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Reflections on the President and the Porn Star Subplot in Our National Reality Show

“In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked upon as something shocking,” as the great Cole Porter once wrote, “but now, God knows, anything goes.” Porter penned that memorably musical lyric way back in the Great Depression ’30s, but it somehow seems more apt than ever in the Roaring Teens of President Donald Trump. Once upon a time in America, and as recently as the day before Trump took that famous escalator ride down Trump Tower to launch his improbable presidential campaign, it would have been a pretty big deal that a sitting president sure seems to have had a sexual encounter with a pornographic video performer shortly after his third wife gave birth to his fifth child.
But now, God knows, it’s just another one of those Trump stories that most newspapers relegate to the inside pages and most cable news networks mention at the bottom of every other hour, and that Fox News happily ignores and the smutty late night television comics giddily lampoon. God also knows that according to all the public opinion polls approximately 80 percent of our evangelical Christian brothers and sisters still believe Trump is going to make America great again, and we wonder what He makes of that.
All of those back page and bottom-of-the-hour news stories and even the late night comics concede there’s no videotaped or otherwise definitive evidence and one party denies it and the other is being quite coy about it, which gives Fox News and our evangelical Christian brothers and sisters a plausible reason to ignore the matter, and we’ll also concede that one never really knows about these things. Even so, we’ll edge up against those loosened libel laws that Trump has threatened and reiterate that it sure does seem to us that a sitting president once had a sexual encounter with a pornographic video performer shortly after his third wife gave birth to his fifth child. The circumstantial evidence is so convincing that we doubt any of Trump’s apologists would ignore it if Trump was still a self-proclaimed pro-choice Democrat and check-writing supporter of President Bill Clinton and his presumptive first woman president wife “Crooked” Hillary.
The story had been rumored and reported and denied by Trump for nearly ten years, but surfaced again when The Wall Street Journal reported that during the presidential campaign Trump’s attorney had formed a shell company to make a $130 thousand payment to a pornographic video performer called Stormy Daniels in exchange for an agreement she wouldn’t disclose anything she might know about Trump. The shell company was set up with phony names for both the payer and payee, but the attorney used his own name on all the papers and is not issuing any denials that might lead to disbarment, and the story has similarly liable-proof documented evidence for the real identities of the payer and payee. One of the callers to one of the right wing talk radio dismissed it as “fake news” from a “foreign-owned tabloid,” but even the left wing admits The Wall Street Journal is no tabloid and the wing should know that its Australian owner is the same Rupert Murdoch who owns Fox News, so we’ll the paper’s word for it that for whatever reason Trump did write a $130 thousand check to a porn performer during his presidential election.
Perhaps we should be generous and assume Trump was just trying to help the wayward lass get back on the straight and narrow path, but by now even his most die-hard supporters aren’t buying that.
After the Journal’s big scoop a publication we’d not previously heard of called In Touch Magazine published an interview it had with Daniels back when Trump was just another reality television star and long before any non-diclosure payments had been made, and in it she gave a luridly detailed account of a sexual encounter with a future president. So far as we can tell In Touch is a sort of tabloid, but at least it seems to be American-owned, and they claim to have verifiable audiotapes of the interview, and we assume their lawyers verified that before they put their own names on any court filings Trump’s lawyers might have made. All the parts about Trump and Daniels both being in Las Vegas during a professional golf tournament have been confirmed, and there’s even a picture of a beaming Trump with his arm around the buxom Daniels at the event, which looks pretty bad.
After that one of Daniels’ fellow porn performers was telling both People and Newsweek magazines and the National Broadcasting Company that she had declined Trump’s invitation to make it a threesome, and both news organizations confirmed the parts about her also being in Las Vegas during that golf tournament. After that Daniels her buxom self did an interview on the “Jimmy Kimmel Show,” and that looked so bad it almost upstaged the president’s State of the Union address.
Kimmel is one of those uniformly liberal late night comedians who relentlessly bash Trump every night, but he’s not so smutty as most and has a reputation as a faithful family man that allowed him to have some emotional sway in the debate about repealing and replacing Obamacare, and he’s no dummy. He ran some footage of some conservative woman criticizing him for booking an interview with Daniels but never saying anything about President Bill Clinton’s sex scandal with much-younger intern Monica Lewinsky, he was able to follow it with videotape of him interviewing Lewinsky on three separate occasions in previous talk show incarnations. When Daniels opened the interview by saying that she could neither confirm nor deny that she had accepted money in a non-diclosure agreement, he noted that if she had not she would be free to deny that she had, and the pornographic video performer replied “You’re so smart, Jimmy.”
When Kimmel asked Daniels about her signature on the official statement she’d just issued denying any sexual encounter with Trump, which all the pro-Trump media had seized on, and why it didn’t remotely resemble her signature on an earlier statement or any of the autographed glossy photographs he’d somehow and encountered, she dodged it by talking about all the other crazy rumors about her on the internet. She didn’t quite deny that the In Touch interview was more or less accurate, and dodged some of the smuttier questions about the more lurid details just as carefully, but the pornographic video performer seemed instinctively self-revealing and left the viewer with the impression that, yeah, all that’s been alleged sure seems to have happened.
There’s a case to be made that Daniels and her fellow pornographic video performer friend are exploiting that fifteen minutes of fame Andy Warhol predicted everyone would eventually have, and there’s something to it. Until that Wall Street Journal broke we’d never heard of Stormy Daniels or her friend, but after a Bing search and a few not-safe-for-work mouse clicks on the internet we now feel we know them more intimately than any of our exes, and Daniels has been promoting her strip club tour with the slogan “Make America Horny Again.” Daniels can now add “As seen on TV” to her handbills, even if it is late night comedy, and we don’t doubt it’s good business for a pornographic video performer.
The question is whether she’s cashing in on “fake news” or something that sure seems to have actually happened, though, and that still looks bad. We’re disinclined to take the word of a pornographic video performer, but by now neither do we put much stock in what the President of the United States has to say. Trump has long bragged in undisputed interviews and his own ghost-written memoirs about his enormous sexual appetites and numerous exotic conquests, and his flagrant disregard for his own or anybody else’s marital vows, and that lurid In Touch detail about him wanting to be spanked with a rolled-up copy of Forbes Magazine with his picture on the cover also has a disturbing verisimilitude about it.
But now, God knows, Trump’s critics can only chuckle about it along with the late night comics, and Trump’s fans can either deny it altogether or make some sort of rationalizations. The afternoon talk radio hosts and other fans will note that the male Clinton had several just as tawdry encounters with far less buxom women, and that even the self-righteous sorts of feminists now admit that the awful female Clinton was complicit all along, and we was president at time, and they have a point. We shared their disappointment that Clinton’s peccadilloes had so degraded the Oval Office at the time, as did that smart-ass liberal late comic Kimmel, and at this point we’re on the side of anybody who’s been consistent on insisting some reasonably attainable standard of moral behavior in the White House.
Not that we’re blameless, as God knows and our recent internet browsing history will attest, but over our many years we have managed to hew to some old-fashioned moral rules about married people and hygienic concerns about porn stars, and as lowly as we are we feel entitled to expect a higher standard from those who occupy high office. It doesn’t say anything more to about that tax bill Trump signed than Clinton’s transgressions had to do with his budget-balancing deals, but then as now we can’t shake a certain depressing sense that it’s a pretty big deal.

— Bud Norman

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The Cussed State of Civil Discourse

Two of the late night comics who lampoon the newsmakers have lately found themselves in the news, and neither comes off any looking any better than their targets. Such is the sorry state of both politics and political satire.
One of the two is Stephen Colbert, host of the Columbia Broadcast System’s “Late Night” program, is being widely criticized on both the left and right for a particularly vulgar joke he told about President Donald Trump. Pretty much the entirety of every episode is devoted to Trump jokes, so far as we can tell, except for when the guests are plugging their project, but this one involved Vladimir Putin and fellatio and a word that was censored even late at night, and that was a punchline too far. There were outraged editorials in the most respectable publications of the left, partly because they like their anti-Trump jokes more acerbic and partly because they thought the gag seemed slightly anti-homosexual. On the right they denounced Colbert for all the usual reasons, and there’s even a “hashtag” going around to boycott his advertisers and force his firing. Most folks in the middle probably found the joke tasteless, and not at all funny.
So far Colbert is unapologetic, though, and has every reason to expect that he’ll emerge from the controversy only slightly scathed and far more famous. He’s getting some unexpected support from several of the right-wing talk radio hosts, who of course deplore the joke but have reasons of their find advertiser boycotts and mob censorship even more deplorable. All the pundits on the left seem content with some mild scolding, and will no doubt be back to praising Colbert’s more clever Trump-bashing soon enough. By now most folks in the middle are probably wondering what all the fuss is about. Such vulgarity as Colbert used is almost ubiquitous by now, showing up on t-shirts and bumper stickers and shock jock radio shows all those endless cable channels, and it long ago invaded the political realm.
Even before the Colbert incident people were noticing the Democratic National Committee chairman’s very public penchant for barnyard epithets, and how commonly profanities are used in all sorts of leftist venues, and how vicious it has become. The right must grudgingly concede that the Republican president also has a habit of cursing in front of the kids, and revels in an ad hominem slur as much as any of his late night tormentors, and that some of cause’s allies of convenience can get pretty vicious themselves.
Both sides of the street will probably continue to slide into the gutter. There’s an assumption among too many people that cursing and trash-talking signals some of sort of proletarian authenticity and honest, and we’re often tempted to sell them some ocean-front property in *$%*@ Arizona. All of the fuss about Colbert should be focused on this general decline in political discourse, but everyone would probably just shout about it.
The other comic in the news is the eponymous host of “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” on the American Broadcasting Company, who more quietly stepped into a controversy. In a recent monologue he took a break from his usual smart-aleck comedy to speak softly and tearfully about the recent birth of his son, who was found to have serious congenital heart defects, and spoke passionately against some of changes that Republicans have proposed making to the nation’s health care laws. The speech was respectful and reasonable, and we were heartened to see that so were most of the rebuttals. A few writers chided him for using the story for political purposes, and of course the comments sections were filled with the usual bile, but the response from the sorts of conservatives we read and even from the White House was also respectful and reasonable, and dealt only with the facts and the logic of the broader issue at hand.
We’re inclined to agree with those who have expressed their polite disagreement with Kimmel, but we’ll be willing to listen to what he has to say in response, and we thank him for furthering the discussion on such civil terms, and we’ll hope and pray that son of his lives a long and happy life. That’s the way politics is supposed is to work.

— Bud Norman

The Presidency and Other Joking Matters

The first Barack Obama joke we ever heard was told to us during the ’08 primaries, and it went: “Why can’t Obama laugh at himself? Because that would be racist.” Since then we’ve heard remarkably few Barack Obama jokes.

So rare and newsworthy are Obama jokes, in fact, that when a handful of mild ones were cracked at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner on Saturday night it proved the biggest story of the weekend.

The paucity of jokes aimed at Obama is remarkable because presidents had previously been a traditional source of material for both amateur and professional comedians. We can recall a time when every lampshade-wearing cocktail party comic had an LBJ impression, which invariably began with “Mah fellow ‘mericans,” or a Richard Nixon impression, which eventually included an obligatory hump-shouldered “I am not a crook.” Jimmy Carter came in for much kidding, quite naturally, while Reagan was the butt of countless jokes, many of them told by himself, and George H.W. Bush single-handedly revived the tradition of the second-rate presidential impersonation. The comics would have preferred to have given Bill Clinton a pass, we suspect, but the Monica Lewinsky affair and assorted other scandals offered too much material that was impossible to resist.

When it comes to political jokes, George W. Bush warrants a paragraph of his own. Easily the most ridiculed president in memory, even without the benefit of Altoids, cigars, and zaftig interns, Bush was incessantly mocked with a sadistic glee in every nightclub, cable channel, and coffeehouse in the country. The gist of the jokes, generally, was that Bush was a Ivy League hayseed and a moronic evil genius, which never made much sense to us but always got a laugh from the more sophisticated audiences.

Since the election of Obama, however, the longstanding tradition of the presidential joke seems to have ended. If you’re on certain right wing e-mailing lists you’ll occasionally receive a joke aimed at Obama, but they’re almost always recycled material dating back several administrations, and they’re nowhere near so plentiful as the daily Bush barbs that were circulated during his administration. The professional comics will venture the infrequent Obama joke, but they’re usually no more than gentle joshing about some inconsequential characteristic, and the president’s critics are a far more common target.

Saturday’s much-ballyhooed performances at the correspondents’ shindig, which always features a comedian lampooning the president and the president lampooning himself, proves the point. The featured speakers were someone named Jimmy Kimmel, who hosts some sort of talk show on one or another of the networks at some well-past-primetime hour, and the President of the United States, a frequent guest on such talk shows. Both men were too in awe of their subject to make a serious joke, and wound up offering more flattery than satire.

Kimmel’s routing began promisingly when he turned to the president and said “Remember when the country rallied around you in hopes of a better tomorrow? That was hilarious.” It went downhill from there, however, and only a couple of his mostly unfunny gags were at all pointed. He made a reference to the Fast and Furious scandal, but it was more of an Eric Holder joke and seemed to go over the heads of an audience full of news people and entertainers, and he couldn’t have avoided a line about the recent Secret Service prostitution scandal, but it in no way implied that Obama bore any responsibility for the actions of his employees while they were on duty. Kimmel also made a joke suggesting that Obama has large ears, but devoted most of his very long time at the dais to attacking Mitt Romney and his failed Republican primary challengers

The president’s more steadfast defenders will insist that such deference is due to the office, and they’ll be right to some extent, but it should be noted that in the recent past the dinner has featured such aggressive fare as Stephen Colbert’s mean-spirited attack on Bush in 2005. The Obama-era speakers have also been unusually fawning, too, with the embittered comic Wanda Sykes using her time at the podium to crack up Obama by wishing that Rush Limbaugh would die of kidney failure.

Obama’s comedy routine opened with an offstage bit that began by poking fun at the “hot mic” incident that allowed the press to overhear him telling the Russian president that he planned to be more “flexible” in dealings during a second term, because there’s nothing funnier than nuclear appeasement, and ended with the surefire laugh-getting sound of a toilet flushing. The word “unpresidential” has been bandied about in the conservative press quite a bit lately, but we think it hardly does justice to the spectacle of Obama resorting to literal toilet humor for a cheap laugh. He also joked about his boyhood habit of eating dogs, the subject of yet another media brouhaha lately, and provided his own obligatory gag about the Secret Service’s penchant for whoring. The only genuinely funny moment in the routine came when he waxed serious about the heroic press, flatting his adoring audience with praise for their willing to “Ask the tough questions.”

This will be described as “self-deprecating” in most news stories, but the overall effect was more self-serving. Delivered with characteristic cockiness, the basic comic premise of the president’s routine was that he’s so darned awesome it’s funny. Such hubris should be the stuff of classic satire, especially when contrasted with such humble results, but apparently that would be racist.

— Bud Norman