Something Special in South-Central Kansas

President Donald Trump called our newfangled cellular telephone on Monday afternoon while Texas’ Sen. Ted Cruz was speaking to us on a personal visit, which was also attended by reporters from The Washington Post and The New York Times and a strikingly sultry young hipster woman representing Buzzfeed.com, and that came the day after Vice President Mike Pence called us, so at the moment we’re feeling rather special here in the Fourth Congressional District of Kansas. It’s all because of today’s special election to select a replacement for the locally well-regarded Rep. Mike Pompeo, who resigned his seat to become the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and the surprisingly plausible possibility that an upset of national interest might be brewing.
Ordinarily the congressional elections here in our part of the very heart of flyover country are dull affairs, with the only suspense for the last couple of decades being whether the Republican would win by a two-to-one rout or some embarrassing low-double-digits margin, but this time around there’s an extraordinary collision of circumstances. The Republican National Committee is worried enough that it threw $92,000 into a last minute ad blitz, which will buy a big chunk of air time in this cut-rate media market, and they pestered both Trump and Pence to record the robocalls that have been reaching all the Republican phones around here, and convinced Cruz to fly into town for a rally at a local corporate aviation airport hangar. The Kansas Democratic Committee reportedly declined to spend a requested $20,000 for counter-advertising, probably because they don’t have it on hand, but the editors at The Washington Post and New York Times and Buzzfeed.com apparently sense enough Republican nervousness that they invested their meager travel budgets in a plane ticket and hotel and restaurant bill and other expenses in far-off Wichita. Knowing this corner of the prairie better than any of those Republican politicos or Democratic media bigwigs, there are a few reasons we think it at least slightly possible they might be on to something.
Just a few months ago Pompeo won yet another re-election with something close to that two-to-one score, but this time around the Republican candidate is Ron Estes, and Estes is no Pompeo. The current director of the CIA first won the Fourth Congressional seat back in ’10, when he replaced the reliably conservative but utterly forgettable Reublican Todd Tiahrt, who had resigned the seat to make an ill-fated run primary run for the Senate, and wiped the floor with a Harvard-educated Hindu that the Democrats had chosen just after President Barack Obama’s ’08 win convinced them that foreign names and Ivy League credentials were a winning combination even in Kansas. Pompeo had been first in his class at West Point and the commander of a tank unit on the Iron Curtain, an editor of the Harvard Law Review, the founder of a successful high-tech aviation business, could eloquently articulate the principles of conservatism to the formidable number of establishment Republicans around here and still connect with the more rough-hewn but also formidable Republican types, and he was too darned reasonable to scare even the most skittish liberal. Democrats were losing their entire House majority in all sorts of districts because of Obama at that point, and Pompeo thus easily won election over that smartypants Democrat. After that the Democrats ran a series of sacrificial lambs who revved up the base but didn’t have any potential political careers worth wasting, and suffice to say there weren’t any reporters from The Washington Post or New York Times at the three subsequent nearly two-to-one victory parties. Pompeo was a rising star in the Republican ranks before his elevation to the CIA post once held by President George H.W. Bush, and we dare say you haven’t heard the last of him.
Estes, on the other hand, is a recent State Treasurer of Kansas, which is not an enviable job in these years of annual budget shortfalls, and that’s pretty much all you’d know about him from his well-funded but utterly inept campaign, except that he’s a reliably conservative and otherwise entirely forgettable Republican. He’s declined to articulate his conservatism at any of the public debates that various groups tried to schedule, so Estes is mainly defined by the godawful ads that constantly run on the local talk radio and evening news broadcasts. One features him interacting in soft focus with stereotypical workaday Kansans while a pastel Kansas sunset sinks in the background, with his belly as prominently displayed as any of them, another shows him standing waist-deep in a sickly green swamp full of alligators and promising to drain it, and most of them are attack ads showing his Democratic opponent photo-shopped next to a very scary image of Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
The ridiculous and much-ridiculed image of Estes standing waste-deep in that sickly green water is presumably meant to link him to his robocalling friend Trump and his famous campaign promise to “drain the swamp,” but Trump finished in a distant third in the Kansas caucus and was roundly booed when he appeared here during the event, and he only won the state’s electoral votes because he was running against Hillary Clinton, and almost no one around here believes that Trumpism is the solution to official corruption. Cruz was the big winner of the Kansas caucus, but he only drew 250 or so to the airport rally on Monday, and his speech focused on Supreme Court nominees that the House doesn’t get to vote on and the much-hated Obamacare bill that Trump failed to repeal in his first attempt largely because of conservative hard-liners such as himself, and he threw in some jokes so old the audience was chanting along with the punchlines, and he got a bigger response by noting Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer than he did during the single mention of Donald Trump, although Trump’s Supreme Court pick Neil Gorsuch got a deservedly nice hand. The behind-schedule rally also included speeches by a black Republican and two clean-cut College Republicans and the heads of the Kansas For Life and the Kansas Rifle Association, as well as a forgettable few minutes by Estes himself, but it had the same desultory feel of the rest of the campaign. Those endlessly televised photos of Minority Leader Pelosi are still pretty terrifying, but unlikely to scare Republicans off the couch and off to the polling place the way she did when was she was swinging the gavel as Speaker of the House during a Democratic administration, and there so little connection between Pelosi and the Democratic opponent that it had to be photoshopped. The Democratic opponent has a pretty Kansas-sized belly and photogenic Kansas sunsets in the background, too, and he’s brought in enough small donations from an energized Democratic party to make them pop up on pretty much every internet site a Kansan might visit.
The Democratic opponent is attorney James Thompson, and although he’s a political neophyte he’s not one of those sacrificial lambs that the party has usually offered up. His carefully-crafted ads tell a heartrending story of his impoverished and briefly homeless youth, how he found his way in the world by volunteering for wartime military service, parlayed that into an education and a law degree and a legal career that hasn’t yet yielded any scandals, and feature footage of his burly and hirsute Kansas self shooting a semi-automatic rifle on a rural range and not saying anything at all about the likes of Nancy Pelosi. With help from a a lot of small donors he’s been been able to widely air those ads even on the conservative talk radio shows, and you can’t go anywhere on the internet in this district without them popping up at some site or another. We even got a text message on our newfangled cellular phone that was intended for someone named “Latisha” to remind her to vote for Thompson at polling place over on the northeast side, and we’re old and white male and Republican and familiar with Wichita enough to jump to the conclusion that “Latisha” is a young and black and Democratic woman, which suggests Thompson’s got some sophisticated if hardly fool-proof get-out-the-vote techniques going for him. He’s also done the door-to-door and greasy spoon meet-and-greets and and shown up at all the debates to argue with the Libertarian candidate who’s bound to siphon a few votes away from the Republicans, staked out positions that won’t diminish the enthusiasm of the revved-up minority of local Democrats but don’t unnecessarily provoke any Republicans, and so spooked the state and national Republicans that they’re spending relatively big bucks and getting Trump and Pence and Kansas Caucus winner Cruz involved.
There’s also the fact that Estes is so inextricably linked with Kansas Republican Gov. Sam Brownback that it doesn’t require photoshopping, and Brownback is currently the 50th most popular governor in America according to all the polls, having enraged all the Democrats with his tax-and-budget-slushing agenda, as well as the half of the Republican party he waged civil war on to make it happen, and that even such stingy Republicans as ourselves are miffed he’s managed to discredit our tax-and-budget-cutting principles. You can also throw in the fact that this is one of those April elections where turnout is bound to be low, and at this point the Democratic minority of Kansas is hell-bent for some sort of victory and and clearly winning the yard-sign war even outside our anomalously liberal neighborhood, the Republican majority is either complacent or dispirited or blissfully unaware that we’re holding an election in April of all months, and we can see why the likes of The Washington Post and New York Times and Buzzfeed.com are taking a bet on this election. Should the Republican prevail in this reliably Republican district it will be another dog-bites-man story relegated to a couple of inches on page B-3, with the plane tickets and hotel and restaurant expenses of a trip to Wichita written off, but if the upset does occur it can be spun into a rebuke of Republicans in general and Trump in particular right in the deep-red heart of the flyover country that’s worth space on the front page, so they might as well roll the dice.
The guys who write The Washington Post’s all-knowing “Plum Line” column and don’t have to fly to places like Wichita say that “it would take an earthquake” for the Democrat to prevail here, and we’re inclined to agree with that assessment, and after a lifetime of Fourth Congressional District politics we would advise that’s still  the way to bet, but they might not know that for the past few year we’ve been having earthquakes around here.

— Bud Norman

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Theater Critic-in-Chief

President-elect Donald Trump is no doubt busy these days making appointments and planning his agenda, but he took time out over the weekend to criticize his theatrical critics.
It all started on Friday when Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who was in New York City because that where the transition team is located, decided to take some time out with his family and watch the big hit show on Broadway. That would be “Hamilton,” of course, a hip-hop musical about founding father Alexander Hamilton which was won rave reviews along with 11 Tony Awards and already sold out a year’s worth of tickets at exorbitant prices. Pence entered the theater to a mix of cheers and boos from the audience, by most accounts with the latter drowning out the former, and left while being personally addressed in a curtain call oration. The actor who plays Aaron Burr was chosen to speak on behalf of the ostentatiously multi-ethnic cast and producers to ask Pence to “uphold our American values” and “work on behalf of all of us.” He asked the audience to refrain from booing Pence, prefaced his remarks respectfully, and the screed was rather polite by contemporary standards of political discourse, but in all the New York papers it made for a bigger story than the $25 million that Trump agreed to pay to settle that Trump University lawsuit.
The incident certainly caught the attention of Trump, who took to “Twitter” to write, in his usual Lincoln-esque prose, “Our wonderful future V.P. Mike was harassed last night at the theater by the cast of Hamilton, cameras blazing. This should not happen!” Lest you think that Trump believes that any request for his administration uphold American values and work on behalf of all citizens should not happen, he clarified in a later “Tweet” that he was only referring to the theater. “The Theater must always be a safe and special space. The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man. Apologize!” Apparently peeved that no apology was forthcoming, he “Tweeted” again, adding “Very rude and insulting of Hamilton cast to treat our great future V.P. Mike Pence to a theater lecture. Couldn’t even memorize lines.” We’re encouraged by Trump’s newfound dislike of rude and insulting behavior, but hate to hear him using such a politically correct phrase as “safe place.”
Pence seemed unfazed by the incident, telling Fox News that “I nudged my kids and told them that’s what freedom sounds like,” and “I wasn’t offended by what was said.” He also lavishly praised the production, making no mention of any unmemorized lines, and said that Trump does indeed plan to work on behalf of all Americans. All in all, we thought it a very presidential response.
By the time Pence had largely put the controversy to rest a new “Saturday Night Live” was airing, though, so Trump was back to “Tweeting.” The show featured a skit with actor Alec Baldwin reprising his popular Trump impersonation, this time portraying the president-elect as overwhelmed by his newfound responsibilities and panicked that he won’t be able to keep his campaign promises, and Trump was clearly not amused: “I watched parts of @nbcsnl Saturday Night Live last night. It is a totally one-sided, biased show — nothing funny at all. Equal time for us?” All in all, we thought it was very stupid “tweet” and not at all presidential.
Saturday Night Live is totally one-sided and biased, of course, and always has been. That was true last summer when the show offered Trump a guest-hosting role, with no equal time for the far more qualified candidates he was running against in the ongoing Republican primary race, and we can’t remember Trump having any complaints about it at the time. Nor can we recall him ever complaining that Breitbart News and The Sean Hannity Show and that crazypants Alex Jones’ InfoWars and all of Trump’s other favorite media are also totally one-sided and biased. If Trump intends to reinstate that Fairness Doctrine of “equal time” that President Ronald Reagan quite wisely rescinded, his pals in the talk radio business are not going to be happy. Satirists will still be happily exempted, barring any changes to the First Amendment, and we can’t imagine how they practice their art in a way that wasn’t one-sided and biased. Perhaps Trump can get some writers to come up with some knee-slapping comedy about how totally awesome is Trump, but they’ll have to better than the ones who wrote his material for that Al Smith memorial dinner.
Perhaps Trump feels that his office deserves a certain respect, but that’s a newfound notion for a man who spent much of the past eight years peddling what he now admits was all along a cock and bull story about President Barack Obama being born in Kenya, and frequently accused President George W. Bush of telling a treasonous lie to get America into the Iraq War. That kind of vitriol, and the more thoughtful sort of satire and criticism Trump spent much of a busy weekend “tweeting” about, come with the job. We hope that in the future Trump will stick to more important tasks, let the theater do its job, and allow freedom of speech to live on.

— Bud Norman

No Sex, but Lies and Videotape

By Wednesday morning it was the conventional wisdom that Republican vice-presidential nominee Mike Pence got the better of Democratic rival Tim Kaine in Tuesday’s night debate, for whatever that’s worth, but by Wednesday evening Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump seemed to be losing the post-debate news cycle against Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. Even the more respectable pundits on the most polite press acknowledge that Pence made a damning case against Clinton’s damnable record, but even the most die-hard Trump supporters should acknowledge that he had a harder time defending some of Trump’s most outrageous statements.
In several cases Pence simply denied that Trump had ever said any such thing, which seemed to work well enough for the duration of the 90-minute debate, but in the age of ubiquitous audio tape and quick internet access the ploy didn’t last a day. By the time the evening newscasts came along there was footage of Pence shaking his head and insisting that Trump had never praised Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, followed by footage of Trump saying “Putin’s been a very strong leader for Russia,” Pence dismissing as “nonsense” the claim that Trump was unaware that Putin had invaded Ukraine, followed by footage of Trump assuring an interviewer that Putin “is not going into Ukraine, you can mark it down you, can put it down, you can take it any way you want,” Pence shaking his had and saying “nonsense” again at the claim Trump had advocated a deportation force for illegal immigrants, followed by footage of Trump saying “You’re going to have a deportation force.” Similar denials of videotaped statements regarding punishing women for abortions, allowing nuclear proliferation in Asia and the Middle East, renegotiating the national debt, and a ban on Muslims entering the country also made the list, and both the Clinton campaign and its media allies were having great fun with it.
We suppose Pence could have quibbled that he and Trump had called Putin “strong,” which doesn’t necessarily imply “good,” and he might have explained how Trump meant to say something other than that you could mark it down and write it down that Putin would never invade Ukraine, perhaps that he wouldn’t do again, and he surely wouldn’t have lost any supporters if he’d gone right ahead and doubled down on that deportation force idea. Pence has been a stalwart of the anti-abortion cause long enough to know it doesn’t advocate punishing women who seek abortions, so he could hardly be expected to defend the zealotry of a newfound convert to the cause, and he seems a reasonable enough fellow, so he could hardly be expected to defend that crazy talk about Japan and Saudi Arabia acquiring nuclear weapons, so perhaps a brief-lived denial was the best he could come up with.
Which is a shame, really, because Pence did make a darned damning case against the damnable career of Clinton. The more objective sorts of fact-checkers were begrudgingly obliged to point out of some of Kaine’s own whoppers, too, but for the most part he didn’t try to deny any of it and thus wasn’t caught in some easily disproved denials. Kaine was an obnoxious jerk who frequently interrupted his more presidential-looking opponent throughout the debate, and at times seemed almost unhinged, but it’s hard to imagine that any still-undecided voters will think that a reason to vote for Trump.
Trump can take some solace in though that we’re in a post-factual era of politics when no one pays much attention to all that ubiquitous and easily-accessible audio-tape. Last time around Republican nominee Mitt Romney made a damning case during a presidential debate that President Barack Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had outright lied that the four deaths at an American consulate in Libya were the result of a spontaneous protest against an obscure YouTube video rather than a pre-planned terror attack, and had repeated the lie on numerous news shows and in front of the United Nations, but Obama denied it and the moderator cited a vague allusion to “terrorism” during one speech to back it up, and it wound up working well enough. Trump shouldn’t expect such favors from the moderators of any of his debates, though, and the reality show veteran should keep in mind that videotape is pesky stuff.

— Bud Norman

When Two Co-Stars Collide

Being the hard-core political news junkies that we are, we even tuned in for Tuesday night’s vice-presidential debate. For what it’s worth, which isn’t much, we thought that Republican vice-presidential nominee Mike Pence got the better of Democratic vice-presidential nominee Tim Kaine, but that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton nonetheless came out ahead of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
At this point most Americans have no idea who either Pence or Kaine are, and even the more star-studded vice-presidential debates of the recent past had any discernible effect on the top-of-the-ticket outcomes, but those who did bother tune in were treated to an interesting show. They also got a glimpse at what this election year might have looked like in a more sane America.
Former Senator and current Indiana Governor Mike Pence came across as soft-spoken yet serious, humble yet forceful, broadly well-informed yet sharply focused on the most important issues, and he made a persuasive case against Clinton and her checkered career. All that soft-spoken and humble and well-informed shtick made for a jarring contrast with Trump’s bombastic and boastful and winging-it persona, though, and Pence’s defense of his running mate’s also checkered career wasn’t nearly so effective. Former Virginia Governor and current Sen. Tim Kaine came across as smug and rude and merely well-read on his talking points, but not quite so much as Trump, and even if he had a hard time defending his running mate he had much better luck casting aspersions on the opposition.
Kaine was able to repeatedly raise Trump’s apparent and pretty much-admitted tax-dodging and his refusal to release the tax returns that might prove how ingeniously he got away with it, riposte Pence’s quite believable allegations about Clinton’s family charity with the recent believable revelations about Trump’s charity foundation, and make mention of several of Trump’s most offensive quotes. Pence had a good argument about how the apologetic “reset” policy with Russia that Clinton had pursued as Secretary of State had encouraged dictator Vladimir Putin to pursue a revanchist policy that has already invaded Georgia and Ukraine, but there wasn’t much to be said when Kaine cited Trump’s frequent praise of Putin and his insistence to an interviewer that Russia would never invade Ukraine. In that case, as in so many others when Pence was called to defend the indefensible, he wound up insisting that Trump hadn’t said what he provably did say, and we expect that the video proof will soon be starring in an attack ad by the Clinton campaign. Towards the end there was a long discussion about abortion, an issue that hasn’t been prominent in this campaign, and although Pence made a strong and obviously sincere case for the anti-abortion side of the issue he struggled to explain his running mate’s soon-withdrawn statement that women who seek abortions should suffer some legal penalty.
Still, Pence did well enough that we’re sure we’re not the only Republicans who found themselves wishing he were at the top of the ticket. Pence or any other equally boring establishment Republican could have effectively made the damning case against Clinton’s checkered career with bombast or boasting or the wild rhetoric that comes with winging it, and none would have been obliged to defend an also checkered or the kind of outrageous statements that Pence was obliged to pretend didn’t exist. There are no doubt many Democrats wishing that someone so run-of-the-mill as Kaine was heading the ticket, with the scant name recognition that comes with being unencumbered by so many scandals and outrageous statements that Clinton has accumulated over the years, but we think the more honest of them would admit that Pence got the better of it on Tuesday night.
In any case, it will likely be long forgotten by the time those two awful people at the top of the tickets meet up again on Sunday.

— Bud Norman