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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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Kansas in the Middle, As Always

Today is primary election day here in Kansas, and there are some interesting races afoot. Even if you don’t have the good fortune to live here in the Sunflower State, there are some with national implications worth watching.
The race getting the most attention, both here and around the country, is for the Republican party’s gubernatorial nomination. It’s a crowded field, but looks to come down to serving Gov. Jeff Colyer and Secretary of State Kris Kobach, which is pretty much a proxy war between the pre-President Donald Trump Republican party and the current model.
Trump officially “tweeted” his endorsement of Kobach on Sunday, but by then it went pretty much without saying. Donald Trump Jr. had already twice campaigned in the state for Kobach, who is clearly the most Trumpish candidate in the race.
Kobach was running for office on warnings about illegal immigrants and voter fraud years before Trump took up the cause, and he was appointed by Trump to head a federal commission to more than three million illegal immigrant voters had defrauded the president of his rightful popular vote victory. The commission was disbanded when both Democratic and Republican Secretaries of State refused to cooperate with its requests, and even Kansas had to withhold some information due to state law, but Trump appreciated the effort. More recently Kobach was sued by the American Civil Liberties Union over some very strict voter registration requirements, and although his self-defense failed to win the verdict, and wound up costing him some hefty fines, he made much of the fact that he’d fought with the hated ACLU. His campaign ads featured a red-white-and-blue jeep with a machine gun, kind words about Trump, and he took to calling his opponent “Lyin’ Jeff.”
Meanwhile, Colyer is running on low taxes but not so low that the schools aren’t funded and the roads aren’t paved and the budget is balanced at the end of year, which was a winning Republican platform in this state from the “Bleeding Kansas” days right up until the election of Gov. Sam Brownback.
When Brownback was elected eight years ago the “Tea Party” movement was ascendant, and he ran on a platform of radical tax cuts and deep budgets and a promise that the state’s economy would boom. It took some nasty internecine Republican politics to purge the legislature of the “establishment Republicans” who were wary of such extreme measures, and of course all the state’s Democrats were appalled, but he eventually got it passed. The tax theory was sound, and the budget was due for some cutting, but the details included a couple of tax loopholes that largely exempted every small business in state, and the resulting budget cuts went painfully deep. When the promised outcomes didn’t occur, “establishment Republicans” started winning seats back, and by the time Brownback left to become Trump’s Ambassador for Religious Freedom he was polling in the mid-20s.
Colyer was Brownback’s Lieutenant Governor, which is how he became the serving Governor, but he doesn’t mention that in his ubiquitous advertisements. Instead the medical doctor has patients attesting to his good character, talk about restoring the state’s formerly excellent reputation for public schools, and endorsements from the pro-life and pro-business groups and former Sen. Bob Dole and the rest of the “Republican establishment.” As boring as it might sound, boring sounds pretty good to a lot of Republicans and independents around here these days, and according to the conventional Kansas wisdom he’s a slight favorite to win the nomination.
Which makes Trump’s endorsement of Kobach slightly risky for his presidential reputation, and raises doubts about how much good it will do. Although Trump won Kansas’ electoral votes by the same lopsided margin that any Republican nominee would have had against Democrat nominee Hillary Clinton, he finished a distant third in the Republican caucus, and his protectionist policies are not popular with the crucial farm vote in the state, and the best most of our Republicans friends have to say about Trump is that at least he’s not Clinton, which they admit is damning by faint praise. Trump is never boring, but boring is probably the better strategy.
There’s a nice boring race on the Democratic ballot, too, with a trio of centrist candidates promising to pave the roads and fund the schools and balance the budgets without any crazy tax hikes. The frontrunner is longtime state legislator and noted policy wonk Laura Kelly, who bores all our far-left Democratic friends who hold out hope Kansas will go full-blown socialist, but after eight all-too-interesting years the Democrats have a very good chance one of winning one of their every-other-decade governorships. We agree with the conventional wisdom around here that Colyer has the best chance of staving that off, and that Trump’s endorsement won’t rouse many Republicans and won’t play well the independents and just further rile up the already riled-up Democrats to vote for whomever their party nominates.
We’ll not venture any predictions, but we’ll admit to a certain nostalgia that boring old Republican party we used to vote for all the time, and will vote accordingly. If the ancien regime isn’t revived we’re not sure what we’ll do, but none of the Democrats are nearly so scary as that awful Clinton woman, and at this point we’ll pay Trump’s endorsement little heed.

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The Sunflower State’s Momentarily Embarrassing Moment in the Sun

The national media usually pay no attention to what’s going on in Kansas, which is fine by most Kansans, but they have taken notice of the state’s recent budget problems. Our state government’s revenue collections are once again short of projections, this time around by $350 million or so, and although the sum must seem quaint to a New York or Washington newspaper editor they can’t resist the angle of a cautionary tale about Republicans and their crazy economic schemes out here on the prairie.
There’s no denying the angle has some validity, and the hook for the latest stories is that even the Republican-dominated legislature came up just three votes short of overriding a Republican governor’s veto of tax hike bill, which is the sort of internecine Republican squabbling that always draws national media to even the most remote portions of the country. Although it pains our old-fashioned Kansas Republican souls to admit, there’s also no denying that all that tax-cutting that started about six years ago has not yet kept all the extravagant promises that were made. Even after six years there’s still a plausible argument to be made for patience, and the dismal science of economics cannot prove for certain that higher taxes would have proved a boon to the Kansas economy, and we can think of some tax-and-spend states that also have newsworthy budget problems, but for now there’s no denying the $350 million shortfall or any of the fun the press is having with it.
The tax cuts are the creation of our ultra-Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, who of course has long been hated by Democrats everywhere since his days in the United States Senate for his unapologetic anti-abortion and pro-free market beliefs. Although he has a bachelor’s degree from Kansas State University’s world-class agricultural economics department and a law degree from the University of Kansas and is married into the family that owned the newspaper chain that owned The Topeka Capitol-Journal and served in the United States Senate and has been in politics since he became national president of the Future Farmers of America and the KSU student council, Brownback is still considered an anti-establishment type, so he’s also been a controversial figure even within his own party. Starting with all those high-minded New England abolitionists who poured into the state for the Bleeding Kansas battles that presaged the Civil War, the Kansas Republican Party has always been the establishment around here and long fended off the scruffier sorts of populists. Even with the help of the Emporia Gazette’s great William Allen White they had to resort to firearms to expel the Prairie Populists who gained a brief majority in the statehouse on a program of nationalizing everything and coining endless free silver and all sorts of other craziness, and they only kept the notorious quack and shrewd showman “Doc” Brinkley from becoming governor by not counting all the misspelled or imprecise write-in votes that were cast, but for the most part they’ve kept a steady course down the middle of the road over the many years, and at first they balked at Brownback’s admittedly radical fiscal policies.
Despite the intra-party resisters and their unified allies among the Democratic minority Brownback got most of what he wanted, and then he egged on the anti-establishment sentiment that was taking hold among Republicans in every state, and saw many of his longterm Republican adversaries ousted from office by more hard-core primary challengers, and then he got the rest of it. It was all very acrimonious and much mud was slung and it was not at all the sort of thing that Kansas Republicans like, and the Democrats everywhere greatly enjoyed it until the saw which side had won, and of course it didn’t end there. With like-minded Republicans firmly in control of both sides of the capitol building Brownback surely knew he would be due all the credit or blame that might accrue in the aftermath of his policies, and at the moment that’s a $350 million shortfall.
The notion that lower taxes are more conducive to economic activity than higher taxes has long been generally accepted by all sorts of Republicans, from the country clubs to the union halls, and although you might not find it in Kansas at the moment there is plenty of evidence to support that notion. The doubling of federal revenues that followed Reagan’s admittedly radical tax cuts is one example, and despite our doubts about this Trump fellow he might yet provide more proof. We can hardly blame those back east newspapers focusing their attention on Kansas, and we’ll give them some credit for acknowledging deep into their stories that it’s all very complicated. There are any number of reasons why the Kansas economy hasn’t outpaced even the sluggish growth of the nation at large over the past six years, many of which can plausibly be blamed on the policies of the D.C. Democrats and the eight years of Democratic governors who preceded Brownback, one of whom was that Kathleen Sibelius woman who got kicked out of the Obama administration for bungling the the Obamacare rollout, and the dismal science of economics being what it is there’s always that very real possibility things could have been worse.
There’s also an argument to be made that Kansas had the right idea but went about it the wrong way. Tax policy is mind-numbingly arcane, and all the newspapers in the state are pretty much broke and nobody’s paying us to wade through all that stuff anymore, but so far as we can tell the bill that Brownback vetoed would have rescinded a previous measure that nearly eliminated taxes on income from certain legal entities used by small businesses, which is apparently known as “pass-through income.” This sounds like the sort of pro-Mom-and-Pop policy that every variety of Republican can support, but apparently some 330,000 Kansas businesses started passing all their income through those certain legal entities, and in a state of only 2.5 million people that’s a lot of Moms and Pops and probably enough to make a dent in a $350 million shortfall, and apparently that particular lower tax rate does yield to the usually reliable Laffer Curve.
After the first couple of shortfalls happened the establishment sorts of Republicans started winning primary challenges against the newly-minted anti-establishment types, and the paleolithic Sen. Pat Roberts won re-election despite an anti-establishment challenger that all the talk radio hosts loved, Brownback won re-election against one of those crazy tax-and-spend Democrats by a slighter margin, and the Kansas Republican party largely returned to its stodgy budget-balancing and non-boat-rocking ways. With help from the unified Democrats it came within three votes in the Senate from overriding the veto, and when everything’s up for grabs in Kansas’ off-year elections two years hence we won’t be betting on that pass-through exemption lasting long. The first rounds of shortfalls were met with spending cuts, which struck us as entirely reasonable after eight years of spendthrift Democratic administrations, but there are roads to be paved and bridges to be buttressed and kids to be educated in the state, and the biggest chunk of the state budget is obligated by the feds, so after the first few rounds of plucking there got be some squawking in even in the most Republican precincts. We read there’s a similar exemption included in the much speculated-about tax proposals from President Donald Trump, who won the state’s electoral votes just like every Republican does but finished a dismal third in the state’s Republican caucus, and we wonder how many Grand Old Party establishment types will be around to raise any objections to that.
We really don’t want to be ragging on Sam, as we call him, because we do like the guy. It’s an annoying stereotype about Kansans that we’re all supposed to know one another, but we have known Brownback since our teenaged days as interns with the famously Kansas Republican Sen. Bob Dole, and we’d run into him on the KSU campus where he was king and the Kansas State Fairs that he ran as Kansas Agricultural Commissioner and along his endless campaign stops, and we’ve always known him to be a very nice guy with a good enough sense of humor that he got our jokes. We also remain steadfast in our old-fashioned Kansas Republican belief that lower taxes are indeed generally more conducive to economic activity than higher ones, but we’re the old-fashioned sort of Kansas Republican who would prefer to get things right enough to balance the budget. Tax policy is arcane stuff, but if you delve deep enough into you’ll find that some tax cuts are better than others, and that sensible policies elsewhere would make it all less important, and that it’s all very complicated, and sometimes you have to pay at the bottom line. We rather like that some stodgy budget-balancing Republicanism is still afoot in the country, too, and hope that the old adage about lower taxes and economic activity will survive. May God have mercy on our souls, but we also hope they can work something out with those damned Democrats.

— Bud Norman

Looking Back Longingly

Way back in our teenaged days we had a summer job collecting signatures to get the Libertarian Party on the ballot in Kansas and Missouri, and the pay was not bad by ’70s high school kid standards, the work was interesting, and we liked the cause. Now that we’re looking around for some presidential candidate to vote for other than the Republican nominee for the first time in our adult lives, and suddenly feeling nostalgic even for the ’70s, we’re giving the Libertarians another look.
After ten years of second-rate public education and all the social engineering and other governmental bullying we’d already endured, not to mention all the Watergate hearings we’d raptly watched and the recent footage of the evacuation helicopters lifting off from the embassy in Saigon and the impending election of Jimmy Carter, the Libertarian Party had great appeal to our youthfully rebellious selves. We were already reading Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek and trying to slog through Adam Smith’s more archaic prose, and we’d lived through wage-and-price controls under a Republican administration and could already see the coming “stagflation” and Misery Index that a Democratic administration would surely bring, so the party’s free market purism made perfect sense. The Libertarians were mostly an unchurched lot who didn’t want religion imposed on them, but we had no desire to impose our religious beliefs on anyone, and indeed one of the tenets of our religion was that it must be freely chosen to do anybody any good, and they were also passionate about religious freedom and not at all the types to impose their non-religious beliefs on anyone. They were passionate about all the essential God-given and Constitutionally-protected freedoms, as we were, and then as now neither of the major parties were reliably stalwart about them.
The Libertarians were admittedly radical, and of course that had some appeal to such surly young ’70s punks as ourselves. They wanted to do away not only with all that Great Society nonsense that kept getting us beat up through junior high, but also to get rid of all that New Deal nonsense our beloved grandparents had voted for and our beloved parents had accepted as ineradicable facts of life with their votes for Eisenhower, and it didn’t bother us a whit. We had no confidence at that point that the government would be able to keep its promises to those of us at the very tail end of the already obviously awful Baby Boom generation, and figured we could do better with noticeable sums the government was already taking out of our meager summer job paychecks. Our surly ’70s punk cynicism extended to those hippy dippy teachers we’d already encountered, who were as bullying a bunch as we’ve met in a lifetime full of bullies, and we figured that if the government would limit itself to arresting and trying and imprisoning rapists and robbers and such as well as keeping the Commies at bay and a very few other things necessary to promote the common welfare we could handle the rest, and we appreciated that they thought so as well.
Although the Libertarians were the very antithesis of communism they were averse to doing anything about it until those Cuban paratroopers from “Red Dawn” started falling from the sky, which was a problem for us even in our younger days. We were also already reading Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov and Havel and all the samizdat writers, and the vindicated-by-history Reader’s Digest and National Review, and for idiosyncratic reasons we hated communism and every other collectivist ideology that would crush the individual who stood in its way, and our by-then long experience of bullies informed us that more collectively strong response was required.
That same summer we worked for the Libertarian Party we were rooting for Ronald Reagan’s insurgency campaign against Republican President Jerry Ford, and we even drove up to Kansas City to hang around the convention center where it fell short. The defeat made the Libertarians all the more appealing, but when the determinedly anti-commie and as pure-as-you’re-gonna-get free market capitalist and traditional values guy who didn’t seem all that interested in imposing them on anyone Reagan did win the nomination and the presidency we found what seemed a natural home in the Republican party and remained there until Tuesday night.
The Democrats are even worse than in the ’70s, which is saying something, so of course we won’t be voting for any of those. The Republican candidate is the worst ever, though, and promises to leave all those entitlement programs untouched and boasts of his very impure crony version of capitalism and has publicly threatened to punish his press critics and has no values at all and is quite willing to impose them on anybody and is in general the worst sort of bully we’ve ever encountered, so we won’t be voting for him, either.
Which prompts our reconsideration of the Libertarians. So far as we can tell they’re still free-market purists, which still makes sense to us. Those entitlements that the major party candidates both claim they can still somehow save still don’t seem worth saving, and we note that the Medicare trustees have pin-pointed that program’s collapse to the very year we’ll turn 65, just as our surly and cynical ’70s punk selves predicted. We’re almost certain to have to fend for ourselves in our old age, but we’ll still appreciate that the Libertarians thought we could do so. These days the social issues are at the point where the conservative survivors of the culture wars are being rounded up and lined up against a firing squad, and so far as we can tell the Libertarians are still passionate about religious liberty and disinclined to impose their mostly unchurched values on some Christian baker or photographer who who doesn’t want to go along with the collective’s momentary notions of morality. We have no idea where the party stands on some creepy male individual’s right to hang around women’s locker rooms, but both major party nominees are cool with that, so how bad could they be?
There’s still that crazy isolationism, but at this point neither of the major parties seem any better. The Democrat is that woman who offered the “re-set” button to Russia’s revanchist dictator Vladimir Putin, the Republican has openly expressed his admiration for his fellow bully and his campaign manager and top foreign policy advisor are both business partners with the former KGB agent, and meanwhile he’s threatening all our North Atlantic Treaty Organization partners that they’ll have to agree to his really great deals or he’ll let the whole thing go, so how bad could even the Libertarians be?
They’re a friendly and fun lot, too, these Libertarians. We still fondly recall traveling to Kansas City with a couple of older party workers to gather signatures that memorable summer, where we pleased to learn that Paul McCartney was playing a concert that evening at the old Kemper Arena. The older fellows rightly figured that the crowds outside the event would be amenable to signing a petition to get the Libertarian Party on the ballot, and when we arrived we found three long lines that we each began to pester. Meeting up at the pre-determined spot we were proud to say that we’d garnered some 100 signatures, the older fellow boasted of 120 or so, and the oldest said that he’d only gotten 10 signatures but had scored scalped tickets for everyone and a bag of marijuana. The concert was most enjoyable, and although we didn’t accept their generous offers of a toke we must have gotten what the kids call a “contact high,” because we remember thinking that Linda McCartney sounded great. Two summers later our summer job was interning for Republican Sen. Bob Dole, and it was also a good time, and we got to hang out with two future governors of our state and a lot of other very bright people, including one fellow who was proudly a member of the Prohibition Party, which some still appears every years on the Kansas ballot, and which we’ll also investigate, but we still fondly recall our Libertarian days.
The party hasn’t settled on a nominee yet, but the odds are he will again be former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson. With both of the major party nominees being widely despised, and Johnson being almost entirely unknown, we give him an outside shot. He’s also an outspoken advocate of legalizing marijuana, and if he gets any traction with the issue we expect both major party nominees will soon also be on board, and given the more likely outcomes of this election some legal weed might come in handy.

— Bud Norman

The Medium is the Mess

We’ve lately been spending a lot of time with some fine people who work in what’s left of the local news media, preparing for our annual brief appearance on the amateur stage in the Society of Professional Journalists’ satirical song-and-skit “Gridiron” show, and although it’s been fun and a good reason to get out of the house we sometimes wonder what’s the point. The show is a fund-raiser for journalism scholarships, after all, so we can’t shake a guilty feeling that we’re contributing the delinquency of a minor.
Better that those fresh-faced youngsters should be preparing for careers in horse-and-buggy engineering or telegraphy, as far as we’re concerned, and we’re apparently not the only ones who think so. A recent survey by something calling itself CareerCast just published its annual survey of the worst careers to pursue, and for the third year in a row being a newspaper reporter came in number one. Newspaper circulation has been plummeting rapidly, with advertising revenues falling even faster, the resulting salaries are also low, and by now the prestige factor is in negative territory.
Things were vastly different way back when our fresh faces embarked on a career in newspapering. We had recently dropped out of college, and after a series of desultory jobs were eager to accept an offer to be an “editorial clerk” at the local newspaper, which meant writing obituaries and listening to the police scanner and answering calls from irate readers and doing whatever menial errands almost anyone else in the newsroom might find for us, and it was grueling but fun and seemed to hold out some promise. Almost all the reporters were “J-school” graduates who had been inspired by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman bringing down Tricky Dick in “All The President’s Men,” but we were drawn to profession by “His Girl Friday” and “Nothing Sacred” and all those black-and-white movies about men in fedoras shouting “get me re-write” into a candlestick phone, and we even managed to work our un-credentialed way to a “staff writer” by-line as the last of the up-from-copyboy reporters.
That was so long ago, though, that we were on the job the night Ronald Reagan first won the presidency. It was a grand old time in the journalism industry, when almost every city in the country was becoming a one-newspaper town, and it was before Reagan revoked the Fairness Doctrine and unleashed talk radio and then the internet and all its gloriously unedited commentary and more up-to-the-minute sports results and stock market quotes, and even worse Craig’s List and all the other on-line advertising options, so for a brief shining moment journalism was the monopolistic place to be. Our newspaper was basically printing money along with all its widely distributed daily editions, the raises kept coming along with every threat of unionization, the drama critic and fashion writer were getting annual paid trips to New York City, the political writers got their calls immediately returned from even such disdainful sorts as Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, and even we were pretty cocky about it.
In retrospect, of course, we should have seen it coming. That night Reagan won the presidency we were the only ones in the newsroom who were glad of it, and we’re still owed twenty bucks from a reporter who bet us that the world surely would end in a nuclear conflagration within four years but who’d moved on by then, and we look back on their discredited crusades against nuclear energy and that “red-lining” nonsense that led to the subprime mortgage fiasco that led to the great recession of ’08, which somehow led to the disastrous Obama presidency with the unabashed cheerleading of our local newspaper, and even without the internet and other aspects of the creatively destructive nature of capitalism it was bound to end badly. Now the paper isn’t even printed here, but is for some reason or another outsourced to the now corporate-sister Kansas City paper, which used to be the paper that our local paper hated to be scooped by on any Kansas story, and what difference, at this point does it make?
Our friends in the radio media aren’t faring much better, with all those internet stations that play only the songs you want to hear stealing their audience, and the conservative talk radio hosts splitting into every smaller shares with every new schism in conservatism, the one of the only people we know from local television was fired for letting the “f-word” slip at the end of a broadcast and is now vying for a state House of Representative seat. It’s a sorry state of affairs for the people who decided to pursue a career in any sort of journalism, and for the city at large.
For all the windmills that our colleagues tilted at over our quarter-century of local journalism, they also pointed to some serious problems that were quickly addressed, and on other occasions they at least forewarned their readers of the problems to come. Our radio friends have warned of us upcoming tornadoes and traffic jams and tax hikes, and even that foul-mouth and quite likable TV reporter also brought us some valuable information, although we’ve told him we’re not supporting his out-of-our district campaign, and we hate to think of what our local officials might be up to without such watchful scrutiny.
Still, we hold out no hope that “J-schools” are going to do any good, given that they all still seem obsessed with inculcating Reagan-hated into their charges, and what with all the computerization in the dying newspaper business there aren’t any copy boys left to work their way up to “staff writer.” Which leaves us wondering how people will know what their public officials are up to and what problems need to be addressed and which problems can only be forewarned, and whether anyone will really care. We’d like to think that there is still a demand for such information and that a free market system will therefor provide a supply, but so far no one’s figured out how to make it profitable, and until then we’ll enjoy the company of our last remaining media friends and encourage those fresh-faced youngsters to into gerontology or video game-making or some other promising field.

— Bud Norman

Jeb Bush Goes on the Dole

Former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole was briefly back in the news Wednesday with his endorsement of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s presidential candidacy, and we were reminded of a long ago era of Republican politics. The Bush campaign is apparently hoping that the party is nostalgic for those old times, which largely explains why it hasn’t a chance.
At age 92 Dole is about as a senior a statesman as the Republican Party still has around, and his long and noteworthy career entitles him to some standing. He was a bona fide hero of World War II, overcame the lifelong wounds he suffered to start a distinguished career in the House of Representatives and then the Senate, was his party’s vice presidential nominee in the ’76 election, and after serving as Senate Majority headed the ticket headed in the ticket in the ’96 race. Except for the war record, though, none of it is likely to impress the average Republican primary voter of today. The party’s mood at the moment is angrily anti-establishment, and Dole is by now the epitome of the establishment.
Dole talked a tough conservatism when he first started rising through the ranks of Kansas politics, and in a gravelly prairie voice that made it all the more convincing, then he earned reputation for die-hard partisanship when was one of the last congressional Republicans to abandon the sinking ship of the Nixon presidency. In the wake of that disaster he was chosen as President Gerald Ford’s running mate to placate the right-wing crazies and employ his famously acerbic wit in the role of “hatchet man,” and he was so widely reviled by the left that for many years his conservative credentials weren’t questioned. In retrospect his early conservatism was just common sense opposition to all the Great Society nonsense of the Johnson administration, his devotion to the Keynesian wage-and-price-controll and Environmental Protection-agency-founding Nixon administration was ill-advised, and Ford’s nomination win over an insurgent Ronald Reagan still rankles the average Republican primary voter.
Dole was still a left-wing bogeyman and right-wing icon in the summer of ’78, when we served as interns in his Senate office, but his presidential ambitions had already started him on a more mainstream path. He was also careful to keep the Kansas constituents happy, and was a reliable friend of the farmer, especially the big agribusiness ones who were generous donors to his perfunctory re-election campaigns, and his hawkish stands on defense spending played well at the local air force base and the airplane factories that always had a friend when seeking a government contract, and his press releases would alternate between the latest pork being brought home to Kansas and the Senator’s tough stands on big government and reckless spending, but he also cultivated a national reputation as a pragmatic deal-maker and not one of the scary and unelectable conservative ideologues. When Ronald Reagan at long last won the presidency in ’80, proving that those scary conservative ideologues aren’t so unelectable after all, at least not after four years of Jimmy Carter, Dole was never able to get a good seat on the bandwagon and his positioned himself as a reasonable middleman.
Which was enough to get him easily re-elected in Kansas back in the day, when the Democrats had long since given up any hope of a very rare Senate win and started nominating their looniest liberals as sacrificial lambs so that base would have some reason to feel self-righteous as they went to the polls. As reporters at the local newspaper we got to cover the campaign of one hippy-dippy young woman whose name was drawn out of some threadbare hat to run as Dole’s Democratic opponent, who we found endearingly loopy and hilariously similar to every popular stereotype of left-winger, and who gave us the greatest drunken interview after her landslide defeat, and even the most anti-establishment Republican had to admit that Dole wasn’t one of those. We also covered Dole’s office in the early ’90s, which was quite a chore given his press office’s far greater interest in returning phone calls to The New York Times and The Washington Post, as well as the Senator’s prickliness about even the most polite and even supportive questions, but there were never any stories that hurt his popularity within his party.
Deal-making and bi-partisanship and big money agribusiness donors and all the rest were accepted as business as usual in a party placated by the Reagan economic boom, as even it stretched into the otherwise-hated Clinton years, and it was sufficient for a candidate to claim that at least he wasn’t one of those loony Democrats. It worked well enough to give George H.W. Bush what was hoped to be third Reagan term, but neither Bush nor Dole could stave off eight years of Clinton. Another Bush managed to stave off Al Gore and John Kerry, which even the most anti-establishment Republican must admit is a public service, but he wound up ushering eight years of Barack Obama, with the possibility of another eight years of a Clinton, with all sorts of deals made and trillions of dollars of debt racked up, and by now even the mushiest sorts of Republicans are in an angrily anti-establishment mood.
Yet another Bush is trying to buck this anti-establishmentarianism, which isn’t going to happen, and the support of an even older establishment figure such as Dole won’t help.

— Bud Norman

A Blast From the Past

Bob Dole was back in the news on Tuesday after an unnoticed long absence, earning a few final headlines with some pointed criticism of the Republican party, and it evoked a nostalgic feeling. The name still provokes strong feelings for everyone here in Kansas, where Dole dominated the political landscape for more than a generation, and for some of us it rekindles very personal memories.
Way back in the sultry summer of ’78 we were interns in the office of Sen. Dole, who had already achieved national prominence as the vice presidential candidate of the Republican party just two years before, and we remain grateful for the enriching experience. Among our fellow interns were two future governors of the state of Kansas, as well as several other soon-to-be eminent personages, so perhaps it didn’t enrich us as much as it could have, but it was a teenaged blast. We got to ride through Washington in a limo with the Senator, write a speech that he read verbatim on the radio, do a bit of pointless research, and get paid for little work and responsibility. The job also allowed us to enjoy his famously acerbic sense of humor, quake at his fearsome temper, and develop a generally favorable impression of his personality.
During our years working for a large state newspaper we crossed paths with Dole often, and it was almost always less pleasant. At one news conference during a minor scandal over a rather inconsequential violation of some obscure fund-raising regulation we wound up in a locally legendary spat with the senator, fueled by his characteristically personal animosity toward the paper, which had admittedly been making more of the story than was warranted, and by one biographer’s account we wound up getting the better of it. Dole never courted the Kansas press as assiduously as he did the big city papers back east, and we suspect he still holds the grudge.

He still got our vote in every race he ever ran, including the ill-fated presidential campaign against Bill Clinton in ’96, but that was mostly because he was running against Democrats. Most reporters were resistant to Dole’s charms because he was a Republican, and he probably assumed that his occasional disputes with us were for the same reason, but we were frustrated that he wasn’t nearly Republican enough. As the Fox News reporter noted in the recent interview, Dole was a longtime champion of the food stamp program, Social Security, and the Americans With Disabilities Act, and he was always willing to cut a deal with bigger government and fought hard against the Gingrich House’s efforts cut back. Although he could be admirably conservative on some important issues, and was always well to the right of anyone he ran against, Dole became an exemplar of the squishy moderate Republicanism that the party faithful are now rebelling against.
Which is what brought Dole back into the news on Tuesday. In an interview with the Fox Network he offered some mild criticism of President Obama for insufficient schmoozing with congressional leaders, but saved his harshest words for his own party. “I think they ought to put a sign on the national committee doors that says ‘closed for repairs’ until New Year’s Day next year and spend that time going over ideas and positive agendas,” he said, adding that the party has moved so far right that it wouldn’t nominate Reagan or Nixon today. For good measure he criticized the parliamentary maneuvering that has allowed the Senate Republicans to thwart several of the Democrats’ worst ideas, and called for the same sort of backroom deal-making that marked his own career.
It was infuriatingly nonsensical, especially the bizarre notion that the same party which nominated John McCain and Mitt Romney in the past two elections has gone too far right for Reagan, but it probably served Dole’s purpose of garnering some last favorable reviews from the purveyors of bien pensant opinion. Even before the interview we’d been hearing the local progressives lament the demise of the respectable Kansas Republican party epitomized by Dole, William Allen White, and Dwight Eisenhower, which they much prefer to the decidedly more rock-ribbed variety of Republicanism afoot everywhere in the state except the Kansas Senate, and Dole’s remarks will further endear him to these people. They hated him back in the day, of course, and always portrayed him as the arch-conservative “hatchet man” he’d been when he was the last Republican go to down on Nixon’s sinking ship and then as Gerald Ford’s stir-the-base running mate, but now that he’s safely in the past and no longer a threat to any Democrat he can be safely praised by his former enemies.
Why the 90 year old Dole still clamors for the approval of his enemies, rather than the respect of those disreputably right-wing Kansas who reluctantly supported him through his career, is less clear. Listening to the interview we were struck by very frail and aged Dole sounded, a stark contrast to the physically intimidating presence we recalled from his days in office, when he dominate any room he walk into just by projecting a palpable power that was only enhanced by the crippling injuries he had sustained during his heroic service in Italy during World War II, but he has neither mellowed with age nor hardened into the true conservative his admirers always wanted him to be.
Much respect is due to Dole for his service to the country in the past, but his counsel on the politics of the present should be rejected. There are no deals to be cut with the softly tyrannical quasi-socialism being imposed on the nation, no accommodations to be made that will fend off the impending insolvency of the national economy, and the Republican party has nothing to offer but the staunchest possible resistance. This won’t win the party any friends in the newsrooms of the big papers back east, but in the end they didn’t do Bob Dole any good, not when came down to him or a Democrat such as Bill Clinton, and such people are of absolutely no use in the current crisis. Dole’s fighting spirit is much needed, but he’s fighting the wrong people.

— Bud Norman