Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Morning After

It didn't take Donald long to rebound, claiming "there was no sniffles," pointing to Drudge Report polls that showed him winning the debate, and getting a little help from conservative pundits like Morning Joe and Newt Gingrich.  But, probably the most telling comment of all came from Mayor Rudy, who felt Trump should skip out on the remaining debates given how unfair the questions were in the first debate.

Virtually every major media outlet gave Hillary the win Monday night.  It was clear to the approximately 100 million viewers that Trump was badly off his game and never really challenged Clinton throughout the night.  Caroline Framke of Vox said what threw off the Donald was the lack of crowd response.  Silence acts as a wet blanket for an improv candidate like Trump, who thrives off a lively audience.  But, it was more than that.  He was unable to bait her into an ugly exchange like we saw during the GOP debates, and he had no one to hide behind like he did Chris Christie, when the fat man took out Marco Rubio at a key juncture of the primaries.

One on one, Trump is unable to match up against an adversary like Hillary Clinton.  He was forced to elaborate on his standard talking points, often unable to fill two minutes without rambling way off track.  The saddest moment came when he was asked to explain his position on the Iraq War.  He evoked Sean Hannity no less than four times to prove he was opposed to the war before it began.  Although Sean later backed him up, he could only say they had telephone conversations at the time.  There was no clip like that of the Howard Stern show to substantiate this claim.

Not that it really mattered because in the next forced breath, Trump was trying to claim that ISIS arose from the vacuum left in Iraq when the US withdrew its forces in 2011.  Yet, he adamantly stated in the oft-mentioned Esquire interview from 2004 that we should have never been there in the first place.  You have to give him some credit for getting the outcome partially right, but if we are to interpret his bellicose words it is Bush who is to blame here, not Obama, and certainly not Hillary.

Trump's pretzel logic works on his adoring flock, but it doesn't work in this type of debate setting.  He was notably peeved that Lester Holt kept pressing him to answer the questions he so desperately tried to avoid, and when finally compelled to do so came out with the most twisted, circular reasoning we have seen yet on the campaign trail.  He spun wildly out of control on the issue of nuclear weapons, losing all track of what he was trying to say.

It reminded me of the time Newt Gingrich managed to bait Herman Cain into a so-called Lincoln-Douglas debate in 2011.  Cain was the front runner at the time, but clearly out of his realm.  Newt coyly got the Herminator to take him up on his offer only to pick him apart on stage for all to see.  Trump, like Cain, paints in big fat strokes, he has no sense of nuance, let alone policy, and is out of his realm against someone who does.

Donald also has too big an ego to do the work necessary to prepare for a debate like this.  He thinks he can wing it, not realizing how long 90 minutes is when you really have nothing to say.  It is doubtful he will prepare anymore for the next debate.  Most likely, he will throw caution to the wind and go after Hillary from every possible angle, hoping to find a weak spot to exploit.  No more Mr. Nice Guy.

I'm sure Hillary will be ready for whatever Donald throws at her.  Like she said, she withstood 11 hours of cross-examination before the House Benghazi committee.  What could Trump possibly say that could match that level of inquisition?  This is a woman who has been through the political fire multiple times while Trump is still very much the novice.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Snifflin' Donald

There are so many ways one could go with last night's debate that it is hard to choose.  Probably the worst thing to come out of it is that Trump has a new nickname, Snifflin' Donald, as he seemed to be battling a cold or as Howard Dean tweeted, "Notice Trump sniffing all the time.  Coke user?"  Maybe the mic had been turned up to magnify his sniffles as they became the biggest takeaway from the evening.

The Donald appeared despondent afterward, claiming his mic was defective, but viewers had very little trouble hearing him.  I guess Donald didn't like the way he sounded -- loud, harsh, off balance and often incoherent.   What little traction he found early, when he attacked Hillary on her husband signing NAFTA into law, was lost when it came to his tax returns and how to address institutional racism.  He never regained his composure, even appearing to be sulking as Hillary continued to attack him on his taxes and shady business dealings.

Hillary was calm, cool and collected throughout the night, sneaking in her jabs time and again.  It looked like Donald's head would explode.  He really appeared uncomfortable on stage, as if all this questioning was a waste of his valuable time.  He glossed over every major issue that was presented except when it came to his rehearsed attempt to deal with the birther question, falsely trying to pin the birther movement on Sidney Blumenthal and Patti Solis Doyle, both friends of Hillary.  Of course, when the birther issue has been the centerpiece of your political awakening it is pretty hard to let it go.

His performance was so bad that even Fox criticized him for not exploiting Clinton's e-mails and other faux scandals the news network had magnified during the course of the campaign.  At one point he even offered a bargain that he would release his tax returns when Hillary released her e-mails.  Hillary showed no mercy, tossing out various speculations as to why Trump hasn't released his returns including the possibility that he paid no income tax at all.  All Trump could muster in his defense, "that makes me smart."

Even though Hillary landed a lot of stinging jabs, she failed to deliver the knock-out punch.  Trump will live to see another debate.  Maybe he will prepare himself better for the next one, as I doubt Anderson Cooper will be as accommodating as Lester Holt.  More importantly, Donald needs to find better antihistamines or perhaps nasal strips to combat those nasty sniffles, or lay off the coke.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Everything is Illuminated

During the Obama administration there have been a lot of incentives to move toward more energy-efficient building materials, heating and cooling systems, appliances, cars and street lighting in an effort to cut down on oil dependence.  As a result, we have seen a sharp drop in oil prices as supply has far outstripped demand.

One of the big shifts these past eight years has been in lighting.  Incandescent bulbs are no longer being produced and the cost of LED lighting has dropped considerably.  We refitted most of our home with LED lighting and not only is it more energy efficient, but provides considerably more light than standard halogen and incandescent bulbs.  The reason for that is that LED lights have a much higher color temperature on average.

The AMA recently published a study questioning the use of high-intensity LED street lamps, which many cities have adopted because they provide much greater illumination at significantly less cost.  At 4000K you can easily distinguish colors, make out roads and sidewalks much better, which give most persons a greater sense of safety at night.  However, the AMA cautions that such high intensity lighting has harmful effects, such as disturbing sleep patterns and suppressing melatonin.

I'm surprised Michelle Bachmann and her incandescent light bulb brigade didn't jump all over this report as proof positive we should have never done away with Edison bulbs.  You might remember a few years ago she led the charge on Capitol Hill to repeal a 2007 bill that made these old bulbs obsolete.  She put forward The Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act, which was defeated soundly in the House.  Before she tells everyone "I told you so," she might note that the AMA simply recommended lower Kelvin-rated LED lights, preferably 3000K, not urging cities to abandon these energy-efficient efforts.

However, many city officials have argued that there is nothing wrong with 4000K street lamps, as a typical LED monitor produces color temperature in the range of 6500K to 9300K.  Police departments have reported that better night time visibility has resulted in fewer road accidents, better eye witness reports, not to mention fewer excuses for not heeding street signs.  It is doubtful many cities will opt for lower color temperatures, as they feel the benefits far outweigh whatever harmful effects the AMA has posted.

LED street lamps are relatively new, so we really don't know the long term effects of this brighter night-time world.  These high-intensity lights have become very popular in high northern latitudes as a way of offsetting the lack of sunlight in winter, which is a well documented cause of depression.  Russia has even pursued an artificial star to boost the amount of light in winter.   But, you lose the ability to see all those shining stars as our night sky becomes increasingly more illuminated by the glow of the silvery street lamps and overlit buildings.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Let's Get Ready to Rumble!

If you thought things couldn't get more kooky, think again.  Donald Trump has apparently invited Gennifer Flowers to the first presidential debate to sit in the front row in what is a rather lame effort to psych Hillary out.  This stems from his latest twitter war with Mark Cuban, who has been baiting Trump into rash statements in hopes of flustering the rival billionaire.  Cuban  had initially shown some interest in Trump way back in Spring but has since become a very vocal supporter of Hillary Clinton and proudly boasted of his front row seat at the first debate.

Trump is doing his best to make the first debate look like a Heavyweight title match.  He has even dragged fabled boxing promoter Don King into the mix.  All he needs now is Michael Buffer to announce the fight, I mean debate Monday night.

Yet, the "Manhattan Mauler" has been doing his best to lower expectations at the same time, claiming the debates are rigged against him.  But, more interesting is the phony town hall he staged with the help of his buddy Sean Hannity at a Cleveland African-American church.  Don King was among those who got a ring side seat behind Sean and Donald. There was even a Sikh sitting behind him on camera to show Donald now knows the difference between Sikhs and Muslims.

Donald is trying to play this debate from all sides, hoping that whatever comes out of it, he will be able to capitalize on it.  Nothing short of a knockout will win it for Hillary at this point, and Trump is well aware Hillary is not a heavy hitter.  He figures he can deflect her jabs all night if it comes to that, and even if he loses the debate on points, he will be seen as the winner as having gone into a hostile ring and come out in tact.

Hillary's corner is telling her to be the adult in the room, assuming voters are tired of Donald's shenanigans and want to hear at least one voice of reason.  Polls are leaning Hillary's way in this regard.  She needs to put on her best Presidential persona and not let any of Donald's antics rattle her.  Most of all, she needs to be well rested so that there are no more stumbles, long bathroom breaks or head wobbling that will allow pundits to once again question her health.

Sadly, these debates are mostly about appearances, not substance.   I like the fact that Hillary has laid low, not tried to play into the hype and anti-hype Donald has projected.  She needs to remain level-headed and calm.  It doesn't really matter whether Hillary has a better command of issues than Donald, she has to be able to project strength.  Donald has gotten through this campaign solely on his ability to project authority, as he has shown a very weak grasp of reality.  No amount of fact-checking is going to change that.  Ultimately, voters pick who they think looks the most presidential and to hell with the consequences.

Friday, September 23, 2016


A not-so-funny thing happened while all those pundits and politicians were venting their rage on Colin Kaepernick in the wake of the New York-New Jersey bombings, two unarmed black men were gunned down in Tulsa and Charlotte by police officers.  The movement to sit, kneel or raise a fist during the national anthem has grown during the football season, not just at the professional level but at the college and high school level as well.  As a result, "patriots" like Steve King blamed Colin directly for the NY/NJ bombings.

It's the kind of mind-numbing stupidity that led many whites to turn their backs as police chiefs like Bull Connor turned dogs and fire hoses on black protesters in Birmingham, which is not lost on the black community.  Donald Trump addressed the issue at a rally in Philadelphia but his words fell flat when he foisted the blame on Obama and Clinton for creating this climate of unrest.

We are getting a replay of the late 1960s and early 70s when Nixon tried to impose law and order on the nation, rather than deal with the institutional racism that pervades our society.  In this way, Trump is right, nothing much has changed, but rather than address the issue in any meaningful way, he just wants more law and order.  Worse, he appeals to the same type of people who rejected the Civil Rights movement, and violently attacked Martin Luther King's first march from Selma to Montgomery.

Police forces today are heavily armed, looking more like SWAT teams with their riot gear, assault rifles and armored trucks.  You would think they were taking Aleppo, not trying to bring calm to American city streets.  You can thank the 1033 program Congress passed in 1996, which allowed the transfer of excess military equipment to civilian law enforcement agencies.  It doesn't seem like much training went along with the equipment.

I heard a representative of a Florida police department on BBC trying to explain these standoffs.  An officer is trained to get a suspect to comply with his or her orders, so when a suspect doesn't directly comply with those orders, some officers panic.  That appears to be the case in Tulsa, but it doesn't explain the widespread occurrences of these incidents throughout this country.

Over 1000 persons were shot and killed by police officers in 2015 alone.  More than 200 of these persons were unarmed.  It's a staggering number, especially when you compare it to other countries like the UK, where less than 100 persons have been killed by police officers since 1974.  It's not like British police officers don't have to deal with violent suspects, but you don't see them go around in tricked-out black Humvees, wearing riot gear with assault rifles slung over their shoulders.

Our police officers are being trained to combat urban warfare, literally, rather than deal with unruly suspects and protests in a calm and reassuring manner.  This goes back to before 911, so you can't blame the rise of al Qaeda and ISIS on this.  You can't blame an increase in crime rate either, since that has dropped consistently in the years since the 1970s.  Yet, many police forces across this country seem to live in fear of their communities and have resorted to very dangerous means to impose order on the streets.

None of this makes any sense, as Police Chief Rodney Muterspaw pointed out, urging police in a tweet to STOP. #TerenceCrutcher! 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Manufacturing Consent

It's hard not talking about this election.  It has stirred up a level of ignorance not seen in a very long time.  The social media is lit up with memes like this one that infer that somehow we got along just fine before the federal income tax was introduced in 1913.  We didn't become a superpower until WWII thanks to federal income and corporate taxes, and would have never been able to undertake the interstate road system in the 1950s without these taxes, but that doesn't stop persons from posting memes they get from the comical conservative and other right-wing blogs.

Rather than make us smarter, the Internet appears to have made us dumber.  There is a wealth of information available at our fingertips, but for the most part we choose to ignore it, preferring instead to visit websites that support our insipid world views.  Social media has become a vast support network where you establish your social circle based on similar interests rather than broadening your views by having them challenged.  Most people take their "news" from websites, which they freely distribute mostly in the form of memes.  If you can't reduce what you want to say to a pithy sentence you can forget it.  Very few persons are going to take the time to read your long view.

Sound bites have been around for a long time.  We've long enjoyed quotations that reduce complex ideas and events down to their rawest elements, but social media has increased the use of these sound bites exponentially, particularly twitter, where you are limited to 140 characters.  Instagram peddles 3 to 60-second videos.  You can expand your thoughts on facebook, but they are typically truncated on your timeline to save valuable space.  As a result, we are bombarded with these sound bites each and every day, and usually retort the same way in turn, spurring heated exchanges.

There is very little discussion.  We have seen some epic "twitter wars" between celebrities and politicians.  One of the more recent amusing battles was between Sean Hannity and Bill Kristol over support of Donald Trump.  Sean eventually claimed victory based on the amount "likes."  I've had "friends" do the same on facebook.  I suppose this is what passes for "debate" these days, seeing who can come up with the best zinger that everyone "likes."

Sadly, this is a dumbing down process that doesn't actually allow us to engage in ideas, because it all too quickly descends into personal insults when facile 140-character arguments fail.  I notice that a lot of my "friends" on fb go out of their way to deny their views are influenced by conservative media, even when they regurgitate the very same talking points spewed out that day.  It is also true of liberal friends, who become way to reliant on MSNBC for their "news."  Fox and MSNBC have become agit-prop news channels feeding their core viewers with manufactured opinions.

Noam Chomsky warned of this back in the late 80s.  His book Manufacturing Consent was made into a searing documentary that is well worth seeing.  Vast syndicates control the media at the local and national level.  All those local rags are owned by syndicates like Gannett media, which peddles a conservative view.  These syndicates also buy up blogs and peddle their views through the social media.  Sadly, the conservative media syndicates appear to be far more powerful than the mainstream and liberal media syndicates, which is why guys like Baba O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh enjoy 8 and 9-figure contracts, well above their mainstream and liberal contemporaries.

The result is that we are seeing a tyranny of the minority.  According to Gallup, only 38% of Americans identify themselves as conservative.  Most Americans identify themselves as moderates and liberals.

This election process has been heavily slanted to the right from the beginning.  It started with the primaries, where watching the Republicans was far more entertaining than the Democrats.  Who could resist the Hunger Games that ensued with 16 GOP candidates, whereas the Democrats could only muster two worthy tributes.  It has rolled right through the general election as Trump is infinitely more media savvy than Hillary, who has tried to keep to the straight and narrow through this electoral gauntlet.

The lies that have been peddled in her name just keep being circulated.  When Donald Trump was finally forced to drop the birther issue, he made sure to pin it on Hillary, despite this lie having been equally debunked.  The news media seemed to miss that his bombshell admission was nothing more than a clever ruse to promote his new hotel in the old Post Office Building of Washington, DC.

Thanks to the media fawning over Trump's every word, he has been able to offset the huge gap he faces in campaign contributions.  That may change when Trump finally has to debate Hillary, although he has made sure to tell everyone that the debates are rigged against him.  We're still not sure he will actually participate, which the media likewise scrutinizes in every detail further fueling his narcissistic fantasies.

We are approaching the dangerous state of an "Idiocracy," 500 years before our time thanks to an all too compliant news media that prefers confrontation to actual news.  It's nice to have guys like Shep Smith and Rachel Maddow remind us what a liar Donald Trump is, but they are voices in the virtual wilderness at this stage of the game.  No match for the cackle of voices we are made privy to on social media everyday.  One would like to think reason will prevail, but at this point I'm not very optimistic.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Who's Afraid of Edward Albee?

Most of us know Edward Albee through Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the movie version, if we know him at all.  On top of that many of us probably thought the play was about Virginia Woolf when it had nothing to do with her.  According to Albee, the title came from a bathroom mirror in a nameless Greenwhich village saloon, where he saw it scrawled in soap and couldn't get it out of his head.  He saw it as an academic intellectual joke and felt it fit with what he was writing at the time.

The Daily Mirror called it "a sick play for sick people," and when awarded a Pulitzer Prize by the jury, it was rejected by the advisory board, who chose not to give an award for drama that year.  The jury resigned en masse.  But, Albee not only persevered, he flourished in his own inimitable way, turning out plays and eventually winning three Pulitzers for his work, when the committee could no longer summon up the courage to reject him.

To read this New York Times obituary, it all started with The Zoo Story, a one-act play that was well-received in Berlin, and eventually made its way back to America.  Albee knew he wanted to be writer, but was struggling to find his medium.  He fell upon drama after failing at poetry and short story writing.  The one-act play garnered him attention.  Norman Mailer declared it the best one-act play he had ever seen, but others weren't so impressed.  Nevertheless, the play became one of the seeds of the the Off-Broadway revolution that would spawn a new generation of playwrights who explored the human dimension in ways Broadway saw little commercial appeal in.

Albee himself said it was a great environment, as you could see great plays for one dollar.  There were wonderful productions of Chekhov, Ibsen, and Beckett that you would never see on Broadway.  For him, plays were "correctives," a way of holding a mirror up to the audience and forcing them to look at themselves.  Whether a play succeeded or not mattered less to him than whether it made an impact on the audience.  Would they remember it?  Would they talk about it?  This was the way all the good playwrights started out and the great ones never relinquished that hold on the audience.

I did see a Lithuanian production of his Three Tall Women not so long ago.  Albee gets around.  His plays were often better received in Europe than they were in America.  Part of that is because his dysfunctional portraits were also a thinly veiled criticism of American society and politics.  Michael Billington expounds on that link in this review of a recent British production of Woolf.  In many ways, Albee was a contemporary Chekhov, using what seemed like domestic dramas to convey a far deeper sense of the dysfunction in our society. Albee was more combative than Chekhov, fitting the times.

He was also very protective of his productions, not wanting directors to try to make more out of the scripts than there was.  He was particularly upset when one director got it into his head to make Woolf an all-male cast, because of Albee's own homosexuality.  Albee got a court order to shut down the production.

You don't mess with Edward Albee.  Unlike cinema, there is a great veneration for the script in the theater.  A play may be visually re-interpreted but it very rarely ventures very far from the playwright's own words and stage instructions.  In that sense, the playwright is as much a part of the production as are his characters, which is why the plays live on long after the death of the playwright.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

It's deja vu all over again

You ever wonder how polls can shift so dramatically despite being told that most persons have made up their minds this election?   It all depends on who you poll and for what purpose.

Last month, Hillary appeared to have an insurmountable 12-point lead in a Reuters Poll, but early this month that lead had completely disappeared and CNN had Trump up by 2 points.  Reuters still has Hillary up by 3.  Meanwhile, CNN's Poll of Polls has Clinton bouncing back to take a 2-point lead.

Chuck Todd exposed the CNN/ORC Poll that had that amazing 14-point turnaround.  Turns out the poll had taken the sampling disproportionately favoring "likely voters" with no college education.  CNN did it again by basing an Ohio poll on a sampling that heavily favored voters over 50.  It's not so much that Clinton is slipping in the polls as it is CNN manufacturing polls to make the race look closer than it actually is.  I suppose if they kept showing Hillary 4,6 or even 10 points ahead, viewers would lose interest.  Now, viewers think the election is a toss up.

Of course, one could argue that polls showing Hillary so far ahead in August were skewed toward her favored demographics, and that these recent polls represent a "correction."  The widely respected 538 doesn't see it that way.  They currently have Hillary with a 62% probability of winning the election based on their study of the state polls.  That's a pretty big margin to overcome, which helps explain why 538 gets very little mention in the mainstream press.

Television news relies heavily on viewer ratings for advertisement, and it is in the news media's interest to make this race look close right up to the end.  The national polls don't really mean much, so CNN has opted for making battleground states look closer than they really are, in particular Ohio, which has determined every contemporary Republican President.   This element of suspense is great for ratings.  People become transfixed on the latest polls and news pundits discuss these polls ad nauseam.

Trump has milked the polls throughout his campaign, using them to boast of his legitimacy when he is ahead, and telling his devoted following how biased these polls are when he is behind.  He has even gone so far to claim that if he loses traditionally Democratic Pennsylvania that is proof the election is rigged.  This is a state that hasn't voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1988.  Hillary currently leads the Keystone State by an aggregate 6 per cent.  CNN doesn't even bother polling it, considering it safely in Hillary's column.

But Trump's braggadocia is one thing, CNN fudging polls to make this election look like a toss up is another.  We went through this last time around as well, with CNN showing a very close race all the way up to election day, only for viewers to be stunned by Obama's  relatively large margin of victory.  Many conservative pundits thought Romney had Ohio in the bag, only for Obama to win the state by 3 per cent.  Was Ohio rigged?  Karl Rove sure thought so.

Yet, Nate Silver said the writing was on the wall long before election day.  Even as national polls tightened up with many showing Romney ahead by a narrow margin thanks to a last minute surge, Nate discounted these polls saying Obama would win easily.  Nate has built an algorithm that takes a wide range of factors into consideration, not just the latest bump a candidate gets in one or another poll.  As a result, he has become kind of a wet blanket as far as the television news media is concerned.

CNN prefers instead to conduct its own questionable polls and entertain others that feed its "close race" narrative, so that it can continue to play off the anxiety Trump generates in the name of television ratings.  I suppose it is understandable, and in its own odd way maintains interest in the election process so we don't lull ourselves into thinking Hillary will win in November and don't bother to vote.  Trump still has an outside chance if voter turnout is low, as it is usually well-heeled voters who stay home if they don't feel there is anything really at stake.

Trump has referred to himself as Mr. Brexit, hoping that we will see a similar revolt of the underclass on November 8 in the United States.  Trumpkin Kellyanne Conway refers to it as the "undercover voter," kind of like Reagan's "silent majority."  The big difference is that Reagan's supporters weren't very silent and he ended up beating Carter by a huge margin as predicted.  Ronnie won all but a handful of states thanks to a miserable economy and hostage crisis that had dragged the incumbent president down.  Trump has no such external crises in his favor, although he is trying to make the most of this recent bombing in New York, kind of like Romney's defiant stand shortly after the Benghazi attack in September, 2012.

Unfortunately for Donald, all that seems to be waiting for him in November is a court date.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The media gives Donald a clean bill of health

When the going gets weird, the weird get weirder.  It really is a shame the good doctor isn't around to cover this campaign.  Hunter Thompson would have had a field day with this election cycle.  I don't even think he could have imagined Trump going on Dr. Oz to discuss a one-page summary of his physical examination.  It was such a momentous occasion that CNN and Fox were compelled to provide breaking news reports of the Trump campaign delivering this highly classified paper to the Oz studios, as apparently Trump was of two minds on whether to divulge this personal information or not.

Perhaps the only person more shameless than Trump is Dr. Oz, who has made a fortune off hypochondriacs and obese persons who will take advice from virtually any charlatan.  I can well imagine John Oliver's response to this utterly shameless act of self-promotion, as he is no friend of either Trump or Oz.  Of course, Donald presented himself as the very picture of good health and Dr. Oz seemed to agree, complimenting Trump on his transparency.

All this comes on the heels of the latest speculation surrounding Hillary's mysterious illness.  The Vegas betting line seems to be going with Parkinson's, but Alzheimer's and Multiple Sclerosis have been tossed out too.  The doctor who revealed the high rate of CTE in the NFL thinks she has been poisoned, fitting with the rampant speculation that the Kremlin is undermining the general election.

The great health issue, which emerged full blown this month, was rarely discussed during the primaries.  Unlike all the other scandals and mysteries surrounding Hillary, this one seems to be sticking, largely because her fall at the 911 memorial service in New York took everyone by surprise.  It doesn't matter that her physician was quick to tell the media that Hillary is suffering from pneumonia, that is far too pedestrian an illness for her to have.

Some of you might recall that Thompson liked to speculate on the health of presidential candidates, suggesting that Edmund Muskie might be be pumping himself with ibogaine, a hallucinogenic drug, in an effort to explain why the Democratic candidate looked "tired and confused."  Of course, the good doctor meant this in humor, but the news pundits today are seriously speculating as to what ails Hillary.

As for Donald, he seems to get a free pass despite the fact that he moves around like a "vicious 240-pound water rat," barely able to fit between the column and rail on his tour of the Flint Michigan water treatment plant.  Yet, tells Dr. Oz he only needs to lose 15 pounds.  Looks more like 50, Donald!

There are any number of reasons why he could have such orange skin, like cartotenoderma, which if left untreated could lead to diabetes and liver disease, but nary a word from Dr. Oz.  More likely he is spending too much time on a tanning bed, which would explain his raccoon eyes.  This increases the likelihood of melanoma.  Or, he could just be an over-sized Oompa-Loompa, but who am I to say?  I'm not a doctor.

I'm now expecting him to go on Lou Dobbs Tonight to present a one-page summary of his tax returns for Old Lou to scrutinize before a Fox audience.  No one knows better how to play the press than Donald, who had them fall hook, line and sinker for the release of his medical records.  We have definitely reached rock bottom!

Tuesday, September 13, 2016


Donald Trump finally has some competition as the football season is upon us.  It is pretty hard to compete with all the antics in the NFL like Colin Kaepernick protesting the flag, Tom Brady forced to sit 4 games because of under-inflated balls from two seasons ago and a hapless Rams team that returned to Los Angeles only to get shut out by an equally lowly San Francisco.  Football is a multi-billion business and at one point the Donald wanted in, but the NFL didn't want any part of him.

Back in the 1980s, Trump bought the USFL franchise team New Jersey Generals.  The Donald wanted to make the USFL into a really big thing, so he bought the best players he could find like Heisman-trophy winners Herschel Walker and Doug Flutie.  Salaries weren't particularly "yuge" back then so the USFL owners could afford to buy a few marquee players to make their league shine.  However, most owners were content to keep this a summer league and not compete head to head with the mighty NFL.

Donald being Donald was having none of that and pushed the league to move their games to the Fall in 1986 so that the USFL could battle the NFL directly for ratings.  The NFL had been struggling ever since the 1982 players' strike and Donald smelled blood.  However, there were several team owners like Burt Reynolds of the Tampa Bay Bandits who felt the new league should stand on its own legs first before making such a bold move.  Reynolds had played college football at Florida State University and had starred in at least two football movies, the most pertinent one in this case being Semi-Tough, capturing the mayhem of the 70s.

The main problem with moving to the Fall was that nearly all the USFL teams were using NFL stadiums.  Trump was using the New York Giants stadium in New Jersey.  In 1983, only two USFL teams were playing in cities not currently occupied by the NFL -- the Birmingham Stallions and the Arizona Wranglers -- and they were using college football stadiums, which would have created scheduling conflicts as well.

The league reached its peak in 1984 with the expansion of six new teams, including non-NFL cities in San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Jacksonville and Memphis.  18 teams were simply too many for the upstart league to keep afloat, especially when it had to vie against the NBA and MLB for television ratings.  By 1985, most of these teams were in financial dire straits, and when Trump announced his big move to the Fall only 8 teams remained.  The 1986 season never came to pass.

The USFL was not conceived to compete with the NFL, but rather to augment it by giving college football players an alternative professional league to play out their dreams.  Muhammad Sacirby tells of how Trump's move killed the dreams of players like Chuck Pitcock, who was banking on a career he couldn't achieve in the NFL.  

Trump was willing to sacrifice the league for his personal ambitions.  For him, it was about legitimacy and as long as the USFL was a summer league it could never achieve the status of the NFL.  That could be said of the other owners as they went along with Trump, although some were probably angling for NFL expansion teams.

The New Jersey Generals had no chance of being taken into the NFL unless the team moved to another city.  Even at its peak, the Generals could only draw about 40,000 fans to its' games, well below the Giants and the Jets.  On top of that Trump would have had to build a new stadium, as there was no room for him at the Meadowlands.  It was a doomed venture all the way around, but Donald didn't seem to care.

All this is instructive in understanding the character of the man who would be president.  He didn't properly research the market for his venture, and when the league collapsed around him, blamed it on others.  This is exactly what he is doing to the Republican Party, offering all kinds of false promises and when the party collapses in November you can be sure he won't be taking any of the blame.  For Donald, it is just another business venture.  You win some and you lose some.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Life During Wartime

15 years on and many Americans still can't get past 911.  Thomas Hoepker waited five years before publishing this photo he took that day in Brooklyn, and it still wasn't long enough.  Hoepker suffered a torrent of abuse, even from those in the photo, who said they were in a profound state of shock, not making light of the situation as the photo appears to imply.  Photos can lie.

Part of the reason the image of the burning towers still burns bright in our minds is that we really haven't come to terms with it.  We look at it as some great harm inflicted on us from out of the blue, much like Pearl Harbor 60 years before.  We believe ourselves relatively safe from the conflicts that tear apart the world.  After all, this country went through both world wars essentially unscathed, and we never could quite bring ourselves to believe the Soviet Union would actually launch a nuclear warhead at us.  Like those young persons in the photos, world conflicts take place on some distant shore, although we watch them from the comfort of our living room.

More attention than usual is being paid this year to the events that followed the multiple terrorist acts.  It was refreshing to see Fareed Zakaria have guests assessing the Bush Doctrine, which was similar in many aspects to Truman's doctrine that ushered in the Cold War following WWII.  President Bush wasted no time battening down the hatches.  He pushed a Patriot Act and Homeland Security bill through Congress that met with little resistance.  He got a green light from the UN to invade Afghanistan and bring the sponsors of this heinous act to heel.  It was only when he overstretched his moral authority and called for an invasion of Iraq that the good will virtually every country had shown us began to evaporate.  The UN refused to sanction the Iraq War leaving Bush and a handful of allies to go it alone. 

He received overwhelming approval for his actions at home.  Even the Iraq War met with initial public approval, although some would be loathe to admit it now.  What seemed like a relatively quick victory turned into a long, dragged out reconstruction effort to put in place an Iraqi government more sympathetic to our interests in the region.   The same president who had vowed "no more nation building" was doing exactly that, and many troops were coming back in body bags.

Cindy Sheehan started staging her vigil for her fallen son at Crawford Ranch, where Bush seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time.   She was pretty much seen as a flake, but crosses started pitching up all across the country commemorating the dead, who were shipped home in secret.  The Bush administration tried desperately to minimize the media exposure of the war dead, but by August, 2005, when Sheehan started her vigil over 1800 US soldiers had died in Iraq, and more in Aghanistan.

This number paled in comparison to the Iraqi and Afghani dead, whose numbers were also largely concealed.  The US was now caught in the middle of two civil wars, so it was hard to determine who killed who.  Those who suffered the most were civilians trapped in the crossfire. There was some attempt to cover this aspect of the wars, but like the ongoing Israeli-Palestine conflict, we became inured to all the dead.  Just for the record, to date nearly 200,000 Iraqi civilians and 30,000 Afghani civilians have lost their lives in the ongoing conflicts.  Add to that the spillover into Syria, which has resulted in the largest humanitarian crisis since the Vietnam War.

Despite our efforts to bring new leaderships to these countries, they are as unstable as ever.  The United States tries to coordinate efforts in Syria with Russia and Turkey, but the three countries often find themselves at cross purposes.  Obama has also maintained a presence in Afghanistan, hoping to keep the Taliban at bay, rather than carry out a full withdrawal as he did in Iraq, which many politicians and pundits blame for the rise of ISIS.

These militant groups are hydra-headed.  It seems at least two heads grow back for everyone you cut off, which has made this war on terror appear futile.  Yet, the Obama administration battles on, and Trump vows total annihilation.  We did have another option all those years ago and that was to treat 911 as a police action, not a military one, and go after those specifically responsible for the attack, not militant Islamic extremism as a whole.  But, once you start something you like to finish it.

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were on hand for the memorial service in New York.  It seemed like the day would pass without incident until Hillary stumbled on the way back to her mini-van.  Her personal physician said it was the result of dehydration and the effect of the antibiotics she was using to combat pneumonia, but no matter the media seized on it as another sign she is harboring some mysterious illness.  For his part, Trump played the role of a vigorous 70-year old, probably pumped up with Viagra.  Any attempt to put 911 in perspective was lost, save for dear Fareed who pressed on with his program as scheduled.

It shows we have pretty much learned nothing from 911.  It remains an event to be exploited, which was why Cindy Sheehan gave up her vigil in 2007 and has now cast her scorn on Democrats and Republicans alike.  In her mind, we have become a "fascist corporate wasteland."  Harsh words from the anti-war activist.

I can understand her frustration, but the problem is that most Americans never really understood what was going on to begin with.  The toppling of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein assuaged our initial anger to some degree but the ongoing conflicts only served to make us feel even more insecure as we found there really isn't anything you can do to stop this kind of extremism.  We've since seen any number of bombings and shooting sprees in the name of the Islamic State, and all our actions in the Middle East and Central Asia appear to be doing is adding fuel to the fire.  This has made us more resentful than ever, with Trump actively exploiting it on the campaign trail.

You can almost imagine those persons in the photo talking about what has just happened on the other side of the East River, trying to keep it in perspective but maintaining a calm face.  After all, they have to feel pretty lucky they had been spared, being so close to the epicenter.   The lyrics of Talking Heads' Life During Wartime come to mind.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Obama to be put on Mount Rushmore

This story has gained enough traction on social media that Snopes felt the need to respond to it, a very sad indicator of the gullibility of much of the conservative electorate, which this juicy piece of gossip seems aimed at.  A short-lived  facebook "campaign" actually dates back to 2010, but this particular story stems from "American News" and began to be widely circulated after Jack Lew announced earlier this year that Harriet Tubbman would be put on the 20-dollar bill.  I guess if you are going to deface currency, why not a mountain?

I noticed a friend of mine had recently shared the bogus story on facebook, unfortunately not in jest.  Judging by the comments, quite a few others took it seriously as well.

Russia Today even picked up on the story in May, although the author noted that it was the desire of some historians, and referenced a HuffPost piece from November, 2012, that commented on the feasibility of adding another face to Mt. Rushmore.  To be fair, Bil Lucey also noted the campaign to put Ronald Reagan on Mt. Rushmore.  Apparently aware of the limitations, Grover Nordquist had suggested that Teddy Roosevelt's face be resculpted into that of the Gipper, because Nordquist regarded TR as too much of a "statist" to deserve a place on the mountainside.

Given that Mt. Rushmore is a National Monument, it is highly doubtful any faces will be replaced or added, but of course it is fun to make conjectures.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Cool Dude

Gary Johnson comes across as a cleaned-up version of Lebowski, offering the kind of social liberalism many of us crave for, yet sees the economy in Milton Friedman terms.  Despite the glaring contradiction, Johnson has managed to appeal to Democrats and Republicans alike, mostly young ones thanks to his pro-pot position.  In fact, Cool Gary is for legalization of all drugs, which put him in a bit of a tight spot at a CNN town hall this past June, when he casually dismissed a woman's concern over the legalization of heroin.

This isn't the first time Johnson has campaigned as a Libertarian.  He was nominated by the party in 2012 after he decided not to run as a Republican in the primaries.  It was a watershed event for Libertarians as Cool Gary garnered one percent of the national vote, doubling the performance of any previous Libertarian candidate in a general election.  It helped that he was a recognizable face to more people, and had toned down the Libertarian message to one of pragmatism in the face of ideologically-bound politics.

This time around, he shed Jim Gray in favor of William Weld as his running mate.  Weld is a former Republican governor like himself with decidedly more brand appeal to conservatives.  As a result, Gary has seen his numbers surge in national polls to 10 per cent.  Some polls have him as high as 15 per cent, which would qualify him and his running mate for the presidential and vice-presidential debates.  But, who is Gary Johnson, and for that matter William Weld?

Both have been out of politics for some time.  Johnson was governor of New Mexico from 1995-2003, and Weld served as governor of Massachusetts from 1991-97.  Weld has the added bonus of having previously served Reagan as US assistant attorney general for the criminal division.  Both came to Libertarianism late in life.  Gary in 2011 and Bill just this year.  Gary asked Bill to join the ticket after Weld's first choice, John Kasich had gone down in the primaries.

Cool Gary isn't so much a Libertarian as he is a political opportunist.  He hijacked the Libertarian party for his own self-interests.  He knew he didn't have a hope in hell of making it through the Republican primaries as a moderate and his only recourse has been to draw attention to himself as a third-party candidate.  Given that the majority of Americans don't like Hillary or Trump, Gary is in  position to garner the most votes for a third party candidate since Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996.

For Gary that seems to be enough.  He doesn't appear to be entertaining notions that he could actually win.  He just wants to clear the 15 per cent threshold to participate in the presidential debates.  The odd part is that the didn't exactly shine at the CNN Town Hall in June, getting miffed by all the questions Chris Cuomo threw at him about pot.  When confronted by "real questions," he seemed to defer on these too.  Weld came across as the more "presidential" of the two.

I'm not sure whether that makes Gary a spoiler or not.  He seems to be siphoning some votes away from the Republicans, but he is also appealing to Berniecrats, who take his pro-pot and pro-choice positions to roughly align with their own views.  The Berniecrats seem to overlook that Cool Gary is against tuition-free public universities and a minimum wage.  He also favors a whopping 28% national sales tax over the current income tax, not that corporations would be anymore willing to pay this flat tax than they would the current corporate tax rate.

Cool Gary has cribbed ideas from both the left and right of the political divide and presented himself as some strange hybrid with a Libertarian bumper sticker.  Given that many persons are not looking very deep into the candidates, this has been enough to draw attention to himself.

Unfortunately, he is no more Libertarian than Donald Trump is a Republican.  They have both dressed themselves up as alternative candidates to appeal to a disgruntled electorate desperate to have something different in Washington.   Cool Gary has built his campaign mostly on his personal appeal not what the Libertarian party stands for.  As the National Review pointed out in May, his record in New Mexico was anything but anti-government, having increased spending almost two-fold and the state debt nearly three-fold, leaving Richardson and Martinez to try to clean up the fiscal mess he left behind.

Since then, he has dabbled in a marijuana-based pharmaceutical company, penned a few books and got involved with Students for Liberty, a Koch Bros. funded organization that denies climate change and promotes unfettered corporate power.   He also competes in triathlons and likes to climb mountains, posting some pretty impressive times.

You would think if he harbored presidential ambitions after leaving office in 2003, he would have done more to ingratiate himself with George Bush or Barack Obama so that he could have a stronger political record.  At the very least, got involved in some international organizations that would make him more aware of what is going on in the world.  Instead, he pushes a non-intervention stance so that he can dodge foreign policy questions, much like fellow Libertarian-minded Rand Paul when confronted with such questions early in the Republican presidential campaign.

Gary Johnson seems like a pretty cool guy and someone you would enjoy meeting, but he doesn't have the chops to be President.  He mostly craves publicity, giving him a broader brand appeal to boost book sales and get Cannabis Sativa off the ground.  I see his former buddy Jim Gray sits on the board.  There really isn't much to him, yet in a political climate that sees so much animosity directed at Hillary and Trump, he is doing better than anyone could have imagined.

Monday, September 5, 2016

A Kinder, Gentler Trump?

In one of his most daring "pivots," Donald Trump is trying to recast himself as Abe Lincoln.  Of course, most of us are laughing at this latest transformation attempt, but it seems a few persons are taking him seriously.  The most important thing is that it has everyone talking.

This has been primed by conservative pundits who have tried to cast the Democratic Party as the one with the KKK heritage, not the Republican Party.  It doesn't matter that David Duke and other noted former KKK leaders have long identified themselves with the Republican Party, the GOP would like us to think that it still holds Abe Lincoln close to its heart.

What makes it even more strange is the number of noted conservatives who have had some pretty harsh things to say about Honest Abe.  Judge Nap has been one of the harshest critics of Lincoln.  In his mind, Lincoln imposed the Civil War on us rather than letting slavery die a natural death.  Nap added that Abe's tyrannical war made him the most "murderous" president in history.  It doesn't matter that Nap's claims have been refuted by historians, he persists in his views.

But, here is Trump going out of his way to embrace Lincoln in an unexpected attempt to lure Black voters.  His appearance at the Great Faith Ministries in Detroit was a well staged event.  He has already managed to convince a few Black clergy men that he has their best interests in mind, and here he was dressed in a prayer shawl and quoting  1 John 4:12, indicating that someone, possibly Ben Carson, provided a helping hand in reaching out to his newfound audience.  It is highly doubtful Trump arrived at that verse on his own.

Of course, most Blacks long ago turned their backs on the Republican Party when it didn't stand up for them during the Civil Rights struggle.  It took a wily Democratic, Lyndon B. Johnson, to finally bring the Civil Rights Act to a vote in Congress in 1964.  It was only after Johnson reminded Republicans that they once were the Party of Lincoln that many of them voted for the bill, offsetting the mass defection of the Dixiecrats.  Strom Thurmond immediately split with the Democratic Party and threw his support behind Goldwater, who bucked the GOP by voicing his opposition to the Civil Rights Act.  This should tell anyone where conservatives stood on the issue, especially southern conservatives.  But, apparently, this is far enough in the past that a wily populist can reframe the issue to woo voters who have bad memories or don't watch the History Channel.

The GOP today is the direct descendant of the split that occurred in the 1964 election, with most former Dixiecrats opting for the Republican Party, and the relative handful that stayed in the Democratic Party consistently voting Republican in national elections.

This is a fact not lost on Black voters, who vote overwhelmingly Democratic in state and national elections, but Trump has said he wants to change that.  He seems to believe he can convince Blacks that he better represents their interests than does the Democratic leadership, and claimed at a recent rally that by 2020 he would have 95 per cent of Black support.  That's a staggering number!  Even at the height of Dwight Eisenhower's administration, when he sent the National Guard to escort Ruby Bridges to a white elementary school in New Orleans, he could only count on 39 per cent of the Black vote in 1956.  Republican presidential candidates have not seen anything close to that amount of support since.

We have come to expect these boasts from the Trumpster, but all this begs to ask why is he wasting so much time in Detroit and other places where he doesn't have a hope in hell of winning?  I suppose by at least making a show of support for persons outside his political comfort zone, he increases his brand appeal to disaffected voters who are having a hard time embracing Hillary, especially since she hasn't ventured very far out of her comfort zone.  It seems to be a tactic he picked up from Bernie, who accepted an invitation to visit Jerry Falwell's Liberty University early on in the primaries.  It didn't do Bernie much good, and it is doubtful it will do Donald much good, but when you are down in the polls you have to take a few risks.

It does seem to have given him a bump in the polls, but I think his resurgence is largely thanks to a rather quiet Hillary these past couple weeks, who seems a bit too content to sit on her lead.  Of course, when Donald is stealing all the limelight by meeting with Mexican leaders and doing inner city prayer meetings, it is pretty hard to compete for attention.  Maybe, Hillary should visit the Mormon Temple?  After all, it seems Utah is up for grabs this election cycle.

You have to hand it to Donald for bucking trends the way he does.  It's amazing he can hold onto his rural white base of support with all this minority outreach.  What he seems to be hoping is that he can appeal to the social conservatism among Blacks, using the same "Christian" message he has used so effectively among White Evangelicals to cross over and appeal to Black Evangelicals.  Good luck, Donald!

Friday, September 2, 2016

News with legs

It is nice having a range of cable news programs again.  For the last few years the only one we got from our analog cable subscriber was CNN, but with the new digital cable subscriber we get BBC, Euronews, and other premium channels if we so choose.  You realize how badly CNN has slipped behind other news networks, seeming to have adopted the Fox model of generating faux arguments with their round table discussions.  Kate Bolduan has emerged as their answer to Megyn Kelly, replete with plexiglass tables so you can see her legs better.  Chris Cuomo has become their "Hannity," stirring up unnecessary arguments mostly to hear himself talk, albeit to the left of the political spectrum.  Wolf Blitzer lords over the station like Baba O'Reilly, although he tries hard to keep his political views right down the middle.

I suppose the success of Kate Bolduan can be measured by SNL now lampooning At This Hour, and also the fan base she now has thanks to her sexy legs.  She also anchors a political round table with four panelists who chew over the latest juicy story on the campaign trail.  There is one Trumpkin, usually Kayleigh McEnany, a Hillarycrat, and two presumably neutral participants, one who leans left and the other right.  It's the kind of "balance" we have come to expect from CNN.  While it is hard to find sane Trump supporters, I would think CNN could do better than Kayleigh, who proudly personifies the "dumb blonde."

CNN also offers a number of other political commentary programs headed by senior analysts like Wolf Blitzer, the so-called "Political (Jonathan) Mann," and of course John King, who has never met a touch screen he didn't like.  Wolf is the "old man" of the group and a favorite target of comedians.  His name alone makes you laugh, but apparently it is his birth name.  It feels like he has been at CNN from the beginning, but joined the cast in 1990 after a lengthy stint with American Israel Public Affairs Committee, otherwise known as AIPAC.  Wolf was there to cover the breakdown of the Soviet Union in 1991 and virtually every major news story since.  Here's his lengthy CNN bio.  

King and Mann are battling to assume the lead role whenever Wolf should retire.  None of them have ever offered any insightful political commentary.  These are guys who play it purely by the numbers.  If you want more pithy insights, CNN gives us Christiane Amanpour, who is not afraid to tangle with her guests, much like BBC's Hardtalk.  She earned her chops as a war correspondent, probably the only real journalist left at CNN.

Like its principal rival Fox News, CNN has shifted to offering opinion, not news.  The programs are almost all built around political commentary of one sort or another, with news relegated to breaking events, which the commentators in turn dwell on the rest of the day.  They do offer various insights into Asia and Africa to satisfy its broad market and continue to give us business news in the form of Quest Means Business, a dandy with an insufferable British accent.  The old guy who once anchored the CNN business desk now works at Fox.

Very little of what is said on CNN has any bearing on the outcome of the news.  As Dorothy Parker might say, their commentaries run the gamut of insight from A to B.  One of the hosts will have some Trumpkin on the ropes and then the Trumpkin will say what about Hillary, and the questions quickly turn to her, rather than finish off the Trumpkin.  It's not like you can't go after a Hillarycrat later.  This lack of focus is what drags CNN down, and why I can only stand to watch it in small eye drop measures.  Tim Sebastian, the former host of Hardtalk, would never let a guest off the hook like that.

It's not like BBC hasn't suffered over the years as well, but nowhere to the extent of CNN, which was once a reputable cable news channel.  I've long thought that 911 is what sucked the wind out of this organization.  The Time Warner merger didn't help either.  CNN "news" became commodified and lost whatever bite it had.  You still find some bite in Amanpour and Anderson Cooper, but for the most part CNN has become a very unappealing Swedish banquet.

CNN, like the other major American news broadcast companies, allowed itself to be manipulated during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, choosing to be "embedded" with the troops rather than follow what was really going on in these two countries.  Rather than question Bush's insistence on WMD's in Iraq, they let the administration's spokespersons say what they would about Hussein's ever shifting stockpile, until they even had to admit it didn't exist.  When Abu Graib hit the fan, we were told countless stories of the bravery of our young men and women in Iraq to counteract the atrocities that were posted from this Iraqi prison.  Time and time again, CNN not only missed the mark, but the entire target.   In order to keep Christiane Amanpour, CNN pretty much gave her free reign, as she seemed to be one of the few journalists they had left who questioned what was happening at the time.  The others had either been silenced or dropped.

The situation hasn't gotten any better since our withdrawal from Iraq.  CNN poorly covers the election, focusing way too much on meaningless polls and allowing Trump's surrogates to dominate their political discussions.  They replaced Roger Stone with Corey Lewandowski but the message is still the same.  It's only been since the Republican Convention that CNN has made any effort to seriously question Trump's motives.  Even still, they pretty much let Lewandowski get away with saying anything in support of Trump.  Who needs Fox News?

Maybe Kate Bolduan will come into her own, but the problem lies with management, which seems to think Americans prefer this kind of soft-pedaled news served up in bite-size pieces with leggy newscasters as appealing hostesses.  Let the Internet deal with hard news.  Those who are that interested in what is going on aren't going to watch television anyway.  CNN has become your go-to channel when sitting in the airport lobby waiting for your departure.  News on the Go, they should call it, as it stays warm about as long as your coffee does in its paper Starbucks cup.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Calling Dr. House

In its initial run I caught the occasional episode of House.  I had always been a fan of Hugh Laurie and he played the part of the gimpy cynical doctor to perfection.  Well almost.  Now that I have had the chance to go back and watch the series from its initial pilot, thanks to Netflix, House is no longer so appealing.

What started as a witty take on Sherlock Holmes devolved into a soap opera over time, with way too much focus on the lives of House and Wilson and Cuddy and the young doctors that formed his diagnostic team at the fictional Princeton Plainsboro Teaching Hospital.  For some reason I had previously thought it was set in Boston, but maybe that was because I wrongly associated David Shore with St. Elsewhere.

The show was clearly more fun when Dr. House was diagnosing mysterious illnesses and having to deal with the petty maladies of clinic patients.  The first two seasons seemed to be grounded in actual cases, as there was often painful attention to details.  Andrew Holtz offered a guide to the cases in House, MD vs. Reality, noting that there is a fact-checking program scriptwriters can turn to -- Hollywood, Health & Society, which apparently the House writers turn to quite often.  Viewers would turn to the web to search the many references, finding out that the experimental drugs and treatments were real.  The writers also seemed to take particular relish in how dangerous tick bites can be and how important it is to keep a clean kitchen.

As the seasons wore on, House's diagnoses focused more on his colleagues, particularly Cuddy, which read as an absurd form of foreplay to a romantic relationship that never quite materialized.  He often became petulant and mean-spirited, as the writers took this cynical doctor to extremes, even to the point of having him shot at the end of Season Two when it appeared this series was badly in need of a reboot.  It wasn't surprising given that House treated his patients like shit, but there was no link to a previous episode.  Instead, House drifts off into a dreamworld where the shooter becomes his conscience, or what's left of it anyway.

His refrain "everybody lies" pretty much summed up the concept.  Kids were often the biggest liars of all and House seemed to perversely enjoy drawing them out of their lies by confronting them with the sad realities of life.  By the second season's end, you couldn't trust what anyone said, least of all House, who had become an anti-hero.

The shooter remained a mystery as Season Three started with a surprisingly gimp-free doctor who finds a new nemesis in a police detective played by Robert Morse.  Maybe this is why I thought Shore was part of St. Elsewhere, since Morse had been one of the young doctors at St. Eligius.  This was perhaps the worst season of House, as Detective Tritter proved more annoying than vicious as was the case with Edward Vogler in Season One.

Vogler had been the perfect antagonist to House, lording over the hospital like Napoleon, strong arming the other doctors into compliance and even threatening to oust House if he didn't conform to his ways.  In the end, House won but at times he appeared genuinely scared, as Chi McBride cast a menacing presence over him.

Once the nasty Vogler was gone, House had a free run of the place, delighting in Cuddy's low-cut blouses and tight skirts, antagonizing his patients, and  forcing his assistants to do the dirty work for him, including breaking into patients' homes to discover what might have set off their illnesses and whatever other secrets they might be hiding.  Wilson played Watson for the most part, someone House could unload on at inopportune moments.  I kind of liked Wilson but the whole thing about confronting House about his vicodin addiction was as annoying as Det. Tritter's investigation, especially after the attempt to heal House failed.

The assistants were never anything more than foils.  I thought after Season Three we would get a new crew as we went through a very amusing screening process to find new young doctors after the big fall out.  Unfortunately, Foreman, Chase and Cameron were all teasingly re-introduced and became part of the show once again, albeit as incidental figures.  House finally winnowed down his 40 applicants to 4.  He had a hard time letting go of Amber, or Cutthroat Bitch as he called her, only to see her come back as Wilson's girlfriend.

The misogyny that ran through the show became most blatant in Season 4.  We were supposed to excuse House because he is such a genius, but I have to think a strong doctor like Amber wouldn't take too kindly to being openly called a bitch.  And, I had to wonder how much an ambitious administrator like Cuddy could take House's insulting sexual jibes each and every episode.  In the end, we were supposed to chalk these both up to unrequited love, but the only person who really seemed to love House was Cameron, who as we learned back in Season One was drawn to broken men.

We did get his ex-wife in Season Two, a reasonably strong woman in Stacy Warner, played by veteran actress Sela Ward.  There was conflict for awhile and eventually appeasement and finally sex, only for House to reject her, as she had apparently done him during the low point of his pre-show recovery.  With Stacy gone, House was free to be a narcissistic bastard, running roughshod over his colleagues as harshly as Vogler had done before.

It wasn't just the women who got the brunt of his abuse.  Wilson was humiliated by House time and time again until he finally had enough when House showed no empathy for his loss of Amber.  Granted, it was an odd romance, with Amber used mostly to get back at House, but still you would think House would show at least a little sympathy for his only buddy.  Instead, he mercilessly taunts Wilson, giving the chief oncologist no option other than to leave.  But, Wilson comes back.  It seems no one can get enough of House's abuse.

You would think it would be better for Cuddy to fire House, since he is the one who incites all these bad feelings.  We were told time and time again that this diagnostics department existed only to serve his great ego, but you have to think Vogler was right back in Season One in that it served no real purpose as far as the hospital was concerned.  Surely, the chief doctors could get together and perform a differential diagnosis if a patient's case proved too vexing for one of them.  Instead, House is presented as Batman, the only one able to crack these mysterious cases.  Amusingly, in an episode of a fallen CIA operative, he is secretly flown from the roof of the hospital in a black helicopter to solve the case.  His name is now so famous that even Cuban refugees seek him out.

Granted, this is all done in misanthropic humor, but it reaches its ugly head in Season Five when House starts having hallucinations of Amber.  She has come back once again to taunt him, this time as his evil alter-ego.  House doesn't figure it out at first.  After all, it is his own mind playing tricks on him, the only worth adversary he has.  But, when Amber's diagnoses prove to be wrong and the elaborate bachelor party turns out to be a diabolical plan to kill Chase, House realizes it is time to check into the mental ward.

By this point, the show had come to resemble the soap opera he watched in comatose patients' rooms, Prescription Passion.  Chase and Cameron were the two young doctors in love.  House chased after Cuddy for no other reason than to get under her skin.  Foreman hooked up with "Thirteen," after she had run her course of lesbian affairs. Poor Wilson still pined over the loss of Amber.  There was even one amusing episode where House actually kidnapped the doctor from the soap opera, sensing there was something wrong in his delayed reactions on screen.  Cases no longer seemed to matter.  They served as means for the doctors to confront their own insecurities, eventually even House when he badly misdiagnosed a case thanks to his evil secret sharer Amber.

Apparently, the death of Kutner inspired these visions.  He was rather surprisingly killed off in Season Five and House became convinced the suicide concealed a murder, searching his flat for clues while the others attended his funeral.  I was curious why Kutner was written out of the show and it turned he left acting to serve in the Obama administration as the director of the Office of Public Liaison in 2009.  There was a nice chemistry between Kutner and House.

House in a mental ward could have easily filled a whole season, but the writers confined it to two amusing episodes where he did battle and eventually came to an accord with Dr. Nolan, wonderfully played by Andre Braugher.  But, only after House had badly underestimated the depth of one of his fellow patients' psychoses, leading Freedom Master to jump off a parking garage.  Lin-Manuel Miranda stole many scenes as Alvie.  We also witnessed House's only serious romance with the piano-playing, sister-in-law of a catatonic patient known as "Silent Girl."  The scenes with Franka Potente were genuinely poignant and I thought we were going to see a whole new House.  Instead, it was the same old caustic humor when House returned to Plainsboro to mercilessly taunt the staff once again, seeming to have gained nothing from this experience.

Of course, when you have invested five-and-a-half seasons in this bullshit, you feel like Wilson, you have to play it out until the end.  Only 56 episodes to go!  I see that Cameron has finally had enough, but I have to think she will crawl back if for no other reason than to try to save Chase from the evil clutches of Dr. House.

House suffered from what many long-running television shows have suffered -- fatigue.  It is hard to come up with 23 episodes per year to fill out the mainstream television schedule.  The cable channels have discovered that it is best to keep a series to 10 or 12 episodes per year, with a story arch tying the episodes together.  Most of the episodes in House are one-off affairs, except for the occasional two-parter.  There is a story arch, but as I found out it isn't necessary to follow.  In fact, it is better not to, as it only makes you realize what an ugly misanthrope House is and your time is wasted trying to figure him out.