Thursday, December 22, 2016


For all the daily sucker punches making America great today — the Kremlin collusion, the nepotism, the pay-for-play schemes from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the tweeted slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, all the blatant lies repeated into truths — I will miss a small noble thing most of all.

I will miss the president being presidential.

Barack Obama is presidential.

[This is not about his being president, which is another writing entirely. Though I fault President Obama for failings — notably public education — as I would any president as is my right as a citizen, I fault his foes far, far more, for their cruel hypocrisy against our president. They have twisted their blatant intransigence into something they think of as noble, and have managed to stick Obama with blame for their own failings.]

At times of tragedy and times of wonder, Barack Obama is one who speaks for our shared grief and awe. He stands at the podium, as he has done far too many times than is fair or acceptable, for all those times of massive crushing violence against innocents, and reminds us we are united in these states, in these times. We are together; at least we feel, in this gathered moment, that we are, even if we aren't really.

President Obama makes the words his own. Some are indeed his own, and some the eloquent choices of writers who know his voice, and he speaks them as if they and he are one fiber. He speaks his truth.

President George W. Bush also — sometimes — spoke with eloquence, but so woodenly you knew the words weren't his. Good for him, being wise enough to speak them, to know the weight of the words carefully chosen for him. George W. Bush reached his acme after 9/11, when he spoke through a megaphone, his arm around a firefighter, amid a pile of rubble that used to be the World Trade Center.

Bush let the firefighters and rescuers know that the nation stood with him. Had he also let the crowd know that his administration would soon use this horror as pretense to lead us into 15 years of misguided brutal war, that would have been refreshing and disarming in all meanings of the word.

Bill Clinton was almost too presidential in this regard, so at ease with words that he often overacted them, hammed over them. He had precedence in Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator, who not only had the choice of the choicest words, but knew how to deliver, a master propagandist.

George H.W. Bush had a tough act to follow, and didn't very well. At least he read the words before him, stiff though they were, tumbling from his mouth.

Donald Trump is not presidential. Not in any meaning of the word.

Can you imagine him presiding at the next great national tragedy? Try to imagine Donald Trump speaking words of comfort and hope as we consider the aftermath.

He will have none to give, nor would he know how to give them; nor will he care to give them. He will instead leverage the moment for some new loss of liberty, some new broad brush of blame against some new group. He'll vindicate himself as having been correct about this tragedy — pick any tragedy, which he can sell as an I-told-you-so — and froth his followers into some new course of extreme action. For our protection, of course.

Trump will not speak with the poetry we will long to hear. He might have someone who can write that poetry, but he will not speak it. He will barely speak complete sentences, chopping them up with needless digressions, usually about his greatness and rightness.

Donald Trump is "interested in two things and two things only: Making you afraid of it and telling you who's to blame for it," as Aaron Sorkin's movie president, Andrew Shepherd, said of his conservative arch-rival, in The American President. "That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections."

Donald Trump will have made the country a slow-motion wreck by then, but I will miss the charitable important act of a president being presidential. It is gone.

Now I tire of writing about Donald Trump, tire of drawing orange pieces of him, tire of paying attention to him, though I pay I must, to keep a wary eye.

As palliative, I instead repeat, for this season, my favorite moment from Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," the instructive moment when Jacob Marley's ghost appears before Ebenezer Scrooge.*

Weighted down by the chains and change-boxes that mark his own selfishness in life, the ghost of Scrooge's business partner has come to warn Scrooge of the horrible burdens he too will suffer in the afterlife. Scrooge will forever drag the "ponderous" chains he has forged in life, if he continues to hole up in their counting house, attending to business rather than charity.

“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob," Scrooge volunteered.

"Business!' cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The deals of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!” 

Remember the good, which once was, and can be again. 

*Watch Frank Finlay's version of Marley's ghost in the best version, with George C. Scott as Scrooge. Finlay's ghost is desperate and despairing, frighteningly frantic to make Scrooge see his errors.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016


Forget "post-truth."

Forget "xenophobia," or "fascism" or "kleptocracy" or "oligarchy" or "emoluments," or any of those candidates for Word of the Year, so strange and tangy with menace, that goosestep across your tongue these days.

The true Word of the Year — and for more years than I may be able to stomach — is "with."

Such a simple word, with — so familiar and modest, almost invisible. A preposition that in almost all cases denotes accompaniment, harmony. Togetherness.

Except when it spurts from the mouth of Donald J. Trump. From Trump's mouth, with is a chilling weapon.

In his use, with means opposition, as in this morsel you may have missed last week, when Trump was in Iowa, frothing up yet another thank-you rally, still running for president.

You will be shocked to learn he was fuming over a new criticism, this time about how he'll supposedly drain the swamp by refilling his cabinet with millionaires and billionaires, crony corporate titans:

"One newspaper criticized me: 'Why can't they have people of modest means?*'" he told his rally crowd. "Because I want people that made a fortune! Because now they're negotiating WITH you!"

Not "negotiating for you," as I read so many — too many — media outlets quoting it, as if they assume Trump made a semantic mistake. Fortune Magazine substituted the word for in brackets, like a Band Aid™® over what he actually said. Or the media used "for" in desperate hope he misspoke, that these henhouse foxes are negotiating for you, on your behalf! With your welfare and interests in mind! That must be what Trump meant!

But that's not what Trump said. Nor what he meant.

He said, "Now they're negotiating with you."  

With, as in "against."

Trump didn't misspeak. He's the greatest businessman in the history of the world, of course — as he'll tell you. He's the zen master of the deal, everybody knows. Negotiating is his thing.

How do I know Trump said what he meant? To quote our own glorious leader, "I know words. I have the best words."

So President-elect Trump is amassing a cabinet of contrarians, who not only seem loathe to run the executive functions for which they have been appointed, but who have been chosen for that reason.

We get, among others,
  • An education secretary with no experience, but lots and lots of money, who is against education, unless you can afford it, and wants to pick and choose who gets educated.
  • An attorney general whose experience with civil rights is selective at best. Guess who it's selective for?
  • A housing and urban development secretary, with no experience, who ignores the breadth of social safety net that enabled his self-made self to get where he got.
  • An energy secretary who would lead the department he wanted to eliminate during his own bumbling run for presidency, even though he couldn't remember its name.
  • An Environmental Protection Agency administrator who has demonstrated he thinks his agency is a nuisance that impedes taking profitable resources.
  • A health and human resources secretary for whom health care is a choice if you can afford it.
  • A secretary of state who runs his own virtual state already, and smells of money oil.
  • A national security adviser who has disparaged Islam and helped disseminate the most ridiculous and reckless of fake news.
What aren't fatcats in Trump's stratosphere are retired generals, or presidential hopefuls who stumbled on the campaign trail when Trump tripped them, insulting them as they fell.

It's Eisenhower's nightmare warning of the military-industrial complex, sitting around one table, holding their departments hostage, ready to negotiate with you.

They'll have the butter, and the guns to guard them. What do you have in trade?

Better education? Nah, we're thinking of going private with little accountability. We'll call you if we have a seat available for your kid, but probably not.

Civil rights? What color are you? What gender? Who do you love? By the way, what religion?

Health care? How long can you hold your breath?

Fresh air, clean water? Do you own any mineral rights? That'd be helpful. Love those mineral rights.

Freedom? Stand by. We might need them back. You know, to protect you.

Frankly, you don't have much to interest Trump in a trade.

Down continues to be up, and right wrong.

I finally figured out what the Trump phenomenon is all about: To use vulgarity he'd recognize, Donald Trump is pissing on our backs and calling it rain.

All our backs. Whether you're for him, against him, don't know, that's rain.

His minions spend their waking hours in spin, telling us so.

"Yes, that's rain!" says Vice President-elect Mike Pence, when he dismisses Trump's ridiculous statement that millions of people voted illegally, "I think one of the things that's refreshing about our President-elect, and it's one of the reasons why I think he made such an incredible connection with people all across this country, is because he tells you what's in his mind, tells you what's on his heart." Even it's untrue.

(The popular vote has Hillary Clinton with 2.8 million more votes than Trump. Still counting.)

"It's raining!" says Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, asked if Trump's lies, Twitter™® attacks on individuals and misogyny are presidential behavior. "Well," says Conway, "he is the President-elect, so that's presidential behavior."

"It's raining!" says Trump surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes, when she declares, "There's no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of (sic) facts. And so Mr. Trump's tweet, amongst a certain crowd — a large part of the population — are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some — amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies and that there are no facts to back it up."

Whatever Donald Trump says, goes. What he believes is true.

I'm not so innocent as to believe we don't already live among lies, elaborately made and disguised, around for so long we forget they're there. It's how we get by. It's how banking and finance works. It's how the haves have, how we fight wars, how we ignore atrocities at home and abroad, and still get to call ourselves exceptional.

But now we've entered the Age of Blatancy, where even the hope of a better way, based on facts, becomes mere mist in this thing Trump calls rain.

His cabinet, this would-be wrecking crew, these hostage negotiators. They're ready to negotiate with you.

Don't worry, Donald Trump is with you. As long as you're with him.

*When Trump assumes the role of his critics, do you notice how he leans back, tucks in his chin, purses his lips and lowers the register of his voice, very much in the way Alec Baldwin impersonates Trump on Saturday Night Live. Maybe Baldwin should sue.