Advertisements

Up Above Our Heads, We Hear Music in the Air

The big story across the United States today is an exceedingly rare coast-to-coast solar eclipse, and it feels as if the sun and the moon and all the heavens have providentially aligned to spare our nation one blessed day off from the rest of the news.
It’s the topic of conversation everywhere we go, and a welcome change of subject from the past week’s talk about torch-bearing American neo-Nazis and nuclear-armed North Korean commies and such, and so far as we can tell from all the press coverage it really is sort of a big deal in the grand scheme of things. Solar eclipses are rare, far rarer yet when they happen where the sun happens to be shining down on you, and even the children who are born today will probably never again get in on another one that at least partially obscures the sun from one coast of America to another. To use a hackneyed cliche quite literally, the odds really are astronomical.
Here in Wichita, Kansas, in the heart of America, it’s rigorously scheduled to go down between 11:36 a.m. and 2:32 p.m., with 92 percent of the sun blocked out by the moon at the height of the eclipse shortly after 1 p.m., and we plan to be here for that. Many people we know have purchased those very dark sunglasses or upgraded welders’ masks that promise to let you watch it happen without going blind, others are using the old-fashioned pin-prick in paper shined on another piece of technique that we used way back in elementary school days when the last partial eclipse came around here, some have even purchased sunglasses for the pets, and our plan is to avert our eyes from the sun and instead watch our fellow Wichitans and Americans watching the eclipse.
Even on a normal day we know better than to look at the sun around here. There’s an old Clint Eastwood movie where he snarls that Kansas doesn’t have anything but sunshine, sunflowers, and sons of bitches, and we have to concede there’s some truth to that. If you’re heading west on the Kellogg freeway at a certain point before sundown, especially around either of the equinoxes, you need heavy-duty sunglasses just to keep your corneas from being burned out, and we’re always relieved to hear on the local news radio station that there’s not been a major pile-up. The Kansas state motto is “ad aspera per astra,” which roughly translates from the Latin to “to the stars through difficulties,” and the first rule any Kansan learns about how to get there is that you don’t look at the brightest star even on the most normal day.
At some point this early afternoon the sun will be 92 percent obscured by the moon, and it will be interesting to look around the parks and the buildings and notice what effect that has. Our interests tend to the sociological rather than the astronomical, though, and we’ll be more eager to see what our neighbors and their pets make of it. At a few places out west and off to the east the eclipse will be total, and in certain American towns the morning and evening will become night for a few eerie moments, and we’ll be eager to read about what that was like, but unlike some friends of ours we haven’t booked a hotel room in those places to experience it ourselves.
We don’t doubt that it’s a memorable experience, but we’re not envious, as we’ll share it vicariously. For us the fun is knowing that from coast to coast the entire United States is sharing in a rare astronomical event, that we’re well-informed enough that few of us will go blind as a result, and watching our fellow Americans somehow united by the inexorable facts and unalterable rules of the universe.
Tomorrow the sun and moon and the rest of the heavens will once again follow their usual rules, the body politic probably won’t, but it’s nice that providence and its astronomical odds provided us a day off from all that and a reminder that we’re all still subject to the same objective reality.

— Bud Norman

Advertisements

The Country Mouse and the City Mouse in the Age of Bumpkin Trump

Monday was one of those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer that Nat “King” Cole used to sing about, at least as far as the news cycle was concerned. An American jet shot down a Syrian jet over the weekend, and one of the president’s lawyers spent the weekend insisting the president wasn’t under investigation despite the clear implications of the president’s latest “tweet,” and there was yet another terror attack in London and some questionable verdicts in some high profile domestic legal cases, but these days that’s a fairly calm news cycle.
The Washington Post has lately been on roll unlike anything they’ve had since the good old Watergate days, but over the weekend they found room on the front page for one of those perfect-for-a-slow-news-day think pieces, this one about the growing cultural and political divisions between the rural and urban portions of America. We’re the jaded yet still curious types who relish those slow news days and their big newspaper think pieces, and in this case we were especially interested in the subject. Having lived here in the very heart of the heartland most of our lives on the relative edges of both rural and America, and with a well considered fondness for both, we consider ourselves rather expert on the matter, so we were eager to see what those young whippersnappers from Back East and their fancy-dan establishment newspaper would make of it.
Alas, we really couldn’t argue with their main thesis that there is a growing cultural and political division between rural and urban America. If we were right wing radio hosts wanting to ridicule the article, we’d feel entitled to say “well, duh.” They cite all the polling data that indisputably prove the rural and urban political divide, and have no trouble coming up with colorful quotes from the rural natives that clearly illustrate the cultural differences to their urban readership. To be fair about it, we also think they made every effort to be fair about it and did a pretty good job.
Still, we don’t think those young whippersnappers from Back East and their fancy-dan establishment paper know the half of it. We’re sitting here in the very heart of the biggest urban area in our very rural state in the middle of that big rural area in the middle of the country, and at this lovely time of year we’re a short drive from those amber waves of grain that you really ought to see at least once in your life, along with some delightful small town conversation and conviviality, and as we traverse the boundaries the difference between the two regions is almost painfully palpable. There’s a certain suspicious reaction you’ll notice when you tell someone in the rural rest of the state that you’re from Wichita, and we notice that our friends in the city also make certain assumptions about the country folks who have come to town for their shopping or financial affairs or the big-name country music concerts at the fancy new downtown arena.
Wichita is only the fiftieth or so most populous urban metropolitan area in the country, but by now it stretches into three counties from Valley Center down to Mulvane and west of Goddard to east of Andover, and by regional standards it’s the big bad city. The per capita crime rate is lower than most of those other 50 most populous cities, and even lower than in some of the still old west small towns around the state, but with some 500,000 folks around here a certain percentage of them are going to be raping and robbing and murdering, and the worst of it always goes out on the top the evening news to all those small towns. Although the volume-priced shopping is cheaper than at the dying main street businesses in their home towns the financial deals struck here by those small town folk don’t always turn out, the parking for those downtown arena shows is atrocious and often involves encounters with homeless panhandlers, and if they were in town the past weekend they might have encountered some unexpected goings-on at the big Gay Pride Festival, so we can well understand their trepidation about urban America and the rest of modernity.
Wichita is one of the very most conservative of those 50 most populous metropolitan areas, with so much of the educated population being engineers and entrepreneurs and agricultural financiers and other practical people, and the rest of the population largely drawn from those dying small towns, but even here there’s a certain cosmopolitan sensibility in effect. There’s a big state university with a very promising basketball season coming up, a better collection than you’d expect at the local art museum and a surprisingly good symphony and local music theater troupe, along with the nice botanical garden and nationally-recognized local zoo and all the local parks and a film festival that gets some occasionally good entries from around the world, and it’s hard to not get snobby about it.
The basketball team and the art museum and the symphony and local music theater and botanical garden and zoo and pretty much all the rest of the local high culture around here enjoys the generous contributions of Koch Industries, which did its business just down a country street from us in our elementary school days and is now the James Bond villain of every left-wing conspiracy theory, but it still has a certain liberalizing effect. We sense a certain apprehension of foreigners among our small town friends, and although we share their preference for secured borders we buy our beer from Laotians and our donuts from Mexicans and sundries from guys from India, so we’re not as enthusiastic about a border wall or mass deportations. They tend to have a personal conviction against baking cakes or otherwise celebrating same-sex marriages, which we well understand and would not prohibit, but here in Wichita you’ll probably wind up making enough gay friends that you don’t make a fuss about it. In a variety of ways, Wichita winds up more conservative than most of those other top-50 metropolitan areas but more liberal than the parts of the state where the fields take up most of the room.
Those young whippersnappers from The Washington Post eventually wound up with another inevitable think piece about why rural America is so much more supportive of President Donald Trump and than is urban America, and we have to admit that is a poser. Trump grew up in the Queens borough of New York City as the dauphin of a ruthless real estate mogul, made and lost several fortunes in casinos and other financial dealings, married three times and never learned a Bible verse, and until his recent weekend at Camp David had never encountered bare wood. His protectionist trade talk never played in either the rural and urban parts of our portion of the prairie, where the big money is in exports and he finished a distant third in the Republican caucuses, and the insult comic schtick also grated on Kansas sensibilities. Replace Eddie Arnold and Eva Gabor with Donald and Melania Trump in “Green Acres,” and that classic sit-com would be funnier yet.
Trump is getting a lot of support out there where the traffic dwindles down to a gorgeous and almost empty country road, though, and we think we know why. The president clearly resents those smart-alecky young whippersnappers Back East as much as any of those small town folk, and he states it more recklessly than any of them would dare while in town, and at least he’s not that darned Hillary Clinton woman or any of those other Democrats who sneered at them for their gun-and-God-clinging ways and preference for a country that’s not overrun by crazy jihadists, and there’s something to be said for that,
There’s also something to be said against Trump’s reckless rhetoric and frequent incompetence and often consequential lack of cosmopolitan couth, while that whole Russia thing with Trump and Russia merits all the ongoing investigations, and all those political appointments are going unfilled and all the bills aren’t getting passed, and even here among those amber waves of grain of we can see the point. The arguments will be shouted across a widening divide, though, and we doubt if either side will hear the other.
The next election will probably be settled once again in the suburbs, though, and there’s no telling how that will play out. Some of the suburbs around here are pretty swank, others are former small towns swallowed up by the urban sprawl and lately getting all their crummy convenience stores robbed by methamphetamine and opioid addicts, and Trump’s popularity predictably but somewhat inexplicably varies from one precinct to another. We imagine the electoral map is just as complicated in all those coal-mining and software-writing jurisdictions spread out around this great and varied land of ours, and we hope that some productive conversation among us is still possible.

— Bud Norman

Swimming in a Flood of News

The news comes at a fast and furious rate in the age of President Donald Trump, but Wednesday’s pace was downright discombobulating. Some bigger than usual bombshells about the Russia thing with Trump and Russia came not from anonymous sources somewhere in the bureaucracy but rather from four under-oath high level figures, here in Kansas the more conservative sort of Republican economic philosophy took a hard hit, and just to the south the University of Oklahoma’s longtime football coach unexpectedly up and quit.
The most attention was paid to the written testimony of fired Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey, which confirmed all those previously anonymously-sourced stories that Comey says Trump had expressed a hope that the FBI would relent in its investigation of Trump’s fired National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, and had asked for a pledge of loyalty to the president. As far as Trump’s most strident critics are concerned that’s sufficient for an impeachable obstruction of justice charge, which seems a bit of an overreach, for now at least, and Trump’s staunchest supporters are claiming vindication by Comey’s admission that he had indeed assured Trump on three separate occasions that the president wasn’t being investigation as an individual, as Trump had noted in Comey’s termination letter, which is not likely to make anybody but other staunch Trump supporters feel good.
Comey will provide oral testimony and answer questions from Republicans and Democrats today, and Trump’s staunchest supporters should be ready with some better arguments. All of the broadcast networks will be televising the Senate hearings live, just like in the Watergate days, and the bars in Washington, D.C., are opening early and offering such specials as “covfefe cocktails” for the expected audience, and the story Comey will tell is far more fascinating than anything that’s going on in the pre-empted soap operas.
Comey’s seven pages of written testimony, apparently backed up by some very contemporaneous notes he’d written on the way home from his encounters with the president, include some novelistic but believable details.
He recalls a moment during a private presidential dinner when “the president said, ‘I need loyalty. I expect loyalty.’ I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence.” Comey later recalls that “Near the end of our dinner, the president returned to the subject of my job, saying he was very glad I wanted to stay, adding that he had heard great things about me from Jim Mattis, Jeff Sessions, and many others. He then said, ‘I need loyalty.’ I replied, ‘You will always get honesty from me.’ He paused and then said, ‘That’s what I want. Honest loyalty.’ I paused, and then said, ‘You will get that from me.’ As I wrote in the memo that I created immediately after the dinner, it is possible we understood the phrase ‘honest loyalty’ differently, but I decided it wouldn’t be productive to push it further.”
Today’s rating-grabbing telecast will likely include further literary flourishes, along with Republicans and Democrats and Trump’s most strident critics and staunchest defenders understanding the phrase “honest loyalty” differently, but our guess is that Trump should ready himself for another bad news cycle. Comey’s recollections are apparently backed up by provably contemporaneous notes, and all the dialogue does seem to have a certain verisimilitude about it, based on what we’ve seen of Comey and Trump. Although Comey has infuriated Democrats by announcing an investigation of the Democratic nominee during the late stages of the campaign and infuriated Republicans by failing to lock her up, at least his bipartisan honesty has never been questioned, while Trump has undeniably been caught in some whoppers. Even if the public does accept Comey’s version of events it’s still an overreach to make an obstruction of justice case, given the different interpretations of “honest loyalty” and almost anything else Trump says, but it’s going to be hard to make Trump look good.
You might not have seen it floating by in the flood of news, but The Washington Post had also reported in a mostly-anonymously-sourced story that Trump had also asked a couple of other top-notch national security types to push back against that whole Russia thing with Trump and Russia, and two of them gave under-oath testimony to that pesky Senate committee. National intelligence director Dan Coats and Admiral Michael Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, both denied they had ever been asked by anyone to do anything untoward, but when the questions got more specific they declined to answer, and at one point Coats freely admitted he didn’t have any particular legal basis for not answering. Even the Republicans seemed peeved by the arguable contempt of Congress, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, taunted by Trump as “Little Marco” during their primary duel, made some good points.
All that is obviously getting in the way of Trump’s infrastructure and health care reform and tax reform agenda, and the tax reform part of the agenda took way out here in Kansas. Enough establishment-type Republicans joined with the Democrats to override the staunchly anti-establishment Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto of a tax increase, which pretty much brings to an end the tax-cutting program that Trump is proposing. Economics is a complicated science, and there’s an argument to be made that the Kansas economy wouldn’t have thrived any better under the tax-and-spend schemes that have harmed so many blue states, but the Brownback tax cuts inarguably haven’t produced the economic growth that was promised and we’ve even lagged behind the Obama-era overall economy, and the state’s school and social service funding were getting down to the bare bones that alarm even such old-fashioned Kansas Republicans as ourselves, so of course even the national press is gloating. The old-fashioned establishment sorts of Republicans around here arguably acquitted themselves in the matter, but Trump shouldn’t count on them having his back in the coming news cycles.
It was such a busy day we’re still not sure why Bob Stoops relinquished control of that OU Sooners football team, which looks to have another exciting and maybe even championship season coming up. Over the years he’s infuriated Sooners fans with some inexcusable bowl game losses and then delighted them with some chapionship-trophy-hoisting upsets, but he’s got Kansas State ties and seems a decent sort of fellow and after 18 years he’s leaving his successor a much better team than the one he inherited, so we wish him well in his future endeavors.
As for all the rest of these characters in the news these days, we’re wishing all them and all the rest of us our best.

— Bud Norman

Georgia On Our Mind

Although it’s an admittedly odd thing to do on such a pleasantly warm evening as we had here in the Fourth Congressional District of Kansas, we spent much of Tuesday night following the returns from the special election being held far away in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District. It’s the first political test of the Trump era since last Tuesday’s special election here on our home turf, which got a lot of national attention, and the Georgia race is getting a lot scrutiny for pretty much the same tea-leaf-reading reasons, so naturally we were interested to see how it turned out.
It was clear all along that the front-runner in the 18-candidate field was Democrat Jon Ossoff, which is an eye-raising fact in such a reliably Republican district, but given the district’s convoluted way of doing things there was plenty of suspense about whether he’d pass the 50 percent mark needed to avoid a runoff that would probably result in a runoff. By the time we started getting drowsy in a more western time zone the news was that the Democrat had indeed scored a landslide plurality, but failed prevent a run-off against whatever Republican had limped into second place with from the crowded field. The district has been Republican since Georgia’s own Jimmy Carter, and was long held Speaker of the House and erstwhile conservative hero Newt Gingrich, and has been red ever since, so the betting line is that all the Republicans and a sufficient number of the independents will line up against the Republican in the run-off schedule for June 20, but in the meantime we expect the Democrats and all their media allies to do some serious gloating about the outcome in such a presumably safe republican district.
They’re entitled to it, just as they were with the mere 7 point win by the Republican in our own reliably red district just a week earlier, but in the end it probably won’t have any more effect on the upcoming and predictably partisan votes in Congress. The next significant rounds of congressional elections are nearly tow years away, which is so long an amount of time that no sane person should dare any prognostications, but already the Republican pundits are noting that recent trends suggest the Republicans should retain their advantages, and the Democratic pundits are plausibly hoping that the recent past is no predictor of the future in the Trump era but already proclaiming moral victories.
The Democrats have to admit they fell a full seven points short of victory in last Tuesday’s election around here, which sounds like a lot but is a full of 25 percentages shorts of what the Republicans are used to, and they didn’t get the needed 50 percent in that Georgia district, but they did come close enough to crow about the plurality landslide. We don’t know Georgia’s Sixth District nearly so intimately as we do Kansas’s Fourth District, but we have tried to familiarize ourselves with the political terrain there, and from our currently disinterested perspective both parties seem to have their problems.
This Ossoff character in Georgia is only 30 years old, which makes him a disqualifyingly young whippersnapper from our aged Kansas perspective, and he seems a rather traditionally doctrinaire sort of Democrat, which is worse yet as far we’re concerned, but even the conservative media haven’t told us anything about his Republican challenger except that he wound the 15 percent or so necessary to make a run-off. All the local press and big city papers say that Georgia’s Sixth District is an affluent and well-educated and thoroughly suburban area next to Atlanta, and they don’t need to tell us that Kansas’s Fourth District is dominated by Wichita, a reliably Republican but ethnically and economically urban center that went Democratic by a slight majority while the rest of the entirely rural district went Republican enough to ensure that embarrassing 7–point victory margin.
,Both results suggest to us that both parties have plenty to worry about at the moment, and so does the rest of the country.

— Bud Norman

A Relatively Close Call on the Plains

That wasn’t a windstorm that blew through Kansas on Tuesday night to blow away all the smoke from that controlled prairie burn, but rather a collective sigh of relief by the state’s Republican Party. The Fourth Congressional District remains in the loving hands of the GOP, despite a confluence of circumstances that made it harder than usual.
State Treasurer Ron Estes wound up beating attorney and political neophyte James Thompson in the special election to replace Mike Pompeo, who left his seat to become director of the Central Intelligence Agency, albeit by less than seven percentage points. That might seem a comfortable margin in some districts, but it’s a 25-point drop from Pompeo’s victory last November, and it took a big chunk of last minute media money from the national party and a visit by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and robocalls from the President and Vice-President to salvage that. It’s close enough by Kansas standards to give Democrats some hope in more traditionally competitive districts, and inspire a similar nervousness among the Republicans.
Neither party should read to much into it, though, as there were the predictable all-politics-is-local factors that likely won’t be replicated elsewhere. Kansas’ Republican Gov. Sam Brownback is currently the least popular governor in the country, being hated with a red-hot passion by all the Democrats and having spent the past six waging a civil war on the more pragmatic sorts of budget-balancing Republicans who are still quite numerous around here, and for some reason party poo-bahs in the district chose a candidate from his cabinet. Special elections are typically low-turnout affairs every, so when it happens where a highly energized Democratic base and Republican base that isn’t at all enthused by its candidate and no longer frightened by the prospect of President Hillary Clinton or Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is bound to tighten a race.
Estes lacked Pompeo’s stellar credentials and polished appeal and ran an awful campaign, forgoing the usual retail campaigning and skipping debates and constantly running a much-ridiculed ad where he’s wearing waders and standing in a swamp full of alligators and snakes and a harmless-looking turtle. The opponent ran an unusually shrewd campaign, using plenty of shoe-leather at all the obligatory greasy spoon meet-and-greets and showing up at every debate, and his ads took care to mention his military record and show him firing off rounds the very same “assault rifle” that the last Democratic congressman we had here a few decades had foolhardily voted to ban, and for a Democrat a projected a very regular Kansas guy image, and although his party establishment proved stingy he still fired up the base enough to get sufficient small donations to blanket the local airwaves and internet connections with it. Republicans can hope that future candidates won’t repeat the same mistakes elsewhere, and be confident that few Democrats will allow themselves to be seen firing semi-automatic weapons.
Certain sorts of Republicans will tell themselves that President Donald Trump’s last minute intervention turned the tide from what was rumored to be a late polling deficit before that last minute money-infusion, and all sorts of Democrats will be hoping that Trump was largely responsible for that 25 point drop from a mere four years ago, but they’re both only partly right, and the way it played out here doesn’t predict anything about any other race around the country. Trump carried the district by 27 points, but that’s five less than Pompeo’s winning margin and no better than what any old Republican presidential nominee could expect, and he finished a distant third to Cruz in the caucus voting, so absent that terrifying prospect of a President Hillary Clinton there’s not much enthusiasm for him around here. He does have his fans, though, many of them the types who wouldn’t ordinarily be voting in a low-turnout special election if not for a presidential robocall, and the more pragmatic Republicans types who always vote even in April aren’t going to let Trump’s endorsement change their vote one way or the other. We don’t think that Democrats can expect a 25 point drop in any other district due to Trump, as it probably didn’t happen here, but we will allow that there was a certain Trump-related enthusiasm gap here that Trump and the lack of a Hillary Clinton-esque villain had something to do with it.
Any Democrats searching for nuggets of hope from the race should dig deep into the district’s peculiar demographics, and take note that Thompson did wind up winning Sedgwick County, which includes the 50th most populous American metropolitan area of Wichita and most of the district’s voters. He didn’t win it by nearly enough to offset the ass-kicking he predictably suffered in the sparsely populated agricultural counties to the east and west and south, but even a slight edge here should offer encouragement to discouraged Democrats. In a regular election year Wichita’s a reliably Republican city, certainly more so than your usual top-50 American metro area, but pretty much every single ethnic minority and homosexual and college professor and beatnik poet and dues-paying union member and every other statistically-inclined-to-vote-Democrat sort of individual in the district lives here, and as the pundits say it “looks like America” more than the rest of the district, for better and worse. The city’s ethnic make-up and levels of educational achievement and annual income and television viewing habits and consumers preferences are so close to all the national averages that it’s a popular test market, which oddly puts our unfashionable hometown on the cutting edge of commerce, so even in a special election even a slight Democratic win here is something both parties should ponder.
The Democrats should consider finding candidates who shoot guns and act like regular guys and take care not to give offense to the God-fearing white folks when they’re out shaking hands at greasy spoons, even as they fire up all the ethnic minorities and homosexuals and college professors in the base, but they’ll probably go full Bernie Sanders. The local Republicans should remember that just four months ago they easily won Wichita and a whole lot of those ethnic minorities and homosexuals and college professors and dues-paying union members with such as a well-credentialed and polished and uninvolved in the Republican civil war candidate as Pompeo, but they’ll probably conclude that even in a special election beset by the worst complications they can still win by a nearly seven point margin no matter who they put up, and of course Trump will conclude that he saved the day.
We got some free eats at both the Estes party at the Marriott Hotel way over the east side as well as the Thompson party at an old joint just up from The Lord’s Diner on North Broadway, and it was interesting to note how both parties were pretty much exactly as you might stereotype them, and how both were rather ambivalent about the results, but we can’t say we learned anything. Come to think of it, we do’t suggest either party try to draw any conclusions except that nobody seems very happy here in the demographically representative heart of America, and they both need to do better.

— Bud Norman

March Madness on the Prairie, Minus the Politics

An unaccountably warm February got all the trees and flowers budding around here, but March has thus far been back to its usual cold and windy way on the Kansas plains. The Kansas State University Wildcats played themselves into the round of 64 in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s annual men’s basketball championship tournament on Tuesday, though, and thus pretty much all Kansans are once again warmed by the fever of March madness.
Every state has its own distinct sports culture, but especially here in the hinterlands where there’s not much else to do. Down south in Oklahoma they’re mainly concerned with football, although they can boast about Oklahoma A&M’s basketball championships back in the ’40s with original big man Bob Kurland and many other big-time players since, and our kin in Oklahoma City do love that Thunder team in the National Basketball Association, and they can also boast about that injun Jim Thorpe as an all around-athlete and such stalwart baseball white boys as Mickey Mantle and Johnny Bench. The sparsely populated eastern part of Colorado that looks just like the sparsely western Kansas plays eight-man and six-man football and mostly concerns itself with five-man basketball just like western Kansas, but in the western half of the state they seem to ski and root for the Denver Broncos in the National Football League. Up north in Nebraska they only care about football, and although the baseball’s not bad they don’t seem at all embarrassed that except for Omaha’s Catholic Creighton University their basketball is abysmal. Back east in Missouri baseball’s the big thing, especially the Kansas City Royals and more especially the St. Louis Cardinals, and although they used to wreak occasional havoc in the old Big Eight’s basketball competitions they’re seemingly content as an also-ran in the Southeastern Conference.
Here in Kansas we take football and baseball seriously enough to have produced our per-capita share of top-notch players, and we’ve got high schools girls winning Olympic gold in skeet shooting and can boast of some legends in track and field and the skateboarders aren’t bad, but the big game by far around here is hoops. There’s no professional franchise in a state where the biggest city has only a half-million or so in its metro area, but we’ve got three state universities competing in the collegiate championship, several more playing in their lower divisions’ tournaments, the state’s highly competitive community college teams are always contenders, and even at the small school tourneys the state high school championships always feature enough talent to draw the recruiters for the next level.
Even the kids who didn’t make the high school teams are playing in the driveways and playgrounds all over Kansas, and we’d put them up against the kids playing in the driveways and playgrounds anywhere else. Folks have been playing the game around here ever since it was invented by James Naismith for the Young Men’s Christians Associations that were here from the start, and ever since they’ve been pretty good at it. Naismith coached at the University of Kansas, where he’s the only coach with a losing record, and its program has won multiple national championships and is one of the most blue-programs in the country, with another number one seed in this year’s tournaments and a decent shot at winning it all. The land grant cow college Kansas State University has some big time wins to brag about, including several notable ones over the the snooty KU, many provided by those tough-nosed kids from the hard-luck small towns that those small school championships always seem to turn up.
As good as those small town Kansas kids are, we’re from the big bad city of Wichita and take a particular pride in our local brand of ball. The City League has sent several players to the pro ranks, including a couple of nice guys we went to school with, and many more to Division I collegiate glory, and we recommend that you get in shape for a pickup game around here. Although we spent a couple of all-too-carefree years at K-State and only a couple of hours at Wichita State University we root for the WSU Wheatshockers, because Wichita is our city and the ‘Shocks are its team. Back in the ’30s and ’40s they used to play their homes games at the old Forum building downtown rather on the campus, and tended to draw more from the local factory workers and businessmen and hoops aficionados rather than students, and although a local haberdasher built a roundhouse on campus in the ’50s and a local oil-refining billionaire rebuilt to state of the art more recently the Shocks still belong more to the factory workers and businessmen and hoops aficionados than the students. Over the years, Wichita State fans have had some lulls but also some things to cheer about.
Back in the ’60s WSU had some championship years in the then-feared Missouri Valley Conference, went to a Final Four in ’64, had another run in the ’80s that would have resulted in a Final Four if not for some recruiting violations and probations, made a few tournaments and won a few games in the ’90s, and for the past decade have been on another tear. Coach Greg Marshall inherited the team at a very down point, immediately started bringing it up, and has since notched a National Invitational Tournament victory and a Final Four and a 35-0 streak and a run of tournament appearances with at least one victory that bests some of the blue-blood programs, and we hopeful that will continue. As always the ‘Shockers are under-ranked as a 10 seed, but most of the sportswriters regard them as a favorite in their first-round matchup against Dayton University, and the Vegas line has the ‘Shockers as a 6.5 point favorite, and with all due respect to the hard-working factory of Dayton we like our chances. In the second round they’d most likely meet the University of Kentucky, which is about as blue-blooded a program as there is and the same ones who ended that 35-and-0 run in a down-to-the-final-second thriller, but who knows? The Washington Post’s supposed expert ranks the ‘Shocks as the sixth most likely winner overall, just behind KU and just ahead of Kentucky, and a Facebook friend altered us to some site that predicts WSU beating not only Kentucky but also the blue-blooded University of California-Los Angeles and University of North Carolina to get to another Final Four. Those scribes rightly note that “Wichita thrives on beating up snobs from the rich side of town and will relish giving UK a bloody nose,” and predicts “Wichita is going to the rich side of town with a pack of matches and a five gallon tank of gasoline and try to burn everything to the ground.
As nice as it sounds that’s a bit optimistic for our dour prairie souls to believe, but one can always hope. Next year the ‘Shocks are bringing everybody back from an already 30-win team, and they’ll all be one year better if Marshall’s methods once again prove true, and they’re also bringing in a juco player of the year and this 7’2″ Danish guy that looks pretty good from the YouTube videos, and the thought of how good that team will be should get us though one more change of the damnable seasons we experience around here.
In the meantime Kansas has three teams still playing, and even the hoops-crazed and more densely populated states of North Carolina and Indiana and Kentucky and New York and California can’t match that, and we’re even rooting for that snooty KU and hoping for a rematch next year, which would allow the ‘Shocks to go 3-and-0 against the rich kids in tournament competitions, and we’ll still put our Kansas kids in the driveways and playgrounds up against anyone. Back in the day we had a pretty mean hook shot ourselves, even if we never came close to playing on the high school team with those future pros, and on these cold and windy days that’s a warm memory of a cold wintertime’s most beautiful game.

— Bud Norman

The Sunflower State’s Momentarily Embarrassing Moment in the Sun

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

— Bud Norman

An Balance of Power and an Imbalance of Everything Else

For some reason or another a few of the votes cast in this crazy presidential election year are still being counted, but by now it seems certain that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton will win the popular vote by a comfortable margin. This doesn’t change the more salient fact that Republican nominee Donald Trump won by a similarly comfortable margin in the electoral vote and is thus the president-elect, nor should it, but the final tally of votes cast across the country is still a fact worth pondering.
This crazy election year has resulted in a slight Republican majority in the Senate and a more sizable majority in the House of Representatives, a recent Republican of unproven Republicanism in the White House, a good shot at a Republican majority in the Supreme Court for another generation, and a number of Republican governors and state legislatures and county commissions and small town councils and school boards not seen since the days of Calvin Coolidge. At such a moment of seeming political triumphalism as this, unseen since the eight short years ago when Democratic nominee Barack Obama became president with a more impressive electoral majority and the Democrats had a bigger edge in the House and a filibuster-proof advantage in the Senate and another generation of the Supreme Court suddenly within reach, something in our instinctively gloomy conservative soul is struck by the unavoidable truth that the GOP has now lost six of the past seven presidential popular votes.
Take a look at an electoral map of any of the past several presidential election years, not just this crazy one, and you’ll immediately notice that the Republican red portions take up far more space than the Democratic blue portions. That long swath of blue running down the west coast and the blue patch in the southwest and those usual blue suspects in the northeast have as many people packed into them as that vast red splotch, however, and although they’re now narrowly missing a couple of those rust-belt states along the Great Lakes it would be foolish to assume the Democrats and their popular vote plurality are a vanquished foe. The recent Republican of questionable Republicanism who is now the president-elect has often seemed eager to please that portion of the popularity market, and some of the more longstanding Republicans who won more votes in their states are already set to clash with their newly-fledged party leaders on a variety of issues, and there’s no telling what strange bed-fellowships might spare us from or lead us into the worst of it. It’s bound to be contentious, and as the president-elect might say, that we can tell you, believe us, OK?
We’ll hold out faint hope that the same crazy constitutional system that somehow resulted in this crazy election year will once again withstand such craziness. Surely the founding fathers didn’t intend the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, any more than they would have desired the election of Hillary Clinton to that office, but from our perspective in the middle of the country we think they were wise to devise a system that prevented those small but densely populated blue dots from imposing their will on those vast yet sparsely populated red splotches, and made it hard for either one to ultimately vanquish the other. California and New York can do any constitutional yet crazy thing they want to so long as we hayseed Kansans and our mere six electoral votes are free to pursue whatever craziness we might choose, as far as we’re concerned, and we still think that’s the best arrangement for 50 very different states striving to form a more perfect union. Our liberal friends here in Kansas won’t like it, and we’ve got a rock-ribbedly Republican brother stuck in California who’s just as disgruntled, and there’s no guarantee that anyone will like how those matters of unavoidably national interest are settled, but it might just turn out to be at least tolerable to everyone.

— Bud Norman

This Crazy Election Year, Right Down to Our Neighborhood

This crazy election year has been especially crazy here in our beloved Kansas, where we have our own problems, which those of you who are out of state probably won’t want to hear about might want to ponder. That awful presidential election is of course the main topic conversation around here, but there’s avoiding all the talk about those five state Supreme Court justices who are on the ballot or that congressional race up in that most citified and northeastern-most district of the state or that contentious Sedgwick County commission race going on just south of us here in Wichita, not to mention all the statehouse seats and other offices we’ve never paid much attention to all being up for grabs, and all lately all of it seems even crazier than usual even by our local standards.
Our oh-so-Republican Gov. Sam Brownback has already won hviciously-contested second term a couple of long-ago years in our state’s off-year election schedule, but he looms even larger in all these matters than either that awful Republican nominee Donald Trump or that awful Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. To summarize the recent history of Kansas politics as best we can the former Senator and failed Republican presidential nominee won the governorship by promising a radical regime of tax-cutting and budget cutting, then won a sufficient number legislators in the ensuing anti-establishment Tea Party revolution of Republican primaries to get it enacted, and at this point the promised economic benefits haven’t closed the revenue gap and the resulting budget-cuts are irking a lot of the less rock-ribbed sorts of Republicans as well as every last one of the state’s Democrats.
Even the matter of those of five Supreme Court justices who are on the ballot is largely about Brownback, who would be charged with nominating their replacements. They’re all in the unusual danger of not being retained partly because they all agreed to grant a dubiously technical re-trial to a couple of thugs who sexually tortured four entirely innocent people here in Wichita and then killed three of them, along with a dog, in a decision so stupid than the United States Supreme Court and its four liberal Justices overturned their ruling on an 8-1 decision, as well as the more outrageous fact that they found the state legislature’s executive-signed funding of the state’s school system’s per-pupil funding at levels higher than the national average and higher than all but two counties somehow unconstitutional, but all the ads are warning that Brownback would be naming all their replacements. All of those state’s congressional candidates are being hit with Brownback, especially in that northeastern district that’s dominated by the Kansas City suburbans, and right down to the County Commission level here in out south-central portion of Kansas, where we notice that all vandals are sticking “Brownbacker” labels on the the Republican candidate’s yard signs rather than stealing them.
All of which makes for an especially crazy election year here in Kansas, at least from our simultaneously old-fashioned Republican and crazy Tea Party and entirely idiosyncratic perspective. We first met Sam Brownback when we were interns to Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, who was at the time the notorious right-wing hatchet-man of establishment Republican nominee President Gerald Ford and is now fondly recalled by the local Democrats as one the more reasonable that have since faded away, and we also fondly recall running into him when he was the student body president at Kansas State University and how he urged against our decision to drop out, and that  time when when we ran into him as the main political reporter for the state’s biggest newspaper despite his advice and how very sorry he was to hear about recent divorce. We can’t help liking the guy even if his tax-cutting and budget-cutting ideas haven’t worked out as promised, and neither will we concede that it won’t work out yet, and at this point in this crazy election year we’ll be voting against all of those Supreme Court Justices and trusting our old pal Sam to come up with at least four-out-of-five suitable replacements.
In such a crazy election year as this we’re disinclined to offer any predictions, but we will go so as far to venture that the Republican presidential nominee wins Kansas’ electoral votes but not by the usual two-thirds majority, that the state government remains Republican but with more of those old-fashioned types, and that crazy-but-likable Democrat will beat that sensible-but-obnoxious Republican in that district just to the south of us. We don’t see the country coming out ahead no matter the results of this crazy presidential election year, but we’ll hold out hope that Kansas and Sedgwick County and Wichita and our neighborhood will somehow muddle through it all.

— Bud Norman

Another Trip to a Republican Primary

At some point today we’ll stroll a few blocks over to the lovely Gloria Dei Lutheran Church here in the fashionable Riverside neighborhood of Wichita and cast our vote in the Republican primary, mostly because we always vote on an Election Day. This year there isn’t much reason other than ingrained habit for doing so, except for a certain old-fashioned sense of civic duty and a self-interested point of pride to keep a 38-year perfect attendance streak intact.

There’s a hotly contested and highly intriguing primary race going on just west of the county line in the huge but rural and sparsely populated First Congressional District, but here in the smaller but mostly urban and more densely populated Fourth District our very acceptable Republican Congressman is running unopposed. Across town an old buddy of ours who is a notoriously stingy bare-bones government right-winger of a County Commissioner is in a too-close-to-call race against a challenger who promises to be just slightly less stingy and a bit more generous to the locally beloved Sedgwick County Zoo and more amenable to accepting federal dollars for whatever crazy schemes the feds are offering, but that crosses jurisdictional lines so there’s nothing we can do about it, and our own district’s even more notoriously stingy bare-bones government right winger of County Commissioner isn’t up for re-election in this staggered year. We’ve been so busy brooding about that godawful presidential election to find out if any Republicans are even bothering to run for our state house seat, but in any case we live in such an anomalously hip part of this otherwise reliably Republican town that it is still sprouting “Bernie 2016” yard signs all over the place and will surely wind up once again with the crazy-assed tax-and-spend nanny-state liberal Democrat who also happens to be an old buddy of ours. Kansas chooses its governor in off years, the more-or-less acceptable Republican Senator who happens to be up for re-election this time around is facing only token opposition from one of those no-name and no-money cranks who always shows up on the ballot, and the only voting we’ll do with any gusto is against that Republican district court judge who was ordered to undergo some sort of “sensitivity training” after confessing to a long history of sexual harassment.

Still, the privilege of participating in the primary process is enough, for now, to keep us officially registered as members of the Republican Party. George Will and Jay Nordlinger and other conservative writers we have long admired have recently penned their reasons for disassociating themselves from the party that nominated Donald J. Trump as its standard-bearer, and we can’t find fault with any of it, but none of them live in a state such as Kansas where the Republican Party still means something and just what it means is still very much up for vote.
That hotly contested congressional race over in the First District is a highly intriguing example of the Republican internecine warfare, and because the First District gets its talk radio and other media advertising from here in the urbanized Fourth we’ve been able to follow all the mud-slinging. Regular viewers of the as-the-GOP-turns soap opera know there’s been a trend in the past eight years or so for hell-bent hard-core conservative “tea party” types to challenge the squishy moderate “establishment” types in primaries, which explains how Tim Huelskamp became the incumbent Congressman in the same First District that had previously produced such stereotypically squishy moderate “establishment” Senators as Bob Dole and Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran. Huelskamp has proved so hell-bent and hard -core that he got kicked off the agriculture committee and voted against the pork-laden Farm Bill that his challenged was backed by the Kansas Farm Bureau and the Kansas Livestock Association, which can hardly be considered special interests in the First District, but Huelskamp had the backing of the Wichita-based Koch Brothers, which is as deep-pocketed and just as dear to our Kansas hearts, and contributions were also coming from all sorts of donors invested in such Republican squabbles, and all the national talk radio hosts were weighing in, and it wound up a mud-slinging fest with both candidates looking bad. After the initial Marshall argument that Huelskamp was too much an anti-establishmentarian bomb-thrower to get along the challenger wound up going with the theme that Huelskamp was a “career politician” dubbed “Washing-Tim,” which is so utterly ridiculous that we’re now rooting from across the county line for Huelskamp.
We’re rooting for our slightly more stingy bare-bones government right winger of a County Commissioner, too, but we will accept whatever verdict the Republicans in that part of town might render.

We’ll also happily cast a pointless vote for the unopposed Rep. Mike Pompeo here in the Fourth District, as he’s been just as conservative as Huelskamp or any other hell-bent type but has done so with the kind of tactful grace that has actually won him some plum assignments from the party bosses and good ink from the national press and a rising star status in the party. While we’re at it we’ll vote for that squishy establishment Senator running against the no-name and no-money kook who always shows up on the ballot, and figure we could do a lot worse. All the other Republicans down-ballot will get our support, too, and with similar sorts of holding majorities in state houses and occupying governor’s mansions and holding County Commission seats across a wide if sparsely populated swathe of this nation we’ll continue to cast our primary votes and hold out some hope for the Republican Party.

— Bud Norman