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Chief Two Toes, and Other Reasons for Memorial Day

Our old newspaper pal Hoot, also known as Skippy Sanchez, went to Facebook on Sunday and linked to a Memorial Day post that ran in the Central Standard Times five years ago about our late mutual pal Jerry Clark. We thought it a well-written tribute to a bona fide American hero, and decided to take the day off in Clark’s honor and re-run it.
Today is Memorial Day, and we plan to charcoal some meat, drink a beer, and fly our Kansas flag from the 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 the massive accordion-lens cameras with the searchlight-sized flash bulbs, but we hit it off immediately. He liked that we had been born in Manila in the Philippines while our dad was paying off his AFROTC debts by flying single-engine planes and doing various other First Lieutenant chores, as he had his own connections to Manila and the Philippines, and he liked that we were the very last ever hired to work at the late Wichita Beacon where he had started his ink-stained career.
The twenty-something college grads from fancy journalism schools who then dominated the paper’s reporting ranks were often embarrassed to have him along on assignments, with his rumpled suits and conspicuously ugly shoes and the 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 naturally we regarded him as the coolest cat in the newsroom. At every opportunity we’d hang out with him in the darkroom or the smoker’s lounge and swap jokes, the dirtier the better, and he’d tell us tales of the good old days when the reporters wore fedoras and shouted “get me rewrite” into candlestick phones and everything was in glorious black-and-white. Most of the stories were funny or risqué, and always infused with a necessary cynicism about the business he was in, but he’d still choke up occasionally at the recollection of a murder or other grisly crime scene he’d been sent to, or the sorry state of the slums he’d documented during the paper’s occasional urban crusades, or the tornado that wiped out the tiny town of Udall just south of Wichita.
The photographs Clark took of the aftermath of that tornado were reproduced in publications around the world and won him a nomination for the Pulitzer prize, but you had to get to know him for a while before he mentioned that, or anything else he’d done that was worth bragging about. 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 respectable town kids with parents rooted for the St. Louis Cardinals, and how at the age of 16 he spent a year of more or less indentured servitude at a bakery in Hutchinson. When he turned 17 years old Clark was inducted into the Army and shipped off to the Pacific to fight a war against the Japanese, and after a while he even talked to us about that.
One sunny summer day we noticed that Clark was less than his usual ebullient self, and assumed it was because the young whippersnappers from out of town who were then 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 very worst day of his war. He told how a landing craft had stopped too short of the shore on one of the many islands he had been obliged to invade, and how he had gone charging out of the deployed door and immediately sinking into the depths of the ocean under the weight of his helmet and gun and backpack and heavy boots. He somehow managed to jettison all the gear and make it to the beach, but he arrived there in the middle of a pitched battle without a helmet or rifle or rations or boots, and spent the rest of the day crouched in a hand-dug hole as machine gun fire whizzed overhead and mortar shells landed close enough to toss sand on his back. He had relived the experience once a year ever since, he said, and assured us that nothing those young whippersnappers running the paper could do seemed quite so bad.
On another occasion he told how his regular assignment after a beach was taken was to leap into the enemy foxholes further inland and either shoot or knife whoever he found there to prevent them from placing magnetic bombs on the bottom of the tanks that would pass over. He was neither boastful nor ashamed about it, and he’d always add that pretty much every other able-bodied American male at the time also had some nasty chores to do in the war, and we had to agree with him that it was of greater importance the Axis powers didn’t win.
On most occasions he told more light-hearted war stories. He liked to tell about the time he saw a zoot-suited Cab Calloway and his swinging orchestra while on leave in southern California, or the time he was in the boxing ring with Joe Louis, who served as a referee for one of Clark’s bouts against fellow training camp lightweights while the heavyweight champ was on a morale-boosting tour, or the friend and fellow soldier who contracted what Clark thought a particularly amusing case of testicular elephantiasis from a Singapore prostitute. Like most combat veterans, our friend preferred to remember the good times and funny anecdotes.
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 called Chief Two Toes. One day in the early ’90s Clark took ill and was taken to the local Veterans Administration hospital, where we found him lying in bed with both feet sticking out of the blanket. One foot had only the big toe and the pinkie toe, and when he caught us looking at it he explained with a shrug that the other digits had been blown off by the Japanese Imperial Army during the Battle of Manila. He gave us his full account of the famous fight, which is still troubling to recall and far too gory to recount here, but suffice to say that it ended with him spending two years in a Hawaiian hospital partially recovering from his numerous wounds.
Clark also told us that one of the men who occupied the next bed wasn’t so lucky, and when he died Clark inherited a camera, which he spent the rest of his time in the hospital learning how to use. When he was eventually shipped back to Kansas he got off the train in downtown Wichita, walked a few blocks down Douglas to the Beacon Building and managed to convince the photography editor that he could take good pictures and wouldn’t be intimidated by any of the gore that newspapers loved to cover back in the day. That’s how Jerry Clark came to be a newspaperman, and he so loved the job he always said that he counted himself lucky, no matter how bad things got.
He spent the last years of his newspaper career relegated to the dark room, and whenever the photography editor would rap on the door and demand to know what he was doing in there he’d always say “I’m doing the three and the five,” which we found out was an allusion to an old Army joke that absolutely cannot be repeated in such polite company as our dear readers, and the whippersnappers from out of state who ran the paper forced him into retirement earlier than he wanted. At his retirement party the Vietnam vet who was then the photography editor made sure everyone saw Clark’s Purple Heart and numerous other decorations, along with many of the excellent photographs he’d taken over the years, and even the most callow of the college-educated reporters who’d been embarrassed to have him along on assignment seemed to realize how shabbily he’d been treated.
We like to think he got some revenge during several years of a seemingly happy retirement, savoring the loving company of his longtime wife and taking pride in a son who had gone off to sea with the Navy, and indulging in a variety of hobbies that did not involve photography or newspapers or war. We are happy to say that every time we’d see him he was in high spirits and low-brow humor.
Those doctors in Hawaii never did get all of the Japanese shrapnel out of his legs, though, which is how we came to visit him in the VA hospital. The war was still trying to kill him, he said, and he was still determined that it wouldn’t. He died a few years later in a seizure-caused car accident, and the medical report suggested it had something to do with the lead in his bloodstream. The war wound up killing Jerry Clark, after all, even if he’s not counted in the official and horrific death toll, but we think it a testament to his toughness and stubbornness and Kansasness that it took more than 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 compassion for his fellow man that somehow persisted in the loving and gentle soul of such a fierce and fearsome warrior is all the more remarkable.
Chief Two Toes would be annoyed with us for saying such flattering things about him, and insist that he was no different from any of those other hard-luck sons of bitches who had the misfortune to don a uniform in a time of global war, so we’ll also take time out today to remember all of his brothers and sisters in arms. There are still concerns about the care that America’s heroes are receiving from the VA, which used to send Clark two pairs of those famously ugly shoes each year, one of each with a cardboard box to take up the space where his middle toes used to be, so we’ll try to keep agitating about that through another year and another election cycle.
By all means enjoy some charcoaled meat and a beer today, and fly a flag from your front porch, if the weather permits, but come tomorrow be ready to insist we do better by the likes of Jerry Clark.

— Bud Norman

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Only the Very Best People, Trump Style

President Donald Trump frequently vowed during his improbably successful campaign that he would hire only the very best people, rather than the “political hacks” that he accused the past several administrations of picking, but so far it’s a promise he’s had much trouble keeping. On Wednesday alone there were four more problematic front page stories about Trump’s old and recent hires.
The most prominent story featured Admiral Ronny Jackson, Trump’s pick to replace his previous pick to head the vast and troubled Veterans Affairs Administration. Jackson has been the non-controversial White House physician since President George W. Bush’s administration, and won Trump’s admiration with a suspiciously effusive report about the current president’s health, which anew seems to have added an inch to Trump’s height and taken off a few pounds of his weight, but critics in both parties immediately argued that’s hardly a qualification to run a complex and long screwed-up bureaucracy with 370,000 employees spread out over all 50 states.
That was before more than 20 active and retired military personnel started telling Congress that Jackson’s management style in his much, much smaller office is abusive and demoralizing, that he tends to get inebriated at inopportune times, and hands out sleeping pills and wake-up potions so freely that he’s known around the White House as “The Candy Man.” After that Trump told the press he’d told Jackson that he’d fully understand why Jackson might decide to withdraw his nomination rather than face such scurrilous accusations and “be abused by a bunch of politicians who aren’t thinking nicely about our country,” and after the press seized on that Trump insisted he was sticking his by man. After that Jackson told the inquisitive press corps he would answer all the allegations at the confirmation hearings, but the latest report from The Washington Post has him telling his friends that he might withdraw from the nomination before those postponed hearings get underway.
If he’s not at all the mean and drunk Dr. Feelgood that more than 20 current and retired military personnel describe, we’d advise the telegenic Jackson to forthrightly answer their allegations at the confirmation hearings, and then admit that there’s bound to be somebody in a nation of more than 330 million people who’s better suited to cleaning up the Augean stables sort of mess that has been piling up at the VA over the past several administrations.
Just below that headline is the ongoing tale of Trump’s longtime personal lawyer and “fixer” Michael Cohen, and after the Jackson story inevitably fades into the distance that will regain prominence. Cohen has publicly admitted that one of the “fixes” he did for Trump was making a $130,000 payment to a pornographic video performer called Stormy Daniels to stop talking about a sexual encounter she claims she had with Trump not long after his third wife gave birth to his fifth child, and it looks as if he made a similar arrangement with a Playboy centerfold model through Trump’s friends at The National Enquirer, which has recently settled it’s own case. Because that all happened while Trump was running for president and involved some suspicious bank transfers he recently had his office and home and hotel room raided by agents from the Justice Department’s southern New York district, which was the big story a while back. The latest update is that Cohen intends to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in the ensuing investigation.
Cohen has every right to do so, and Trump and his apologists will argue he has good reason given the vast Deep State conspiracy out to get him, but back when the Federal Bureau of Investigation was investigating Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s e-mail practices during the campaign they had a different view of the long forgotten Clinton campaign’s information technology guys who pled the Fifth. Even erstwhile “chief strategist” for the Trump campaign and administration Steve “tweeted” Trump’s past statements about how only mobsters take the Fifth, and there’s no shortage of audiotape of Trump’s talk radio defenders saying the same thing. Invoking Fifth Amendment rights seems a sound legal move for Cohen, which we’ll ascribe to the presumably more capable lawyers he’s hired, but it doesn’t do much to help with Trump’s political problems.
Cohen was also involved with Trump’s efforts to build one of his branded Trump Towers in the Russian capital of Moscow, negotiations for which were ongoing during a campaign when Trump was promising the American electorate he had no deals in Russia, and was on board during all sorts of suspicious meetings between the Trump campaign and various Russians, so of course all the information seized from his office and home and hotel room are bound to be of interest to the special counsel investigation into that even more problematic “Russia thing.”
Meanwhile, although it’s less titillating, Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency director Scott Pruitt is headed to Congressional hearings amid criticism from both parties. The left hates Pruitt for reigning in the agency’s zealous overregulation, but although even such old-fashioned Republicans as ourselves appreciate there’s a bipartisan concern about the way Pruitt lives high on the taxpayer dollar with first class tickets and traffic-stopping motorcades and $43,000 soundproof booths straight out of “Get Smart,” and a sweetheart apartment deal he got from some lobbyists. Stalwart Republican and fellow Oklahoman Sen. James Inhofe said he has been pleased by Pruitt “rolling back regulations and restoring EPA to its proper size and scope, but these latest reports are new to me. While I have no reason to believe them, they are concerning and I think we should hear directly from Administrator Pruitt about them.”
Deeper in the news, interim head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Mick Mulvaney boastfully told a meeting of bank executives that as a South Carolina congressman he had a strict policy of never meeting with an out-of-state lobbyist until a significant campaign contribution had been paid. The CFPB was created during President Barack Obama’s administration by Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and bunch of other far-left types to protect consumers from predatory banks, and there are sound Republican reasons for reducing its size and scope, but a guy who openly brags to bankers about he’s open for business probably isn’t the best choice for the job.
And that’s just Wednesday’s headlines. Already long forgotten are the reality star who ran the communications department, the guy who didn’t get to replace her because of a profanity-laden rant to a New Yorker writer, the national security advisor who’s since pleaded guilty to perjury charges, the former campaign chairman under indictment for a whole lot of “Russia thing” stuff, the recently little-seen son-in-law in charge of everything from the opioid crisis to Middle East peace and reinventing government, and so many others that Rachel Maddow giggles uncontrollably whenever the list of small type departures fills the screen on her MSNBC show. Not to mention all the past employees of the New Jersey General and Trump Airlines and Trump Casinos and Trump University and numerous other failed Trump enterprises who didn’t prove the very best people.
Which is not to say that Crooked Hillary would have done any better at draining the swamp, which Trump and all of his apologists will surely note, but still.

— Bud Norman

Your Candidates For Commander-in-Chief, Alas

While President Barack Obama was making another stop on his diplomatic trip to the Far East Wednesday, his would-be successors were appearing on the MSNBC cable network’s “Commander in Chief Forum,” with both spending a half-hour or so answering a series of questions about defense and foreign policy from the National Broadcasting Company’s Matt Lauer and selected members of a an audience comprised mostly of military veterans. None of it, needless to say, was at all reassuring.
A dear friend’s 70th birthday party and a principled lack of cable access kept us from watching the event live, but thanks to the modern miracle of YouTube we were able to watch all the grilling of both Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald J. Trump, and without commercial interruption at that. We can’t recommend you do, though, as the lack of direct confrontation between the candidates made for rather dreary viewing.
An unfavorable coin toss determined that Clinton would be given the first half-hour, ending that remarkable 6-for-6 coin-flipping streak that helped her win the Iowa caucus, and her bad luck didn’t end there. She had a well-crafted introductory statement about her long experience in foreign affairs as a First Lady and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as Secretary of State, and how it has honed her judgment, but that just walked right into Lauer’s first question about that unindexed and yet ongoing e-mail scandal of hers. She had a well-rehearsed answer acknowledging that it had been a mistake to use a private server for many of e-mail communications, insisted she had used only the government server for anything with a “header” indicating it was classified. She clearly hoped that no one would know that much classifiable information was coming to her attention before it could be classified, and that someone with better judgment would have treated it as such, and that there are plenty of other holes in her story. Alas, the next audience member was an Air Force veteran whose work had required security clearances, and who was convinced that he would have been jailed for the actions Clinton has now admitted, so she had to run through yet another variation on the same unconvincing lines.
Lauer then asked about Clinton’s vote as a senator in favor of the Iraq War, which is by now such an unpopular affair that the Republican nominee is bragging that he had always opposed it and that George W. Bush had lied the country into the mess. Clinton once again apologized for the vote, and rightly noted that Trump’s claims to have been opposed all along are completely baseless, then made a plausible argument that her willingness to admit and learn from mistakes has improved her judgment. Although still on the defensive she seemed to be punching back at that point, but the next question was about that awful deal the Obama administration struck with the Iranians on their nuclear weapons programs.
Clinton first noted about how she had worked to impose harsh sanctions on the Iranian government, without acknowledging that the sanctions had begun under the previous administration, then boasted that had succeeded in forcing Iran to the negotiating table. Given the worse-than-Nevill-Chamberlain sort of appeasement that resulted from the negotiations this hardly seems a success, but at least the worst of the deal was finalized by her successor as Secretary of State. She’ll be very tough in enforcing that awful package of appeasement, Clinton assured the audience, and she also talked tough about Iran’s many other outrages, and we had a certain sense that she was trying to put at least some distance between herself and the Obama administration.
There was also talk about the sorry state of the Veterans Administration, which Clinton can’t be readily blamed for and which she seemed plenty outraged about, and when asked to explain her policy toward the Islamic State “as briefly as you can” she sounded very hawkish even as she promised there would be no ground troops in either Iraq or Syria. She also talked about going after Islamic State leader Bagu al-Baghdadi, “just like we did with Osama bin Laden,” reminding the audience of the Obama administration’s biggest hit of the past seven-and-a-half-years, and finished with a vow to be tough on terrorism but making no promises to prevent it altogether.
Even Trump’s most media-averse admirers would be hard pressed to find fault with Lauer’s performance, which kept Clinton on the defensive through most of the interview. A more thorough interrogation about the e-mails would have required the hours that Republican congressional investigations spent on the matter, so we’ll also give Lauer some reluctant credit for compressing it into a few challenges about her most outrageous claims. Even Clinton’s most die-hard detractors would have to admit that she seemed quite feisty in her defense, however, with none of the coughing fits or fatigue or seizures or other afflictions that have lately been talked about all over the internet, and unless you’re already well aware of what she was talking there were no takeaway gaffes. We imagine that her most avid fans were well pleased with the performance, that her most disdainful detractors were not at all swayed, and that anyone in the undecided ranks would be waiting to hear what the Republican might say.
What the Republican had to say was hard to parse, as usual, but so far as we can tell it boiled down to him saying that everything was going to be great with him in charge, believe him. Asked what experiences he had to demonstrate the judgment to run America’s foreign he mentioned his vast business empire, which includes deals in countries overseas, some of which of are really taking advantage of the rest of the United States, believe him, so surely he could tell when it was necessary to put American military lives in harm’s way. He reiterated his lie that he was speaking out against the Iraq War before it was launched, citing an interview in GQ magazine that appeared about a year into the war as proof, and added that the Obama administration’s withdrawal from Iraq was also a “total disaster.” Trump was asked about his well-known propensity to say outrageous things, and his own recent admission that he has occasionally chosen wrong words, and how that might affect his performance as a head of state, and Trump went on about how certain wrong words were needed to defeat all those more qualified Republican candidates that stood in his way to the nomination. He then mentioned his recent trip to Mexico, where he was respectfully greeted with diplomatic protocol and didn’t say anything to get him kicked out, then bragged that the trip had been so successful that some Mexican official who arranged the trip was fired due to the Mexican public’s ensuing outrage over the invitation.
Lauer revived an old Trump quote claiming to know more about the Islamic State than the American military’s generals did, and Trump noted that the generals have no been successful thus far, although he blamed Obama and Secretaries of State Clinton and John Kerry for the failure, and that there might well be an entirely different group of generals he’ll be dealing with that, and that they’ll be the types who won’t have MacArthur and Patton spinning in their graves. He even suggested that his secret plan for defeating the Islamic State will await the 30 days he’s giving the generals to come up with their own plan, and that their might might even be incorporated into his secret plan, but in any case it’s going to be a great plan, believe him.
Whatever that plan might turn out to be, be assured that if it amounts to any military action at all it’s going to include plenty of old-fashioned plunder. Trump has embraced the far-left’s chants about “Bush lied, people died,” but he clearly has no use for that “No blood for oil” slogan, and explained that “I’ve always said we shouldn’t be in there, but if we’re going to get out, take the oil.” At this point Lauer made a rare interruption to ask how that might be accomplished, and Trump acknowledged that some people would be “left behind” to get the job done, and Lauer didn’t ask how many of these people there would be, or how many soldiers and airmen would be needed to protect them, much less the many hundreds of miles of pipelines and supply lines need for the project, not to mention the fallout from the inevitable worldwide outrage over the planet’s mightiest military power claiming waging openly proclaimed wars of plunder.
A woman who was introduced as a Democrat and a graduate of the first West Point class to include women got to ask a question about illegal immigrants being allowed in the military, seeming to favor the idea herself, and she got a big hand for that first woman West Pointer distinction, and with his usual keen sense of the crowd Trump said he would work with that. The next questions were about Russia, though, and not so easily handled.
Whatever concerns the people of Mexico or those unfortunate oil-rich lands currently held by the Islamic State might have about a Trump administration, the future of Russo-American relations look rosy indeed, believe him. Trump once again confidently predicted he would have “a good relationship with Putin, and a very good relationship with Russia,” again promised that “as long as he says good things about me, I’ll say good things about him,” protested an interjection by Lauer about the likelihood that Putin’s government hacked the Democratic National Committee by saying “nobody knows that for a fact,” lamented that Obama and Putin were photographed exchanging icy stares during the Group of 20 summit, and seemed sure he’d get a more respectful Air Force One greeting from the Russians than Obama got from the Chinese. Trump suggested a possible alliance with the Russians against the Islamic State, made no mention of Russia’s aggression in Georgia and the Ukraine and threats against much of the rest of the former Soviet empire, and when asked about such issues he said “it’s possible” that Putin will abandon his revanchist ambitions in the event of a Trump administration.
Trump was also asked about the VA, a problem he also cannot be credibly blamed for and is plenty outraged about, and he offered what seemed a sensible idea of providing vouchers for veterans to seek care in the private sector when waiting lines at the government-run doctor’s office became dangerously long. Clinton had scored some points with the veterans by opposing “privatization,” which according to the polls even scares veterans in this day and age, and we note that Trump took pains to insist his plan wasn’t “privatization.” We’d prefer a capitalist-minded Republican who’d embrace the term and make the compelling case for it, and there’s no better case to be made for it than government-run health care, but these days that’s too much to ask for. One of the last questions was about the large number of sexual-harassment charges being alleged in the military, and Trump was reminded of a “tweet” that read “What did these geniuses think when they put men and women together?,” and he defended it by saying “Many people say that.” He added that it was necessary to keep the military court system, and then later that we need to establish a military court system, and he did come out forthrightly in favor of imposing consequences for sexual assaults.
Lauer’s now being pilloried by the left for failing to press Trump on many of these statements, but from our never-Trump perspective on the right we’ll grudgingly concede that it would have been awful hard to compress all the questions into a mere half-hour. With about two-thirds of Clinton’s interview spent on the defensive we’ll have to kick our feet against the sand and lower our heads and say it seemed fair enough, all in all, and that the candidates had only themselves to blame.
Trump probably came out of it slightly better than even, poll-wise. Trump’s so-loyal-he-could-shoot-someone supporters got the the “take their oil” rhetoric they’ve come to expect, while Trump’s most die-hard opponents will glumly concede that at least he didn’t repeat his talk about the indiscriminate torture of detainees and the killing of their civilian relatives and the neo-con overreach of the past 16 years of American foreign policy, and the sensitive souls of the Huffington Post were even worried that might have seem slightly presidential to those who can’t spare the time to think through the implications of that “take their oil” policy. Most of Trump’s most disdainful opponents won’t bother with that, either, but in any case they’ll not be swayed.
Clinton and Trump will face each other head-to-head later this month, unless Clinton succumbs to fatal illness or Trump finds some scheduling or moderator issue as an excuse to dodge it, depending on which internet rumors you prefer to believer, and that might be more fun. At this point, though, we don’t expect it will be any more reassuring.

— Bud Norman

Too Much News for a Summer’s Day

Summertime is when the living is supposed to be easy and the news slow, a time for the pundits to reach into the tickler file for a timeless think piece to fill up space, but that doesn’t seem to be the case this year. News is now flowing like a river of lava from a volcano, the living is not at all easy along its path, and there seems little time to mull what it all means.
The lazy, hazy days of summers of have brought Russian tanks rolling into Ukraine, the Syrian civil war spilling into Iraq and threatening to overwhelm Baghdad and all of America’s hard-fought gains in that ever-troublesome country, more provocations in the South China Sea, the release of five dangerous high-ranking terrorists in exchange for a soldier who seems to have deserted, and the rise of a wide range of grumpy political parties across Europe threatening to unravel that continent’s unpopular experiment in central planning and political correctness. On the domestic front there’s an invasion of unaccompanied minors on the southwest borders that is enjoying a White House reception, the shocking maltreatment of aging patriots by the Veterans Administration, a highly suspicious development in the slowly unfolding scandal of the Internal Revenue Service’s harassment of the president’s “tea party” foes, and some notable successes by that “tea party” is making the Republican party an even grumpier foe of this country’s unpopular experiment in central planning and political correctness. If Hillary Clinton planned her book tour and presidential campaign launch for a slow news cycle she was probably disappointed by the competing news, but the fact it’s gone so badly she’s probably now glad of it is also an intriguing story. All of which obscures the same old story about the sputtering economy, and supersedes past scandals such as Benghazi and the National Security Agency and such golden oldies as Solyndra and Fast and Furious and the rest of it, but otherwise does little to bolster faith in a long, hot summer.
In addition to its dizzying quantity the summer’s news also has an unmistakably significant quality to it. Those Russian tanks herald a new Cold War, the Iraq debacle heralds the revival of an Islamist strain that had been prematurely declared dead, China’s bellicosity is causing tensions that cannot be soothed by a presidential tour of the region, the sort of mischief that those five released terrorists might cause is demonstrated by the released terrorists who’s leading that charge in Iraq, and those grumpy new political parties in Europe are a reminder that the west isn’t all unified in response to such existential challenges. The children’s crusade from the Third World into America and the dying veterans at the bureaucratic hospitals and the impeachable implications of the IRS’ misbehavior all deserve consideration, and merge into a broader story that explains why those “tea party” folks are so grumpy and even the oh-so-polite-to-Democrats journalists are giving Clinton a hard time. There seems to be a common theme to all this news, but we’ve too busy following links from one internet page of bad news to another to develop a unified field theory of it all.
All that bad news hasn’t been so plentiful that it kept the president from enjoying a round of golf at a swank Florida course over the weekend, and we suppose this is meant to be reassuring. Ike used to golf through a crisis, according to popular legend, and everybody liked Ike. Somehow we are not reassured, however, and find ourselves pining for those lazy, hazy days of summer when the living was easy. We even find ourselves looking forward to the chill of fall, when an even grumpier Republican party will be on the ballot with a promise to resist central planning and political correctness and all this damnable news.

— Bud Norman

Lingering Headlines, Dwindling Hope

Some cynics have suggested that President Barack Obama’s release of five high-ranking terrorists from the Guantanamo Bay war prison in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was timed to detract attention from the scandalous mismanagement of the Veterans Administration that had dominated the headlines in the preceding days. If so, the stratagem seems to have succeeded. The prisoner swap isn’t following the script of  the heart-warming remake of “Saving Private Ryan” that the administration intended, and is instead getting panned by even the most supportive critics, who find the story less rousing when everyone in Private Ryan’s unit is telling anyone who will listen that he was a deserter whose desertion cost the lives of the other men, which has forced the administration to resort to slandering those men, but at least no one is talking about the VA.
They’re still talking about it in Congress, where a deal in the works to pass a bill that will fix everything that’s been wrong with the VA the past many years. According to the few reports still being filed about the issue, the bill would cough up another $2 billion and allow whoever was tabbed to replace that Gen. Shinseki guy to actually fire someone. Negotiations have apparently stalled over how much power the VA Secretary should have to fire someone, with those crazy Republicans and their private sector predilections insisting on unlimited discretions and those sober Democrats with their public sector principles insisting on three-week appeals and other proprieties. While the negotiations drag on honorable veterans dependent on VA care will continue to sit on off-the-books waiting lists to get medical care, but the truly compassionate will be relieved to know that Private Bradley Manning’s sex-change operation won’t be delayed during his stay in prison for leaking government secrets,
Leading the negotiations are Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and independent socialist Bernie Sanders of Vermont, which also does not inspire hope, but we’re hoping that McCain’s tougher approach will prevail. our experience of institutions tell us that fixing the broken ones requires that somebody be fired, although it seems unlikely that anyone appointed by the current administration will be reluctant to do so even if given the authority. The authority to clean house seems more important than that niggling $2 billion, given that the VA’s funding has tripled since 2001 even as the number of veterans has declined from 25.5 million to 21.9 million. Some loyal Democrats are still grousing that the VA is underfunded, but veterans are a key Republican constituency and even their non-veteran voters tear up at the mention of military service, so “full funding” is one of the few campaign promises that Obama has actually kept. All those dollars spent divided by the much smaller number of veterans actually seeking care from the VA would amount to a substantial voucher check, which would allow those patients to fire at will any doctors putting them on a waiting list and find other providers for care far more essential than a sex-change operation, but that is probably too much to hope for from the current government.
The situation is infuriating enough that the administration would probably just as soon have us talking about that ill-advised and extra-legal prisoner swap, and there aren’t many other promising topics of conversation to take up. The economy leaves record numbers of Americans out of work and in poverty and on government assistance, more problems with Obamacare keep popping up, that lady from the Internal Revenue Service is still pleading the Fifth Amendment to avoid answering questions about the agency’s harassment of dissident groups, and from the increasingly bloody Ukraine to the rout in Syria to the still-chugging nuclear program in Iran to the latest Chinese aggressions in eastern Asia there is little to boast about. Even those kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls that Obama frequently mentioned in his recent triumphalist major foreign policy address at West Point are still in captivity. The outraged headlines shift from topic to topic with every few days, but none inspire any faith in the administration.
Nor does the news inspire any hope in the change that will comes from the administration’s broader aspirations. The prisoner swap was probably intended to make the administration’s long-stated goal of closing Guantanamo Bay more attainable by releasing its most dangerous prisoners, but the backlash makes any further releases a provocation to impeachment. That continuing mess at the VA raises doubts about the government’s ability to manage manage health care for the rest of the country through Obamacare, especially when the Democrats are so stubborn about firing anyone, and the liberal argument that these people know best and should be allowed to run every aspect of your life seems all the more implausible. That prisoner swap is proving a fiasco for the administration, but it still might be a useful distraction.

— 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

If Only Obama Knew

The scandal about the Veterans Administration grows more infuriating by the day, and we are assured by a high ranking official that the President Barack Obama is “madder than hell than about it.” Whether he is angry about the off-the-books waiting lists and substandard service that possibly cost the lives of as many as 40 people or the potential political costs of their public revelation is unclear, but in either case his anger is at least somewhat reassuring.
That “madder than hell” declaration is accompanied by the usual promises that any problems will be forthrightly addressed and quickly solved, and some high-ranking VA official or another has already resigned shortly before his long-planned retirement date, but by now it’s hard to take all that seriously. The president is still standing by the VA Secretary, who haas politely declined to upstage his boss by declaring that he is merely “mad as hell” about what was going on during his watch, and the outrage has become increasingly unconvincing with repetition. Similar outrage was expressed by the president about the Fast and Furious scandal, and he still stands by the Attorney General who was cited for contempt of Congress for stonewalling an investigation into the truth of that deadly matter. More presidential anger attended the four deaths by terrorism at the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, but the high-ranking officials are now saying “Dude, that was, like, two years ago.” The president again waxed livid about a few Cleveland-based rogue agents of the Internal Revenue Service harassing his political enemies, but when a high-ranking official invoked a Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and it became apparent that the plot seeped deep into Washington he dismissed it as one of those “phony scandals.” The pattern is so obvious that even the slow-witted wags of the Republican National Committee have noticed, putting together an amusing montage of the president’s recurring wrath, and it seems unlikely that this time around will yield actual results.
Even so, it’s heartening that the VA story has sufficient legs to force yet another statement of the president’s anger. Every time Obama goes into his angry mode he sounds so very convincing that the average voters wind up wishing that he could be president so he might do something about it, and one can only hope they’ll eventually notice that he has been president for more than five years. The president’s spokesmen are disputing reports that he knew about the VA’s deadly practices back in ’08, and insist that he only learned of it by reading the latest newspapers, and even if that date sticks he’ll have the ready excuse of blaming it on the all-purpose scapegoat of the George W. Bush administration, but there’s faint hope the public won’t buy it yet again. Presidents have traditionally been expected to know more than what they read in the newspapers, and for all his faults George W. Bush can’t plausibly be blamed for what Obama hasn’t done over the past five years.
The dangerous inadequacies of the VA certainly do stretch back to the Bush years, and probably all the way back to its very beginning. Congressional Republicans are responding to the problem with a proposal to allow the VA Secretary to actually fire someone, rather than risking any political problems by calling for the firing of a former Four Star General who became a Democratic darling by criticizing Bush’s Iraq War policies, and it demonstrates the inherent problems of efficiently running a federal government bureaucracy. This should raise questions about the ability of a federal government bureaucracy to administer health care for everyone, and not just a relatively small number of veterans, and we expect the president will be angry about that. Pretty much the entire Obama agenda is based on the argument that government knows best and can be trusted, and in any case Obama deserves such trust, and the argument is not bolstered by the latest revelations about the VA.

— Bud Norman

Two More Scandals to Consider

So many scandals are afoot that it’s hard to muster the necessary outrage for any new ones, but the recent revelations about the Veterans Administration and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency are worth noting. Both are outrageous even by the jaded standards of the moment, and both make important points about ongoing debates.
Some government officials are still insisting that there’s no proof anybody died as a result of what happened at a VA hospitals in Arizona, Colorado, Texas, Wyoming, and elsewhere, but that’s the best spin they’ve been able to put on it. There are allegations that hospitals in those states used off-the-books waiting lists to get around a federal requirement that veterans in need of care be seen within 14 days of calling for an appointment, which had been made after widespread complaints of dangerous delays, and the claims are being taken seriously. Congress has launched yet another investigation, and some Republicans have already joined the American Legion in calling for the secretary of veterans’ affairs to resigns. The president has appointed his deputy chief of staff to investigate the matter, and the even the usually respectful reporters at Reuters acknowledge that “The move demonstrated White House concern that the issue is taking on growing political weight.”
Less attention has been paid, for some reason, to the release by ICE of 36,007 criminals who were awaiting deportation hearings last year. The agency’s catch-and-release program freed 193 illegal aliens who had been convicted of homicide, including one who had murdered a public official, 426 with sexual assault convictions, 303 convicted kidnappers, and more than 16,000 with drunk or drugged driving records. Texas’ Rep. Lamar Smith said it “would be considered the worst prison break in American history, except that it was sanctioned by the president and perpetrated by our own immigration officials,” but few others were willing to address the matter with such candor. Another 36,0007 criminals on the streets doesn’t warrant much attention from the press, which seems more concerned that photo identification requirements might prevent the undocumented fellows from voting, but to the extent that the public is aware it will likely be miffed.
These stories will have to compete for space with the Benghazi and Internal Revenue Service scandals and the continuing sluggishness of the economy and all the crisis that are popping up from the South China Sea to Iran to Ukraine and beyond, but we hope they’ll find some room as the country considers what to do about Obamacare and the millions of people illegally in the country. The poor care being provided for the nation’s relatively small number of veterans should raise doubts about the government’s ability to run health care for the rest of the country, and the administration’s willingness to unloose 36,007 convicted on the streets should bolster arguments that it can’t trusted to enforce any closed-border provisions that might be tacked onto an amnesty plan. If the stories raise further doubts about the government’s ability to manage the entire economy and maintain some semblance of international order, so much the better.

— Bud Norman