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The Battle of the Celebrities, the Fate of a Nation

That Oprah Winfrey woman gave an uplifting and cliche-filled acceptance speech at the Golden Globes ceremony on Sunday night, which is the sort of pop cultural pap news we used to happily ignore, but by Monday afternoon there was simply no escaping all the buzz about her possible presidential campaign. Such is politics in the age of President Donald Trump.
Back in the good old days, which we now date to around the time Trump took that elevator ride in Trump Tower to announce his seemingly improbable presidential campaign, the possibility of a Winfrey presidency would have been the stuff of satire. She’s never held a political position or worked in public service, has no political philosophy save for what one might discern from her occasional incoherent public pronouncements, and lacks any apparent qualifications for high public office save the billions of dollars she’s made from her status as a reality-show celebrity. That would have ended the discussion back in the good old days, but in the age of Trump the Republican party is hard-pressed to make those once obvious arguments against such obviously unqualified candidates.
Those darned Democrats made all the same obvious arguments against Trump, but they were less convincing after eight years of celebrating the rock star presidency of President Barack Obama, and it couldn’t carry such an unappealing figure as former First Lady and Senator and Secretary and presumptive first-woman president Hillary Clinton across the finish line, so we understand their excitement for Winfrey. Her afternoon talk show ran twice as long as Trump’s “Apprentice” reality show and made her a far bigger TV star, she’s arguably even richer than Trump and her up-from-the-ghetto biography is far more Horatio Alger-esque than the son of a millionaire New York real estate mogul, and her touchy-feely public persona contrasts comfortably with the snarling “you’re fired” image that Trump has long cultivated. Say what you want about Winfrey, and our old-fashioned Republicans selves have plenty to say about her, we have to admit that at least she wouldn’t be “tweeting” about the size of her nuclear button.
With a certain snobbish pride we admit we never watched so much as a second of Winfrey’s not talk show, nor Trump’s insipid prime time reality game show, but she kept popping up in the political news in all sorts of troubling ways. She promoted some theories about “mad cow” disease that put her in disfavor with all our favorite Kansas cattle ranchers and our own carnivorous selves, promulgated some questionable advice about childhood vaccines and other pressing public health issues, and seemed all too prone to magical thinking and other disastrous pop cultural fads. Her admirable efforts to encourage reading put several fine old and authors on the national bestsellers lists, but she also fell for a couple of literary hoaxes some of the more noteworthy authors were embarrassed by her endorsements. One can also clearly glean from her many publicized public pronouncements and fawning television interviews that she’s more or less an Obama sort of mainstream Democrat, which is disqualifying for such old-fashioned Republicans such as ourselves and a lot of our radicalized and more traditional Democratic friends, but if the fate of the nation comes down to Nielsen ratings we suspect she might well win.
There’s also talk that former World Wrestling Entertainment champion and current action-adventure movie star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson will jump into the race. We’ll snobbishly admit that never seen a single second of his wrestling or action-adventure moving acting, and we have no idea if he’s a Republican or Democrat or what his political philosophy might be, but from the look of him we can’t imagine the aging and obese and combed-over Trump “tweeting” anything about his manliness.
We’d rather it didn’t come down to that, and that instead our nation’s fate came down to a carefully deliberated consideration of the very complicated issues we face as a nation, we’re no longer hopeful. The extraordinarily rich American popular culture that bequeathed to the world jazz and country music and rock and soul and and the rest of the incredible Ameircan songbook, along with Hollywood movies and prairie deco architecture and those Oprah-endorsed works of William Faulkner and the rest of our national grassroots greatness, is at an undeniably awkward moment, and our politics is in an arguably even worse state.

— Bud Norman

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An Olympian Disappointment

The Olympic games get underway today, and in a more perfect world they would provide some much needed distraction from the awful presidential race that’s lately been getting all our attention. Alas, in this imperfect world the Olympics are just as much a gruesome spectacle of incompetence and corruption.
Before the opening ceremonies have even begun in all their quadrennial gaudy splendor the Olympics have already been tarnished by the International Olympic Committee’s usual greasy-palmed awarding of the games to Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, where much of the local population is infuriated by the government’s spending of much-needed public funds to to the benefit of a few wealthy and well-connected parties, and is beset by rampant crime and one of those apocalyptic tropical diseases and all the inefficiencies of what is still a second-world country at best. The mess has caused many of the world’s top basketball players and golfers and other elite athletes to stay home, and we confidently expect that incompetence and corruption will also play a part in deciding the winners of several of the subjectively scored sports, and that better living through chemistry will once again play a role in the more rigorously timed and measured events.
Which is a shame, really, because the Olympics used to be the most riveting and inspiring thing on the fuzzy black-and-white three-channel televisions of our youth.
Our earliest memories of the Olympics date back to the ’68 games in Mexico City, when Bob Beamon jumped a full foot and a few inches farther than any human had ever jumped before, the future heavyweight champion of the world and grill-machine magnate George Foreman celebrated his gold-medal boxing performance by waving a couple of small American flags, the great Dick Fosbury forever changed the sport of high-jumping with his gold medal-winning “Fosbury flop,” and Kansas’ own Al Oerter became the first track and field athlete to win a fourth consecutive gold medal with another extraordinary throw of the discus. Even then we were aware of the student protests that disrupted the games, and how gold medal-winning Tommie Smith and bronze medal-winning John Carlos flashed the “black power” salute of an upturned and black-gloved fist while standing on the winner’s platform as the “Star Spangled Banner” played, and that Lew Alcindor had declined to the join the basketball team even before he became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and other exceptional black athletes had boycotted the games, but America handily wound up winning the medal count and it bolstered our vague notions of American exceptionalism.
The ’72 Olympics in Munich were in living color, and featured the handsomely mustachioed Mark Spitz winning a record seven gold medals in swimming against a clearly cheating commie squad, the scariest-white-boy-you-ever-saw Dan Gable annihilating one steroid-pump commie after another on his way to a wrestling gold medal, skinny Dave Wottle and his backwards baseball cap coming from way way way behind to beat some fast muscle-bound commie in the 800 meter race, and as well as the hated Soviet Union beating an American basketball team that didn’t have the hippy-dippy Bill Walton or paying for play Julius Ervin on the most outrageously corrupt play-calling in Olympic history. Then there was the massacre of the Israeli team by a radical Islamist Palestinian terror group, and the quick exit of the Jewish Olympic hero Spitz, and Gable’s ill-advised grousing that his win had been overshadowed, and the questionable decision by American Olympic boss Avery Brundage to continue playing the games.
Since then the Olympics have proved less riveting. In ’76 the games went to nearby Montreal, Canada, and America came in an unaccustomed third place in the medal during its Bicentennial Year. The highlight from a patriotic perspective was a handsome young fellow named Bruce Jenner winning the decathlon and the unofficial “world’s greatest athlete title,” and of course he’s now better known as Caitlyn Jenner and was last seen as a honored guest at the Republican National Convention proving how very tolerant even the Republican are about men who think they’re women. America didn’t compete in the ’80 elections in Moscow after President Carter decided to boycott the games as retaliation for the Soviet Union’s invasion of Africa, which kept our junior high and high school classmate Darnell Valentine from a good chance at a basketball gold medal, and when the Soviet bloc boycotted the ’84 games in Los Angeles the Americans won so much they got bored with winning. The ’88 Olympics were in Seoul, we vaguely recall, and America was back in third place behind the Soviet Union and its East German puppets. The ’92 Olympics were in Barcelona, Spain, where professionals were at long last allowed to participate without any pretense of amateurism and the most memorable result was a basketball team featuring Larry Bird and Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan and nine other all-timers that seemed to prove once and for all how well capitalism works. Some homosexual-hating nutcase set off a bomb at the ’96 Olympics in Atlanta, and except for America’s return to the top of the medal count we can’t recall much else.
By the ’00 Olympics in Sydney there was no Soviet Union and the American victory in the medal count didn’t seem so exceptional, and Marion Jones had two return two of those golds when she was found to be a chemical cheat, and the ’04 Olympics in Athens are best remembered for all abandoned venues that now broke country built for the games. The ’08 games in Beijing were basically a propaganda campaign for China’s totalitarian government, just like the ’36 games in Munich where that same old Avery Brundage wouldn’t let Jewish-American athletes compete for fear of offend his fellow Jew-hating hosts and thus allowed the black Jesse Owens to wind up spoiling the show, and except for Michael Phelps breaking Spitz’ record with eight gold swimming medals we can’t recall a thing about the ’12 games in London.
This year’s Olympics would have been in Chicago if President Barack Obama had his way, and there were reports when he flew off to Switzerland with Oprah Winfrey to make the pitch for his hometown that he envisioned it as a worldwide celebration of the fundamental transformation of America he had wrought by his second term and is pitch to the IOC was mostly predicated on how it would give the Olympics meaning to have them held in his own sanctified hometown. Of course he also hoped it would benefit his longtime consigliere Valerie Jarrett and all the other well-connected slum lords in his Chicago circles, but we suspect the city at large is happy to let the even more crime-ridden city of Rio De Janeiro pick up the tab.
Still, we’ll hope for some uplifting diversion during the games. Surely someone will run faster or jump higher or lift a greater weight than any other human ever has, and there’s a Wichita kid competing with the boxing team, and he might have better luck than the great Wichita miler Jim Ryun or our old basketball-playing classmate or any other local boy has done in the Olympics since James Bausch won the decathlon and the “world’s greatest athlete” title way back in ’32, and there might even be a moment where a good guy or a good gal from any old country wins a moment of well-deserved glory. That would make for a nice diversion right about now, so we’ll keep our fingers crossed.

— Bud Norman

What Do You Want? A Medal?

The world no longer offers any honors worth aspiring to. Nobel Peace Prize winners were once a big deal, but by now that club includes a Communist apparatchik such as Le Duc Tho and a mass-murdering thug such as Yasir Arafat, as well as such mediocrities as Mohamad Al-Baradei, Al Gore, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama, so it isn’t worth the effort it would take to join. Pulitzer Prizes have been similarly devalued, and are now offered in lieu of readers to the writers who most closely hew to the conventional wisdom. People still watch the Academy Awards to see pretty people wearing pretty clothes, but Al Gore has one of those, too, and at this point nobody believes that the ceremony is honoring the best motion pictures have to offer. The most valuable player awards in the major sports leagues still indicate some sort of excellence, but these days there’s no telling how much of it was pharmaceutically induced. Even the highest degrees from the most prestigious colleges no longer offer any assurance that the holder has any smarts at all, and it’s hard to think of any titles, prizes, certifications, or awards that do.
Still, we look forward to each year’s announcement of the Presidential Medal of Freedom honorees with a stubborn hope of finding someone among the honorees who is truly honorable. The annual news stories always describe the medal as “the nation’s highest civilian award,” even if has been diminished by the presidents from which it derives its name, and the distinction does seem to reflect a consensus of societal opinion about who is to be regarded as an exceptional citizen of the country. This year 16 people were chosen for the honor, the number having increased in every recent year according to the same grade inflation that has proliferated the number of Little League and academic achievement awards to point that every second-graders bedroom is overflowing with the things, and the law of averages dictates that there must be someone worthy among so many selections.
This year’s class is a diverse lot, in keeping with the contemporary fetish for diversity, and includes a wide range of occupations as well as the usual racial and sexual quotas. On the whole they are an impressive lot, but the list offers yet another reflection of societal decline.
Former president Bill Clinton is included despite his well-known family feud with the current president, and after George H.W. Bush was honored last year despite being a Republican and a Bush, it seems that all former presidents will eventually be given the honor. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the office’s essential contribution to American life, or just a way of ensuring that Obama will get his medal no matter who succeeds him, but in either case it seems a perfunctory selection. We can think of worse presidents than Clinton, including one who will soon be draping a medal over his neck, but we’d note that when most people recall his contributions to the cause of freedom they immediately think of fellatio jokes.
Oprah Winfrey is the next most familiar name on the list. Most of our afternoons have been spent either working or sleeping, so we have no knowledge of the television talk show that made Winfrey famous and cannot testify to her putatively inspirational qualities, but what we do know of this woman is less than heroic. She’s still infamous here in cattle country for her panicked response to the brief Mad Cow Disease outbreak, and we understand that she’s taken a dangerously unscientific stand on the immunization of children, and her most recent headlines have concerned his bizarre analogy between the murder of Emmett Till and the self-defense shooting of Trayvon Martin, so she hardy strikes us as someone worth honoring with the nation’s highest civilian award. We’ve spent enough time in grocery store check-out lines to have gleamed from the tabloid headlines that Winfrey has battled a weight problem, but if that qualifies someone for a Presidential Medal of Freedom the country will soon be bankrupted from coining the damned things.
Former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee was another familiar name, at least for those old enough to remember his role in uncovering the Watergate scandal, which was surely the reason for his inclusion. Sen. Daniel Inouye will receiving the award posthumously, in part because of his heroic service to the country during World War II and in part because of his longstanding service to the Democratic party thereafter. Former Sen. Richard Lugar was also honored, in part because a Republican was required to keep the whole affair from seeming a partisan event but mostly as compensation for having been ousted from office by a more robustly Republican primary challenger. Feminist gadfly Gloria Steinem will also receive a medal, so the ideological requirements for the award should be clear.
There were a few names we were pleased to see. Baseball star Ernie Banks, who was a fine player on some terrible Chicago Cubs teams and still retained enough enthusiasm for the game to say “Let’s play two,” made the cut. So did Loretta Lynn, an outstanding country music singer who deserves the nation’s undying gratitude if only for her rendition of “One’s on the Way,” a Shel Silverstein-penned bit of wry domestic drama and social commentary set in Topeka, Kansas, which we dearly love. Civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, astronaut Sally Ride, and jazzman Arturo Sandoval are also admirable people who made significant contributions to the country. After too many years working in a newsroom jammed with arrogant University of North Carolina and University of Kansas alumni we have mixed feelings about the selection of Dean Smith, who coached the former university’s basketball team to national championships and was a star player for the latter school, but he seems to enjoy a stellar reputation in both states and is also an understandable selection.
We cannot comment on the selections of psychologist Daniel Kahneman, chemist and environmental scientist Mario Malina, civil rights activist Cordy Tendell Vivian, or jurist Patricia Wald, as we have never heard of any them, but there is a nagging suspicion that each were chosen in accordance with the same political biases as the rest. Even such worthy recipients as Banks and Lynn no doubt benefited from racial and sexual quotas, Ride is famous as much for being a woman as being an astronaut, as a homosexual African-American Rustin might feel entitled to two medals, Sandoval was chosen before more important trumpeters because he is an Hispanic player in an African-American idiom, and Smith is a flatteringly representative token of middle-American white men.
America could do worse, we suppose, but would be nice to think that we could better.

— Bud Norman