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On America’s Mean Streak

By now we should be well inured to such behavior, but we were nonetheless taken aback by how very rude and insulting President Donald Trump was to a couple of women reporters who dared asked unwanted questions at his Monday news conference.
Trump was eager to tout the greatest trade deal ever that he’s recently reached with Mexico and Canada, and when one woman at the back of the press gathering asked about something else he basically told her to sit down and shut up. The next question went to the American Broadcasting Company’s Cecilia Vega, and while she waited for the microphone he taunted that “She’s shocked that I picked her.” When the microphone at last arrived she said “I wasn’t thinking…,” and Trump interjected that “I know you’re not thinking. You never do.” By now Vega should be even more inured to such presidential behavior, but she was taken aback enough to say “Excuse me?,” and Trump condescendingly told her to go right ahead and ask her question, then berated her when it was about the big news Supreme Court nomination rather than the greatest trade deal ever made.
As obviously ungallant as it was, this fell well short of Trump shooting someone on Fifth Avenue, which Trump has famously boasted he could do without losing a single supporter, so of course his die-hard defenders defended it. They had a convincing argument that Trump wasn’t being the least bit sexist, as he’s routinely every bit as rude and insulting to male reporters who dare to ask questions he’d rather not answer, and that the “fake news” “lame stream media” and the rest of the “lib-tards” have it coming, but as old white heterosexual and Christian long-registered Republican males with plenty of unpleasant questions of our own we were not placated.
Somehow we missed the press conference footage on Monday, along with all the sneering fun that the late night comics of course had with it, but it was the first thing we saw on the internet after awakening Tuesday afternoon, and it somehow stayed with us all day. While running a pressing chore we tuned our car radio into one of the talk radio hosts on the AM dial, who was as usual screeching at the top of his lungs about how the “Democrat party” is actively undermine the American way, and we got the impression that all the white and heterosexual and Christian males registered as Republican were in dire danger of being locked up in a Soviet-style gulag, and that he thought they all needed to be locked up in advance of this diabolical plan.
At one point we found ourselves stopped at a red light next to one of those new-fangled and now-discontinued Volkswagen Beetles, whose owner had painted a message on to the rear to his fellow motorists to “back the ***** off,” and when we took a glance at him we noticed he was for some reason or another glaring at us. It was at that point we started contemplating a certain mean streak in our otherwise beloved American culture.
Having completed our pressing chore we retreated to a favorite dive up on the rough northeast end, where we nursed a beer through a couple of episodes of “Jeopardy, getting enough answers in the form of a question right that we could have made some serious bucks if we’d been playing for real. After that the bartender started playing one of his favorite heavy metal bands at a very high volume, however, and our dour mood returned.
We’ve heard enough heavy metal music in our time to recognize that the band was indeed quite tight and technically accomplished, and we’re sure that if that’s the kind of thing you like you would quite like it, but to our ears and in our momentary mood it sounded rude and insulting with nothing more to say than “back the **** off.” That’s the same message you’ll hear from the rappers thudding out of the amped-bass speakers of other bars and the cars we find ourselves next at red lights in the northeast end, and we seem to get the same communique at the fancy art galleries we visit around here, and by now it’s pretty much ubiquitous. There’s no escaping to the sports page, where the Ultimate Fighting Championships have supplanted the Sweet Science of boxing in popularity, because the sport that rendered Muhammad Ali to a pathetically slurring and prematurely dead victim just wasn’t violent enough, and the “back the **** off” end zone dances in the violent combat of professional football are now far more popular than the humble home-run trots and appreciative cap salutes of the erstwhile national pastime.
There’s no blaming Trump for this longstanding sad state of affairs, of course, and the left surely shoulders a large if not lion’s share of the blame. It was the liberals who made a civil rights hero out of Lenny Bruce for peppering his astoundingly unfunny night club comedy routines with vulgarities, thus paving the way for today’s astoundingly unfunny and vulgar comedy. Every “transgressive” cultural movement from the end of World War I, from Dadaism to Deconstructionism to the hippies and hip hop and heavy metal, has been championed by the left. In the realm of politics, one doesn’t have to be an Aleksander Solzhenitsyn or Andrei Sakharov to know that some elements of the left would happily back you the **** off into a barb-wired prison camp.
For most of our lives the Republican party and the broader conservative movement in general resisted these darker angels of our national soul. President Abraham Lincoln waged a ruthless war to preserve the union, but then vowed to heal the nation’s wounds with “Malice towards none, and charity towards all.” President Calvin Coolidge sought a “return to normalcy” of the pre-World War I era. President Dwight Eisenhower was steadfast against both communism and McCarthyism, quietly nudged along racial equality, and sagely urged that America not become “the richest and most powerful country in the graveyard of history.” Even Richard Nixon kept his vulgarities and lock-’em-all-up tendencies confined to the White House and its tape recording machines. President Ronald Reagan couched his hard-core conservatism in terms of a Shining City on a Hill, always with a sweet and sunny disposition, and he never jabbed harder at a political opponent than to say “There you go again.”
After that President George H.W. Bush offered up an even “kinder, gentler” style of conservatism, however, and most of the Republican party has been restive ever since. Despite the rare third term he won for his party and decisive victory Bush won in the first Iraq War thanks to the sort of international coalition that only a seasoned diplomat could achieve, there was a slight but ill-timed recession and a billionaire narcissist third-party candidate drawing Republican votes and he wound up losing to Democratic President Bill Clinton, so Bush is now considered a loser.
After Clinton won re-election from the tough-talking Republican nominee Robert Dole, once again with the help of that same billionaire narcissist, he was succeeded by the even kinder and gentler President George W. Bush. Despite the son’s undeniable difficulties with a second Iraq War he beat the lefty Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry, and for a while that enough to satisfy the talk radio hosts and their agitated callers.
Another ill-timed recession led to the election of President Barack Obama, however, and over the eight excruciatingly long years of his presidency much of the Republican party grew more restive yet. No Republican could have possibly prevailed in the recessionary year of ’08, but to hear the talk radio hosts and their equally fervid callers tell it the bona-fide war hero Sen. John McCain only lost because he was too much of a wimp to come right out and say that Obama was a Kenyan-born Muslim intent on locking kup all the straight white Christian conservatives. The morally upright and gentlemanly Gov. Mitt Romney came in closer in ’12 on a traditional Republican platform of assertive American leadership in foreign affairs and mostly free markets at home, but the consensus of party opinion was that Romney was a loser who lost because because he was too morally upright and gentlemanly and that the traditional Republican platform was hopelessly out of date.
By ’16, a winning plurality of Republican primary  votes nominated Trump, whose obvious moral rectitude and defiantly ungentlemanly behavior and brash heresies against traditional Republican foreign policies and free market principles were by then seen as features and not bugs. He was was seen as the “grab ’em by the *****” and “back the **** off” candidate the county needed who would lock up those rude and insulting and vulgar “demon rats” before they could lock up the rest of us God-fearing Americans. Since then Trump has gained  overwhelming support from the Republican party, which now seems to mostly agree America’s border laws should be enforced in the cruelest possible way and that it doesn’t really matter if that Supreme Court nominee actually did once attempt to rape a classmate and is now brazenly lying about it.
At this point we can well imagine far too many Republican parents pointing to Trump’s rude and insulting behavior and telling their sons that’s how a real man acts, and that’s what real presidential leadership looks like. We can also imagine them telling their daughters not to be one of those uppity women who ask men unwanted questions, and we’ve already seen far too many Republican women in televised focus groups saying that attempted rape is just boys being boys.
Please spare us the argument that the left is just as bad in its own way, as we’ve  long  known that’s true, and it doesn’t make us feel any better. Even that usually friendly bartender who indulges our “Jeopardy” habit got bent slightly out of shape when we opined that his heavy metal favorites struck us as a wee bit hostile, and that their music might play some small part in why we have a shock jock insult comic internet troll as President, and a noisy debate arouse among the few other regulars. A gray-haired middle-of-the-road sort of Democrat friend of ours bought us another beer and took our side, though, and by the end of another round we parted everyone in the joint with handshakes and assurances that no hard feelings were meant.
We’d like to think that America’s political and cultural divides can be similarly bridged, but until at least the mid-term elections we expect that much of America will be waving an updated Gadsen flag that substitutes “Don’t Tread On Me” with the new but not-at-all improved “back the **** off.”

— Bud Norman

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On Presidential Comedy, as Intended or Inadvertent

Comedy is the most subjectively judged of all the lively arts, and there’s no accounting for what one laughs at.
We’ve always considered Laurel & Hardy comedic geniuses, and always thought The Three Stooges boringly low-brow and grotesque, even though they were telling the same profoundly true and universally funny slapstick joke about some poor schmuck getting hit on the head with a two-by-four or falling into a deep hole. One of our formative childhood heroes was W.C. Fields, whose cynical and sneering and subtly self-loathing sense of humor used to show up on the late-late-shows we were allowed to watch during summer vacations, but for the most part we find the cynicism and sneering that dominate today’s comedy shallow and self-righteous and unfunny.
So it is with the related yet significantly different matter of presidential wit. Presidents aren’t expected to be stand-up-comics-in-chief, nor should they be, but rhetoric is required for the job, as is establishing a personal connection with the people, as well as having a realistic grasp of the absurdity of one’s self and the world one lives in, and a certain amount of sense of humor is essential to pull that off. The job also occasional entails speaking at such events as the Al Smith Memorial Dinner or the Gridiron club’s annual review or the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, or other events where a few moments of ghost-written comedy is expected to be delivered with a certain panache, but in these cases one can usually account for one’s tastes by one’s political opinions.
President Donald Trump’s most loyal fans have always found him downright hilarious, cracking up at his mocking mimicry of a reporter’s physical handicap or nicknaming a shorter rival “Little,” but we always rolled our eyes under our high brows and heaved a sigh and lamented what had become of both comedy and the presidency. Trump’s impolite and unfunny routine at the campaign season’s white-tie-and-tails dinner in New York City during the campaign, which crossed the long-standing tradition of gentle joshing and to “Crooked Hillary is so crooked” jokes, which the oh-so-polite crowd of fellow well-helled New Yorkers booed, and although the hicks in the sticks loved it the reviews were mostly negative. After that Trump skipped his administration’s first White House Press Correspondents’ Dinner, where all the “fake news” media invite some smart-ass comic to lampoon the president and expect his to respond gentle joshing and self-deprecation. Trump did accept an invitation to the Gridiron Club’s latest annual schmooze-fest, though, and he got surprisingly mixed reviews.
The gathering Gridiron Club of elite Washington correspondents is more discreet than the White House Correspondents’, whose nationally televised dinner rivaled the Golden Globes for ratings during President Barack Obama’s years, but of course Trump knew that his performance in front of an audience of journalists wasn’t going unreported. He eschewed the Crooked Hillary bits, never once mentioned “fake news” in his gentle joshing of the press, and generally disarmed his knife-sharpening critics. He reportedly got a deservedly big laugh from the tough room by saying that his staff worried he couldn’t pull of self-deprecating, but he assured them that “Nobody does self-deprecating humor better than me.”
Which is pretty darned funny, because it was heretofore so untrue, and we give credit to whomever came up with the line, and expect that it was Hope Hicks’ parting gift to talk Trump into saying it, but the hard-core fans probably prefer such golden oldie punch lines as “Build that wall” and “Lock her up.” They won’t notice, though, as the self-deprecating shtick wasn’t videotaped, but maybe this does signal a pivot to the old humble routine. After all the cynical and sneering late-night comics had a ball with footage of the wind and Marine One’s rotors blowing Trump’s careful comb-over away and revealing a large and unusual bald spot down the back of Trump’s head, the president recently regaled an actual rally crowd but turning around to show off his more carefully-coifed neck-to-forehead, and the audience ate it up, and the critics were largely disarmed.
This surely won’t end Trump’s endless shock jock insult comic shtick, though, and none of it rises to our admittedly old-fashioned standards of presidential wit. We’re old enough to remember President Ronald Reagan’s amiable and downright Andy Griffith-esque homespun humor, even after he’d been shot in the chest, and we’ve read enough history to regard President Abraham Lincoln as the gold standard. Lincoln was the fellow who came up with the “You can fool some of the people some of the time” aphorism, as Trump lives by in his condensed reading of the text, and the teetotaling Trump would have never come up with the line about buying all the Union generals whatever brand of whisky Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was drinking.
The several-inches-taller-than-Trump Lincoln didn’t resort to calling the diminutive Democratic incumbent Illinois Sen. Stephen Douglas “Little Stevie” during their famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, but instead mocked his gangly appearance with the stilly-wide quoted “A man’s legs should be just long enough to the reach the ground.” Many years later the then-hilarious Woody Allen wrote a droll piece for The New Yorker that had Lincoln’s gag writer suggesting a man’s legs should be just enough to reach his torso, as the visual image of the disembodied torso reaching toward the earthbound legs was funnier, and although we consider that an improvement on the original we don’t expect either level of wit these days.
Trump also had a line about a North Korean overture to start talks on the scary nuclear situation over there, and his arguably brusque response, but no one was quite sure if that was meant as a joke or not. Trump frequently blurts out things that sound quite scary at first listening, but another news cycle later the White House press secretary explains that c’mon, he was obviously kidding, and the die-hard fans crack up, and we roll our eyes under our high-brows and sigh about what’s become of comedy and the presidency.
The night before the Gridiron Club’s fancy-schmantzy show Trump was at his Mar-a-Lago resort in front of a crowd of steep-dues-paying fan club members, and riffed about how his good friend Chinese dictator Xi Jiping recently repealed China’s term limits on dictators, and how we ought to try that here, and of course the knife-sharpening critics made something of that. He was just kidding, of course, so the critics looked slightly ridiculous, but Trump has often said that he’s not really kidding when he’s kidding, and both the die-hard fans and that knife-sharpening critics both know that.
There are some things that more traditional presidents don’t joke about at all, except maybe in the mot private circumstances, but somehow it seems to be the conservatives who want to do away with such essential traditions. As much as we like Trump’s recent self-deprecating turn, we worry that it doesn’t reflect any serious self-evaluation of his mean cocksure soul, and his die-hard fans are no doubt hoping the same thing.

— Bud Norman

A Not So Fond Farewell

President Barack Obama gave his farewell address on Tuesday night, so at least we’ve got that going for us.
President-elect Donald Trump once again grabbed all the attention, of course, with his indignantly “tweeted” denial of some juicy new allegations that were reportedly included in the intelligence community’s much-debated reports to Congress and other officials concerning Russia’s alleged meddling in the past election. A maybe true and maybe not true dossier of allegations was compiled by a reportedly respected ex-British intelligence official, and is now splashed all over the internet, and it mentions Russian prostitutes and some very kinky sex acts, as well as several presumably more hygienic but no less newsworthy contacts that Trump’s business and campaign officials had with Russian officials, and it’s undeniably more irresistible conversation fodder than another one of Obama’s orations.
All that cloak and dagger and kinky sex stuff will play out over the next several days or weeks or months, though, if not much longer than that, and in the meantime we feel obliged to take note of Obama’s speech.
For the past nine years or so we’ve been hearing about what a wonderfully eloquent orator Obama is, but we were once again unimpressed. The language is well-crafted enough by comparison to his successor’s schoolyard taunts and constant interjections of “believe me” and “OK?” and “that I can tell you,” but that’s damning by faint praise, and up against an Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill or Martin Luther King or any other first rate rhetorician it’s not at all memorable. Even his most awe-struck admirers are hard-pressed to remember any line he ever uttered quite so iconic as Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address coinage of “military-industrial complex” or John Kennedy’s “bear any burden” shtick or even George W. Bush’s pithy “soft bigotry of low expectations,” and what they do come up with about “no red states or blues states” and “hope and change” and “yes we can” and that one about the sea levels falling now sounds faintly ridiculous after eight long years of his tiresome speeches.
Which left poor Obama, just 10 short days away from the seemingly inevitable inauguration of Trump, with the difficult job of making the case that all that hope had not been misplaced. He had a friendly audience in his adopted hometown of Chicago, all revved up by a soulful rendition of the the National Anthem, and he bounded on the stage with a rock star’s roar and a rock star’s rote greeting to a certain local neighborhood and a whole of thank you thank you very much, followed by some lame self-deprecating humor about being a lame duck, then he started waxing eloquent. He did so well enough that his still-ardent admirers who still feel that hope were probably tugging at their eyes, but any eyes that have been keeping a more unblinking watch on the past eight years were rolling.
There was some nostalgic talk about his young and idealistic days as a community organizer on the south side of Chicago, and how he learned that “Change only happens when ordinary people get involved, and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it.” That same south side of Chicago is presently so disorganized that it has a murder rate that would shock the denizens of your average third world hellhole, but so far the survivors haven’t gotten involved and engaged and demand change from Obama’s associates at City Hall, and somehow we got the sense that he wasn’t urging them to start now.
He followed that up with some rousing stuff about the wisdom of the founding fathers and their belief that we are “endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” At any rate it would have been rousing if he hadn’t spent the past eight years giving speeches about the country’s racist and sexist and classist origins, and steadfastly defending abortion rights, and restricting the citizens’ liberty in numerous ways, and generally making life miserable for anyone who was just trying to live it. There was some more rousing-for-the-faithful stuff about onward and upward to the more perfect union, along with a list of liberal goals that have been achieved over the years.
Even Obama had to admit that “Yes, our progress has been uneven,” and sometimes even “contentious,” and there was no talk about ocean levels falling or a new era of hope and change or any of the other stuff so many people were swooning for starting back about nine years ago. Instead, Obama tried to argue that things had worked out even better than promised. He touted the end of a Great Recession and “reboot” of America’s automotive industry and eight straight years of job growth, the shutdown of Iran’s nuclear weapons program and new relations with Cuba and of course the oft-cited death of Osama Bin Laden, along with a health care plan that insured another 20 million Americans, and boasted that “If I had told you that, you might have said our sights were set a little too high.
Even if that were all true it’s still setting the sights a little bit lower than during the messianic ’08 campaign, as far as we’re concerned, but without looking anything up and despite the florid language we were ready to dispute almost all of it. The Great Recession of ’08 did indeed come to an end, but recessions have always come to an end and usually with more robust employment gains than during the past below post-World War II averages, and who’s to say that whoever bought out General Motors would haven’t hired more workers? Iran’s nuclear weapons program is still on schedule and has a few billion dollar extra in its coffers thanks to Obama’s largesse, our new relations with Cuba are far too chummy with a communist regime for our tastes, and Obama saying he succeeded in killing Bin Laden where Bush had failed is like Nixon claiming credit for getting to the moon where Johnson and Kennedy had failed. That 20 million insured figure is by almost all other accounts vastly overstated, and includes a lot of people stuck on Medicaid and forced by buy overpriced insurance they don’t need, and it’s clearly one reason job growth has been so sluggish, and so many more people are stuck paying exorbitant rate increases and swelling budget deficits to pay for it that the guy who promised to repeal Obama’s signature piece of legislation wound up winning.
At that point Obama had to chide the crowd for booing the guy who did wind up winning, and we’ll give him credit for doing that, and he pledged a peaceful transfer of power and gave some props to George W. Bush for doing him the same solid. That was followed by a lot of talk exhorting Democrats to continuing be Democrats, and racism and climate change being very bad, and peace being better than war, along with some bragging about the oil boom he did everything he could to thwart, and a whole lot of blather that will be little noted and soon forgotten, to borrow a phrase from a more memorable orator. It didn’t convince us that we’d been wrong all along, and that Obama really was the Messiah we’d been told, but we suppose the true believers liked it, even if they can’t remember a single line of it today.
At this point we’re quite agnostic on the question of whether Trump really did pay those Russian prostitutes to perform those kinky sex acts while on a Moscow business trip, or whether any of those other dealings actually occurred, but we’re quite convinced he’s also no Messiah. All we can say at this point is that we can’t say we’re looking forward to four or eight more years of schoolyard taunts and constant interjections of “believe me” and “OK?” and “that I can tell you,” but at least the rest of Obama’s ponderous speeches will be more easily ignored as the forgettable asides of an ex-president.

— Bud Norman

A Gettysburg No-Show

Seven score and ten years ago President Abraham Lincoln gave one of the greatest speeches in history, and the anniversary of his short address at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, will be rightly honored today with a memorial at the same hallowed location. Conspicuously absent from the roster of speakers is the current president, and there has been much speculation about why.
Many of the speculators assume there is some noble and brilliant reason, of course. A CNN report on President Barack Obama’s no-show at the event — which appeared under the non-committal headline “Snub, or Smart?” — notes that the White House spokesman offered no explanation for the snub and then goes off in search of academics to explain why it’s smart. The best they could come up with was Heather Cox Richardson, a history professor at Boston College, who helpfully explained that “By not going, President Obama lets that speech stand on his own. If he went, it would all be about him.”
With all due respect to Professor Richardson, humility and an aversion to attention seem unlikely explanations for anything Obama might do. Obama has never been uncomfortable with the favorable comparisons to the Great Emancipator that his more fevered supporters used to make back in headier times, having launched his first presidential campaign in Lincoln’s adoptive hometown in Illinois and taken his oaths of office with Lincoln’s well-used Bible, and he has rarely missed an opportunity to give a speech. He notably declined an invitation to speak an anniversary celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall, but that would have meant traveling all the way to Germany just to give a speech about great Ronald Reagan was, which would have been too onerous a burden to bear, while Gettysburg is only a few million dollars of travel time away and would have afforded Obama plenty of opportunities to speak about himself. The opportunity to be at the center of something other than the Obamacare debacle for a news cycle must have been especially tempting, and it is therefore hard to explain why he might have passed it up.
More cynical minds than Professor Richardson’s, such as ours, are left to speculate that Obama concluded the event would not be all about him, and that the world would little note nor long remember he said he there. Those gushing claims of Lincolnian greatness look more and more ridiculous with each passing day, and were ridiculous to begin to with, so we can’t help suspecting that somewhere deep in his hubristic psyche Obama has a hard-earned insecurity that the juxtaposition of himself and Lincoln would not make a good photo-op.
In Obama’s stead the audience at the memorial observance will hear remarks by the newly-fledged and little-known Secretary of the Interior, but it is unlikely that she will be able to top Lincoln’s efforts at the site. This is well enough, as the country should reflect on Lincoln’s inspiring exhortation to “be here dedicated to to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave their last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Such reflection won’t serve Obama’s purposes, and perhaps that’s why he won’t be there.

— Bud Norman