Monday, May 29, 2017

The Society of Hopscotch Fanatics--On

We all have our "desert island" videos. Send me with a couple of John Ford Westerns, perhaps Fort Apache and My Darling Clementine. Download to my notebook the first Godfather and the first Star Wars, and add something serious like The Sorrow and the Pity, Z, or the original Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Make me laugh with The Philadelphia Story or Young Frankenstein or The Producers. Do that, and I can play quietly by myself for a while without disturbing the adults.

Yet, I belong to a secret order, The Society of Hopscotch Fanatics, and would insist on having that movie in my go bag. It's got everything: The CIA, FBI, MI-6, the Russians. Chases in trucks, cars, and airplanes. Gadgets. Appealing women with foreign accents. Exotic disguises. Even some gun-play. And music—fantastic music. It's the kind of film you could watch 20 times (or more, but who's counting?) and you would still be finding things to make you smile.

The storyline is fairly simple. A CIA field agent (Miles Kendig), who, admittedly, is a bit of an antique, is pushed into a desk job by his boss, the quintessentially boorish (and short) Meyerson. Kendig doesn't want to be benched. He shreds his file (literally, as there are apparently no electronic copies in the late 1970's) and walks out. He decides to write a book, Hopscotch, documenting some of the Agency's less glorious moments (and featuring Meyerson) and begins sending juicy chapters to interested, and sometimes horrified, readers. Kendig goes off in search of a publisher and to reunite with Isobel, his old girlfriend. Meyerson goes off (with murderous intent) in search of Kendig, dragging Kendig's protégé, Joe Cutter, and a couple of hapless CIA guys, along for the ride. We have stops in Savannah, London, Bermuda and Salzburg, plus various border-crossings and other points East and West, and do some serious damage to reputations, houses, and ears.

The cast is terrific. Walter Matthau is Kendig, and while he may seem anything but the suave international spy, he's far smarter than anyone chasing him. Beneath that Oscar Madison exterior is someone quite creative with electronic and mechanical equipment, firecrackers, and paperclips.

Glenda Jackson plays Isobel, now retired from the Agency to "marry some old Nazi" who has since departed this mortal coil, leaving her with a very useful "Von" in her last name, an Austrian passport, and sufficient means to join forces with Kendig. This is the second movie the pair co-starred in, and the very offbeat, very adult chemistry they share is not unlike a good glass of wine…complex, but cuts grease. One could say it takes a great actress to make a sex symbol out of Matthau, but she likes the guy, for all his exasperating behavior. If Glenda Jackson likes you, you must be OK.

Rounding out the featured spies, Ned Beatty is Meyerson. He's thoroughly execrable, but doesn't turn the character into a cartoon. Sam Waterston sets intellectual women's hearts aflutter as Cutter (even Eleanor Roosevelt would have liked him), and Herbert Lom is a sly Yaskov, the KGB agent (you will love his omnipresent Boris Badanov hat, trench coat and mustache).

The film has some extraordinary assets beyond its leads. It was a very smart choice to hire Ronald Neame to direct. Neame brings a continental perspective to the contest between the two Americans. Meyerson is a stand-in for everything the Europeans disliked (and still dislike) about American power. He's a bully, he's unsophisticated, and, worst of all, he lacks manners. No one wants to play with Meyerson (he's one of the few characters who aren't even given a first name). But Hopscotch isn't political as much as it is a little subversive. Kendig (and Isobel, and Isobel's dog) take on stupid, ham-fisted bureaucrats who just happen to work for the CIA. If there's a Deep State, Meyerson is definitely part of it.
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Monday, May 15, 2017

Comey Comedy

In case you were backpacking in Borneo last week and hadn’t heard, the Most Powerful Man On Earth (and Grand Imperial Poohbah) fired his insufficiently loyal FBI Director.

That was the easy part. Trump was either always planning to fire Comey (after being outraged that Comey didn’t insist Hillary be indicted) or blowing kisses at him (literally and figuratively) after Comey’s yes-she-did-no-she-didn’t just before the election, or “furious” that Comey hadn’t set the entire FBI to the sole purpose of finding leakers, or whatever else he might have been thinking at any moment since then. You can check with his crack communications staff to get an annotated hour-to-hour sense of the Trumpian mood, with an approximate 50% certainty that it would be half right.

Exhausting, isn’t it?  Watching the Good Ship Trump is like chasing a gaggle of 4-year-olds after the video-game and candy-corn portion of a high-end Pre-K graduation party. The well-groomed parents practice their proud-but-tolerant-but-slightly-pained smiles as they watch the future heirs to the throne thoroughly wreck the place.  All while praying that none of this goes viral since there are still a couple of kids on Kindergarten wait-lists.

OK, we can leave the future grown-ups and return to the present superannuated children, because at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, it’s always one big party, with Donnie hacking at the Twitter piñata, and Spicey playing hide-and-seek.  

And life goes on. Trump hires, Trump fires, Trump blurts out nonsense and threats, Trump signs an Executive Order mandating all Federal Employees wear MAGA sleepwear (manufactured in China), Trump invites strange people with Russian accents to the White House, Trump goes to his favorite safe spaces (Mar-A-Lago, Fox, Liberty University). Trump is just Trump-like.

Can’t something be done to stop this lunatic? Not really. Forget the 25th Amendment: Trump isn’t voluntarily stepping aside and, despite all the arm-chair psychologists out there, “shouldn’t be President” isn’t incapacity.  Impeachment? Lawrence Tribe has a piece in the Washington Post where he lays out a lawyer’s case for impeachment.  It’s well-written, but completely divorced from reality.

Let’s start with the legal hurdles. “High Crimes and Misdemeanors” lacks a specific Constitutional definition, but being a crass potty-mouthed bully doesn’t meet the standard.  Nor ignorance in policy, nor serial truth-massager, nor tawdry, nor just about any other pejorative you can lay on him. Even “grifter” isn’t going to be dispositive, since a lot of grifting is just “grifty” and not necessarily “emolumenty”.

Now, to the political. First is a straight-out numbers game. To impeach, you need a majority of the House and 67 votes in the Senate. Suffice to say that’s not happening any time soon. Impeachment wouldn’t even get out of committee right now. Remember, 90% of Republicans profess public support for Trump, and many of those believe that he’s being unfairly persecuted by a biased media and bitter Democrats. After 2018? Forget it. Even if Democrats take back the House (a longshot) they will be lucky to just hold their serve in the Senate.

Second, Trump is, on the fly, reinventing what normal is.  Previous Presidents of both parties displayed a certain public decorum and went by a group of largely unwritten rules about what was and was not acceptable. A visit to Trump-land rewrites every single one of them. More accurately, it covers them with graffiti to the point they become almost unrecognizable. In just four months, Trump has taken us past the point where we feel shock. We may never do this again with any other President, but as it applies to Trump, excesses are simply superfluous.

Why Trump? Yes, some of this is just political expediency—there’s no question that the Paul Ryans and Mitch McConnells of the world are fully aware of the Faustian Bargain they have made. But with Trump’s real base, the ones he’s made an emotional connection with, there’s something different going on, almost a peculiar folie à deux, a sharing in a certain view of the world. “I just want to get things done”, I heard from a Trump supporter last week.   

In a nutshell, I think that’s what saves Trump. Trump isn’t Teflon—rather he’s an entirely different species that has rendered the term “gaffe” irrelevant. His supporters will not judge him the way they would just about any other politician. They aren’t really engaging in hypocrisy, they are just throwing out the script entirely.

Trump is acutely aware of this, and it liberates him to act the way he does, on impulse, with apparent disregard for the consequences.  But it has risks for him as well—he’s insulating himself from alternate views and ever-narrowing his horizon. He’s not paying attention to the details of what he signs—regardless of whether it would adversely impact the very loyalists who would go to the ramparts for him.  And he’s lost his ear for any music other than his own. 

The Comey firing is Exhibit A in this. Trump (and whatever advisors he happened to trust at the moment) assumed that this was comparatively risk-free. They whipped up a soufflé of a memo from Rod Rosenstein, the Deputy AG, coupled it with a solemn recommendation from the distinguished Jeff Sessions, and rolled it out there. They counted on (and got) mostly lockstep Republican support.  But they misjudged the Democrats, whom they expected to cheer. What they failed to realize is that Democrats don’t have lingering nostalgia for Hillary—rather they have a sense of being personally cheated. The Rosenstein Memo actually added fuel to the fire.  Comey made two seminal decisions—to break with Department policy with regard to Clinton’s emails, and to keep to Department policy with regard to Trump’s Russian contacts. From the Democrats’ perspective, Comey was bitter medicine they had to accept—and now Trump was pushing away the poisoned chalice before he had to take his sip.

There are a lot of Democrats who are convinced that the Russian angle will never be properly investigated. We won’t see Trump tax returns because Donald says no. There’s not going to be an Independent Counsel, because Senate Republicans won’t permit it. In the end, Judge and Jury are going to be picked by Trump. The “recused” Jeff Sessions will help select Comey’s successor. That successor, whomever he or she is, is going to take the job knowing full-well what The Boss wants, and that service is at the pleasure of an easily displeased President. As to the FBI itself, the general professionalism of the rank and file is beyond question, but every one of them will have a consciousness of the environment in which careers are made or sacrificed.

Is there hope for normalcy, post Comey? I’m pessimistic. There has been talk of a White House shake up, but it’s hard to see how Trump changes himself enough to be willing to bring in professionalism and voices other than his own. The drift of the Republicans in the Senate is to dislike Trump personally but to work around him so a legislative agenda can be enacted. They will run interference for him as long as it profits them, and that could be quite some time. Ryan has an entirely different problem—first, Devin Nunes embarrassed him more than he would admit. Second, he runs a Gerrymandered House caucus where the firebrands are calling the tune from safe districts, while more centrist Republicans are at risk next year.  And Ryan looks weak—lacking in integrity and stature. He may not have the juice to shift the House into a more independent mode when the time comes.

That leaves us with all Trump, all the time. Four years of him.

Where are the laughs?

May 15, 2017

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Monday, May 1, 2017

My Big Fat Republican Government

"What do you expect from a Republican?" 

Being the child of FDR Democrats, I can't tell you how many times I heard that. What does one expect from a Republican? Always siding with business and the wealthy over the interests of the common people. Loving wars; making them, spending big for the toys to make them, and questioning the patriotism of those who disagree. Displaying an unseemly admiration for pencil-mustached right-wing dictators who wear uniforms and mirrored Ray Bans. Having an unhealthy fascination about how others live their private lives—and a compulsion to tell them how to live it better. That's what you expected from a Republican. 

With my limited world-view (my Dad insisted I read the incomprehensibly dense and partisan Ramparts magazine), I saw "Republicans" as sort of a duck-billed platypus. There were the kooks—what we would now call the tinfoil brigade—conspiracy spouting, rootin' tootin' Yosemite Sam types. There were the American Gothics, the Midwestern farmers who, to me, not understanding social issues particularly well, inexplicably voted against their own economic interests. There were the blue-collar ethnics who had started to move out of decaying cities to the suburbs and exurbs-Nixon voters in 1968. There was the beginning of the great political migration of the Solid South. And, most importantly, there were the guys at the top of the food chain, the well-heeled and the well-bred. Tall, good-looking, society-page weddings, Mayflower, SAR, DAR. Those guys—the ones who really ran things, and for whom the government always worked. Discretely. As you can see, I had a very sophisticated view of things. 

Of course, this was a caricature. There was an entire moderate wing of the GOP. A real one—not some lonely Rock Cornish Hen wingette, but a plump, juicy game-bird of an appendage. New York's very own Governor, Nelson Rockefeller, was in charge of that wing, having inherited it from one of our former Governors, Thomas E. Dewey. Dewey started the State University System, doubled aid to education, and pushed through the first non-discrimination-in-hiring law. Rockefeller built more colleges, supported environmental causes, and created the New York State Council on the Arts (it's exceedingly difficult to explain to my own children that there actually were Republicans like this).

Why Trump? Why not? Was the old way really working, except for the big shots? Historically, most Republicans in positions of real power saw themselves as heirs to the Founders' vision—a democracy, but one governed by the educated and affluent elites who knew better than the common man. Republicans would adhere to the model of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson—calm, sober men of education, experience and judgment. Preservationists of the old order and called to a certain higher duty. You played by the rules (most of the time) and were mindful that government was transactional and majorities impermanent. You showed restraint. You did well for yourself, of course, but overt looting, ravaging, and pillaging were gauche. The GOP was the Party of Cool, Cool, Considerate Men.

Quaint, isn't it? Not unlike a lawn party on some magnificent country estate you pass on a bucolic road and see, shrinking, in your rearview mirror. Don't bother to stop to watch the croquet, it's by invitation only.

So, the ground was plowed for an angry candidate in 2016, someone who would shake up the old order. But, still, why Trump? If you want an angry scourge, why not someone like Cruz, or Newt? Plenty of convert-or-die in those two. Why pick someone profoundly ignorant of policy, and disinterested in learning any? Someone who lacks fixed principles and routinely reverses not just long-held positions, but those for which the ink (or digital footprint) is barely dry. Someone who takes whatever isn't nailed down, and looks for a crowbar to collect the rest. Someone extraordinarily thin-skinned about personal hurts and thoroughly callous about those he inflicts on others. And those are his good points. Why him?