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News and Fake News and What’s in Between

The long war between President Donald Trump and certain members of the news media has lately escalated, and from our perspective on the sidelines we can’t see anyone coming out a winner.
Trump’s tormentors at the Cable News Network took a hard hit this week when they were obliged to retract a story that tied longtime Trump business associate Anthony Scaramucci to a federal investigation of the Russian Direct Investment Fund. The story had only a single anonymous and other journalistic flaws that should have been obvious to the most cub reporter, proved to be utterly wrong, and can reasonably be attributed to the network’s unabashed zeal to air stories damaging to the Trump administration, so score one for Trump. Of course the president “tweeted” some about gloating about it, but of course he overplayed his hand by “tweeting” the non sequitur that everything else CNN and all of his other media tormentors have ever reported is therefor also wrong.
To its credit CNN did frankly acknowledge the error and retract the story, apologize profusely, then accept the resignations of three journalists including a Pulitzer Prize winner recently hired away from The New York Times. That inspires more confidence than Trump’s longstanding and clearly stated never-apologize-and-never-retract policy regarding his far more frequent statements that are anonymously sourced and utterly wrong, which a chastened CNN is for now not mentioning but has been widely remarked on in all those other Trump-tormenting media, and despite all the internet glee that CNN has been “destroyed” we expect they’ll stick around at least as long as Trump does.
CNN also got “stung” by the “sting” journalism of an independent filmmaker named James O’Keefe and his Project Veritas outfit, which caught a CNN producer on hidden camera describing his network’s coverage of the Russia thing with Trump and Russia with a barnyard epithet, but we expect that won’t prove much more than mosquito bite. O’Keefe is a protege of the late conservative provocateur Stephen Breitbart, who gave birth to the eponymous Breitbart.com internet news site where future Trump consigliere Stephen Bannon later became editor-in-chief, and although he once did a true public service by bringing down the notorious community-organizing racket called ACORN with a hilarious hidden camera video of them offering financial advice for his scam pimping business, he hasn’t scored any wins in a while. He was convicted of a felony for using a false identity to the infiltrate the offices of a Democratic Senator for some story or another, it turned out those hilariously over-the-top ’70s-blaxploitation pimp costumes he’d worn to the ACORN offices were an editing trick, and he’s generally engaged in the sort of journalistic trickery that no true conservative would tolerate if any of those Trump-tormenting outlets dared such a thing.
Still, Trump’s spokespeople in his administration and certain parts of the media tried to make the best of it. Official White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that she couldn’t vouch for the video’s accuracy but nonetheless urged everyone in the country to watch it, which strikes us as a damned odd thing for an official White House spokeswoman to say, and all the right-wing radio we heard on our drive time was endlessly replaying the video. After 36 years or more in the biz we think ourselves more savvy than most, so we don’t doubt the the tape’s accuracy but have to roll our eyes at its significance. As O’Keefe is obliged to admit, all he has here is one of countless CNN editors griping that his bureau’s stories aren’t getting as much airtime as as the Washington bureau’s stories, and although he’s the editor of the health bureau he’s based in Atlanta some reason and all those juicy and time-consuming stories about the health care debate also seem to be coming out of the Washington bureau, so his gripes are hardly newsworthy.
After 36 years or so of experience with various news organizations we can tell you there’s always someone swimming against the collective consensus, usually us, and we’ll score a point to CNN that they didn’t fire the guy and instead endorsed his right to a dissenting opinion. Back in our newspaper days we often butted heads with our executive editor, who had all sorts of crazy liberal notions, but we admired the way he butted heads with his corporate bosses, and he gave us the same respect he expected from his much higher-up bosses, and for the most part it kept us all honest.
There seems to be a stronger consensus at all those right wing talk radio shows and the rest of the Trump-friendly media, and we can’t say it’s serving them well. The formerly formidable Rush Limbaugh gloated that one of the fired CNN reporters as Thomas Frank, who had some years ago written a controversial and best-selling jeremiad called wither “What’s The Matter With Kansas” or “What’s Wrong With Kansas,” with Limbaugh not being quite sure, and later in his jeremiad against “fake news” had to retract and apologize for the inaccurate claim that it was the same Thomas Frank. Sean Hannity predicted the “collapse” of CNN based on the O’Keefe tape and the retraction about his friend Scaramucci, but his cable network is currently in third place, and has recently retracted that weird conspiracy theory he’d been touting about how the Russians had nothing to with the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s e-mails. He also wondered why a White House press pass had been issued to a reporter who challenged Sanders’ “inflammatory” attacks on the press, describing him as a “contributor to Playboy,” even though the fellow is also the executive editor of two newspapers, and William F. Buckley was also once a contributor to Playboy, and he never griped that the nutcase conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, whose reputation has Trump has praised along with The National Enquirer, was also granted credentials.. We think Hannity could also do with some dissenting opinions at the morning news budget meetings.
Trump’s tormentors could do with some more of that, too. All of the media organizations we’ve dealt with over the past 36 years have had their biases, and although they rarely just made stuff up out of whole cloth almost every time they got things utterly wrong it was because of a collective zeal for a certain outcome. That tough old executive editor of ours had a particular dislike for nuclear energy, one of his more ambitious underlings obliged him by altering some documents to implicate a local energy corporation running a nuke up in the Flint Hills, and all the lesser mistakes we noticed over the years followed the same pattern. Our executive editor and his paper ultimately acknowledged the mistake and retracted the story, and apologized profusely, and the reporter wound up at a better gig at a bigger paper where he did an even more scandalously wrong story, and we always read the paper with confidence that it was unabashedly biased but not entirely fake.
These days we’re skeptical of both the president’s “tweets” and his tormentors latest scoops, and we’re carefully considering all the claims. Some are obviously wrong, others are hilariously spun, and none are at all encouraging.
Trump has proclaimed his media tormentors “the enemy of the people,” and on the campaign trail he threatened to “open up the libels” so he could be enriched by any negative coverage, and he recently “tweeted” another threat to impose an internet tax on the billionaire Washington Post publisher’s Amazon business in retaliation for the paper’s unfavorable coverage, and lately the war isn’t so much against certain segments as the media as it against the very notion of freedom of press. He and his media allies are railing against the disrespect for the presidency, as if Trump hadn’t alleged with unnamed that his Republican predecessor had lied the country to into a war and his Democratic predecessor was born outside the country and was a “bad (or sick) guy,” and all the outside-the-mainstream media have been unerringly accurate.
We hope that all those media and the freedom of the press somehow survive this. The right wing media have noted that several of the lawyers that the special counsel investigating the Russia thing with Trump and Russia were contributors to the campaign of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, which is accurate even if the oft-stated claim that they’re all Clinton donors isn’t, and they don’t note that Trump was also a Clinton contributor, but that’s still information that should reported. Those lawyers were chosen by a special counsel who is a registered Republican and rose through three Republican administrations during his distinguished career, and were more likely chosen for their highly specialized expertise in eastern European organized rackets and money-laundering, so that’s also useful information those right wing radio talkers should be warning their audiences about. Any information from either side, so long as its true, is welcomed.
The glaring mistakes that have to be retracted and apologized for are almost always a result of zeal, which is why our lazy selves found few scoops for our tough old executive editor but had fewer retractions to apologize to him for, and what with all the zealousness going around these days we’re being very careful in our reading of the news.

— Bud Norman

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Health Care and the Waiting Room

Republicans have been waiting for seven years to repeal and replace the hated Obamacare law, and it looks as if they’ll have to wait a while longer. The Senate’s majority leader has postponed a vote on a Republican alternative until after the summer recess, which will likely include some encounters with constituents that won’t make them any more eager to take up the matter when they return.
The Republicans have a president in the White House and a large majority in the House of Representatives and a slight majority in the Senate, the same advantage the Democrats held back when they rammed Obamacare through without a single Republican vote, but their revenge was never going to come easy. That Republican president ran on promises of no cuts to Medicaid and coverage for everybody, that House majority is largely comprised of more doctrinaire conservatives, and slim Senate margin includes both doctrinaire conservatives and more pragmatic sorts of Republicans from purplish states. Although they all ran on promises of repeal and replacement, the Republicans never did agree on what that should look like.
Back when the Democrats had the House and Senate and the White House they were all in general agreement on the basic principles that the government should be interfering more thoroughly in the health insurance market, consumer choices should be restricted, and more government spending should be allotted, so they had an easier time getting their bill passed. Even with a president boasting approval ratings in the 60s and plenty of support from support from the establishment media, however, the Democrats took until just before Christmas and had to resort to some bare-knuckle politics to ram through what was already an unpopular law.
Although the eponymous President Barack Obama won re-election three years later, the Obamacare law was unpopular enough that it was largely responsible for a Republican president and Republican majorities eight years after his supposedly transformative election. Such are the consequences of ramming unpopular legislation down the public’s throat on a strictly partisan vote, along with all the skyrocketing premiums and punitive mandates and other pains that have been inflicted on so many Americans, so the Republicans should count themselves luck for the delay.
Obamacare remains unpopular yet, and even its more honest defenders are admitting that some serious tweaking is required, both the House bill that was passed after an embarrassing delay and the Senate bill that’s currently delayed are polling far worse. Both cut back on planned increases in Medicaid, and they not only don’t cover everyone but leave an estimated 22 million looking for other options in coming years, and there’s no getting around that the tax implications tend to favor the wealthier taxpayers, so the politics is at least as tricky as the policy.
To our old-fashioned Republican way of thinking both the House and Senate bills represent a slight improvement on Obamacare, but come nowhere near the long-promised full repeal and replacement, we expect that whatever compromise version they might reach and pass on a partisan vote will prove unpopular enough to arrive at a Democratic president and a Democratic majority in at least one house in just three years or so. There’s a conservative case to be made for the the Republican bills, and a conservative case to be made against them, but the Republican president who promised no cuts to Medicaid and coverage for everyone and the free-market ideologues and the more pragmatic sorts of Republicans seem likely to persuade the public.
All of them promised their voters something like a repeal and replacement of Obamacare, though, and all of them are itching for something they can call a legislative win. We hope they get it, but we hope they take their time about it, and come to some agreement on the true principles that underlie a free and efficient health care system, and make that hard-to-explain case to the American people, and use the impending implosion of Obamacare to get recruit a couple of symbolic Democratic votes. They’ll probably take some short-term hits for that, but it’s the best plan for the long run, which will take a lot of time.

— Bud Norman

The Post and a “Tweet” and a Twist in the Russia Story

Over the weekend there was another big Washington Post scoop, another blast of “tweets” from President Donald Trump, and yet another intriguing twist in the ongoing story about the Russia thing with Trump and Russia.
The Post’s big story was about how President Barack Obama reacted to the intelligence community’s alarmed reports that Russia was meddling in various ways with the American presidential race, all in favor of Trump and by the direct order of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and it seems to support an unnamed administration official’s conclusion that “We choked.” Although Obama ordered that “cyber bombs” be planted in Russian computer systems to be set off if needed, and confronted Putin about the matter at an international summit, the article notes that Russia suffered only “largely symbolic” economic sanctions for its attempt to sabotage an American election
Trump has previously expressed doubt about whether Russia did anything at all in the election, saying that the e-mails hacked from the Democratic National Committee and disseminated by Wikileaks could have been the work of anyone from the Chinese to “some guy sitting on his bed who weighs 400 pounds,” but he couldn’t resist the opportunity to take a swipe at Obama. “Just out: The Obama Administration knew far in advance of Nov. 8 about election meddling by Russia,” Trump “tweeted,” adding “Did nothing about it. Why?” Continuing the theme, he later “tweeted” that “Since the Obama Administration was told way before the 2016 election that the Russians were meddling, why no action? Focus on them, not T!”
Which makes for an interesting twist in the longer-running story, or at least in the way Trump tells it. Instead of continuing to cast doubt on the conclusions of 15 separate intelligence agencies, and the findings of his own Central Intelligence Director, and scoffing at anything at all that runs in The Washington Post or contains anonymous sources, Trump is now outraged that Russia did indeed try to help him get elected and wants the public to direct its outrage at Obama for allowing it to happen. One of the shriller right-wing talk radio hosts we scan across while driving was making essentially the argument a week earlier, and the fans calling in all found it very convincing, but we wonder how it will play with anyone other than Trump’s most loyal supporters or Obama’s most determined critics. It also invites arguments that Trump will have trouble “tweeting” his way through.
The Post’s story was a novella-length opus, so we’re guessing that Trump’s notoriously short attention span didn’t get him to the part where it did a pretty good job of answering the question about why the Obama administration didn’t respond more forcefully. As the reporters document, the intelligence was incomplete about the Russians’ capabilities and what might be provoked, the sanctions imposed after Russia’s violation of the sovereignty of Ukraine and Georgia didn’t leave many more options, and like most Americans Obama incorrectly assumed that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was going to win anyway. We’ve spent the last 10 years criticizing Obama and are as eager to take another swipe at his sorry presidency as anyone, but in this case we can’t think of anything he might have done that would anyone.
As if to further confuse the issue, Trump also “tweeted” that “Obama Administration official said they ‘choked’ when it came to acting on Russian meddling of election. They didn’t want to hurt Hillary?” We’re not at all clear how quashing any effort Russian effort to get Trump elected would have helped Clinton, and we can’t imagine anything that Obama might have done that would have pleased Trump. A White House address warning that the Russians were actively working to elect Trump would surely have been scoffed at by Trump, even with the 15 intelligence agencies all backing it up, and given the suspicious mood of the electorate we doubt that any of Trump’s supporters would have believed a word of it or cared much even if they did. Even now, we suspect most Trump supporters are outraged that Obama let Putin do all those nasty things that Trump previously said he might not have done.
Today’s a new day, and we expect that the White House communications team will be explaining how the “tweets” speak for themselves but don’t necessarily mean what they say. An earlier Trump “tweet” following a Washington Post story about Trump being investigated by a special counsel on possible obstruction of justice charges griped that he was being investigated because he’d fired the Federal Bureau of Investigation director because of a recommendation by the man who was investigating him, which was wildly wrong on several levels, and by the weekend one of his lawyers was on all the shows insisting that Trump was not under investigation by anyone. This is a common post-“tweet” occurrence, and you can between that Mike Huckabee’s daughter or some other spokesperson will be explaining how Trump still doesn’t necessarily believe in that Russian meddling that he was blaming Obama for.
They’ll pretty much have to, because all the questions that reporters might not be allowed to recorded are going to about what the Trump administration is doing about Russia’s meddling in the election. Until The Washington Post provided an opportunity to attack Obama with it Trump had never definitively acknowledged that Russia had done anything untoward during the election, his transition team made an aborted effort to lift all those largely symbolic sanctions, even the Senate’s Republicans felt obliged to vote for legislation that would not allow Trump to ease the rest of the sanctions, and there are all those other Russian ties and undisclosed meetings between Trump’s close associates and everything else about that Russian meddling that Trump seems have at long last acknowledged.
These days Obama seems to be enjoying his post-presidency a lot more than Trump seems to be enjoying his presidency, and we think he’ll happily accept history’s verdict that he did choke in one of his final crises so long as Trump is lured into admitting that the Russians connived to help his campaign. How Trump responds to that fact is likely to be far more important to how history eventually regards him.

— Bud Norman

At Least You Can’t Call It Trumpcare

The Senate’s Republicans unveiled their plan for America’s health care on Thursday, and although it’s an admirably short 142 pages there’s a lot consider about the policy and political implications. As President Donald Trump once infamously said, “Who knew health care could be so complicated?”
The policy implications alone will take weeks of debate among people who actually have some idea what they’re talking about to sort out, but the previously unannounced bill is currently scheduled for a vote early next week. So far as we can tell from the news reports that concern themselves with the boring policy stuff, the Senate Republicans’ repeal and replaces some elements of the existing unpopular Obamacare law, differs somewhat from the even more unpopular bill that was passed by the House of Representatives’ Republicans, and will predictably leave some people better off and others worse off. Calculating how likely it is that this all comes out according to the greatest good to the greatest number of people is pretty damned complicated, as even the most greenhorn politician by now knows, and it looks as if we’ll just have to wait until we’re old and sick and to see how all that turns out,
We like to think ourselves far more savvy about the political implications of any given policy, but in this case that’s also pretty darned complicated. That unpopular Obamacare law has been the metaphorical Moby Dick to the Republicans’ Captain Ahab ever since the Democrats took momentary advantage of Democratic majorities in the House and Senate and a Democratic president to force the hated legislation down the throats of a reluctant American populace without a single Republican vote. Now there’s a momentary majority of Republicans in the House and Senate and a Republican in the White, so that unpopular Obamacare should be right in the aim of the Republicans’ harpoon, but it’s unlikely they’ll join to pass and unpopular bill of their own.
So far as we can tell both the House and Senate bills allow people to choose a wider range of policy options from a more competitive insurance market, and after a couple of years they’ll let the rest of the country free from paying the subsidies to government-created high risk markets, which is fine with our free-market sensibilities. After that, though, hey’ll also cut loose the beneficiaries of those markets, some of whom voted a straight Republican ticket last time around, and we’re not sure hot they’ll take it.. Planned Parenthood won’t receive any funds for a year, which the right will love and the left will loathe, and certain insurance industry subsidies will continue for a while and a lot of spending will eventually be spent at the state level, and there’s something for every conservative Republican to hate and something that every liberal Democrat will have to admit could have been worse.
Which makes it a tough news cycle for the Republicans. As hated as the Obamacare still is, and well deserves to be, the Republican alternatives from both the House and Senate have even more unpopular. The House bill results in a tax break for wealthier Americans, which might make economic sense but is hard to explain in a headline, and there’s no getting around that some telegenically sympathetic Americans would wind up without health care and on national news as a result, so it will take a pretty noticeable decline in a lot of Americans’ insurance premiums to offset the Republicans’ public relations damage. Both the House and Senate bills retain the unsustainable rules about giving the same priced coverage to pre-existing conditions and for now provide the billions of dollars of subsidies that props that up, but no one on the left is going to give the Republicans credit for that nor acknowledge how unsustainable that will be over is the long run.
There’s a lot for an old-fashioned Republican to like in both the House and Senate bills, but there’s enough to hate that the House bill passed by despite numerous defections and the Senate bill might not get to a simple majority, and all the talk radio hosts were fuming that it wasn’t the full repeal and replacement of Obamacare that they’d been chasing after for eight long years. We’d have to see some district-level polling to decide how we’d vote if we were one of the entire House or that third of the Senate was up re-election. What with those Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate and a Republican in White House the Republicans should be able to ram anything they want down the American public’s throats in the same way the Democrats did with that damned Obamacare law, but of course that’s also complicated.
Trump ran for the president on a solemn pledge to repeal and a replacement that hated Obamacare law, but except for assurances that it would provide coverage for everyone at a far lower cost and be so great it would make your head spin he wasn’t very clear on what it would look. He spoke admiringly of Scotland’s fully nationalized health care system, seemed to endorse Canada’s slightly-less-socialized single payer system, and bragged that unlike every other Republican he wouldn’t make any cuts in in Medicaid or other entitlement programs. Unlike the previous scenario when Democratic majorities in the House and Senate and a president in the White House were ramming things down the American public’s throat, a sufficient number of traditionally conservative Republican senators are taking a principled stand and the president is going his populist ways.
Trump celebrated the passage of the House bill with a beer bash at the White House, even though he’s a tee-totaler himself and the House passing a bill isn’t even a halfway marker toward getting something done. After that budget-cutting bill was celebrated he “tweeted” that more federal money should be spent on health, and it was leaked from pretty much every traditional conservative that Trump had called the House bill “mean” in a tense meeting with the House Republicans, and it’s not yet clear how he’ll respond to a similar Republican bill,
On the night before the Senate Republicans unveiled their health care bill Trump was revving another enthusiastic campaign rally, some eight months after the campaign was supposed to have ended, Trump said he was hopeful would that it would have “heart.” A news cycle isn’t nearly long to discern Trump’s thinking, so for now we’ll have to see if the legislation as sufficient heart to satisfy Trump. All of Trump’s most strident defenders on talk radio and other outposts of the conservative media find it all too bleeding-heart, many of his voters find it potentially life-threatening, and we can only guess where Trump will wind up. We can’t imagine the Democrats seizing this golden opportunity to kiss up to Trump for that single payer system they’ve always dreamed of, or Trump abandoning that portion of the Republican party that’s all he’s got left at the moment, so we expect some desultory compromise on America’s health care.
We’ll hope that it somehow works out with that greatest good for the greatest number, and given how awful that Obamacare law was we wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if something better did somehow come to pass.

— Bud Norman

A Family’s Leave From the Daily News

There’s no escaping the news lately, but we did a pretty good job of dodging the worst of it on Wednesday. A gorgeous first day of summer on the southern prairie was instead to devoted to a celebration of a beloved cousin’s 50 years of fruitful marriage to about as a great a guy as you’d ever hope to meet, complete with a most ameliorative reunion with some other beloved family members, and some classic regionalist school prairie scenery and some excellent music from the classic American songbook coming direct from outer space along the way.
The day began damnably early at 11:30 a.m. when we arrived groggy-eyed but fully intact and neatly-pressed at our folks’ swank and hard-earned retirement village, where we had coffee and french fries and some convivial conversation with the folks. Our beloved Pop also dearly loves our beloved cousin and that great guy she’s been married to for a noteworthy 50 full years, along with the rest of his beloved wife’s complicatedly extended family, but some recent back problems prevented him from attending the party, so the drive from Wichita, Kansas, to Edmond, Oklahoma was just us and our beloved Mom.
As usual the folks’ television was tuned to Fox News, and although the sound was muted the caption at the bottom of the screen explained that the special counsel investigating President Donald Trump on various possible charges had hired as an investigator yet another donor to the presidential campaign of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. We’d been listening to Rush Limbaugh on the way across town and we’re already hipped to that fact on our way from the heart of the city to its far-eastern edges, but were fortunately distracted from all that by a tricky shower curtain Pop needed installed, and which eventually brightened up the bathroom. After brunch we headed south with Mom toward good old Oklahoma in the folks’ swank and hard-earned Lexus, with the default Fox News playing on the radio from outer space, but when it started repeating itself on the way down I-35 we agreed to switch over to the outer space station that plays Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee and Tony Bennett and Blossom Dearie singing the songs from when Mom was young and before we were born.
That lulled our also nocturnal and less caffeinated Mom into a half-sleep, not quite sleepy enough to prevent her fine harmonizing to the standards, while the folks’ fancy car did half the driving for us in a strangely unfamiliar smooth way, and except for the blight of those windmills that pepper the route we enjoyed the music and the sight of the southern plains on a gorgeous first day of summer. A sultry-voiced global positioning expert guided us to our destination, and after we punched in the correct address she led us through a complicated maze of the northern greater Oklahoma City area to our actual destination, where we got to spend some quality time with a beloved aunt and her damnably beloved husband, who is after so many years of fruitful marriage a fully-fledged whether-he-likes-it-or-not uncle. Our Mom and our aunt are the last surviving sisters of beloved grandparent’s four daughters, and it was good to share in their hard-earned intimacy, and to share some guy talk with an uncle who is a guy we can’t describe without going novel-length.
From there we went to the swank and hard-earned venue where that beloved cousin and her greatest guy you’d ever hope to meet husband were celebrating 50 years of marriage and and wonderful children and wonderful grandchildren, and along with everything else the food was great. We’d been ring-bearers at the couple’s wedding and our cuter selves were featured in many of the photographs, and we shared a much-needed hug with the bride’s younger bachelorette sister, who might even be a more favorite cousin of ours, and we shared a couple of slightly salty doctor jokes with the couples’ doctor son, which he seemed to enjoy, and shared a delightful hug with the still-gorgeous second cousin or cousin one removed or cousin-in-law or whatever she is who had been the flower girl. All the couple’s grandkids were seated at a nearby table, and we noticed that the girls were all quite pretty and the couple of grandsons quite handsome, and they were all so well-behaved.
The trip back was under a starless sky, but the great old American songbook was still coming in from outer space and the ride was still seductively smooth and Mom was at her nocturnal best. There was the kind of frank family talk that only comes after 57 years or so of intimate familiarity with one another’s depressions and ecstasy, some shared appreciative chuckles about that crazy but uncannily brilliant uncle who’s been so happily married to her sister for all these years, fond reminiscences of that beloved niece and cousin celebrating 50 fruitful years together, worries about Dad’s back, and us impressing Mom with our ability to identify all those singers of songs from back when she was young and before we born..
There’s more than a couple of hours between the northern part of the greater Oklahoma City area and that far-flung fancy-schmantzy northeastern part of Wichita where our parents reside, so at some point politics came up in the conversation. Our Mom was worried that the special counsel and all his Clinton donor colleagues were out to get Trump, and although we couldn’t deny the possibility we also warned her that there might be plenty to get him on.
That’s how it looks to us, as we scamper across the broader dreary media landscape after a daylong road trip, but we’re nonetheless hopeful. There are well-married couples out there with promising grandchildren, and great American music is being beamed into cars from outer space, and there are loving Moms and Dads and their disappointing children, and summer has just begun here on the southern plains of the United States of America. It’s bound to be damned complicated, but it might just work out in the end.

— Bud Norman

Another Night of Mixed Results

The final rounds of the special election season came on Tuesday, with the same usual mixed results as before. Once again the Democrats fell short of victory in two more reliably Republican districts, but once again by margins that should worry many of the more vulnerable congressional Republicans up for re-election in ’18.
Those anxious Republicans can take some solace in the fact that the Republican prevailed in Georgia’s sixth congressional district despite the record-setting millions of dollars that Democrats from around the country threw into the race. The district is mostly the well-educated and well-heeled and mostly-white suburbs of Atlanta, and has been held by the Republicans for 40 years, including the entire famous tenure of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, but when a youthful Democratic candidate fell just short of a majority in the open primary his party sensed an upset. The national press paid outsized attention, the money from Hollywood and other Democratic denizens poured in, and there was much anticipation of an outcome that could be easily spun as backlash against President Donald Trump.
We’re far out of range of the broadcast commercials that were no doubt incessantly aired in Georgia’s unfortunate sixth district, and not very familiar with the local politics of the district, but so far as we can tell from all that outsized national press attention neither candidate tried to make the race about Trump. The Democrat presumably and reasonably believed that his opposition to Trump went without saying and instead focused on some local issues, which the Democrats in the rest of the country will no doubt regard as a fatal mistake, while the Republican reportedly ran as an old-fashioned establishment type who rarely mentioned Trump, which will surely annoy some Republicans and provide a lesson to others. Trump won the district in the presidential election by 2 percent, which was much lower than his margins in the less-educated and less-well-heeled and even whiter districts in the rest of the state, and the old-fashioned Republican who rarely mentioned Trump won by a slightly larger yet closer-than-usual margin, so the pro-Trump and anti-Trump people can make whatever they want of all that.
Less attention was paid and fewer donations were made to another race in the fifth district of South Carolina, which is less well-educated and well-heeled and more white than that Georgia district, and where Trump prevailed by more landslide margins, but that was also an embarrassingly close call. The Republican took just over 51 percent of the vote, far underperforming the the Republican in the election just eight months or so ago, and although local politics no doubt played a part there’s no spinning how that’s good for Trump.
All of the special elections have been in Republican districts where the incumbent was promoted to a cabinet-level position by Trump, which means that their would-be Republicans successors were necessarily well less qualified candidates, and of course the opposition is going to more energized than those less well-educated and well-heeled Trump supporters who are cocksure their man can take of himself. Still, the results are decidedly mixed.
The Democrats won’t be able to raise the kind of money for each mid-term race at the rate they did in that Georgia election, but neither will the Republicans. The Republicans did wind up winning all four of the races, albeit while losing percentage points that would flip a whole of districts. Trump retains a steadfast and significant percentage of voters, Trump’s detractors seem to have even bigger numbers, and it’s how they’re spread around the electoral map that seems matter. All politics really is local, too, so it’s hard to tell how that will play in out the hundreds of House seats and third-or-so of Senate seats up in a year and a few months from now. Of course there’s also no telling what might happen in a year and a few months from now.
Until then the Republicans retain the White House and the same majorities they held in the House and Senate before all this fuss, but for now they don’t seem to doing much with it, and the Democrats are still falling tantalizingly short of a victory to call their own.

— Bud Norman

The Country Mouse and the City Mouse in the Age of Bumpkin Trump

Monday was one of those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer that Nat “King” Cole used to sing about, at least as far as the news cycle was concerned. An American jet shot down a Syrian jet over the weekend, and one of the president’s lawyers spent the weekend insisting the president wasn’t under investigation despite the clear implications of the president’s latest “tweet,” and there was yet another terror attack in London and some questionable verdicts in some high profile domestic legal cases, but these days that’s a fairly calm news cycle.
The Washington Post has lately been on roll unlike anything they’ve had since the good old Watergate days, but over the weekend they found room on the front page for one of those perfect-for-a-slow-news-day think pieces, this one about the growing cultural and political divisions between the rural and urban portions of America. We’re the jaded yet still curious types who relish those slow news days and their big newspaper think pieces, and in this case we were especially interested in the subject. Having lived here in the very heart of the heartland most of our lives on the relative edges of both rural and America, and with a well considered fondness for both, we consider ourselves rather expert on the matter, so we were eager to see what those young whippersnappers from Back East and their fancy-dan establishment newspaper would make of it.
Alas, we really couldn’t argue with their main thesis that there is a growing cultural and political division between rural and urban America. If we were right wing radio hosts wanting to ridicule the article, we’d feel entitled to say “well, duh.” They cite all the polling data that indisputably prove the rural and urban political divide, and have no trouble coming up with colorful quotes from the rural natives that clearly illustrate the cultural differences to their urban readership. To be fair about it, we also think they made every effort to be fair about it and did a pretty good job.
Still, we don’t think those young whippersnappers from Back East and their fancy-dan establishment paper know the half of it. We’re sitting here in the very heart of the biggest urban area in our very rural state in the middle of that big rural area in the middle of the country, and at this lovely time of year we’re a short drive from those amber waves of grain that you really ought to see at least once in your life, along with some delightful small town conversation and conviviality, and as we traverse the boundaries the difference between the two regions is almost painfully palpable. There’s a certain suspicious reaction you’ll notice when you tell someone in the rural rest of the state that you’re from Wichita, and we notice that our friends in the city also make certain assumptions about the country folks who have come to town for their shopping or financial affairs or the big-name country music concerts at the fancy new downtown arena.
Wichita is only the fiftieth or so most populous urban metropolitan area in the country, but by now it stretches into three counties from Valley Center down to Mulvane and west of Goddard to east of Andover, and by regional standards it’s the big bad city. The per capita crime rate is lower than most of those other 50 most populous cities, and even lower than in some of the still old west small towns around the state, but with some 500,000 folks around here a certain percentage of them are going to be raping and robbing and murdering, and the worst of it always goes out on the top the evening news to all those small towns. Although the volume-priced shopping is cheaper than at the dying main street businesses in their home towns the financial deals struck here by those small town folk don’t always turn out, the parking for those downtown arena shows is atrocious and often involves encounters with homeless panhandlers, and if they were in town the past weekend they might have encountered some unexpected goings-on at the big Gay Pride Festival, so we can well understand their trepidation about urban America and the rest of modernity.
Wichita is one of the very most conservative of those 50 most populous metropolitan areas, with so much of the educated population being engineers and entrepreneurs and agricultural financiers and other practical people, and the rest of the population largely drawn from those dying small towns, but even here there’s a certain cosmopolitan sensibility in effect. There’s a big state university with a very promising basketball season coming up, a better collection than you’d expect at the local art museum and a surprisingly good symphony and local music theater troupe, along with the nice botanical garden and nationally-recognized local zoo and all the local parks and a film festival that gets some occasionally good entries from around the world, and it’s hard to not get snobby about it.
The basketball team and the art museum and the symphony and local music theater and botanical garden and zoo and pretty much all the rest of the local high culture around here enjoys the generous contributions of Koch Industries, which did its business just down a country street from us in our elementary school days and is now the James Bond villain of every left-wing conspiracy theory, but it still has a certain liberalizing effect. We sense a certain apprehension of foreigners among our small town friends, and although we share their preference for secured borders we buy our beer from Laotians and our donuts from Mexicans and sundries from guys from India, so we’re not as enthusiastic about a border wall or mass deportations. They tend to have a personal conviction against baking cakes or otherwise celebrating same-sex marriages, which we well understand and would not prohibit, but here in Wichita you’ll probably wind up making enough gay friends that you don’t make a fuss about it. In a variety of ways, Wichita winds up more conservative than most of those other top-50 metropolitan areas but more liberal than the parts of the state where the fields take up most of the room.
Those young whippersnappers from The Washington Post eventually wound up with another inevitable think piece about why rural America is so much more supportive of President Donald Trump and than is urban America, and we have to admit that is a poser. Trump grew up in the Queens borough of New York City as the dauphin of a ruthless real estate mogul, made and lost several fortunes in casinos and other financial dealings, married three times and never learned a Bible verse, and until his recent weekend at Camp David had never encountered bare wood. His protectionist trade talk never played in either the rural and urban parts of our portion of the prairie, where the big money is in exports and he finished a distant third in the Republican caucuses, and the insult comic schtick also grated on Kansas sensibilities. Replace Eddie Arnold and Eva Gabor with Donald and Melania Trump in “Green Acres,” and that classic sit-com would be funnier yet.
Trump is getting a lot of support out there where the traffic dwindles down to a gorgeous and almost empty country road, though, and we think we know why. The president clearly resents those smart-alecky young whippersnappers Back East as much as any of those small town folk, and he states it more recklessly than any of them would dare while in town, and at least he’s not that darned Hillary Clinton woman or any of those other Democrats who sneered at them for their gun-and-God-clinging ways and preference for a country that’s not overrun by crazy jihadists, and there’s something to be said for that,
There’s also something to be said against Trump’s reckless rhetoric and frequent incompetence and often consequential lack of cosmopolitan couth, while that whole Russia thing with Trump and Russia merits all the ongoing investigations, and all those political appointments are going unfilled and all the bills aren’t getting passed, and even here among those amber waves of grain of we can see the point. The arguments will be shouted across a widening divide, though, and we doubt if either side will hear the other.
The next election will probably be settled once again in the suburbs, though, and there’s no telling how that will play out. Some of the suburbs around here are pretty swank, others are former small towns swallowed up by the urban sprawl and lately getting all their crummy convenience stores robbed by methamphetamine and opioid addicts, and Trump’s popularity predictably but somewhat inexplicably varies from one precinct to another. We imagine the electoral map is just as complicated in all those coal-mining and software-writing jurisdictions spread out around this great and varied land of ours, and we hope that some productive conversation among us is still possible.

— Bud Norman

Trump Comes Out of the Woods

President Donald seems to have had a nice break from his political torments over Father’s Day weekend. The barrage of bombshell revelations about the Russia thing with Trump and Russia largely ceased fire, the other bad news didn’t implicate him directly and was largely overlooked, and after a long separation he got to spend some quality time with his youngest son.
We truly hope the father-and-son interactions went well, as the kid seems all right to us — by “the kid” we mean the son — and the old guy lately seems in need some of calming quiet time. The weekend was largely spent at Camp David, we note, and we also hope that helped with both the family dynamics and the political problems.
A military-run facility a short helicopter ride away from the White House but hidden in one of the last rural areas of Maryland, Camp David has been the preferred presidential get-away since President Franklin Roosevelt converted the Works Progress Administration’s High Cactocin resort project to an executive retreat and re-named it “Shangri-La.” Former small town Kansas boy President Dwight Eisenhower was particularly fond of the remote location and rustic atmosphere of the place, and re-named it again in honor of a recently born grandson. Since then every president has taken frequent advantage of the world-famous Camp David, with President Jimmy Carter using the place to finalize the “Camp David Accords” that brought a still-lasting peace between Israel and Egypt, President Bill Clinton attempted to use it for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians that didn’t work out so well, while all the Republicans reasonably preferred to use it as a convenient and relatively low-cost way to escape from all that for a weekend and get back to nature and play some golf or shoot some skeet.
Until this past weekend, though, Trump had conspicuously avoided the place. After a brief tour of Camp David he told an interviewer that it was “a place you’d like really like, for about 20 minutes,” and seemed to make clear that remote and rustic were not qualities that appealed to his rich New York City tastes, not matter how any previous sorts of Republicans might have liked that kind of thing. In the bitterly cold months of his early presidency Trump preferred to have both his get-away time and his high-level diplomatic negotiations at his very ritzy and wholly-owned Mar-a-Lago resort outside Palm Beach, Florida, and as summer arrived and South Florida seemed less suited to golf and other high-level negotiations he moved his second White House to another very ritzy and wholly-owned resort in the last sparsely-populated portion of New Jersey.
That arrangement worked out well for Trump in financial terms, with much of the even-bigger-than-Obama travel-and-security-and-entourage costs flowing directly into the coffers of wholly-owned Trump businesses and all sorts of people paying higher prices for entree due to the sudden cachet, but it was taking a political toll. All the opinion polls show Trump widely unpopular, even that outlier Rasmussen survey that shows him with a mere 50 percent disapproval rating, and the Palm Beach Post was delighted to inform its recently tax-burdened readership that some more specific polling shows that the extravagant weekends at the wholly-owned properties were unpopular even with Trump’s most loyal supporters. Two state and district attorneys general and a couple hundred members of Congress have lately filed suits about how Trump business are profiting from the Trump presidency, too, so Trump’s many public and private lawyers were probably also recommending some rest and relaxation at Camp David. Call us cynical, but we suspect all that had something to with Trump’s Father’s Day itinerary.
Even so, we truly hope that the rather abbreviated time they spent together at Camp David did both Trump and son some real good. At this point we have an admittedly mythic conception of Camp David, and although we’re pretty sure it’s quite ritzy by our prairie standards we also imagine that there really is something remote and rustic about the place by presidential standards, and we’d like to think that’s what every previous sort of Republican and even the Democrats found so quintessentially American and rejuvenating about it. There’s something remote and rustic about getting away from it all and back to nature that puts things in perspective, even it is still ritzy, and a rich New York City sensibility probably needs that more than most.
We hate to drag Trump’s kid into the this, as he seems all right, and nothing that’s happened is any more his fault that anything all those previous presidential children were dragged into, but he’s there in the news and we can’t help thinking how very weird his life must be, and how much good even a brief connection with the universal experience of nature might do him. By our own good fortune we had a better dad than that kid does, and he often took us out into the woods with guns and fishing rods and cameras to demonstrate the profound life lessons he had learned under the open sky, and although we never acquired his appreciation of hunting and fishing and photography the lessons about the beauty of the natural and good order have served us well, and we hope that the youngest Trump picked up something of that along the way.
Today is Monday and the barrage of bombshell revelations about the Russia thing with Trump and Russia will probably continue, and there will be more bad news that people will say implicate Trump, but here’s hoping that a father-and-son weekend at Camp David will mitigate at least some of that.

— Bud Norman

The Passing Storm and the Gathering Storm

A windy and gully-washing thunderstorm rolled through our portion of south central Kansas on Thursday evening, and we wound up watching some ominously dark clouds continue to gather over Washington, D.C.
The storm hit as we were driving through downtown, and because it seemed to imminently threaten the tennis ball-sized hail that had been reported nearby on the radio we took refuge in one of the parking garages. With the car safely tucked under several feet of concrete we decided to wait out the storm with a beer at the nearest tavern, which happened to be a friendly little gay bar ironically called Rain, so we weren’t the least bit surprised to find Rachel Maddow’s show on MSNBC blaring from one of the several televisions. She was gleefully to the point of gigglingly reporting on the latest developments about the Russia thing with President Donald Trump and Russia, and we had to admit she had some juicy stuff.
The special counsel who was appointed after Trump fired the Federal Bureau of Investigation is actively pursuing an obstruction of justice case according to The Washington Post, which also reports that the business dealings of the president’s son-in-law and all-purpose advisor Jared Kushner is also getting the fine-tooth-comb treatment, and the Vice President has lawyered up with a high-powered attorney whose previous cases have included the Watergate and the Iran-Contra scandals. None of this is conclusively damning, of course, but neither does any of it look at all good. Trump retaliated with some “tweets” about the investigators being “very bad people” and how his vanquished Democratic opponent “Crooked” Hillary Clinton did all sorts of very bad things that didn’t result in any charges, but Maddow and the rest of the mainstream media seemed just as gleeful about reporting that.
Trump is right that Clinton was crooked and did so some very bad things, and her husband did meet the Attorney General while she was being investigated by the Justice Department, and the fired FBI director did follow an order to refer to that investigation as a “matter,” and he’s also quite right that many of his tormenters were hypocritically fine with that. As we always remind our remaining Republican friends, we were tormenting Clinton back when Trump was contributing to her campaigns and inviting her to weddings and praising her as the best Secretary of State ever, and we strongly suspect that a more apolitical justice system would have found her guilty of something. One can hardly begrudge Trump and his allies the satisfaction of making the points.
You won’t find us joining in on any “lock her up” chants, though, and Trump seems quite hypocritical for his sudden insistence that an investigation is not a proof of guilt, and we don’t expect that Trump’s “tweet” will persuade anyone who’s not already a die-hard supporter. No matter what Clinton might have done in her long and tawdry career, up to and including that satanic child sex abuse ring she was allegedly running in the back of a pizza joint, that does not have any bearing whatsoever on the question of whether Trump or any of his close associates have done very bad things. Our most determinedly pro-Trump friend argued the other night that Trump should be legally entitled to do everything illegal thing that the past two Democratic administrations have gotten away with, and at that point the country can get back to everyone doing things on the up-and-up, but we don’t think that will prove any more persuasive.
The argument that Trump’s investigators are very bad people will also be a tough sell. The special counsel is Robert Mueller, who was chosen as FBI director by President George W. Bush and after ten scandal-free years was asked to stick around for an extra two years by President Barack Obama, so he enjoys a bi-partisan reputation as a non-partisan player. He’s also known as tough and ruthless, but those are qualities Trump usually finds endearing, and he’s very much a member of the establishment that Trump has vowed to burn down and so many of his supporters loathe, but surely the broader public will expect more credentials from a special counsel than from a president.
Another interesting development gleefully noted by the mainstream media were some prominent Republicans who were making that point that if Trump has nothing to fear from an investigation he should welcome it, as only a thorough vindication by a widely respected investigator will lift the cloud of suspicion, and we wouldn’t be surprised to see more Republicans taking this sensible stand. If you dig deeper into the news you might have noticed that some Republican members of the House of Representatives are steaming to the point of leaking that Trump has lately chastised them for drafting a “mean” bill to repeal and replace Obamacare, including moderates who were muscled by Trump into voting for what they thought was a too-austere bill and conservatives who were muscled by Trump into voting for what they thought wasn’t austere enough. If you don’t believe leaks, Trump also “tweeted” that the country needed to spend far more money on health care, rather than the less that he’d muscled those members into voting for, and one can hardly blame them if they’re not entirely loyal on that Russia thing with Trump and Russia.
Trump had a pretty good story about an unfortunate man released from North Korean captivity in horrible medical condition after two years, and the man’s father making a strong statement about how Trump had succeeded where Obama had failed, which fits into a usual narrative that the Obama foreign policy was weak and feckless, with Trump’s arguably more reckless approach being arguably more effective. There was also that story about the Australian Prime Minister cracking up a crowd with his mocking of Trump, however, and the sense that there’s a lot of that going on around the world.

A rather attractive woman who was also waiting out the storm struck up a conversation with us as we were watching the news according to Rachel Maddow and MSNBC, and she remarked that Trump doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing, and we couldn’t disagree. She’d complimented our straw fedora and and seemed a bit flirty, but we figured she was probably just mistakingly trying make another fashionably homosexual friend, so we wound up having a nice chat about how very strange the world seems these days. Eventually the storm passed, as storms always do, but on the way home we had to avoid all the streets prone to flooding and dodged plenty of down tree limbs on the way home. The power and internet where still working when we arrived, but no matter the forecasts we checked the storm brewing in Washington looks far more damaging.

— Bud Norman

The Sessions Sessions and All That

The administration of President Donald Trump is like that weird drawing in which some people see a beautiful young lass and others a wrinkled old hag, or that great Japanese movie “Rashomon” where the sordid tale is told and re-told by varying accounts to no definitive conclusion.
Shown the same endlessly replayed footage of Trump pushing his way past the Prime Minister of Montenegro to the front of a diplomatic photo-op, some cringe in embarrassment at a stereotypically ugly American behaving boorishly in front of the the other countries while others perceive an alpha male at long last asserting America’ss dominance on the world stage. The endlessly replayed footage of Trump’s cabinet members taking turns offering fulsome praise for the boss struck many as slightly North Korean in creepiness and was greeted as a great gift by all the late night comics, but a lot of the commenters at the bottom of the Trump-friendly news sites found it touching. People read the same words and abbreviated semi-words in every presidential “tweet,” but some readers discern only self-destructive blather while others discover a subtle literary and political genius.
So it is with the whole Russia thing with Trump and Russia, which some see as fake news made up by sore losers who hate America, and others regard as the most diabolically treasonous plot by a self-interested scoundrel since Aaron Burr, but in any case is undeniably the big story of the day. The latest installment in that Rorshach Test of a story was Tuesday’s testimony before a Senate committee by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and how that went depends on who you listen to. The right-wing talk radio hosts and all the commenters at the bottom of the Trump-friendly news sites thought that Sessions emerged as triumphant from the grilling as Shadrack, Meschach, and Abendego coming out of the fiery furnace, but the fake news had enough real footage and backstory to make it look bad to everybody else.
The last time Sessions testified before a Senate committee was during his confirmation hearing, and he wound up volunteering some arguably inadvertent but inarguably innate statements about his recent contacts with Russian officials, which led to him recusing himself from anything having to do with that Russia thing with Trump and Russia, so his second time around was being widely watched. There were more questions about the previous testimony, along with some questions about other contacts with the Russians that have since been alleged, and some brand new questions about why Sessions signed off on the firing the Federal Bureau of Investigation who was investing the whole Russia thing with Trump and Russia, despite his avowed recusal from anything having to do with all that.
Sessions handled it pretty well for most of the seven or hours of hot light interrogation, but even such a seasoned lawyer and politician had some awkward sound bites. He confirmed the fired FBI guy’s story about Trump ordering everyone else out of the room before a private meeting in which the fired FBI guy says the president asked for his personal loyalty, dodged a question about the fired FBI guy’s request that the Attorney General prevent any further private meetings with the president, and further declined to talk about all the recent leaks and “tweets” that suggest Trump isn’t pleased with Sessions’ performance as Attorney General. All in all, it was enough to fill a news cycle for people who see things that way.
Sessions also steadfastly declared in his defiantly Confederate accent that neither he nor Trump had anything to with that Russia thing with Trump and Russia, which was endlessly replayed by the right-wing talk radio shows oft-quoted by the commenters at the Trump-friendly news sites, and despite all the suspicions that were raised nobody had that much-anticipated sound bite to prove that he was lying about that central fact of the story. Sessions was long a member of the same World’s Greatest Deliberative Body as his Democratic interrogators on that Senate committee, and for whatever it’s worth he’s proved as honorable over his long career as any of them, so we can see how some people see it a certain way. Some of the Republican Senators helped out, too, while others seemed to be hedging their bets, and we really can’t blame any of them of for any of it.
These days we’re watching it all from the sidelines, where we’re pretty much contemptuous of all the players and have no dog in the fight except for truth, justice, and the American way, and from our perspective they didn’t really nail Sessions or Trump on anything but significant but it does look pretty darned bad. The likelihood is that the Senate and House and FBI and special counsel investigations will continue, along with all the knowledgeable named and unnamed sources in the mainstream press and the speculative deconstruction of it all on right-wing talk radio and the comments sections of Trump-friendly news sites, and that a certain portion of the country will see a pretty young lass while the other sees an ugly old hag.
So far the sees-it-san- ugly-old-hag contingent seems in the majority of American public opinion, and most of the rest of the world sees a stereotypically ugly American rather than a dominant alpha male, and in the end that might matter more than truth, justice, and the American way. Elite opinion on both the right and left and around the the globe especially is critical of Trump, which only hardens the certainty of the talk radio hosts and those Trump-friendly commenters, who do have a good case to make about how the elites have screwed things up, but we’re not at all convinced that anybody’s going to do a much better job of stewarding a multi-trillion economy and a darned complicated geo-politcal situation than the people with the credentials.
There’s plenty of story left to be told, from all the varying accounts, so we’ll await the inevitably indefinite resolution.

— Bud Norman