, with the Democrat sticking to her long-held extremist abortion-rights-even-unto-the-ninth-month stand and the Republican sticking to his newly-found and also extremist punish-the-mother positions on the matter, but we doubt that anybody with strong opinions on the matter was dissuaded by either of their soundbites.
Clinton was the Secretary of State who presided over that awful deal that betrayed the Czechs and Poles on a deal to provide nuclear against the Russians, and who offered that ridiculously apologetic “reset” button that encouraged Russia to proceed with its revanchist policies in Georgia and the Ukraine and the rest of its former Soviet empire, but Trump once again bragged about how Russian dictator Vladimir Putin had said nice things about him and defended his admirer against the now undeniable charge that Putin has been hacking the Democratic party’s e-mails to help the Trump campaign. A boringly polite Republican candidate would have such taken to the opportunity to note that Clinton had also made her e-mails as Secretary of State vulnerable to foreign espionage by using an unsecured server that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has called “grossly careless,” but the you-have-to-admit-at-least-he’s-not-boring Trump took the opportunity to defend the Russian dictator against the charges leveled by every single civilian and military intelligence agency and declined a golden opportunity to say he didn’t approve of such foreign interference in an American election. This allowed Clinton to assert that Trump would be Putin’s “puppet,” causing to Trump to respond that “you’re the puppet,” and at that point we were only slightly reassured he didn’t mimic PeeWee Herman by saying “I know you are, but what am I?”
Clinton was stuck with the Democrats’ weak-kneed response to the Islamic State’s rise, Trump overstated its international influence and was reduced to arguing that a recent multi-national offensive against that terror gang was politically-timed and that Putin wasn’t propping up the Syrian and Iranian resistance. Some brief long awaited talk about the undeniable failure of the Obamacare health system would have helped a boringly traditional Republican candidate, but Trump’s past talk in support of an individual mandate and praise of single payer systems and blather about the government paying for universal coverage resulted in yet another desultory draw.
For those who stuck around for the good part where the candidates sparred over which one was more awful, it was probably another draw. Even the well-reviewed-by-the-mainstream-press Fox News moderator was obliged to ask Trump about his caught-on-tape and widely-publicized comments about grabbing women by the whatever, and an audience warned against any reactions had a good laugh when he claimed that nobody respects women more than he does, so although Trump was at least shrewd enough not to raise his usual accusations about Clinton’s husband that was probably a draw at the very best. By the end of the debate he was frequently interrupting Clinton, which probably doesn’t play well with the distaff 53 percent of the electorate that seems to loathe him even more than Clinton, and his interjection that she’s “such a nasty woman,” although accurate enough, probably didn’t win him any undecided votes.
Nor did Trump do himself any good, near the end, when he said that he’d keep the country “in suspense” about whether he’d accept the outcome of the election even if he lost. A boringly traditional Republican would have answered the question by saying that once the votes had all been counted, and absent any compelling evidence of fraud, that of course he would accede to the will of the people, but you have to admit that Trump at least isn’t so boring as that. The response will probably dominate the post-debate headlines, and the resulting debate probably won’t do him much good, but at least it will give his more die-hard supporters something to grouse about for another four years.
For those of us who can’t stand either of these two awful people or their awful for-the-moment policies, there will be plenty of grousing no matter how it turns out.

— Bud Norman

No Sex, but Lies and Videotape

By Wednesday morning it was the conventional wisdom that Republican vice-presidential nominee Mike Pence got the better of Democratic rival Tim Kaine in Tuesday’s night debate, for whatever that’s worth, but by Wednesday evening Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump seemed to be losing the post-debate news cycle against Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. Even the more respectable pundits on the most polite press acknowledge that Pence made a damning case against Clinton’s damnable record, but even the most die-hard Trump supporters should acknowledge that he had a harder time defending some of Trump’s most outrageous statements.
In several cases Pence simply denied that Trump had ever said any such thing, which seemed to work well enough for the duration of the 90-minute debate, but in the age of ubiquitous audio tape and quick internet access the ploy didn’t last a day. By the time the evening newscasts came along there was footage of Pence shaking his head and insisting that Trump had never praised Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, followed by footage of Trump saying “Putin’s been a very strong leader for Russia,” Pence dismissing as “nonsense” the claim that Trump was unaware that Putin had invaded Ukraine, followed by footage of Trump assuring an interviewer that Putin “is not going into Ukraine, you can mark it down you, can put it down, you can take it any way you want,” Pence shaking his had and saying “nonsense” again at the claim Trump had advocated a deportation force for illegal immigrants, followed by footage of Trump saying “You’re going to have a deportation force.” Similar denials of videotaped statements regarding punishing women for abortions, allowing nuclear proliferation in Asia and the Middle East, renegotiating the national debt, and a ban on Muslims entering the country also made the list, and both the Clinton campaign and its media allies were having great fun with it.
We suppose Pence could have quibbled that he and Trump had called Putin “strong,” which doesn’t necessarily imply “good,” and he might have explained how Trump meant to say something other than that you could mark it down and write it down that Putin would never invade Ukraine, perhaps that he wouldn’t do again, and he surely wouldn’t have lost any supporters if he’d gone right ahead and doubled down on that deportation force idea. Pence has been a stalwart of the anti-abortion cause long enough to know it doesn’t advocate punishing women who seek abortions, so he could hardly be expected to defend the zealotry of a newfound convert to the cause, and he seems a reasonable enough fellow, so he could hardly be expected to defend that crazy talk about Japan and Saudi Arabia acquiring nuclear weapons, so perhaps a brief-lived denial was the best he could come up with.
Which is a shame, really, because Pence did make a darned damning case against the damnable career of Clinton. The more objective sorts of fact-checkers were begrudgingly obliged to point out of some of Kaine’s own whoppers, too, but for the most part he didn’t try to deny any of it and thus wasn’t caught in some easily disproved denials. Kaine was an obnoxious jerk who frequently interrupted his more presidential-looking opponent throughout the debate, and at times seemed almost unhinged, but it’s hard to imagine that any still-undecided voters will think that a reason to vote for Trump.
Trump can take some solace in though that we’re in a post-factual era of politics when no one pays much attention to all that ubiquitous and easily-accessible audio-tape. Last time around Republican nominee Mitt Romney made a damning case during a presidential debate that President Barack Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had outright lied that the four deaths at an American consulate in Libya were the result of a spontaneous protest against an obscure YouTube video rather than a pre-planned terror attack, and had repeated the lie on numerous news shows and in front of the United Nations, but Obama denied it and the moderator cited a vague allusion to “terrorism” during one speech to back it up, and it wound up working well enough. Trump shouldn’t expect such favors from the moderators of any of his debates, though, and the reality show veteran should keep in mind that videotape is pesky stuff.

— Bud Norman

When Two Co-Stars Collide

Being the hard-core political news junkies that we are, we even tuned in for Tuesday night’s vice-presidential debate. For what it’s worth, which isn’t much, we thought that Republican vice-presidential nominee Mike Pence got the better of Democratic vice-presidential nominee Tim Kaine, but that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton nonetheless came out ahead of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
At this point most Americans have no idea who either Pence or Kaine are, and even the more star-studded vice-presidential debates of the recent past had any discernible effect on the top-of-the-ticket outcomes, but those who did bother tune in were treated to an interesting show. They also got a glimpse at what this election year might have looked like in a more sane America.
Former Senator and current Indiana Governor Mike Pence came across as soft-spoken yet serious, humble yet forceful, broadly well-informed yet sharply focused on the most important issues, and he made a persuasive case against Clinton and her checkered career. All that soft-spoken and humble and well-informed shtick made for a jarring contrast with Trump’s bombastic and boastful and winging-it persona, though, and Pence’s defense of his running mate’s also checkered career wasn’t nearly so effective. Former Virginia Governor and current Sen. Tim Kaine came across as smug and rude and merely well-read on his talking points, but not quite so much as Trump, and even if he had a hard time defending his running mate he had much better luck casting aspersions on the opposition.
Kaine was able to repeatedly raise Trump’s apparent and pretty much-admitted tax-dodging and his refusal to release the tax returns that might prove how ingeniously he got away with it, riposte Pence’s quite believable allegations about Clinton’s family charity with the recent believable revelations about Trump’s charity foundation, and make mention of several of Trump’s most offensive quotes. Pence had a good argument about how the apologetic “reset” policy with Russia that Clinton had pursued as Secretary of State had encouraged dictator Vladimir Putin to pursue a revanchist policy that has already invaded Georgia and Ukraine, but there wasn’t much to be said when Kaine cited Trump’s frequent praise of Putin and his insistence to an interviewer that Russia would never invade Ukraine. In that case, as in so many others when Pence was called to defend the indefensible, he wound up insisting that Trump hadn’t said what he provably did say, and we expect that the video proof will soon be starring in an attack ad by the Clinton campaign. Towards the end there was a long discussion about abortion, an issue that hasn’t been prominent in this campaign, and although Pence made a strong and obviously sincere case for the anti-abortion side of the issue he struggled to explain his running mate’s soon-withdrawn statement that women who seek abortions should suffer some legal penalty.
Still, Pence did well enough that we’re sure we’re not the only Republicans who found themselves wishing he were at the top of the ticket. Pence or any other equally boring establishment Republican could have effectively made the damning case against Clinton’s checkered career with bombast or boasting or the wild rhetoric that comes with winging it, and none would have been obliged to defend an also checkered or the kind of outrageous statements that Pence was obliged to pretend didn’t exist. There are no doubt many Democrats wishing that someone so run-of-the-mill as Kaine was heading the ticket, with the scant name recognition that comes with being unencumbered by so many scandals and outrageous statements that Clinton has accumulated over the years, but we think the more honest of them would admit that Pence got the better of it on Tuesday night.
In any case, it will likely be long forgotten by the time those two awful people at the top of the tickets meet up again on Sunday.

— Bud Norman