An Oddly Special Relationship

By now we should be inured to President Donald Trump’s bizarre behavior, as so many Americans seem to be, but we still frequently find ourselves cringing. The latest cringe was induced Tuesday when Trump ran a finger across French President Emmanuel Macron’s blue-suited shoulder and explained to the assembled media that he was wiping off some dandruff.
Trump’s die-hard fans no doubt found it hilarious, more high-browed apologists such as the “Dilbert” cartoonists will no doubt explain he was brilliantly establishing his alpha male dominance in the Franco-American relationship, but we’re sure the rest of the world found it rude and boorish. So far the rest of Trump’s first official state visit from a foreign head of state has proved just as undiplomatic and un-presidential.
Seldom-seen First Lady Melania Trump is getting rave reviews from establishment media for the apparently swell official state dinner she arranged, as well as her elegantly dignified comportment in front of the cameras, but Trump had to settle for the praise of the hard-core fans while the late night comics had great fun with the footage. Trump was filmed grabbing Macron’s hand on the White House porch and pulling him along like a reluctant pet, growled that a reporter’s perfectly reasonable query if Trump will pardon his legally beleaguered personal attorney was a “stupid question,” and touched Macron more often and more familiarly than a head of state should touch another head of state.
Macron arguably started it with that discomfiting kiss on the cheek thing that the French do, and he was also unusually touchy and huggy, even by French standards, but that only made it an embarrassing spectacle for both heads of state. So far as we can tell, the negotiations on weighty matters that the state visit is ostensibly about went no better.
Macron had come to the White House with the stated intention of talking Trump out of withdrawing from the nuclear arms agreement with Iran that President Barack Obama and France and five other European powers had negotiated, and it seems he intended to flatter Trump into acquiescence. Flattery is usually an effective technique with Trump, but it’s unusually hard to talk Trump out of his opposition to that Iran deal. He constantly railed against it as “the worst deal ever made” during his improbably successful presidential campaign, and returned to his campaign rhetoric as he sat next to Macron in front of world’s television cameras and microphones. The public posturing by Trump and Macron is sure to complicate their private discussions.
We’ve always shared Trump’s opinion that the Iran deal was awful, but at this point Macron can make a compelling case that for now we’re stuck with it for lack of a better alternative. By usually reliable press accounts several of Trump’s remaining foreign policy advisers have come to the same conclusion, as did several of his many recently defenestrated foreign policy advisers, and so have the heads of state those six other European powers that in on the deal. Macron has told his own people and the rest of the world that “There is no plan B,” it seems unlikely that Trump will be able to articulate a persuasive one during the private negotiations, and if either head of state caves they’ll have a lot of explaining to do with their hard-core fans.
Although we don’t follow French politics so closely as the American variety, we’re guessing Macron has more to lose. He’s an obviously ambitious fellow, some even say slightly Napoleonic, and clearly pines for pan-European and even global prominence, and if he manages to seduce Trump into the global elite’s consensus with his Gallic charm it will greatly enhance that project. If he fails, though, he’ll be left with his country’s late night comedians yukking it up about their head of state’s embarrassing and literal kissing-up to an American president, even by French standards. Trump is not at all popular in France, nor anywhere else in Europe or most of the rest of the world, and he’s especially unpopular in the world’s halls of power, so Macron’s literal and figurative outreaches to Trump could end very badly.
Which is all the more reason for Trump to stick to the campaign rhetoric that won over those hard-core fans. The fact that those faggy Frenchies and snooty Euro-snobs and wily Orientals and the rest of those “shit-hole countries” largely abhor Trump is all the more reason to love him, as far as they’re concerned, and he’s still right that the hated Obama’s Iran deal was truly awful. Even without a persuasively articulated “Plan B,” Trump could win a news cycle with the hard core fans, who would readily forgive all his faintly homo-erotic fulsome praise and physical embraces for Macron as a brilliant negotiating tactic. After that there’s no telling what will come, but it will probably be something else.
Meanwhile Trump is hoping his alpha maleness will strong arm the rest of the world into his “America First” trade agenda, and Germany’s more seasoned and formidable Chancellor Angela Merkel is the next scheduled official state visitor. There’s also a chance that Trump will be meeting somewhere and someday with the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un about his country’s more imminently scary nuclear ambitions. In both cases, we’ll hold out some faint hope Trump will forego the campaign trail insult comic shtick, and articulate some persuasive plan instead.

— Bud Norman

Pining for the Pre-Depression Days of Al Smith and Herbert Hoover

One of the great traditions in American politics, at least during the more normal presidential election years, is the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation’s dinner in New York City. Named for the four-time New York governor who became the first Catholic presidential nominee as the Democratic standard-bearer in the ’28 race, the foundation raises money for Catholic charities and hosts an annual swanky big-bucks white-tie affair that always attracts the cream of New York’s political and business and media and social elites, and every leap year’s dinner features both presidential contenders taking a night off from the campaign’s acrimony to make self-deprecating jokes about themselves and lighthearted joshes about the opponent.
In this crazy election year, of course, it didn’t work out that way.
This year the dinner was inconveniently scheduled the day after what turned out to be an especially acrimonious debate between Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican rival Donald Trump, and both candidates were facing a tough crowd. Some hacked computers files made public by Wikileaks have recently revealed some of Clinton’s staffers making anti-Catholic remarks, and the New York press has recently quoted some high-ranking church official’s taking exception to Clinton’s maximalist positions on abortion. Trump’s unpopularity with New York’s political and business and media and social elites is more longstanding, and his recent rhetoric about how they’re all part of a system rigged against him hasn’t helped. Throw in that Trump doesn’t do self-deprecation or light-hearted joshing, and Clinton has no apparent sense of humor of any sort, and the affair was off to a bad start before the first glass of wine was served.
Trump was given the first opportunity to prove how very charming and witty and likable he was, but for some reason chose not to even try. Coming on to polite applause, Trump got a laugh by pointing out a couple of pols and talking about they used to love him back when he was a Democrat, got another laugh by noting how many people in the room have known and loved for so many years, bragged how they use to seek his donations, then groused that they all hate him now that he’s a Republican. Noting the tradition of making self-deprecating jokes, Trump got a few laughs about how uncharacteristic that would be, did some joshing with the Cardinal seated nearby how they both have fancy buildings on Fifth Avenue, and humbly conceded that “nobody can compete with God, is that right? No contest.” He then launched into Clinton with a joke about her bumping into him and saying “pardon me,” and how he had offered him an ambassadorship to Iraq or Afghanistan, and noting that she usually charged more for speeches to rich people, all of which was in the spirit of the event and got a few polite chuckles. Then he compared Clinton unfavorably to his long-time tabloid nemesis Rosie O’Donnell, which clearly made the crowd uncomfortable, and made a joke about how the assembled media were working on Clinton’s behalf, which came off rather bitter.
He shifted back to self-deprecating mode with a joke about how the media will praise Michelle Obama for making a great speech but criticize his wife for making the exact same speech, which got a good laugh, but it was mostly deprecating his wife, and isn’t likely to help his gender gap in the polls. From that point on the joshing was noticeably less light-hearted, as Trump started snarling jokes about Clinton telling her father confessor at the Federal Bureau of Investigation “she couldn’t remember 39 times,” and such gems as “Hillary is so corrupt, she got kicked off the Watergate commission. How corrupt do you have to be? Pretty corrupt.” There was some further criticism of her corruption that didn’t seem a joke at all, then a line about how she was invited by e-mail but didn’t learn until Wikileaks revealed, then another non-joke about Clinton taking public and private positions, which set up what he seemed to think was a joke about Clinton “pretending not to hate Catholics.”
The material probably would have killed at one of Trump’s rallies, where the crowds are adorned in “Make America Great Again” ball caps and “Trump That Bitch” t-shirts, but the white-tied and elegantly gowned crowd of New York’s elites were loudly booing him by that point, which kind of deflated a closing joke about “Hillary Clinton’s isn’t laughing as much as the rest of us.” He made a slight recovery with some kind words about the good works done by Catholic charities, and left to some straining-to-be-polite applause, but the press was already rushing to print negative reviews about Trump’s “screed.”
Few politicians in American history have ever had greater need to come across as witty and charming and likable than Clinton, and we’ll have to concede she was savvy enough to take full advantage of the opportunity. She started by noting that Al Smith’s running mate was from Arkansas and a boyhood hero of her husband, which seemed to endear her to the Catholics in the crowd, then launched into the old self-deprecating shtick with a joke about she’s taken time off her “rigorous nap schedule” to be there and provided her own joke about she usually charges big bucks for a speech to rich people. She got a few laughs with a subtle joke about being up against a stained-glass ceiling, bigger laughs an inside-New York joke about the mayor and the governor’s rivalry, polite twitters with a josh about formal pantsuits, flattered the crowd that they were a “basket of adorables,” and then launched into Trump. She invited him to stand up and shout “wrong” while she was talking and had something about him letting her take the stage in “a peaceful transition of power,” which got a few laughs, and remarked that after hearing Trump’s speech she was “looking forward to hearing Mike Pence deny that he ever gave it,” which even we thought pretty clever. The jokes got more barbed at that point, suggesting that Trump would think the dinner had been rigged, and how he looked at the Statue of Liberty “and saw a 4, maybe a 5 if she dropped the torch and tablet and changed her hair.”
The crowd was a little nervous at that point, even though they cheered her line about how “a good number for a woman would be 45,” as in the 45th president, but Clinton shrewdly shifted back to self-deprecation, joking about how it took a village to right her jokes and how she’s been the life of every party she’s ever attended, “and I’ve been to three.” Veering back to attack mode, she spoke of how difficult it is for Trump to read from a teleprompter when he has to translate from the original Russian, and how sensible mainstream Republicans are now known as “Hillary supporters,” then offered a bipartisan jape about how at least the election will be over. She tossed a few friendly jabs at the assembled Democratic grandees, a less friendly jab at former Republican New York City mayor Rudy Guiliani, and responded to Trump’s recent allegations that she’s using performance enhancing drugs with a joke about he hadn’t prepared, another joke about Trump’s reputation for stiffing his contractors, another joke about Pence, a line about shortening the election season that got applause even from Trump, another sharp jab about Trump’s feud with Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan. Much of it pushed up against the event’s collegial traditions enough to render the laughter slightly nervous, and the quality of jokes varied wildly, but the delivery was low-key and amiable enough that even the pro-Trump outskirts of the press will have a hard time calling it a “screed.”
Clinton ended with a more serious few moments about the anti-Catholic prejudice that Al Smith faced during that long-ago presidential race, threw in some lines about Pope Francis’ recent remarks about “building bridges instead of walls,” and seemed to assure the assembled Bishops and Archbishops and Cardinals that whatever their disagreements regarding abortion she didn’t hate Catholics. Off course the political and business and media and social elites were already assured she didn’t hate them, so she walked off to a much bigger hand than Trump received, at which we point we were composing our own joke about which candidate had the bigger hands. All in all we’d say she came off ¬†somewhat more witty and charming and likable than Trump, which is not saying much, and at this point in this crazy election we’d say that’s pretty darned bad news for Trump. America deserves better than these two jokers, and so does the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation’s fancy-schmantzy dinners.

— Bud Norman

The Election Year of Anything Goes

“In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking,” the great Cole Porter once tunefully observed, memorably adding “But now, God knows, anything goes.” That was way back in 1933, so we shudder to think what the oh-so-sophisticated songwriter of that scandalous era would be thinking if he had stuck around for 2016. The latest rap and rock and pop cacophony would have surely appalled him, the rest of the popular culture would no doubt also dismay the sensibilities of the fellow who lamented that “Good authors, too, who once knew better words now only use four-letter words writing prose,” and even such a classy and contentedly closeted homosexual of that bygone era as Porter would probably be confounded by all this current public enthusiasm for creepy guys hanging around women’s restrooms.
What he’d make of this crazy election year, well, God only knows.
This crazy election year has gone far beyond a glimpse of stocking to include stark naked pictures of a major party nominee’s third wife exposed on the cover of a New York tabloid, and more widely disseminated across that newfangled internet thingamajig without those minuscule but pesky stars over the naughtiest bits that even New York tabloids still feel obliged to use, along with some suggestively sapphic poses with an anonymous naked woman or two that easily meet the late Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell’s definition of pornography as “I know it when I see it.” That same major party nominee used to run a strip joint before it went bankrupt, has boasted in print about the many married women he’s bedded, once offered assurances about his sufficient penis size during a presidential debate, often cusses in front of the kids, seems to share the unaccountable current popular enthusiasm for creepy guys hanging around women’s restrooms, and for crying out loud he’s the Republican nominee.
Meanwhile, the Democratic nominee is the wife of former President Bill Clinton, the predatory serial philanderer best remembered after two terms and nearly 16 years of historical reflection as the punchline to countless late night comedy show fellatio jokes, and for crying out loud she’s running as the long awaited culmination of the feminist revolution. The long-presumed and still potential First Woman President is as always committed to the pro-abortion stand that her Republican opponent took right up until he decided to run as Republican and rather clumsily tried to be anti-abortion, and a lot of the older feminists are still grateful that she protected her pro-abortion woman against the women who spoke frankly about his predatory serial philandering, and a lot of the younger feminists find the Republican just as icky, so she might well get away with it. She’s not about to be outflanked for the creepy guy in the women’s restroom vote even if the Republican nominee is offering them concealed carry, she’ll always enjoy the advantage of that double standard that regards scorned women as admirable victims and betrayed men as laughable cuckolds, and even the current Republican nominee with the naked model third wife and newfound anti-abortion zealotry is unlikely to overcome the party’s cornball reputation for old-fashioned family values.
What’s most striking to us, and would surely get the attention of a resurrected Cole Porter or any other previous American, is that none of this seems to matter. The only interest that the more respectable press took in those naked pictures had to do with the fact that they were apparently taken in in America in 1995, and that the potential first lady’s first work permit was issued in 1996, raising doubts about her future husband’s stand against illegal immigrants taking jobs from natives. Some of the feminist sisterhood even came to her defense, the right to pose naked and especially to do the sapphic sorts of shots being the most up-to-date version of the cause that even the aging Democratic nominee didn’t want to argue with, and no one except such fuddy-duddies as ourselves would wants to be on record saying that there’s something somehow unsettling about naked pictures of one major party’s nominee’s third wife and his opponent being in no position to say anything about it. We grew up long after Cole Porter’s heyday but still in a time when the happily married Rob and Laura Petrie were sleeping in separate beds on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” and when Lyndon Baines Johnson was holding bathroom press conferences and Richard Milhouse Nixon was creating the familiar phrase of “expletive deleted” but never doing it in front of the kids, and both the cutting-edge feminists and the retrograde family values types had an unease with the sort of objectification of women that recently appeared on the front page of that Republican-nominee-endorsing New York tabloid. Call us old-fashioned, but in this crazy election year we feel a certain nostalgia for the hopeful hypocrisy of those long-lost days.
We rarely find ourselves in sympathy with The New York Times’ Ross Douthat, but we rather liked his recent essay about how this crazy election will in one way or another be the culmination of the sexual revolution that coincided with the feminist revolution during those lamentable ’60s. He astutely likens Republican nominee Donald J. Trump’s braggadocios sexism with the Brat Pack and Hugh Hefner and of course Democratic icon John F. Kennedy and the rest of the alpha males of the “Mad Men” era of early ’60s sexual liberation, and Clinton with the adversarial if equally libidinous feminism that reacted in the latter part of the decade. Regardless of the outcome of the next election one of the two will be ratified, Douthat suggests, and while we doubt we’re in complete agreement about which would be best he seems to share our concern that neither is at all satisfactory. For that matter, we can’t imagine that any self-respecting feminist or intellectually honest family-value types sees any hope in this crazy election year.
There are more important issues than such long-lost causes, we suppose, such as the ever-harder-to-dispute fact that the Democratic nominee was running an utterly corrupt influence-peddling “family foundation” while in public and that the Republican nominee who openly brags about buying influence was one of the donors during his exclusively private sector career, and that a certain level of personal and financial and political sleaziness is now assumed by both sides and it’s all a matter of deciding which is more objectionable. We can’t help thinking that the lowered cultural standards have something to do with the lowered political standards, and that the range of acceptable debate has shrunk even as the rules about how views can be expressed have expanded, and that Cole Porter and his better generation of contemporaries would be startled what happens when anything truly goes.

— Bud Norman