Big Brother is Watching, and Bored

The latest flood of Wikileaks is from the Central Intelligence Agency, and it’s scary stuff. Aside from the scariness of the apparent fact that even the CIA isn’t safe from hacking, the leaks describe some very high-tech snooping techniques right out of one those dystopian sic-fi movies where Big Brother is always watching.
Back when President Donald Trump was running for the office he often told his enthusiastic campaign rallies how much he loved Wikileaks, which was exclusively Wikileaking embarrassing information about Democratic rival Hillary Clinton at the time, but now he’s steadfastly opposed to leaks in general. Any old president would rightly object to having America’s intelligence-gathering capabilities exposed to the nation’s enemies, and we’re sure that’s Trump’s foremost concern, but he also has his own peculiar reasons for not wanting yet another story about electronic eavesdropping espionage intrigue and high-level leaks crowding his big and assuredly wonderful health care plan out of the news.
Trump is still sticking to his “tweeted” accusation that his campaign was wire-tapped by President Barack Obama, and still offering no proof and demanding that a congressional investigation come up with some, and that’s still taking up a lot of air time and column inches. That’s also part of an ongoing story about the Russian government’s meddling in the election and how everything that was coming out by Wikileaks seemed to be about Clinton and the contacts between Trump campaign officials and the Russkies that have already caused the resignations of a campaign manager and National Security Advisor and the recusal of an Attorney General, along with all the popular conspiracy theories about how the intelligence community and the rest of the “deep state” are out to get Trump. The roll-out of that big and assuredly wonderful health care plan didn’t go at smoothly, with all the Democrats from left to far-left and many of the most right-ward Republicans finding plenty to criticize, and we expect quite a fuss about in the coming weeks, but we’re sure Trump still would have preferred the topic got more prominent headlines.
Better for any old president, too, if the public weren’t fully aware of the resources his government seems to have at its disposal. Pretty much every American home is now equipped with computers and smart phones and internet-connected televisions sets and other devices that can be used to monitor almost every movement a person takes, and according to Wikileaks the government has figured out how to do that. One can hope that the Constitution restrains the government from doing so, at least without damned good cause, but the past decades of scandals from the Watergate wire-tapping of the Nixon administration to the Internal Revenue Service’s harassment of President Barack Obama’s political opponents suggests that the plan isn’t foolproof. Like most Americans we can take more comfort in the knowledge that their lives are too boring for Big Brother to bother with, and that there’s bound to be a sorority shower room somewhere of more compelling interest, but this Trump fellow doesn’t seem to take criticism any more lightly than that Obama fellow did, and the possibilities are slightly spooky.
We’d hate to wind up like the Gene Hackman character in that last scene of “The Conversation,” the you’ve-gotta-see classic Francis Ford Coppola flick from the ’70s, where the world’s top electronic surveillance expert has become so paranoid about who’s eavesdropping on him that he’s completely destroyed his apartment in search of the elusive bug that he just knows is there is somewhere, and sits in the rubble playing his saxophone, but it does give us pause. The technology has greatly improved since then, and even after we’d torn up the house we’d still have this computer running and connected to the internet, and suddenly all the technology in those dystopian sci-fi movies seems as dated as the two-way wristwatch radio and other gadgetry in the Dick Tracy cartoons. George Orwell’s you-gotta-read it classic novel “1984” is lately back on the best-seller lists, and between the people who didn’t trust Obama and don’t trust Trump, who together comprise about 95 percent of the country, there’s a good deal of healthy suspicion out there.
For now, though, we’ll continue to trust in the generally reliable Constitution and the unerring fallibility of all humankind and how very mundane our own lives are to ward off the watchful eye of Big Brother. We wouldn’t put it past Obama to want to tap Trump’s phone, but we don’t think he would have dared done so without a warrant, which requires a judge and a paper trail and a damned good reason, and we’d like to think the system will impose similar restraints on Trump. Both men had a strange knack for having all their misdeeds exposed, too, even if they did go largely unpunished, and it’s hard to imagine either man having the genius to manipulate all those levers needed to create the all-powerful system depicted in any of those dystopian sci-fi movies. All those high-tech gizmos that were created to dominate the masses are incomprehensible to ourselves, but among our fellow populace are some pretty smart people who seem to know that stuff just as well as the government experts, and apparently well enough to hack the CIA, and those ubiquitous cell phone cameras keep catching cops and professors and other public officials abusing their power, and for the moment technology seems as like to thwart a tyranny as to empower one.
All these fancy gizmos also allow the dissemination of a wide range of opinions, such as this estimable publication provides, and once people become more discerning that’s bound to help. For eight long years we had little good to say about Obama, so far we’ve offered little praise Trump and are prepared for at least another four years of it, but that’s all been made as public as possible and we’ll face whatever consequences our reading of the Constitution will allow. The rest of our lives, we’re quite confident, are too boring to merit Big Brother’s attention.

— Bud Norman


Begging His or Her Pardon

One of President Barack Obama’s final official acts was commuting the sentence of the former Army Private Bradley Manning, who was convicted of providing classified information to Wikileaks and is now known as prisoner Chelsea Manning, and it seems an appropriately complicated story to end one presidency and begin another.
Having harbored a slight fear that Obama would let his freak flag fly and go full-blown leftist crazy with his final pardons and commutations to unleash an army of angry convicts into the coming street wars, we’ve been somewhat relieved by his relative restraint. Some rather unsavory offenders have somehow been granted his mercy, but not in any numbers that are remarkable even by the standards of past Republican administrations, and we can easily see why Manning would be irresistibly sympathetic to someone of Obama’s liberal instincts. Obama has been even more aggressive in plugging leaks than Nixon and his infamous “plumbers,” but what Manning leaked was considered embarrassing to the previous Republican administration of George W. Bush, and since then he’s become a she, which is quite the fashion these days, and there’s an opportunistically recurring enthusiasm among for liberals for bold truth tellers.
There’s always an opportunistically recurring enthusiasm among conservatives for guarding state secrets by force of law, too, and all the Republicans were in one of those moods back when Manning caught, convicted, and sent off to prison. We cheered on the process along with the rest, and wondered aloud why a mere private with such obvious mental health issues had access to such sensitive information in the first place, and nothing that has since transpired has changed our minds about it. Even Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan refers to Manning as Chelsea when denouncing the pardon, and although we have our quibbles about we are adamant that has nothing to do with Manning’s culpability, and we hope it has nothing to do with his commutation. We are still steadfastly against the illegal public dissemination of classified information, except perhaps in one of those far-fetched dystopian nightmare scenarios that have occasionally occurred in some places from time to time, and hopefully will be able to remain so during the next administration.
The next administration seems to have a more opportunistic opposition to such leaks, though, along with most of its many supporters. By now even president-elect Donald Trump admits that he thinks the Russians probably hacked all those WikiLeak-ed Democratic e-mails that he gleefully admitted gleefully pointed to during the past campaign, at one point telling one of his raucous rallies “Boy, do I love Wikileaks,” and we also his recall his jocular remarks about how great it would be if the Russians or the that possible 400 pound fat guy in New Jersey would also hack the e-mails his Democratic rival sent while Secretary of State, and there is by now a widespread agreement on the right and in the Republican party that some hacking and leaking and violation of the law is acceptable so long as it embarrasses the left and the Democratic party. This double standard always offended us when it came from the left, as it so often did and still does during the latest controversies, and we find it no less offensive when coming from the right.
All those leaks will no doubt go unplugged for at least another four years, and we’ll continue to call for locking the leakers up and eagerly poring through whatever they leaked, and keep an eye out, as always, for that dystopian nightmare scenario that might justify it all. At this point Bradley or Chelsea Manning or whatever you want to call him or her has done all the damage that he or she is likely do, so we’ll not make any big deal out of his her or commutation and wish him or her the very best for the rest of his or her life, but we’ll be holding the next administration to the same grumpy standards as the past one.

— Bud Norman


Pining for the Pre-Depression Days of Al Smith and Herbert Hoover

One of the great traditions in American politics, at least during the more normal presidential election years, is the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation’s dinner in New York City. Named for the four-time New York governor who became the first Catholic presidential nominee as the Democratic standard-bearer in the ’28 race, the foundation raises money for Catholic charities and hosts an annual swanky big-bucks white-tie affair that always attracts the cream of New York’s political and business and media and social elites, and every leap year’s dinner features both presidential contenders taking a night off from the campaign’s acrimony to make self-deprecating jokes about themselves and lighthearted joshes about the opponent.
In this crazy election year, of course, it didn’t work out that way.
This year the dinner was inconveniently scheduled the day after what turned out to be an especially acrimonious debate between Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican rival Donald Trump, and both candidates were facing a tough crowd. Some hacked computers files made public by Wikileaks have recently revealed some of Clinton’s staffers making anti-Catholic remarks, and the New York press has recently quoted some high-ranking church official’s taking exception to Clinton’s maximalist positions on abortion. Trump’s unpopularity with New York’s political and business and media and social elites is more longstanding, and his recent rhetoric about how they’re all part of a system rigged against him hasn’t helped. Throw in that Trump doesn’t do self-deprecation or light-hearted joshing, and Clinton has no apparent sense of humor of any sort, and the affair was off to a bad start before the first glass of wine was served.
Trump was given the first opportunity to prove how very charming and witty and likable he was, but for some reason chose not to even try. Coming on to polite applause, Trump got a laugh by pointing out a couple of pols and talking about they used to love him back when he was a Democrat, got another laugh by noting how many people in the room have known and loved for so many years, bragged how they use to seek his donations, then groused that they all hate him now that he’s a Republican. Noting the tradition of making self-deprecating jokes, Trump got a few laughs about how uncharacteristic that would be, did some joshing with the Cardinal seated nearby how they both have fancy buildings on Fifth Avenue, and humbly conceded that “nobody can compete with God, is that right? No contest.” He then launched into Clinton with a joke about her bumping into him and saying “pardon me,” and how he had offered him an ambassadorship to Iraq or Afghanistan, and noting that she usually charged more for speeches to rich people, all of which was in the spirit of the event and got a few polite chuckles. Then he compared Clinton unfavorably to his long-time tabloid nemesis Rosie O’Donnell, which clearly made the crowd uncomfortable, and made a joke about how the assembled media were working on Clinton’s behalf, which came off rather bitter.
He shifted back to self-deprecating mode with a joke about how the media will praise Michelle Obama for making a great speech but criticize his wife for making the exact same speech, which got a good laugh, but it was mostly deprecating his wife, and isn’t likely to help his gender gap in the polls. From that point on the joshing was noticeably less light-hearted, as Trump started snarling jokes about Clinton telling her father confessor at the Federal Bureau of Investigation “she couldn’t remember 39 times,” and such gems as “Hillary is so corrupt, she got kicked off the Watergate commission. How corrupt do you have to be? Pretty corrupt.” There was some further criticism of her corruption that didn’t seem a joke at all, then a line about how she was invited by e-mail but didn’t learn until Wikileaks revealed, then another non-joke about Clinton taking public and private positions, which set up what he seemed to think was a joke about Clinton “pretending not to hate Catholics.”
The material probably would have killed at one of Trump’s rallies, where the crowds are adorned in “Make America Great Again” ball caps and “Trump That Bitch” t-shirts, but the white-tied and elegantly gowned crowd of New York’s elites were loudly booing him by that point, which kind of deflated a closing joke about “Hillary Clinton’s isn’t laughing as much as the rest of us.” He made a slight recovery with some kind words about the good works done by Catholic charities, and left to some straining-to-be-polite applause, but the press was already rushing to print negative reviews about Trump’s “screed.”
Few politicians in American history have ever had greater need to come across as witty and charming and likable than Clinton, and we’ll have to concede she was savvy enough to take full advantage of the opportunity. She started by noting that Al Smith’s running mate was from Arkansas and a boyhood hero of her husband, which seemed to endear her to the Catholics in the crowd, then launched into the old self-deprecating shtick with a joke about she’s taken time off her “rigorous nap schedule” to be there and provided her own joke about she usually charges big bucks for a speech to rich people. She got a few laughs with a subtle joke about being up against a stained-glass ceiling, bigger laughs an inside-New York joke about the mayor and the governor’s rivalry, polite twitters with a josh about formal pantsuits, flattered the crowd that they were a “basket of adorables,” and then launched into Trump. She invited him to stand up and shout “wrong” while she was talking and had something about him letting her take the stage in “a peaceful transition of power,” which got a few laughs, and remarked that after hearing Trump’s speech she was “looking forward to hearing Mike Pence deny that he ever gave it,” which even we thought pretty clever. The jokes got more barbed at that point, suggesting that Trump would think the dinner had been rigged, and how he looked at the Statue of Liberty “and saw a 4, maybe a 5 if she dropped the torch and tablet and changed her hair.”
The crowd was a little nervous at that point, even though they cheered her line about how “a good number for a woman would be 45,” as in the 45th president, but Clinton shrewdly shifted back to self-deprecation, joking about how it took a village to right her jokes and how she’s been the life of every party she’s ever attended, “and I’ve been to three.” Veering back to attack mode, she spoke of how difficult it is for Trump to read from a teleprompter when he has to translate from the original Russian, and how sensible mainstream Republicans are now known as “Hillary supporters,” then offered a bipartisan jape about how at least the election will be over. She tossed a few friendly jabs at the assembled Democratic grandees, a less friendly jab at former Republican New York City mayor Rudy Guiliani, and responded to Trump’s recent allegations that she’s using performance enhancing drugs with a joke about he hadn’t prepared, another joke about Trump’s reputation for stiffing his contractors, another joke about Pence, a line about shortening the election season that got applause even from Trump, another sharp jab about Trump’s feud with Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan. Much of it pushed up against the event’s collegial traditions enough to render the laughter slightly nervous, and the quality of jokes varied wildly, but the delivery was low-key and amiable enough that even the pro-Trump outskirts of the press will have a hard time calling it a “screed.”
Clinton ended with a more serious few moments about the anti-Catholic prejudice that Al Smith faced during that long-ago presidential race, threw in some lines about Pope Francis’ recent remarks about “building bridges instead of walls,” and seemed to assure the assembled Bishops and Archbishops and Cardinals that whatever their disagreements regarding abortion she didn’t hate Catholics. Off course the political and business and media and social elites were already assured she didn’t hate them, so she walked off to a much bigger hand than Trump received, at which we point we were composing our own joke about which candidate had the bigger hands. All in all we’d say she came off ¬†somewhat more witty and charming and likable than Trump, which is not saying much, and at this point in this crazy election we’d say that’s pretty darned bad news for Trump. America deserves better than these two jokers, and so does the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation’s fancy-schmantzy dinners.

— Bud Norman

A Rocky Start to a Democratic Convention

The Democratic Party will convene its quadrennial National Convention in Philadelphia today, and they’ll have their work cut out for them to top the freak show the Republicans put on last week in Cleveland. Being Democrats, though, they might well pull off the feat.
Things got off to a prematurely bad start over the weekend, when the internet-hacking and bean-spilling Wikileaks outfit released a trove of e-mails showing that the Democratic National Committee had long been putting its heavy thumb on the scales to help former First Lady and Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton survive an unexpectedly pesky challenge from self-described socialist and formerly independent Vermont. Sen. Bernie Sanders. This comes as no surprise to anyone who’s been paying the least bit of attention to the Democrats’ debacle of a primary campaign, but the leaked e-mails included juicy new details that the party even planned attacks on Sanders’ religious beliefs, reheated the anger of Sanders’ sizable number of supporters, fed quite nicely into the Republican nominee’s loudly shouted storyline that all of our systems of economics and governance are rigged, and all in all it was such an undeniable disaster that the Democrats were forced to fire their national chairwoman.
Given the Democrats’ instinctive reluctance to ever fire anybody, that’s saying something. There’s likely to be more that’s said, though, as the various sub-plots to this particular tawdry affair will be hard for even the most polite media to ignore over the next four days of the convention. The very fact of the DNC’s computers being hacked can’t help remind any voters still mulling their awful choices that the presumptive Democratic nominee ran an e-mail operation as Secretary of State that the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation described as “extremely carless” even as he was declining to recommend she be prosecuted for it, and with a majority of the country disagreeing with that non-indictment another leak certainly can’t help a candidate who wasn’t much of a First Lady or Senator or Secretary of State and is such an awful presumptive Democratic presidential nominee that she needed help to fend off a challenge from a previously little-known self-described socialist from Vermont.
Harder to judge is how that juicy revelation that the DNC had contemplated on attack on Sanders’ religious beliefs might play out. They didn’t plan on attacking Sanders for being an ethnic Jew, and we doubt that the ethnically Jewish and occasionally synagogue-going DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz ever contemplated that, even though that might have played well with the sizable Israel-hating portion of the Democratic base, but rather for the fact that he’s not religiously Jewish and proudly proclaims that he has no religious faith at all. How this would have played with a party that loudly booed God at it’s last quadrennial get-together,and has long thrived on he argument that the Republicans are a bunch of snake-handling Bible-thumpers intent on imposing a “Handmaiden’s Tale” theocracy on it’s sizable unmarried women demographic, is so complicated that we doubt even the DNC had any idea how it would play out. This year they’re running against a thrice-married casino-and-strip-joint and reality show mogul who not only doesn’t thump the Bible but embarrassingly refers to its book of “Two Corinthians,” and even if he does claim that the Internal Revenue Service keeps auditing his still-unreleased tax filings because he’s such a “strong Christian” we think a shrewder DNC establishment would have surely tried rigging the system without any mention at all of religion.
The reheated anger of those Sanders supporters will surely pose a problem to every political convention’s main goal of presenting a semblance of unified party, but we expect that will be cooled somewhat when Sanders himself eventually takes the stage to full-throatedly endorse the woman he had so long and so rightly castigated as a corrupt candidate who helped to herself to millions of dollars of largesse from the billionaires who have rigged the system. At the Republican convention the runner-up declined to explicitly endorse the nominee, who had mocked the runner-up’s wife’s looks and implicitly accused his father of being in on the Kennedy assassination, and had instead advised Republicans to “vote your conscience,” which was reasonably understood as an attack on the nominee, so by the end of the week those liberal media the Republican nominee rails against should be able to to present a semblance of a unified party.
There’s a good Democratic plot line in the fact that Wikileaks has apparently often received its information from Russian intelligence sources, and that the Republican nominee and his associates seem to have an uncomfortable business and ideological and temperamental relationship with the totalitarian Russkies, but the presumptive Democratic nominee has already done much to negate that other significant advantage. She was the one who offered that ridiculous “reset button” to the Russians, and the at-this-point conspiracy theory that the Russians were behind only reminds once again of the consequences of her and her party’s “extremely careless” method of handing internet communications. If the conspiracy theories are correct, more embarrassing revelations will be forthcoming, but if all the equally plausible Republican conspiracy theories about the Internal Revenue Service are true we can also expect some embarrassing revelations from the past many years of tax filings that the Republican nominee refuses to disclose.
The Democrats should be able to come up with some more impressive celebrities than Scott Baio and the rest of the questionable character witnesses the Republican came up, but they’ll also have to come up with a new script for the rest of it. All the usual panic about the looming theocracy is out the window, given the Republican’s fond embrace of the “LGBTQ” community and the throwing under the bus of those pesky Bible-thumpers who’d prefer not to bake their wedding cakes or not have some guy hanging around their daughter’s shower rooms, and despite the Republican’s undeniably sexist comments on the Howard Stern Show and other outlet’s he’s made an opening bid for the women’s vote with taxpayer-paid child care, and he’s even gone beyond that self-described socialist in his anti-free trade rhetoric.
Despite their connections to the higher echelons of Hollywood the Democrats aren’t very good at coming up with new scripts, but of course even the highest echelons of Hollywood seem hard pressed to come up with anything old scripts with new genders these days. As lifelong Republicans up until the Indiana primary we’re not inclined to offer the Democrats any advice, and being as flummoxed as anybody by the current Republican nominee we’re in no position offer any ideas in case, but our best guess is that they should try be to normal. As awful as she is the presumptive Democratic nominee hasn’t lately spouted off about paying America’s creditors less than they have been promised, or making our treaty obligations contingent on the president’s notions of who’s been paying their fair share, or indulging in the craziest-yet Kennedy assassination conspiracies or threatening trade wars, and given that we can’t think of anything else to say for that awful woman we think she’d do best to go with that.
That won’t be easy, though, Democrats being Democrats.

— Bud Norman