The Wrecking Ball and the Press

Our local newspaper’s longtime headquarters is slated for demolition this week, so on Saturday they invited all the former employees to drop by for a last look at the place. The event offered an opportunity to see some cherished friends and respected colleagues we haven’t seen in a long while, and some of the conversations were quite convivial, but there was a funereal feel to it that lingered through the weekend.
The paper isn’t going out of business, and the reunion also included a tour of the swank new digs located nearby in the trendy Old Town drinking and dining district right next to the ritzy Warren Theater, where you can watch movies in an easy chair and have waitresses bring you cocktails, but the whole affair was nonetheless a frank acknowledgement of an institution in decline. Although it has ultra-modern and remarkably comfy chairs and two computer screens at every desk and all the steel pipes and chrome doors and sharp angles you’d find in some cutting-edge start-up venture, the most conspicuous thing about the new place is that it’s a whole lot smaller than the last one, and by far the smallest building the paper has occupied since Civil War veteran and founding father Col. Marshall Murdoch moved out of the clapboard printing shop that’s still lovingly preserved at the old-west reenactment Cowtown Museum over in Riverside.
There wasn’t any sense of a cutting edge start-up to the new place, despite all the up-to-date accoutrements, and neither did it suggest a more venerable enterprise. As we walked from the new office to a nearby after-party on top of some young people’s bar, a good friend who used to be a very good aviation reporter for the paper and now gets by on free-lance work remarked that it didn’t seem at all like a newspaper office, as it didn’t have the smell of hot lead and photographic chemicals and cigarette smoke, or the sound of clacking typewriters and telephones ringing rather than warbling, or that big imposing block-long presence that a city’s newspaper is supposed to have, and we couldn’t argue.
The old building was an architectural monstrosity, a concrete and feces-brown blob typical of what was being built for expanding businesses back in 1961, when the paper moved from a smaller but much more elegant building nearby, but you used to be able to walk in from Douglas Avenue and be transported back to a more pungent and noisy and vibrant era of American journalism. Our first visit was on a school field trip, where they took us down to the printing presses and let us watch the typesetters do their Ed Sullivan-worthy legerdemain and see actual reporters shouting into telephones while pounding out the next days stories on typewriters, and it seemed way cooler than the field trips to the Steffen’s Dairy or or the Kansas Gas and Electric Company or the Coleman factory or any of the other very important and now long-gone  local institutions. The folks had already inculcated in us their daily habit of reading pretty much the entirety of both the morning and afternoon papers, and the old black-and-white movies on the late with the fedora-topped reporters shouting “get me re-write” into candlestick phones fascinated us, and we also started noticing that Mark Twain and Walt Whitman and Jim Thompson and Tom Wolfe and most of our favorite writers had worked on newspapers.
And so it was that we walked into the local paper as a newly-hired 20-year-old with all sorts of literary ambitions and romantic notions, way back in the white-hot summer of ’80. We’d dropped out of college and fallen in with the local punk rock crowd, which included a most delightful fellow who’d written for the paper some years before, and he suggested we apply for a newsroom opening he knew of, telling us which people to drop his name to and which not to, and because we could type fast and had a couple of relatively impressive jobs on the resume and seemed very enthusiastic about the newspaper we became “editorial clerks.” That’s a rather fancy term for what the old-timers called a “copy boy,” and although it was hard work it was often fun and a better education than what we’d been getting in college.
We typed up enough obits to fill several cemeteries, answered phone calls from angry readers and people trying to get in touch some reporter who wasn’t around, copied and distributed the daily budgets to all the departments, sorted mail, ran errands, listened to the police scanners and alerted the crime desk to the latest atrocities, watched the local news broadcasts just in case they might have something the newsroom didn’t know about, took dictation from reporters in the field, and reveled in the frantic atmosphere. They were still typing on typewriters back then, with a conveyor belt sending hard copy from the copy desk to those typesetting magicians downstairs, and although the state-of-the-art IBM Selectrics didn’t make quite the right clickety-clack sound it was still pretty noisy, and there was this great old guy developing all the pictures in photographic chemicals back in the dark room, and not only could you smoke cigarettes in the newsroom, pretty much everyone did. It looked and sounded and smelled and had a feeling right down to your bones of a real newspaper, just like in the movies.
Nearly all of the then-numerous reporters and editors and everyone else outranking us on the staff had been more inspired to enter the newspaper racket by “All the President’s Men” than by “His Girl Friday,” and when we all watched Ronald Reagan being elected and started getting the headlines downstairs we were the only ones celebrating, but for the most part they were a good bunch. There was still a lot of the wise-cracking and banter we’d come to expect from the old movies, and some of the same instinctive anti-authoriatian streak, and several of them took a liking to a punk college drop-out and generously shared their considerable knowledge with us. Although we’re still pure-bred prairie Republican goyim our most influential mentors about the craft turned out to be Jewish Democrats from Back East, who really were so common in the press back then they even wound up in such remote places as our hometown, and we also lament that the latest iteration of the hometown newsroom lacks a certain Jewish favor.
We literally fell in love with one of those mentors, a wise-cracking and rule-breaking and very tall woman who reminded us of Rosalind Russell in “His Girl Friday,” and when she split town for a job at the bigger paper in Kansas City we followed her there. Our title at that paper was “dethwriter,” the abbreviated journalese for the guys who wrote death notices and the local’s out-of-town traffic fatalities and the murders too petty for the crime reporters to bother with, and as gruesome as it was it provided enough oft-told stories to make for a novel we hope to write someday, tentatively titled “Dethwriter Takes a Holiday.” The newsroom had these pneumatic tubes that brought clips down from the library upstairs, which usually included some fishy news about the many Italian businessmen in Kansas City whose jukeboxes unexpectedly exploded, and there were a couple of very sound and educational friends on the “dethwriter” desk, but all the reporters seemed kind of snooty, and although we still miss her we had reasons to break off the relationship with the witty and rule-breaking and very tall woman, and we wanted to be back at the hometown paper.
After a short stint of cleaning houses we were back at clerking at the paper, doing a very fine job of it if we do say so ourselves, and angling at that up-from-copy-boy story we’d seen in all those late night movies. Eventually we’d done enough favors to the editors and cleaned up so many of those stories the college kids were phoning in to earn a byline, and then a column about the local music scene, and despite the newspaper’s recent fetish about college credentials we eventually wound up with “Staff Writer” under the daily bylines. We like to think of ourselves as the last of the up-from-copy-boy breed, but it also had to do with the fact that newspapers were so big at the time they could afford to take a chance on a punk kid.
This was at a time when almost every city in America was becoming a one-newspaper town, talk radio and cable and the internet didn’t yet threaten the local newspaper monopoly, and the business of printing all those papers and all that money took up an imposing square block and the building was bustling to the seams. Our paper could be purchased for a quarter in racks everywhere from Kansas City’s Strawberry Hill to Mount Sunflower on the Colorado border, with bureaus across the state providing locals news for the trucks that sped out as we walked home from day. The paper had reporters snooping around every office in City Hall and County Hall and the statehouse, the fashion reporter and the drama critic were flying off to New York City for the latest shows, the aviation reporter was at the Paris Air Show, and several we times found ourselves flying on chartered plains through scary thunderstorms to far-flung stories as we rose through the ranks.
We were there when they started bringing the computers in, which at first were shared by every two reporters. The bosses promised these devices would herald a new gold age of the American newspaper, but the time we left after 25 years it didn’t turn out that way. All those magical typesetters were the first round of layoffs, and then a lot of those deaf pressmen who were hired because they communicate over all the news were laid off, and eventually they figured out how to do a lot of the work we’d done as a clerk, which saved the company a lot of the money that was still coming in. Then the computers started letting people buy classified ads on Craigslist, though, and all sorts of internet news sites were popping up that allowed advertisers to buy more specifically-targeted ads, and then the money started going away.
More lay-offs followed, of course, first in the no-longer viable classified ad departments, and the circulation area was limited to the metro area, which allowed all the statewide bureau staffs to be laid-off, and the cuts eventually reached the metro newsroom. The paper has less than a third the number of reporters and photographers snooping around the city as it did back in our good old days, and a big share of that is devoted to local sports, and they laid off all the pressmen when they outsourced the printing of the relatively few on-paper copies they sell these days to that former rival in Kansas City, which also provides the bulk of the state political news, and even in its shiny new but conspicuously small building the old gray mare clearly ain’t she used to be.
Still, it was nice to see all those old friends and respected colleagues we hadn’t seen in years. Several people we would have loved to have seen weren’t there because there because they’re dead, others had their own good reasons, but one formerly helpful editor came all the way from Florida and a guy we kind of like came in Minnesota, and there were some great stories about all the scandals and screw-ups and general editorial ineptitude at the paper at the over years, as well as a few political scoops and astute theater reviews and off-beat feature stories that did the public a full quarter’s worth of good. There are still a few folks at the hanging on the paper the worked with, some of whom we well regard, especially a couple of photographers and a savvy second-generation editor, and it felt good to offer them our best wishes. After all the fond farewells we walked by the cranes and the wrecking balls that are going to tear down that ugly old building, though, and happy ending somewhere out there on the internet seemed far less tangible.

— Bud Norman

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A Relatively Close Call on the Plains

That wasn’t a windstorm that blew through Kansas on Tuesday night to blow away all the smoke from that controlled prairie burn, but rather a collective sigh of relief by the state’s Republican Party. The Fourth Congressional District remains in the loving hands of the GOP, despite a confluence of circumstances that made it harder than usual.
State Treasurer Ron Estes wound up beating attorney and political neophyte James Thompson in the special election to replace Mike Pompeo, who left his seat to become director of the Central Intelligence Agency, albeit by less than seven percentage points. That might seem a comfortable margin in some districts, but it’s a 25-point drop from Pompeo’s victory last November, and it took a big chunk of last minute media money from the national party and a visit by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and robocalls from the President and Vice-President to salvage that. It’s close enough by Kansas standards to give Democrats some hope in more traditionally competitive districts, and inspire a similar nervousness among the Republicans.
Neither party should read to much into it, though, as there were the predictable all-politics-is-local factors that likely won’t be replicated elsewhere. Kansas’ Republican Gov. Sam Brownback is currently the least popular governor in the country, being hated with a red-hot passion by all the Democrats and having spent the past six waging a civil war on the more pragmatic sorts of budget-balancing Republicans who are still quite numerous around here, and for some reason party poo-bahs in the district chose a candidate from his cabinet. Special elections are typically low-turnout affairs every, so when it happens where a highly energized Democratic base and Republican base that isn’t at all enthused by its candidate and no longer frightened by the prospect of President Hillary Clinton or Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is bound to tighten a race.
Estes lacked Pompeo’s stellar credentials and polished appeal and ran an awful campaign, forgoing the usual retail campaigning and skipping debates and constantly running a much-ridiculed ad where he’s wearing waders and standing in a swamp full of alligators and snakes and a harmless-looking turtle. The opponent ran an unusually shrewd campaign, using plenty of shoe-leather at all the obligatory greasy spoon meet-and-greets and showing up at every debate, and his ads took care to mention his military record and show him firing off rounds the very same “assault rifle” that the last Democratic congressman we had here a few decades had foolhardily voted to ban, and for a Democrat a projected a very regular Kansas guy image, and although his party establishment proved stingy he still fired up the base enough to get sufficient small donations to blanket the local airwaves and internet connections with it. Republicans can hope that future candidates won’t repeat the same mistakes elsewhere, and be confident that few Democrats will allow themselves to be seen firing semi-automatic weapons.
Certain sorts of Republicans will tell themselves that President Donald Trump’s last minute intervention turned the tide from what was rumored to be a late polling deficit before that last minute money-infusion, and all sorts of Democrats will be hoping that Trump was largely responsible for that 25 point drop from a mere four years ago, but they’re both only partly right, and the way it played out here doesn’t predict anything about any other race around the country. Trump carried the district by 27 points, but that’s five less than Pompeo’s winning margin and no better than what any old Republican presidential nominee could expect, and he finished a distant third to Cruz in the caucus voting, so absent that terrifying prospect of a President Hillary Clinton there’s not much enthusiasm for him around here. He does have his fans, though, many of them the types who wouldn’t ordinarily be voting in a low-turnout special election if not for a presidential robocall, and the more pragmatic Republicans types who always vote even in April aren’t going to let Trump’s endorsement change their vote one way or the other. We don’t think that Democrats can expect a 25 point drop in any other district due to Trump, as it probably didn’t happen here, but we will allow that there was a certain Trump-related enthusiasm gap here that Trump and the lack of a Hillary Clinton-esque villain had something to do with it.
Any Democrats searching for nuggets of hope from the race should dig deep into the district’s peculiar demographics, and take note that Thompson did wind up winning Sedgwick County, which includes the 50th most populous American metropolitan area of Wichita and most of the district’s voters. He didn’t win it by nearly enough to offset the ass-kicking he predictably suffered in the sparsely populated agricultural counties to the east and west and south, but even a slight edge here should offer encouragement to discouraged Democrats. In a regular election year Wichita’s a reliably Republican city, certainly more so than your usual top-50 American metro area, but pretty much every single ethnic minority and homosexual and college professor and beatnik poet and dues-paying union member and every other statistically-inclined-to-vote-Democrat sort of individual in the district lives here, and as the pundits say it “looks like America” more than the rest of the district, for better and worse. The city’s ethnic make-up and levels of educational achievement and annual income and television viewing habits and consumers preferences are so close to all the national averages that it’s a popular test market, which oddly puts our unfashionable hometown on the cutting edge of commerce, so even in a special election even a slight Democratic win here is something both parties should ponder.
The Democrats should consider finding candidates who shoot guns and act like regular guys and take care not to give offense to the God-fearing white folks when they’re out shaking hands at greasy spoons, even as they fire up all the ethnic minorities and homosexuals and college professors in the base, but they’ll probably go full Bernie Sanders. The local Republicans should remember that just four months ago they easily won Wichita and a whole lot of those ethnic minorities and homosexuals and college professors and dues-paying union members with such as a well-credentialed and polished and uninvolved in the Republican civil war candidate as Pompeo, but they’ll probably conclude that even in a special election beset by the worst complications they can still win by a nearly seven point margin no matter who they put up, and of course Trump will conclude that he saved the day.
We got some free eats at both the Estes party at the Marriott Hotel way over the east side as well as the Thompson party at an old joint just up from The Lord’s Diner on North Broadway, and it was interesting to note how both parties were pretty much exactly as you might stereotype them, and how both were rather ambivalent about the results, but we can’t say we learned anything. Come to think of it, we do’t suggest either party try to draw any conclusions except that nobody seems very happy here in the demographically representative heart of America, and they both need to do better.

— Bud Norman

The Local Angle on the Big Divide

Every once in a while in our daily and extensive reading of the national and international news we’ll come across the name of somebody we know from real life, and it’s always quite a jolt. One would prefer to feel somewhat insulated from all that widely covered hubbub about people we don’t know and don’t really care to know, but those occasional names we recognize as people we do know always remind us there’s often far less than seven degrees of separation between us and the underlying reality of it all.
The latest jolt came just yesterday when that Milo Yiannapolous fellow that we don’t know and really don’t care to know was disinvited from the Conservative Political Action Conference’s annual meeting, on account of some surfaced audiotapes that have him sure enough sounding as if he’s in favor of grown men having sex with underage boys, and all the front page stories on all the big papers quoted a fellow we do know named Matt Schlapp. Perish the thought that Schlapp has anything at all to do with grown men having sex with teenage boys, but he’s also quoted in all the next-day stories about how Yiannoplous also lost a big book deal and was fired from the Breitbart News website where he was hired by former editor and President Donald Trump’s top current top consigliere Steven Bannon. Schlapp only figures in all of this because he’s the current chairman of the American Conservative Union, which hosts the Conservative Political Action Conference, and is therefore the guy who stirred up all the hubbub by inviting the notorious provocateur Yiannpolous to speak and then stirred up yet another hubbub by disinviting him after those career-destroying audiotapes were publicized.
There’s no way of spinning that either one or the other of those decisions wasn’t wrong, so Schlapp is currently getting pilloried by pretty much all of the exponentially intersectional sides of the current political spectrum. We’re trying to take a more forgiving stand, though, because we rather like Schlapp. He’s a fellow Wichitan, who we first met a million years or so ago when we were covering the political beat for the local paper and he was a go-to source on the staff of the our district’s congressman, and we’d like to think that despite everything our relationship has always been cordial and mutually respectful. His congressman’s win over a long-entrenched Democrat who seems quite reasonable by today’s Democratic standard was shrewdly predicted by our coverage, which momentarily enhanced our standing at the local newspaper, and despite our misgivings about the rather fire-breathing Republican’s apparent cluelessness we maintained a respectful relationship with Schlapp and the rest of the staff during his long incumbency Over the years the congressman became less clueless and quite respectable, as far as we were concerned, while we were relegated to the theater criticism beat, where we once again rocked, as far as we were concerned, while Schlapp rose through the conservative ranks to the point where he wound up in inviting and then dis-inviting that Yiannapolous fellow to speak at the biggest annual gathering of true-blue conservatives.
Despite a certain affection for Schlapp and his full-throated and formerly old-fashioned conservatism and Republicanism, we’ll go right ahead and say he was an idiot for extending the invitation in the first place. We’ll forgive him for not knowing that Yiannapolous sure seems an on-the-record apologist for grown men having sex with young boys, as we also didn’t know that, and we’ll give him due credit for rescinding the invitation once those tawdry tapes were released. What continues to bother us, though, is that he was apparently well aware of Yiannapolous’ reputation as a riot-provoking provocateur of both the left and the erstwhile right when he extended the invitation. In response to the “tweets” of a stubbornly anti-Trump conservative we don’t know but much respect he tweeted that he “must be doing something right” to have aroused such ire, which despite our hometown boosterism seems quite dumb. He could have just easily as aroused that woman’s ire by inviting the head of the Ku Klux Klan to speak at the nation’s largest annual gathering of conservatives, and that would just as clearly have not proved that he was doing something right.
Alas, the idea that anything you might say or do that offends the sensibilities of the the other side shows you’re doing something right is all the rage these days days on both sides of the political aisle. We run into that all the time here in Wichita, from both the liberals and conservatives that we’re trying to stay friends with, and we try our best to find some common ground. So far we’ll agreed that grown men should not be having sex with underage boys, and even that Yiannapolous fellow no longer disputes that, so we’ll hope that some further common ground can be found. In the meantime we’ll cut some slack for Matt Schlapp, who always seemed a likable enough fellow, and hope that the rest of is more than seven degrees of seperation away from us. The congressman that Schlapp once worked for is long out of office, having been replaced by a brighter fellow of our slight acquaintance who is now the head of the Central Intelligence, the second Wichita to hold that office, and his confirmation featured the testimony of another couple of former and current Senators we personally know, so even here in godforsaken middle of the country the the news seems all too close to home.

— Bud Norman

Up the Lazy River

The weather on Monday was far too uncommonly perfect in our portion of the Great Plains to worry about politics or economics or other such dreary matters, so after a frustrating hour or so of getting the e-mail working again, and then another couple of hours of composing and sending out some pressing e-mails and doing other unavoidable chores, we vowed to take a day off from the news and instead ventured into the heart of the River Festival. For those of you who aren’t so lucky as to live in Wichita, Kansas, on a such a glorious Great Plains day in early June, and are therefore unlikely to be familiar with the River Festival, suffice to say it’s the big annual civic celebration around here, and it’s really something to see.
The festival is also quite an inconvenience to those of us who live in the old and picturesque Riverside neighborhood of the city, which is bounded by the Arkansas and Little Arkansas rivers that give both it and the River Festival their names, and especially to those of us Riversiders who also frequently do business in the downtown district just past the nearby confluence, where most of the action takes place these days and many of the streets are suddenly and rather unaccountably blocked off and the usual free-flowing traffic is now just dreadful, so that just seemed all the more reason to take advantage of it. Being wised up to all the short cuts in our city we successfully motored our top-down way to the parking lot of the huge Metropolitan Baptist Church, listening to some swingin’ Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’67 on the old folks’ AM station en route rather than our usual right-wing talk radio fare, then walked across scenic McClean Boulevard and past the nice fountain monument to city father Ben McClean and over the Douglas Bridge that spans the Arkansas River into downtown. Along the way we encountered some ugly old women and some pretty young girls and some surly skateboarding young punks with tattoos and a genial old fellow in a a fine straw hat who handed us some Biblical scriptures and an invitation to the services at the Temple Baptist Church, “If you don’t already have a church home,” and when we told him that we did have a church home but very much appreciated the invitation he seemed pleased by the response, and in such perfect weather it all felt quite pleasingly like Wichita.
When we flashed our reasonably priced button and entered the festival area without any intrusive pat-downs, gospel music was blaring, and it was glorious. The annual “Gospelfest” concert was taking place on a temporary stage at the Kennedy Plaza next to the big circular Century II concert and convention and exhibition and theater and whatnot building, and an all-star choir from the city’s many mostly-black churches and an absolutely brilliant fellow named Cameo Profit from St. Mark’s Church of God in Christ in the lead were kicking out some Holy Spirit with a more beguiling backbeat than you could find at the sleaziest nightspot anywhere even on a Saturday night, and the old black women in their church hats were waving their hands and a handsome young black man was doing that gospel two-step just behind us and even our stiffly Church of Christ white knees were moving in that sanctified time. We happily absorbed that for an hour or so, then wandered past the food courts with their steak sandwiches and chickens on a stick and other culinary delights, and the t-shirt stands and the street musicians and the statue of Prairie Populist heroine Mary Elizabeth Lease and the gorgeous old Proudfoot and Bird-built City Building where an old friend of ours now runs the Sedgwick County Historical Museum, which is well is worth a visit if you’re ever in town and have time, and then toward the “Waterwalk” area that was supposed to be a garden spot by now according to some well-connected real estate mogul’s grandiose plans but is still mostly a parking lot, where Brave Combo was set to play a concert.
If you’re not fortunate enough to have been in on the punk-polka movement that swept the hipper portions of the Great Plains back in the early ’80s, suffice to say that Brave Combo is one of the very best bands in the entire history of music. We’ve been fans for the past 30 years or so, ever since they first wandered out of Denton, Texas, and into the old Coyote Club on that rough patch of North Broadway, and with the most excellent musicianship they play polkas, polka nortena, rhumbas, cha-chas, fox-trots, twists, tangos, horas, waltzes, show tunes, chicken dances, and anything else that people might dance to anywhere in the world, and always with the most hilariously punk sense of humor. We rather liked it that they’d moved from that rough patch on North Broadway to that parking lot in the heart of the big civic celebration, not so far removed from the “Gospelfest,” and we had the good fortune to run into our old friend Teri Mott and thank her for making it happen.
We go way back with Mott, to the early ’80s days when she was spinning discs on the local college radio station’s very alternative “After Midnight” show and we were both promulgating our own notions of musical rebellion in the local media, but by now she’s insinuated herself so far into the River Festival organization that she’s turning it into a 10-day musical festival that beats Woodstock for sheer eclectic weirdness. We’ve already missed performances by the Violent Femmes and the Meat Puppets and the missing-its-big-star Black Flag, who we once spent a memorably hazy night with at a friend’s cheap apartment after their shut-down-by-the-man performance on at a tiny joint on North Market, and if you’re not hip to the seminal punk scene suffice to say they were all notable, and there’s some old-school hip-hop names that even we recognize. The obligatory country-and-western offerings are hipper than usual, and there are some intriguing jazz offerings and the annual appearance by our better-than-you’d-expect local symphony orchestra, and Mott was especially proud of that all-star choir kicking out that great gospel music over in Kennedy Plaza, even if she is the unchurched sort.
Still, it’s all rather odd to anyone who’s been through so many River Festivals. The whole hubbub started with the city’s centennial in 1972, when the Century II building was unveiled and a two-day “Wichitennial” celebration marked the occasion. There was a big parade, featuring ourselves riding a unicycle decorated as a cardboard horse, a “bathtub race” down the Arkansas River and a “bed race” down Broadway, and a performance by the local Midian Shrine Dixieland Jazz Band, which was also one of the greatest bands in the history of music, and it was such an endearingly corny big city version of a small town celebration that the city decided to do it again the next year. What started as a yearly custom soon became an annual tradition, and it grew to include canoe races along the Little Arkansas river and tug-of-wars on the sand bank of the Arkansas and a “block party” on a strip just east of downtown that was slowly converting from skid row to a yuppie zone and turned into a bloody brawl, and a popular blues concert that was cancelled when the local Blues Society couldn’t afford the big fees that the increasingly corporate Wichita Festivals Inc. was charging for inclusion in the increasingly corporatized event, and now it’s evolving into an eclectic musical festival where the cutest little girl you’ve ever seen and her rather handsome young mother were gleefully doing the chicken dance with Brave Combo.
We’ll get back to the dreary business of politics and economics tomorrow, but with a bolstered hope that it somehow leaves us the hell alone to have our parties as we see fit here in Wichita, Kansas, and that the good people of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, can continue to hold their annual Groundhog Day corniness and that whatever town in upstate New York it was that always had their annual ice-skating and barrel-jumping competition on “The Wide World of Sports” is still doing that, and that whatever cheers your heart in your hometown will still persist. On a perfect early summer day a free people can do great things, and all that dreary political and economic news should be absorbed with that in mind.

— Bud Norman

Another Memorial Day

Today is a good day to take it easy, enjoy the arrival of another long-awaited summer in America, and to not bother with the mess we’re making of it. It’s also a good time to reflect on the men and women who once made America, so we’ll re-post an old essay once again. Nothing much has changed since we wrote it.
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 Afghanistan, 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

Kansas Comes Through

All in all, it was a delightful day in Kansas on Saturday. We had to be up at the ungodly early hour of 7:30 a.m., and after a long drive back from the funeral of a much-loved family member at that, but the weather was about as perfect as early March ever provides around here, and we got to boo to Donald J. Trump in person and shake the hand of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and by the end of the day the quadrennial Kansas presidential caucuses and the democratic process itself had once again proved great fun.
The festivities began at 8 a.m., which we attribute to the Kansas Republican Party’s still lingering farmer tendencies, as well as the necessity of wrapping things up before the University of Kansas Jayhawks and Wichita State University Wheatshockers played their conference tournament basketball games, and we made the miscalculation that sleeping through the time it would take to brew our requisite two cups of coffee would compensate for their stimulative effects, but we somehow safely somnambulated ourselves out of Riverside and over to the fortunately nearby Century II building downtown. Some old New Journalism instinct told us to be there early, so after we wasted some time waiting in a line that turned out to be for a Trump rally in one of the circular building’s other pie-shaped segments we we soon found our way to the entrance to the caucus’ much larger pie-shaped segment, which was shared with the local youth symphony practice going on in an adjacent pie-shaped segment, so all sorts of fresh-faced kids with cello cases and trombone-shaped luggage were in the same long line with a bunch of grizzled farmer-looking Republicans, but it turned out to be well worth the short wait to receive the yellow sticker that would allow us to cast a ballot. Kansas has all those photo identification requirements that the Democrats are always squawking about, and our Secretary of State is the nation’s most infamous advocate of these outlandish measures, but it was all computerized and quite cheerily transacted by the friendly people in the “volunteer” t-shirts, and we have been duly registered as Republicans since our long-ago eighteenth birthday, so we were quite quickly and efficiently welcomed into the comforting embrace of Kansas Republicanism at its most cornily old-fashioned best.
On our way in we encountered a very fine fellow who’s an old fraternity brother of one our actual brothers and is now chairman of the county’s Republican party, and we were quite circumspect about sharing our preferences in the race, which turned out to be the same. Then we ran into a woman who was campaigning for a candidate in a local statehouse race, and although her candidate was in a district more unfashionably west-side than our own she had an elongated and skinny off-beat beauty that reminded us of Shelley Duvall, and she rightly pointed out that at least we know some people in that unfashionably west-side district, so we stopped to chat with her as well. We also ran into the most delightful fellow who books the speakers for the local Pachyderm Club, who cajoled us into accepting another invitation to address that august meeting of downtown Wichita Republicans, and one of our old friends and favorite penny-pinching County Commissioners, who laughingly noted that we’re not in his district but are represented the only guy in town who makes him look like a squishy RINO establishment guy, which doesn’t bother us a bit. By the time we took our seats in the pie-shaped Republican segment of circular Century II in the third century of the American age, we felt quite at home.
There was a video by the mayor, who is officially non-partisan but generally understood around here to be a Republican, and then our County Commissioner friend filled some time with a Kansas political quiz, which we did well with, and the Lieutenant Governor weighed in via video, and our delightful friend from the Pachyderm Club made a pitch for his monthly meetings, and the head of the Black Republicans in town gave a rousing oration and a kid with skinny jeans and a modern architecture haircut spoke well on behalf of the local College Republicans, and there was a pitch on behalf of Republican Women by another friend of ours who’s the ex-wife of a even better friend of ours. Then some local high school Marine junior-ROTC kids right out of a Norman Rockwell painting presented the colors, our local don’t-dare-you-doubt-his-Republicanism congressman led the assembled electorate in a Pledge of Allegiance, followed by a prayer from a local pastor, and that was followed by a memorable rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The two-male, two-female quartet from a local church knocked the familiar tune out of the park and had the crowd singing along through the familiar “and the land of the free and home of the brave” ending, which brought the expected roar, but they kept singing through that second verse that is so unfamiliar no one could sing along, and it got another big roar when it ended with the same closing lines.
This was followed by a long and soporific delay due to the long lines still waiting to get past such a friendly and efficient and computerized process, filled with some mostly godawful contemporary country and western music, but we eventually got around to the good part about the candidates.
Our local don’t-dare-you-doubt-his-Republicanism congressman, whose Republicanism we do not doubt, had the burden of speaking on behalf of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who had made a touch-and-go appearance in town the day before, which did not fare well at all with the anti-establishment crowd. We’ve met our congressman on a few occasions and found him a most genial fellow, and have only the minor and admittedly arguable quibbles with his voting record, and given the easily accessible chumminess of Kansas Republican politics we must plead guilty to being part of some ill-defined “establishment,” and we’ll take Rubio over some options, but even we weren’t buying the pitch.
Speaking on behalf of the anti-establishment terror Cruz was the man himself, and as much as we hate to resort to cliches we can’t think of anything to say but that he electrified the crowd. He took all of his allowed ten minutes and at least a couple more to go point by point over the things that have infuriated the sorts of Republicans who get up at 7:30 a.m. and probably even earlier than that to be there for the extended “Star Spangled Banner” at a Republican caucus even on the best sort of March day you can expect, and there was a rhetorical flavor to it that we’ll call “evangelical,” and suffice to say that we were not the only ones on our feet at its conclusion. By our estimation at least two-thirds of the crowd were waving “Choose Cruz” signs, and sporting the same sticky slogan on their clothes and chanting his name, and at that point we didn’t need to await the exit polling.
Up next on our local hinterlands stage was none other than Donald J. Trump, the self=described billionaire real-estate-and-gambling-and-strip-joint-and-professional-wrestling-and-realty-television-and-scam-university mogul, the man who has been unavoidable in the news for the past year or so, and he seemed rather puny. Perhaps he’d been lured to our hick town by the couple of crazy polls that showed him leading here, and the fact that Kansas’ electoral Republicanism entitles it to more delegates than similarly-sized states in more benighted regions, but by the time he hit the stage in downtown Wichita he seemed realize he was facing a hostile crowd. The boos were far louder than the cheers, and the candidate’s bluster was far less than usual. He did boast about the big crowd he’d drawn earlier, few of whom had made their way into the area where the race was going on, and he talked the usual bit about how he was going to hire the best people and do great things, but his heart didn’t seem in it, and the towering media figure looked rather small on that stage, and with hometown pride we can report that he left to more boos than cheers.
There were other candidates on the ballot, but none had bothered to schedule a speaker, so those of us who’d gotten in early were quickly able to cast our ballots and get out. While Trump was speaking we ran into a good friend from the church where we worship, and he showed us the digital pictures of himself and his lovely daughter and handsome son-in-law shaking hands with Cruz, and he told us how he got the candidate’s attention by shouting that his wife, a most delightful woman who had the good fortune to escape from Baghdad to America, had come all the way from Iraq to vote, and how Cruz had seemed genuinely humble when meeting her. As we wandered by the blocks-long line of voters who didn’t get in on all the fun we passed by Cruz, and joined the scrum of voters to shake his hand and wish him well, and we walked away feeling that no matter what awful consequences the American political process might provide at least we were part of it.
On the way back to our car, which was parked due to our early arrival in a spot that would be coveted when the rest of the Republicans and all the Democrats and the folks going to the Home and Garden Show and the youth symphony kids made downtown more crowded than usual, we passed by a couple of homeless guys who were wondering about the blocks-long line of people over on Douglas. We explained that the Kansas caucuses were going on, and added that we’d had a chance to boo Donald J. Trump in person, and one of the homeless guys insisted on giving us a fist-bump over that, which made us feel a part of an even broader American experience. After a frequently phone call-interrupted nap we headed out to Kirby’s Beer Store, a favorite ghetto dive of ours, where all our hipster friends were celebrating Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ anti-establishment victory on the also well-attended Democratic side of the race.
Cruz’ already-called victory in the Kansas Republican caucus had not at all surprised us, given the anti-establishment mood of such established Republicans as ourselves, and the fact that the same caucus which routinely chooses the most conspicuously Christian candidate is not likely to choose a thrice-married and boastfully adulterous gambling-and-strip-joint mogul who mocks the handicapped and blames his perennial tax-audit problems on his being such a strong Christian, and neither were we surprised with Sander’s victory here. The state’s minority of Democrats have all the crazy ideas associated with their party, but they’re heirs to that Prairie Populist tradition that had such crazy ideas way back in the days when the railroads and the Sears Roebuck Company were the Koch Brothers and Wal-Mart of the time, and they have an anti-establishment streak of their own that we can’t help but respect. We had a friendly beer and a nice conversation with an extravagantly homosexual friend of ours who has a knack for rational political discussion, and he shared our concern that Hillary Clinton is at least as awful as Trump on a personal integrity level and that he’s on the other side of a racial divide in his party, and despite all jibes about the “Choose Cruz” sticker on our jacket we enjoyed the beer.
The Kansas results only contributed to a split decision on the day, with Cruz winning also Maine but Trump more narrowly winning in Kentucky and with a lot of help from early voting in Louisiana. Trump still has a delegate lead, although not overwhelmingly, and the voting in all the states seems to have narrowed it down to a two-man with Cruz, whose numbers have been outperforming expectations lately while Trump’s have seemingly stalled, but the upcoming states are very different from the prairie and the outliers still hanging around the race figure to be a factor, and we don’t know what to expect from the rest of the country. Kansas came through, at least, and so did our Okie cousins, and for now the process at least affords some fun.

— Bud Norman

Yet Another Deadline

Today is the deadline for reaching a nuclear deal with the Iranians, and by all accounts there won’t be any deal, but of course there will always be another deadline. By this point so many deadlines have passed and so many new ones have been set that it’s hard to see the point of going on, but hope apparently springs eternal at the State Department.
There doesn’t seem to have been much progress made over the past several deadlines, at least from the point of view of anyone who would prefer that the mad mullahs of Iran don’t get their hands on a nuclear weapon. After more than seven years of the Obama administration offering an open hand to the virulently anti-American and anti-semitic and longing-for-the-Armmageddon regime, and more than two years of sitting down at a Viennese negotiating table with them, they’re still insisting that no inspections of their military facilities be allowed and that all of the economic sanctions that forced them to that Viennese negotiating table cease the moment the deal is signed and not when it has been verified that there isn’t any nuclear shenanigans going on that those military facilities. Some “unnamed senior U.S. official” has acknowledged that America doesn’t allow foreign inspections of its military sites, and similarly unnamed U.S. officials have long sounded willing to go along with the sanctions demands, but even our French negotiating partners are balking at that while the Iranians seem eager to learn what further concessions they might extract from an American president who is clearly eager to make any sort of deal.
Our guess is that the Iranians are holding out for a deal that will require America to provide them with a sizable nuclear arsenal, along with the needed inter-continental ballistic missiles that can deliver them to Tel Aviv and Riyadh and Paris and any other locales that offend their religious sensibilities, along with the global positioning system coordinates needed to land them there, and that the final sticking point that requires yet another deadline will be whether New York City and Los Angeles and Wichita are also included in the bargain. New York City and Los Angeles are full of reliably Democratic voters, so that would be the sort of sticking point that would require a couple more deadlines to be set, but we expect that some unnamed senior U.S. official or another will find something in America’s sinful past and current policies that makes it unfair to object to the nuclear annihilation of such as reliably Republican town as Wichita.
The president’s foreign policy legacy is at stake, after all, and almost any deal that’s cooked up can somehow been portrayed by the obeisant press as some sort of triumph, so surely that’s worth another two or three or four or however many deadlines are required to get there.

— Bud Norman

The Longest Day

There’s nothing the least bit Pagan about us, as we’re far too Christian and Burkean and Rationalist and downright fuddy-duddy for all that veneration of harsh nature and dancing-naked-in-the-moonlight nonsense, but as is our wont we nonetheless took time out on Sunday to observe the summer solstice.
After our habitual Sunday morning worship at the West Douglas Church of Christ, where our learned preacher delivered an inspiring sermon drawn from Hebrews’ chapter two, verses seven through 13, and shared the pain he feels following the recent deaths of some long-cherished friends, and his looming sense of his own mortality, which had a special poignance for us after the last rough couple of weeks of death we’ve endured, we drove with the top down on our aging but still chugging automobile to Riverside Park. A couple of local artists whose work we enjoy have built a decorative solar calendar there, right near the fountains where the impoverished but adorable children from the nearby barrio frolic in the cool respite from the summer heat, and at high noon of the summer and winter solstices and the vernal and autumnal equinoxes the sun will shine on a cloudless day through an eye-shaped hole in colored glass directly onto one of three precisely placed pieces of marble. It’s really something to see, and there are always at least a handful of interesting people who show up to see it, and as always one of the artists was on hand to explain how the miraculous alignment of the Sun and the Earth and its tilting rotations and constant revolutions create this pleasing artistic effect. He explained it terms of how the Sun is moving across the horizon, then quickly corrected himself that the Sun is keeping its usual place while we’re the ones moving along through the universe, but in either case the gist of it was that at approximately 1:27 p.m. in the lovely Riverside Park of Wichita, Kansas, right near where the barrio children were frolicking in the fountains, the sun shone through the cloudless skies right onto that precisely placed piece of marble and summer had officially and meteorologically and undeniably arrived.
This was much-needed good news, and it was nice to have it meteorologically and artistically confirmed, as summer is our favorite time of the year. We attribute this to our childhood memories of summertimes with no more pencils, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks, and the exhilarating freedom of nothing to do that the season provided. Summers are hot as hell around here, and this one already has been even before the sunlight hit upon that piece of marble, and given our warm-blooded and cheapskate ways we haven’t yet turned on the air-conditioner, which has had a discombobulating effect on our sleeping, but all that seems a small price to pay for the glorious feeling of summer. Even when the thermometers hit 115 and the electric bills start climbing, this is a good time around here. The city looks great, with a veritable forest of trees and grass and gorgeous flowers flourishing in the middle of what the original Spanish explorers described as a “treeless desert,” and our cheap-but-fashionable Riverside neighborhood looks especially good and full of flowers, with even our own neglected yard in pretty good shape thanks to the delightful high-school girl who just moved in next door with her friendly and artistic parents and mowed our lawn just because she’s so damned nice, and the city work crew that showed up and trimmed the front lawn tree, albeit so early that it further discombobulated our sleeping, and the Arkansas and Little Arkansas Rivers that border the neighborhood are still high from all the drought-ending rains that came in Spring. Last week we joined a dear friend at the Wichita Botanical Gardens just down the street for a concert by some more musically-talented dear friends, and with the latest impressive improvements the garden has made that’s also really something to see.
Sunday was Father’s Day, too, and we had a heartening telephone conversation with our most excellent Pa, who will be be coming back to town with our most excellent Ma soon. We also got the news, via the miracle of Facebook, that two of our most favorite people gave birth to a son on Father’s Day. All the world really is a stage, as William Shakespeare shrewdly observed, and it truly is full of entrances and exits, and we hew to a faith that this most recent entrance and newly-fledged friend will eventually prove a full recompense for all the painful exits. Our newest pal picked a good day to be born, because those lazy, crazy, hazy days of summer really are the best the time of year. It’s the time of year when we adjust the playlist on our cheap stereo, adding The Rascals’ “Groovin'” and The Rivieras’ “Warm California Sun” and almost anything by The Beach Boys, and the many versions of Irving Berlin’s “We’re Havin’ a Heat Wave,” and all of  the even more numerous versions of the Gershwins’  classic “Summertime” to our turntable, and of course the great Jonathan Richman’s cautionary song about “That Summer Feeling.”
Summertime is when there’s things to do not because you gotta, when you run for love not because you oughta, when you trust your friends with no reason notta, when the cool of the pond makes you flop down on it, when the smell of the lawn makes you drop down on it, when the Oldsmobile has the top down on it and when the teenage car gets the cop down on it, and as the great Jonathan Richman also reminds us, if you’ve forgotten what we’re naming you’re going to long to reclaim it one day, because that summer feeling is going to haunt you one day in your life.
We also head down to Riverside Park’s solar calendar for the the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, and especially on the winter solstice, when on those occasional cloudless days the sun shines through that eye-shaped colored glass and assures us that we have reached the shortest day of the year and that the sunlight will begin to linger two minutes longer with each inevitable rotation of the Earth. The summer solstice also proclaims that the days will grow shorter by the same inevitable measure each day, but until the autumnal equinox the days will be long, and our daddy is rich and our mom is good-looking, and the cotton is high, and the livin’ is easy. We hope it is for you, as well, and wish you a happy summer.

— Bud Norman

Marketing Legalization

Yesterday was “Earth Day,” and we found ourselves in an appropriately unambitious state, so we’ve decided to recycle a script that we wrote for the recent “Gridiron” show. The script was cut from the show, which we took as a grievous insult given the utter witlessness of much of the material that was included, but we found it amusing nonetheless. The vast majority of readers residing outside Wichita should know that it’s pegged to a recent city-wide referendum to lessen the penalties for possession of marijuana, and that Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach is notorious among the state’s liberals for his strange insistence that voting in Kansas elections should be restricted to eligible voters.
(Scene opens with three hippies seated at a table.)
HIPPIE ONE: Okay, dudes, this meeting of the Committee for the Legalization of Marijuana in Kansas is now, like, you know, in order.
HIPPIE TWO: Wow, “order.” What a concept.
HIPPIE ONE: As you know, our campaign to get weed free and legal here in Kansas isn’t going well. We had a hard enough time getting Wichita to just reduce the penalty for possession, and that’s in Wichita, where if you ain’t smokin’ weed I don’t know what the hell you’re doing.
HIPPIE THREE: That’s a bummer, man, but what are we going to do about it?
HIPPIE ONE:  figured I’d call in a consultant to see if he has any ideas. This guy is a big deal in public relations and marketing and lobbying and all that stuff, so maybe he knows what to do.
HIPPIE TWO: Maybe you’re right. I mean, I’ve had relations in public, and I go to the market when I get the munchies, and I hang out in the lobby with this old wino dude, but I don’t claim to be any big deal about it, so maybe he can help us out.
(A professional-looking CONSULTANT enters.)
CONSULTANT: Hello, I’m Chip Wilson, from the Chip Wilson Public Relations, Marketing, Lobbying, and Pizza Delivery Group. Thank you so much for your time.
HIPPIE ONE: That’s cool, we’ve got plenty of it.
CONSULTANT: It’s an interesting little cause you’ve got going here, I must say, and I’m eager to help with your noble efforts. I’ve been taking a look at the strategy you’ve been employing thus far, and I think I’ve identified your main problem, public image-wise.
HIPPIE ONE: What’s that?
CONSULTANT: Well, basically, the problem is that you’re a bunch of dirty hippies.
HIPPIE THREE: Oh, man, that’s harsh.
CONSULTANT: I mean that with all due respect. Some of my best friends are dirty hippies. My dear mother was a dirty hippie. I’m just saying that it’s not the image that’s going to drive a successful public relations campaign.
HIPPIE TWO: So what do we want?
CONSULTANT: What you want is that white collar, middle class, mostly law-abiding pothoead next door. You want that engineer who’s designing safety systems for Cessna all week and unwinding with a bowl on the weekends, or that winning criminal defense attorney with all the good connections. You want a more upscale, wholesome, mass appeal pothead. Our slogan will be, “Pot — It’s Not Just for Dirty Hippies Any More.”
HIPPIE TWO: Where do we find these people?
CONSULTANT: That’s where we run into a problem. The people you want to be out front on this issue are reluctant to publicly confess their marijuana use.
HIPPIE THREE: What’s the deal with that?
CONSULTANT: They’d be confessing to a crime that involve a potential prison sentence, for one thing. Worse yet, they’re afraid people will regard them as dirty hippies.
HIPPIE ONE: I can dig that, man. I guess I’ll still have to be the spokesman, but hey, at least I’m all articulate and well-spoken and shit.
CONSULTANT: I wouldn’t recommend that. Again, I say this with all due respect, but you’re really not very articulate and well-spoken and … such. In your case, it does seem that marijuana use has impaired your verbal abilities.
HIPPIE ONE: I’m not even high, man. I happen to take this committee seriously, so I’m not indulging until 4:20.
CONSULTANT: That just proves my point. Even when you’re straight, you’re still a dirty hippie. Now, look at me. I took two monster bong hits of Hindu Kush out in the parking lot before I came in here, I’m high as a proverbial kite, and still this presentation has been polished and professional and in the Queen’s friggin’ English.
HIPPIE TWO: Wow, man, you can really handle your weed. Maybe you’re the guy we’re looking for.
CONSULTANT: Sorry, but I’m strictly a behind-the-scenes consultant, and I’m afraid my more lucrative clients in the pharmaceutical field wouldn’t like that. Besides, I like my weed untaxed and unregulated, and it’s not like the cops are profiling a middle-aged white guy in a suit and tie, so what do I care if it’s legal or not?
HIPPIE ONE: So what good are you?
CONSULTANT: We’re still in negotiations, mind you, but I think we’re about to line up a perfect spokesman for your cause. I don’t want to mention any names at this point, but let’s just say he’s a former Choom Gang member and current president of the United States who still takes a puff of that righteous Hawaiian bud to deal with having his mother-in-law living at the White House.
(The hippies look at one another quizzically, unable to guess who the CONSULTANT is talking about.)
CONSULTANT: For crying out loud, you dirty hippies, I’m talking about Obama.
HIPPIE TWO: Oh yeah, Obama. I know that dude. He’s cool. I saw him slow-jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon. Do you think he’d do it?
CONSULTANT: Term limits, baby. He’s coming up against them, and at this point he doesn’t care what anybody thinks. He’s vetoing pipelines, making deals with the Iranians, inviting in illegal immigrants, and to hell with the polls or his party’s next presidential election. He’ll be racking up speakers fees and book deals, the press and the Europeans will start being polite, Hillary or some Republican can deal with the Iranian bomb and the rest of it, but he’ll still have that mother-in-law in the house and he figures some legal weed might come in handy.
HIPPIE ONE: All right, then, It looks like we’ll finally get weed legalized here in Kansas.
CONSULTANT: Oh, wait, you’re right, this is Kansas. I’m afraid Obama doesn’t poll well here. In fact, in the latest numbers I saw, about 63 percent of the state thinks he’s a dirty hippie. What was I thinking? And why am I suddenly craving chips and salsa? Would any of you guys like to get a beer and maybe some tamales at this Mexican place I know up on North Broadway? Which reminds me, we should be able to get the Mexican vote on our side, and if that damned Kobach guy doesn’t get in the way I know how to round up a lot more of them …
(Lights fade.)

— Bud Norman

A Tale of Two City Elections

Tuesday was Election Day in Chicago, which you probably heard about even if you’re not a Chicagoan, and also here in Wichita, which you might not have noticed even if you are a Wichitan. The disproportionate national attention paid to the two elections is easily explained by Chicago’s far larger population and national prominence, but the disparate amount of interest within each city is more complicated.
Local politics is one of Chicago’s favorite pastimes, followed with the same obsessive interest that attends the Bulls and Bears and Black Hawks and Cubs and White Sox, and for good reason. No sport in Chicago is quite so rough, features such fascinating players, or exerts such a meaningful influence on the daily lives of the citizens as a mayoral race. Chicago’s politics doles out patronage to a large portion of the city, provides essential city services to favored neighborhoods, regulates businesses according to their political donations, creates ethnic coalitions that affect race relations, and even intrudes into the private lives of ordinary people in a variety of ways. In Chicago, people have reason to care who is elected mayor.
This time around the mayoral race featured incumbent Rahm Emanuel, the former investment banker, congressman, and White House chief of staff who was known for bringing the rough-and-tumble “Chicago Way” to each job, against Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a former community organizer, alderman, state legislator and Cook County commissioner, which is really all you need to know about the sorry state of Chicago politics. The big issue was the city’s rather dire financial condition, as well as its frightening rate of violent crime, although such matters as the irksome red-light camera system the city has been using to raise revenues were also raised, and Emanuel was forced to apologize for a managerial style that has been brusque even by Chicago standards, but as always it largely came down to who could make the better deals to form the larger coalitions.
Garcia enjoyed the support of the city’s sizable Latino population due to his name, along with help from teachers unions upset with the numerous school closings, but Emanuel was favored by the big business interests whose neighborhoods were spared any school closings and even got a Barack Obama College Preparatory High School opened in the affluent near north side, and we assume that despite the efforts of Jesse Jackson he also enjoyed support from the city’s sizable black population due to his past association with the school’s eponym. Throw in more campaign funds, better name recognition, and some shrewd appeals to the various ethnic groups that comprise the city’s sizable white population, and Emanuel wound up winning another term. We’re still not clear on what he intends to do about the city’s mounting debt and unfunded pensions and other fiscal woes, although we expect whatever he does will leave that affluent near north side unscathed, but we have no reason to believe that Garcia would have handled it any better.
Here in Wichita, local politics is more easily ignored, to the point that even such political junkies as ourselves tend to focus more on the national and international news. The city’s workforce is relatively small and the biggest scandals the local newspaper can find there usually involve small-time expense account padding that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in Chicago, only the main thoroughfares are cleared of snow and even the richest neighborhoods are not favored with libraries or better schools, some businesses tend to enjoy preferential treatment but none are singled out for harassment, the past two mayors were Latino and black without anyone noticing, and except for the infrequent anti-smoking crusade or occasional pointless resolution about some social issue or another the city mostly lets people screw up their own lives. Besides, the city’s system of government doesn’t even grant that much power to the mayor, with most decisions left to a city council that is usually content to defer to the city manager and his staff of credential professionals. The resulting apathy and the springtime scheduling elections ensures a low turn-out dominated by teachers and city employees and activist types who routinely choose a city government more liberal than city, which reliably votes conservative in the county and state and national elections in the fall, but so far they haven’t provoked sufficient outrage to shake things up.
This time around it came down to city councilman Jeff Longwell against local businessman Sam Williams, and so far as we can tell the big issue was what to do about bringing water to this exceedingly landlocked city in a state with few rivers, no natural lakes, and a diminishing aquifer, which is a problem but not yet so pressing that the government is timing people’s showers,  as they’re threatening to do in California, along with some mud-slinging that seemed rather harsh by local standards but wouldn’t have offended even the most sensitive Chicago sensibilities. Both were white guys, which no one seemed to notice, both had resumes that could plausibly suggest some level of competence, and neither seemed to have any fool-proof plan for providing water. Longwell had the support of the business community, or at least the portion of it that’s been getting preferential treatment from the city during his tenure as a councilman, and we suspect the teachers and city employees and activist types were on his side, while Williams seemed to garner his support from the out-numbered regular folk who actually bother to vote on such a lovely spring day as Tuesday. We wound up voting for Williams, mainly because he had a somewhat back-handed endorsement from Sedgwick County Commissioners Karl Peterjohn and Richard Ranzau, whose principled stinginess and anti-government instincts we have come to admire, but when we’d heard that Longwell won it didn’t cause us any anxiety.
The low turnout might have been even lower if not for a local referendum to lower the penalty for first time marijuana offenses, which passed even though it has no legal effect because the marijuana laws are the state’s doing. Perhaps the turnout would have been greater if not for all the “yes” voters who forgot the election date or got lost on their way to the polling places, but in any case the short lines at our local voting place did not distress us. Some people judge a community’s civic-mindedness by the turn-out in an election, but in Wichita’s case the lack of interest suggests a very healthy lack of the city government’s importance. Wichitans can also boast that at least Rahm Emanuel isn’t their mayor.

— Bud Norman