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Youthful Idealism and Its Inevitable Woes

At the risk of sounding even older and more cynical than we are, which is admittedly rather old and cynical, we must say we don’t care much for youthful idealism. In fact, we’ve long regarded youthful idealism as one of history’s most destructive forces.
This has been our firmly held opinion since back in our high school days, when we couldn’t help but notice what a poorly educated lot our classmates were, and we continued to think so as we watched high school students here in Wichita and around the country staging walk-out protests on Wednesday against the country’s ongoing epidemic of mass shootings.
Not that we’re at all in favor of mass shootings, of course, and we can well understand why high school students would be especially anxious and opinionated about this peculiarly American problem. Nor do we disagree with more thorough background checks for gun purchases and a ban on “bump stocks” and certain other proposals the protest movement seems to be advocating. In any case, we steadfastly uphold the right of even the most ill-educated youngsters to express their opinions in a public forum.
America’s mass shooting problem is damned complicated, however, and won’t likely be solved by a high school level of analysis. Many of the students involved in the protests seem to favor a complete ban on private gun ownership, which is at least as futile as a ban on abortion or marijuana or illegal immigration or any other number pf bans they would instinctively reject. Others are merely advocating a ban on the semi-automatic rifles they imprecisely call “assault weapons,” which is somewhat less futile but still a pretty damned complicated matter with some valid if subtle arguments on the other side. Even the most reasonable demands about background checks and bump stocks and such are couched in youthfully idealist language that tends to demonize law-abiding gun owners and their constitutional rights.
Constitutional rights have survived countless challenges from youthful idealism, though, and we expect that trend to continue. The current children’s crusade is getting a lot of supportive press, and some of the high schoolers from the latest shot-up high school are so very well-spoken and telegenically sympathetic that the right-wing conspiracy theorists are plausibly theorizing they’re from central casting, and some big corporations have already stopping selling so-called “assault weapons” and offering discounts to members of the demonized National Rifle Association, but it will be hard to sustain.
The kids are competing for column inches and air time with the even more telegenic movie star babes protesting sexual harassment, that “Black Lives Matter” thing still lingers, all of the letters in the “LGBTQ” coalition continue to press their respective grievances, not to mention all the rest of the left’s constant carping about President Donald Trump. They all have their very valid arguments, of course, but they tend to get lost in the noise, and as always they also generate an equal and opposite amount of noise from the right, some of which also has some valid arguments.
Youth movements are hard to sustain, too, and often go awry. Our high school days came a few years after those halcyon days when high schoolers were walking out of class to protest the Vietnam War, which had come to a desultory end partly as a result, and many of our classmates were envious of the frisson of moral superiority they’d experienced, but they were relegated to staging walk-outs over such mundane matters as school dress codes. The opportunity to skip an algebra class always fueled the walkouts, but at our high school the dress codes were so permissive and the truancy rules so laxly enforced that it never came up.
Our guess is that a lot of high schoolers in America have parents who own firearms, including semi-automatic rifles, and well understand the valid reasons, and we note that the vast majority of high schoolers here in Wichita and around the country didn’t walk out. We’ll also guess that some of those walked out did so because it sounded like more fun than chemistry class.
Still, we wish the young punks luck in solving that damned complicated and peculiarly American problem of mass shootings. and hope they’ll nudge their presumably more wised-up elders to some sort of reasonable solution.

— Bud Norman

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Mulling the Matter of Mueller and Trump

President Donald Trump and his lawyers and all his unpaid supporters in congress and the Trump-friendly media seem quite cocky that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s meddling in the past presidential election will completely vindicate Trump of any wrongdoing, but just in case they also want you to know that Mueller fellow can’t be trusted.
There’s an obviously coordinated effort by Trump administration and family members and the more loyal congressional Republicans and Fox News and several prominent talk radio hosts afoot to discredit Mueller and his staff, and it’s lately intensified. Donald Trump Jr. recently warned the “USA Student Action Summit” of college-aged Republicans that “there are people at the highest levels of America who don’t want America to be America.” Some Republican congressmen are calling for a special counsel to investigate Mueller’s special counsel investigation, citing some leaked e-mails and other evidence they believe prove it’s all what Trump himself often calls a “witch hunt.” The Fox Network’s “Judge” Jeanine Pirro wants unnamed-but-Mueller-affiliated peopled hauled off “in cuffs,” and Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and Mark Levin have lately spent most of their combined nine hours of broadcasts on a local talk radio station casting further aspersions on Mueller and his fellow investigators.
They always note that several members of Mueller’s team have given generous campaign donations to Hillary Clinton and other Democrats, which is undeniably true and worth noting, but they never note that so did Trump’s top lawyer Ty Cobb and favorite daughter Ivanka Trump and that idiot husband of her’s who’s somehow a top senior advisor to the White House in charge of solving everything from America’s opioid crisis to Middle East peace, and that Trump himself was once a generous funder of Clinton’s senatorial campaigns and the Clinton family foundation that his supporters now want to investigate. They relish in the suspiciously leaked e-mails between a couple of Federal Bureau of Investigation agents who were having an adulterous sexual relationship and sharing sharply anti-Trump sentiments, but they rarely acknowledge they also shared anti-Clinton and anti-Bernie Sanders and anti-pretty-much-everyone-else sentiments, and that Mueller reassigned both of those bitter agents as soon as he got wind of their outspoken political opinions.
The Trump apologists have some outraged and undeniably true allegations about the past administration’s tapped phones calls of Trump campaign and administration officials, but they don’t mention that the phones being tapped belonged to Russian officials, which Republicans and other conservatives have always wanted tapped. They might have some plausible legal arguments that the Americans on other side of those conversations shouldn’t have been “unmasked,” in the legal jargon, but they’d just wind up making the argument that it’s a bigger scandal that attempts to track a political nominee’s possible collusion with a Russian plot to affect an American presidential election is more abhorrent than the plot itself.
We’ve been Republicans long enough that we still feel the pain of President Richard Nixon going down for his ultimately undeniable misdeeds, and we assess the current situation accordingly. Given how complicated this is, our instinct is to take measure of both Trump and Mueller by some blind test of the two Republicans.
One of the two is a life-long Republican. He was born into a fairly well-to-do family as the son of a high-ranking DuPont executive, and excelled as a student and athlete at the rigorous prep school he was able to attend, and his high marks earned hi admission to Princeton, where he graduated with honors and bachelor’s degree in political science while starring on the lacrosse team. After earning a master’s degree in international relations from New York University he volunteered for service in the Marine Corps and won numerous combats medals including the Purple Heart for his service in the Vietnam War.
After Vietnam subject A earned a law degree from the University of Virginia, and after three years of distinguished service to a prestigious law firm in San Francisco commend a distinguished career of public service as a U.S. attorney in northern California. In the Reagan year of 1982 he was moved over to the Massachusetts district, where he enhanced his reputation by uncovering all sorts of Democratic misbehavior there. After another brief but noteworthy stint in Boston’s private sector he was nominated by Republican President George W. Bush as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was unanimously confirmed the senate, and served another two years in the post at the request of Democratic President Barack Obama.
He’s also been a lifelong Republican all along, and been married to the same woman, and is not only an Eagle Scout but generously endows a college scholarship for other Eagle Scouts, and as lifelong Republicans and improbable Eagle Scouts we can’t help but like the guy.
Subject B was a Democrat and an independent and Reform Party candidate before becoming the winning nominee and putative leader of the Republican party. He’s the son of a multi-millionaire real estate mogul who was once arrested in a Ku Klux Klan riot, and he was such a proudly defiant punk his father sent off to a military school, where he did well enough in sports but was such a middling student that he wound up at Fordham University for two years. His rich dad made enough contributions to the low-level Ivy League University of Pennsylvania that he was admitted there, and would always lie that he graduated from it’s more prestigious master’-level Wharton School of Business. After that a doctor found some bone spurs that prevented him serving in the Vietnam War but didn’t seem interfere with his much bragged-about-golf game, and he went on to a much-bragged about fortune in real estate and reality television that he freely brags was facilitated by political bribes, and survived several bankruptcies and lawsuits about his penchant for not paying bills and currently has an undeniably odd relationship with his third wife and a penchant for gratuitous insults to fellow Republicans.
Even the blind know by now that Subject B is the President of the United States and the putative leader of our Republican party, but if it comes down to who you’re gonna believe we can’t help a certain affinity for Subject A in our blind test. We’ll let them sort out their arguments in the court of public opinion and the inevitable courts of law and hope that some semblance of our old-fashioned Republicanism survives this awful mess.

— Bud Norman

Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

Our old fashioned parents always taught that whenever we make a mistake in life the right thing to do, and the smart play to make, is to fully confess and offer a sincere apology to anyone who was harmed. The lesson has served us well in life, even if it didn’t bring us to the White House, so we recommend it to President Donald Trump.
Trump brags that his parents taught him to never admit fault and under no circumstances offer an apology, and although the lesson does somehow seem to have brought him to the White House it hasn’t served him well there. Lately it has embroiled in him in spats with a bona fide war hero and the grieving family of a fallen soldier, and although he somehow survived similar spats on his way to the presidency we can’t see how he ultimately comes out a winner. Trump’s fans always note that at least he fights, but so far all his ill-chosen fights haven’t brought about any noticeable victories, and these latest spats don’t seem likely to help.
The spat with the grieving family started last week when a pesky reporter asked why Trump had gone 13 days without mentioning the four soldiers who had died in an ambush attack in Niger, and instead of offering any of the plausible explanations for the oversight he falsely boasted about he always personally consoled the families and suggested that his two predecessors had been too callous to do so. He hadn’t yet sent any letters or made any phone calls to the four grieving families, as it turned out, but he made a hurried effort to do so, and wound up giving offense to one of the families he called. By happenstance a partisan Democratic congresswoman is a close and long-time friend of the family who was with them when the call came through on speakerphone, and she revealed to the press that Trump had upset the family by saying that deceased soldier “knew what he was signing up for” and didn’t mention him by name, instead referring to him as “your guy.”
Trump denied every word of it, and claimed to have proof, but his spokespeople wound up verifying every word of it. His four-star general chief of staff took a rare turn at the podium to recall how similar words had comforted him when his own son had died in service to the country, and admitted that he had advised the president to use similar language. Then Trump’s press secretary insisted that just because Trump had indeed referred to the fallen soldier as “your guy” didn’t mean the president knew his name.
It turns out on the video record that the partisan Democrat only briefly mentioned her role in the naming of the building in honor of two fallen FBI agents, gave most of the credit to Republican House Speaker John Boehner, and spent the rest of the speech honoring the honoring the two fallen agents and everyone else who had served in the agency. Trump “tweeted” about the “wacky” congresswoman, who plausibly could be blamed for politicizing the tragedy, but he suffered a full week of bad news cycles when it became apparent she was telling the truth. When the fallen soldier’s grieving widow went on national television Monday morning to tearfully verify the partisan congresswoman’s account of the phone call, it set up another bad week.
Even such Trump critics as ourselves don’t doubt that the president was trying his very best to be empathetic and consoling in in that phone call, and going on the advice of a four-star general who faced the bad news he was addressing, but even his most ardent defenders have to admit that empathy and consolation are not his strengths, and by now there’s no denying that he did wind up giving offense to that grieving family. These things happen even to such empathetic and consoling and well-raised sorts such as ourselves, but we were raised to offer full confessions and full and profuse apologies in such situations, which might have soothed the family’s feelings and avoided another week of bad news. Trump, of course, “tweeted” that the grieving widow was lying about the conversation and doubled down on his taunts of the “wacky” but apparently truthful congresswoman, and provoked another bad week of news cycles for everyone.
Meanwhile, former Republican presidential nominee and Arizona Sen. John McCain was giving an interview to a documentary about the long-ago Vietnam War. McCain was was a prisoner of that war after one of his many Naval flights was shot down, and he endured extra years of tortuous imprisonment after he selflessly declined an early release due to his father’s and grandfather’s gold-star admiral status, rather than betray his comrades and hand the enemy a propaganda victory, and during his successful campaign for the Republican nomination Trump said with characteristic empathy that McCain was “only a hero because he got caught. I like a guy who didn’t get caught, OK?” During his interview with the documentarians, McCain didn’t mention Trump by name, but he lamented that too many lower-class men had been conscripted to service while too many upper-class men were spared the sacrifice of combat because they “found a doctor to say they had bone spur.”

Trump got four educational deferments from the draft while studying business at the University of Pennsylvania’s business school, and a fifth one when a well-paid doctor diagnosed a bone spur in the boastful athlete, and he later told fellow shock jock Howard Stern that he endured his own “personal Vietnam” by avoiding sexually transmitted diseases on the New York City dating scene while McCain suffered torture, so there’s little doubt who McCain was talking about. Trump hasn’t yet apologized for any of it, and it somehow propelled him to the White House, but so far as we can tell Trump has yet “tweeted” anything to continue this ultimately losing feud. Trump has his fans booing McCain’s name at his rallies, and McCain’s decisive vote against repeal and replacement of Obamacare and other Republican heresies make for reasonable debate about which is the more heretical Republican, but Trump is probably wise not to raise the question about who was more heroic during the Vietnam war.

Trump would also be wise to avoid any questions about who was more heroic in the recent tragic battle in someplace called Niger, where even the Republicans on the congressional committees admit they didn’t know we had any servicemen in harm’s way, but he wasn’t raised to avoid that fight. He might survive the ensuing bad news cycles, but he’s still hoping to repeal and replace Obamacare and get the biggest tax cut in history passed, and we better trust our parents’ advice that a full confession and fulsome apology is the best way to go about it.

— Bud Norman

Two Obituaries for the ’60s

There were more than the usual number of famous names in Monday’s obituaries, including a comedian who used to crack us up and the lead singer for a band that some of our friends can’t believe we don’t remember, but the ones that grabbed our attention were for Bobby Vee and Tom Hayden. The juxtaposition of the clean-cut teen idol with the smooth pop sound and the unkempt activist with the radical agenda was jarring, as they represent the cultural extremes of the 1960’s, and their almost simultaneous passings are a reminder that the influence of that turbulent decade still hasn’t quite come to an end.
Born as Robert Thomas Velline in Fargo, North Dakota, Bobby Vee came right out of the rock ‘n’ roll craze of the ’50s, with his big break coming when he and his garage band The Shadows filled in for Buddy Holly and the Crickets at the nearby Moorhead, Minnesota, stop on the Winter Dance Party tour after Holly’s death in a plane crash. That crash not only ended Holly’s legendary career but also the promising 16-year-old Richie Valens’, in the same year when Elvis Presley was drafted and Chuck Berry was sent to prison on a Mann Act violation and Jerry Lee Lewis’s career was derailed by the outrage over him marrying an underage cousin while he was married to someone else, a sex scandal trifecta that even The Rolling Stones haven’t achieved, and after that the greasier and scarier sorts of rock ‘n’ roll stars were briefly supplanted by such wholesomely handsome and well-groomed and suit-and-tie wearing singers such as Bobby Vee.
Vee’s first big hit was a strikingly Holly-esque tune called “Suzie Baby,” with the first recording retaining some of the inspiration’s jangly guitar and rock ‘n’ roll authenticity, but by the time he re-recorded what proved to be a smash hit it had been ironed out to fit an early ’60s sense of decorum. He followed that up with a luscious “Take Good Care of My Baby,” written with old-fashioned Tin Pan Alley craftsmanship by Barry Geffen and Carol King, and such professionally rendered pop songs as “Devil or Angel,” “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” and “Run to Him,” which still stand out among the best of that brief interregnum in rock ‘n’ roll’s reign. Each had a bouncy enough beat and uptempo youth appeal to fit on American Bandstand’s roundup of the latest youth culture, but it was fare more redolent of those ’40s and ’50s crooners and their carefully polished-tunes and earnest politeness that were nearly wiped out by rock ‘n’ roll, and that’s how the ’60s began.
The decade ended with musicians smashing their guitars and setting them afire and playing psychedelic electric guitar versions of The National Anthem, and rock ‘n’ rollers were suddenly even hairier and scarier than those backwoods rednecks and urban ghetto-dwellers of the ’50s had been, and that was the era when Tom Hayden became a sort of celebrity. Born in 1939 to more or less middle class comfort in the placid town of Royal Oak, Mich., Hayden attended a Catholic school where the pastor was the infamously right-wing radio pundit Father Charles Coughlin, then wound up at the infamously left-wing University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where he immediately began to acquire a left-wing infamy of his own. He was editor of the school’s suddenly radicalized student newspaper, jailed and beaten for his civil rights activism in the South, a founding member of the anti-Vietnam War and anti-capitalist Students for a Democratic Society, an author of the Port Huron Statement that became a manifesto for the New Left, and was one of the “Chicago Seven” brought to a widely publicized trial for allegedly fomenting riots at the 1968 Democratic Party’s national convention. This was lead-story-on-the-nightly-news and cover-of-The-Rolling-Stone stuff back then, so by the time the ’70s rolled around Hayden was a much bigger star than Bobby Vee.
Hayden wound up divorcing his first wife and a few years later getting married to Oscar-winning and impeccably left-wing actress Jane Fonda, with both soon heading off to Vietnam for a highly controversial photo-op with the North Vietnamese, and although they later divorced they were even more newsworthy than Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie while it lasted. After the divorce he settled in the woman he would be married to until his death, and a rather routine career as a politician. He lost a California Democratic primary race to Sen. John Tunney in ’76, but won a State Assemblyman seat in 82, moved up to the state Senate in 93 and hung around Sacramento until 2000, and compiled a record that was undeniably left-wing but not conspicuously radical by California standards. He lost races for governor in ’94 and the Los Angeles mayoralty in ’97 and a seat on the L.A. City Council in 2001.
By the time the 21st Century rolled around Hayden was still reviled by the city’s growing Vietnamese refugee population and aging white Republicans, but newly regarded as something of a sell-out by the newer New Left. Hayden had written memoirs and articles confessing his regret that his anti-Vietnam war stance had spilled over into anti-Americanism, ruefully acknowledging that his Students for a Democratic Society had spawned the terrorist Weather Underground, and lamenting that the free speech and individual rights ideas of that crazy Port Huron statement had somehow led to a newer New Left that clamored for speech codes and group identity politics, and seemed to have forgotten the realism of the Old Left that Father Coughlin had railed against and Hayden’s generation had nearly wiped out, and even his impeccably left-wing voting record could not absolve his heresies or make him hip again. At one point in the early ’80s we caught Hayden’s act live, as we were on a hitchhiking trip up the East Coast and crashed at a friends dorm at Harvard University and went along to lecture Hayden was giving, and we still chuckle at how the crowd rolled its eyes at his saccharine shtick about his daughter’s fear of nuclear weapons and how a professorial looking fellow with a gray beard and patched elbows on his jacket shouted “Send in the Marines!”
Bobby Vee stayed married to the same woman for 50 years, despite the temptations that a good-looking pop star probably encountered, spent most of the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s making a good living on the oldies circuit, then settled into a quiet small town life in St. Joseph, Minnesota, then slowly succumbed to an early onset of Alzheimer’s Disease. The Beatles covered “Take Good Care of My Baby” and “Run to Him,” so the hottest band of the ’60s vouched for his coolness, and the same Carol King who wrote the former song had the biggest selling album of the ’70s with that great Tin Pan Alley hippie manifesto of an album “Tapestry,” and another big fan is the newly proclaimed Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan. Back when Dylan was a small town Minnesota boy named Robert Zimmerman he had a short stint as the keyboards player with Bobby Vee and the Shadows, and we highly recommend his affectionate cover of “Suzie Baby.”
It remains how to be seen how the ’60s will ultimately play out, but we’re glad to note that this crazy election will almost certainly be the last to feature any of those damned baby-boomers, and we hope that the very best of both Bobby Vee and Tom Hayden will somehow persist, and that the worst of it will somehow fade away.

— Bud Norman

Requiem for a Heavyweight

In most cases, usually anything short of mass-murdering dictators or other unambiguously evil people, we try to hew to the rule about not speaking ill of the recently dead. The death on Saturday of former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali deserves some mention, however, and by now so much fulsome praise has already been heaped on the man that some more critical remarks about his life seem a necessary corrective to the record.
Ali was brutal in the ring and bumptious in his press conferences during his boxing prime, but he was no mass-murdering dictator, and anyone who also saw the poor fellow toward the end of his life when he’d been hampered and even endearingly humbled by the effects of Parkinson’s Disease and all the blows he’d absurd over his career will humbly admit that every life is to be judged by ambiguous standards, and that it’s best to leave the judging of any man’s soul to a higher power. Yet all that fulsome praise mentions his cultural influence, which cannot be denied, and any fellow citizen has not only a right but an obligation to consider whether that was more for the good or the bad. In Ali’s case, we think the self-proclaimed “Greatest of all Time” left the world a little worse off.
These days even the most ardent American sports fans would be hard-pressed to name the reigning heavyweight boxing champion of the world, so it’s now hard to imagine how a mere boxer could leave an entire world even a little bit worse off, but you should have been there back in Ali’s prime. Back then the reigning heavyweight champion of the world was still the most famous person on earth, and Ali was more famous than that. The Vietnam War was still being fought both there and here, and Ali’s refusal to be drafted had made him an important combatant on the domestic front, and he was also a key figure in the ongoing domestic battle over civil rights for black America, and was right up there with The Beatles and the Black Panthers and bra-burners a symbol of the emerging counter-culture that was overturning every aspect of “the establishment.” Even more than his undeniably impressive victories in the ring against the best of a golden era of heavyweight fighters, that is why such fulsome praise is being heaped on the man, but in every regard we take a dissenting view.
All the fulsome praise for Ali mentions that he gave up three prime years of his boxing career while his draft-resisting case winnowed its way up to the Supreme Court, where he ultimately prevailed by unanimous decision, and it is rightly noted that he did so on principle. Less noted, but well worth mentioning, is the fact that his principles were those of the Nation of Islam, a black supremacist cult that peddled the most fantastical notions about white people being a demonic race created by a mad Jewish scientist, and that the man who made his living and world-wide fame by beating people up had testified he was all on board for a race war and was not not your usual pacifist conscientious objector. By then the Vietnam War was so unpopular that any basis for opposition was applauded, and by now all the fulsome praise presupposes that only a few of us disagree fealty to the Nation of Islam and its crazed kill-whitey theories was more admirable than fealty to the supposedly racist America that somehow adored him and now sings his praises.
His unabashedly racist anti-war stance enhanced his reputation as an anti-racist icon, of course, in that age of “Radical Chic,” and his braggadocios and belittling taunts before every fight made him a much-touted role model for black men of his era. His golden era of heavyweight fighters was dominated by other black men, whom Ali routinely ridiculed as “gorillas” and “thugs” and every other racist stereotype one might imagine, but even then and even now the media loved his bravado. Then as now the media liked the idea that such brave champions as Floyd Patterson and Joe Frazier and Ken Norton and George Foreman were somehow sell-outs because they didn’t hate the entire white race, and that Ali’s taunts and occasionally unproved boasts and unabashed racism were the more authentic expression of black masculinity. We were in a racially diverse and very uneasy junior high school at the time, and we well recall that this crazed notion didn’t do either the white or black students any good.
All the the “establishment” notions were under assault at the time, though, including the idea that any competition between groups or individuals should involve some notions of fair play and mutual respect. Since then braggadocio and trash-talking has become the norm on the sporting scene, as well as the de facto notion of black masculinity, and by now it permeates a black American culture that once enriched the broader culture with jazz and the blues and countless other cultural treasures, and at this late date it has even turned up a presumptive Republican nominee who can out-brag Ali and spins even more fanciful conspiracy theories about his opponents and promises to destroy whatever’s left of “the establishment.” All in all, we wonder how even the hampered and endearingly humbled Ali would assess his legacy.
If you’re wondering who the current reigning heavyweight boxing champion of the world is, it’s an Irish-Romany guy named Tyson Fury who’s arguably a bigger jerk than Muhammad Ali or the presumptive Republican nominee. Since an aging Ali lost a clear-cut decision to Larry Holmes, a boring fellow who dominated the heavyweight division before losing to “Iron” Mike Tyson, a wife-beating convicted rapist who bit a challenger’s ear off, and was also celebrated by our debased culture, the title went to the good guy Evander Holyfield and a couple of forgettable champions and some black British guy, and then a series of humongous white guys from behind the Iron Curtain and apartheid South Africa that no one in in supposedly racist America paid attention to. The big thing in violent sport these days is the “mixed martial arts” or “ultimate fighting” or whatever else you call those pay-per-view bar brawls, and the “sweet science” only gets mentioned on the sportscasts when there’s a big bout between two over-the-hill fighters who finally got around to a big-money fight, so at least we don’t worry that any of them will leave the world noticeably worse off.

— Bud Norman

J.B., RIP

The wife of our old friend J.B. has recently updated his Facebook status to “dead,” and although you’re unlikely to have ever heard of him we think his passing is worth noting. J.B. was one of those American boys who went off to fight a war in Vietnam and never really came back, and between his rough and rowdy ways and his exquisitely sensitive soul he was something of a local legend around here, and he was another small but important piece of a more ruggedly individualistic America that seems to be slipping away.
It took years of beery and heartfelt conversations before we found out that his name was actually Gerald Brown. Even in the tough south side neighborhood where he grew up no one would dare call him by such an inappropriately refined moniker as “Gerald,” however, although he would tolerate the less pretentious “Jerry” from a select group of childhood chums, and most of the rest of us acceded to his preference for J.B., which somehow seemed most apt for such an colorfully abbreviated character. To an even more select group of friends that he served with in Vietnam he was “Rap” Brown, which had nothing do with the black nationalist leader H. “Rap” Brown, whom our south side white boy friend hadn’t even heard of at the time, and instead was earned by how well he “rapped” on the radio when calling in an airstrike. It took many more years of beery and heartfelt conversations before he divulged that to us, though, and even then we were warned to keep calling him J.B.
Those conversations started when he was owner of The Spot Recreation Center, a notorious dive that just happened to be located exactly halfway between the newspaper where we toiled and the cheap apartment where we resided. The Spot had a pool table and a shuffleboard table and a straight-out-of-a-western-movie bar and an authentic dive flavor, and drew its clientele from the more disgruntled downtown office workers and neighborhood derelicts and local biker gangs, and the chili and the burgers were the greasiest in town, and it regularly booked such spectacular rockabilly acts as Sleepy LaBeef and The LeRoi Brothers, and there was this very attractive barmaid who sometimes wore the most provocative attire, and it was quite conveniently located, so we spent enough time there to strike up an acquaintance with the proprietor. We enjoyed his ribald sense of humor, admired the way he kept a watchful eye out for that attractive barmaid in the provocative attire, and we weren’t the least intimidated by his unmistakeable aura of danger.
J.B. wasn’t a big man, and in fact was several inches shorter than ourselves and possessed of a physique that can most charitably described as wiry, and he had a lot of years and even more miles on him, but anyone with a modicum of street smarts would have immediately  recognized that he was not someone to be messed with. We hadn’t the slightest desire mess with him, of course, and his far superior street smarts immediately recognized this, and he wasn’t the type to menace such friendly types, and he seemed to enjoy our highfalutin conversations about the latest events, and thus we gradually became friends. Eventually he even asked us to write about his war.
J.B. freely admitted he only went to war because he was drafted, not being the sort of guy who could swing an educational deferment, but once he was dragged in he went full hog. He volunteered for paratrooper and Ranger duty and anything in the worst of it. There was a certain exhilaration in his war stories, but also a horror, and he had a drawer full of snapshots that confirmed the worst accusations about America’s behavior in the war, and first-hand accounts that the enemy had behaved at least as badly, and this rough and rowdy man confirmed to us that war truly is hell. He had stories about his jeered return to civilian life, too, still too young to drink in the bar he would later run, and it was always obvious to us that his war had never ended.
We did our best to write that story for the newspaper where we toiled, and we can’t say it did our career any good. Some readers objected to our sympathetic portrayal of such a rough and rowdy fellow, who had done a little time in prison on a rap involving some fraud scheme or another, and who ran a notorious dive just east of downtown, and who was known as someone not to be trifled with, but we still wonder what sort of men they expect to fight their country’s battles. The story also  raised some money for a charity that helped Vietnam veterans by taking them back to their battlefields to find healing, we proudly note, and  J.B. was one of those veterans who took the trip. He wound up moving to Vietnam several decades ago and spent most of the rest of his life there.
After a couple of marriages we know of, one of them with a woman we thought quite sound, he wound up marrying a much-younger Vietnamese woman, who was kind enough to send news of his recent illness and ultimate death, and that’s pretty much all we know about the intervening years.
An occasional e-mail or Facebook posting from “Rap” Brown would invite us to join him for a vacation in Vietnam, where he promised all manner of carnal delight and other great deals on the Yankee dollar, but that was about all we heard of him the past couple of decades. He was going by the name of “Rap” Brown at that point, having decided to fully embrace his nom de guerre, but we’ll still think of him as J.B. We rather liked that south side kid who wasn’t  to be messed with, and we can’t be sure that he was ever really reconciled with his war, so we choose to remember all the spectacular rockabilly and the fine  friendship and the greasy chili and our pal J.B.

— Bud Norman

All Lives Matter, Some More Than Others

While what’s left of the old media were paying such rapt attention to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s latest cries for attention, we were more intrigued by the spectacle of a far less-publicized Democratic presidential candidate apologizing for saying that all lives matter.
Trump’s latest publicity stunt is just a spat of playground taunts with equally attention-seeking Arizona Sen. John McCain, a playground taunter in his own right for whom the best we can say is that he would have made a better President than Barack Obama, which is damning with faint praise, and that he served his country with uncommon courage and valor during the Vietnam War, which is saying something, but the relatively sissified Trump’s taunts concerned that very same distinguished military record, and it did indeed make the Republican party look rather ridiculous to have Trump suddenly leading its pack of contenders and McCain among its past two nominees, so we can well understand the old media’s avid interest. Even so, we had futilely hoped that some attention would be paid to a Democratic contender being booed off a liberal stage for making the seemingly reasonable claim that all lives, even white lives, matter.
This actually happened to somebody named Martin O’Malley, who is apparently a former mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland and is apparently challenging former First Lady and Senator and Secretary of State and all that Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, during a public interview at the “Netroots Nation” convention. “Netroots” is one of those political neologisms, a portmanteau denoting the internet presence of the very roots of Democratic Party craziness, with the nation part borrowing from the sports lexicon of “Boston Red Sox Nation” and “University of Kansas Jayhawk Nation” and the rest of that pretentious silliness, so of course the “Netroots Nation’s” annual convention has thus became an important ritual of the Democratic Party’s nominating process. Long-shot challengers O’Malley and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders both seized the opportunity to demonstrate their heartfelt Democratic craziness, but despite his best efforts to pander to the crowd O’Malley was shortly shouted down by a large portion of the crowd chanting “Black lives matter.” This is by now a familiar slogan of the political movement that has been peacefully and violently protesting against the use of deadly force by police in a number of American cities the past year and a half or so, and the tactic of shouting down conversation about other issues has also become familiar to the patrons of restaurants that have some reason reason or another been subjected to the same treatment. By most accounts the restaurant clientele usually respond with polite inattention, but both the interviewer, of whom we might as well come right and say seems as an ostentatiously effeminate fellow, and O’Malley feel obliged to cede the stage to their hecklers. They might have been moved to their protest by O’Malley’s record as mayor, which empowered police and reduced black homicide rates, or his record as governor, which continued such as a tough-on-crime approach, but they don’t seem to mention that, and instead continue to chant out names and slogans and their latest hash-tags conspiracy theories, as well as projecting a hip-shaking self-righteousness as they stood on stage. After much indulgence the exquisitely effeminate moderator insists that O’Malley be given a chance to at last respond, and after some “I know, I know” and to his hecklers and some talk of the civilian review boards he established and the death penalty he abolished O’Malley sputters the now infamous words that “every life matters, and that is why this issue is so important, back lives matter, white lives matter all lives matter.” We have no use for this O’Malley fellow, whose tenure as mayor of Baltimore was marked by the same social and economic policies that made the city un-policeable no matter how tough they came down, and whose tenure as governor was such that even Maryland elected a Republican to succeed him, and whose main qualifications seem to be that he’s a relatively handsome fellow who is photogenic in beach shots, but we can’t imagine why he should be greeted with boos only for his rather bland opinion that all lives, even white lives, matter. The fact that he was seems at least noteworthy as the latest Trump antics.
There’s a journalistic case to be made that Trump is hot and O’Malley is not, given that Trump has a small plurality is a field crowded with numerous more qualified likely candidates and that O’Malley is polling single-digits in most states and far behind not only front-runner Hillary Clinton but also self-described socialist and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has been hogging what little attention is paid to the Democratic contest and has little to worry about on the race issues because he’s spent his entire life in the second-whitest state in the union. All the hubbub about the noticeable but ultimately insignificant slice of the Republican poll respondents who are for the moment supporting Trump and his tantrums is therefore a preferable topic for the old media, but they would do well to note that the “netroots” of the leftward segment of the body politic that used to pay attention to the old media are now joining in booing the previously uncontroversial notion that all lives matter, and that such Trump-worthy nonsense is by now an unquestioned dogma of the Democratic Party, and entrenched enough to force O’Malley to apologize on the “This Week in Blackness” radio program for his heresy.
Black lives do matter, of course, and any time one is taken by police force the matter should be thoroughly investigated and conclude wherever the facts of the matter ultimately lead, and so far as we can tell none one of the Republican candidates, including the repugnant Trump, would disagree, but the “black lives matter” movement believes that only those black lives taken by police force matter, no matter how necessary and justifiable even an Attorney General Eric Holder’s Justice Department could deny, and that the far greater number of black lives taken by other blacks as a result of inadequate law and order matter not at all, even when those numbers climb as a result of the intended police retreat, and of course there’s also something unsettling about the obvious implication that only black lives matter. One of the women who commandeered the stage took care to mention both black and brown lives, but that still leaves a numbers of hues that apparently don’t matter. The Democratic Party’s candidate will pick a few votes from among them, whoever he or she might be, but we’re starting to become hopeful that the Republicans might actually a cobble an electoral majority from the rest of them, the best efforts of Donald Trump and John McCain notwithstanding. We’re also hopeful that the winning candidate will affirm that all lives do indeed matter, and offer no apologies for saying so.

— Bud Norman

Memorial Day

Among the fallen heroes we honor today are some who fought in the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Ramadi in order to bring democracy to that country and cease its support for terrorism. Lately both cities have fallen into the hands of a sadistic terrorist gang calling itself the Islamic State, presidential candidates from both parties are questioning the decision to send American troops into Iraq in the first place, nobody seems to be asking it if was a good idea to withdraw them, and those who survived the ordeal are feeling forgotten and disrespected. We won’t take up time on a holiday best spent with barbecue and beer by arguing the wisdom of the American efforts in that country, or their apparently premature end, but we would like to let those who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan know that they are well remembered by re-running a post from a Memorial Day past:

 

On a long walk through the old and picturesque Riverside neighborhood of Wichita, Kansas, you might happen upon a small monument to the veterans of the Spanish-American War. Located on a tiny triangle of grass dividing a street leading to Riverside Park, the memorial features a statue of a dashing young soldier armed with a rifle and clad in the rakishly informal uniform of the era, a cannon captured from a Spanish ship, and a small plaque thanking all of the men who served America in that long ago conflict.
We always pause at the spot to enjoy the statue, an elegant bronze work that has tarnished to a fine emerald shade, and often to reflect on the Spanish-American war and the men who fought it. Sometimes we’ll wonder, too, about the men and women who honored those soldiers and sailors by building the small monument. The Spanish-American War had been one of the controversial ones, and the resulting bloodier war in the Philippines was still underway and being hotly debated at the time the monument was installed, so we suspect it was intended as a political statement as well as an expression of gratitude, and that the monument builders had to endure the animosity of their isolationist neighbors.
We’ll also wonder, on occasion, how many passersby are surprised to learn from the monument that there ever was a Spanish-American War. The war lasted for only four months of 1898, and involved a relatively small number of American soldiers and sailors, so our current crop of history teachers might be inclined to give it only short mention as a regrettable act of American colonialism before rushing on to the more exciting tales of the ‘60s protest movement or whatever it is they’re teaching these days. The world still feels the effects of those four months in 1898, when that relatively small number of American soldiers and sailors ended more than three centuries of Spanish colonial dominance, commenced more than a century of America’s preeminence on the world stage, and permanently altered, for better or worse, the destinies of Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam, yet the whole affair is now largely forgotten.
If you keep walking past the park and across the Little Arkansas River toward the east bank of the Arkansas River, just beyond the Mid-America All-Indian Center and its giant Keeper of the Plains statue, you’ll find a series of similar monuments dedicated to the veterans of other wars. One features an old torpedo and honors the men who died aboard the S.S. El Dorado, “One of 57 submarines on eternal patrol,” during the Second World War. Another lists the names of the many local men who died while serving in the Merchant Marines. An austere black marble plaque beneath an American flag is dedicated to all U.S. Marines. There’s a rather elaborate area devoted to the veterans of the Korean War, with a statue, several flags, numerous plaques and a Korean gateway, which wasn’t erected until 2001, long after the controversies of that conflict had subsided.
The veterans of the Vietnam War are honored with a touching statue of an American soldier standing next to a seated South Vietnamese soldier, which was donated by local Vietnamese-Americans as an expression of gratitude to everyone of all nationalities who tried to save their ancestral homeland from communism, and that won’t be formally dedicated until the Fourth of July. We hope the ceremony will be free of protestors, or any acrimony, but even at this late date the feelings engendered by that war remain strong. Some American veterans of the war have publicly complained about the inclusion of non-American soldiers in the veterans’ park, while some who opposed the war have privately grumbled about any monument to the Vietnam conflict at all. Both the memorial and the attending controversy serve as reminders that the effects of that war are still being felt not just by the world but individual human beings.
Walk a few more blocks toward the old Sedgwick County Courthouse and there’s a grand monument to the Wichita boys who went off to fight for the union in the Civil War, featuring the kind of ornate but dignified statuary that Americans of the late 18th Century knew how to do so well, but a more moving memorial can be found clear over on Hillside Avenue in the Maple Grove Cemetery, where there’s a circle of well-kept graves marked by American flags and austere gravestones for the boys who didn’t come back. Throughout the city there are more plaques, statues, portraits, and other small markers to honor the men and women who have fought for their country, and of course a good many gravestones for fallen heroes in every cemetery. This city honors those who fight for its freedom and safety, and that is one reason we are proud to call it home.
There is no monument here to the brave men and women who have fought for us in Iraq and Afghanistan, and no memorial to those who died in those far-off lands, but there should be, and soon. Both wars, and especially the Iraq war, have been controversial, and any memorial will be perceived by some as a political statement rather than an expression of gratitude, but it is not too soon to honor the men and women who fought for us. The effects of the wars will outlive us all, and none of us will ever see their ultimate consequences, but there is reason to believe that the establishment of a democracy in the heart of the Islamic middle east and the military defeat of al-Qaeda will prove a boon to humanity, and that is the reason those brave soldiers, sailors, and airmen fought and died there.
If we wait until the ill feelings subside, we might wait until the war has been largely forgotten. In every city and town of the country there should be something that stands for those who gave their lives for America in Iraq and Iran, and it should be something that will stand for a century or more. Something that will cause the passersby of the 22nd Century to stop and reflect, and to be grateful.

— Bud Norman

Déjà Vu All Over Again

The news from Iraq is very bad, and discomfortingly familiar. Anyone old enough to be haunted by the televised images of those helicopters lifting off from the embassy in Saigon, our erstwhile friends and allies clinging desperately to the skids in fear of the approaching enemy at the the desultory end of a long and hard-fought war, is already dreading the same scene being reprised in Baghdad.
The fall of Saigon occurred two years after America’s military had left the unpopular war in Vietnam, and was accomplished by a single column that marched down the country with no fear of the American air strikes that could have annihilated the troops. The impending fall of Baghdad will be accomplished by a ragtag army of terrorists traveling in sports utility vehicles with no fear of an American military that could easily repel them, but the American military was pulled out of the unpopular war two years ago and likely won’t be coming back. Many of the last Americans remaining in the country have already been evacuated from an air base in the terrorists’ path and plans have already been made for the evacuation of the Baghdad embassy, where our erstwhile friends and allies will likely be clinging to the helicopter skids in fear of the approaching enemy, and thus another long and hard-fought war seems to be coming to another desultory end.
The analogy is imprecise, as historical analogies always are, but the two events have the same glum feeling. The results will once again be horrific, and the same improvable arguments about who’s to blame are have already begun.
Just as the fall of Saigon led to violent upheavals in Laos and Cambodia, and left America’s South Vietnamese allies in the brutal hands of their communist conquerers, the march of that ragtag army of terrorists toward Baghdad began in war-torn Syria and will have repercussions throughout the Middle East and beyond. The communist takeover of all of Vietnam entailed inhuman re-education camps and spread boatloads of refugees around the world, even if the Vietnamese communists proved pikers compared to the mass-murdering zealots of their ideological compatriots in Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, while the terrorist army marching on Baghdad has already demonstrated a medieval cruelty in its conquests of Iraq’s second- and third-largest cities. The fall of Saigon represented a defeat in a larger and more crucial struggle against communism, and the fall of Baghdad will be at least as disastrous a moment in the fight against the Islamist ideology of that ragtag terrorist army.
Many of those who had opposed America’s war in Vietnam  welcomed the fall of Saigon it as sweet vindication for their stand, regardless of its consequences, and we expect that those who opposed the America’s war in Iraq enjoy the same reward after the fall of Baghdad no matter how bloody it proves. Just as the hawks of the Vietnam era argued plausibly but improvably that a couple of carrier-launched sorties could have enforced the peace that had seemingly been negotiated two years earlier, the last remaining Iraq hawks are arguing plausibly but improvably that the great victory loudly proclaimed two years earlier by the president could have been preserved by his quicker and more nimble response with the necessary military force. Neither side can offer with any certainty a happy scenario that would have resulted from their preferred policy, but once again the wrong lessons are likely to be learned.
Anyone reading the smart magazines or watching the movies in the immediate aftermath of the defeat in Vietnam knows that resisting communism’s international expansion was futile, and one can expect that the same sources will now explain the resistance to Islamism’s growing reach. The defeat in Vietnam was followed shortly by the election of a president who prided himself on not having an “inordinate fear of communism,” and his sanguine philosophy prevailed through the spread of communism of in Central America and Africa until the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan forced him to take such stern measures as boycotting the Moscow Olympics. The current president has taken an even more preening pride in his sensitivity to even the most Islamist strains of Islam, but will likely claim sweet vindication when the beheadings commence in Baghdad. The smart magazines and the movies will concur, and the Islamists’ expansion will continue apace.
That scrap in Vietnam can be seen in retrospection as a mere battle in the broader war against communism, and that ultimately turned out well, That brief but disastrous interlude of a merely ordinate fear of communism, along with a naive embrace of an Islamist regime in formerly friendly Iran, as well as a sputtering economy, led to the election of an old-school cold warrior whose confrontational approach to the Soviet Union led to its demise. One can hope for such a happy ending to the latest debacle, but it remains to be seen
That scrap in Iraq will eventually be recorded as just another battle in the war between Islamism and the west, which has been waged from Mohammad’s attacks on the trade caravan’s of the long lost word order his day to the Gates of Vienna to the Iberian Peninsula to the skyscrapers of Manhattan, but it will probably be at least a couple of years after the defeat before America rejoins the war. The current president has already proclaimed victory, the presumptive next president is the Secretary of State who voted for the Iraq as a Senator but quickly joined the coalition clamoring for defeat, and there’s an unsettling sense that it will take another few thousand Americans killed on homeland soil to rouse the country’s martial spirit. That presumptive next president is defending the current president’s decision to release five high-ranking terrorist leaders, much as the leader of that ragtag army marching on Baghdad had been released, by saying that it only threatens still-occupied-by=American-forces-Afghanistan and nuclear-armed Pakistan and not any American interests. America has arrived at a moment when it does not have an inordinate fear of Islamism, and might not recover in time.
The chaos and terror atop that embassy in Saigon was all the more unsettling because it seemed so symptomatic of the times, when American influence seemed at a low ebb throughout a troubled world and at home the economy and culture and spiritual core of the country all seemed in precipitous decline. With America’s enemies emboldened from the Crimea to the China Seas and the pop culture consumed with bigoted basketball team owners to homosexual defensive backs, there’s a depressingly familiar feel to the latest news.
History never repeats itself verbatim, however, and there are any number of possible outcomes in Iraq. News reports indicate that the insanely Shia rulers of the nutcase Iranian regime that came in to power back in the ’70s might defeat the insanely Sunni ragtag terrorist Army that is descending on Baghdad. Anyone not insanely Shia would be hard-pressed to see this as a positive outcome, however, and none of the other possible scenarios are promising, The American people might yet steel themselves for the challenges ahead, but we fear it will require unspeakable horrors.

— Bud Norman

Col. Dale Norman, USAF, RIP

Col. Dale Norman, United States Air Force (Ret.), died on New Years Day. He was a brave and honorable man who did much to help our country defeat the totalitarian scourge of communism, he was the loyal kid brother of our beloved pop, who has also done much for the world, and among many other accomplishments he was our good old Uncle Dale.
A stubbornly independent streak that is a family trait limited our time with Col. Norman, who spent much of his life in exotic locations far flung from our humble prairie home, but he loomed large in our lives nonetheless. Our father would often boast of his kid brother’s athletic accomplishments at Moore, Okla., High School, where Uncle Dale was the star quarterback and point guard while pop was apparently relegated to the status of the small town’s foremost egghead, and even in late into his life Uncle Dale always cut the appropriately dashing figure. We will always remember him emerging from the cockpit of his super-sonic jet after landing at our hometown’s McConnell Air Force Base, looking very much like something out of an improbable movie as he swaggered across the runway in a form-fitting flight suit that seemed to exemplify military machismo.
Uncle Dale had already completed his tours of duty in Vietnam by that point, and although we wound up losing that skirmish his continued service gave us confidence that the good guys would ultimately prevail in the Cold War. He went on to command an American base in Turkey, where he kept a careful eye on the neighboring commies, and when the Soviet Union eventually called it quits we knew he had done his part. The complex weapons systems that our egghead father helped developed at Boeing after his early departure from the Air Force also played an important role, as Uncle Dale always knew, but the willingness of all the men and women in uniform to take that know-how to the very borders of the conflict was what ultimately freed millions from tyranny.
Freedom’s victory in the Cold War was won in the playing fields of the Oklahoma oil patch, as it turns out. The Norman boys grew up in the Oklahoma dust bowl in the dark days of the Depression and World War II, expertly raised by a canny old autodidactic roughneck who somehow knew how to solve the problems that arise on an oil rig and in life, and it was the men and women just like them who applied those primal lessons to the challenges of their time who made it possible for good to triumph. They were never cocky about it, and instead insisted an aw’ shucks humility about their lives, but we hope they know and knew how much they were appreciated.
The funeral for Col. Norman led us on a grueling all-night drive deep into to the heart of Texas, where he spent the last bittersweet years of his life on a picturesque lake, and where the formerly cocksure fighter jock found old age and infirmity not at all to his liking, but the difficulty of the journey proved comforting. Our father spoke eloquently of his kid brother, recalling the savvy old roughneck who had molded such great men, and our cousin Michelle gave an apt tribute to the wonderful father Uncle Dale had been. We confess to a dire worry that by comparison to our ancestors our own lives exemplify the decline of America, yet the oddly joyful celebration of Col. Norman’s life gave us a sort of confidence. The trip afforded a chance to get to know two of Uncle Dale’s grandchildren, a pair of polite and delightfully well-bred Texas boys exhibiting the best of the family’s traits, and we returned with a hopeful feeling. We now feel nothing but gratitude for Uncle Dale’s life, and wish that America will feel the same.
We were pleased to see Col. Norman’s casket draped with the flag of the United States of America, and are gratified to know that the honor was well-earned.

— Bud Norman