Advertisements

Reality Winner and the Winners of Reality

The great British novelist Evelyn Waugh used to come up with some of fictions’ most fascinating characters and give them the most delightfully ironic names, but we doubt even he could have invented a sweet-faced multi-lingual 25-year-old Air Force veteran and outspoken liberal and alleged national security secrets leaker called Reality Winner. In the age of a reality show president and his reality show presidency, though, such an unlikely character with such an improbable name is an actual person in the news.
Winner has been arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and charged with handing a purloined National Security Agency document about Russia’s meddling in the past American presidential election, and the rest of the story is believable only because no one could have made it up. It’s a mere subplot in a broader storyline about what President Donald Trump calls “the Russia thing with Trump and Russia,” which was already darned complicated, and Winner’s tale complicates it further.
So far all we know about the Russia thing with Trump and Russia comes courtesy of people with access to information to information they have leaked to the press, and what has then been confirmed the administration’s legally plausible but not altogether reassuring claim that the information was illegally obtained. Some of the damaging and inadvertently verified information has apparently come from the feuding innermost circles of the top-most Trump administration, most of it seems to have come from the permanent government bureaucracy and the holdovers from the President Barack Obama administration that are hanging around while the Trump administration gets around to filling that remaining 78 percent of appointed positions they’ve yet to name a nominee for, and for now there’s no telling where the rest of it has come from. Except for the administrations claims that the sources are all fake and must be immediately be locked up, we’d be inclined to dismiss it all as fake news.
The Trump administration has vowed to plug all those leaks, for principled reasons of law enforcement as well as naked self-interest, but so far the only alleged leaker they’ve nabbed is the aforementioned and improbably named Winner.
In the inevitable Facebook photos of a 25-year-old she looks like one of those beguiling young hipster women who hang around The Vagabond hipster bar where we argue with a gray-ponytailed but right-wing hipster friend of ours, and from the inevitable Facebook postings she seems to share the same fashionably left-wing political opinions. Unlike most young woman of our acquaintance, though, she’s fluent in the languages of Farsi, Pashto, and Dari, only two of which we were even previously aware of, and instead of going to college she volunteered her linguistic skills to the Air Force. After an honorable discharge Winner and her hard-to-find skill set found work with a private data-analysis company that contracted with the National Security Agency, where her impeccable Air Force record earned her a high security clearance, and at that point she allegedly came across an NSA document about how the Russian meddling had extended to the point that they tried to influence some local-level vote-counting.
She’s alleged to have copied the document and passed it on to an internet news site called The Intercept, which we had also previously never heard of, and so far as we can tell that’s why she’s the first alleged leaker to be nabbed. So far even the most sympathetic press accounts don’t do her legal case much good, noting that the neophyte leaker seems to have used office copy machines with their hidden code words and made other rookie mistakes, and they unhelpfully note all those Facebook posting about her disdain for Trump, and without drawing any conclusions we’d advise she hire a better attorney than the Trump administration is able to retain these days.
Trump’s stalwart defenders will be pleased that at least one of those leakers has been allegedly nabbed, and hope that others will be deterred from releasing any further discomfiting information, but no matter Winner’s fate they might still come out losers. The charges against Winner were discovered when the Intercept news site submitted its documents for government verification, which were duly confirmed in order to bring the charges, and so far a lot of leaks from more-savvy sources have been similarly confirmed. It doesn’t amount to anything undeniable, not yet, but there’s still a torrent of leaks from the feuding innermost circles of the White House and the vast bureaucracy that’s still unmanned and all the rest of it.
Should Winner be proved guilty of the charges alleged against her she’ll deserve the prison time that entails, as far as we’re concerned, yet we’ll hope her youthful idealism will carry through the consequences. As always we’ll be hoping that reality ultimately wins, which it always does, eventually, but in these days of reality shows days there’s no telling.

— Bud Norman

Advertisements

A Soggy Independence Day

The long holiday weekend has mostly been rained out around here, and even after a mostly dry but constantly cloudy Sunday the two rivers bounding our neighborhood are still swelling over the adjacent bike paths and the Big Ditch that the city fathers carved out on the west side to keep us above water at times like these is also full, but at least the forecasters are forecasting a clear and sunny Independence Day suitable for baseball and charcoaling burgers and drinking beer al fresco and shooting off fireworks without fear of setting off a grassfire in the still soggy fields. Most folks around here and around the rest of the country will happily take the day off from paying any attention to the stormy and soggy political news of this unprecedentedly crazy quadrennial presidential year, which is good news for presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
The former First Lady and Senator and Secretary of State and formerly presumed First Woman President had another one of those disastrous news cycles that have so frequently interrupted the usual ongoing narrative about her historic and inevitable presidency, and she can only hope that most people weren’t paying any attention. First there was a well-documented and very damning report on her conduct as Secretary of State during the undeniably disastrous Benghazi incident, co-authored by our own well-liked Kansas Fourth District’s Rep. Mike Pompeo, and because it was already well-established that her conduct at every point was utterly appalling her more daring apologists were able to dismiss it was “nothing new.” Then came the news that her husband, a former two-term president and scandal-plagued disgrace in his own right, had happened to have a conversation about his grandchildren with the Attorney General who will ultimately decide if his wife is to be indicted on the very serious charges that her underlings at the Federal Bureau of Investigation are investigating, and that it happened in her private plane at a Phoenix Airport where he had been waiting around for 30 minutes before a supposed golf game that he intended to play in the 110-degree heat. Even the media that much prefer that storyline about Hillary Clinton’s historic and inevitable presidency had to admit that it looked bad and smelled fishy, and the resulting conspiracy ranged from the reliably left-wing Kathleen Parker’s worry that Bill Clinton was sabotaging his wife’s historic and otherwise inevitable presidency due to some subconscious impulse to the reliably right-wing Rush Limbaugh’s worry that Slick Willie is once again outwitting the hapless Republicans, but in any case the presumptive Democratic nominee can only hope that few people were paying attention.
While we were attempting to navigate our way through the least water-logged streets of downtown Wichita towards home on Saturday the presumptive Democratic nominee and formerly presumed First Woman President was enduring a three-and-a-half-hour interrogation by eight agents of the FBI regarding a drearily long and still on-going criminal investigation into her e-mail and “family foundation” fund-raising practices while Secretary of State, and it all looks so hopeful she can only hope that much of the country was too preoccupied to notice. Those who have been paying attention but are somehow not committed to her historic have already concluded that she’s guilty, guilty, guilty, so she’ll either be somehow indicted or suffer yet another awful news cycle of scandal when she isn’t and that private plane meeting will suddenly look all the fishier, and in this crazy quadrennial election year she might wind as the First Woman President in any case.
She’s running against the presumptive Republican nominee, after all, and the scandal-plagued Donald J. Trump managed to create a relatively insignificant “Twitter” imbroglio that allowed the media to offer another shiny distraction from the presumptive Democratic nominee’s ongoing scandals. That will be largely overlooked, too, though, and we urge that everyone take the day off from all of it and watch some baseball and charcoal some burgers and drink a beer al fresco and shoot off fireworks and enjoy what’s left of America’s stormy and soggy independence. At least it will make it all the harder to burn it to the ground, as almost every seems intent on doing.

— Bud Norman

On the Cheering in the Press Box

Sports was about the only beat we never covered during our many years of toil for the local newspaper, but there was one occasion many basketball seasons ago when the Wichita State University Wheatshockers and the University of Kansas Jayhawks and the Kansas State University Wildcats all made the men’s collegiate tournament, and the Lady Jayhawks and Lady Wildcats qualified for the women’s contest, and the sports staff was stretched so thin that even we wound up with some swell court side seats and free eats and drinks and the fanciest hotel rooms of Lincoln, Neb., and all the other media perquisites for the opening two rounds. One of the games involved teams our readers had no interest in and we were not obliged to write about — we still somehow recall it was the Vanderbilt University Commodores pitted against the Pittsburgh University Panthers — but it proved such a compelling scrap that when a skinny young Commodore shooting guard heaved a half-court shot at the buzzer to send his underdog team into overtime we raised our arms and said something to the effect of “wow.” The more seasoned sportswriter we were assisting was visibly embarrassed by such an emotional outburst, and he leaned over to sternly remind us of the old journalistic dictum that “There’s no cheering in the press box.”
That long-ago hard-learned lesson was brought to mind as we read up on a more recent sporting event, the Democratic Party’s first televised presidential debate, where the reportorial young whippersnappers were violating that once ironclad rule with impunity. When self-described socialist and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders declined to make political hay of rival candidate and former First Lady and Senator and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s ongoing private e-mail scandal, and instead snarled that he was sick of hearing about it, which was the event’s equivalent of a skinny underdog heaving a half-court buzzer beater to tie the game, most of  the press room reportedly responded with unembarrassed cheer. Reporter Dave Ruben was so unabashed about it he immediately “tweeted” how “The entire press room just exploded when Bernie said that about Hillary’s e-mails,” another unapologetic “tweet” by his colleague Hunter Walker confirmed “Audible clapping and laughter in the press room after Bernie Sanders’ ‘enough of the e-mails moment,'” and given our long familiarity with the press we have no doubt of it. There might well have been a few more seasoned political sportswriters around who were embarrassed by the outburst, and they might even have offered some sternly glaring reproach, but so far as we can tell none have bothered to deny it happened.
It is hard to say, we must admit, who those cheerers in the press box were cheering for. They could have been rooting for Clinton, who had just been handed the unexpected gift of her most threatening rival taking her most troublesome scandal out of the Democratic primary debate, or they could have been celebrating Sanders, who got all the thunderous applause and came off looking rather gallant to Democratic eyes and seems to have made more hay among his party’s faithful than he ever could have by attacking a female rival before a Democratic audience, or they might have been cheering against themselves, who have lately been obliged to report on the continuing revelations about Clinton’s arguably illegal and inarguably national-security-endangering and obviously-intended-to-cover-up-embarrassing-stuff e-mail practices when they’d much rather be digging into some Republican’s parking tickets or some other Republican’s sensible pronouncements about the inadvisability of electing a Muslim president at this point in time. In any case, our conservative temperament and old school sensibilities are still embarrassed by the cheering in the press box.
As with so many other once iron-clad rules, there were sound reasons for the prohibition on cheering in the press box. When you’re cheering you’re not watching, for one thing, and as the late and great baseball player Yogi Berra once explained, “You can observe a lot by watching.” Whatever portion of those press box cheerers who were rooting for Clinton were probably too preoccupied to observe that Sanders had received the most thunderous applause and came off looking very gallant and confirmed to his most loyal supporters that he’s more concerned with their socialist revolution than any fellow Democrats’ trustworthiness. Those cheering for Sanders did so while neglecting to observe that he actually had just taken her most troublesome scandal out of the primary debate. As for those reporters who were cheering against themselves in hopes they’d at last be freed to write about Republican perfidy, they likely enjoyed their momentary forgetfulness that Clinton’s e-mail scandal is still a bigger deal to most of their readers than some Republican candidate’s most recent misconstrued statement and that they’re still stuck with it through at least several more news cycles of Congressional hearings and criminal investigations and the latest leaks from highly placed administration sources.
The obvious obverse of the old journalistic rule about cheering in the press box is that there’s no booing in the press box, and we think our few friends in the conservative media would do well to comply. Most of the right-wing commentariat seems to have concluded that Sanders declined an opportunity for a devastating attack, and Clinton’s more polished performance thus won the day and made her nomination once again inevitable, but we think they fail to notice that by the very different rules of Democratic politics Sanders seems to have gotten the best of it. Aside from the gallantry and polite insouciance about official misconduct of his gift to Clinton, Sanders’ lack of polish probably appealed to a yearning for even the most rough-hewn authenticity that both parties suddenly seem to have.
Striving to be appropriately stoic here in our self-appointed Internet press box, we observe that the game is still in play. Although we’re not so dispassionate about the contest as we were when the Commodores and Panthers squared off in that memorable game of hoops, we are about equally predisposed to Clinton and Sanders, and we’re trying to follow the game according to these convoluted Democratic rules, so we consider ourselves more or less objective, and to further mix the sports metaphors a bit with boxing we’ll score the round to Sanders. Whether this is something we should cheer or boo remains to be seen, as it depends entirely on which of them proves more palatable to the public and which of the political neophytes or more stridently anti-establishment office holders the Republicans might choose to put against either of these horrible people, so we’ll keep following the game. There will be some cheering and booing, of course, and at times one can’t help raising his arms and saying some to the effect of “wow,” but we’ll try to do that only only when justified by our more dispassionate observations. In the meantime we note that the same Democratic debate press box that cheered for either Clinton or Sanders or against themselves largely did not rise for the national anthem. They were in another room, which might mitigate the seeming disrespect, but it does seem an odd contrast to their more unrestrained enthusiasm for Clinton or Sanders or their own self-loathing.
We always enjoy watching the most seasoned of the local sportswriters at his court side and free-eats and perquisite-laden seat at the ‘Shocker games whenever we get the chance to attend. He always looks so bored, even when a ‘Shocker is heaving a buzzer-beating half-court shot to send in the game into overtime, and although he always, writes it up  with the partisan perspective that his readership expects he rarely neglects to mention the big moment that occurred when everyone was too busy cheering or booing  to notice. He stands for the national anthem, too, and although he also looks understandably bored during that we give him credit for the gesture. There’s something to be said for the old school, and it is always good to know which side the writer is on.

— Bud Norman

A Clinton Scandal That Somehow Matters

After all the scandals the Clintons have survived, it’s been interesting to see that the latest mess regarding Hillary Clinton’s e-mails seems to be doing real damage to her presidential campaign. The press has been brutal, even if it is still polite enough to describe the scandal as being about her e-mail server rather than her, and ever since the story broke her poll numbers have been plummeting. Which leads one to wonder why this particular scandal is so much more damaging than all the others.
It is a serious matter, of course, with her use of a private rather than government e-mail system being apparently in violation of law, likely jeopardizing national security by allowing top-secret information to be easily obtained by hostile foreign governments, and the only plausible explanation being her desire to keep her public acts from public scrutiny, but all those other scandals that the Clintons somehow survived were also serious matters. Going all the way back to her early days in the public eye there was the suspicious killing she made in the cattle futures market, the White House travel office scandal, where Hillary Clinton trumped up criminal charges against an obviously innocent public servant in order to enrich some Hollywood pals, those subpoenaed Rose Law Firm records that ultimately turned up in her closet, her delusional claim that the rumors of her husband’s infidelity were a “vast right-wing conspiracy” and her war on the women who insisted otherwise. Her brief time as a Senator was largely untainted by scandal but not marked by any significant accomplishments, and her inglorious tenure as Secretary of State involved suspicious donations to her family’s suspicious charity by suspicious foreign governments and a disastrous Libyan war that wound up with four Americans dead in a terror attack that she falsely blamed on an obscure filmmaker who wound in prison for exercising his First Amendment rights. Why a hard-to-follow story about her e-mail accounts should be more damaging is hard to explain.
Our guess is that it’s the proverbial straw the broke the camel’s back, the story that at long last confirmed all the suspicions that had accumulated over the past 25 years of previously underplayed scandals, and an excuse for anxious Democrats to start seeking more electable alternatives. So far the best they can come up with is Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Al Gore, present Vice President Joe Biden, and there’s even talk of past failed nominee and current Secretary of State John Kerry, who is responsible for that Iran nuclear bomb deal that ever sensible American hates, but that only demonstrates how very damaged the Clinton candidacy is. The press might relent once it realizes that the Clinton campaign is still well positioned to win the Democratic nomination, but until then we expect they’ll continue to pile on an Clinton’s poll numbers will continue to plummet.

— Bud Norman

The Perfect Scandal

Dennis Hastert was such a forgettable Speaker of the House that we had completely forgotten about him, but we have lately been reminded of his existence by all the gleeful news reports about his indictment by a federal grand jury. He’s charged with lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation about a series of relatively small bank withdrawals, which is not particularly scandalous by Washington standards and raises the question of why the government is empowered to ask people nosy questions about relatively small bank withdrawals in the first place, but the inevitable unlawful leaks about the case have claimed the withdrawals were used to hush a sexual relationship with a young male who had been a student of Hastert’s during his days as a high school teacher and wrestling coach, which explains all the gleefulness of the press.
Hastert is a Republican, and a self-proclaimed “traditional family values” Republican with his name on a building at a Christian college at that, so the irony is far too delicious for the press to resist. The hypocrisy of Democrats who rail against income inequality while enriching themselves through government service to the one percentile, or decry the Republican “war on women” while rallying around the enabling wife of a serial sexual harasser, is more easily ignored when there’s a story like this afoot. There are still scores to be settled from the impeachment charges that were filed during Hastert’s speakership against President Bill Clinton after he lied under oath about his heterosexual sex scandals, too, and with Hastert having acquired the job after two Republican predecessors were found to have cheated on their wives there’s yet more ammunition for the old argument that there’s no longer any sense in expecting our leaders to hew to a higher standard of sexual conduct and that we should all just go ahead and do it in the road. Given the facts as they have been established thus far, and their usefulness for a variety of Democratic narratives, we expect the Hastert story should push the Islamic State, Hillary Clinton’s slush fund foundation, the recently shrinking economy, and everything else of greater public importance off the front pages for weeks to come.
Still, there’s no denying it does seem a very tawdry affair. Aside from the decades-old but still-sickening allegations of sexual exploitation of a student, which are bad enough, there’s also the matter of how a former high school teacher turned public servant had enough money on hand to pay the $1.7 million in blackmail that Hastert is alleged to have paid. Much of Hastert’s wealth is said to have come from real estate deals, including properties whose value was increased by laws passed during his speakership, and the rest has come from a lucrative lobbying career commenced shortly after he left Congress. Even those questions about why the government is empowered to ask people nosy questions about relatively small bank withdrawals are answered by the Patriot Act that Hastert helped to enact. If the facts as they have been established thus far prove true, Hastert will richly deserve the ignominy that is currently being heaped on him.
Nor is there much that even a die-hard Republican can muster in his defense. We were surprised to re-learn that Hastert was the longest-serving Speaker of the House in history, but one can liken that to the record-setting yet forgettable reign of Larry Holmes as world heavyweight champion, who remains overshadowed by his flamboyant predecessor Muhammad Ali and memorably thuggish successor Mike Tyson, just as Hastert is less well-remembered than his pugnacious and effective predecessor Newt Gingrich and his “first woman” and downright awful successor Nancy Pelosi. Chosen for his dull personality and happy talk of bipartisanship and presumably scandal-free past, Hastert spent his time in power going along with Clinton and then helping George W. Bush push through that Medicare drug plan and the rest of his big government heresies, and was otherwise so good at avoiding controversy that even such news junkies as ourselves had completely forgotten him.
One might note that a recent rash of underplayed stories about sexual exploitation of students by teachers mostly involve women educators in public schools, and that by up-to-date standards an emphasis on cases such as Hastert’s alleged behavior should be considered heteronormative, and that tawdry tales of lucrative careers in public service are quite bipartisan, with the presumptive Democratic nominee being a prime example, and that Republican presidential contender Sen. Rand Paul is currently being pilloried in the press for opposing repeal of the Patriot Act in defiance of a Democratic president who now likes all of the governmental powers it endows, and that the Patriot Act was intended to target terrorists rather people with other reasons for making relatively small bank withdrawals, and that the presumptive Democratic nominee’s husband has been a frequent flyer on the private jet of a known pedophile,  and that everyone isn’t cheating on a spouse and higher standards of conduct should still be expected from public officials regardless of their party affiliation, but it will be of no use. Unless new exculpatory facts unexpectedly emerge, Hastert has handed the Democrats’ media allies an extraordinary gift, and Republicans can only hope that readers will notice the other sickening facts that somehow make it onto the inside pages of your local newspaper.

— Bud Norman

Stephanopoulos and an Unsurprising Scandal

As much as we relish a good scandal, they rarely tell us anything we didn’t already know about the people involved. Consider the current contretemps concerning George Stephanopoulos of the American Broadcasting Company and his failure to disclose the $75,000 contribution he made to the Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton Foundation. It seems to be a big deal because it makes Stephanopoulos look like a partisan hack rather than the objective journalist he claims to be, and the sleazy sort who won’t disclose his conflicts of interests, but none of that will be surprising to anyone who’s paid attention to his career.
Stephanopoulos in usually described as a “former political advisor to President Bill Clinton” but is better remembered as the guy in the Clinton “War Room” who was always ordering in the napalm strikes, and he’s continued in the same role ever since joining the ABC news division. His critics are charging that the undisclosed $75,000 contributions to his old employer’s favorite charity sheds new light on his recent combative interview with the author of a book exposing the corruption of that same foundation, in which Stephanopoulos asserted that his network colleagues could find no “shred of evidence” to support the book’s claims and alleged that the author was unbelievable due to his past association with the George W. Bush administration, and their point is well taken. Still, even before the revelations about Stephanopoulos’ rather hefty contributions to the Clintons the interview was widely ridiculed for its assertion that there was nothing of note in a book that had already been largely corroborated by The New York Times and The Washington Post, as well as the ridiculous spectacle of Stephanopoulos accusing anybody of being a partisan hack. The estimable journalist Byron York even took the occasion to remind readers of a column dating way back to 1996 when Stephanopoulous took the ABC job that predicted pretty everything that has transpired since.
The latest scandal should be helpful in some ways, nonetheless. A few savvy Republicans have taken the opportunity to decline interviews with ABC news, and pretty much all of them have come to the common sense conclusion that Stephanopolous shouldn’t be invited to moderate any more of they party’s primary debates, although they should have figured it out last time around when he kept pressing all the candidates with impossibly hypothetical questions about contraception that had no point but to further the Democrats’ planned campaign theme that the Republicans were waging a “war on women.” The widespread coverage of Stephanopoulous’ contributions and the general acknowledgement that it is indeed a scandal, along with the widespread coverage of the shady nature of that foundation he contributing to, should further erode the Clintons’ popularity, although that should have vanished long ago due to their countless scandals. A sort of apology has been no doubt painfully extracted from Stephanopoulos, which provides some satisfaction, although ABC has generously accepted it and seems ready to move on to the next biased report.
There’s also a faint hope that more people will stop regarding Stephanopoulos’ journalism as anything but partisan political hackery, although we expect that much of what’s left of ABC’s viewership will mind that at all.

— Bud Norman

Of Teapot Dome, Watergate, and Uranium

Another day, another Clinton scandal, and one has to wonder how many it will take before Hillary Clinton’s presidency stops being inevitable.
The latest blow comes from The New York Times, which is nobody’s idea of a vast right-wing conspirator, and it’s a doozy. This one is about the Clinton family’s already scandal-plagued foundation raking in tens of millions of dollars on a deal with a Canadian company that acquired large holdings of American uranium and wound up selling them to the Russians and allowing Pravda to boast of their corner on the market for  a scarce resource crucial to America’s economic and national security interests, including $500,000 paid by a shady Russian bank for a speech that former President Bill Clinton gave praising the human rights record of Kazakhstan, another unsavory human rights-crushing dictatorship figuring in the sordid story, and the worrisome possibility that Russia might toss in some uranium along with the sophisticated anti-aircraft systems that it’s currently providing Iran, with whom the administration is currently negotiating a deal to accommodate and legitimize its nuclear power ambitions, or that the Russians might deny the uranium to the American nuclear energy industry that provides a fifth of our electricity, and the rather unsettling detail that it was all given official approval by a State Department run by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The New York Times is required by journalistic convention to give the Clintons and their foundation a chance to downplay the matter, most of which has already been disproved, and none of which is the least bit convincing, but at this point even the most polite press no longer feel obliged to pretend that it isn’t a big deal. Any readers old enough to have been sentient during the good old days before Watergate will recall that headline writers used to affix the suffice “Dome” rather than “Gate” to any scandal du jour, which every schoolboy understood was a reference to the shocking “Teapot Dome Scandal” in which some undeniably Republican Warren G. Harding administration officials back in the celluloid collar days enriched themselves by accepting money from an American company that wanted its hands on some American oil resources, but even that gold-standard scandal didn’t entail hostile foreign powers or the possibility of the lights going out in a fifth of the country or Tel Aviv being blown to bit with American resources. There are now 25 years worth of Clinton scandals, which has had a cumulative effect on the family’s reputation no matter how strenuously the press has previously tried to downplay each of them, and all of which is dismissed by the Clinton apologists as “old news,” but even the most polite press now seem to have reached the limits of their patience.
The Clintons are no doubt surprised that anyone should be troubled their multi-million dollar deal-making, given the previous politeness of the press, and they had every reason to expect that the likes of The New York Times would chastise any Hoover Institution-affiliated right-wing nutcase who uncovered such embarrassing facts as a sexist reactionary. We admit to some surprise our right-wing nutcase selves, even if we did always hold out hope that even Democrats would realize sooner rather than later that Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy is a very, very bad idea. Our optimism always winds up dampened, though, and this time it’s that the Democrats seem less upset by Clinton’s outright corruption and incompetence and complete lack of any accomplishments than by her occasional heresies from left-wing lunacy. We can’t think of any Clinton heresies from left-wing lunacy, and we note that the multi-millionaire deal-maker is running as a Chipotle-patronizing regular American populist and that after 25 years of trashing the women her cad husband has victimized is billing herself as the standard-bearer of the feminist movement, but if Democrats are holding out for a faux-Indian millionaire-consultant purist such as Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren or an unabashed socialist such as Vermont Rep. Bernie Sanders or some guitar-playing unknown such who turned his reliably blue Democratic state over to the Republicans such as former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley we won’t mind if they use the corruption and incompetence and lack of accomplishment as an excuse.

Of course, the Republicans could still lose to either Clinton or some slightly-less corrupt yet more purely left-wing lunatic. Eventually the press will discover an unpaid parking ticket or a family vacation with the dog on the car roof in the Republican candidate’s past, or the time he winced at a same-sex kiss scene during an episode of “Glee,” and making tens of millions on a deal that comprised America’s economy and national security will pale in comparison. Still, we’re glad that almost no one outside the Clinton family and their circle of business associates seems very enthused about her inevitability.

— Bud Norman

In Memoriam, Clyde Suckfinger

Today is Memorial Day, and we plan to charcoal some meat, drink a beer, and fly our Kansas flag from the front porch. In keeping with our holiday custom, we will also spend the day missing Jerry Clark.
Clark, who was also known as Clyde Suckfinger and Chief Two Toes, was a good friend from way back in our newspaper days. When we broke into the newly computerized newspaper racket at 19-years-old as glorified copy boys he was an aging photographer who’d been shooting since the days of those massive accordion-lens cameras with the searchlight-sized flash bulbs, but we hit if off immediately. He liked that we had been born in Manila in the Philippines while our father flew single-engine prop planes there to play of his AF-ROTC debt, for same reason, and that we were the last-ever hires for the old Wichita Beacon where he had started. The twenty-something college grads who then dominated the reporting ranks were often embarrassed to have him along on assignments, with his rumpled suits and conspicuously ugly shoes and his ties marked with holes from the chemicals that splattered around in the dark room, not to mention his ribald sense of humor and uncomfortable candor and unabashed Kansasness, so we naturally regarded him as the coolest cat at the paper. At every opportunity we’d hang out with him in the darkroom or the smokers’ lounge and swap jokes, the dirtier the better, and he’d tell stories of the old days when the reporters wore fedoras and shouted “get me re-write” into candlestick phones and everything was in glorious black-and-white. Most of the stories were funny, often risqué, and always infused with a necessary cynicism about the business he was in, but he’d still get choked up at the recollection of a murder or some other grisly crime scene he’d rushed to, or the sorry state of the slums he covered, or the tornado that wiped out the tiny town of Udall just south of Wichita.
The photographs Jerry took of the aftermath of that tornado were reproduced around the world and won him a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize, but you had to get to know him a while before he’d tell you about that, or anything else he’d done that was worth bragging on. Eventually we got to know him well enough to hear about his Great Depression boyhood in an Atchison orphanage, where all the kids rooted for the Detroit Tigers because the team was rough and ugly and all the town kids with parents rooted for the more respectable St. Louis Cardinals, and how he spent his sixteenth year in a sort of indentured servitude to a bakery in Hutchinson. When he turned 17 years old Jerry Clark was inducted into the Army and shipped off to the Pacific to fight a war, and after a while he even talked about that.
One hot summer day Jerry seemed less than his usual ebullient self, and we assumed it was because the young fools from out of town who were running the paper had pulled him off the street and relegated him to darkroom duty, but he scoffed at the idea and explained it was the anniversary of the worst day of his war. He told how a landing craft had stopped too far ashore of one of the Pacific Islands he was obliged to invade, and that he had gone charging out that deployed door and started sinking deep into the ocan under the weight of his helmet and boots and gun and pack. He managed to jettison all the gear and make his way to the beach, but found himself in the middle of battle without helmet or boots or gun or pack, and had to lie still in a shallow hole for a full day as bullets whizzed overhead and mortar fire landed close enough to spray sand on to his back. He had re-lived that experience on the same day every year since, he said, and nothing the young fools from out of town who were running the paper could do would be quite so bad. On another occasion he told of us his regular assignment to leap into enemy foxholes and personally dispatch the soldiers there to prevent explosive charges from being magnetized to the bottoms of the tanks that passed over. He preferred to talk about the time he got to see a zoot-suited Cab Calloway play swing music during a leave, or the time he was in the boxing ring with Joe Louis, who served as a referee during a morale-boosting tour of the training camp where he boxed in a lightweight tournament, or the friend and fellow soldier who contracted a particularly amusing case of testicular elephantiasis from a Singapore prostitute, but it was clear that he had a lot of bad days in the war.
We’ve forgotten how Jerry Clark came to be known as Clyde Suckfinger, although we vaguely recall that it couldn’t be recounted in such a respectable publication as this in any case, but we clearly remember how he came to be known as Chief Two Toes. One day in the early ’90s Jerry took ill and was taken to the Veterans Administration, where we found him lying in bed with his feet sticking out of the blankets. One foot had only the big toe and the pinkie toe, and when he caught us looking he told how the missing digits had been blown off by the Japanese Imperial Army during the Battle of Manila. He gave us the full story, which is still troubling to remember and far too gruesome to recount here, but suffice to say that it ended with him spending two years in a Honolulu hospital recovering from his wounds. He told us that one of the poor fellows in the next bed hadn’t been so lucky, and when he passed away Jerry was given possession of the man’s camera and spent the rest of recuperation figuring out how to use the thing, so when he was eventually shipped back to Kansas he got off the train at Wichita’s downtown Union Station and walked a few blocks to the Wichita Beacon where he swore to the dubious editors that he knew how to use a camera. That’s how he came to be a newspaperman, and Jerry regarded it as one of the lucky breaks he’d had in life. Those Honolulu doctors never did get all the Japanese shrapnel out of his legs, though, which was why he was back in the hospital all those years later. The war was still trying to kill him, he said, and he was still determined that it wouldn’t.
Jerry spent the rest of his career in the dark room, where he always said he was doing “the three and the five,” which alludes to an old Army joke that cannot be told in polite company such as this, and was forced out before he wanted by the young fools from out of town who were running the paper. At his retirement party the Vietnam vet who was then the photography editor made sure everyone got a look at Jerry’s Purple Heart, along many of the remarkably good shots Jerry had taken over the years, and even the most callow twenty-something reporters were unsettled by how shabbily he’d been treated. We like think he got his revenge with a few good years of retirement, savoring the company of his longtime wife and a son who’d gone off to sea with the Navy, indulging in a variety of hobbies that did not involve photography or newspapers, and we are happy to say he was always in high spirits and low-brow humor when we’d see him.
Jerry died several years back in a seizure-induced automobile accident, and from what we heard that Japanese shrapnel and its ongoing effect on his bloodstream might have had something to do with it. The war finally killed him, but it’s a testament to the toughness and stubbornness and Kansasness of our friend that it took about 50 years. That it never stopped the hearty laughs he’d get from a dirty joke or the pride he took in his son’s military service or the pain he felt from the ordinary sufferings of his fellow human beings was all the more remarkable. He’d be annoyed to hearing us saying so, and quick to insist that he was no different from any of those other hard luck sons of bitches who had the historical misfortune to be called on to don the uniform at a time of war, so we’ll take a moment to day the miss the rest of them as well. We still miss Jerry, and the America he exemplified for us, and Memorial Day is an annual reminder.
This year the holiday is accompanied by newspaper accounts of gross mismanagement and substandard care at Veterans Administration hospitals such as the one where we visited our friend and discovered his missing toes. The same VA used to send Jerry two pars of those conspicuously ugly shoes every years, with one featuring a personalized padding to fill the space of those missing toes, which he also regarded as a lucky break, and it is infuriating to hear that they’ve failed so many of the men and women who made the same sorts of sacrifices and suffered the same lingering effects of war as our friend. We read that the President of the United States was 13 minutes late to a press conference to announced that he’s awaiting some bureaucrat’s report before being “madder than hell” about it, and that’s standing by the Secretary who has presided over the past five and a half years of this outrage, and the decline from the days of Jerry Clark seems depressingly apparent.
By all means enjoy some charcoaled meat and a beer today, and fly a flag from your front porch, if the weather perm is, but come tomorrow be resolved to inset that we do better by the likes of Jerry Clark. Not just in the VA hospitals, but everywhere in America where that hard luck son of a bitch toughness and unabashed Kansansness is lacking.

— Bud Norman

The Good Ol’ Days of Media

The old media are dying, and Tina Brown mourns their passing. That she is one of the causes of the death of old media, and another reason to celebrate it, seems not to have occurred to her.
For those of you who are enviably unaware of Tina Brown, she used to be a big deal in the old media. After making a name for herself in the rough-and-tumble Fleet Street journalism of her native England, she emigrated to the United States in the ’80s to edit Vanity Fair and became as notable a celebrity as any of the rich and famous subjects of that plutographic magazine’s posterior-kissing stories. In the early ’90s she took control of The New Yorker, where she cured that one-venerable publication’s stodgy reputation for literary excellence with an infusion of Vanity Fair-style frivolousness. The resulting revival of The New Yorker’s fortunes made her such a sensation that she signed a lucrative deal with Miramax Films to become a multi-media mogul, which resulted in the short-lived and utterly forgettable Talk Magazine and a boutique publishing house that released titles by the likes of Queen Noor of Jordan and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright of Clintonland. Since then she’s started The Daily Beast, which is one of the internet’s more widely read sites but a mere internet site nonetheless, and when the site bought comatose Newsweek for the bargain basement price of $1 she wound up as editor of that. Now she’s written a whopper of an editorial for The Daily Beast about the media in wake of the sex scandal involving President Bill Clinton and intern Monica Lewinsky, and the unsurprising gist of it is that she’s nostalgic for the good old days when she was a big deal.
The editorial is well worth reading, as it is a masterpiece of self-serving snarkiness and a perfectly illustrative example of what is really killing off the old media. She opens with worries that Lewinsky’s recent reappearance in the news “plunges us straight back into the frothing world of ’90s gossip,” as if she had not become rich and famous in that same frothing world, but bravely marches into her subject because “It may be painful but it answers so many questions about today’s media.” The pain apparently derives from having to recall l’affaire Lewinsky, with its “appalling cast of tabloid gargoyles who drove the scandal.” She doesn’t mean the serial sexual predator who used his position as President of the United States to exploit a starry-eyed and dim-witted twenty-something in his employ, but rather those nasty people who told the truth about it. Even after all these years Brown feels obliged to heap scorn on Linda Tripp, who was dragged into the scandal because she had the misfortune to befriend Lewinsky, and is described by Brown as a “treacherous thatched-roof-haired drag-queen” with “dress-for-success shoulder pads. Conservative commentator and activist Lucianne Goldberg gets similarly snooty treatment, being described as a “cackling, fact-lacking hack.” Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr, who did the job he was given by Congress all too diligently, is explained as a “mealy-mouthed Pharisee.” The greatest object of Brown’s scorn, however, is the pioneering internet journalist who broke the Lewinsky scandal with a post about how Newsweek had nailed down the story but declined to run it. “Hitting ‘send’ on each new revelation that no one else would publish, the solitary, perfectly named Matt Drudge,” is how Brown introduces the real villain of her piece, “operating in pallid obsession out of his sock-like apartment in Miami.”
None of Brown’s “tabloid gargoyles” were using the Oval Office of the White House to do cigar tricks with a young woman who would soon be subjected to their politics of personal destruction, nor were they guilty of the tawdry and boorish behavior by the president that soon were revealed in the light of the Lewinsky investigation, but Brown somehow faults them for “driving” the scandal. There would have been no scandal to drive if Clinton had acted as a responsible married president rather than a lecherous reprobate, but Brown apparently finds that more forgivable than telling the truth about a politician with the correct opinions and right party affiliation. What’s most unforgivable, in Brown’s telling of the saga, is that “The press was at the height of its power when the Monica story began, and Drudge was its underbelly. The ascendant media that looked down on him has been pretty much destroyed.”
This is a bad thing, Brown explains because it is “how the death of privacy started.” She’s not referring to the National Security Agency’s snooping into every American’s phone records, or the mysteriously unsealed divorce records of candidates who challenge Barack Obama or formerly anonymous plumbers who ask him questions that provoke controversial answers, or the Internal Revenue Service’s illegal interest in the donors who contribute to causes the president dislikes, or any of the other troubling concerns about privacy that have nothing whatsoever to do with conservative journalism, but rather the outrageous idea that a president can’t exploit an intern without having to read about it on some arriviste web site. Perhaps Brown would hold steadfast to the same conviction that what happens inside the Oval Office isn’t a legitimate matter of public interest even when a Republican occupies it, but there is reason for doubt. We can’t recall Brown complaining about the Special Prosecutor who spent millions hunting for imaginary witches in the phony-baloney Valerie Plame investigation that dogged the Bush administration and found nothing but a small fish named “Scooter” telling an inconsequential lie about a scandal that didn’t happen in the first place, and we can’t imagine her ever employing such mean-girl insults against any women on her side of the political divide no matter how thatched-roof-haired or cackling they might be.
So long as it’s acceptable to speculate in print about others’ motives, we’ll venture that Brown is mostly miffed that the once-ascendant media that are still looking down their patrician noses at the upstarts have indeed pretty much been destroyed. For Brown, who enjoyed considerable prestige, power, and an unequal income in the ancien regime, it must be a bitter disappointment to see the likes of Matt Drudge with millions more readers and vastly greater power to make the public aware of a story. That these uncouth sorts who would have never besmirched the pages of Vanity Fair or The New Yorker during Brown’s reign are using that usurped power to expose facts that don’t serve Brown’s preferred politics is surely all the more galling. Lewinsky made her comeback in Vanity Fair, the folks who bought Newsweek for a dollar are now looking to sell it at all, the only television news organization that concerns itself with Democratic scandals is trouncing the competition in the ratings war, and obscure internet sites from obscure places such as Wichita, Kansas, are snearing back at Brown, and that has to hurt as well. Ah, for the good old days of monopoly media and unchallenged opinion-making power when a president could exploit an intern in the Oval Office or lie about a terrorist attack without any pesky questions being asked.
We can well understand such nostalgia, as we were working for a mid-sized newspaper back in the days after every town had been reduced to one daily and before talk radio and the internet and new means of classified advertising changed everything. The money was good, better than in most of the industries that the editorialists railed against for their corporate greed, and there was a satisfying sense of power in hearing the fear in a politician’s voice when you called up with a good question, and there was an even more seductive sense of power in knowing that anyone who wanted to know where the Kansas City Royals stood in the American League Western Division standings or the latest quote on that hot stock they bought or which of their neighbors had recently been arrested had to pony 50 cents for the latest copy of whatever we decided to print. For all their cocksure predictions about the dire future that others were inflicting on the world the titans of journalism never saw the cataclysm that was coming in their own industry, and most still refuse to acknowledge it even as they preside over the death throes of the once-grand institutions they somehow inherited. Technological change was a contributing factor, but just as important was a failure by those titans of journalism to recognize that they could no longer suppress any facts that were not to their liking.
That was another change in journalism, and one that the new technology was required to fix. In an era prior to Tina Brown the solitary fellow in the sock-like apartment putting out each new revelation that no one else would publish was a heroic figure than an object of ridicule, and Drudge would have been considered fitting because of the drudgery that is always involved in getting at the truth. That was an era when journalism was expected to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” an old cliché that journalists still spout when they’ve had a few too many to realize how very ridiculous it now sounds, and we doubt that Tina Brown would have found it any more comfortable than these changing times.

— Bud Norman