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Something Special in South-Central Kansas

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

— Bud Norman

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The Super Bowl and the Changing of the Seasons

Football season finally came to an unexpectedly dramatic end on Sunday, so we’re now only a few long weeks away from pitchers and and catchers reporting to baseball training and other harbingers of spring, and on Saturday the Wichita State University Wheatshockers played their best basketball of the season against their only serious rival in the Missouri Valley Conference and looked as if they’ll keep us watching well into March Madness. Our nearly as beloved Kansas State Wildcats won a road game against the second-or-third ranked Baylor Bears, the hated but secon-or-third ranked University of Kansas Jayhawks lost to Iowa State University, and for the most part sports provided us a pleasant distraction from politics here on the Kansas plains.
Although the game turned out to be a compelling come-from-behind and history-making victory by The New England Patriots over a worthy Atlanta Falcons squad, we don’t expect that Super Bowl LI set any ratings records. The past season has seen declining viewership across all the networks that have paid dearly for the broadcast rights, attendance and arrests for drunk and disorderly behavior at the stadia have been down almost league-wide, and even on Super Bowl Sunday none of our friends at church nor the more more unchurched friends we called in search of a Super Bowl party evinced much interest in the game. Some say that the second-string quarterback on a second-rate San Francisco Forty-Niners squad’s refusal to stand for the national anthem had something to do with, other say that the league’s characteristically politically correct stand on that had ore to do with it, several callers to sports talk radio programs we’ve heard it blame it on all the interminable video reviews and annoying advertisements that prolong less than hour of actual play through more than three hours, writers in sophisticated magazines and lawyers in pending legal cases note all all the worrisome injuries to the brain and other important body parts that players seem to suffer every year, and we suspect that all of it had something to do with the public’s ennui.
Nor did the matchup offer much in the way of a proper storyline. The New England Patriots were favored from the outset due to the record-matching number of Super Bowl victories they had won since coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady first teamed up a million years or so ago, and by now most of the football-watching country was tired of that storyline. Belichick is an annoyingly snarling fellow who seizes every advantage no matter how it might skirt against the rules of the game, Brady is an annoyingly handsome fellow married to an annoying gorgeous underwear model, both had run afoul of the football establishment during the much over-inflated “inflate-gate” controversy, and it was all to political for a football to endure. Despite being in New England Brady is also an admitted friend of President Donald Trump, and has even been photographed wearing one of those red “Make America Great Again” ball caps, so we assume that the portion of the American sports-watching public that worries about all those worrisome injuries to the brain and other important body parts were also rooting against the Patriots. That meant they were de facto rooting for the Atlanta Falcons, and we can’t imagine that did the ratings any goods.
By half-time the Falcons were up to a seemingly insurmountable lead, and then came Lady Gaga for the big half-time show, and we expect that the intriguing combination nudged the Nielsen numbers a percentage point or two. So far as we can tell Lady Gaga is a popular song-and-dance entertainer, and according to numerous YouTube videos she’s also a shape-shifting reptilian alien who is part of the Illuminati that surreptitiously controls The New World Order, and we have to admit that she put on quite a show-biz performance, even by our MGM standards. There was some anticipation that she would make sort of anti-Trump political statement, but she opened with a surprisingly rousing rendition of “God Bless America,” warming our old-fashioned hearts with some Irving Berlin, then segued into “This Land Is Your Land,” which we recognized as a composition of Woody Guthrie, who was pretty much a Commie but also a through-and-through Okie as well, and we doubt that either Lady Gaga or any of her fans were were aware of the very subtle implications of this beloved American folk classic. The rest of it was a high-kicking extravaganza the likes of which you’d have to pay good money to see at a Las Vegas casino, and Mr. and Mrs. Gaga’s daughter Lady is indeed as leggy and musical a lass as you’d be likely to see there, and all in all we found it pleasantly apolitical.
The other big attraction of these annual Super Bowl spectacles is the advertisements, and for the most part they were dreary but at least apolitical. The same Budweiser beer-brewing company that usually provides uplifting scenes of Clydesdale horses hauling their product through nostalgic small town streets through driving snow storms had an already-viral spot of its German immigrant founder encountering anti-immigrant prejudice on his way to founding an iconic American brand, which is now majority owned by Brazilian investors, and there was no mistaking a slightly political slant to that. Some other company selling computer services or some such modern annoyance had an ad that was all about diversity, judging from all the diverse faces that kept matching together in modern Madison Avenue style, but we had the sound turned down at that point.
We also missed most of the Patriots’ remarkable and record-setting and argument-for-greatest-ever comeback, right up to the time when we tuned into watch Brady and the rest of the cast tie it up and then play out 20 or seconds of defense to bring it into overtime. At that point we figured that Belichick’s and Brady’s experience and all those million years or so of Patriot dominance would win out, if our 50 years or so watching grown men play this silly game told us anything, and sure enough that’s how it turned out. We expect that most of the country was disappointed by the outcome, no matter how it might be spread out around the Electoral College, and like most of us we weren’t at all enthusiastic about either team to begin with, and even such a compelling game seems to be losing some appeal, but at least it provided some distraction from the state of the world.

— Bud Norman

The Super Bowl and Trending

Being red-blooded American men, and ever mindful of the civic obligations that entails, we tuned into the Super Bowl on Sunday. Although we lost interest in football way back when the autumn afternoons were still warm, and had no particular affinity for either of the contestants, the Super Bowl retains a certain sociological interest. Super Bowl Sunday is the high secular holiday of American culture, with the ads exemplifying the exorbitance of our capitalist economy and the half-time show representing the official imprimatur of our popular culture and the game itself a ritual test of what’s left of American masculinity, and there’s so much hyperbole and water cooler conversation about it that it’s hard to avert one’s gaze.
All in all, the spectacle had that familiar fall-of-Rome feel of bread and circuses that we’ve come to expect from the Roman numeral-ed Super Bowls.
The advertisements, which seemed to occupy the vast majority of the game’s air time, were all opulent and grandiose and conspicuously expensive. There was one rather cheesy ad for a foot fungus ointment that featured a cartoon foot with a football helmet on the big toe, and some of the obligatory local spots were the usual pedestrian fare, but the rest of it wowed with such big-budget production values that one might gullibly conclude the companies being represented bring a similarly high level of professionalism to whatever goods or services they are peddling. Some of the offerings were ironic and risqué, including one for the Fiat car company that showed an aging Italian man being beckoned to bed by a stereotypically seductive Italian woman but accidentally dropping his erectile dysfunction medicine and watching it wind up through a series of improbable and computer-generated events in the gas tank of a typically undersized Fiat that then suddenly swells into a mid-sized vehicle, all without the expected disclaimer that dropping erectile dysfunction medicine into the gas tank of a car is not recommended by the manufacturer, and much of them featured a brawny primitive warriors wielding pickaxes or hirsute hipsters in t-shirts defying some archaic societal convention or another. Others were unabashedly sentimental, such as the tear-jerking spot that showed the Budweiser clydesdales rescuing a lost dog from a ravenous wolf, and seemed to celebrate the traditional values that the old-timers used to associate with football. At least three companies associated themselves with fatherhood, showing several ruggedly handsome men bonding with their in a masculine yet nurturing way through the help of the advertising companies, which seemed in keeping with the game until the announcers noted in the second half that one of the players’ girlfriends was expecting a child any moment. Our favorite advertisement was for some insurance company that had the cast costumed and posed and set in the resemblance of Edward Hopper’s painting “Nighthawks” while singing The Five Stairsteps’ soul hit “Ooh-Child,” but that’s because we regard Hopper’s “Nighthawks” and The Five Stairsteps’ “Ooh-Child” as two of the greatest masterpieces of 20th Century American culture, and we wonder how many youngsters in the target audience would recognize either allusion, and in any case we can’t recall the name of the insurance company.
The half-time entertainment was in a similarly decadent vein. Headlining the affair was Katy Perry, apparently a popular entertainer among the younger set, who made her entrance atop a gargantuan robot lion amid a football field-sized cast of extras in luminous plastic balls. The ensuing performance seemed a strange mix of Busby Berkley’s old Hollywood musicals from the ’30s and ’40s and those pro-Kim Jong-Il rallies they threw in North Korea back in the ’00s, but with more up-to-date stagecraft. Perry is a rather comely lass, with a non-anorexic and non-bulimic voluptuousness that recalls Ann Miller in her prime, and we rather enjoyed a segment that had her and some similarly wholesome back-up singers cavorting on a stylized Californian beach in Annette Funicello-era bikinis, but that is pretty much the extent of her appeal. The segment then gave way to Lenny Kravitz, whose hard-rockin’-for-a-black-guy act has been around for the requisite couple of decades to get on a Super Bowl show, and then some hip-hop types we’ve never heard of in the same sort of macho pickaxe-weilding gear from the advertisements, and by that point we were heading off to do chores. Of course everyone involved was quite good-looking, just as in the advertisements, and it made us wonder what’s become of all the musically gifted but unlovely people who are undoubtedly still out there.
We can fondly recall the wondrous talents of Roy Orbison, Dinah Washington, Eric Burden, Koko Taylor, and countless other ugly singers and musicians that could have blown even such a sex bomb as Katy Perry off a Super Bowl stage, and would like to see such democratic tastes once again prevail in the culture. We noticed that a large number of the Super Bowl ads were for the broadcasting networks’ prime time offerings, which mostly seem to be about good-looking people standing next one another in very serious poses, and if only in the interest of verisimilitude we’d like to start seeing some plain folks in those offerings as well.
The game itself, if only a small part of the offering, proved entertaining enough. The New England Patriots racked up lots of yards but few points, the Seattle Seahawks some stayed even without moving the ball, and a suddenly flurry of offensive in the last minutes of the first half produced a tie. The lead see-sawed through the second half until the annoyingly good-looking quarterback Tom Brady put the Patriots ahead, last year’s hero Russell Wilson seemed to have the game back within reach after an improbable pass completion to a prone receiver on the five yard line, and then a bone-headed call by a usually shrewd coach didn’t give the ball the steam engine running back who had been a sure bet for three cards but instead called for a pass wound up in a game-winning interception by some guy we’ve never heard of. That led to a pointless brawl instigated by losing Seahawks, exactly the sort of mindless machismo that football-bashers love to point out, but it was a compelling sports even nonetheless.
We also noticed a lot of beards, in the advertisements and the half-time show and the game, and we are eager for the next trend.

— Bud Norman

Kansas Lurks Back to Normalcy

The Kansas economy has lately been swelled by the expense accounts of big city newspaper reporters, as much of the national media have rushed to our usually overlooked state to cover its Senate race. There’s no wondering why there’s a national interest in the story, as it could wind up determining which party controls the Senate, and it provides some reason for the reporters to hope that it will  be the Democrats who somehow prevail, and it is a most intriguing tale. The latest developments are more hopeful to the Republicans, however, and even the most partisan presses seem to have noticed.
Ordinarily even the reporters in Wichita and Topeka wouldn’t get out of their newsrooms to cover a Senate race in Kansas, which hasn’t sent anything other than a Republican to Washington since that one time everyone lost their minds early in the New Deal and Dust Bowl days, but this is not an ordinary year. Long-time incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts has been around a long enough time to have found disfavor with the Republican party’s anti-incumbent mood, and he barely survived a challenge to a little known and under-funded and underwhelming neophyte with a Facebook scandal only because a couple of crank candidates split the majority of the party’s throw-the-bums-out vote. Roberts then went into a three-way general election adorned with the out-of-touch and out-of-state label stuck upon him in the primary, hoping that another split of the anti-Roberts vote would save him, but the Democrats went to court insisting that they shouldn’t be compelled to run a candidate just because their party had gone to the expensive trouble of nominating one, and it was suddenly plausible that a well-heeled and largely self-financed independent candidate who was running on an appealing platform of common sense solutions and bipartisanship would win. That the most reliably Republican state in the Union over the past century and a half might allow the Democrats to retain control of the Senate was a tantalizing possibility, and thus the influx of national media to Kansas.
What they’ve found, however, is an impressive all-out effort by the Republicans that casts doubt on the upset storyline. Local newscasts have been saturated with advertisements for Roberts, almost all of which make the essential point that a Republican loss could allow the Democrats to retain control of the Senate, complete with scary pictures of the wildly unpopular President Barack Obama. There are also radio ads that combat the unfortunately true charge from the primary that Roberts hasn’t had a legitimate Kansas residence for years by touting his Kansas birth and Marine service and twangy-gravelly voice and weather-beaten visage and generally conservative voting record to remind voters that he’s still a Kansas kind of guy. Our internet browsing keeps popping up ads from the National Rifle Association touting Robert’s support for Second Amendment rights, the spots running on the local right-wing talk radio stations sound tailored to the concerns of those staunch conservatives who might be tempted to stay at home rather than for a man whose lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union is a mere 86 percent, and such anti-establishment heroes as former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin have taken to the hustings to shore up the base. With the Democrats successfully suing in court to avoid the ignominy of a third place finish the anti-Roberts vote won’t be split, but that and the annoying minority of Kansas’ liberals full-throated support for the indendepent have made it easier to portray him as the de facto Democrat in a state where the Democrats are begging to be left of the ballot.
Meanwhile, independent Greg Orman’s campaign has seemed unready for both Roberts’ sudden aggressiveness and the inevitable scrutiny that falls upon a frontrunner even when he’s front-running against a Republican. At first he tried to dodge the question of whether he would caucus with the Democrats and potentially retain their control of the Senate, then said he’d join whichever side held a clear majority on his inauguration day, and is now trying out the line that it doesn’t much matter which party controls the Senate. He’s also dodged such obvious questions as whether he’d vote to repeal Obamacare, telling a random curious citizen at a small town parade that it’s an “interesting question,” and has otherwise been vague about what he considers a common sense and bipartisan solution on such issues as gun control and the XL Keystone Pipeline. He can’t deny his past campaign contributions to Obama and Democratic Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid and other hated Democrats, or his past attempt to run for Senate as a Democrat, or the loud support he’s getting from that annoying minority of liberals, and in his rebuttal ads he’s been reduced to saying that Roberts’ criticism of the Obama agenda is “only half right” and that an equal portion of blame should be allotted to those who oppose that agenda. The argument is likely to fall flat with the vast majority of Kansas who express disapproval of Obama, even if it resonates with those confounded low-information voters who don’t stop to think about such claims,  and if Orman has some third way that both parties will follow toward a golden age, he doesn’t explain it in these 30-second spots.
There’s still plenty of time left for an October surprise, and if it comes it will be during a most peculiar election season, but we sense that Kansas is turning back to its traditional Republican form.

— Bud Norman

Swirling Down the Super Bowl

Journalistic tradition dictates that the day after the Super Bowl be spent analyzing the game, the half-time show, the commercials, all the attendant hoopla, and what it all says about the state of the culture. This is a grim business, given what it all says about the state of the culture, but we are steadfastly traditional and couldn’t find anything cheerier in the few non-Super Bowl stories that somehow squeezed into the news over the weekend.
We claim no expertise regarding the sport of football, but to our untrained eyes the Seattle Seahawks squad seemed to get the better of Sunday’s contest. The score was 450 to 0 or something like that when we dozed off late in the first quarter, and when we were awakened by one of the noisier commercials just before half-time the advantage had somehow increased. We had been hopefully rooting for the Denver Broncos squad, partly because of a brother who lives in the Rockies, partly because they play in the same American Football Conference western division as the Kansas City Chiefs squad we owe our regional loyalty and we were looking forward to rationalizing next year’s failure to make the playoffs by saying “Hey, it’s a tough division,” so the lopsidedness of the result was somewhat disappointing. Something to do with the Seahawks’ blitzing offensive formation forcing the Bronco’s aging quarterback to throw before he had time to check the color of the intended receiver’s jersey, we were told by the thick-necked men in bulging business suits who provided the half-time commentary, but intimations of other problems were apparent to us as early as when the Broncos’ center tossed the opening snap over the quarterback’s head and into the end zone for a safety.
At any rate, by half-time we were almost eager for the half-time show. The Super Bowl’s mid-game extravaganzas are our annual venture into contemporary popular music, and they hold a certain sociological fascination for us because they have come to represent the officially-designated pinnacle of mainstream mass-media show business much as the old Ed Sullivan Show did back in our boyhood, and it’s occasionally interesting to hear what the young folks are doing the funky chicken to these days. This year’s featured performer was Bruno Mars, who is so famous that we are familiar with the name but not so famous that we are familiar with any of his music, and we were mostly struck by the familiarity of his act. There were lots of the lights and fireworks and high-tech stage-craft that characterize the most up-to-date corporate stadium-sized show biz, but the haircuts and the sparkling matching coats and the James Brown-ish choreography were all borrowed from the “show bands” that had all the teenaged girls squealing at National Guard armories across the fruited plains back in the early to mid-‘60s. The music wasn’t bad by comparison to what we hear when scanning the car radio across the dial, but we’d still prefer the less-synthetic sound that The Fabulous Flippers used to put on the Lawrence-to-Wichita-to-Hays circuit back in the day.
At one point in the performance Mars was joined by funk-rock stalwarts The Red Hot Chili Peppers, who have been around so long that we can recall catching them in performance at the late and long-lamented Coyote Club roadhouse up on North Broadway. They were pretty good, by our recollection, too cool for stadium gigs, but we were there mainly to hear the great cowboy yodeler Randy Erwin, who was the opening act because of a double-booking accident, and the set he performed in his long johns to spoof the band’s habit of performing in jock straps or less was by far the highlight of the evening. There are a couple of Red Hot Chili Pepper tracks we still like, both of which made it into the Super Bowl, of all places, but it still seems embarrassing that a supposedly cutting-edge performer such as Mars should need them around to make his shtick seem more contemporary.
Few of the much-ballyhooed commercials commanded our attention, but we were struck by the same theme of baby-boomer nostalgia in several of them. One ad for some product or another had Bob Dylan subtly warbling his class nasal country-rock in the background, and a lengthy commercial for the Chrysler Corporation had a grizzled old guitar-strummer who turned out to be Ramblin’ Bob himself. The erstwhile voice of his generation, now the voice of the voice of Chrysler Corporation, extolled the virtues of the America of smoky factories and river barges and James Dean and pool rooms, and course such traditional American carmakers as the Chrysler Corporation, and the mavens of Madison Avenue seem not to have noticed how very strange it was. Dylan’s politics were always stated in impenetrable lyrics and were notoriously hard to pin down, but there’s no doubting he became a commercial-worthy counter-cultural icon to a subset of his generation that angrily decried smoky factories and such old-folks transportation as Chryslers. Throw in the facts that the ruggedly individualistic and quintessentially American Chrysler Corporation was bailed out of bankruptcy with Obama bucks and sold to Italy’s most notoriously unreliable carmaker, that James Dean died recklessly driving a German car like the ones in the new ads touting German engineering, and that Bob Dylan now looks as ravaged as Detroit itself and clearly is not a pool player, and the ad seemed an unsettling commentary on the state of the culture.
The confluence of the mainstream culture and the counter-culture was accomplished long ago, but that just made the Super Bowl weekend all the more dispiriting. There was a funny bit with the Jerry and George characters from the old “Seinfeld” sit-com, but judging from the pair’s appearance that overly re-run show was a long, long time ago. The celebrities in the audience shown by the network cameras were mostly gray-haired, and included a shot of Sir Paul McCartney of The Beatles munching on a pizza while he tried to figure out the labyrinthine rules of his confounded America, a past half-time performer and a relic from the era when the Ed Sullivan Show represented the officially designated pinnacle of mass-media show biz. Much like the Chrysler Corporation, the Obama bucks administration, Bob Dylan and Bruno Mars and the modern music scene, and the Denver Broncos’ offensive and defensive coordinators, American culture seems to have run out of new ideas.

— Bud Norman

A Tale of Two Ads

Oh, what a difference four short years can make.

It was around this time back in the dark days of ’08 that we found our country in the grip of strange mania, an almost religious enthusiasm for the presidential campaign of Barack Obama. In the mainstream press, throughout the popular culture, even at our favorite tavern, Obama was explicitly hailed as a messianic figure, an avatar that would lead the nation into a new era of hope and change. Even the schoolchildren were singing the praises of the secular savior.

That ad with the singing schoolchildren was especially disquieting. There was a queasy Kim Jon-Il feel about the spectacle of a choir of adorably toothy urchins serenading the dear leader with hymns of allegiance, their eyes filled with adoration as they gazed into a glorious future with the harmonized surety that “Obama’s gonna lead us.”

We were reminded of that creepy bit of political propaganda by the latest advertisement advanced on behalf of Obama’s campaign. Dubbed “A Message From the Children” and produced by one of the fancy-schmantzy Madison Avenue ad firms, the spot features a new batch of cute youngsters — the old ones presumably being too pubescent, acne-riddled, and wised-up by now — but with same appeal to the absolute moral authority of the not-yet-grown-up.

The earlier ad was filmed in warm, soothing, campaign-themed color, while the latest one is in a self-consciously serious black-and-white, and the difference in the two messages is similarly stark. There’s no mention at all of Barack Obama in the latest ad, much less any effort to extol his glory, but rather a dystopian vision of what life would be like if the other guy got elected. The children sing of a future in which strip mines abound, homosexuals are subject to draconian treatments, sick people are left to die, oil spills overrun the oceans, endless wars are fought, polar bears are eliminated, “Big Bird is sacked,” and there is “lots of Chinese stuff.” Except for the parts about Big Bird having to find a real job and the abundance of inexpensive imports it all sounds quite horrible, and the juvenile cast seems convincingly appalled about it as they sing to their Romney-leaning elders that “We’re kinda blaming you.”

The young’uns have the same chin-up air of moral superiority as their parents, and even seem to have somehow replicated the smug soprano self-righteousness of the old folk boom balladeers, so it will likely have some motivating effect on the aging segment of the country that remains committed to Obama’s presidency. Less clear is the effect it might have on the rest of the electorate, which might well recognize that the song’s caricature of the Republicans is utter nonsense and note the sharp contract with the earlier optimism of Obama’s political career. Gone is the utopian promise of the last campaign, replaced by an equally overstated pessimism about the alternative.

Such children’s horror stories might even work, at least well enough to eke out a victory next week, but somehow they don’t seem so frighteningly dangerous as the earlier juvenilia. Obama has devolved from a mass hysteria intent on the fundamental transformation of America into a niche-marketed advertising campaign to hang on to political power. Something so small, petty, and implausible isn’t likely to make a lasting difference in the character of nation, and the resulting gridlock and polarization might even give those poor kids a chance to figure things out.

— Bud Norman

Another Trashy Ad

Have you hugged your garbageman recently? At the risk of appearing plutocratic, we must confess that we have not.

Being so very thoughtless, we might never even have noticed this oversight if not for an advertisement now airing on behalf of Barack Obama’s presidential re-election campaign. The ad features a man who collects Mitt Romney’s trash complaining that while other people on his route routinely make a point of shaking his hand, giving him hugs, and otherwise expressing their immense gratitude for his humble efforts, the Republican presidential nominee has failed to do so.

Produced and paid for by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which is much indebted to the president for helping to keep its members overpaid if under-appreciated, the ad offers Romney’s appalling lack of hugginess as proof of his heartless contempt for the backbreaking labors of the common working man. They seem to expect that a significant number of voters will be so offended by Romney’s behavior they will rush to the polls to express their outrage, but we wonder how many there will be.

Most people, in our experience, do not hug their garbagemen. We do express our thanks to the sanitation workers by only hauling the trash out to the curb for collection every other week or so — for such Gaia-hating right-wing bastards, our carbon footprint is embarrassingly small — and by paying the full bill — even though there’s probably an Obamatrash program that would stick some rich guy with the tab — but that’s about the extent of our kudos. On the rare occasions when we happen to be standing on the lawn during trash collection we will offer the workers a wave and a traditional Kansas “howdy,” but they seem a manly bunch and not at all the sort who would welcome an uninvited hug. Perhaps Mitt Romney’s posh neighborhood can afford a more sensitive sort of garbageman, but if so that would probably be a more effective point for stirring up class resentments against him.

We’re also skeptical of the implied claim that Obama is far chummier and more physically affectionate with his own garbagemen. Despite our famously vivid imagination, we just can’t quite conjure the image of Obama inviting the White House garbageman into the Oval Office to hang out with Jay-Z, Beyonce, The Pimp With a Limp, and the rest of the gang. This will no doubt be attributed to Obama’s altruistic desire not to interfere with the garbageman’s important duties, but we’re finding it increasingly hard to be simultaneously impressed with the  president’s famously glamorous lifestyle and his common touch.

The middle class has been buried the last four years, to quote precisely the words of Vice President Joe Biden, and it’s going to take more than a hug to change that. It’s going to require a change of economic policy, and that’s going require a change of presidents, even if it’s someone who is not the huggy type.

— Bud Norman