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On Presidential Comedy, as Intended or Inadvertent

Comedy is the most subjectively judged of all the lively arts, and there’s no accounting for what one laughs at.
We’ve always considered Laurel & Hardy comedic geniuses, and always thought The Three Stooges boringly low-brow and grotesque, even though they were telling the same profoundly true and universally funny slapstick joke about some poor schmuck getting hit on the head with a two-by-four or falling into a deep hole. One of our formative childhood heroes was W.C. Fields, whose cynical and sneering and subtly self-loathing sense of humor used to show up on the late-late-shows we were allowed to watch during summer vacations, but for the most part we find the cynicism and sneering that dominate today’s comedy shallow and self-righteous and unfunny.
So it is with the related yet significantly different matter of presidential wit. Presidents aren’t expected to be stand-up-comics-in-chief, nor should they be, but rhetoric is required for the job, as is establishing a personal connection with the people, as well as having a realistic grasp of the absurdity of one’s self and the world one lives in, and a certain amount of sense of humor is essential to pull that off. The job also occasional entails speaking at such events as the Al Smith Memorial Dinner or the Gridiron club’s annual review or the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, or other events where a few moments of ghost-written comedy is expected to be delivered with a certain panache, but in these cases one can usually account for one’s tastes by one’s political opinions.
President Donald Trump’s most loyal fans have always found him downright hilarious, cracking up at his mocking mimicry of a reporter’s physical handicap or nicknaming a shorter rival “Little,” but we always rolled our eyes under our high brows and heaved a sigh and lamented what had become of both comedy and the presidency. Trump’s impolite and unfunny routine at the campaign season’s white-tie-and-tails dinner in New York City during the campaign, which crossed the long-standing tradition of gentle joshing and to “Crooked Hillary is so crooked” jokes, which the oh-so-polite crowd of fellow well-helled New Yorkers booed, and although the hicks in the sticks loved it the reviews were mostly negative. After that Trump skipped his administration’s first White House Press Correspondents’ Dinner, where all the “fake news” media invite some smart-ass comic to lampoon the president and expect his to respond gentle joshing and self-deprecation. Trump did accept an invitation to the Gridiron Club’s latest annual schmooze-fest, though, and he got surprisingly mixed reviews.
The gathering Gridiron Club of elite Washington correspondents is more discreet than the White House Correspondents’, whose nationally televised dinner rivaled the Golden Globes for ratings during President Barack Obama’s years, but of course Trump knew that his performance in front of an audience of journalists wasn’t going unreported. He eschewed the Crooked Hillary bits, never once mentioned “fake news” in his gentle joshing of the press, and generally disarmed his knife-sharpening critics. He reportedly got a deservedly big laugh from the tough room by saying that his staff worried he couldn’t pull of self-deprecating, but he assured them that “Nobody does self-deprecating humor better than me.”
Which is pretty darned funny, because it was heretofore so untrue, and we give credit to whomever came up with the line, and expect that it was Hope Hicks’ parting gift to talk Trump into saying it, but the hard-core fans probably prefer such golden oldie punch lines as “Build that wall” and “Lock her up.” They won’t notice, though, as the self-deprecating shtick wasn’t videotaped, but maybe this does signal a pivot to the old humble routine. After all the cynical and sneering late-night comics had a ball with footage of the wind and Marine One’s rotors blowing Trump’s careful comb-over away and revealing a large and unusual bald spot down the back of Trump’s head, the president recently regaled an actual rally crowd but turning around to show off his more carefully-coifed neck-to-forehead, and the audience ate it up, and the critics were largely disarmed.
This surely won’t end Trump’s endless shock jock insult comic shtick, though, and none of it rises to our admittedly old-fashioned standards of presidential wit. We’re old enough to remember President Ronald Reagan’s amiable and downright Andy Griffith-esque homespun humor, even after he’d been shot in the chest, and we’ve read enough history to regard President Abraham Lincoln as the gold standard. Lincoln was the fellow who came up with the “You can fool some of the people some of the time” aphorism, as Trump lives by in his condensed reading of the text, and the teetotaling Trump would have never come up with the line about buying all the Union generals whatever brand of whisky Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was drinking.
The several-inches-taller-than-Trump Lincoln didn’t resort to calling the diminutive Democratic incumbent Illinois Sen. Stephen Douglas “Little Stevie” during their famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, but instead mocked his gangly appearance with the stilly-wide quoted “A man’s legs should be just long enough to the reach the ground.” Many years later the then-hilarious Woody Allen wrote a droll piece for The New Yorker that had Lincoln’s gag writer suggesting a man’s legs should be just enough to reach his torso, as the visual image of the disembodied torso reaching toward the earthbound legs was funnier, and although we consider that an improvement on the original we don’t expect either level of wit these days.
Trump also had a line about a North Korean overture to start talks on the scary nuclear situation over there, and his arguably brusque response, but no one was quite sure if that was meant as a joke or not. Trump frequently blurts out things that sound quite scary at first listening, but another news cycle later the White House press secretary explains that c’mon, he was obviously kidding, and the die-hard fans crack up, and we roll our eyes under our high-brows and sigh about what’s become of comedy and the presidency.
The night before the Gridiron Club’s fancy-schmantzy show Trump was at his Mar-a-Lago resort in front of a crowd of steep-dues-paying fan club members, and riffed about how his good friend Chinese dictator Xi Jiping recently repealed China’s term limits on dictators, and how we ought to try that here, and of course the knife-sharpening critics made something of that. He was just kidding, of course, so the critics looked slightly ridiculous, but Trump has often said that he’s not really kidding when he’s kidding, and both the die-hard fans and that knife-sharpening critics both know that.
There are some things that more traditional presidents don’t joke about at all, except maybe in the mot private circumstances, but somehow it seems to be the conservatives who want to do away with such essential traditions. As much as we like Trump’s recent self-deprecating turn, we worry that it doesn’t reflect any serious self-evaluation of his mean cocksure soul, and his die-hard fans are no doubt hoping the same thing.

— Bud Norman

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Of Parades, Nicknames, and Other Political Spats

The stock markets were down again on Wednesday, but not to a panic-inducing extent, and the more reasonable sorts of Democrats and Republicans in Congress neared a compromise that would avert another government shutdown before tonight’s latest looming deadline, albeit a budget-busting one that neither side can celebrate. All in all it was a pretty slow news day, but as usual President Donald Trump provided plenty of what the newspaper people call filler.
Trump’s critics were able to fill countless column inches and big chunks of the 24-hour cable news cycle criticizing the Commander in Chief’s order for a grand military parade showcasing America’s might down Pennsylvania Avenue past the fancy Trump Hotel, and his most die-hard defenders couldn’t muster much of a defense for the idea. The District of Columbia’s city hall is worried about the damage that tanks and nuclear missiles might do to their expensively paved streets, and pretty much all the newspapers and all but one of the cable news networks had no shortage of retired generals and admirals saying on the record that it seemed a damned stupid deployment of tanks and nuclear missiles. Several of the more old-fashioned Republicans left in the party also opined that America has such an impressively big military stick that everyone already knows it, so it’s best to speak softly about it, unlike those envious regimes in North Korea and Iran and France and other godforsaken nations that routinely parade their relatively puny military hardware.
Even our Pop, a proud former Air Force officer and longstanding member of the military-industrial complex who’s an at-least-he’s-not-Hillary Trump supporter, admitted over lunch that the whole parade idea “sounds a little third-worldly.” The more die-hard sorts of Trump supporters will insist that the Commander in Chief merely wants to pay tribute to America’s fighting forces, and anyone who has objections to that is objectively un-American and arguably treasonous, but by now no one else doubts that like everything else the parade is more about Trump and his big stick than it is about anything or anyone else.
Meanwhile, on a slow news day we notice that Trump seems to be losing the nickname wars he’s long waged. He’s lately “tweeted” that New York Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on that pesky House committee looking into the “Russia thing,” is “Little” Adam Schiff, a diminutive description he’s previously bestowed on fellow Republican and Florida Sen. “Little” Marco Rubio, and although he creatively spelled  the Republican Tenessee Sen. Bob Corker as “Liddle Bob,” it’s starting to get stale. Around the same time Illinois’ Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth more damningly nicknamed Trump “Cadet Bonespur,” an apparently jocular reference to the military school Trump’s Pop sentenced him to and the spurious — if you’ll forgive the pun — medical condition that spared Trump from service in the Vietnam War but didn’t seem to interrupt his tennis and golf games and the constant womanizing he jokingly described as his own “personal Vietnam.”
That might seem a cheap shot at a sitting president, but in Duckworth’s case it’s undeniably been hard-earned. She made the remark in response to Trump’s jocular remark about treasonous Democrats failing to sufficiently applaud his State of the Union address, and although we disagree with most of her Democratic politics we can well understand why she resents “Cadet Bonespur” even jokingly impugning her patriotism for insufficient applause, She lost both legs in the Iraq War she willingly signed up for. Even Trump won’t dare “tweet” back that he likes a soldier who didn’t lose her legs for her country, even though he got away with similar disrespect for the heroic wartime sacrifices of Arizona[‘s Republican Sen. John McCain. Worse yet, Trump’s former die-hard defenders at Breitbart.com and on some of the right-wing talk radio shows are now calling him “Amnesty Don” because of his most recent stands on illegal immigration, and it’s going to take some pretty clever nicknaming to counter-punch that.
At this point we hold out hope Trump seems so ridiculous that the stock market will absorb a much-needed correction without panic and the rest of the economy will chug along without him, that the more reasonable sorts of Democrats and Republicans will come up with some desultory but veto-proof agreement to at least keep the government limping along, and that the filler will prove just as entertaining.

— Bud Norman

Smart and Stable Is as Smart and Stable Does

There’s something slightly unsettling about hearing an American president reassure the public that he’s intelligent and emotionally stable, as President Donald Trump felt obliged to do over the weekend. It reminds us of President Richard Nixon’s assurance that “I am not a crook.” or President Bill Clinton’s vow that “I did not have sex with that woman,” or Fredo Corleone’s cry in “The Godfather Part II” that “I’m smart, not like everybody says, like dumb, and I want respect,” and we remember how all those turned out. Trump’s boasts that “I’m, like, really smart” and “a very stable genius” have a similarly ominous ring.
Trump has been conspicuously defensive about his smarts and sanity ever since he took that elevator ride in Trump Tower to announce his improbable campaign for the presidency, but his sensitivity has been heightened by the publication of Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” which has lately been flying off the shelfs with a considerable publicity boost from Trump’s futile efforts to prevent to its publication and his ongoing insistence that it’s all fake news. The book depicts a dysfunctional White House trying to cope with a not-very-bright and downright childish president, with some pretty unpleasant quotes coming from people once very close to the president, which prompted Trump’s “Tweets” and public remarks about being “like, very smart” and a “stable genius.”
As he did throughout his improbably successful campaign for the presidency, Trump answered his critics with characteristic braggadocio. He boasted of his academic excellence at a top-notch college, the billions of dollars he’d made in private business, his status as the star of highly-rated reality television show, and the fact that he’d won the presidency on his very first try. Such cocksureness played a large part in his improbable electoral college victory, along with an admittedly uncanny knack for convincing West Virginia coal miners that a billionaire New York City real-estate and reality-show mogul was their messiah, and it might work now. All of it was questionable all along, though, and we still suspect it worked mainly because the alternative was Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Trump did indeed graduate from the University of Pennsylvania, which indeed plays its football and basketball games in the prestigious Ivy League, but he spent his first two years at second-tier Fordham University before his father’s money got him into Penn and nobody there recalls him as an exceptional scholar and his academic records are as tightly as restricted as President Barack Obama’s. He has made billions in business, but nobody who follows the big money believes he’s made even half what he claims, and most contend he would have done better by investing his inheritance in a solid mutual fund and spending his time reading up on history and public policy, and there were many embarrassing bankruptcies and business failures along the way. He did indeed improbably wind up as President of the United States, but there hasn’t yet been a public opinion poll showing most Americans glad of that.
As much as we’d like to we can’t deny Trump has a rare genius for making his character bugs seem a a feature to enough of the voting public to pull off an improbable electoral college victory, even it was against the likes of that horrible Clinton woman. Trump’s otherwise alarming tendency to say any crazy thing that popped up into his head was lauded as refreshing honesty, his glaring racism and sexism were celebrated as a blow against “political correctness,” the illiterate crudity of his ad hominem responses to any valid criticisms was cheered the “authenticity” of his “punching back twice as hard,” and a lot of West Virginia coal miners and other disaffected white folk in flyover cover wanted to vicariously live the gaudy decadence of his boastfully adulterous and self-indulgent lifestyle in a way they never did with Bill Clinton’s zaftig affairs.
As appalled as we were by that horrible Clinton woman and her hound dog husband and had been since way back when Clinton was contributing to her campaigns and inviting her to his third wedding and calling her the greatest Secretary of State ever, we never believed a word of it, no matter how many times Trump said “believe me.” The guy who draws the “Dilbert” cartoon and other thinkers would try to explain how Trump was a “master of persuasion” whose seemingly un-parsable pronouncements were the cutting edge of political rhetoric, and we had to admit that he was far better than we or Socrates or Daniel Webster could ever be a persuading broke suckers to sign up for Trump University or the rich fools who owned United States Football League franchises to go head-to-head with the National Football League and somehow win in the civil courts, but we doubted it could have the same effect on the presumably more sensible you hope to find in the Congress and federal judiciary and the free press and other institutions promised to vanquish. We also doubted that all those taunts and nicknames and National Enquirer stories would culminate in any positive policy results.
Trump and his apologists will point to the recent stock market records and holding-steady jobless rates and the absence of any nuclear mushroom clouds on the Korean peninsula, and they have a point that of course they’ll vastly overstate. Trump’s de-regulating executive orders and the tax bill the Republican establishment delivered to his desk have no doubt nudged the stock markets on an even higher trajectory that they’d been since before he took office, but at least one or two of those de-regulated regulations are likely to fuel some future scandal with multipole fatalities, that tax bill is polling horribly, and job creation has actually slowed compared to the last two years of Obama’s administration. The North Korean dictator that Trump has taunted as the “short and fat” “little rocket man” with a nuclear button that’s not nearly so manly as Trump hasn’t yet exploded any nuclear missiles, and he’s suddenly opening talks with South Korea that Trump claims credit for but isn’t involved in, and the rest of the world seems just as pleased to leave Trump out of it.
Meanwhile there’s the whole “Russia thing” and that messy business of what to do with all the “dreamers” who were unwittingly became illegal immigrants as children and yet another continuing resolutions that’s needed to keep the federal government running, along with numerous other matters that Trump hasn’t yet comprehensibly commented on. as well as a lingering concern that there’s something no quite right about the president. The worry is widespread enough that Trump spent a weekend “tweeting” and telling reporters that he’s very smart and sane, and reports suggest that its shared in hall of power of both allies and adversaries, and that’s bound to have eventual consequences.
Trump might have been an excellent student at that top notch college, but the seventh-grade English teacher at our otherwise second-rate junior high school would have riddled his “tweets” with red marks for spelling and punctation and syntax and general comprehensibility. He’s no doubt richer than we are, but even our limited entrepreneurial abilities could have at least broke even with a casino and we know enough about football not to go head-to-head with the NFL and we’re too kind-hearted to sucker anyone into investing in a phony baloney real estate course, and until he offers up his tax returns and the rest of the full disclosure that presidents are supposed to offer up we’re skeptical of any claims he makes. If we make it through the year without any mushroom clouds over the Korean peninsula we’ll give him some credit for that, but we’ll never agree that the nuclear button size comparisons had anything to do with it.
We’ve had the good fortune to know many brilliant people over the years, and we’ve long noticed that not a single one of them ever bragged to us that they’re, like, really smart, and all of them would have scoffed at being called a genius. Nor have any of the very stable people we’ve happily know ever felt the need to reassure us that they’re, like, very stable. We’ve also had the good fortune to know some highly ethical people, too, and none ever had to contrast their ethics with those of that awful Clinton woman.

— Bud Norman

The Tillerson Exit

There’s no way of predicting what President Donald Trump will do next, except that he’ll “tweet” something controversial, but we’ll go along with all the reports in all the big papers and networks in assuming that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is soon headed to administration’s exits. There’s also no way of predicting if this will eventually prove a good thing or a bad thing, but there’s no denying that it doesn’t speak well of the way things are going right now.
According to the consensus of respectable opinion Tillerson’s failure to fully staff the State Department and his efforts to make deep cuts to its budget have seriously undermined foreign policy aground the globe, but on the other hand he’s been one of the much-needed moderating influences in Trump’s administration. The consensus of conservative opinion holds that Tillerson has been insufficiently loyal to Trump with his efforts to seek a diplomatic resolution to North Korea’s nuclear provocations, his failure to endorse some of Trump’s more controversial “tweets,” and his overheard gripe that Trump is a gerund-form-of-a-certaincurse-word “moron,” and they give him no credit for his willingness to drain the Foggy Bottom swamp of all those “deep state” “globalist” “establishment” types. At this point we’re feeling a certain a sympathy for the poor fellow, but he doesn’t seem to have much support from anybody who matters.
By now we’re well outside both the consensus of either respectable or conservative opinion, but we will have our own gripes about Tillerson, so we don’t what to make of it.
When Trump announced his appointment of Tillerson, lathering on the usual Trumpian superlatives about his successful career as the chief executive officer of ExxonMobil, we were impressed by his corporate expertise but leery of someone who’s only foreign policy experience was negotiating a multi-billion dollar oil deal with the dictatorial Russian government and winning it’s official friendship medal, but in an administration full of surprises he surprised us by proving one of the hard-liners against Russia. Trump seemed surprised by it, too, and was clearly displeased, and after the “moron” commented was in the papers he challenged his Secretary of State to an “IQ test,” so that made us rather like Tillerson.
On the other hand, we have to agree with all those “deep state” “globalist” “establishment” types that the State Department seems rather skinny after almost a year of Tillerson’s stewardship. Trump has told interviewers that most of the unfilled positions are irrelevant and the only person that matters is himself, but one of those positions is an ambassador to South Korea, which sits on the same tense Korean peninsula as North Korea, and expect that many others could offer some expertise that might be useful to the business executives who are now running America’s running foreign policy.
All the reports in all the papers and all the networks suggest that Tillerson will soon be replaced by current Central Intelligence Agency director Mike Pompeo, and that also seems a relatively safe bet. Pompeo used to be our congressman here in the good old Fourth District of Kansas, and he’s a formidable fellow we enthusiastically voted for him in each of his congressional campaigns. He was top of his class at West Point, editor of the Harvard Law Review, founder of a successful high-aviation business, quite charming in our couple of encounters with him, and somehow managed to ride the Tea Party wave of anti-establishment fervor without splashing any water on the establishment. As CIA director he defied Trump by affirming the intelligence community’s consensus of opinion that the Russians had entered with the the past presidential election, then said it didn’t affect the outcome and later walked that back to the consensus of opinion that there’s no telling, and we’re not at all surprised he’s reportedly won the trust and affection of Trump.
There’s no telling how it will work out, though. As impressive as Pompeo’s resume is it doesn’t have anything on it regarding foreign policy experience, except for his brief tenure as CIA director, which had its highs and lows, and although we wish our fellow Wichitan well we expect he’ll be more interested in pleasing Trump. Pompeo has nothing to do with that “Russia thing,” at least, and we can hold out hope he’ll be a moderating influence. even if his business instincts continue the downsizing at the State Department.

— Bud Norman

Meanwhile, Far Away in the Far East

President Donald Trump picked as good a time as any to embark on an extended multi-nation tour of Asia, given all the bad political news for the Republicans over the past week, but as usual he managed to grab his share of the attention.
During the campaign Trump frequently claimed that America had been “raped” by China in their trade relationship, but while in China he basically said that America was asking for it. “Who can blame a country for being able taking advantage of another country for their benefit of their own citizens?,” he said to an audience of Chinese political and business and leaders quite a few American businessmen, who responded with a slight and nervous-sounding laughter. He placed the blame for America’s trade deficit with China squarely on “past administrations,” apparently beginning with the Nixon administration, a charge he later reiterated via “tweet,” and the die hard-supporters back home were all more robustly cheering the implication that things are going to be different from now own.
Trump wasn’t talking the campaign talk labelling China a currency manipulator or slapping 45 percent tariffs on Chinese imports or holding the negotiations over a Big Mac and fries rather than a state dinner, though, and he didn’t give any details about what he wanted to change. We don’t claim to be the masterful negotiator that Trump claims to be, but we note he also didn’t give any details about how he’s going to persuade the Chinese to go along with his announced plan to take advantage of them for the benefit of his citizens, and most of the business leaders in the audience seemed to be hoping for a different tactic.
China is going to have to reconfigure its entire economy to get its citizens buying enough Harley-Davidson motorcycles and Gibson electric guitars to make much of a dent in the trade imbalance, and although it probably would make the country a whole lot cooler they’re unlikely to do so for Trump’s sake. America’s economy will also require a lot of reconfiguring before Americans stop snatching up low-priced Chinese-made products at Wal-Mart, although doing without some of that junk might also make America cooler, and there’s also the matter of the high-end airplanes and delicious wheat that folks here in Kansas make and the Chinese spend a lot of money on, so the Chinese will have some some threats of their own to make when any treaty is being debated in the Senate. Something better than the status quo is possible, and we wish Trump well in achieving that, but for the foreseeable future a balance of trade isn’t possible, and neither is it necessary desirable, so we hope Trump will be more understated and realistic in the future.
The trip also took Trump to Vietnam, which gave his critics an opportunity to chortle about the bone spurs that prevented him from serving in a war there, and brought him into direct contact with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, which also gave his critics plenty to work with. Trump told reporters that Putin had assured him that Russia didn’t do the tiniest bit of meddling in the past American presidential, and Trump said that he believed him, although after the predictable outrage he quickly revised that to mean that he believed that Putin actually believed that, and that in fact he believes the contrary conclusion of America’s intelligence agencies, at least now that they’re headed by his appointees and saying the same things they said under Obama’s appointees.
Continuing his penchant for disparaging past American governments in front of foreign audiences, Trump dismissed Obama’s past intelligence chiefs as “political hacks,” although both began their careers in Republican administrations and were decorated combat veterans of the war in Vietnam, and said the same things about Russian meddling that the Trump appointees are saying. In any case, Trump made clear that he didn’t see any reason why Russian attempts to sabotage an American should stand in the way of friendly relations.
There was also a stop in the Philippines, where the current President is Rodrigo Dueterte, who has cursed the Pope as the “son of a whore” and called an American president a “black bastard” and routinely forces kisses on women at his campaign rallies and unleashed gangs of vigilantes who have killed thousands of suspected drug users. Trump has previously praised Dueterte’s approach to the country’s problem, and always seemed quite comfortable with the rest of it, and Dueterte seems to like Trump’s style, too, so their meeting was fairly cordial. There’s a huge “Trump Tower” being built in downtown Manila, too, and Trump hasn’t divested himself of the branding agreement that’s expected to earn him millions of dollars, and the real owner of the property also happens to be Dueterte’s trade minister, so we expect it to remain cordial no matter how many suspected drug users are shot down without so much as a warrant.
The Philippines has lately benefited from America’s military support in quashing one of its occasional outbreaks of terrorism from it’s long-troublesome Muslim minority in the southern islands, too, and Dueterte has tamped down his anti-American rhetoric. He remains resistant to restoring America’s past military presence in the country and continues to make concessions to the Chinese in an apparent belief that they’re a more reliable diplomatic and economic partner.
During a stop in South Korea Trump managed to avoid making many big headlines, at least not to big enough to nudge the electoral losses or a Southern Gothic sex scandal out of the way, as he carefully avoided to referring to North Korean dictator Kim Jon-Ung as “Little Rocket Man.” The talk was tough, but within the usual diplomatic bounds, so the critics couldn’t muster of a case that he was taunting the North Korean nutcase into a nuclear confrontation by lowering himself to the dictator’s level of personal insult. After Kim once again called Trump a dotard, meaning an old and demented person, though, Trump “tweeted” back that “Why should Kim Jong-Un insult me by calling me ‘old,’ when I would NEVER call him ‘short and fat.’ Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend — and maybe that will someday happen!” Around the same time he offered to arbitrate some of China’s disputes with its neighbors over islands in the South China Sea, citing his great negotiation skills, but was politely declined by all parties.
At every stop along the way the leaders went out of their way to provide the most lavish welcomes and flattering praise, however, and Trump seemed to thoroughly enjoy it. Our guess is he and his fans will take it was proof that they’re making America great again, but that’s about all they’ll get out of it.

— Bud Norman

The President’s I.Q. vs. the Late Night Comics

The topic of all the late night comedy show monologues on Tuesday night was all too predictable. In an interview with Forbes Magazines published Tuesday morning President Donald Trump boasted of his scores on intelligence quotient tests, and that’s like catnip to all the catty and Trump-hating comics on late night television.
Trump walked right into it with his response to a question about recent reports that his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had called the president an expletive-deleted sort of “moron,” which had gone conspicuously undenied by Tillerson during an otherwise obsequious public statement and provided loomed large in the day’s news cycle and provided plenty of late-night fodder for the comics. The president plausibly denied the widely-verified and conspicuously undenied reports as “fake news,” but couldn’t help adding that “if he did that, I guess we’ll have to compare I.Q. tests. And I can tell you who is going to win.”
As die-hard a Trump supporter as you might be, it takes a heart of stone to deny those smug liberal late-night comics their cheap laughs about it. Late night audiences and pretty much everyone else knows that the really smart guys don’t brag about how smart they are, even if the late night comics do, in a clear way, and that a President who’s making that boast in response to the by-now-apparently true stories that his Secretary of State called him an expletive-deleted sort of “moron” is in an even more ridiculous position.
Trump’s die-hard supporters can rightly note that he’s very wealthy, although several reliable publications report he’s only as a third as rich as he claims, and he did indeed win the presidency, although he had the extraordinary good fortune to be running against Hillary Clinton and still finished second in the popular and by now there’s no denying that the man does possess an extraordinary intelligence of a certain sort. He’s had some spectacular personal and financial failures in his historic career, but enough successes that he’s wound up with an undeniable fortune and an objectively hot third trophy wife and the White House, so he can’t be so dumb as those late night comics claim.
There are all kinds of smarts, though, and not all of them are well matched to the challenges of statesmanship. Trump’s challenge to his Secretary of State’s I.Q. score involves a very perilous situation on the nuclear-armed Korean peninsula, and comes in the middle of another feud with the Republican chairman of the Senate intelligence committee about the president’s temperament and stability, along with other pressing legislative matters requiring the votes of numerous other congressional Republicans the president has been feuding with, and even Trump’s most die-hard supporters are struggling to make it sound reassuringly smart.

— Bud Norman

A Corker of a Feud

Reality shows usually derive their drama from petty disputes between the main characters, and President Donald Trump’s current action-packed series is no exception to the rule. Trump’s latest spat with Tennessee’s Republican Sen. Bob Corker, though, is likely to spill over into the real reality.
If you’ve been following the show since it debuted with the main character descending from the Trump Tower escalator to announce his candidacy, you might recall Corker as the mild-mannered and impeccably mainstream Senator who was one of the first Grand Old Party establishment types to endorse Trump’s candidacy after Trump had all but wrapped up the Republican nomination. Corker even so went so far as to describe Trump to MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” as “courteous, kind, and respectful,” and “not at all what people think,” and his name was floated as a possible pick for Vice President or Secretary of State, but since then the relationship has gone sour.
As chairman of the Senate’s foreign relations committee Corker shepherded a Russian sanctions bill that was clearly intended to curtail Trump’s ability to negotiate with that country. Following Trump’s widely criticized response to the deadly violence at a white supremacist rally in Virginia, Corker was one of several congressional Republicans who joined in the criticism, going so far as to say “The President has not been able to demonstrate the stability nor some of the competence that he needs to demonstrate in order to be successful.” During the recent episodes when Trump was feuding with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson over his efforts to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the conflict with North Korea, Corker that Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Chief of Staff John Kelly were among the were among the few administration officials “that help keep the country from chaos.”
On Sunday Trump did his usual illiterate counter-punching with a series of three “tweets” firing back at Corker, all with the usual vehemence. “Senator Bob Corker ‘begged’ me to endorse him for re-election reelection in Tennessee. I said’NO’ and he dropped (said he could not win without…” one read, which was continued in the next “tweet” with “… my endorsement.) I said ‘NO THANKS!’ He wanted to be Secretary of State, I said “NO THANKS!” He is also largely responsible for the horrendous Iran deal!” The third “tweet” added “Hence, I would fully expect Corker to be a negative voice and stand in the way of our great agenda. Didn’t have the guts to run!”
The part about Corker being largely responsible for the Iran deal is entirely untrue, as Corker was an outspoken critic and a key reason President Barack Obama didn’t dare submit it to the Senate for ratification as a treaty and thus had to sign it as a presidential agreement, which is why Trump should be grateful he can now undo it by executive action. Corker contends that Trump had called him to offer his endorsement as an inducement to run again, that he withdrew his name for consideration for Secretary of State before Trump reached a decision, and that he’s not seeking for re-election for reasons other than cowardice. Given both what we’ve learned about both men over their long public lives, we’re inclined to believe Corker on each count.
In any case Corker isn’t running for reelection and is all the more unintimidated by Trump’s “tweets.” He responded with a phone call to The New York Times to categorically deny all of Trump’s “tweeted” claims, and to say that the president is treating his office “like a reality show” and that his handling of the North Korean crisis puts the country “on the path to World War III.” Corker even went to his own “Twitter” feed to opine that “It’s a shame the White House has become an adult day care center. Someone obviously missed their shift this morning.”
The spat has received plenty of media attention, of course, and most of the commentary has been about how it will affect Trump’s ability to get his legislative agenda passed. Republicans can only afford to lose three votes from their slim majority in the Senate, which includes “Lyin'” Ted Cruz and “Little” Marco Rubio and the ugly Rand Paul and the unheroic John McCain, among several other members that Trump has gone out of his way to insult, so the general conclusion has been that enmity of the gutless Corker will likely further complicate the art of the legislative deal for Trump. There’s a counter-theory on the talk radio shows that Trump’s feuds with his own party are a brilliant strategy, which involves burning down the Republican party and bring forth a Trump-ian Phoenix from the ashes in order to defeat the almost-as-hated Democrats, but it’s hard to see that playing out soon enough to get anything passed before the next mid-terms.
So long as the Republicans are blamed for their legislative failures and the Republican president is held blameless that will probably be fine with Trump, but we worry Americans in general and Republicans in particular might have bigger problems. Corker is a fellow mild-mannered and impeccably mainstream Republican, even if he isn’t so wised-up as ourselves that he once went on cable television to describe Trump as “kind, courteous, respectful,” and we think he might be right about the adult day care at the White House with the adult supervision occasionally gone missing.
We’re not the only ones who can’t shake that nagging worry, or even the only Republicans. Corker claims most of his colleagues share his concerns, and so far few congressional Republicans have taken a public stand with Trump in in feud, and a very stalwart Pennsylvania GOP congressman from Pennsylvania who’s also not seeking went on the MSNBC cable network to admit his own worries. The latest poll from the Associated Press has Trump at a new low approval rating of 32 percent, with only 27 percent of women favorably inclined, and more worrisome it showed a positive 67 percent among Republicans. That’s a landslide in a general election, but in the past few hyper-partisan decades presidents have usually scored around 90 percent in their own parties, with the political Mendoza line set at around 80 percent, and the defection of nearly a third of the Republican grass-roots and a significant number of its elected representatives should give pause to the other two-thirds of the party.
Stay tuned, though. According to another recent episode, this is just the calm before the storm. Also, there’s an intriguing subplot involving Trump’s first wife and his third wife and First Lady to keep you diverted until the next twist.

— Bud Norman

The Un-Calm Before the Storm

So far as we can tell from his “tweets” and other public pronouncements, President Donald Trump is intent on some sort of military action against North Korea. The public pronouncements from the nutcase dictatorship of North Korea make clear that they consider Trump’s words a declaration of war, and the idea isn’t so nutty.
Trump has “tweeted” that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was “wasting his time” seeking a peaceful resolution to North Korea’s nuclear provocations, adding “Save your energy, Rex, we will do what has to be done.” At a photo-op with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Trump chided the generals for being slow in delivering him “military options,” later saying, as they all smiled for the pictures, “This is the calm before the storm.” Numerous questions about what that meant were answered with “you’ll see,” but Trump’s latest “tweets” said the past 25 years of diplomacy with North Korea have been “making fools of U.S. negotiators,” and “Sorry, but only one thing will work!”
That one thing clearly isn’t a negotiated resolution, and Trump is clearly impatient with the economic pressure that has lately been exerted on North Korea, by now even Trump doesn’t hold out much hope the Chinese can resolve the matter, so that doesn’t leave many non-military options. Trump and his most die-hard supporters appear quite confident that they’ll prevail in this game of nuclear brinksmanship, but it’s making the rest of us in pretty much the entire world rather nervous, and we can only guess at what that nutcase dictatorship makes of it.
If it does come down to a war America will win it, and Trump is right to emphasize that persuasive argument, but that’s no reason to start a war that could possibly be avoided. Any bar brawler can show you the scars and still-nagging injuries he got in the fights he won, cemeteries around the world are filled with the graves of soldiers from wars America won, and the best case scenarios for a quick win against North Korea include millions of enemy and allied deaths. We don’t advocate appeasement, as North Korea’s newly-upgraded nuclear capabilities are indeed intolerable, but we’d feel calmer if Trump heeded President Theodore Roosevelt’s advice to speak more softly as he wields a big stick, and didn’t render his Secretary of State’s efforts at a peaceful resolution a waste of time.
We’d be calmer yet if we thought that America had an effective Secretary of State on the job, or a cohesive foreign policy and an effective foreign service to go with it. Some of those southeast Asian allies Trump is making very nervous don’t have American ambassadors or fully staff embassies, key State Department positions have gone unfilled, and it’s not clear who’s advising Trump that calling the nutcase North Korean dictator “Little Rocket Man” and ruling out talks is sound diplomacy. Trump has some solid foreign hands around with his Defense Secretary and Chief of Staff and national security advisor, all multi-starred generals with hard-earned first-hand knowledge of how horrible even won wars are, all far more knowledgable about military realities in general and on the densely populated Korean peninsula in particular, but we notice they’re all striking a less bellicose tone in the very rare public pronouncements.
Trump’s grousing about the all the generals who have been slow in providing him military options suggests to us that the entire military is less enthusiastic about war with North Korean than is Trump, and we assume there are some relatively sane functionaries in the nutcase dictatorship that have reached the same conclusion. They’ve probably also noticed Trump’s dysfunctional relationship America’s foreign policy establishment, with the nutcase dictator amused that Trump’s own Secretary of State called him a “moron” and didn’t get summarily executed, and they’re probably less impressed with Trump’s bluster than his die-hard supporters.
The nutcase dictator probably pays even less attention to his sanest advisors than Trump does, though, and he might decide that so long as Trump has already declared war he might as well get it started with a strike on South Korea or Japan or the American territory of Guam or, if the most alarming claims are true, the west coast of America. At this point even the most sane advisors won’t advise him that Trump hasn’t already more or less declared war, and even if the nutcase dictator realizes somewhere in his deranged brain that he’ll lose the war he’ll figure that if he’s already lost he might as well get a few licks in along the way. So far as we can tell from the news reports he’d get a lot of licks in, and the generals and the military in general seem to agree, and with anything short of outright appeasement we’d rather put that scenario off to very last possible moment.
Perhaps this is the grand strategy that Trump and his die-hard supporters believe, and we have to hope so, although we wonder with  how Trump came to know more than generals or any previous head of state in history during his real estate and reality show career. If it comes to war, we hope it’s only because it was waged to avert an immediate threat to American lives, could not have been avoided otherwise, and that the Commander in Chief who ordered it could convincingly explain that to his countrymen and our allies and the rest of the nervous world.

— Bud Norman

“Tweet”-le Dee and “Tweet”-le Dumb

As we look back on all the many natural disasters and wars and other catastrophes that have afflicted America during our long lifetimes, we now do so with a wistful nostalgia for the good old days when at least there was no “tweeting.” Over the past weekend President Donald Trump “tweeted” a war of words with the mayor of hurricane-battered Puerto Rico’s largest city, “and tweeted” that his Secretary of State’s efforts to avoid a more literal war with nuclear-armed North Korea are a waste of time, so the technological revolution that made it possible doesn’t seem to have wrought any progress.
Trump hadn’t suffered any bad reviews and therefore gained a couple of points in the opinions for his response to the historic hurricanes that battered Texas and Florida, but he’s clearly irked that he’s no getting any raves for his response to a third hurricane that knocked down thousands of buildings and knocked off all the electrical power and left much of the island underwater. There were compelling accounts of Trump’s delay in waiving the Jones Act and other arcane regulations that delayed rescue efforts, and how long it took to get a three-star general on job, and embarrassing comparisons to the manpower and dollars deployed in other recent and lesser natural disasters, so of course all the Democrats and their friends in the media went wild with it. The trump administration’s response, alas, was rather ham-fisted.
Trump’s initial “tweets” mostly griped that Puerto Rico was a debt-ridden burden on the country with an outdated electrical even before the hurricane, which is a true enough truth but one that this is probably not best time to bring up, and he later explained that rescue and recovery efforts had been hampered by the fact that Puerto Rico is an island, which he further helpfully explained means that “It’s surrounded by water, big ocean water.” His Secretary of Homeland Security called the response to this 135-miles of big ocean water a “Good news story,” which led almost immediately to the mayor of Puerto Rico’s largest city telling all the cameras that “Damn it, this is not a good news story. This is a people-are-dying story. This is a life-or-death story. This is a there’s-a-truckload-of-stuff-that-cannot-be-taken-to-people story. This is a story of a devastation that continues to worsen because people are not getting food and water.”
Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz never mentioned Trump by name during her lament, but the review was so insufficiently enthusiastic that he went on one of his “tweeting” tirades. He first “tweeted” that “The Mayor of San Juan, who was very complimentary a few days ago, has now been told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump.” After some ellipses he continued “Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and other in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help. They,” followed by more ellipses, “want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort. 10,000 federal workers now on island doing a fantastic job. Which is the sort of weapons-grade “tweeting” that Trump’s loyal supporters expect from their at-least-he-fights champion, but we expect that on most of the other judges’ cards they scored the round for the flyweight from Puerto Rico.
Cruz is a mere five feet tall but she has degrees from two major American universities looks quite formidable in a Latin spitfire sort or way behind her endearingly geeky glasses, and all the “fake news” had eerily authentic footage of her wading in chest-deep waters with a bullhorn nestled between her neck and shoulders while shaking the hand of some anonymous Puerto Rican who of course was pitching in on a community efforts, with simultaneous footage of Trump schmoozing with rich white people at some fancy golf tournament. The Trump fans will still love the “tweets,” but for everyone else it’s the same bad optics that got the jet-setting and out-of-touch Health and Human Services Secretary fired in another footnote to a weird week. We wish Trump’s public relations team well in the planned victory tour in Puerto Rico in the next few days, and expect that at least the fans will be well satisfied no matter how it goes.
Despite the golf tournament and the ongoing crises of the Puerto Rican recovery and certain National Football League players not being sufficiently respectful during the playing of the national anthem, Trump found time to “tweet” that “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man.” If you haven’t been following this harrowing story, “Little Rocket Man” is now Trump’s favorite sobriquet for the nutcase but nuclear-armed dictator of North Korea, which has unsettled every seasoned foreign policy inside and outside of the administration and had unknown effects in the North Korean dictatorship. “Save your energy Rex,” Trump ominously added without a comma, “we’ll do what has to be done!”
The at-least-he-fights sorts of fans will love it, but to all those more seasoned foreign policy hands and amateur observers such as ourselves it is a bit unsettling. With due caution we have supported Trump’s tough stance with North Korea, given that the last decades of a more conciliatory approach have brought us the current predicament, but at least none of those desultory decades saw a nuclear conflict and its millions of inevitable casualties played out, and even our old cold warrior souls know that any attempt at a peaceful resolution is never a waste of time.
This isn’t the first time Trump has “tweeted” criticisms of his wonderful Secretary of State, who has also been compellingly criticized by the Democrats and their media friends for failing to appoint candidates to key positions and going along with Trump’s planned downsizing of the State Department, and there’s plenty of speculation that he’s the next high-ranking cabinet member to resign. He’s a former Exxon head honcho who’s an official “Friend of Russia” without any previous diplomatic experience, too, so his surprisingly moderating influence on Trump’s foreign probably won’t do him much good. Changing Secretaries of State in the middle of this particular stream will be troublesome, as will the prospects of finding anyone remotely qualified for the job who would want it, but that seems a mere “tweet” away.

— Bud Norman

Two Tales of One Speech

President Donald Trump delivered a speech to the entire world from the podium at the United Nations on Tuesday, but as always he seemed to be speaking mostly to his fans. As always the fans loved it, even if the UN-bashing was watered down somewhat from the campaign speeches, and the rest of the world was less enthusiastic.
After opening the speech with some self-congratulatory talk about the American stock market and unemployment rates, both of which have indeed lately improved at a slightly better pace than before he took he office, Trump welcomed the UN’s general assembly to his home town of New York City as if they had recently arrived solely to hear him speak. After that he got to more substantive matters, including a threat to completely annihilate North Korea, a warning that America will no longer share its traditional burdens in enforcing world order elsewhere, a promise that America would no longer attempt to impose its values of freedom and democracy on an unwitting world, some harsh criticisms of certain countries that are unfree and undemocratic, some more subtle criticisms of certain other countries that are also unfree and undemocratic but more formidable foes, and a full-throated announcement of the “America First” policy he successfully ran on.
The fans surely loved almost all of it, and the rest of the world will have a hard time arguing with much of the speech.
A threat by an American president to utterly annihilate another nation is unusual in a UN speech, but that has long been the unavoidable American policy in response to a nuclear attack, which North Korea has lately been threatening in clear terms, so Trump might as well have said so. Using the taunting “Rocket Man” nickname for the nutcase North Korean dictator that Trump had previously “tweeted” was unnecessary and probably not helpful, and we along with most of the rest of the world would have preferred some added lines about our hopes for a peaceful resolution to the crisis, but Trump is still on the same solid ground as any other American president would be in vowing a devastating response to a nuclear attack against America. He also seemed to leave room for a preemptive nuclear attack based on intelligence reports of an imminent threat, though, and given Trump’s past remarks to the world press about the unreliability of America’s intelligence community and his harsh criticisms of its previous preemptive military actions that’s a more complicated matter.
Trump is also on solid ground with his complaints that America has borne an unfair share of the burden of enforcing the world order, along with the implicit argument that the UN is charging us too much for its small role, but right now is probably not the best time to be making that argument. Trump’s savvy UN ambassador Nikki Haley has recently convinced both the Chinese and Russian members of the Security Council to sign on to harsh sanctions against North Korea, which might prove helpful if either country is as good as their word, and there’s still a chance that a peaceful resolution worked out in the UN will make our outsized bills to the usually worthless organization well worth the cost. Trump did tamp down his past criticisms of the UN and didn’t threaten a complete withdrawal, though, so the disappointment of his fans should be well compensated by the relief of the rest of the world.
By now both the American left and right and all those Trump fans who fit somewhere in that spectrum agree the country shouldn’t be imposing all of its values on the rest of the world, and the rest of the world surely won’t argue with that, but Trump’s oration leaves plenty of room for other arguments. He spoke of each nation’s sovereign right to settle its own domestic squabbles, but singled out North Korea and Iran and Venezuela for scorn about they’re handling it, and didn’t make clear what standards he expected from the rest of the world. North Korea and Iran and Venezuela well deserve America’s scorn, and whatever pressure America can apply, but so do China and Russia and other more formidable foes that Trump left largely unmentioned, and at this point a Trump Doctrine seems vague.
Trump made it clear that his guiding principle is “America First,” and he rightly noted that every American president has had the same priority and that every other world leader has also put his nation’s interest first, so the rest of the world has only self-interested arguments about that. Still, those Americans who aren’t fans of Trump, along with the rest of the world, can argue Trump doesn’t espouse an enlightened view of America’s self-interest. That “America First” slogan always bothered us, given its historic association with the pre-World War II isolationists who were sure America would fare just fine in a world dominated by the Axis powers, and it doesn’t sound any better coming from Trump.
It could have been a lot worse, though, and we’ll take some solace in our longtime and old-fashioned Republican conviction that the United Nations isn’t really that big a deal. Our reading of the English language  editions of the foreign press suggests that the rest of the world mostly regards Trump as a boastful and boisterous buffoon, so we’re left wondering how they’re taking the speech, and worrying if Trump cares about that so long as the fans are pleased.

— Bud Norman