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Tragedy, Obituaries, and the Public Relations Fallout

Life itself is ultimately tragic, as our jaded souls know all too well, but the news from the past few weeks have brought more than usual amount of tragedy.
Two historic hurricanes brought death and devastation to densely populated parts of Texas and Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands and pretty much wiped out a few Caribbean countries you probably couldn’t name, two successive earthquakes killed hundreds in Mexico and therefore went largely unnoticed in America, a third deadly hurricane left Puerto Rico flooded and without power or potable water, and a severely troubled soul in Nevada killed at least 59 of his fellow human beings and wounded more than 500 others. Not to mention the sudden plausibility of a nuclear exchange with a nutcase dictatorship in North Korea, the normal and quotidian slaughter on America’s streets, and the names you can’t help noticing for some personal reason in the always full obituary page.
That’s an awful lot of tragedy to comment on, especially if you want to do so with the requisite respect and dignity and humility, and we’d never be so boastful as to claim being up to the job. Therefore the job instead falls on President Donald Trump, who is not known for being respectful or dignified or humble, and as much as we hate to cast stones we think he could have handled it better.
The historic hurricanes went about as well as can be expected in Texas and Florida, with the long and arduous rebuilding process and the requisite federal assistance coming along so far and so good despite all the legislative rigmarole, and except for the usual unpersuasive carping about climate change there was no way to blame Trump for the storms. Trump seemed to be taking a bit too much credit for things going as well as can be expected, with not enough credit given to the state and county and civic officials and plain old citizens who were pulling one another out of the water, but other than that he did well enough.
After that hurricane in Puerto Rico, however, Trump gave his critics plenty to work with. Trump “tweeted” boasts about how the governor of Puerto Rico had praised the federal response, but his Homeland Security secretary described the federal response as a “good news story,” so when the mayor of Puerto Rico’s capital and most populous went viral with her answer that its a “people-are-dying” Trump wound up in another bad news cycle. Trump “tweeted” his criticism of her leadership abilities, but the unfriendly media had footage of her wading in chest deep water while Trump was hosting a fancy golf tournament, and the three-star general who turned around President George W. Bush’s Hurricane Katrina disaster was on the ground in Puerto Rico and noting the difference, and Trump continued to “tweet” about Puerto Rico’s debt and effect on the American budget and an insinuation that Puerto Ricans are too lazy to save themselves from nature’s fury.
As bad as the public relations disaster was for Trump, he was temporarily rescued by all the media attention paid to that troubled soul who killed at least 59 people in Las Vegas and the wounding of at least 500 others. Trump offered a a very respectful and dignified and humble statement about the victims, lowered all the nation’s flags to half-staff in honor of the victims, and handled the tragedy as well as can be expected. He put off the inevitable debates about gun control to another day, which is probably the best that can be expected, and until that inevitable debate happens we think he did well enough.
Trump was in Puerto Rico on Monday to convey his sympathy to the quasi-Americans on the island, though, and that gave all his critics even more work to with. He once against boasted about how the governor had praised the great federal response, this time with looking rather embarrassed as he sat beside him, and made a joke about how much Puerto Rico was costing America that left everyone looking pretty darned embarrassed, and boastfully compared the death toll of 35 — which he understated at 16 — to the thousands of deaths of deaths that resulted from a “real catastrophe” such as fellow Republican President George W. Bush’s Hurricane Katrina, which actually resulted in slightly fewer than a thousand deaths. He was overheard offering praise to a ran Puerto Rican for the mayor of the island’s capital and most populous city, and had an awkward handshake with her, but we doubt it played well with anyone in Puerto Rico and Americans other than Trump’s most loyal supporters.
Puerto Rico has in fact racked up an irresponsible debt, neglected to maintain up-to-date electrical grids and plumbing systems and other crucial infrastructure, and that plucky and telegenic if crazily leftist mayor does bear some responsibility for that, but with the island still largely without power or potable water this seems an inappropriate time to bring that up. The Puerto Ricans and the rest of the Democrats can also plausibly argue that past American laws that made them a temporary tax haven for foreign investment enticed them to rack up all that debt, that a later American law denying them the same bankruptcy protections afforded to other American jurisdictions and certain Trump casinos had made the debt unsustainable, so it’s a complicated debate that’s best left to less emotional times.
When Trump touches down in tragic Las Vegas the inevitable debates about gun control will still be best left to less emotional times, and we hold out hope he’ll strike the right note with a respectful and dignified and humble tone in a scripted and stuck-to speech. The victims were all country music fans, even the mainstream media has found that all of them were sympathetic no matter what you think of country music fans, so we count on Trump being appropriately respectful and dignified and humble. That inevitable debate about gun control will hang over the event, but Trump should be able to delay that for at least a respectful interval, but there’s going to be some serious arguments about the commercially-available ways to convert to semi-automatic to more-or-less automatic weapons that will be hard to win.
Despite all the tragedy we note that many of our Facebook friends are also focused on the death of Tom Petty, who was a rock ‘n’ roll star of some note, so we’ll take a moment out of these past few dreary months to note his passing. We were never such ardent fans as so many of our dear friends, but Tom Petty and His Heartbreakers did cut more than a few true blue rock ‘n’ roll tracks we remember well, and along with everyone else we mourn his passing.
Not so long ago we were at a local dive and ran into an old friend with excellent musical taste, and she recommended we check out an obscure guy named Charles Bradley, who turned out to sing sweet soul music the way remembered it from the glorious but tragic late ’60s and early ’70s. Looking up this valuable information we also discovered that Bradley had died last months after 68 tragic years of life, just a couple of years of slight recognition for his musical talent, and we also mourn his passing. Before he died he sang a song called “Why Is It So hard,” and for now we’re finding it more comforting than anything Trump or any of his critics might say.

— Bud Norman

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Comey Still Won’t Go Away

Try as you might, there’s nothing to find in the news these days except President Donald Trump’s firing of Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey. A Cable News Network reporter tried to do a story on the Republicans’ proposed health care legislation, which was a big deal not long ago and is apparently still something that might happen, but the first question to a couple of politicians was about how Comey’s firing might affect the bill’s chances in the Senate, so of course the conversation never got around to anything else.
There are other things going on with the federal government, too, but for the moment the first thing to ask about almost any of them is how they’re affected by all this Comey business. The Democrats sense an opportunity to use the issue to thwart almost any Trump proposal, and Trump has been seemingly  intent on gold-plating it for them. All the endless stories mention in passing that Trump is entirely within his legal rights to fire an FBI director for any old reason, and briefly acknowledge that both Democrats and Republicans have had their own reasons for wanting to do so over the past election year, but thus far the White House has struggled to make a convincing case of its own.
The official “you’re fired” letter from Trump himself said it was because of the recommendation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and a newly-hired deputy attorney, who found Comey’s public comments regarding an investigation into the e-mail practices of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton late in the campaign had undermined the public’s faith in his ability, and the was the line that all the obviously unprepared spokespeople parroted the next two days. Those poor spokespeople had to respond to video montages of candidate Trump praising Comey’s “guts” for those same statements, though, and explain why Trump was suddenly so offended on Clinton’s behalf after leading so many rallies in chants of “lock her up,” so the first couple of news cycles went badly. They steadfastly insisted that the president had no choice but to accept the conclusion of that newly-hired deputy attorney general, and of course insisted that it had nothing to with the fact that Comey was heading an investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to the Russian government’s meddling in the election.
Trump doesn’t seem the type to follow a newly-hired subordinate’s lead, though, and the Attorney General had promised to recuse himself from anything having to do with the Russian investigation that Comey was heading, and the idea that Russia had nothing to do with it was always going to be a hard sell. Thus Trump found himself sitting down with the National Broadcasting Corporation’s Lester Holt on Thursday and saying, in between frequent interruptions, that “Oh, I was going to fire regardless of recommendation,” and that “In fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Russia and Trump is a made up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election they should have won.'” He also described Comey as a “grandstander” and “showboat,” and the late night comedy show jokes about Trump describing anyone by those terms pretty much wrote themselves.
He also stated his ardent desire for a thorough and independent investigation of the Russia thing with Russia and Trump, but people will draw their own conclusions about that based on who he picks as Comey’s replacement. One hopes the Trump team will have a exceptionally strong pick and a better-planned public relations roll-out for that story, which is likely to be all that’s in the news for a while, if we’re lucky.

— Bud Norman

Messing With the President

In case you’ve just tuned into the latest Washington soap opera, and are wondering why the Republicans in the House of Representatives have voted to withhold funding for Obamacare even if it leads to a prolonged government shutdown that poses all sorts of political risks for the party, President Barack Obama has offered an explanation. Speaking to a crowd of adorers in Liberty, Missouri, on Friday, Obama said of the Republicans that “They’re not focused on you. They’re focused on politics. They’re focused on messing with me.”
Another explanation would be that the Republicans genuinely loathe Obamacare because of its budget-busting costs, job-killing mandates, bureaucratic inefficiencies, inevitable cronyism and corruption, intrusions into the people’s most private matters, and assorted other problems which are becoming clearer with each step of its implementation, but one can readily understand why Obama would prefer to think that it’s all about him. Harder to understand is how the Republican opposition to Obamacare could be effective politics if it were not focused on the people who overwhelmingly share their disdain or the law, or why Obama is in such a grouchy mood if it’s not effective politics, but he’s no doubt confident that no one will ever get within shouting to distance who would ask such impertinent questions.
In the upcoming public relations battle over Obamacare the Democrats will have a large government-funded propaganda campaign, the constant help of much of the still-powerful media, an army of unthinkingly loyal activists, and of course the presidential bully pulpit, but thus far they are conspicuously lacking in persuasive arguments. The president continues to make all the old promises about health insurance premiums going down and everyone keeping their existing coverage, but even his most faithful fans will be more inclined to believe the bottom line on the bills that come that do or the regretful explanations of their employers who have cancelled longtime benefit packages. The millions of Americans who can find only part-time work will be assured that Obamacare’s requirement that full-time jobs entail costly and time-consuming health care compensation has nothing to do with it, but more and more people are now hearing otherwise from the people doing the hiring. The president is fond of pointing out that although health care costs continue to rise they are doing so at a slower rate, but when the Republicans get a quote or two in the story for the sake of balance they can point out that the rise started slowing back in ’06 when Obama was still voting “present” as an Illinois state senator.
There’s always the Obamacare provision that allows the young folk to stay on their parents’ policies until age 26, which is said to be popular, but certainly some percentage of those aging dependents would prefer a full-time job and their own health care plan. Expect to hear a lot about Obamacare’s mandate that insurers cannot deny coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, which sounds very compassionate and continues to poll well, but the public seems to have figured out that there’s a lot more in that 2,000 page law and the gazillions of pages of resulting regulations than just that.
Nor is it likely to be persuasive if Obama makes it all about himself. There are still some true believers out there who will rally round their president no matter the cause, and have plenty of time to do so between unemployment checks, but after the National Security Agency’s snooping and saber-rattling at Syria and the general lack of hope and change that the administration has generated the numbers seem to be dwindling. As much as some people might still love the president, many would prefer to have a full-time job and are beginning to understand that Obamacare makes it harder to get one. For those less enamored of the president from outset his petty and petulant tone will only exacerbate their dislike and stiffen their resistance as the battle gets uglier.
Republicans aren’t opposing Obamacare just to mess with the president, but if it gets him so obviously annoyed that’s an added bonus.

— Bud Norman