President Quixote

Ron Klain as Sancho Panza

I had written this satirical piece about President Biden, and then suddenly last night the Former President endured an assassination attempt. Another horrible indictment of the violence in this country. So it might not be in good taste to publish the piece right now, but the political battles will go on and Trump will survive.

Fintan O’Toole may have written one of the sharpest and saddest takedowns of President Biden, our current Don Quixote. In his NYR piece Savior Complex he explained it this way: “Biden’s tragedy is that he has come to feel that he alone can rescue America.”

As Biden sees it, his destiny is to defeat Trump, his magic dragon, his doppelganger, his antithesis and nemesis. Like Don Q, Biden is obsessed with his honor, here it’s the notion of “finishing the job.” Unfortunately, like the Don, the disconnect from his own reality has become palpable for all to see.

As I write this, we’re on the cusp of discovering whether a grand council of Democratic sages (Pelosi, Schumer, Obama et al.) might prevail on Joe to step aside and get off his high horse. They don’t have a lot of time. If I were able to consult with Joe, I might render it this way:

“Look, man, here’s the deal. Let me put it to you from one aged American to another. You seem to think you can outrun Father Time. You’re also fond of quoting your father: “Joey, don’t compare me to the Almighty. Compare me to the alternative.” You keep trying to beat the devil, and nobody’s buying it. In fact, what you need is simply to face the discordant music of getting old.

“Getting old means relinquishing a lot of things, and not just your car keys. You have a history of communication failures―lapses, gaffes and solecisms―all compounded because of the complexity and uncertainty of issues you must deal with daily. Your tasks get more difficult, and aging makes them more formidable. Your delivery gets worse, and sound bites are hard to package, as you should have learned. You’ve been a good president, Joe. But now the signs of senility are hard to miss, and you don’t want to end up like Dianne Feinstein, do you?

“I’ve been retired for fifteen or more years, my friend. Of course we all hate the word and the concept behind it. But you don’t have to sit on the front porch of your Rehoboth beach house. If it’s honor that moves you, let it come to you as a highly revered figure of U.S. politics, not as the man who tried to beat the devil.”

Conversation Stoppers

Sarah Sze, Timekeeper

“Hey man, how ya doin’? How’s your life?”
“Fine. It will be over soon.”

National Library of Medicine on Aging (NIH): “The anterior-posterior, dorsal-ventral, and proximal-distal axes are sequentially specified and involve interactions between different compartments in the imaginal discs.”

“Rishi Sunak is coming to dinner.”

2025: President Harris could put Trump in jail.

2025: “President Trump paid me to kill you.”

Boeing Stock has “45% Upside, According to 1 Wall Street Analyst”

Jill Biden’s kindergarten tone after the debate: “You answered all the questions, you knew all the facts!”

Sean “Diddy” Combs

Tesla

Saks Fifth Avenue will acquire Neiman Marcus

One opinion in Newsweek: “Israel Must Target Iran at the Same Time as Hezbollah”

AI scientist Ray Kurzweil: “We are going to expand intelligence a millionfold by 2045.”

Joe Must Go. Politics Ain’t Beanbag.

Some of us remember Lyndon Johnson renouncing the presidency in 1968, one of his finest moments. Some of us remember Nixon being forced out under pressure. Now we hold our collective breaths to see what Joe Biden will do. If he doesn’t resign, there is no hope of beating Trump in the next election. The results of which we leave to your imagination.

In one sense his decision will rest in the hands of his family, his wife Jill and his longtime followers. The more senile Joe has become, the more they have protected him. He offers us few press conferences, infrequent unstaged interviews, clichéd speeches, and the same old downhome Scranton working class bullshit. Senile people forever keep on referencing the past.

As someone who has done debate prep, it appeared to me that he likely had no professional coaching and relied solely on his White House cronies (Ron Klain, Bob Bauer et al.). James Carville said it too: “He doesn’t have advisers. He has employees.” Odds are they stuffed him with the obvious issues and canned responses. No professional coach would have let him appear as he did. Pee in your pants, call in sick, for God’s sake.

Presidential debates generally are more style than substance, and they are a perfect vehicle for a convincing conman.  Trump rapidly floats his same (or worse) whoppers and gets away with it uncontested. He paralyzes our analytical powers and takes obvious joy in manipulating people. Many want to believe him because it’s their form of heroin. In the flood of this the truth cannot prevail; people like Truthful Joe cannot prevail.

Part of the problem is that Biden has usually wanted to avoid being in the public eye―and the public hasn’t been crazy about seeing him either. Lili Loofbourow in the WaPo nicely put it this way: “Biden’s unwillingness and inability to court attention has, for example, made it difficult for him to sell the public on his achievements.”

There have been many comments urging Biden to quit—and many urging the opposite. Among the best and most forthright of the former is Tom Friedman’s. He urges his friend Joe Biden to step aside.

I had been ready to give Biden the benefit of the doubt up to now, because during the times I engaged with him one on one, I found him up to the job. He clearly is not any longer. His family and his staff had to have known that. They have been holed up at Camp David preparing for this momentous debate for days now. If that is the best performance they could summon from him, he should preserve his dignity and leave the stage at the end of this term.

Finally, it’s not overly dramatic to say that the state of the nation is at stake and we face a  drastic challenge to democratic rule. Your decision, like it or not, is a political one―to win the election. You can discount everything else: the mess that will be wrought on the Democratic convention if Biden drops out, loyalty to the party and the president, the shortcomings of other challengers. Trump made it this way. He cannot survive.

Debate Prep: A Remembrance

On Thursday evening comes CNN’s ballyhooed clown show with two unsympathetic candidates. Neither of them is very good at debating, and one has eschewed all preparation. Many will watch to see who stumbles the most, not who wins.

The attraction of a political debate is more than seeing who scores the most points. It’s to discover whom we finally can identify with. The Kennedy-Nixon televised debates in 1960 set the pattern: JFK was relaxed, prepared, and showed some style. Nixon’s presentation was cold-blooded and his tense body language gave him away. TV made all the difference, this for the first time. Though we know political media is very different now, the visual truth remains, despite AI.

When I was teaching presentation skills, I got a great mashup video cassette of those debates from a friend at American Express, where we were coaching some execs. I wish I still had it. Let’s hope that whoever is coaching Biden shows them that tape.

Biden is a hard man to identify with, while Trump is just a bomb-thrower. And debate prep is more than bringing your client up to speed on the issues and your opponent’s weaknesses. You must enable him to show his character, his realness, that he’s not just the guy you could have a beer with but someone you could warm to and respect. Reagan sets the example here.

I worked with two Rhode Island governors in the 1980s, Ed DiPrete, a Republican who later went to jail, and Bruce Sundlun, a Democrat. They battled each other several times for the governorship, and finally Bruce won in 1990 with a landslide 74% of the vote. I coached him in his presentations (speeches and press conferences, etc.) and prepared him for his first debate in 1986. He was not an easy person to work with.

Besides being irascible and unpredictable, Sundlun had had an incredible career as a WWII bomber pilot flying B-17s over Germany, getting shot down and surviving with the French Resistance, then postwar becoming a very successful businessman, which led him into a life of public service and, finally, politics.

I worked with him on the contentious issues, of course, but the main thrust was to get him to relax and open up about his present life―and his goal to make Rhode Island a destination for tourism and business. It was challenging to convince him to talk openly about himself without being pompous. “Captain Blowhard” the Providence Journal called him. Well, the man had a lot to be pompous about. His wife-to-be Susie was sometimes present in our sessions and she hassled him about that.

There are some techniques to get a client to open up and reveal who he really is. One is getting him to tell stories about growing up and remember being a kid again. Bruce finally got the message to humanize himself, I think, even though he lost that race to DiPrete.

Our sessions were also a real lesson to me about what moves people and how persuasion works on television. You’ll see once again on Thursday whether debate prep matters.

Alice in Bump Stock Land

Down the rabbit hole into the dreary land of SCOTUS came Alice, looking for clarity and judgment and finding none. She simply wanted to know if those things they called bump stocks―devices to make those nasty guns they called assault rifles―could be modified to kill even more people. Her White Rabbit was the ATF which had banned the stocks after a gun nut shot and killed 60 people out of a hotel window in Las Vegas.

Years had passed since then and Alice, like quite a few others, thought killing people at random should not be for fun or made-up revenge. The Mad Hatter told her that deer don’t shoot back. He maintained that firing off 30 rounds in 11 seconds would be sufficient to assault a school or Walmart with no problem. Who needs a bump stock? Maybe the justices were smoking some shit?

At the Mad Tea Party the jaundiced justices promoted the theory that you had to keep pulling the trigger to activate more firing. This entirely incorrect notion presented by Clarence the Cheshire Cat concluded the bogus trial, while three justices loudly dissented and the cat kept grinning.

Alice finally recognized that the whole thing was a house of cards.

Diplomacy by Other Means

Korean food is really good; I ordered some the other night. Yet for years we have read tales of scarcity and even famine in the North. Now the Dear Leader, with his legendary sense of humor (like executing his uncle), chooses to drop nearly a thousand poop-and-trash filled balloons on his neighbors to the South, causing world-wide scorn and laughter. There must be plenty of digested food to stock those shit bags so now we can stop worrying about starvation in the DPRK.

What’s really at stake here is a new mode of diplomacy. Kim is still provoking the world with his missile tests and bluster, repression and power purges, forced labor, and who knows what else. Besides outraging the West with his nuclear posturing, Kim is also a big jokester. Thus the poop bags, designed to bolster his endless campaign against the South, were a masterstroke of diplomatic insult.

The South weakly responded with its own balloons containing thumb drives of K-pop music and propaganda leaflets. It also suspended an agreement with the North to cease tensions and hostilities. Their back-and-forth has been going on for years; the poop balloons brought this to a new, almost frivolous, height.

You may think of the balloon as an object of lightness, freedom, celebration, anti-gravity perhaps. It can convey all kinds of meanings: politics, ads, frivolity and sport are all part of the balloon gestalt. The wonderfully loose gloss we put on balloons makes them great expressive vehicles, something Donald Barthelme explored in his bizarre tale of “The Balloon.”

In that story an enormous balloon moves over and covers Manhattan. People project their own fantasies and interpretations onto it as it shifts its shape and meaning, finally mystifying all but the narrator who somehow controls it. It ultimately means (“excessive discussion was pointless”) whatever we want it to mean. Ann Beattie contrasts it to the Chinese spy balloon shot down a while back. But Barthelme’s balloon is mystical and involving―and the poop balloons are anything but. Still, they are better than bullets and bombs.

Sam and Martha-Ann Talk It Over

“The liberal media is after my ass once again, Martha. They can’t even understand the simple explanations I gave to the Wall Street Journal. These assholes have it ass-backwards; they are braying like jackasses in the wilderness and the fog of democrat donkey-land. Lord, if I didn’t have my faith to sustain me. . . .”

“Listen to me: you and Clarence have been playing fast and loose with Roberts and the media. Putting the blame for the flags on me I can accept. But then saying you wanted them taken down but couldn’t because of my ‘property rights’. . . sweet Jesus, Sam, what were you thinking? Yes, I bought the Virginia house with inherited money, but you are half-owner because we were dumb enough to get married. I’ve kept a private life since you got appointed to the Court. I’ve also kept the family together, as you know.

“But you looked like a complete jerk for trying to throw me under the bus.”

“My dear, I was merely trying to explain that the law gives me no power to impinge on your—my spouse’s―behavior, and that of course limits my power to apologize. I recognize that your feelings may have been hurt, but we shall stand together on this, I hope. The main issue was my total rejection of the argument to recuse myself, fully in accordance with the Court’s adopted code of ethics. Justice Roberts will stand by me, I’m sure.”

“You’ve been talking like Elon Musk, like nobody can touch you. How about a little humility for a change? I’ve seen how angry you get at home.”

“I’m angry because the world is turning against all my values. Roberts and my conservative colleagues will stand by me. The Court’s ethics code has no enforcement mechanism, and besides it says that justices are obligated not to recuse themselves. Raskin’s proposal about the due process clause will never fly with this Court. The furor about the gifts and my ties to the wealthy is just more political assassination, as I noted in my first paragraph.

“And Biden will do nothing. Even the partisan Politico knows this: ‘He has essentially stood idly by while the court has upended key aspects of American life—from abortion to affirmative action—and angered huge swaths of the country, likely contributing to the widespread national discontent that threatens his reelection.’”

“We must stick by our Christian values, Sam. I’ll never regret flying the ‘Appeal to Heaven’ flag and I know we both believe in its moral code. Onward Christian soldiers. Now that Trump has been crucified in that corrupt New York court, I will join with you in the battle.”

Update: For the realities behind these events, please read this: https://www.nytimes.com/2024/06/04/opinion/columnists/supreme-court-alito-flag.html

Hunting Wild Boar in La Pampa II

We all need to lighten up. Yesterday morning Maureen Dowd quoted Bill Maher who “had joked that Trump was the love child of a human woman and an orangutan — what else could explain the tangerine hair?” I wrote this one back in March.

There was nothing left for me to do in Oaxaca. Erstwhile friends had fled north—where they encountered really bad weather while the days here were scorching. Talks at the Library I found totally uninteresting. The news media (CNN and Fox) had become so fixed in their political opinions that their comments were predictable and repetitive.

Movies on Netflix were as dreadful as ever, and the audio was the usual sonic blur. I was out of Bonne Maman cookies. I had begun to read again the fantastical stories of Donald Barthelme, the only inspiration I could find to continue writing. A total break from all this, I thought, might improve my digestion and my spirits.

The service desk at LATAM put me on long holds, giving me time to think about why I’d want to book with them after a recent flight suddenly dropped 500 feet in a dive, throwing people to the roof of the cabin and injuring 50. Still, it was the best way to Argentina where I would join a posse of rich Americans on a wild boar hunt.

“What the hell is the matter with you?” a friend asked. “You can’t afford this and you hate the idea of hunting. Have you been talking with Al Z. Heimer again?”

“I have no bucket list, whatever that is, and boredom has taken over my life here since I gave over volunteering for badly managed organizations, taking falls on broken sidewalks, and eating tacos stuffed with grossly hot jalapeños. Nor can one subsist on old jazz and schmaltzy Sibelius symphonies alone, as some have advised. Even curmudgeonry gets tiresome after a while.”

I told him I’ve never wanted to kill wild animals, or any animal, before now. I don’t like guns. And yet the urge to murder shitheads like Matt Gaetz and Jim Jordan became such a preoccupation that it scared me. I decided to invoke what the psychologists call displacement—avoiding the unacceptable and dangerous delusions of seeking death to those lunatics by taking out my aggressions on other beasts.

Of course, the trip to La Pampa never came off. The hold times were too long, and while waiting I read enough blurbs from the hunting lodge that I could hear the bangs of the AR-15s and feel the soggy mattresses in our tents. Not to mention associating with the Harlan Crows, Clarence Thomases and their ilk who would make up the party. Travel is for those with no imagination.

Gerontion (T.S. Eliot, 1920)

Despair is always in fashion. Turning 90 keeps it at bay.

Thou hast nor youth nor age
But as it were an after dinner sleep
Dreaming of both.

TSE, the old Jew-hater

Here I am, an old man in a dry month,
Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain.
I was neither at the hot gates
Nor fought in the warm rain
Nor knee deep in the salt marsh, heaving a cutlass,
Bitten by flies, fought.
My house is a decayed house,
And the jew squats on the window sill, the owner,
Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp,
Blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled in London.
The goat coughs at night in the field overhead;
Rocks, moss, stonecrop, iron, merds.
The woman keeps the kitchen, makes tea,
Sneezes at evening, poking the peevish gutter.

I an old man,
A dull head among windy spaces.

Signs are taken for wonders. “We would see a sign”:
The word within a word, unable to speak a word,
Swaddled with darkness. In the juvescence of the year
Came Christ the tiger

In depraved May, dogwood and chestnut, flowering Judas,
To be eaten, to be divided, to be drunk
Among whispers; by Mr. Silvero
With caressing hands, at Limoges
Who walked all night in the next room;
By Hakagawa, bowing among the Titians;
By Madame de Tornquist, in the dark room
Shifting the candles; Fraulein von Kulp
Who turned in the hall, one hand on the door. Vacant shuttles
Weave the wind. I have no ghosts,
An old man in a draughty house
Under a windy knob.

After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities. Think now
She gives when our attention is distracted
And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions
That the giving famishes the craving. Gives too late
What’s not believed in, or if still believed,
In memory only, reconsidered passion. Gives too soon
Into weak hands, what’s thought can be dispensed with
Till the refusal propagates a fear. Think
Neither fear nor courage saves us. Unnatural vices
Are fathered by our heroism. Virtues
Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.
These tears are shaken from the wrath-bearing tree.

The tiger springs in the new year. Us he devours. Think at last
We have not reached conclusion, when I
Stiffen in a rented house. Think at last
I have not made this show purposelessly
And it is not by any concitation
Of the backward devils.
I would meet you upon this honestly.
I that was near your heart was removed therefrom
To lose beauty in terror, terror in inquisition.
I have lost my passion: why should I need to keep it
Since what is kept must be adulterated?
I have lost my sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch:
How should I use it for your closer contact?

These with a thousand small deliberations
Protract the profit of their chilled delirium,
Excite the membrane, when the sense has cooled,
With pungent sauces, multiply variety
In a wilderness of mirrors. What will the spider do,
Suspend its operations, will the weevil
Delay? De Bailhache, Fresca, Mrs. Cammel, whirled
Beyond the circuit of the shuddering Bear
In fractured atoms. Gull against the wind, in the windy straits
Of Belle Isle, or running on the Horn,
White feathers in the snow, the Gulf claims,
And an old man driven by the Trades
To a sleepy corner.

Tenants of the house,
Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season.