Ducking Donald

I hope Donald Trump runs for president forever.

He has proved an indispensable component of the 2016 GOP primary race, and he needs to stick around so his singular contributions can continue.

At this point in Trump’s quixotic quest for the Oval Office, most Americans have come to regard him as the worthless piece of excrement he has always been—the shameless blowhard with a comical lack of self-awareness and the emotional maturity of an infant.

Fair enough, but this assumption all-too-casually overlooks the role he has swiftly and boldly assumed amid the dizzying Republican fracas that has been puttering around the early primary states these last several months.

New York Times columnist Charles Blow recently proclaimed Trump “exactly what the Republican Party deserves.”  But he is also—for some of the same reasons—the candidate the GOP needs.

In an environment of chaos, Donald Trump is the great clarifier.  He is a big, fat Republican ink blot that allows us to see exactly where everyone stands—how each of his co-candidates truly feels about the issues he is all-too-willing to broach.

Let us begin at the beginning.  In announcing his candidacy for president, Trump (in)famously tarred the entire Mexican immigrant population as murderous, drug-smuggling rapists.  (He then charitably added, “Some, I assume, are good people.”)

OK, then.  This is the kind of mindless xenophobia the GOP has espoused for years, albeit previously in a more restrained and respectful manner.  But now that Trump, lacking the capacity for restraint or respect, has taken the liberty of getting right to the point, we are able to see—more clearly than we otherwise would—how every other candidate views the immigration question writ large.

Generally speaking, when a public figure asserts—without evidence—that the majority of immigrants from a friendly, neighboring country are effectively the scum of the Earth, the correct response is either to ignore that person entirely or to call him out for his ignorance.

After some prodding, a handful of Trump’s competitors did exactly that.  Former Florida governor Jeb Bush called the comments “extraordinarily ugly” and Trump “wrong” to make them.  Florida senator Marco Rubio characterized the rant as “offensive,” “inaccurate” and “divisive.”  South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham called it “hurtful and not helpful.”

However, an equal number of declared candidates have opted for Door No. 3:  Tacitly agree with the premise of Trump’s blather.  Texas senator Ted Cruz took the opportunity to croon about how much he admires Trump as a person, as did New Jersey governor Chris Christie.  While Christie responded that he was “not personally offended” by the ramblings in question, Cruz went so far as to “salute” Trump for “focusing on the need to address illegal immigration”—a sentiment echoed almost word-for-word by former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum.

In other words:  Never mind the fact that Mexican immigrants aren’t all dangerous criminals coming to prey on our women.  The point is that illegal immigration is important to talk about, so why quibble over the details?

It’s an appalling way to think, not to mention lazy and dishonest.  It would be like Bernie Sanders asserting that investment bankers were forming gangs and ripping off liquor stores, followed by Hillary Clinton defending him by saying, “The important thing is that he has addressed the need to exercise greater oversight of the big banks.”

But I digress.  The point, in any case, is that Republican primary voters are much more informed about what’s going on in the heads of their ballot choices, and all because Donald Trump said something ridiculous.  Indeed, I know more than a few registered voters for whom the sentence, “I like Donald; he’s a good guy” is all the information they need about whether to ever vote for Chris Christie.

If this long, long pre-primaries period of presidential preening serves any purpose at all, it’s to allow us to cross-examine our commander-in-chief wannabees in a more freewheeling environment than in the tense, over-scripted final leg.  While there are billions of opportunities during this time for anybody to ask any candidate anything—some of which make the evening news or go viral on YouTube—there is an added power to moments (not least the debates) when a party’s banner-carriers are confronted directly and simultaneously by the logic (or illogic) of their core policies.

So long as Trump remains in the race—and why on Earth wouldn’t he?—we will see this happen over and over again.  The man himself is in no immediate danger of suddenly learning basic table manners, and our infantile media are more than happy to indulge him.  Then there’s the matter of the opinion polls, in which he currently ranks in the top two.

Which means the Donald will continue to be the yardstick against which all the other candidates are forced to measure themselves with respect to their party’s identity.  Elections are in large part a test of character, and Trump—a character in his own right—may prove the most grueling test of all.  If his insane ideas about immigration—and, more recently, about what it means to be a war hero—demonstrate real staying power among GOP primary voters, what do the remaining competitors have to gain by condemning such ideas as the lunacy that they are?

Their integrity, for one.  Indeed, many voters have a soft spot for basic human decency in the heat of a high-stakes election.  We’re certainly not gonna get any from Trump, but he may well inspire it in others.  As has been so richly demonstrated in light of his maligning of Senator John McCain, it is not terribly difficult to assume the moral high ground when the maestro of the “Miss Universe” show is the only other man in the room.

His more even-tempered counterparts would do well to mine the anti-Trump vote for all it’s worth, as it is certain to be worth plenty.  After all, a man can only insult and belittle so many of his fellow Americans before there aren’t any left to vote for him.

Here is one Republican billionaire today’s candidates can afford to give a pass.

Amazing ‘Amy’

I’m not proud of this, but it wasn’t until seeing the new documentary Amy that I realized Amy Winehouse was talented.

Not that I ever listened to her music at the time.  I don’t know what I was up to in the middle years of the previous decade, but her name never registered with me except as someone the paparazzi were a little too interested in.  But then I don’t much care who those camera-wielding cretins think is interesting, so I never paid her any mind.  Then she died in the summer of 2011 and that was that.

As it turns out, it wasn’t.

Toward the end of Amy, no less than Tony Bennett asserts that had she but world enough and time, Winehouse could have been considered alongside the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and other immortals of American blues.  To see this movie with fresh eyes, as I did, is to wonder if Bennett wasn’t onto something.  That it was entirely plausible that, with nothing more than the skills that came naturally—the sass, the lyricism and that voice—Amy Winehouse could’ve hung around the music scene for another 50 years.

Instead, she died at 27 from an overdose of fame.

Her life was a tragedy as all such lives are—those shooting stars who never quite figure out how to handle themselves once in orbit, retreating into drugs, booze and unreliable boyfriends.

But Winehouse was tragic on a level all her own, because in addition to her musical abilities, she possessed an acute self-awareness that many performers lack.  As seen and heard in the new documentary, she more or less predicts that becoming super-famous would be a disaster for her mental well-being, musing that she is essentially a small-time blues singer built for intimate clubs and the like, and that she is hostage to certain psychological demons that she can control only through writing songs.

In short, she knew exactly what was wrong with her but, in the end, was powerless to do anything about it.

That’s what makes her story so painful:  The possibility that she could have reined in her ambitions—and her handlers—by directing her musical gifts to the sort of small-scale, old-time jazz life she apparently valued most.  It wouldn’t have made her very rich and probably not very famous, but it just might have made her happy.

But then that’s the paradox of success:  You can have too much of it or not enough, but few seem able to achieve just the right amount.  You cannot be as talented as Amy Winehouse for very long before some record producer kidnaps you and plots your entire future, with or without your consent.  Whatever your reservations, how many of us would have the discipline to resist the prospect of total economic security and eternal glory?

Hence the longstanding tendency in the music industry and elsewhere to continuously try to outdo yourself, pushing your talent, your brand and your luck right up until something stupid or terrible happens.  The ballplayer who just has to inject that nefarious substance into his bloodstream to keep up with the competition.  The political candidate who can’t resist wiretapping his opponent’s campaign headquarters, even while he’s 20 points up in the polls.  The hard-drinking, depressed, bulimic performer who keeps on touring when she should clearly take a rest, see a therapist and go to rehab.

But that just brings us to another paradox, which is that great music tends to come from great suffering.  While this is certainly not always the case—not all music is autobiographical or particularly deep—Winehouse herself says in the film that songwriting is her outlet for unburdening herself of her deepest, darkest habits.  Indeed, she wonders about, and fears for, those who share her afflictions but don’t have the means of expressing themselves through some artistic medium or other.  (A morbidly ironic observation, considering what little good it ended up doing her.)

Her blockbuster 2006 album, Back to Black, came about in the wake of a disastrous relationship and the beginning of a serious drinking problem (followed soon enough by cocaine and heroin), with most of the songs reflecting the toll that those unpleasantries wreaked on her psyche.  “Rehab”—her most popular and arguably most accomplished single—reads like straight news reporting, in light of what Amy reveals about its subject.

Could she have generated and maintained that kind of creative energy had she lived a more tranquil existence?  In the end, didn’t she need always to be teetering on the edge of oblivion in order to produce the fiery, brilliant output that made her so interesting in the first place?

What a shame that we’ll never know for sure.

A Sitting President

In today’s America, could a cripple be elected president?

It’s a question that has hovered at the edges of our national consciousness for a while.  Having finally caught up with Ken Burns’ terrific PBS series The Roosevelts, I’ve found it move to the forefront of mine.

And the answer, by the way, is yes.

Of course we could elect a leader who is physically disabled.  On what possible basis would we not?

Whenever you listen to historians and other talking heads reminisce about Franklin Roosevelt’s paraplegia—and the elaborate lengths he went to conceal it—you find that it’s simply assumed that no political leader could pull off such a feat today.  That our invasive press corps and the Internet would made it impossible for a 21st century politician to mask any physical disability from the public on his way to elected office and that, in turn, it is extremely unlikely that such a person could win a national election.

This has long been the conventional wisdom on the matter, yet it’s a total non sequitur.  It skips right past the question of whether Americans would give an openly disabled candidate a fair shot, as if the notion were preposterous and not worth considering.  How wrong of us to think so.

Certainly, it’s true that a disabled person could not hide his or her condition from the public and would never bother to try.  But really, this fact only serves to underline the far more pertinent point that, in the year 2015, there would be no reason to do so.

In this era of the Special Olympics, prosthetic limbs and near-universal availability of ramps and handicapped parking spaces—to say nothing of the protections guaranteed by the Americans With Disabilities Act—disabled Americans are not nearly the pitied social outcasts they used to be.  For all the obvious pain and inconvenience that such afflictions wreak, our public institutions have made the experience as tolerable as they know how.  The stigma is as remote as it’s ever been.

In Franklin Roosevelt’s day, not so much.

Nearly everyone now is aware that the 32nd president suffered from polio and was unable to walk on his own.  What is far less known—and so compellingly portrayed in The Roosevelts—is how obsessed FDR was with fooling the world into thinking he was invincible.

The situation was as follows:  From August 1921 until his death in April 1945, Roosevelt was paralyzed below the waist, unable to walk or stand on his own power, and in private would use a wheelchair to shuttle from place to place.

However, in public—i.e. the final 12 years of his life—he made every effort to appear to be standing or walking like a normal person.  He would accomplish this either by leaning, ever-so-casually, against a door, railing or podium, or—if forward movement were required—by having trusted confidants flank both sides of his body and essentially carry him from point A to point B, with Roosevelt swaying back and forth to complete the illusion of fitness.

The only way he could stand at all was by wearing a pair of steel leg braces that, by all accounts, were unbelievably painful—a burden not to be wished on anybody, let alone the most powerful man on Earth.  Roosevelt, tasked with willing his country out of the Great Depression and then through a terrible world war, possessed a seemingly superhuman ability to always appear ebullient and resolute, but subsequent evidence has shown that he was forever at war with his own body.  Living as he did was uncomfortable at best, agonizing at worst.

Medically-speaking, he was insane to push himself in this way.  But he was so single-minded about keeping up appearances that he found it politically necessary not to let on that he was paralyzed.

And damned if he didn’t pull it off.  In an epoch with no television, no Internet and a comparatively deferent press corps, most if not all ordinary citizens were not aware that the president’s legs didn’t work.  (It didn’t hurt that the Secret Service would confiscate any film footage that would have made it clear.)  Whether it was deception or self-deception, the American public refused to accept the idea that the leader of the free world had any physical weaknesses.

The $64,000 question, then, is whether we still feel that way today.  To return to my earlier plea:  For what purpose would we deny ourselves the opportunity to elect a qualified presidential candidate just because he cannot walk on his own power?  Would we really have denied ourselves FDR—and reelected Herbert Hoover—if we knew then what we know now?

How stupid do we think we are?

First of all, there is no core presidential duty—then or now—that could not be performed by someone in a wheelchair.  The most guarded, pampered man on Earth will always have the capacity to get wherever he needs to be.  Accommodations will be made.

Second, the rules of political correctness ensure that were an opponent to even suggest that such a person would be unable to serve because of his condition, that person would be pilloried to within an inch of his life—charged with impugning the integrity not just of his opponent, but of every disabled person in America.

That’s roughly what happened in 2014 to Wendy Davis, the Democratic nominee for Texas governor, when she ran a TV ad that referred to her opponent’s own handicap in an attempt to label him a hypocrite.  (Long story.)

And that brings us to my third point, which is that Davis lost that election, meaning that Texas now has a governor in a wheelchair.  His name is Greg Abbott, he has been paraplegic since being struck by a falling tree in 1984 and that fact apparently played no role in the campaign and did not prevent him from being elected to the highest office in the state.  Voters decided his paraplegia is not relevant to the job and that was that.

Which begs perhaps the most important question of all:  Why can’t the rest of America be as enlightened and progressive as Texas?

Plight at the Museum

The home of Boston’s greatest art collection experienced a small but interesting kerfuffle the other day.

The Museum of Fine Arts, upon reinstalling Claude Monet’s marvelous 1876 work La Japonaise, began a recurring series called “Kimono Wednesdays,” held once a week in the institution’s Impressionist gallery.  The painting depicts the artist’s wife, Camille, donning the iconic Japanese garment, and the program would allow visitors to pose alongside her while wearing a museum-supplied kimono of their own.

It never quite got that far.  Although similar exhibits proved popular in Japan when La Japonaise went on tour, the Boston iteration of “Kimono Wednesdays” faced immediate pushback in the form of several young Bostonians of Japanese (and non-Japanese) descent who charged the MFA with racism.

I popped into the museum last Wednesday night, and there they were:  A trio of conscientious objectors, silently wielding hand-written signs with messages like, “This is Orientalism,” and gamely posing for photographs.

(Let us observe a moment of irony at how a group of Japanese folks chose to protest the promulgation of ethnic stereotypes by gathering at a famed American landmark and snapping a bunch of pictures.)

As it turned out, the gambit paid off:  As the righteous agitators gained support online, the MFA cancelled the dress-up portion of “Kimono Wednesdays” and apologized for causing offense.  (The museum’s director, to his credit, observed that “a little controversy never did any harm.”)

The kimonos will remain on display for visitors’ sensory pleasure, as will the great portrait that started this whole mess.  Nonetheless, it was quite an achievement to get a massive art institution to alter its programming—even just a smidgen—simply because it made a few people uncomfortable.

The question now is whether they were right to be offended in the first place.

Was “Kimono Wednesdays” insensitive, if not outright racist, or are its detractors being a tad oversensitive themselves?  Does inviting a throng of mostly white museumgoers to assume a quintessentially Japanese look constitute crass appropriation or a loving attempt to bridge a cultural divide?

It seems clear—to me, at least—that the MFA truly meant no harm in jazzing up one of its most beloved works.  Indeed, the reason Monet painted his wife in a kimono was to underline and lampoon how French society had become obsessed with all things Japanese at that point in the late 19th century.  What is more, the MFA itself is currently bursting at the seams with exceptional Japanese art, including a massive retrospective of Katsushika Hokusai—arguably the country’s most revered painter and printmaker—and an arresting multimedia exhibition, “In the Wake,” which surveys Japanese artists’ responses to the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami that plagued the country in March of 2011.

That said, if recent events have taught us anything, it’s that racism does not always perceive its own presence but can cause enormous damage nonetheless.  A person, organization or society can exhibit prejudicial attitudes and practices without even realizing it, but that doesn’t make them any less toxic.  As with sexual harassment in the workplace, racism exists from the moment it is perceived, regardless of whether it was actually intended.

Kimono-gate is a solid test case for this theory, if only due to its comparatively low stakes.  (To wit:  No unarmed black men were murdered by white police officers in the making of this exhibit.)

If we are now afflicted by an epidemic of latent societal racism in America, we are equally enjoying a veritable golden age of full-throated offense-taking—an environment in which every man, woman and child is compelled to cry foul whenever anyone says or does anything with even a whiff of political incorrectness.  A world without edge, without context and without nuance.

In fairness, things like context and historical prospective are precisely what the MFA’s antagonists are demanding, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t get it.  Their principal gripe is that “Kimono Wednesdays” reduces the famous robe—and, in turn, its country of origin—into an exotic cultural caricature, without bothering to truly understand anything about either.  In their view, Americans dressing in kimonos and mimicking actual Japanese people is little better than white people performing in blackface.

Then there is the small matter of the history of Orientalism in general, which is inseparable from the history of Western imperialism, itself predicated on the notion that the West is inherently more civilized than the East.  One way for the conquerors to demonstrate this was to prance around in the wardrobe of the conquered.

I can’t imagine that the MFA thought all of this through before green-lighting their whimsical summertime activity, but then again, I guess that’s the point.

In today’s culture, no one is allowed to say or do anything without assuming responsibility for everything their words or actions have ever meant to anybody.  You can’t wave a Confederate battle flag without being perceived as a racist (which, let’s face it, you probably are), nor can you say someone “runs like a girl” (or whatever) without coming off as sexist, homophobic or both.

On one hand, this is welcome news, as it suggests that respecting the basic dignity of fellow human beings is suddenly becoming a thing.

However, it also means there is no longer any margin for error, nor any benefit of the doubt.  We are all in danger of becoming Justine Sacco, the woman who tweeted a mildly offensive joke about AIDS in Africa and, within hours, became one of the most hated people in America.

This is the compromise we have negotiated with ourselves:  Everyone gets to be treated equally, but no one can think for themselves or dare to play around with the old prejudices and stereotypes we have so rightfully, if belatedly, shaken off.

Which means the Museum of Fine Arts cannot simply plead ignorance on the matter of the kimonos.  Au contraire:  Ignorance is the whole problem.  The museum needed to anticipate how the most sensitive Japanese person might react to “Kimono Wednesdays” and be prepared to respond accordingly.

I think the MFA responded admirably under the circumstances, cancelling the most controversial component of its program while retaining everything else.

Then again, why should a judgment call like that be left to a honky like me?

Mr. Know-It-All

Not to date myself, but I am old enough to remember when President Obama’s arrogance was annoying.  When I worried that his occasional lapses into glibness and condescension would diminish the high office he holds and prove counterproductive to his administrative goals.

Then I listened to his improbable interview with Marc Maron—the stand-up comic who hosts a weekly podcast from his garage—and was reminded how, on second thought, the president’s cheerful elitism is among his most endearing personal qualities.  I’ve never for a moment regretted that he was elected in both 2008 and 2012, and one reason is that he can be so gosh darned snarky.

When the Maron interview aired, the media were so blinded by Obama’s employment of the word “nigger” that they neglected to mention anything else that was discussed—not least the segment on race relations that, if actually listened to, would explain why the use of the N-word was entirely appropriate in this case.  (But that’s another story.)

In fact, what stood out in the podcast for me were the bits about good old politics, and the fact that, rhetorically-speaking, Obama has officially given up treating his Republican adversaries as sane, rational people with whom he could ever forge a common bond.

Nope, in the twilight of his presidency, with no further elections except the one to choose his successor, he has finally accepted that the GOP leadership in Congress is obstinate, dumb and worthless, and he simply doesn’t have the faith or patience to expect that they’ll ever grow up.

There was the moment, for instance, when Maron shifted the subject to climate change and Obama ruefully recalled how James Inhofe, the Republican chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, recently “proved” that global warming is a hoax by bringing a snowball into the Senate chamber.  Or Obama’s more general assertion, “I believe in reason and I believe in facts,” dryly insinuating that his Republican counterparts do not.

Having followed the news over the past six-odd years, I find both statements incontrovertible, and I think Obama has every right to announce this point loud and clear.  That the GOP has functioned as an ideological stone wall since January 2009 is the plain, simple truth, and it’s the president’s duty to speak the truth from time to time.

Then again, this is all coming from an unabashed partisan of his.  I can imagine that, to those who do not share Obama’s worldview, his self-satisfied demeanor is utterly insufferable.  (Not that any imagination is necessary.)  I am reminded of that week when we found out the administration’s overriding foreign policy philosophy is, “Don’t do stupid shit.”  Clever, yes, but also extremely limited insomuch as the definition of “stupid” is not exactly settled science.

The trouble, you see, is that however appealing it is to implore your adversaries to just listen to reason, framing the argument as a clash between logic and illogic only serves to make you look like a jerk.  It alienates your sparring partners instead of engaging them, and the leader of the free world cannot afford to alienate anybody if he expects to get anything done.  History buffs love to reminisce about the good old days when Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson could effect major legislation through sheer force of will, but both of those men enjoyed huge Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress—an advantage Obama lacks.

In other words, the present president does not have the luxury to get cocky, or to blow his own trumpet too loudly.  He has to play nice and exercise tact and restraint.  He has to treat his antagonists as smarter than they actually are.  He has to humor them with the prospect that he takes their silly ideas seriously, or at least respects how they think.

However, at this late date, it is clear beyond doubt that he doesn’t and he won’t.  It’s just not in his DNA to suppress his irritation with a Republican Party that values ideological purity over pragmatism, compromise or even basic arithmetic.

Considering all Obama has accomplished in the teeth of that resistance, paired with the basic validity of his public critiques of life on Capitol Hill, I humbly ask:  Are there instances in which arrogance and condescension are not only acceptable, but necessary?

As a rule, arrogance is among the lowest of all human qualities, particularly among public figures.  It is a form of pride—the gravest of the Deadly Sins—inevitably leading to overreach and alienation.  Recent political history suggests as much:  Cockiness did few favors for Mike Bloomberg—a mayor who often portrayed his opponents as not just wrong, but insane—and the one-two punch of Donald Trump and Chris Christie in the GOP primary scuffle speaks for itself (albeit the former more so than the latter).

It just might be that, as so often happens, Obama is the exception to the rule.

Recall that moment in January’s State of the Union when he noted, “I have no more campaigns to run.”  When this yielded a smattering of sarcastic applause, he couldn’t help but add, “I know because I won both of them.”

I can’t imagine any other president getting away with that—let alone trying to—but Obama, through the sheer force of his audacity, somehow made it work.

And what is the magical X factor that allows him to pull this off time and again?  Is it simply the sharpness of his wit?  The twinkle in his eye?  Has his status as America’s First Black President led us to subconsciously give him a pass on certain points of etiquette that—let’s face it— aren’t all that important in the first place?

Or maybe it’s just that, when you pay close attention to precisely what he is arrogant about, you realize that it’s not arrogance at all.  As a certain New Jersey governor would put it, he is simply telling it like it is.