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A Question of Temperament

The Los Angeles Times newspaper and Vanity Fair magazine have both published recent stories that raise credible doubt on President Donald Trump’s temperamental fitness for his job, and the Republican chairman of the Senate intelligence committee has publicly raised the same concerns and insisted that most of his colleagues share them. Even with the stock market up and the unemployment rate down, all the opinion polls show that a majority of the public is also worried that there’s something not quite right about the president.
Of course Trump has counter-punched with “tweets” and defiant statements, as is his wont, but not in a way that will reassure any of those worriers. He’s griped to a pool of reporters that “It’s frankly disgusting the way the press can write anything it wants,” sent “tweets” threatening to revoke a national broadcasting network’s right to air stories he dislikes, and come up with a mocking nickname for that impudent Republican Senator who dare call him childish. He also “tweeted” complaints about Puerto Rico, where the death toll from a recent hurricane now stands at 45 and is climbing due to all the people who still don’t have clean water to drink, and that his generosity to the island’s American citizens won’t last forever. The hard-core fans will surely love it, as they hate the media and longstanding Republican office holders and those ungrateful Puerto Ricans as much as Trump does, but we expect the rest of the country and the rest of the world will see it differently.
Although we’ve long been critics of the media in general and the National Broadcasting Company in particular, all of those “fake news” stories Trump is railing against sound all too believable to us, and regardless of what errors they might contain we we don’t think that the First Amendment right of the press to write whatever they want is frankly disgusting. Until recently we unaware of the existence of Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, but what we’ve learned since his feud with Trump started suggests he’s mostly our kind of Republican, and Trump calling him “Liddle” Bob Corker doesn’t undercut the Senator’s claim that the White House has lately become an “adult day center.” Trump has also lately been feuding with his Secretary of State, challenging him to an Intelligence Quotient test if the “fake news” that he had called him a “moron” was true, and later told told reporters he “doesn’t like to undercut people,” but unless you’re a die-hard fan that’s not likely reassuring.
Puerto Ricans have made plenty of mistakes that have compounded their recent misfortune, but the federal government has also imposed plenty of mistakes on them as well over the years, and the complicated arrangement with the island and the 50 states obliges us help its still endangered Spanish speaking but fully-American citizens.
Even with the stock market up and the unemployment rate down we expect the national and international worries about Trump’s temperament will continue. There are also worries about the nuclear brinkmanship with North Korea, how all those ongoing feuds with Republicans and Democrats alike will lead to any useful legislation, as well as those nagging investigations into whole “Russia” thing, and it would challenge even the most presidential of temperaments, which really is worrisome unless you’re a die-hard supporter.

— Bud Norman

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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

“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 Big Disasters in Puerto Rico

President Donald Trump’s most strident critics seemed almost disappointed when two historic hurricanes battered Texas and Florida but things went about as well a one can expect. They well remembered how President George W. Bush, who they had also stridently criticized, had taken such a hit in polls numbers for all the things that went wrong after a hurricane battered New Orleans, but this time around Trump actually got a small bump up after the storms. Yet another hurricane has since battered Puerto Rico, though, and his critics are eagerly finding fault.
The hurricane brought winds that demolished thousands of buildings and rains that flooded most of the ones still standing with several feet of water, and it left the entire island and all of its three and half million inhabitants without electricity. Some of the hospitals and emergency personnel had generators and enough fuel to keep them functioning, but others didn’t, and an estimated 30 people died and hundreds of serious injuries were suffered and many thousands were left homeless and pretty much everyone was in need of food and potable water. Even the best of efforts wouldn’t be sufficient to the challenge, but there are arguments that this time around the efforts haven’t been the best.
The federal government began shipping supplies and rescue workers to the island just behind the storm, and Trump has boasted of the praise he’s received from the Puerto Rican governor, but the mayor of San Juan has tearfully complained it was insufficient and all the cable news networks have somehow found power to broadcast proof of the claim. Some of the deeper-digging stories tell of delays in getting much needed shipments to the island due to regulations that could be temporarily waived by executive order, such as the little-known Jones Act that prohibits foreign-flagged ships from carrying goods between United States ports, and given Trump’s enthusiasm for de-regulating anything he can that seems an oversight. According to news reports Trump is mulling signing those orders, and the military’s top hospital ship and lot more help is currently heading Puerto Rico’s way, and Trump is promising a visit to the island, but Trump’s critics will be able to note that came after a lot of bipartisan criticism and a Hillary Clinton “tweet” about sending the U.S.S. Comfort.
It didn’t help that Trump was “tweeting” five times as many “tweets” about National Football League players and the national anthem than he did about Puerto Rico, and that on one of those occasions he griped about Puerto Rico’s “broken infrastructure & massive debt,” and in another also made mention of the territorial government’s debt “to Wall Street banks which, sadly, must be dealt with,” and although he added that “Food, water and medical are top priorities — and doing well,” that did not play well in Puerto Rico. Trump bragged to the television cameras about the great reviews he was getting from the governor and other unnamed Puerto Ricans, but it only reminded the critics of Bush infamously saying “heckuva job, Brownie” to his soon-to-be-fired Federal Emergency Management Agency director.
This all came in the middle of yet another racial imbroglio that Trump has started up with the NFL and the National Basketball Association, too, so his critics are of course indignantly noting that the swarthy and Spanish-speaking population of Puerto Rico isn’t getting the same treatment as the slightly whiter and more English-speaking people of Florida and Texas. Many of the staunchest Trump supporters we know think of Puerto Ricans as the Sharks in “West Side Story,” and regard them as illegal immigrants with some convoluted legal loophole to be here, and Puerto Rico has no votes in the electoral college, so we have to admit there might be something to it.
Trump is quite right that Puerto Rico irresponsibly ran up an unsustainable debt, and did so without updating an electrical grid that would have been vulnerable to a much milder storm, and is generally almost as badly run as New Orleans and a hundred miles at sea to boot, but this hardly seems the right time to be making those arguments. The federal government has recently passed $20 trillion in debt on Trump’s watch, after all, and both Trump and his cabinet have also been profligate with the taxpayer’s dollar. Puerto Rico was enticed to borrow all that money when dollars started flowing in after the federal government briefly made it a sort of tax haven, was forced to close hospitals and schools and forestall infrastructure projects forbade it to declare bankruptcy on all that debt to Wall Street, and right now Trump shouldn’t be raising questions about he expects them to deal with it.
The good news is that massive shipments of aid and aid workers are on the way, federal dollars to get that power back on earlier than the expected six-month wait are being negotiated, that famous hospital ship is also on the way, and Trump seems to at last realize that he’s responding to an historic public relations disaster.

— Bud Norman

Disasters and Normality

Nature has gone on a destructive rage lately in our hemisphere, and now the entirety of Puerto Rico is without power, the same hurricane caused it is headed toward the U.S. Virgin Islands that had already been largely wiped out by last week’s hurricane, and at least 250 people died in the second major earthquake in Mexico City in the past two weeks. After the devastation wrought on Texas and Florida from two other unusually large and intense hurricanes this month, catastrophe is starting seem commonplace.
The media are still all over it, complete with scary radar images, heartbreaking footage of downed buildings and bandaged people, and heroic stories of rescue and sacrifice, but by now they’re making more room for yet another Republican attempt at repealing and replacing Obamacare, the numerous noteworthy developments in the “Russia” story, and whatever else President Donald Trump might be up to. All sorts of historic disasters, both natural and man-made, are quickly becoming normalized.
One reason the latest natural catastrophes have been somewhat downplayed is that they happened in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, which are part of America but not among the 50 states, and in Mexico, which is not part of America at all. Americans have always tended to take scant interest in anything that happens beyond our borders, and in the age of “America First” and a clamor for building a giant wall along the southern border that tendency is stronger than ever. The country is still obliged to pay its share of the costly recovery efforts in its territories, though, and would do itself a much needed public relations favor by chipping in something to help out the Mexicans, so some attention should be paid.
Eventually nature will settle down for a while, although probably not for so long as those 12 blissful years North America enjoyed without any hurricanes at all until lately, and at that point all the man-made disasters will retake their rightful places on the front page and the top of the hour. We’ll hope that the recent disasters are not forgotten, that a few of the reporters will stay on the long enough to scrutinize both the recovery efforts and the preparations for the inevitable next time, and that no one regards it as normal for two of America’s most populous cities to be underwater and two its territories wiped out altogether. Here’s hoping, too, that people don’t start to regard all those man-made disasters as at all normal.

— Bud Norman