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At the Vortex of Politics and Show Biz

In our desperation to find something to read and write about other than that awful presidential race we even looked in on the latest celebrity news the other day, but of course we could find no respite there.
The Los Angeles Times covers Hollywood with the same avid interest that The Detroit Free Press covers the automotive trade and The Wichita Eagle covers the general aviation biz, so its internet front page featured a pleasantly diverting take on the disappointing opening weekend box office take for the latest big-budget “Ben Hur,” which the writer reported was the latest summer dud “in a glut of reboots, sequels, and remakes that audiences don’t want.” That only reminded us that the next four years will be either a sequel to the scandalous Clinton mini-series or a re-boot of “Celebrity Apprentice,” however, and we couldn’t help clicking on another front page headline blaring that “Donald Trump delivers his biggest insult yet, demeaning celebrities for their not-hotness.”
After Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton took in a huge fund-raising haul on her trip to Hollywood, Republican nominee Trump told a presumably less star-studded crowd in Tampa, Florida, that “The only enthusiastic supporters of her campaign are Hollywood celebrities, in many cases celebrities that aren’t very hot anymore.” With the same company town enthusiasm that The Detroit Free Press celebrated the auto bail-outs, and The Wichita Eagle protested President Barack Obama’s rhetoric against “corporate jets,” The Los Angeles Times stood up for its hometown workers by noting that that Clinton’s contributors included such familiar names as Justin Timberlake, Jennifer Anniston, Cher, Jamie Foxx, Kanye West, and George Clooney, while noting that Scott “Chachi” Baio of “Happy Days” fame was “the closest thing to an A-list celebrity at the Republican National Convention Last Month.”
At that point we were just a click away from the paper’s “Celebrity endorsement tracker,” and of course there was no resisting that vortex of show biz and politics. We’ll assume that The Los Angeles Times’ tracking of celebrity endorsements is definitive, and we’re not at all surprised that it shows the usual Democratic advantage. You’ll have to scroll down nearly halfway before you run out of mug shots of Clinton’s big name and big bucks supporters, and then more than halfway down to get through the ones who were supporting self-described socialist and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders back in the day back when that crazy idea seems possible. Both lists include several other people so darned famous that even we’ve heard of them, even if we’ve never seen any of their movies or heard any of their songs, as well as some folks such as Dick Van Dyke and Tony Bennett who aren’t that hot anymore but we well remember from their glory days, along with the same old lineup of usual suspects that we’ve never heard of all and some others that we are only vaguely and unpleasantly aware of.
By now the gold-plated Trump brand has more universal name recognition than any of those actors or rappers or singers or hoofers or leaked-sex-tape stars, however, and even The Los Angeles Times is obliged to report that he has also has some well-known supporters. Along with the aforementioned Baio there’s Gary Busey, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his title role performance in “The Buddy Holly Story” some decades back and is otherwise best known as that crazy guy on “Celebrity Apprentice,” and Jon Voight, who brilliantly played Joe Buck in “Midnight Cowboy” and the guy with the “pretty mouth” who climbed that cliff in “Deliverance” among other great roles, but is now best known as the father of that Angelina Jolie woman, and Kid Rock, whose strange combination of inner-city rap and trailer-park country and past collaboration with a midget were sort of endearing to us. He’s also got the support of such sports figures as former heavyweight champion of the world and convicted rapist and admitted wife-beater and ear-biting thug “Iron” Mike Tyson, Dennis “The Worm” Rodman, the cross-dressing basketball power forward from the ’90s and more recently a good friend of the North Korean dictatorship and contestant on “Celebrity Apprentice,” and basketball coach Bobby Knight, who was fired from Indiana University despite a Hall of Fame-calber career for being an abrasive and insulting and temperamental jerk. The professional wrestling star Hulk Hogan, who recently put the Gawker website out of business by suing them for releasing a leaked sex tape of him and somebody else whose name we should probably know, is also on board with his fellow former World Wrestling Entertainment headliner, as is heavy metal guitarist Ted “Motor City Madman” Nugent, who we have to admit laid down a hell of a guitar solo on “Baby Please Don’t Go” way back in The Amboy Dukes days.
The Los Angeles Times has been keeping track of this long enough to note that Republican runner-up Texas Sen. Cruz’ only endorsement was from one of those long-bearded guys on that “Duck Dynasty” show, which we’ve never seen and are not sure is still on the air, and that third-place finisher Ohio Gov. John Kasich never racked up a single celebrity endorsement. This seems to suggest that celebrity endorsements have some worrisome effect, but at this point have no idea what it will be. We care not a whit what any of these celebrities think, the nominees and non-nominees alike, even the ones whose careers we have enjoyed and whose personalities we have found pleasant enough presences on our popular culture, and we can’t discount that possibility that even the worst of them might by happenstance be right about whose more awful in this horrible presidential race.
Lately our tastes in entertainment and culture have run more to the “alternative” offerings, and we’ll also wind up casting a meaningless vote in that direction. Except for the exceptional case of Ronald Reagan we haven’t paid any attention to an actor’s political opinions since John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart died, and we’re not about to start now. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Noam Chomsky is said to be a brilliant linguist, but his political opinions are pure idiocy, and the Nobel Prize-winning William Shockley was undeniably sharp about physics but as clearly batty about his white supremacism, and we don’t see how a proficiency for acting or singing or rapping or rebounding, or even such a square jaw as George Clooney posses, is a better indicator of political wisdom.
There used to be something of value to be found in America’s popular culture, back in the days where we mostly seek our alternatives, but that was in the late 19th Century when Lew Wallace had a best-seller of a novel in “Ben Hur: A Story of the Christ,” and then again in the roaring ’20s when Ramon Naverro starred in a state-of-the-silent-movie-art  version, and as recently as the year of our birth, when Charlton Heston had the title role in a remake that had sound and widescreen technicolor and thirty years of other rapid technological advances going for it. Since then all these computer generated images and other high-tech gizmos don’t seem to have improved on story-telling movie-making, and we don’t expect that “Story of the Christ” subtitle has much box-appeal these days, and the celebrities aren’t nearly so intriguing as they used to be back when they mostly kept their political opinions to themselves. That the two most recognized celebrities of the moment are pitching a Clinton mini-series sequel or a “Celebrity Apprentice” reboot suggests that by now pretty much everything is just reboots and sequels and remakes that audiences don’t want.

— Bud Norman

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The End of Satire

The art of satire, according our well-considered literary theory, should be rendered with a certain subtlety. A burlesque too broad is bound to be vulgar, and it also robs the more sophisticated reader of that smug self-satisfaction that comes with recognizing an inconspicuous joke. Alas, The Daily Mail’s account of President Barack Obama’s remarks before and during a recent high-dollar fund-raiser falls well short of this high standard.
The article is presented as straightforward journalism, in keeping with the Fleet Street mainstay’s usual offerings, but despite the paper’s impeccable reputation for accuracy it seems the work of a rather ham-fisted satirist. It claims that Obama sent one of those poverty-pleading e-mails soliciting donations from the basement-dwelling Democratic hoi polloi, in which he lambasted the Republican opposition as the party of the fabulously wealthy, then flew to Connecticut to headline a $32,400-dollar-per-ticket fund-raiser in the Greenwich home of a real estate mogul named Rich Richman. This is irony cut with a chain saw, rather than the requisite scalpel, and had we been the editors we would have insisted in the interest of verisimilitude on something slightly less gaudy.
Take the small detail of that mogul host’s improbable name, for instance. We’ve dabbled in fiction enough to know the exhilirating sense of omnipotence that comes with naming our creations, and have always looked to the hilariously overstated nomenclature of the great Evelyn Waugh as our model, but calling the rich, rich man “Rich RIchman” is a bit lazy and self-indulgent to our tastes. Not since Arthur Miller named the lowly protagonist of “Death of a Salesman” Willy Loman has a name been so uncomfortably pregnant with ponderous significance. At the very least, we would have insisted it be transliterated into French or some other obscure language. Other reports joshingly indicate that the president’s middle name is “Hussein,” however, so  we commend the authors for omitting that rather over-the-top invention.
A wryer sort of satire can be found at The Weekly Standard, which quotes the president at length during another pricey fund-raiser, this one at a swank Manhattan restaurant. According the this account, the president acknowledged to his well-heeled supporters in the fight against income inequality that “there’s a sense possibly that the world is spinning so fast and nobody is able to control it,” then reassured them by citing his recent successes against the Islamic State terror gang, which continues its territorial gains in a key swath of the Middle East, rallying the North Atlantic Treaty Organization against the Russians, who currently control much of what used to be Ukraine, and mobilizing the entire “world community” against the carbon emissions causing global warming, which hasn’t been happening for the past 18 years. This is all quite droll, especially the implied suggestion that people would really pay $32,400 to hear such apparent balderdash, which should be especially satisfying to the class-envying sorts or who worry about income inequality, and we appreciate the painstaking effort to make it sound like something the president might have actually said.
There’s a disconcerting possibility, though, that both stories by these usually reliable publications are actually true. If so, we fear that the ancient art of satire might be rendered obsolete.

— Bud Norman

Hard Times in Hollywood

The President of the United States was hobnobbing with a roomful of super-rich show biz folks the other day, and he sounded rather glum. He spoke of a “disquiet around the country,” “an anxiety, and a sense of frustration,” a widely held belief that “the challenges out there remain daunting and we have a Washington that’s not working,” and his fear it will cause Americans to become disengaged from the political process to an extent that “we got this downward spiral of even more cynicism and more dysfunction.” All in all, it seemed an incongruously downbeat message for such an upscale occasion.
We did not attend the fundraiser at Walt Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn’s palatial Bel-Air home, but we read all about in Variety, which is a usually reliable source for all matters entertainment. The event was a bit pricey for our budget, with a donation of $10,000 buying only dinner and a photo-op, and $34,000 needed to get into the VIP reception and $68,000 the cost of something called a “VIP clutch,” so we stayed home and watched Netflix instead, but it sounds like we missed a swank affair. Pop diva Barbra Streisand and big-time movie mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg were reportedly in attendance, and presumably involved in the “VIP clutch,” which for that kind of money should have involved a happy ending, and we can only guess that everyone was good-looking and well-dressed and wealthy enough to pony up serious cash for the president’s ongoing crusade against income inequality. We like to imagine there’s a certain amount of gaiety at these glamorous Hollywood shindigs, with comely young starlets swinging from the chandeliers and handsome young gigolos snorting copious amounts of cocaine off the ample breasts of some sultry sex symbol or another, so it strikes us as slightly rude that the president would bring everyone down with a rambling rehash of Jimmy Carter’s infamous “Malaise Speech.”
Show people are funny, though, so perhaps they got their money’s worth from the frisson of pseudo-seriousness they felt listening to the President of the United States spout such self-pitying drivel. The president was quite correct about the disquiet and the anxiety and the frustration and the sense that Washington isn’t working, and right to worry about the cynicism and dysfunction it causes, but the rest of it was as far removed from reality as Hollywood’s latest comic book epic. The nation’s unhappy mood derives from the record number of working-age Americans who have given up look for work in a perpetually sluggish economy, the record number of Americans living in poverty and on government assistance, the rising costs and diminished benefits of our health care system, the emboldened belligerence of America’s enemies across the globe, the increasing coarseness and meanness of our popular culture and political discourse, and a growing realization that after more than five years in office the President of the United States has something to do with it.
According to the President of the United States, however, it’s all those other guys’ fault. If not for their unaccountable obstruction he could spent enough money to solve all the economic problems, people would be happily giving up the health care plans they liked and paying more for the plans they are forced to accept, America’s enemies would be soothed into submission, Hollywood would be rewarded for its brave transgressive art with a continuation of its myriad tax breaks, and no one would be the least bit cynical about any of these claims. That the opposition has at least been successful enough in thwarting the president’s ambitions to put in such a dour mood actually bolsters our faith in the constitutional system, but the president seems intent on sowing cynicism about that. It’s cynicism about him that he finds alarming, and no matter what lies he tells about Benghazi or Obamacare or any of the “phony scandals” that have highly-placed allies pleading the Fifth Amendment it is those other guys’ fault if anyone doubts him.
Those Hollywood swells ate it up like a catered $10,000-a-plate meal, so far as we can tell, and probably offered some well-rehearsed sympathy. The president assured his star-struck audience that he and his party had the vast majority of Americans on their side on every issue that would matter in the upcoming mid-term elections, and Variety does not mention any guffaws. At least they know that their donations are unlikely to arouse the attention of the Internal Revenue Service, which has been auditing donors to conservative causes at a rate ten times greater than the national average, and they can assure themselves that they’re not cynics.
The same speech would get a markedly different reaction here in our proudly unglamorous home of Wichita, even at the Machinists’ Hall, where the guys make those corporate jets that the president likes to rail against when he flies off to a golf course on Air Force One, and we suspect the coal miners in West Virginia and the oil boomers in North Dakota and the unemployed almost everywhere would be just as cynical. The president’s problem is that such cynicism won’t cause them to be disengaged, but rather to show up at the polls in a surly mood come November.

— Bud Norman

The 47 Percent Problem

Mitt Romney has been caught red-handed saying something unpleasantly true that very much needed to be said, so of course we’re all supposed to be appalled and write off his chances of winning the upcoming presidential election.
Mother Jones Magazine, the hippie journal of record, has released a surreptitiously recorded tape of ,Romney telling a group of well-heeled potential donors that 47 percent of Americans will be inclined to vote for Barack Obama “no matter what.” He goes on to explain that these Americans aren’t likely to support a campaign based on tax cuts and personal responsibility because they don’t pay income taxes, are dependent to some degree on government largesse, and consider themselves “victims” who are “entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.”

None of Romney’s numerous critics can truthfully state that this any of this isn’t plainly true — and they’re unwilling to note that he actually understated the percentage of Americans who don’t pay income taxes, which is closer to 49 — so they settled for accusing him of being insensitive, out of touch, mean, merciless, plutocratic, cannibalistic, and generally having all the other moral failings they routinely attribute to Republicans. They also chortled that Romney had “disdainfully written off half the nation,” as the Obama campaign put it, and savored the possibility of winning a landslide based on the dependent-American vote.

Romney refused to back away from the comments during a Tuesday news conference, except to concede the “inelegant” phrasing, and we can hope that the argument he advanced in the remarks will now take its rightful place at the very forefront of the campaign. Having such a large segment of the country dependent on the labor of others is a recipe for economic decline, social disintegration, and is a bloody shame, no matter how much it flatters the moral vanity of the modern liberal. If giving a man a job is somehow less compassionate than giving him a handout, then compassion is much overrated.

We suspect that much of the slight majority paying for it all will be inclined to agree, and if the Democrats want to cast themselves as the party of welfare dependency, high taxes, and income redistribution they might also be writing off half the nation, and they should note that it’s the half that’s far more likely to actually get to the polls and vote. There are many in the income tax-paying class who work for the government, or feel guilty about their relative affluence, or have some other reason to vote for the ever-expanding welfare state, but one must hope that there are at least a similar number of people taking government assistance who would much prefer a job.

Romney should continue to press the argument before the number gets to 51 percent, which is a point of no return.

— Bud Norman