Monday, November 13, 2017

Cuba and Carnage

I went to Cuba last January and I’ve had a long, sketchy history with the place. In the 1970s I hung out at the Center for Cuban Studies down in the Village, being interested in the woman who ran it. I managed to avoid being blown up by anti-Castro Cubans when they put a bomb outside its door one night I didn’t visit. And I had lunch with a Cuban UN representative at Jean and Leonard Boudin’s home on St. Luke’s Place, complete with armed bodyguards. Leonard was Cuba’s lawyer for a time back then. And, some years later, Cuba played a role in a novel I wrote called Criminal Tendencies.

But, like most Americans, I had never been there, till the Obama administration made travel less onerous, or illegal, and a number of publications began running “People to People” tours. I had never gone on a tour, fully escorted as they say, but I decided, Why not? I booked one sponsored by The Nation, a magazine I had written for over the years, but not lately. I could imagine the demographics: Old lefties wandering among the ruins. I wasn’t disappointed.

A picture was taken of most all of us in front of the U.S. Embassy, which is close by the esplanade, the Malecon, the picturesque road next to the water with a view of Old Havana. Barack Obama was still president, but just barely. Donald Trump was to be inaugurated in a couple of days, right before our departure. Out with old, in with the new. I couldn’t imagine Trump’s speech for the ceremony (and I didn’t hear it), since it seemed impossible for him to sound sincere or eloquent. I heard bits after my return. “American Carnage,” indeed.

Now, it appears, the embassy was the scene of unseen carnage, some sort of sci-fi attack, as it is described, rendering personnel there with hearing loss and other disturbing brain and behavior problems. I seem to have escaped unscathed. But, visiting Cuba was both sad and dispiriting. Our group stayed at a hotel near the Hotel Nacional, the Capri, allegedly the first hotel in Havana built by the Mob in the 1950s, newly reopened after it too was blown up by anti-Castro Cubans in the 1990s. One section, with bright red doors, was not in use, the large casino attached to the high rise. There was a pool and a nice bar on the roof, convivial with happy vacationers. It was all very Las Vegas in the ‘50s, if that’s your taste.

Our days were full of lectures and encounters with the “people,” a number taking place at the Hotel Nacional, just down the street. It is an impressive place, still capturing its aural of by-gone wealth and status, though in the same way as a number of England’s lesser castles display. It, like the rest of the country, has fallen on hard times. Our embargo and sanctions have been very successful, and the Cubans have suffered the blows of the fall of the Soviet Union and the cratering of Venezuela, both implicated mightily in the failing economics of the island. Tourism has taken over as a replacement and we spent a lot of time in new Chinese buses being taken here and there.

Many Cubans announced they want to expand the tourism sector. Given the crowded streets and roaming hordes, I couldn’t see how they could fit any more Chinese buses and ambulating foreigners anywhere. Havana seemed overstuffed. And, it appeared to be falling down. A shocking number of buildings do collapse each week, either 30 or 300, I can’t recall, though either figure is alarming. I wasn’t taking notes. Havana doesn’t resemble Key West, or the American Southwest, or anywhere else I’ve been. It looks, I imagine, like Spain, since Spaniards were its colonizers for centuries. And Old Havana seems to be a calendar of those years, ancient buildings, some semi-restored by those who get remittances from American relatives, others just in the process of falling down, though still occupied. The Lower East Side, where I lived in the late 1960s, was in far better shape back then, long before gentrification. Gentrification is a forlorn dream for Cuba’s glorious old city.

It was all very sad. The Cubans I met all seemed to be pleased with the Americans wandering around. We took a side trip to Vinales, a tobacco growing region’s small village busily building B&Bs. On the way we stopped at a teaching hospital (Latin American Medical School) and listened to a talk by a physician who was the dean of students. They send their graduates to under-served countries around the globe. She was a compelling figure, most likely in her fifties, and Fidel Castro, who had died a few months earlier, almost inadvertently was mentioned and she momentarily choked up, a show of emotion that surprised me. When we reached Vinales, after a tour of a tobacco farm, sitting at a very make-shift cantina, the local guide, responding to a question, also became emotional speaking of Fidel. So, high and low, they really seemed to love the man.

Unlike Vietnam, which, after our barbarous and useless war, has been brought into the American orbit, their former peasant economy being a source of cheap labor for Ralph Lauren, Nike, and other apparel and shoe manufacturers, Cuba remains an outlier and it shows. That’s what happens, I suppose, when you educate a whole population, make them literate and informed. They don’t want to become cheap labor. Though, in Cuba, professors and doctors seem willing to be taxi drivers and bartenders in order to work in the tourist world, where they can get their hands on the more lucrative cash side of the country’s idiotic two-currency system.

It’s sad in Cuba, and doubtless more so, since Hurricane Irma raked the countryside and flooded parts of Havana. More buildings will crumble. And America’s vengeance for losing the country and never killing the Castros (see the recent JFK assassination semi-dump) continues unabated and, post-Obama, redoubled.

The HuffPost version (10/31/2017) can be found here.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Ken Burns, Boy Capitalist, and The Vietnam War (Part II)

What the 18 hours of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War were was exhausting. I kept wondering about the demographics of the viewers. How many young people were watching this? Was the audience only aging Baby Boomers? Somebody must know. As usual in Ken Burns’ projects it was as much human interest as history. Indeed, if you didn’t already know a lot about the history of the Vietnam war, you wouldn’t be able to fill in the roughshod way Burns and Novick raced through those years. But, unfortunately, their project will become history, since it will be watched by a generation that prefers watching over most anything else.

Here are some odd things it would be helpful for watchers to know: Speaking of the friction college students felt when they were “ranked”, grade-point averages implied, in order to retain student deferments. Ranking drew protests, but, unmentioned, it was the “Selective Service Qualification Test” that was administered widely and was given preference. I took it in the spring of 1966. If you scored high enough you didn’t lose your 2-S deferment.

Social scientists, then as now, worked with the military to arrange their own Darwinian methods for selecting soldiers to be. Now, it is torture that occupies them, then the draft.

The narration mentions that “banks” were bombed. It didn’t mention the radicals favorite targets were branches of the Bank of America, since it is one of the film’s major backers. The Weathermen were said to have blown up a statue of “six policeman.” It would be helpful to know that statue commemorated the Haymarket Riot, where seven, not six, policeman were killed, and the statue itself only featured one policeman, with his arm raised in an unfortunate position, presaging the Nazi salute some three decades down the road. The gathering at the Haymarket Square in Chicago was supporting the 40 hour week back in May of 1886. It eventually became the rallying point for May Day celebrations around the world, honoring workers, but not in the U.S.

In an early episode, Benjamin Spock is mentioned writing about children injured by napalm, but no mention of the Boston 5 trial in Boston in 1968 where he was a defendant because of anti-draft activity. There is, I suppose, a reason the series is called The Vietnam War. The war predominated and there was very little of the anti-war movement and its offshoots. There are other documentaries on the anti-war movement, but none got, or get, the play Burns and Novick’s has enjoyed.

There were other lapses. The documentary’s talking heads were barely identified. One of the most egregious was John Negroponte, notorious for his work in Central America. Wherever Negroponte went, death squads sprang up. To say the least, no one speaking was saddled with a full biographical notation. Most just were ID-ed by their affiliation: “Army”, “Air Force,” etc.

As was Tim O’Brien, who gets the documentary’s last word, which was “endured.” He was reading from his short story, “The Things They Carried.” Given all the horror that was covered, Burns and Novick seem to privilege endurance over all, the humanity of the ordinary person, despite all the evidence to the contrary. What was interesting was the coverage and the unstated linkage of that war with the present day. Especially, the foreign involvement presidents partook in: Nixon, primarily, getting the South Vietnamese to delay peace initiatives until after Nixon’s election. Reagan running against Carter did the same thing with the hostages in Iran, not released till after Reagan’s inauguration, through back channels, arranged by his old OSS and CIA buddy, Bill Casey. And, of course, The Donald and the Russians.

And, it was illuminating the difference between the Oval Office tapes of LBJ and Nixon. LBJ’s did seem to be used in the service of history, whereas Nixon’s were in the service of the prosecution and his removal. There was a lot that was illuminating. Such as the numbers. Over 300 thousand Chinese going to Hanoi to free up a like number of Vietnamese to carry on the war. The amount of war material supplied by the Soviets and the Chinese. Higher-up North Vietnamese sending their children to Europe for education during the war, avoiding their own sort of draft. Burns and Novick are after, it seems, all sorts of equivalencies. The Americans were heroes, the North Vietnamese were heroes. It's their kind of history, remaining sunny even during the slaughter.

Almost no one seems to think the war was a good idea, though there are some who seem to think we could have done it better. When we cut and ran out of Saigon is portrayed as a stain of sorts, how the South Vietnamese were better allies than we were and there is a tinge of regret, as if we somehow should have found a way to “win”. There was no winning, though it is implied the hope was always for some sort of South Korea solution. Yes, we should have remained in South Vietnam forever, as we seem to be heading to remain in Iraq and Afghanistan forever, is the import. The plea heard occasionally in the series was that they – the South Vietnamese – would tell us to leave. And that would have been peace with honor. Ah, yes, it is pretty to think so.

Back in the day, I thought the war was fought for all the usual reasons, natural resources, strategic location, Cold War ideology, etc. But, it is most ironic, and not covered by the film makers, that nearly 60 thousand Americans were killed, and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, so Ralph Lauren and Nike and other apparel and shoe manufacturers could have access to cheap labor. No one in the anti-war movement, no matter how cynical, ever offered that as a reason for the war. The only other thing, the only positive thing, it seems to have created was the growth of Vietnamese immigrants, and the younger generation of Vietnamese-Americans. But it is still impossible to be thankful for that war for any reason.

The HuffPost version that ran on 10/06/2017 can be found here.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Ken Burns, Boy Capitalist, And The Vietnam War (Part I)

Given my age (71), I have had a long history with the Vietnam War. Ken Burns, a little less so. He was born in 1953 and is a different sort of Baby Boomer, blessed with a self-reported high draft-lottery number. I ran into my own fate a few months before the lottery was put in place. Those experiences resulted in my first novel, The Meekness of Isaac, which appeared in 1974. It was reviewed fairly well for its time, a long, supportive review in the New York Times Book Review by C.D.B. Bryan, who died recently.

Not many in 1974 wanted to read about the Vietnam War while it was still raging. It was similar to the fact that no one wants to discuss fire in the middle of a conflagration. No paperback, no audience to speak of. Around that time (1975) Tim O’Brien’s nonfiction book, If I Die in a Combat Zone, did have a paperback, but his hit novel, Going After Cacciato, didn’t appear till 1978.

Now we have Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 18 hours of the war. I have only seen four episodes thus far. Unfortunately, for me, the project’s first few minutes were its worst. Two things occurred. First, we see a Missouri vet saying that, though he and his wife were good friends with another couple, they didn’t know both of the men had fought in Vietnam for 12 years. This either questions the notion of what good friends are, or is a distortion of history. The vet claims no one spoke about the war. He was in Vietnam in 1969. In his case, this seems to be a personal problem, not a public one. In my circles, the war never vanished as a subject of conversation.

Back in the late ’60s and early ’70s, I was in the midst of the anti-war movement, insofar as my first book, which came out two years before my first novel, The Harrisburg 7 and the New Catholic Left, was about relatively famous protesters of the Vietnam war. Not many read that book either, though it was on the NY Times Book Review’s New and Recommended list for 6 weeks. Even then, television was supreme and I wasn’t on TV.

Ken Burns has always been on TV. He knew, knows, which way the culture was/is blowing. Yet, Burns most resembles some fellow 1950s births of renown: Both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were born in 1955, two years after Burns. What Burns shares with those two (and others) is that at heart he is a satisfied capitalist. Not all of his Baby Boom predecessors found in the anti-war movement were cut from that cloth. And, like Gates and Jobs, he likes lawyers and doesn’t hesitate to threaten and sue his critics. A friend of mine, now dead, wrote a book about documentary film makers some years back and managed a few mild criticisms of Burns and he and his hirelings harassed her publisher in order to suppress the book. Gates, too, was always a big suer, Jobs, also. You have to protect your interests.

And that, doubtless, accounts for the other problem with the The Vietnam War’s beginning, practically the first thing Peter Coyote says, was that the war was started in “good” faith by “decent” men. No they weren’t, one or another, or both. Burns is solidly in the “both sides” camp, like another capitalist, Donald Trump. Nice white supremacists and bad protestors, blame on both sides, now as then.

I can understand. If you need to be funded by huge corporations, including David H. Koch and the Bank of America, you have to be nice to rich people and not offend them. It was one of Barack Obama’s problems. You don’t become president of the Harvard Law Review, much less of the United States, and not be nice to rich people.

But, beyond the first few minutes, thus far, the episodes have been great, if by great I mean truthful, hard hitting, more than appalling in their revelations. The early few mentions of the anti-war protestors have problems. Like most television, the series, in so many ways, is superficial. No analysis of political economy, no Follow the Money, no War is the Health of the State.

I fear Burns is on the way to endorsing the “spitting on soldiers” narrative that has been a right-wing favorite for decades. That is what is called now fake news, trumped up by the government then and now, attempting to create animosity between soldiers and citizens. (Here are pro and con spitting stories.) Would the most successful (and last) anti-war group, the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, have become so honored if that was true?

What did occur back then I recount in my 1974 novel. Before its veteran character, based on a good friend of mine, left Nam for the World, as it was called, the plane load of departees were treated to a lecture saying they would be harassed by their fellow citizens when they returned and they should be on alert. That warning causes a scene of semi-violence in the novel. Again, this was back in the early 70s. The government had a settled policy to enhance friction between soldiers and the rest of their countrymen. Hence the spitting stories. None of this has gotten better, other than the hollow Thank-You-For-Your-Service mantra handed out to the 1 percent by the 99 percent. The military always wanted a volunteer army – easier to privatize wars that way, fewer people in the streets.

And, boy, did we get that, along with all the continuing wars we have. I’ll wait for Burns’ documentary on the good and decent folk who brought us all the Middle East wars that, if they have their way, will never end.

The HuffPost version (9/21/17) can be found here.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

"What a Dump!" The Presidency, that is

During the last two or three presidencies (starting with Bill Clinton) there has been talk of the “permanent campaign,” campaigns that never end. Continuous fund-raising, etc. Usually, this sort of talk dies down, especially when it comes to the presidency itself. But, lately, we have crossed over into so many new, unsuspected, realms it is clear that the presidency itself is leading the way without any surcease of campaigning.

The Donald has not stopped his campaigning, because it is the only political experience he has. Never elected to nothing was his calling card and the other suspect preceding presidents (principally Ronald Reagan) had some electoral success in their pasts, besides their celebrity. One needs to go back to the generals to find a novice, Dwight David Eisenhower. Trump has surrounded himself with generals, though that displays his authoritarian impulses, more like the typical Banana Republic administration, where military power props up despots.

As any number of folk have noticed, Trump is, was, more or less, an open book. He hid practically nothing of his inner self during the campaign. The only truth Trump consorts with is Truth in Advertising, meaning most everyone, except for the deluded ( not that a large number – see Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin election margins) knew who they were voting for.

When Trump and Melania first visited the White House, before the Inauguration, hosted by Obama and Michelle, I told anyone who would listen at the time that Trump’s first thought during the tour would have been “What a dump!” I doubt that Melania would have known of Bette Davis’s famous coinage, so she was likely just mildly appalled. No spa! Old plumbing! Even a cursory understanding of The Donald would have prompted this insight. And, recently, not to my dismay, he even said it aloud (“a real dump”), to his golfing buddies. Trump is not a complex personality.

What is surprising to me is that Trump manages to best himself week after week, meaning that he finds a way to be freshly outrageous and inappropriate. (See yesterday’s “impromptu” presser, revealing yet again his shallow understanding of history, much less his racist inclinations.) I was in Cuba at the end of the Obama presidency and the start of the Trump era, so I did not get to hear his Inauguration address. Sitting on the patio of the Hotel Nacional I couldn’t imagine what that speech would be, because Trump seemingly is incapable of eloquence or sincerity. After I returned and heard bits of the “American Carnage” diatribe, I realized his speech writers went the only place they could, to a dark, dangerous place, full of invective and doom.

David Brooks, who has gone on his own strange journey since being hired on by the New York Times, from an early comedic conservative writer to his pompous new-agey book-report fetish columns (Look what I read last week!), wants to wash The Donald out of his hair, but, unfortunately, none of us will be able to do that for another three years. I’ve always held he will be a one-term president, given that the job, the actual work of the presidency, won’t be much fun for him. And, decidedly, it doesn’t look like he’s having much fun.

Yet, behind the gaudy scrim of The Donald himself truly terrible things are happening. Look at his Cabinet of Deplorables, what they are doing to their bailiwicks. Justice, EPA, Education, etc. And Republicans in Congress are getting to play out their repressed economic and social fantasies of the last half of the 20th century, attempting to dismantle all that the Democratic Century (the 20th) had managed to create.

In a review I once wrote of a book (Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century) that covered the period, I dejectedly prophesied that if progressive people didn’t look out, the 21st would become the Republican Century, and that appears to be the case. At this point, it seems unlikely Democrats will win back the House of Representatives and add to their count in the Senate. What Mitch McConnell did to Obama, making him a seven year president, rather than an eight year president, was an act of racism just as blatant as any that was seen recently in Charlottesville.

And, in permanent campaign mode epitome, President Trump has continued to be the president of only his base, all the rest of the country be damned. And it is apparent he will get away with it, given that barely fifty percent of the country bothers to vote in presidential election years and less in off years. And that circumstance continues to be promoted by state Republicans everywhere, making it more difficult, rather than easier, to vote. The notion of false equivalency has become popular the last few years, but one false equivalency is that this country is run by a two-party system. Democrats and Republicans are not equal. Trump’s win was proof of that, given the third-party candidacies (including Bernie’s) doomed Hillary Clinton.

Looking back on the history of presidential campaigns, Trump’s victory, though shocking, is only the culmination of a trend line that has been trending for a long time. And if he is the nadir, which he may well not be, what will come next? Of the many frightening things to contemplate, add that one to the list.

The HuffPost version (8/16/17) can be found here.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Richie Rich, Baby Boomers and, Look Out, 2018 Looming

The baby boom generation has suffered a number of ignominies, especially in the fellow boomer presidents who have been elected as the cohort has grown and matured. The first of the generation to take office, Bill Clinton, ended the meritocracy those born post-1945 had enjoyed. After his total lack of common sense, given the settings of his interactions with Monica Lewinsky (the Oval Office), he was impeached, which prevented the other baby boomer, Al Gore, from advancing, handing over the election, barely, to George W. Bush. Clinton’s legacy is the Bush II administration and all the calamities it wrought, most of which are still on-going in 2017.

The Bubba cost his wife the recent election because even Democrats were tired of both Clintons in 2008 and Clinton fatigue had barely dissipated by 2016. The less said about George W the better, as he wiles away his late years doing old-age-home arts and crafts. But, one presumes, the greatest affront to boomers is Donald Trump, currently president of the United States. We have gone from the smartest guy in the room – Bill Clinton – to the incarnation of baby-boom- era comic character Richie Rich, minus Rich’s purported kindness and impulse to charity. This final insult is hard for the generation to absorb.

Presidential elections have been swinging the last couple of decades from the boot-strap candidates, Clinton and Barack Obama, to the entitled, George W. Bush and now, The Donald. Seemingly, the American public is riding on a pendulum, favoring the self-made office-seeker and then the rich. Political success in the country now seem to be the real estate of the very wealthy, those who buy their offices outright.

The next national election of consequence is the one where the presidency is not involved. 2018 rises in importance, given the chaos of the Trump administration and the GOP’s lock on governing the party now holds. Here in Indiana, Sen. Joe Donnelly’s prospects for reelection in 2018 are seen by many political observers as a test case of the strength of the Democratic Party. 2018 will reveal whether or not the Democrats are actually the basket-case they seem.

Donnelly may have profited in the 2012 Senate race in Indiana from two things: An astoundingly inept Republican opponent (Richard Mourdock of the “gift from God” fertilization by a rapist) and a presidential election year that helped boost turnout. Donnelly had chosen not to run for his Congressional seat, given the state’s GOP gerrymandering of the 2nd district. Donnelly, unfortunately, left us with the elusive Jackie Walorski, a state-level politician, one of the many Republicans who finds open town halls toxic. Donnelly opted for the high-risk-high-reward Senate contest and it paid off.

Donnelly is one of the most vulnerable Democratic Senators of a red state. Indiana went for Donald Trump by 17 points, showing more Hoosier pride – Mike! Pence! – than enthusiasm for Trump, helped by a by a woeful overall turnout – Indiana ranked 40th out of 50 states. Hillary Clinton won St. Joseph county, a Democratic stronghold, by less than a point.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like our wunderkind South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg will be a candidate for Congress in 2018. Given his sterling performance running for chair of the Democratic National Committee, the fund-raising window for him would be wide-open and, certainly, he would have helped improve turnout in the 2nd district, thereby aiding Donnelly state-wide.

Walorski is ripe for defeat. The all-male leadership of the D.C. Republicans have kept her on a very tight leash. They may have improved her visual presentation since 2013, restricted her to a few sentences to say, over and over, and put her in any number of photo-ops, even with Donald Trump, since there are so few GOP women (62 Dems, 21 GOP), but she continues to be the same old lovable “Wackie Jackie” of yore, applauding the president’s one-page-joke tax plan and swooning over the Senate and the House’s reverse-Robin-Hood decimation of Obamacare, and whatever other craziness Donald Trump indulges in.

Donnelly has been, and will be, attacked by both the right and the left. Various purity tests have been engaged by some Democrats, including Donnelly’s vote for Supreme Court justice Neil Gorsuch. The three non-Republican votes for Gorsuch came from red-state Democrats. Their re-election contests will be mud-fests, especially Donnelly’s.

That the Democratic leadership took the hardest line against Gorsuch, knowing that the Republicans would invoke the misnamed and hyperbolic “nuclear option,” was ill-advised. Gorsuch was laureled with what are considered the most reputable credentials, though, at heart, he seems to be just another Republican party hack. Democrat opposition turned out to be yet another futile political gesture.

An all-out fight against the second Supreme Court nominee – if Trump gets one, which is likely – would have been more useful. Since only a bare majority vote is now needed in the Senate to confirm, Trump can serve up even a Liberty University zealot and the Democrats will be hamstrung. Better they had contested a less-credentialed person than Gorsuch, one that even some sensible Republicans would balk at.

In addition, the anti-abortion lobby is second only to the NRA in its focused, single issue, get-out-the-vote capabilities. Democrats are now sparring over making a pro-choice stance for candidates mandatory, which is absurd, given the party’s ethnic and religious history, though what most Democrats would agree on is that pro-life Democratic office holders resist limiting the reproductive rights women already possess.

Some diehards these days think Bernie Sanders could have won the presidency, if he had been the nominee. Isn’t it pretty to think so?, as Hemingway would have said. The Republican Money Machine didn’t bother to lay a glove on Bernie during the primary season. Picture the garbage that would have been heaped on him had he been the nominee. Recall that along with Trump it was Sanders who didn’t release his most current taxes during the primaries – it was Jane who was doing them, he’d cry. What were they hiding? Now Jane and Bernie are under investigation for the usual kind of money shenanigans. Yet Democrats remain divided today because Sanders was essentially a third-party candidate. And he is too old to be a baby boomer.

What motivates Democrat voters who sat out the election, or voted for Jill Stein, or the fairly crazy Libertarian candidate, in 2016 was well put by David Hoppe in the Indianapolis weekly Nuvo. The were folks ”...who think of voting not in terms of collective self-interest, but as a hermetically personal form of self-expression.”

If Joe Donnelly loses in 2018, self-expression – and Trump and the Republicans – again will have won the day, to say nothing of the House, the Senate, etc.

The HuffPost version ran on 6/26/2017 and can be found here.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Trump Rising

It’s hard to keep up with The Donald’s buffoonery, so I haven’t been trying, but it was hard to miss that he finally got a chance to play Zeus hurling thunderbolts, in Trump’s case 59 Tomahawks, getting rid of inventory, lobbing them at the Syrian airfield. Not Iraq, as he told Maria Bartiromo on Fox. Thankfully, he lets his generals decide where to drop the bombs, like the MOAB, supposedly never used since created in 2003, that they let loose over Afghanistan. More inventory reduction.

Trump’s popularity went up, though only a point or two, not a surprise, though there does appear to be a gold-plated ceiling where The Donald is concerned. The Trump method, doctrine, if you will, is distraction, and it is quite successful. Trump himself is the chief distraction, while the House and Senate Republicans knit away, Madame Defarge like, only backwards, undoing the fabric of the Obama state, canceling protections right and right.

Neil Gorsuch sits on the High Court, Gorsuch, like Mike Pense, was raised Catholic, but now seems to be a fashionable Episcopalian, thereby finally adding a Protestant to the Court. Paul Ryan, the Speaker, remains busy dreaming his apocalyptic dreams – no taxes! No entitlements! – Mitch McConnell continues his haughty hypocrisies, do not as I have done, but do as I say.

Democrats are resisting, though it would have been better if they had been voting in 2016.Those shouting “You lie!” to Joe Wilson at his South Carolina Town Hall should have been yelling it back in 2009 when he shouted out in Congress to President Obama.

I have written quite a bit on elections since 1996 and it still seems credible that outcomes rely on the so-called low information, late deciding, undecideds. In Trump’s case, he had direct access to the same crowd that George W. Bush profited from, those voters who most identified with him.

Not the self-identification of bogus billionaires, but which person they wanted to be next to, have a beer with, etc. W had more than a leg up on that constituency, compared with Al Gore. Even though Gore won the popular vote – England has its Royals and we have the Electoral College – Gore would have won even that, had the whole state of Florida been counted correctly, yet not many voters wanted to have a beer with him. Trump, of course, doesn’t drink alcohol, but his coarse bonhomie, similar to the younger Bush’s, struck a chord with the common voter.

Hillary, poor Hillary, had more in common with Al Gore than her titular husband. And, though the usual suspects – email server, Ruskies, Wikileaks, Comey, etc. – did their dark work, Hillary’s losing ground was well prepared by Bernie Sanders. Sanders’ largest success in public office likely will turn out to be his assistance in helping Donald Trump become the 45th president of the United States.

Nonetheless, Trump is rising, given the begrudged acknowledgment by most of the media that he is the president. No one with a sense of self importance wants to believe a clown is presiding over the Oval Office. Oh, no, it flies in the face of self regard. So, Trump may not be presidential himself, but he is being treated as the president. With respect, of a sort.

And, if the presumed shake-up in Trump’s administration is coming and The Donald is throwing the more picturesque clown car occupants under the bigger bus, more of this incipient fawning will continue. Trump may not be acting more presidential, but the people around him are, and that will likely be enough for the permanent establishment, in both the media and in Washington.

Steve Bannon does stick out as a sore thumb. Even when he wears a suit and tie he just doesn’t look the part. He looks like the alt-right zealot he is, disheveled, unhealthy, and though he might have millions he doesn’t look well cared for. Compare him to the typical Senator. Those folks know how to look the part. They all look like a million dollars.

And poor Sean Spicer. How can he stay? His latest pratfall about Hitler doesn’t gas his people (other Austrians?) contained the priceless coinage “Holocaust centers,” a phrase that can only be the product of a Cuisinart brain, chopping into tiny bits vocabulary and ideas that are swirling around the plastic bowl of his mind.

If Ivanka and Jared are really running things Sean will be gone soon. It is alarming to look at the people Trump has been discarding: Paul Manafort, Carter Page, Roger Stone, Gen. Flynn, and, possibly Bannon and Spicer, all true believers, each helping in their own twisted way Trump become leader of the free world.

The Huffington Post version, which ran on April 14, 2017, can be found here.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Trump Monkeys

The Trump administration puts to the test the “infinite monkey theorem,” since so many journalists are typing away chronicling the daily saga of the new president. Very little Shakespearean prose has yet resulted, but we have to consider the source. Trump’s address to the “joint session” of Congress produced amazement at the new Trumpian focus, his ability to read – and stick to – the Teleprompter for an hour or so. Two times, though, he did deviate, letting the inner Trump ooze out: claiming some sort of record for applause had been reached and the soul-churning idea that the deceased Seal, William “Ryan” Owens, was looking down at the assembly and smiling. Perhaps Trump was channeling the apostate Mike Pence sitting smiling behind him.

This brings me to the chief spectacle of that night, the sight of the Seal’s widow, sitting, standing, crying, mumbling, suffering. It is cheering that the earliest critics of that display were other military people calling this for what it was: exploitation. Trump, understanding television if nothing else, along with his obsession with ratings, knew he had a winner: Who can not be riveted by the sight of a good-looking woman in extremis?

I tried to imagine which American actress (or British, French, etc.) could have done what the widow was doing so convincingly. What the viewer got to witness was, seemingly, minutes of high-quality grief porn. Always a big draw, though only if the woman involved is attractive. In this case, a willowy blonde in a black dress.

Why did she consent to be used this way? Evidently, she has a military background herself and when the commander in chief asks, she responds. But, she was obviously still traumatized by the recent death of her husband, but Trump knew she would be a good show.

Trump’s treatment of women was already well broadcast during his campaign, but since he assumed the presidency he still is treating women badly. On his inauguration day, pictures showed him neglecting his wife repeatedly, and the largely absent first lady was hauled out finally in Florida on Feb. 18th , ten days post the news of her libel lawsuit against the British tabloid The Daily Mail broke, detailing how it would cut into her future income, to give her brief I-am-not-a-hooker speech. Her remarks began with a recitation of the Lord’s prayer (aka, the Our Father), the protestant version, which no one could accuse her of plagiarizing. Yet another weird spectacle.

(Though it needs to be said that Michelle Obama took a while to get her footing. Back during her first year as FLOTUS, she was stuck hoeing that godforsaken garden built at great cost on the White House lawn. Even I wrote a column back then claiming I would lose my mind if I saw another picture of her holding a yam in her fist.)

But the prize this past week goes to Trump’s tweets on Saturday morning, calling President Obama “sick”, a bad guy, for ”tapp”-ing his phone in Trump Tower. As they say, these tweets dominated the news over the weekend and into this week (below is the last):

“How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy! 7:02 AM - 4 Mar 2017.”

How low can he go? Good question. We’re now back to Trump the unhinged, rather than Trump the presidential, according to the rounded-up usual suspects among commentators. I did like the continuation of Trump’s new evangelical rhetorical streak, given his “very sacred election process” characterization. In the same vein as the dead Seal smiling down at us. See, Mike Pence is exerting influence.

Speaking, as did Trump, of the former president, contrary to the gushing coverage, Obama’s “last” speech as president in Chicago was completely delusional – it can be summed up in this paraphrase: We’re doing swell and the rest of you are screwed. And given his vacation photos and the family’s alleged $65 million book deal, it appears that he is. Obama, ironically, is enjoying the traditional honeymoon period, not Trump the nut.

One reason Trump was apparently comfortable during his speech to Congress was that he was speaking largely to an audience of millionaires. Consult the statistics of the average wealth of the typical Senator or Congress person. It’s somewhat like the crowd at Mar-a-Lago.

But as the news cycle speeds up, the attention span of the audience slows down. Trump monkeys have to keep feeding the beast and can barely stick to a story beyond twenty-four hours. (On to The American Health Care Act! – Trump, I expect, will want to tweet that Obamacare should be renamed The Kenyan Health Care Act.)

We have all lived with “false equivalency” for a few years now and Trump’s “Obama bad” tweets seem to have worked their dark magic and Republicans are already to drag Trump’s wiretapping accusations into their investigations into the Russian campaign hacks. False equivalency rises in committee hearings, costing money, time, and attention. The Swamp needs more muddy waters. It wasn’t enough for Trump’s drained swamp to end up in his cabinet.

The Huffington Post version appeared on March 8, 2017, and can be found here.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Trump, Trumped, Trumpery

Trump’s executive orders are most assuredly public relations stunts first and foremost. Secondarily, they echo his campaign promises and that is the point, wanting to claim at a later date he fulfilled all his promises pronto. How else to explain the haste, shoddiness, and their language, a mixture of simplemindedness and obscurity?

I can’t recall previous presidents holding up such signed documents to the assembled cameras, as if they were large glossies of Miss Universe candidates. All that was visible was Trump’s EKG-inspired signature, an alarming sight. The executive orders haven’t been coordinated with the applicable agencies and one reason floated for that is Trump’s fear that bad guys in the bureaucracy would bollix up his good intentions. The travel ban has become the most notorious, but the others are future poison pills.

It’s government by spectacle, not a surprise, given the previous campaign. Trump continues to tweet his semi-literate bon mots, contradicting himself anytime he feels like it, subletting his responsibilities as quickly as possible to his underlings, such as giving over the decision on “torture” to his Defense Secretary.

Trump continues to say he believes in the efficacy of torture and that doubtless comes from his self-knowledge that if he was pinched on the arm he would give up all his secrets. It’s been clear for decades that those who are deterred from wrongdoing by the thought of going to prison are only those who never imagined themselves in one.

It appears Trump himself finds it hard to believe he’s actually president. Why else go on so long about the size of the crowd at his inauguration? And claiming he would have won the popular vote except for the 3 - 5 million illegals who voted, thereby showing more civic engagement than regular Americans who couldn’t be bothered. Unfortunately, such complaints are catnip to television news, which loves to compare pictures. No visuals, no story, in our age of looking, caught in a culture of seeing. This was especially true during the campaign, so many fixated on the size of his fingers, the size of his whatever.

Worse, of course, is to come. The Gorsuch selection for the high court is a Trojan horse for the second pick Trump expects to get. The Republican-controlled Congress won’t be a rubber stamp for Trump, Trump will be a rubber stamp for Congress. Former Indiana governor Mike Pence, who thought he would lose his reelection and hitched his wagon to the Trump campaign, is all over the early policy changes, and the Breitbart creature, Steve Bannon, who seems as aggrieved by the so-called elites – actually people who are culture celebrities – as his master Trump. Regardless of both Bannon’s and Trump’s own Ivy League credentials, they look at the world as an internal, eternal, high school Darwinian experiment, jousting with the in-crowd and the out.

They want to beat what they can’t join and they have. Thanks to the disgruntled blue-state voters who put Trump over the top, individuals Trump and Bannon would be appalled to spend any real time with, they now have the power to beat and pulverize all the adherents of the former in-crowd, especially the arugula-loving Obama followers.

Where will it end? I have no faith Democrats will rise up in less than two years and capture either the Senate or the House. The Republicans have gerrymandered their way to semi-permanence in state-houses and in Congress. Trump’s America will be gaudy and crazy on the outside, but mean and punishing on the inside, thanks to the Pence/Bannon/McConnell/McCarthy/Ryan view of America.

The Huffington Post version appeared on Feb. 1, 2017. It can be found here.

Monday, January 2, 2017


A small number of commentators have pointed out some similarities between Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump. The actor, Chuck Norris, provided “Top 8 Similarities between Trump and Reagan,” and, at the other end of the pundit perspective, Josh Zeitz, attempted to answer the question, “Is Donald Trump Like Ronald Reagan?” Zeitz has taught at Cambridge University and Princeton and Chuck Norris is, well, Chuck Norris. Both published their pieces during the past campaign, Zeitz in March and Norris in July.

One similarity that Norris leaves out is all the race baiting, dog-whistle tactics, that both successful candidates employed, the fact that Reagan held one of his first large campaign events at the Neshoba County Fair, some seven miles from Philadelphia, Mississippi, a town notorious for the killing of three civil rights workers. But race-baiting long has been a staple in American elections and both Trump and Reagan weren’t pioneers in that muddy field.

But what interests me is the flip-side similarities between Reagan and Trump, the 180 degree comparisons. Similar but different. Reagan the optimist, Trump the pessimist, Reagan the civilized, Trump the barbarian, that sort of thing. Ronald Reagan strove to be a picture of decorum, the modest superstar, humble with his successes as well as his failures. His televised apology for lying to Americans during the Iran-Contra scandal is a model of the latter.

Indeed, when Reagan began his campaign in 1980, as I have written before, most of the coverage treated him, if not as a clown, as an amusement. It was only during the summer of that year that reporters realized that he might actually win, given all of Jimmy Carter’s accumulating troubles. Ditto Trump. It wasn’t necessarily Obama’s troubles, but Hillary Clinton’s, that were piling up, thanks to the usual suspects, the Russians, the head of the FBI, etc. But, earlier on, it was the fecklessness of Trump’s primary competitors that let him emerge, and then Hillary became the likely villain and victim. Crooked Hillary.

I had heard from a reliable source in early 2016 that the CIA would not let Trump become president. I wasn’t necessarily picturing drones over the Trump Tower (which, ironically, may now happen, military drones that is), and didn’t take the prediction seriously till the former head of the KGB entered the fray. Putin must have heard the same thing and it became a stimulus, a challenge, to his institutional pride. Hence, all the email hacks.

Some observers wonder why the emails interested journalists so much, whereas all of the Trump scandals - Trump University, charities, foreign entanglements, etc. - didn’t seem to hold the same allure, or promote the same daily coverage. Well, unfortunately, journalists read and send emails all the time, whereas very few, almost none, attend bogus universities, or fly around the world to luxurious hotels and golf resorts. They write what they know.

But, as the old Ted Kennedy joke goes, they’ll drive off that bridge when they come to it.

Two other presidents have the same, numerically, assortment of similarities: Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. I still can’t get over the fact that the last two Democratic presidents who served two terms didn’t have their biological fathers in their lives. That grandparents played a role in their early upbringing. That both are left handed and both made very strategic marriage choices, breaking their earlier - and in Bill Clinton’s case, continuous - dating patterns and history.

And, of course, both saw their two terms as president almost go for naught. Clinton being replaced by his opposite, George W. Bush, the scion of an entitled family, a man reckless and oblivious to the responsibilities of the job. And now Obama, leaving everything at risk to another heir, a ludicrous choice foisted on the American public by less than a hundred thousand disgruntled voters distributed in three states, a man who seems more devoted to his twitter account than the presidency.

Both Clinton and Obama were children of the meritocracy. Bush and Trump not so much. But both Democrats failed, leaving office with their annulled presidencies, insofar as they had eight years to encourage successors and neither seemed to find that important, crucial, to everything they stood for. And it’s small comfort that in both elections that followed their terms the popular vote went to the losers. Another bothersome similarity that could have been predicted.

The Huffington Post version, which ran on December 31, 2016 (uncorrected version), can be found here: Huffington Post version