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Kansas in the News

Kansas rarely makes the national news, which is fine by us, but on Wednesday the state landed two stories in all the big papers. One concerned a guilty verdict in a terrorism case, the other was about involved Kansas’ Secretary of State getting hit with a fine in much-watched court challenge to his his voter registration rules, and neither is the sort of publicity that our state needs.
The three men found guilty on terrorism charges weren’t radical Islamists, but rather self-described Christian “crusaders” in a self-appointed militia who were plotting to build car bombs and massacre the Somali refugees living in their hometown of Garden City. A formerly homogenous small town out in the sparsely populated western part of the state, Garden City become more ethnically diverse when a big meatpacking plant rescued the local economy back in the ’70s, refugees from Somalia were settled there shortly after the turn of the millennia, and by the beginning of this decade whites were no longer a majority in Finney County, a fact which apparently did not set well with the plotters.
During the four week trial at the federal courthouse here in Wichita, the defense argued that they were just engaging in “locker room talk” about killing Muslims with bullets soaked in pig blood, and were entrapped by a Federal Bureau of Investigation conspiracy, and perhaps it should worry President Donald Trump that a Kansas jury didn’t buy these familiar arguments. The average Kansan is just as uncomfortable with diversity and suspicious of the government as the next guy, but he won’t countenance blowing up the local mosque and massacring the local Muslims, and in the end he tends to settle on the facts rather than his suspicions.
Still, it doesn’t look good that such a trial occurred her in the first place. The deadliest domestic terror attack in American history, the 1995 bombing of a federal building just down I-35 in downtown Oklahoma City, was plotted in rural Kansas, the last murder of an abortion doctor occurred in a lovely Lutheran Church over on East 13th here in Wichita, and although the Kansas officials and witness were highly cooperative in bring justice to the bombers and a Kansas jury quickly convicted the abortion doctor’s killer, a certain craziness does seem to require our constant vigilance. We suppose that’s true everywhere, but it’s been a constant feature of the state it’s “Bleeding Kansas” days, and looks so much worse in contrast to the wholesome image we aspire to.
That story about Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach getting hit with the fine in that ongoing court isn’t great publicity for our beloved, either, and it should also worry Trump.
By now Kobach is well known far beyond Kansas for his crusade against illegal immigration and voter fraud and especially illegal immigrants voting fraudulently, and he’s successfully persuaded the past several very conservative Republican legislatures to pass new laws and grant him broader executive authority to execute them. This included requirements that voters produce certain sorts photographic identification cards to cast a ballot, provide a birth certificate or passport of certain other sorts of proof citizenship to register for the first time, and a few other measures. This outraged the left, made Kobach a hero to the right, and he wound up heading the commission Trump had created to prove his claim that votes fraudulently cast by illegal immigrants had denied him his rightful victory in the popular vote.
The federal voter fraud commission that Trump set up and Kobach headed came to a slapstick conclusion some months ago. Voting is mostly a matter left to the states and counties and localities, as it should be, and too many of them refused to cooperate, with all of the Democratic states objecting for self-interested Democratic reasons and a lot of Republican states refusing to cooperate for principled Republican reasons. One of the states that refused to hand over everything Kobach requested was Kansas, where the ever-suspicious-of-the-feds conservative Republican legislatures had passed laws against divulging such information. Trump still insists that he won the popular vote, but he gave up on Kobach’s attempts to prove it.
Since then illegal immigration and voter fraud have most given way to porn stars and the latest policy reversals in the news, but to the extent they linger they’re no longer doing either Trump or Kobach much good. The big, beautiful border went unfunded in that hated-by-everyone spending Trump signed a while back, the “dreamers” Trump promised to deport during his triumphant campaign are still here, and they’re polling better than the president, and there’s no telling where he stands on the matter at that moment, except for his continued insistence that the Democrats are to blame the executive order he signed that put their legal status in jeopardy. At the moment illegal immigration rarely appears on the front pages or at the top of the hour, and although the issue helped Trump when the presidency he should be glad of it.
Meanwhile, back in Kansas, Kobach seems to be having a hard time of it as well. We take a harder stand on immigration and voting issues than do the state’s Democrats, so didn’t mind casting our votes for Kobach in both of his races for Secretary. We found the photo ID requirement reasonable enough, as the average citizen is used to showing such papers to cash a check or buy a six-pack or board an airplane or transact many other legal activities, and although the passport and birth certificate requirements for registering seemed a bit officious we weren’t much bothered. The American Civil Liberties Union took a harsher view, however, and their lawsuit challenging the registration requirements seems to be going swimmingly.
The court has already issued an injunction against enforcement of the law, and the judge’s ruling that by “clear and convincing evidence” Kobach was in contempt of court for acting “disingenuously” to disobey that injunction, and the resulting $1000 fine, is just the latest indication that the defense is not going so well. A licensed attorney, Kobach is representing himself in the matter, and our pal Bucky Walters had an amusing satirical slapstick sketch about it in the recent Gridiron Show, with the judge reminding Kobach of the old maxim that “A lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client,” and Kobach replying that “In this case it will be just the other way around,” and so far that’s how it’s played out in the news.
Kobach is also running for governor, and it’s hard to explain to an outsider what a mess that is. He’d been hoping to ride his national status as anti-illegal immigrant hard-liner and voter integrity champion to the Republican nomination, but he’s up against his incumbent Gov. Jeff Colyer, who assumed the office after Gov. Sam Brownback was tapped by Trump to be something called the ambassador at large for religious freedom, and both are vying for the Brownback vote. Brownback was wildly unpopular in the state when he left, though, as his tax-cutting agenda didn’t work out as promised, and the old-fashioned sorts of budget-balancing establishment Republicans who were overthrown by “tea party” have since been winning the primaries, and if one of them doesn’t win the Republican gubernatorial nomination we expect some centrist sort of Democrat could wind up winning the general election.
At this point, we expect that Kansas will happily settle on the least crazy candidates they can find on the ballot. The politics around here have been exhausting for a while a now, and we don’t notice any enthusiasm around here for building walls or deporting dreamers or blowing up mosques, and we’ll assure the other 49 states that for the most part we’re no crazier than the rest of you.

— Bud Norman

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A Troubled Lawyer and His Three Clients

The news was once again jam-packed on Monday, and included a blowout win by The New York Yankees and a very slight uptick in the stock markets, but the two separate but perhaps related headlines that stood out for us involved Russia and Sean Hannity.
If you’ve been following the whole “Russia thing” subplot in President Donald Trump’s latest reality show, you’re already aware that he won the Republican nomination on a platform that was conspicuously more Russia-friendly than any Democrat had ever dared, with fulsome praise for Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and disparaging comments about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that had long thwarted Russia’s ambitions, and news of Russia’s meddling on Trump’s behalf and frequent undisclosed but since acknowledged contacts took place between the Russians and the Trump campaign have been prominent in the media ever since. Lately Trump has been boasting that no president has ever been tougher on the Russkies than Trump, including Truman and and Kennedy and Ike and Nixon and Reagan and all those wimps who temporarily won the Cold War, but the very latest news still sounds suspicious to our ears.
Trump has by now accepted his own appointees’ to the intelligence agencies consensus conclusion that Russia did indeed meddle in the last American presidential election on Trump’s behalf, and he didn’t veto a Russian sanctions bill that was passed by a veto-proof bipartisan majority in both chambers of commerce. American troops recently killed a couple hundred Russians in the Syrian civil war theater, he’s launched two retaliatory strikes against Russia’s Syrian allies after their chemical attacks on civilians, and even named Putin in a “tweet” criticizing his support for a “Gas Killing Animal.” His currently unfilled State Department and a formidably led Defense Department a remarkably sound United Nations ambassador have announced tough sanctions on Russian oligarchs and promised a extended opposition to the Syrian dictatorship.
Which sounds good  to our old fashioned neocon Republican ears, except that we don’t believe a word of it. Trump only grudgingly acknowledged Russia’s meddling in the last election, and still insists that it was Democratic nominee “Crooked” Hillary Clinton who conspired with the Russkies to hand Trump his improbable presidency, clearly regards it as no big deal. He’s been pretty darned slow in enforcing that veto-proof bill he signed imposing Russian sanctions, too. His missile strikes in Libya have carefully avoided Russian casualties, and the two hundred or so Russians he killed were not Russian soldiers but rather mercenaries opposing the Syrian dictatorship, so the Russian government has not been upset by it. The Trump administration’s recent expulsion of Russian diplomats reportedly annoyed Trump, and by Monday he was walking back his stalwart UN ambassador’s tough talk about sanctions.
Meanwhile Trump is dealing with all the legal subplots about pornographic video performers and Playboy playmates and the numerous women who claim in court filings and media interviews that Trump has groped them, and Michael Cohen, the lawyer and self-described “fixer” who long handled these sorts of problems for Trump has lately had no-knock search warrants executed at his home and office and most recent hotel room. There are also reports from the same newspaper chain which owes us a pension that the same lawyer was making contact with Russian officials in Prague during the campaign, and at this point both Trump and his longtime lawyer have some explaining to do.
As the court documents reveal, and the mainstream media have giddily disseminated, that Cohen’s main client was Trump. When he pressed in court he revealed that another client was a big Republican who had hired him to pay hush money to a big time Republican fund-raiser who had impregnated another Playboy playmate, and when pressed to name a third client he reluctantly named talk radio host and Fox News personality Hannity. The news broke while Hannity was on the radio waves, and he quickly emphasized that although he had sought Cohen’s legal advice it had nothing to do with paying off any playmates, pregnant or otherwise.
We’ll take the notoriously puritanical Hannity’s word for that, despite his apologetics for Trump’s many undenied and even boasted about adulteries, but we still got a chuckle out of it. Trump and Hannity and their hilariously incompetent lawyer are all properly embarrassed at the moment, as far as were concerned, and although there are many nits to be picked with the far more formidable legal teams arrayed against them, including that former Federal Bureau of Investigation director with the currently best-selling book, and given everything else it seems another bad cycle for Trump and his most die-hard supporters.

— Bud Norman

Ryan and the Old School of Republicanism Bow Out

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan announced Wednesday that he won’t be running for re-election, so for now his vituperative critics on both the left and right won’t have him to kick around anymore. These days we’re not sure where we land on the political spectrum, but from our current position here on the sidelines we’re going to mostly miss the guy.
Not so long ago when we and our readers considered us rock-ribbed conservative Republicans, Ryan was our guy. He not only talked the necessary talk about averting America’s quickly accruing national debt and eventual bankruptcy, but walked the necessary walk along the perilous path of the painful entitlement reforms and budget cuts that are required to keep America solvent without even more painful tax increases. Such sensible if unappetizing prescriptions naturally outraged the left, which produced widely-seen advertisements depicting Ryan throwing your beloved grandma off a cliff, and he politely but quite resolutely endured the slanders to stand his ground.
Such civil defiance of the Democratic left naturally endeared Ryan to the tax-cutting and budget-balancing “tea party” Republican right of the time, and thus he wound up way back in 2012 as the vice-presidential nominee on the Republican ticket with presidential nominee Mitt Romney to reassure the party’s conservative base that Romney was all right. Romney on his own seemed a sound enough Republican to us at the time, and we still think he’d have been a far better president than incumbent Democrat President Barack Obama, but he’d somehow once been governor of the loony left state of Massachusetts, and had wound up signing into law something that looked an awful lot like the hated-by-Republicans Obamacare act that Obama had signed, and his pick of the steadfastly anti-Obamacare Ryan as a running mate and potentially heartbeat-away-from-the-resident was reassuring to the those of us on the right as it was appalling to those of you on the left.
Both Romney and Ryan wound up enduring the slings and arrows of the left with the civility and calmly convincing arguments we’d come to expect from the best of the Republican party, but they also wound up losing to the hated Obama, and since then the Grand Old Party hasn’t been quite it as it once was. It turns out that a lot of those “tea party” types we once rallied with like their Medicare and Social Security more than they hate the welfare payments that account for a far smaller share of that once-scary national debt, and by 2016 a decisive plurality of the Republican party had concluded that civility and calmly convincing arguments were no longer a match for the slanderous slings and arrows of the left.
Which wound up with putatively Republican President Donald Trump. Trump ran on promises that he wouldn’t mess with any tea partier’s Medicaid or Social Security, somehow balance the budget without any tax increases, build a “big, beautiful” wall too keep Mexicans away and somehow force the Mexicans to pay for it, and he outdid even the right-wing talk radio hosts in talking tough about all those damned Democrats and left-wingers, and he didn’t bother with any of those dull but calmly convincing arguments. Trump wound up losing the popular election by a few million votes, so he eked out enough ballots in a few states Romney narrowly lost, including Ryan’s own Wisconsin, that the former casino mogul and reality show star wound up winning the electoral vote.
Since then it’s been a different American political landscape in general and a wholly different Republican party in particular, and at the moment neither Ryan nor ourselves seem to know where we fit in all of it. Like us Ryan took a principled Republican stand against Trump early in the Republican primary process, and even after Trump had secured his party’s nomination he gallantly declined to defend Trump’s outrageous statements on the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape about grabbing women by their where-evers, but since Trump’s election he’s been more conciliatory.
Aside from the occasional criticisms of Trump’s crudity, he successfully guided a Republican tax-cut bill through the House which also passed the Senate and wound up with Trump claiming all the credit when signed it. He made good on a promise to get the House of Representatives to repeal the hated Obamacare law, although a slimmer Republican majority in the Senate couldn’t do the same and Trump never got to sign it, and he dutifully endured the opprobrium that the right heaped on the GOP ‘establishment” and never questioned the new party’s religious faith in Trump’s divine deal-making abilities. The one-time champion of fiscal sobriety also spared Trump the political problems of a government shutdown by helping passage of a deficit-funded and worse-than-Obama budget busting spending bill that didn’t address any of the nation’s looming fiscal woes or those ginned-up immigration problems Trump is always railing about, and willingly accepted the slanderous slings and arrows of the right.
None of this will placate the newly-fangled right that regards Trump as the epitome of au courant conservatism, and the stubbornly old-fashioned left will still revile him as the son of a bitch who threw your beloved grandmother off the cliff, but from our view on the sidelines we take a more sympathetic view of Ryan’s career.
Our lazy asses don’t have to worry about reelection, however, as we never stood a chance of getting elected to anything in the first place, so we’ll not sit in judgment of a poor politician such as Ryan. Hillary Clinton was the Democratic nominee in the last presidential election, after all, and despite everything we’ll readily forgive any Republicans who went ahead and voted for Trump. It was Trump’s populist campaign that made meaningful entitlement reform impossible, so we’ll generously assume that Ryan intended to keep the government operating just long enough to confront fiscal reality, and he generously allowed Trump to take credit for the big defense spending increase, and despite the rants of the right wing talk radio hosts he did persuade a majority of the House to repeal that damned Obamacare.
None of which will squelch the left’s glee at Ryan’s departure. Even as the recent Republicans decry Ryan as a “Republican in Name only” and “establishment” “deep state” “globalist” sell-out, the current Democrats still regard him as the guy who who pushed your beloved grandmother over the cliff. The more high-brow leftists still give Ryan credit for his civility and calmly stated arguments, but that’s all the more reason that Trump-loving Republicans will regarding him as a squishy sort of beta-male.
That scant plurality of remaining Trump-loving Republicans should note, though, that Ryan is just the most prominent of an unprecedented number establishment Republicans who no longer know where they fit on the political landscape and have decided not to seek reelection. At this relatively early point in the Trump era of the Republican party several GOP House seats in suburban districts and even a Senate seat in usually reliable Alabama have flipped to the Democrats, even the Speaker of the House and erstwhile conservative hero was in danger of losing his own race, and no matter what uncivil taunts Trump might “tweet” that political landscape seems fraught for both the best and worst sorts of Republican candidate.
Ryan insists that he’s stepping down to spend more time his children, who have thus far known him as a “weekend dad,” and his more generous critics on both the left and right agree that he’s the decent sort of family man fellow who would take that into account. We’re sure it’s at least partially true, and we’ll wish him and the rest of his family well. Still, his temporary departure from the pubic stage doesn’t augur well for either the Republican Party or the rest of the political landscape, and the national debt is bigger than ever, and we expect an acrimonious outcome.

— Bud Norman

Abortion at the Bottom of the Page

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

Bud Norman

Simpson vs. Trump in the Ratings War

On an otherwise nice early spring Monday, two remarkably unsurprising headlines grabbed our attention. One was about former football hero O.J. Simpson’s “hypothetical” confession to double murder in an old but only recently aired interview with the Fox News Network, and the other was about the Republicans on the House committee investigating the “Russia thing” soon releasing a report that there’s nothing to it.
At this point we won’t worry about a libel suit and will come right out and say that Simpson damned sure seemed guilty of that long-ago double murder from the start, and we never doubted that sooner or later he’d eventually get around to confessing it in some weaselly way. Still, if you were anywhere near a television or newsstand way back when the trial occurred you couldn’t escape it, as it was the runaway reality show hit of the year, even if the whodunnit part of it was obvious from the outset. It featured a handsome football hero and a gorgeous ex-wife and her hunky younger suitor, it happened in a famously ritzy Los Angeles suburb, there were colorful lawyer characters involved, so Hollywood’s best screenwriters couldn’t have written a more blockbuster script. The handsome football hero and accused murderer was black while the gorgeous ex-wife and her hunky younger suitor were white, too, and with the combination of Los Angeles’ troubled racial history and the ritzy suburban location and the domestic violence it also made for all sorts of think pieces about race class and gender in the more serious media.
The prosecution had Simpson’s blood at the crime scene, the victims’ blood at his home and on his automobile, serial numbers and credit card receipts proving Simpson owned the bloody glove found at the crime scene, and the fact that Simpson had attempted to flea justice on the a live broadcast that got bigger ratings that any Super Bowl or the series of finale of “M*A*S*H.” Simpson’s defense offered no plausible alibi and a bundle of vague conspiracy theories so crazy they wouldn’t fly on “InfoWars,” and if you were sticking to the facts it was pretty simple. At the intersection of race and class and gender it’s hard to stick to the facts, however, especially in our reality show culture, and the Simpson trial provoked all sorts of reactions.
We had several white friends — mostly women, oddly enough — who insisted that Simpson couldn’t be guilty of such a heinous crime because he seemed such a nice guy in all those post-game interviews and the movies and commercials he’d done after his playing days. Pretty much all of our black friends bought into the conspiracy theory that the racist police had pulled off an elaborate conspiracy to frame the black guy. All in all it made for a damned convoluted debate about the outcome.
Two of our better black friends are a couple of colleagues at the newspaper where we labored at the time, both of them fine journalists who usually adhered to the facts of a story, but they both believed the conspiracy theories, and it made for some strained conversation over coffee. We tried to point out that it would take one hell of a conspiracy to so quickly plant the defendant’s blood at the crime scene and the victims’ blood on his automobile at at his home, not to mention that very specific glove, and that the same racist police had let Simpson off lightly after repeated complaints of domestic abuse, but they were unconvinced. Simpson’s ex-wife’s had put pictures of her bruised and bloody face in a safe deposit box to document the repeated domestic abuse, just in case she wound up murdered, but several of our mostly women white friends still insisted he seemed too a nice guy to murder his wife.
At this point in the distant future pretty much everyone figures that yeah, O.J. did it and might as well confess, as there’s not much to do about it now, but the same sort of superficial considerations still cloud the public’s assessment of more pressing matters. The Republicans on the House committee investigating the “Russia thing” have their own obvious reasons for concluding there’s nothing to it, as do many of our white friends and fellow Republicans, and by they have own  legitimate racial grievances and are as obstinate about as their conspiracy theories as our black friends once were about Simpson’s innocence.
We try to point out that even the Trump-appointed heads of all the intelligence agencies agree that the Russian government meddled in the past presidential election on Trump’s behalf, and that various Trump campaign and administration officials have already either pleaded guilty or been indicted or recused themselves for various suspicious and undisclosed contacts with Russian officials. We note that the top-notch special counsel investigation has come up with even more circumstantial than those hapless LA County prosecutors could muster against Simpson, that the hapless Trump defenders on his legal team in the House investigating team and talk radio are offering up conspiracy theories that would have embarrassed Simpson’s lawyers, and it makes for some strained conversations over coffee.
Sooner or later the heat of the moment dissipates, though, and the cold hard facts of the matter become apparent. In retrospect we’re not at all surprised that a mostly black jury from Los Angeles would vote to acquit Simpson, and even in this moment we’re not surprised that an all white group of House Republicans would conclude that there’s nothing at all to that whole “Russia thing.”
People are like that, no matter their color nor their political persuasion.

— Bud Norman

“Little Rocket Man” and the “Dotard” Meet

As tempting as it is to make light of that tawdry president-and-the-porn-star affair, the more important story on Thursday was President Donald Trump accepting an invitation for a face-to-face sit-down with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un. The talks will concern such such weighty matters at North Korea’s lately impressive nuclear weapons program and the 68-year-old war the has never officially ceased on the Korean peninsula, and involve two of the flightiest figures on the world stage.
In the nerve-wracking lead-up to the negotiations Trump had taken to calling Kim “Little Rocket Man” and “tweeting” taunts about his height and weight, with a better command of the English language and a more subtle wit Kim had retorted by calling Trump a dotard, both had exchanged threats to utterly annihilate the other’s country, and the introductions should be awkward. The opening position that Trump has vowed not budge from is that North Korea never forswear its nuclear ambitions, Kim is holding just as fast to his country’s bedrock position that it will never do so, so the rest of it will also probably prove complicated.
Still, it’s a hopeful development, if you’re the hopeful sort. The past 68 years of carefully calibrated diplomacy by Republican and Democratic administrations alike haven’t solved the increasingly worse problem on the Korean peninsula, so a first-ever face-to-face meeting between the North Korean and American heads of state might be worth a try. “To jaw-jaw is always better than war-war,” as the great Winston Churchill famously said, and an international negotiation attended by such serious fellows as Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson might prove more useful than the recent “twitter” wars of schoolyard taunts. Trump’s opening position is quite sound, his administration has successfully imposed international economic sanctions that are having an apparent effect on North Korean’s thinking, and the past 68 years of Republican and Democratic administrations have bequeathed him some hefty military leverage as well.
Still, if you’re not the hopeful types it raises the unsettling question of what could go wrong. Kim is pretty much the madman that Trump portrays, but he’s got rational if self-interested reasons for his own unwavering position, and his conventional weaponry’s constant proximity to South Korea’s capital and most populous and friendship with formidable neighbor China also give him some significant leverage. He’s also got a point, alas, about Trump being something of a dotard.
Trump  comes into the negotiations from a somewhat weaker political position, as Kim is an absolute dictator who can have have any critics quieted, while Trump, to his apparent disappointment, is not. Trump has to deal with brouhahas about porn stars and steel tariffs and his son-in-law and “dreamers” and that “Russia thing” and his desultory opinion polls and whatever he last “tweeted” about, so for now he needs a big win in the media more than does Kim. If a big win turns out to be a 69th straight year without a nuclear conflagration we’ll take it, and Trump might as well, but there’s no telling with this guy. We’re reassured by some of the remaining non-son-law and very serious fellows remaining in Trump’s administration, but the face-to-face is tentatively scheduled for early May and given the recent turnover there’s no telling how many of them will still be around.
In any case, we’ll hope for the best, even though we’re not really the hopeful type.

— Bud Norman

The Pros and Cohns of Protectionism

Even on a Tuesday day when a pornographic video performer called Stormy Daniels filed a lawsuit against President Donald Trump, the departure of National Economic Council director Gary Cohn was the biggest news out of the White House. The frequent comings and goings of Trump administration officials are usually newsworthy only because of the colorful characters involved and the chaotic situation they represent, but in Cohn’s case it could have serious consequences.
Cohn was one of economic advisers who tried to talk Trump out of imposing the steep steel and aluminum tariffs that were announced last week, as well as the rest of the protectionist agenda Trump has proposed, and his resignation suggests that talking Trump out of such cockamamie ideas is beyond his ability. The congressional Republican leadership also tried persuade Trump to reconsider, and although Trump is invoking national security reasons for imposing the tariffs so did his Defense Secretary and Secretary of State, as well as some of most stalwart defenders in the conservative media, so it appears that no one’s up to the task.
Cohn’s continued role in the White House gave faint hope to the free-traders, though, and his exit suggests the fight is over. His resignation wasn’t announced until the stock markets had closed for the day, but we expect the news will be met glumly when they open again today. Except for the aluminum and steel makers and a few other unionized industries hoping for similar protection from foreign competition, pretty much everyone is planning to pay more for aluminum and steel and try to pass the hit along the supply chain and down to the end consumer, steeling themselves for the inevitable retaliatory tariffs on American exports by friends and foes alike, and worrying what comes after that.
Cohn and the other sensible administration officials and the congressional Republican leadership and the conservative media defenders should have seen it coming all along, though, as well as all those steel-and-aluminum buying companies and export industries and other critics. Trump made quite clear during his seemingly quixotic campaign that he intended on waging a global trade war, and although he spouted off a lot of crazy talk that no one took seriously he was quite clearly sincere in about this particular threat. He’d been publicly critical of America’s trade with the rest of the world since President Ronald Reagan’s administration, claimed that America had been taken advantage of in every foreign relation since the Marshall Plan of President Harry Truman, and offered himself as the artful dealmaker who alone could set things right. Over the years Trump has been all over the place on abortion and immigration and “transgender rights” and almost anything else in the news — we like to joke that he’s taken more positions than Stormy Daniels — but he has never once wavered from a core conviction that he alone could renegotiate the entire world economy to America’s rightful advantage.
Although an estimable fellow, Cohn was never going to talk Trump out of this delusion. Cohn was always a controversial pick, with critics to both the left and right, and ill-suited to any role in Trump’s reality show. His only previous employer was at the too-big-to-fail Goldman-Sachs investment bank, where he rose through the ranks to a top spot, and the conspiracy theorizing sorts of liberals and conservatives have long noticed that Goldman Sachs has landed a noticeable number of former executives in both Democratic and Republican administrations for an noticeably long time, so that left him vulnerable. The stock markets and other centrist types were slightly reassured that at least Trump honored some of the time-honored presidential traditions, and held out hope Con would restrain Trump’s populist impulses, but a buttoned-down riser-through-the-corporate ranks has never prevailed in any reality show ever aired.
Cohn lasted on the reality show island longer than most of us expected, given all the anti-globalist conspiracy theorists who got a vote in each week’s cliff-hanging exile. He outlasted the defiantly nationalist chief strategist Steve Bannon, oh-so loyal and kinda cute communications director Hope Hicks, onetime establishment whipping boy and later chief of staff Reince Priebus, currently under-indictment former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn, that Omarosa woman who held some job or another before returning to a lesser-rated reality, along with countless others can’t quite recall. We think he did some good along the way, too.
As an observant Jew with universal human values, Cohn reportedly considered resigning after Trump insisted there were some “very fine people” marching alongside the neo-Nazis at a deadly rally in Virginia, and although he stayed on he helped fuel the public’s indignation. By sticking around he helped he shape and shepherd trough the Congress a tax bill that so far seems one the best things the Trump administration has done, and he’s also played a role in all the deregulation that has so far worked out well enough. He couldn’t talk Trump out of his crazy trade war, but at least his resignation might spook the stock markets and fuel the public’s indignation and give those congressional Republican leaders and other critics some chance of restraining the president’s populist impulses.
We’ll hope for the best for Cohn and all the rest of us, including that unfortunate visiting Swedish Prime Minister who wound up standing next to Trump during a joint news conference where both the American and Swedish press were asking all sorts of pointed questions about potential trade wars and the ongoing “Russia thing.” The video would have fed all the snarky late comics’ monologues if not for the lawsuit by the porn star, but even those easy and smutty jokes were among the first casualties of the trade war.

— Bud Norman

On Presidential Comedy, as Intended or Inadvertent

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

— Bud Norman

As the Son-in-Law Sets

Jared Kushner’s position as President Donald Trump’s son-in-law seems secure for the time being, so far as we can tell, but otherwise it’s hard to see how he continues doing the additional jobs of bringing about Middle East peace and reinventing the federal government and solving America’s opioid crisis and being the country’s go-to guy with China and getting Mexico to pay for a border wall.
A pesky bureaucracy has denied him top-level security clearance, what with all the meetings with foreign powers that he forgot to disclose on his forms and the recent reports by the even peskier news media that China and Mexico and a couple of other countries have tried to exploit the billion-dollar debts owed by the company he last ran and is still fully invested in. The White House press secretary assures us that Kushner can continue dealing with the Middle East and China without access to the most top-secret stuff, and has the full support of former the four-star Marine general and current White House chief of staff who doesn’t seem to like Kushner much and recently announced the street policy limiting access to the top-secret stuff to those with top-secret security clearances, but that seems suspicious.
We suppose that Kushner can reinvent America’s federal government and solve its opioid crisis and somehow convince Mexico to pay for a border wall with the same meager information available to the internet-browsing public at large, but our reading of the news suggests these are all tough tasks. All the tougher when you can’t get a security clearance and reports are swirling that foreign government have been trying to exploit the billion-dollar debt you incurred in your last job and still owe, and the father-in-law who handed you these tough jobs has his own problems dealing with eerily similar swirling reports about possible indebtedness to foreign powers.
There’s also the lingering question of why any 37-year-old without any previous public service or foreign relations experience, whose only credentials were taking over the family real estate business when his dad went to prison and driving it a billion dollars into debt and marrying a future president’s daughter, wound up in such demanding jobs. When Trump ran for president he promised that he would hire only the best people, and but it turns out he meant the best people he knew. His limited circle of acquaintances includes his son’s wedding planner who wound up in a sweet position at the Department of Urban Development, a former bit player from his “Apprentice” reality show who wound up as the only black woman in the white House but got fired and wound up on another reality and got fired again, as well too-many-to-link-to others who wound up in high-ranking jobs after serving low-level duty in Trump’s businesses or campaign.
Trump is reportedly going to appoint his former personal jet pilot to head the Federal Aviation Administration, and we marvel at how all the best people happened to be people he knew before he ran for office. Still, we hope he starts considering other job applications from outside his family and circle of friends, if any are forthcoming,

— Bud Norman

“Lord Jim” and South Florida and the Gun Debate

One of the names in the news lately is that of Broward County School Resource Deputy Scot Peterson, who is suddenly infamous as the armed and body-armored guard who was outside Parkland, Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and didn’t rush in when he heard the first shots fired in a deadly rampage that took the lives of 17 students and faculty and wounded a dozen others on St. Valentine’s Day. He’s since been forced into early retirement, condemned for cowardice by the Broward County Sheriff and the President of the United States, and widely criticized even by those who aren’t in need of a scapegoat for the tragedy.
We’ll leave it to the Broward County Sheriff’s office to determine Peterson’s professional fate, let God judge his soul, and hope that whatever his culpability in the tragedy he finds redemption in this life or the next. His story has a certain fascination for us, though, as it recalls a favorite novel called “Lord Jim.”
If you’ve never read it you really should, because Joseph Conrad was one of the English language’s greatest writers and “Lord Jim” is one of his greatest masterpieces, and it has some wise and pertinent things to say about the human condition. The story concerns a young 19th Century British fellow named Jim, no better or worse than anyone else, who becomes a competent enough seaman on a ship transporting “pilgrims of an exacting faith” through the Red Sea. One stormy night when the ship is endangered through no fault of his own, young Jim fails to act as he was diligently trained and fairly paid to do by prematurely abandoning the ship, and although so did the ship’s captain and other higher officers he’s the only one who winds up on trial and found guilty of dereliction of duty and scorned by respectable people. With the help of a few sympathetic writer types Jim winds up in a series of desultory jobs and eventually on a remote island with no civilized norms of behavior, and without giving away the entire plot suffice to say he pays a steep price for atonement in his second chance to do the right thing.
Sorry to get so literary on you, but we wish that a better scribe such as Conrad was around to provide commentary on the current political debate regarding the Douglas High tragedy in particular and the peculiarly American phenomenon of mass shootings in general. Alas, the sorry situation is now beyond the satirical talents of ourselves or even a Jonathan Swift, so only such a tragedian as Conrad could do it justice.
Former Broward County School Resource Deputy Peterson is lately defending himself, saying that he followed training and had reason to believe that the shots were being defending outside the school, and while that seems quite plausible to such uncertain and forgiving sorts as ourselves there’s no way to recast him as the hero of this tale. For now, that makes him a plausible villain.
The Broward County Sheriff’s Office that trained and meagerly paid Peterson had several presumably better-trained and better-paid deputies who also took some time before rushing into the building, and by then the alleged shooter was being apprehended down the street by a patrol car on routine duty, and the entire office had failed to keep an eye on the alleged shooter despite numerous domestic abuse calls to his various homes, warnings from school officials, tips from classmates and neighbors, the alleged shooter’s postings on social media about shooting up the school he’d ben expelled from, and various other warnings that something very bad was about to go down in Broward County.
Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel defended himself in a disaster of an interview with the Cable News Network, citing his “amazing leadership to this agency,” and wound up seeming to blame it all on “one deputy who was remiss, dereliction of duty, and he’s no longer with this agency.” There are already calls on both the left and right for his resignation or firing or tarring-and-feathering, not to mention the criticisms of all the grieving or scared parents in even the richest parts of Broward County, but we’ll leave to to the locals to decide his professional fate and let God judge his soul.
Israel can still kick the blame up to a higher power, though, which is one of of those literary twists that best of the satirists and tragedians could have never come up with. The federal government’s Federal Bureau of Investigation was also tipped off about the alleged school shooter allegedly responsibly for an undeniable school shooting, and similarly failed to act, so there are also calls on the left and right to replace the guy in charge of that agency that didn’t turn out to be the hero of this instead tragic tale.
President Donald Trump always imagines himself as the hero in all these tragic subplots of the ongoing American reality show, but he’s also the guy who appointed the current FBI director, and he’s meanwhile leaving open the possibility that the once-venerable FBI is still engaged in a “deep state” “silent coup” against his presidency. At this point neither Swift nor Conrad are equal to the convoluted plot, but even a hack reality show writer would have the Trump character saying that Peterson and other Broward County Sheriffs deputies are “no Medal of Honor winners” and his behavior was “frankly, disgusting,” and although acknowledging one never really knows about such things claiming “I really believe I’d have run in there even if I didn’t have a weapon.”
There’s nothing in Trump’s by now well-known biography to back up the claim, of course. His tough guy reputation is based mostly on the schoolyard taunts he “tweets” against political opponents too dignified to respond in kind, and back when he was a boastfully athletic American youth he used educational deferments and some spurious bone spurs that never seemed to interfere with his golfing to avoid serving his country in war. We’ll not judge him for that, but we’ll dourly note that he’s disrespected the service of men who were prisoners of war and almost any decorated veterans who are of the Democratic persuasion, and we’ll not indulge the comic book fantasy of Trump as the superhero of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High if he’d only been there with his bare hands.
Meanwhile, on the left, they’re searching for other scapegoats. Those uncannily well-spoken and well-groomed and telegenic kids from the shot-up school are disinclined to blame Porter, who they seemed to know as a nice enough guy no better or worse anyone else, and are instead blaming that Sheriff they’ve never met and Trump and the National Rifle Association and anyone else who ever had a nice thing to say about the right to keep and bear arms. As much as we like those Douglas High kids and sympathize with their horrific pain, we also cherish our right to arm ourselves should it ever become necessary in this tragic world, and thank the NRA for its efforts on our behalf, and hold out the usual hope that youth doesn’t achieve its most idealistic aims.
We won’t mind if they achieve some of their more  modest goals, though. The same people who are saying that the opinions of 17-yeaar-olds who have survived a mass school shooting should be dismissed as the uneducated rantings of a mere child are simultaneously saying those same people should be allowed to buy the heaviest weaponry on the market the day turn 18, so it seems reasonable that you shouldn’t be allowed to buy an AR-15 until you’re allowed to buy a martini. Fixing whatever bureaucratic glitches obviously occurred at the county and state and federal levels seems reasonable enough, too, but given the NRA’s obstinance and the Republican party’s never-give-an-inch stance  it remains to be seen how the the polarized sides might work that out.
The best solutions will require some political courage on both sides of the political divide, and these days that’s even harder to find than the physical courage that Conrad and Zane Grey used to write about. Still, Douglas High’s burly and balding and unarmed football coach, Aaron Feis, gave his life  to save the lives of several students at the school he loved, though, even if his name isn’t as prominent in the news as Peterson’s. We’ll hold out hope, therefore, and in the meantime wish  all the School Resource Deputy Petersons of the world a chance at redemption.

— Bud Norman