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Just Another Manic Wednesday, and Probably Manic Thursday

Our Wednesday here in Wichita was largely spent complying with the city’s housing codes regarding weedy lawns and broken brick work and similarly embarrassing mtters, along with other desultory chores, but somewhere in between we garnered enough national and international news from the car radio and the internet to be apprised that things are tough all over.
Our only important appointment today is to tape an appearance on a local low-rated but ultra high frequency television station’s libertarian talk show, and the host is an old friend of ours from the punk rock days who has asked us comment on the Kansas gubernatorial race, so we also had the desultory chore of catching up on that. So far as we can tell Kansas’ politics is what the World War II GIs used to call “SNAFU,” if not so dreadful that we couldn’t come up with some light-hearted comic material about it, but we’ll save that for those lucky few who tune into the ultra-high frequencies in this relatively blessed part of the world.
As for the rest of it, we’re just too plum tuckered — as we old folks still say here in Kansas — to offer any in-depth analysis. We’ll get around to some of what we’ve noticed soon enough, but on this busy Thursday it’s probably best that we all mind our more pressing business.

— Bud Norman

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The Abortion Debate Resumes

Even after all the decades since the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down by the Supreme Court the abortion debate still rages, but we’ve noticed in recent years that it rarely shows up on the front pages of the newspapers or the top of the cable and network news broadcasts. The upcoming battle over the appointment and confirmation of a replacement for retiring Supreme Justice Anthony Kennedy is bringing the long-simmering battle back to the figurative front-burner of American politics, however, and we’re already dreading what will ensue.
Here in our usually placid hometown of Wichita, Kansas, the abortion debate has always been especially acrimonious. The very interesting mother of a very interesting high school friend of ours was picketing on the sidewalks outside a local Wesleyan hospital even before the Roe v. Wade decision was passed, and the abortion debate has played an outsized role in local and state politics ever since.
Although Wichita and Kansas are unusually church-going and conservative places by modern secular standards, the state somehow wound up with the most permissive abortion laws outside of China and its one-child policy, and the city was long home to one of less than a handful of doctors in the entire world willing to perform the third-trimester abortions that even the Roe v. Wade decision allowed states to restrict, which our many years of Republican legislatures and Republican governors somehow never got around to restricting. The massive gulf between public opinion and public policy enflamed passions on both sides even more than in the rest of the country, and things got unpleasantly heated around here.
Back in ’91 the radical anti-abortion group Operation Rescue came to town for a “Summer of Mercy” that involved physically blocking access to the city’s three abortion clinics, all owned by the doctor who performed those internationally controversial third-trimester abortions, and we still remember it as the hottest summer ever around here, notwithstanding the higher temperatures of other summers. Hundreds of church-going and baby-having and lawn-mowing upright citizens willingly went to jail the cause, hundreds of other church-going and baby-having and lawn-mowing upright citizens stopped talking to their neighbors and longtime friends as a result, and we know of at least one marriage because of all the acrimony, and countless Wichitans with no strong feelings about abortion were inconvenienced by the traffic tie-ups next to the main clinic along the crucial Kellogg Avenue freeway on their way home from work.
We were reporting for the local newspaper at the time, which still had a wide readership at the time, and despite our best efforts to be objective and factual about what was going on the sidewalks of Wichita we and our equally objective and factual colleagues wound up incurring the wrath of people on both sides of the debate. Journalists from around the country and the entire world wound up sharing a beer with us at a tavern next door do the clinic on Central Avenue, as the protests brought unexpected attention to Wichita from pretty much everywhere, and they all had the same complaints about how their determinedly objective and factual accounts were received.
In the end, though, Operation Rescue’s radical stand against abortion and its civil disobedience tactics got the worst of it both here and around the world. The most enthusiastic supporters of abortion rights were predictably outraged, the more mainstream anti-abortion groups distanced themselves from Operation Rescue’s civil disobedience tactics, and Congress wound up passing and President Bill Clinton wound up signing some tough laws about access to abortion clinics that those church-going and baby-having and lawn-mowing upright Wichitans did not dare defy. Despite Republican legislatures and Republican governors, that internationally controversial Wichita abortionist continued to perform third-trimester abortions next to Kellogg Avenue in Wichita.
The anti-abortion forces did succeed in making opposition to the practice a litmus test for any Republican candidate seeking any sort of office, no matter how he strident he might be about a tax cuts or deregulation or any other Republican position, but despite Republican majorities in the legislature and Republican governors they somehow never did succeed in imposing the constitutionally permissible ban on third-trimester abortions. That matter was instead settled when a radicalized anti-abortion activist came down from Kansas City and shot Dr. George Tiller in the head during a worship service on a sunny Sunday morning in ’09 at a lovely Lutheran church way over on East 13th Street.
All of the mainstream anti-abortion groups denounced the assassination, and all of the world press we met while covering the trial on a freelance basis seemed slightly disappointed that a church-going and conservative Wichita jury found the assassin guilty after an hour’s deliberation after a trial where the defendant freely admitted his guilt, and since then there have been no third-trimester abortions performed in Wichita. State law somehow still allows any doctor to do so, but no one has dared to do so, and since then Kansas has been more involved in debates about tax cuts and voting regulations and trade policies and other desultory matters.
Since then a majority of Ireland has voted to repeal that very Catholic country’s strict anti-abortion laws, and Mississippi and a couple of other proudly Protestant southern states have passed restrictive anti-abortion laws that press against the limits of the Roe v. Wade decision, but here and around the world the the abortion debate has gotten less ink and airtime than those desultory debates about tax rates and trade policies and the “Russia thing” and the latest outages about President Donald Trump and all the rest of it. As maddening as it all is, we preferred it to the abortion debate.
Justice Kennedy’s retirement and Trump’s power to appoint his replacement brings all the abortion issue acrimony back to the front burner of American politics, though, and there’s nothing we can do about that. Back when Trump was a Democrat he was staunchly in favor of abortion rights, even unto that third trimester, and our guess is that the first abortion bills that passed Trump’s desk were quickly paid, but ever since he decided to run for president as a Republican he’s been even more stridently anti-abortion than even the mainstream anti-abortion groups, and by now one side is hopeful and the other side is fearful that Roe v. Wade will be overturned. The contrarian Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz is somehow a conservative hero for defending Trump in the “Russia thing,” but he’s worried that five-to-four Trump majority on the Supreme Court will result in an opinion banning all abortions on the grounds of a constitutional right to life at the moment of conception, and the better bet is that Trump’s pick will result in all 50 states arguing about abortion without any constitutional restraints.
We don’t see that ending well for anybody, and especially the Republican party. To this day we’re too objective and factual to declare any moral stand on the abortion issue, although we’re still guilt-ridden about the third-trimester abortions of viable fetuses that occurred in our hometown and the cold-blooded  murder of the doctor who performed them, but we can’t see how it’s a winning play for the proudly adulterous Trump or his family values Republican party. Our long and desultory experience of the abortion debate around here tells us that nobody is ever persuaded by any argument the other side might make, that the debate is inevitably murderous no matter which way you look at it, and in the end most of America is just hoping for an easy drive home from work.

— Bud Norman

Kansas in the News

Kansas rarely makes the national news, which is fine by us, but on Wednesday the state landed two stories in all the big papers. One concerned a guilty verdict in a terrorism case, the other was about involved Kansas’ Secretary of State getting hit with a fine in much-watched court challenge to his his voter registration rules, and neither is the sort of publicity that our state needs.
The three men found guilty on terrorism charges weren’t radical Islamists, but rather self-described Christian “crusaders” in a self-appointed militia who were plotting to build car bombs and massacre the Somali refugees living in their hometown of Garden City. A formerly homogenous small town out in the sparsely populated western part of the state, Garden City become more ethnically diverse when a big meatpacking plant rescued the local economy back in the ’70s, refugees from Somalia were settled there shortly after the turn of the millennia, and by the beginning of this decade whites were no longer a majority in Finney County, a fact which apparently did not set well with the plotters.
During the four week trial at the federal courthouse here in Wichita, the defense argued that they were just engaging in “locker room talk” about killing Muslims with bullets soaked in pig blood, and were entrapped by a Federal Bureau of Investigation conspiracy, and perhaps it should worry President Donald Trump that a Kansas jury didn’t buy these familiar arguments. The average Kansan is just as uncomfortable with diversity and suspicious of the government as the next guy, but he won’t countenance blowing up the local mosque and massacring the local Muslims, and in the end he tends to settle on the facts rather than his suspicions.
Still, it doesn’t look good that such a trial occurred her in the first place. The deadliest domestic terror attack in American history, the 1995 bombing of a federal building just down I-35 in downtown Oklahoma City, was plotted in rural Kansas, the last murder of an abortion doctor occurred in a lovely Lutheran Church over on East 13th here in Wichita, and although the Kansas officials and witness were highly cooperative in bring justice to the bombers and a Kansas jury quickly convicted the abortion doctor’s killer, a certain craziness does seem to require our constant vigilance. We suppose that’s true everywhere, but it’s been a constant feature of the state it’s “Bleeding Kansas” days, and looks so much worse in contrast to the wholesome image we aspire to.
That story about Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach getting hit with the fine in that ongoing court isn’t great publicity for our beloved, either, and it should also worry Trump.
By now Kobach is well known far beyond Kansas for his crusade against illegal immigration and voter fraud and especially illegal immigrants voting fraudulently, and he’s successfully persuaded the past several very conservative Republican legislatures to pass new laws and grant him broader executive authority to execute them. This included requirements that voters produce certain sorts photographic identification cards to cast a ballot, provide a birth certificate or passport of certain other sorts of proof citizenship to register for the first time, and a few other measures. This outraged the left, made Kobach a hero to the right, and he wound up heading the commission Trump had created to prove his claim that votes fraudulently cast by illegal immigrants had denied him his rightful victory in the popular vote.
The federal voter fraud commission that Trump set up and Kobach headed came to a slapstick conclusion some months ago. Voting is mostly a matter left to the states and counties and localities, as it should be, and too many of them refused to cooperate, with all of the Democratic states objecting for self-interested Democratic reasons and a lot of Republican states refusing to cooperate for principled Republican reasons. One of the states that refused to hand over everything Kobach requested was Kansas, where the ever-suspicious-of-the-feds conservative Republican legislatures had passed laws against divulging such information. Trump still insists that he won the popular vote, but he gave up on Kobach’s attempts to prove it.
Since then illegal immigration and voter fraud have most given way to porn stars and the latest policy reversals in the news, but to the extent they linger they’re no longer doing either Trump or Kobach much good. The big, beautiful border went unfunded in that hated-by-everyone spending Trump signed a while back, the “dreamers” Trump promised to deport during his triumphant campaign are still here, and they’re polling better than the president, and there’s no telling where he stands on the matter at that moment, except for his continued insistence that the Democrats are to blame the executive order he signed that put their legal status in jeopardy. At the moment illegal immigration rarely appears on the front pages or at the top of the hour, and although the issue helped Trump when the presidency he should be glad of it.
Meanwhile, back in Kansas, Kobach seems to be having a hard time of it as well. We take a harder stand on immigration and voting issues than do the state’s Democrats, so didn’t mind casting our votes for Kobach in both of his races for Secretary. We found the photo ID requirement reasonable enough, as the average citizen is used to showing such papers to cash a check or buy a six-pack or board an airplane or transact many other legal activities, and although the passport and birth certificate requirements for registering seemed a bit officious we weren’t much bothered. The American Civil Liberties Union took a harsher view, however, and their lawsuit challenging the registration requirements seems to be going swimmingly.
The court has already issued an injunction against enforcement of the law, and the judge’s ruling that by “clear and convincing evidence” Kobach was in contempt of court for acting “disingenuously” to disobey that injunction, and the resulting $1000 fine, is just the latest indication that the defense is not going so well. A licensed attorney, Kobach is representing himself in the matter, and our pal Bucky Walters had an amusing satirical slapstick sketch about it in the recent Gridiron Show, with the judge reminding Kobach of the old maxim that “A lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client,” and Kobach replying that “In this case it will be just the other way around,” and so far that’s how it’s played out in the news.
Kobach is also running for governor, and it’s hard to explain to an outsider what a mess that is. He’d been hoping to ride his national status as anti-illegal immigrant hard-liner and voter integrity champion to the Republican nomination, but he’s up against his incumbent Gov. Jeff Colyer, who assumed the office after Gov. Sam Brownback was tapped by Trump to be something called the ambassador at large for religious freedom, and both are vying for the Brownback vote. Brownback was wildly unpopular in the state when he left, though, as his tax-cutting agenda didn’t work out as promised, and the old-fashioned sorts of budget-balancing establishment Republicans who were overthrown by “tea party” have since been winning the primaries, and if one of them doesn’t win the Republican gubernatorial nomination we expect some centrist sort of Democrat could wind up winning the general election.
At this point, we expect that Kansas will happily settle on the least crazy candidates they can find on the ballot. The politics around here have been exhausting for a while a now, and we don’t notice any enthusiasm around here for building walls or deporting dreamers or blowing up mosques, and we’ll assure the other 49 states that for the most part we’re no crazier than the rest of you.

— Bud Norman

On Finding the Right Lawyer

If you ever find yourself in serious legal jeopardy in the vicinity of Wichita, Kansas, and have deep enough pockets, we happen to know the attorney you should call.
Back in our court beat days on the local newspaper we saw him get a guy off for bilking an elderly couple out of their retirements with some phony-baloney annuities because the relevant state statute failed to mention annuities among all the phony-baloney sort of financial instruments that are prohibited here, an oversight the state legislature corrected a couple of weeks later. We heard some un-confirmable but entirely believable rumors about the big bucks he’d earned defending a nationally-known and much locally reviled late-term abortionist on 13 local misdemeanor charges that got national and international attention, and whatever the amount it proved well-spent after acquittals on all charges.
If you happen to find yourself in serious legal jeopardy in the vicinity of Washington, D.C., we can’t tell you who to call. After a couple of youthful summers in the city and all the news we’ve followed since we’re sure there’s plenty of top-notch legal talent to be had there, but you’ll have to ask the locals for their advice on which is best. Whoever that best D.C. attorney might be, President Donald Trump and his much-bragged about deep pockets seems to having trouble hiring him or her for this “Russia thing.”
One of Trump’s lawyers either recently quit or was recently fired, depending on whose account you believe, and Trump hasn’t yet announced a replacement. It was reliably reported it would be Joseph diGenova, a former Department of Justice Attorney now better-known as a Fox News contributor who alleges the whole “Russia thing” is a “fake News” “deep state” conspiracy, but then it was reported diGenova wouldn’t be joining the team due to “conflicts.” It was also reported that Trump solicited the services of Theodore Olson, a former U.S. solicitor general in the President George W. Bush administration and since then a legendary defense litigator, but his firm announced he wouldn’t accept the gig. Olson later opined to the news media that the “turmoil” and “chaos” in Trump’s White is “beyond normal.” After that it was reported that some hot-shot white collar lawyer from Chicago also turned down the gig.
Which is problematic for Trump, as the legal team he’s assembled on the other side of the “Russia thing” looks pretty darned formidable. You can call special counsel Robert Mueller a “fake news” “deep state” conspirator all you want, but he’s an Eagle Scout and decorated combat veteran and well-regarded Federal Bureau of Investigation director with a long, long history of successfully prosecuting cases, and he’s already won some notable indictments and some more notable guilty pleas in this investigation. The team of attorneys he’s assembled does indeed include some Democratic donors, as the Trump and his apologists like to note, but so does Trump’s team and Trump is a Democratic donor himself, and the prosecution team has chalked up some pretty impressive court verdicts against Russian mobsters and other money-launderers and international conspiracies,
Our long and desultory experiences of these matters suggests that it often comes down to who’s got the best lawyer, which does not bode well for Trump. He brags about his deep pockets and the fame and fortune that awaits any lawyer who takes on his case, yet he currently seems vastly out-lawyered. So far his personal lawyers have been losing in the court of public opinion battle to the shark representing an all-too-believable pornographic video performer who alleges a hilariously embarrassing sexual encounter with the future president, no matter how that might play out in a a court of law.
According to news reports this is largely because he’s regarded as a client who doesn’t heed legal advice, which is obviously true, and partly because he has a reputation for not paying his bills, which is reportedly and quite believably true. One of the better lawyers we know in town is a Democrat but otherwise a nice guy, who has helped out some people we’ve loved on a pro-bono or much-reduced rate, and on our last encounter at Kirby’s Beer Store he told us he’d take case Trump’s case only if he were paid fully in advance. That locally legendary legal shark is also a nice enough guy, too, and although we’re glad to not to have needed to run into him lately we’re sure he’d say the same thing.

— Bud Norman

Abortion at the Bottom of the Page

Strolling down to the bottom of The Washington Post’s opening web page, we happened upon a story about Mississippi enacting the nation’s most restrictive abortion law. The law bans most abortions after 15 weeks of gestation, allowing exceptions for risks to the mother’s life or “bodily function” but not for cases of rape or incest, which is as far as you go from anybody’s reading of the Roe v. Wade decision, and once upon a time that would have been at the top of everybody’s front page.
A lawsuit was filed within an hour of the governor’s signing of the bill by the last remaining abortion clinic in the state, and the activists on both sides of the issue paid rapt attention, but we couldn’t help noticing how little attention was paid by most of the media and the public at large. The absence of coverage was conspicuous to us, as we well remember a time a when abortion was the most heatedly debated issue in America.
Especially around here. Wichita, Kansas, was once the very epicenter of the abortion conflict, to the point that it often tied up traffic and turned neighbor against neighbor and even hastened the end of a couple of marriages we know of. Kansas is a conservative and church-going state that somehow has the least restrictive abortion laws almost anywhere, and people used to fly in to Wichita from around the world to have very late-term abortions from one of the few doctors willing and legally able to perform the grisly procedure, so it was bound to happen.
Back in ’91 an anti-abortion organization called Operation Rescue came to town and rallied support for acts of civil disobedience to shut down the city’s last remaining abortion clinics, all of which were by then owned that internationally-known late-term abortionist. Their “Summer of Mercy” turned out tens of thousands of supporters at the local university’s mostly unused football stadiums, several hundred God-fearing and tax-paying and lawn-mowing types who were willing to be carried on to a police bus and be booked at the county jail for the misdemeanor of blocking public access by effectively shutting down the business. It was not only the big story of that very hot summer around here, as one of the clinics was inconveniently located on busy Kellogg Avenue and everyone had a unique opinion about all the ruckus, it was above the fold on newspapers everywhere and at the top of the hour on the nascent cable channels.
We were on the job for the local newspaper at the time, and wound up having burgers and beers at a bar next door to one of the abortion clinics with reporters from some of the biggest and swankiest newspapers. They were an OK lot, as far as we were concerned, and when we read or watched their accounts of the weird happenings in Wichita we couldn’t dismiss them as fake news, as it was pretty much what we’d witnessed, but they never quite conveyed the local viewpoint. They weren’t steeped in the history of “Bleeding Kansas” and its abolitionist zeal, which is still the state’s greatest boast, and they didn’t seem church-going types, and they didn’t understand what it’s like to live in an otherwise peaceable time with a bunch of church-going and very fine people and a doctor who has performed very late abortions for women from around the world. They understood that there were a whole lot of locals who are grateful for the abortions he provided at a more legally-protected and arguably more morally point in the pregnancy, which is worth noting, but their work didn’t have that discombobulating imbalance the story required..
Operation Rescue’s civil disobedience tactics polled badly, just as we predicted to all those big city newspaper types, and as it faded into obscurity the more mainstream anti-abortion organizations went into retreat. The abortion issue dropped to the back pages for a while, but we were having burgers and beers with the big-city newspapers again after a women came down from Oregon and unsuccessfully tried to kill that late-term abortionist. We were second string on that story to a woman who wound up writing a non-fiction bestseller about the radical anti-abortion movement, but we scored an exclusive interviewer with a protestor outside the courthouse who was supporting the accused assassin’s actions as justifiable homicide, and when we asked him why he hadn’t killed an abortionist he replied “Well, maybe I will.” About a year later all the papers were running the photos of a guy who’d shot and killed a couple of abortion clinic workers in Pensacola, Florida, and we immediately recognized the mug shot. That also polled badly.
The next time we ran in to the big city newspaper writers was when someone came down from the Kansas City suburbs and assassinated that local late-term abortionist. He walked into a lovely Lutheran church over on East 13th and shot the abortionist as he routinely attended services, shot his victim in the head, and didn’t deny it. All the big city newspaper writers asked worriedly ask if the the defendant would get off, given what a conservative state and city this is, and we correctly predicted that it’s the kind of conservative state and city where you’re not going to get away with walking into a church service and shooting a guy in the head, no matter what tate guy did for a living. Elsewhere the shooting polled even worse.
Since then the abortion issue hasn’t been so prominent here or elsewhere. Around here there’s still no Republican who dares run in a primary without taking a staunch anti-abortion stand, but they’re no longer expected to stress it, and most of our fellow church-going Republican types are presently more concerned with making excuses for their recently pro-life president’s apparent tawdry affair and hush payments with a pornographic video performer. The pro-abortion rights crowd has grown complacent after so many years of retreat by the anti-abortion side, too, and probably won’t be much aroused by a setback in a state such as Mississippi. Last year that lone Mississippi abortion clinic performed 78 abortions after the 15-week gestation period, which in most cases would have been obtained in neighboring states, and in the grand scheme of things that’s not such a big deal as President Donald Trump’s latest “tweet” or any the rest of the top-of-the-page news.
Abortion is a damned complicated issue, for both those personally involved and the public at large, and it involves complicated issues of law and liberty and a higher morality, and we can well understand why most people would rather not talk about it. Most of the right that scoffs at the notion you can prohibit firearm ownership also holds that you can effectively prohibit abortions, most of the left holds that can guns be eliminated but abortion cannot be, and at the moment neither side has much to gain from raising this uncomfortable topic.
Abortions and the abortion debate will continue, of course, and there will be setbacks and victories on both sides, depending on what red or blue state you live in. We’re still not sure where we stand on the issue, although we’re sure it’s not at either extreme, and we’re not at all eager for the next opportunity to talk about it.

Bud Norman

The Madness of March

The news keeps coming at the same rapid pace, but for now the big story around here is college basketball’s annual championship tournament.
Wichita is a hoops-crazed city in a hoops-crazed state, so the tournament’s always a big deal, but especially so this year. Downtown’s shiny new Intrust Arena is hosting four first-round games and two second-round contests, the University of Kansas’ Jayhawks squad is among the competitors, and so far it’s proving quite a party. The arena is a short stroll away from the Old Town drinking-and-dining district that local tax abatements created out of abandoned warehouses, as well as four hotels that are a lot swankier than you’d expect to find in a mid-sized prairie city, so business is brisk, and if there’s one thing Wichita loves more than basketball it’s business.
The city has spruced itself up for the occasion, going so far as to at long last take some high pressure water hoses to all the pigeon droppings under the railroad bridge on Douglas Avenue, and they’ve set up giant television screens and half-courts and other family entertainment in a recently renovated park where the winos used to gather. There are “March Madness” banners flapping from every light pole, and the bars are all fully stocked. All the out-of-state fans might also find time to visit the nearby and surprisingly excellent Wichita Art Museum, or take in a movie at the very plush Warren Theater in Old Town where they bring cocktails to your recliner seat, and there’s a remote chance they’ll wind up having at beer at Kirby’s Beer Story up in the bad part of town. Television networks can show some pretty of footage of the Keeper of Plains silhouetted by a pastel prairie sunset reflected on the Arkansas River, so it’s good publicity for the ol’ hometown.
Most of the fans packing the arena are in-state or local, there to root for their Jayhawks, so they already know the city even when it’s not spruced up. KU fans can be rather snooty about their team, which has been among the sport’s blue bloods for many decades, and is once again one of the top-seeded entries in the tournament, and thus entitled a virtual home court advantage in downtown Wichita, but we suppose it’s good for business. So far they seem well behaved as they drift from bar to bar, even after a 16-point victory over the University of Pennsylvania’s Quakers squad. The victory was not unexpected, as no first seed has ever lost to a 16th seed, but the Ivy League entrant in the tournament always seems to put up a tough fight, and they Jayhawks didn’t pull away until late in the second half, so maybe they’re saving the boisterousness for the second round game.
Our more beloved Kansas State University Wildcats and most beloved Wichita State University Wheatshockers are also in the tournament, but they didn’t get the blue blood stream and wound up farther from home. KSU was a national powerhouse back when future pro ball guru Cotton Fitzsimmons was coaching in the ’50s, and then again when Jack Hartman was at the helm in the ’70s, with some notable teams in between and ever since, and they’ll once again be in the hunt down in Charlotte, North Carolina, where they’ll play the Creighton University’s Bluejays. After finishing in the top half of a very tough Big XII’s standing’s the ‘Cats are an eight seed playing a nine seed, which is what the gambler’s call a pick ’em, and if they win they’ll likely be playing topmost seed University of Virginia’s Cavaliers, but hope springs eternal in March.
The ‘Shocks have their own long blue collar tradition, with powerhouse years in the ’60s and ’80s and a steady climb to their current perennial top-20 status that has included a National Invitational Tournament title and an undefeated regular season and a Final Four appearance and a sweet, sweet upset over the hated Jayhawks in the championship tournament. After years of dominating the Missouri Valley Conference our ‘Shockers wound up in second place behind a very tough University of Cincinnati Bearcats team, but that was good enough to be a four seed and heavy favorite in a first-round game against Marshall University’s Thundering Herd today in San Diego. If the ‘Shocks play as well as they did when they whipped Cincy on its home court they should go far in the tournament, as we see it, but if they play as badly down the stretch as when they lost at home to the same team it might not get far past Marshall, and even that game is yet to be played.
Whatever the results, the weather’s lately been great around here, and the city’s all spruced up, and no matter what the Federal Bureau of Investigation finds out about the National Collegiate Athletic Association the game of basketball is still great. Around here we love playing it, watching it, arguing about it, and we pride ourselves on the many City League players who have gone on to collegiate and professional glory, and we get a wee bit mad about it every March.

— Bud Norman

The Truth is Way Out There

Our usual source for news about unidentified flying objects is the “Coast to Coast” radio show that comes on after midnight, but recently we’ve been finding it in a such staid publication as The Washington Post. The federal government has lately acknowledged it once ran a secret program to investigate UFO sightings, one of its former intelligence is giving interviews about some interesting findings, and three videos have been released by the Department of Defense showing some pretty darned hard-to-explain things going on the sky.
One of the videos was shot from the cockpit of a Navy F/A Hornet fighter plane in 2004, and shows a wingless object darting darting around the skies between San Deigo and Ensenada, Mexico, at speeds exceeding any known aircraft and executing maneuvers that seem to defy the laws of aerodynamics. Two pilots from the VFA-41 Black Aces fighter squadron are heard on the soundtrack wondering in salty terms what it might be, and when the Washington Post tracked one of them down 13 years later he still had no explanation except that it was “Something not from this earth.”
The former squadron commander is by all accounts a sane and sober fellow, despite all the kidding he’s taken from friends over the years, and even without the official government video we’d have no reason to doubt his account. By now there’s no simply no denying that some strange things are in the air.
One day way back in our sixth grade year we raised a hand to request permission to use the restroom, and when we stepped out of the annex classroom we looked up to see an oblong silver object that was moving rapidly across the vast fields north of the school. Although it was far away we could clearly see it had no wings, was leaving no contrail, and was traveling far faster than a blimp would even on a windy Kansas day. We endured a lot of kidding about it from the friends were eagerly told, but they’ll vouch we were sane and sober back then, and many years later, while perusing that science-fiction thingamajig called the internet we happened upon a picture that was taken a few years earlier in Wichita which depicts something that looks a lot like what we saw that sunny day.
Even our febrile sixth grade imaginations didn’t assume it was something from outer space, though. Wichita is the “Air Capital of the World,” after all, and back then Boeing and some of the other local airplane companies were doing some pretty cutting-edge defense work. Our pop was running the avionics program for the B-52 bomber, and sometimes he couldn’t help sharing some highly classified tales of such Buck Rogers stuff as laser beam targeting and a gizmo called a cruise missile, and we were well aware that even the hardest-to-explain things going on the sky aren’t necessarily from outer space.
Pop has his own UFO story that he likes tell, dating back to around the time we were born. He was a lowly lieutenant in the Air Force flying his beloved single engine “Swallow” back to Clark Air Force Base from a radar base on a remote Philippine island where he had somehow found himself in charge, and along the way he spotted something oddly shaped blasting past him a rate that exceeded the capabilities of any known airplane. He’d been cleared to land and was preparing to do so when the control tower radioed back to cancel the clearance, which was highly unusual, and when he at long last landed he was quickly and roughly escorted to an empty room where a couple of scary-looking men with a lot of brass of their uniforms sternly warned him to never ever tell any stories about what he might have seen that day. A few  years later Francis Gary Powers was shot down and captured while making a surveillance flight over the Soviet Union airspace in a U-2, the government was forced to admit the existence of the previously top-secret aircraft in the ensuing negotiations to get Powers back, and when pictures of it appeared in every newspaper in the world Pop immediately recognized it as the same strange thing he’d seen, and finally figured he could tell Mom about it.
What those Navy pilots saw is even harder to explain, as are the events on another official Department of Defense video, and of course there’s no ruling out that it’s not of this earth. Still, astronomers have such high-tech telescopes to have pretty much conclusively confirmed that no other planet in this solar system has life on it, they’re pretty sure that neither does anything else in the entire galaxy, and you’d have to go a very long way to find the explanation beyond that. There’s still no satisfactory explanation for the fast-moving and unaccountably maneuverable “foo fighters” that scared the hell out of numerous fearless fighter jocks on both sides of World War II, but the most likely theory is that the menacing balls of light were a natural phenomenon akin to the St. Elmo’s Fire that used to scare the hell out of fearless sailors, and the outer-space theories make no sense at all.
It would be darned hard to explain what’s on those videos as natural phenomena, and harder yet explain it as equipment malfunction when you have sane and sober Naval pilots still swearing they saw the very same thing with their own eyes. It would be impossibly hard to explain it as something man-made, we suppose, unless you happen to be one of those rare geniuses who comes up with such previously inexplicable things in the sky as airplanes and rockets and satellites and the remote control dune buggies still sending pictures back from Mars. Anyone who could come up with that thing that was zig-zagging through the laws of aerodynamics between San Diego and Ensenada would have to be the greatest genius yet, but that person’s bound to happen someday, and there’s a whole lot of things right here on earth that we find very to explain.

— Bud Norman

Meanwhile, Here in Wichita

There’s a much-watched gubernatorial election with national significance in Virginia today, but for the moment we’re happily preoccupied with the City Council and School Board elections being held in our part of Kansas. Local politics is a pleasant distraction here in the big city of Wichita, where things generally seem to be going well enough.
These off-year elections always produce a civic government and school board that’s reliably more liberal than this staunchly conservative city at large, as the turnout is low and therefore city and school district employees have an inordinate share of the vote, so the last time we were  invited to address the local Pachyderm Club at the swank Petroleum Club several stories above down we recommended the elections be re-scheduled to the general election season when more Republicans are voting. The city government has gone crazy with bike lanes lately and seemingly scheduled a decade’s worth of road work all at once, with orange cones tying up traffic everywhere, and the local schools seem to be graduating a steady stream of very ignorant young people, so things could clearly be better around here.
Things could be a lot worse around here, though, and whenever we look at the state and national and international news our city seems in pretty good shape. Wichita is a beautiful city except in the coming winter months, with parks and libraries and an efficient way of getting around, the crime rate is lower than most of the 49 or so bigger cities, its schools continue to produce graduates with boast-worthy accomplishments, and we’ve noted recent improvements in our beloved core of the city even as its outer boundaries expand. We’re sanguine enough about things around here that we only recently bothered to research the now-scant media for how we should vote for the city council and school board, and found ourselves well satisfied with the choices.
In the last presidential election we voted for an obscure write-in candidate because “none of the above” wasn’t on the ballot, but our neighborhood’s city council ballot offers two choices we wouldn’t mind at all. One is a woman named Cindy Clayborn, a 60-year-old political neophyte who is assistant to the president for strategic planning and a professor of marketing at Wichita State University, which has a hell of basketball team coming up, and who has an extensive resume of community involvement in all sorts of do-good causes. The other is 59-year-old Sybil Strum, who lists her past occupations as nurses’ aid, medical assistant, waitress, homemaker, teacher, and latchkey worker, and previous community involvement as safety patrol. Clayborn is clearly winning the yard sign race in our neighborhood, with her professional-looking popping up on the lawns of liberal and conservative and Democratic and Republicans friends of ours along our daily routes, and based on what we’ve gleaned from the local media she’s got our vote as well, but we won’t be frightened by a very long-shot upset.
Much of what’s gone wrong and much of what’s gone right around here lately is the result of private and public partnerships in local developments, and it’s a matter of much public squabbling. The far right elements object to the public involvement, the far left objects to the private interests that clearly benefit, and the center-right and center-left seem satisfied that  the results have been generally favorable, and we’re sympathetic to them all. So far as we can tell from the brief interviews that the local media provide Clayborn is more knowledgeable about what’s going on than Strum, so she’ll get our vote, but we won’t much mind if a skeptical homemaker winds up winning.
The school board race makes for a tougher choice. We’re proud graduates of the Wichita Public School District, the goodest schools in America, but we’ve always tried choose the least objectionable candidates for its board. This time around they all at least have credible credentials. One holds a high school diploma from Wichita East and a bachelor’s degree from Kansas University and a doctorate from Michigan State and previous experience on a California school board, another is a retired Boeing executive with extensive experience in local government, and the third is a long time teacher with a master’s degree in education. The brief interviews by what’s left of the local media suggest they’re all too moderate for our anti establishmentarian tastes, but none plan to disappoint all those off-year election-voting school who pine for a long-delayed pay raise, and none of them strike us as utterly unqualified for the job as  the past two presidential nominees. We’re tentatively inclined to go with that Walt Chappell fellow, but no matter the outcome we won’t worry the local schools with at long go totally crazy.
At some point today we’ll wander over to the lovely Gloria Dei Lutheran church here in the picturesque and fashionable and liberal-leaning neighborhood of Wichita to cast our votes, but we’ll then anxiously turn our attention to that gubernatorial race in Virginia. Things seem safe enough around here for now no matter the local election results, but the rest of the country and the rest of the world seems a very scary place.

— Bud Norman

Up Above Our Heads, We Hear Music in the Air

The big story across the United States today is an exceedingly rare coast-to-coast solar eclipse, and it feels as if the sun and the moon and all the heavens have providentially aligned to spare our nation one blessed day off from the rest of the news.
It’s the topic of conversation everywhere we go, and a welcome change of subject from the past week’s talk about torch-bearing American neo-Nazis and nuclear-armed North Korean commies and such, and so far as we can tell from all the press coverage it really is sort of a big deal in the grand scheme of things. Solar eclipses are rare, far rarer yet when they happen where the sun happens to be shining down on you, and even the children who are born today will probably never again get in on another one that at least partially obscures the sun from one coast of America to another. To use a hackneyed cliche quite literally, the odds really are astronomical.
Here in Wichita, Kansas, in the heart of America, it’s rigorously scheduled to go down between 11:36 a.m. and 2:32 p.m., with 92 percent of the sun blocked out by the moon at the height of the eclipse shortly after 1 p.m., and we plan to be here for that. Many people we know have purchased those very dark sunglasses or upgraded welders’ masks that promise to let you watch it happen without going blind, others are using the old-fashioned pin-prick in paper shined on another piece of technique that we used way back in elementary school days when the last partial eclipse came around here, some have even purchased sunglasses for the pets, and our plan is to avert our eyes from the sun and instead watch our fellow Wichitans and Americans watching the eclipse.
Even on a normal day we know better than to look at the sun around here. There’s an old Clint Eastwood movie where he snarls that Kansas doesn’t have anything but sunshine, sunflowers, and sons of bitches, and we have to concede there’s some truth to that. If you’re heading west on the Kellogg freeway at a certain point before sundown, especially around either of the equinoxes, you need heavy-duty sunglasses just to keep your corneas from being burned out, and we’re always relieved to hear on the local news radio station that there’s not been a major pile-up. The Kansas state motto is “ad aspera per astra,” which roughly translates from the Latin to “to the stars through difficulties,” and the first rule any Kansan learns about how to get there is that you don’t look at the brightest star even on the most normal day.
At some point this early afternoon the sun will be 92 percent obscured by the moon, and it will be interesting to look around the parks and the buildings and notice what effect that has. Our interests tend to the sociological rather than the astronomical, though, and we’ll be more eager to see what our neighbors and their pets make of it. At a few places out west and off to the east the eclipse will be total, and in certain American towns the morning and evening will become night for a few eerie moments, and we’ll be eager to read about what that was like, but unlike some friends of ours we haven’t booked a hotel room in those places to experience it ourselves.
We don’t doubt that it’s a memorable experience, but we’re not envious, as we’ll share it vicariously. For us the fun is knowing that from coast to coast the entire United States is sharing in a rare astronomical event, that we’re well-informed enough that few of us will go blind as a result, and watching our fellow Americans somehow united by the inexorable facts and unalterable rules of the universe.
Tomorrow the sun and moon and the rest of the heavens will once again follow their usual rules, the body politic probably won’t, but it’s nice that providence and its astronomical odds provided us a day off from all that and a reminder that we’re all still subject to the same objective reality.

— Bud Norman

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

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

— Bud Norman