Monthly Archives: July 2019

Timing Is Everything.

Take my wife…please.

~Henny Youngman

Open any how-to book on comedy and the first lesson begins with some variation of the following.  The key to being funny is not what you say but how you say it.  The secret is timing.  Even though this admonition customarily refers to a specific joke or punchline, it also can apply to life in general.

Related imageJust ask George Carlin.  On September 9 and 10, 2001, Carlin was recording a new album at the MGM Grand Las Vegas based on his show titled, “I Kinda Like It When a Lotta People Die.”  As you might  guess, those were the last performances using that label, and the album was shelved.  A retooled version of the show now titled “Complaints and Grievances” was recorded two months later at New York’s Beacon Theater.  Carlin considered reviving the original performance as an HBO special “Life is Worth Losing” in 2004, until he again postponed the project in the wake of  Hurricane Katrina. Strike two.

Nor does the timing maxim apply only to comedy.  The karma of timing reared its ugly head once again on Sunday with the mass shooting at the Annual Garlic Festival in Gilroy, California.  A gunman, using an assault rifle, murdered three people (including a six year-old boy) and injured more than a dozen others .  Once he was identified, we quickly learned from a now deleted Instagram account this 19 year-old urged others to read Might Is Right published in 1890.  This volume would be on Oprah’s reading list if Ms. Winfrey was a white nationalist or neo-Nazi.  It champions social Darwinism, women as property and the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race.

What does this have to do with timing?  As mentioned in a previous post, last Tuesday Trumpist Senators Ted Cruz and Bill Cassidy introduced a resolution that would designate the anti-fascist movement Antifa as a domestic terrorist organization.  [NOTE:  In deference to Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan and others I will no longer refer to current members of the Trump caucus in Congress as Republicans.)  For the record, not a single death has been attributed to an individual associated with Antifa.  On the same day, FBI director Christopher Wray told the Senate Judiciary that the majority of domestic terrorism “was motivated by what you might call white supremacist violence.”  Senators Cruz and Cassidy, add Gilroy, California to that list.  Like Carlin, you might want to re-tool your material.

A second ingredient in comedy is irony.  Take Dana Gould’s story about the Black Dahlia…please.  Black Dahlia was the pseudonym given posthumously to Elizabeth Short whose mutilated, bisected body was discovered in 1947 in Los Angeles’ Leimert Park neighborhood.  The crime was never solved.  Gould closes with the following perfect blend of timing and irony.

And to this day, some sixty years later, the police still don’t know…..what she said to deserve that.  It must have been a doozy!

Not to be outdone, Trump chose the Gilroy shooting to exhibit his own sick sense of irony and timing.  After ten days of demeaning minorities to solidify his aging, white male base, Trump described the situation in Gilroy as “horrific” and the white supremacist he enables and inspires by spewing hate and refusing to renounce even his most bigoted followers as a “wicked murderer.”  Makes you wonder if Lady McLania is sleepwalking around the second floor White House residence, muttering “Out, out damn spot.”

Well, two can play at this game. As a long time frustrated stand-up wannabe (many of my former students think I became a professor primarily for the captive audience), I will try and demonstrate how these two tools of humor–timing and irony–come together.

In the wake of the Gilroy tragedy, I’m sure there will be new calls for the Senate to act on a bill passed in the House last February which mandates background checks for all firearm sales including gun shows and private transactions. But that would not have stopped the Gilroy gunman who legally purchased an assault weapon and ammunition in Nevada.  What might have stopped him?  A limit on high capacity…….MAGAzines.

Thank you and good night.

For what it’s worth.


Power Outage

Robert Mueller made it clear that the impediment to indictment of President Trump for obstruction of justice is the Justice Department’s position that a sitting president cannot be indicted for any crime. Charging Trump is the job of Congress. An impeachment inquiry must begin immediately.

~Richard Painter/Politico, July 24, 2019

In response to the protests against the Vietnam war and at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, the GOP branded itself as the party of law and order.  While that was clearly an opportunistic appeal to the “silent majority,”  this week Republicans still seem to be the only ones willing to vehemently stand up for the rule of law.  No,  I’m not talking about the Trump sycophants who continue to defend their glorious leader who, as of Wednesday, has been identified as an un-indicted co-conspirator in not one, but two crimes: illegal payments to silence a porn star and obstruction of justice.

My reference is to Republicans, who unfortunately are as much out of power in Washington as the Democrats.  These include Richard Painter, quoted above, who served as the chief White House ethics lawyer when George W. Bush was president.

But this “power outage” also includes members of the current administration.  For example, in Congressional testimony on Tuesday, FBI director Chris Wray told the Senate Judiciary Committee.  “The Russians are absolutely intent on trying to interfere with our elections.”  On a different topic, Wray confirmed that the majority of domestic terrorism cases his agency investigates represent “some version of what you might call white supremacist violence.”

No further evidence than the response to these warnings is needed to understand the former Republican Party is now something entirely different, the political equivalent of the Branch Davidians defined and controlled by Donald Trump.  Has Trump in any way discouraged white supremacists?  NO!  Instead he welcomes their support and normalizes their bigotry.  Has the “Republican” controlled Senate denounced white supremacist inspired domestic terrorism?  To the contrary, Senators Ted Cruz (TX) and Bill Cassidy (LA) just introduced a resolution to label Antifa (short for anti-fascist) as a domestic terror organization. Crickets when it comes to the white supremacist march on Charlottesville and its organizer Proud Boys’ co-founder Jason Kessler.

And yesterday, the Senate Intelligence Committee, chaired by Republican Richard Burr (NC), released its finding that “Russia’s activities against U.S. election infrastructure likely sought to further their overarching goal; undermining the integrity of elections and American confidence in democracy.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s response?  He blocked two bills from floor consideration.  One would require paper backup for all electronic voting systems.  The other would fund the Elections Assistance Commission to help states upgrade computer systems to prevent future cyber attacks. He characterized the bills as “partisan legislation.”  Just so we understand what he is saying.  If our elections were safeguarded against cyber attacks, the Democrats would have an advantage.  In other words, Republicans would most likely lose without the aid of hackers and further foreign interference .

So who are the most vocal critics of McConnell’s actions.  Among them is Joe Scarborough, former Republican congressman and MSNBC host of Morning Joe.  He now refers to the Kentucky Senator only as “Moscow Mitch,” accusing McConnell of “aiding and abetting Vladimir Putin’s efforts to undermine American democracy.”  He rightfully described such behavior as “un-American.”  If only Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer would pick up the “Moscow Mitch” mantra to remind voters on a daily basis Trump’s dependence on Russian support is being sheltered by faux patriots.

Image result for nicolle wallaceBut the real profile in courage is former assistant White House communications director under Bush #43 Nicolle Wallace, now host of MSNBC’s Deadline White House.  This is not based solely on her refusal to report the crapola spouted by Trump and his lemmings as giving equal time to both sides.  On Wednesday she made the following common sense observation of the Mueller hearing.

Let’s not ‘both sides’ the Democrats.  The Democrats considered this a fact-finding mission. The Republicans were all auditioning for the next weeknight show on Fox News.

My admiration of Wallace comes from the fact she is not a “Joanie come lately.”  On her show, she never talks about the fact she was assigned the worse job in political history by John McCain’s campaign manager Steve Schmidt.  Handling Sarah Palin following the announcement the Alaska governor would be McCain’s running mate.  In their book Game Change, John Heilemann and Mark Halperin describe how, on election night 2008, Wallace confesses to Schmidt, “I did not vote.”  Then, as now, she understood cult politics threatened the American experiment in democracy.

Nancy Pelosi keeps saying she needs bi-partisan support to green light the impeachment process.  Nancy, you already have it.  Do not confuse the Trump cultists with Republicans.

For what it’s worth.


A Final Solution?

Comparing ANYTHING to Nazi Germany and Adolph Hitler has been the third rail of American political debate for 74 years.  And rightfully so.  Even when our leaders have made the most egregious policy decisions such as the second Iraq war or failure to intervene in foreign instances of genocide, never has the president of the United States proposed the elimination of an entire demographic.  And that is an important defining distinction between the Third Reich and any actual or perceived American transgression.

Image result for gideon rachmanHowever, three events yesterday should make us contemplate if the time has come to reconsider whether this long-standing norm of political decorum still applies.  The first was an opinion piece by Gideon Rachman (pictured here) in the Financial Times.  He asked whether we should be examining the same questions in 2019 that Sebastian Haffner raised in his 1939 memoir Defying Hitler.  While Rachman qualified his column, saying that he was not trying to compare Donald Trump or Boris Johnson to Hitler or Mussolini, he wondered if  he was feeling what others sensed in the 1930’s.

Then, as now, political moderates were constantly having to ask the question, how serious is this? Is it just distasteful or is it truly dangerous? And is the right response to plunge into politics or to retreat into private life?

Which brings me to event #2.  For a majority of Americans the distasteful line in the sand was crossed in June, 2015 when Trump announced his candidacy for president.  And Trump has done nothing since to step back behind it.  As his verbal attacks have increased in both number and volume, there is little doubt they have incited violence.  Yesterday, lawyers for Cesar Sayoc, who sent 12 explosive devices to Democratic leaders and news outlets, admitted Trump’s influence over their client.

A rational observer may have brushed off Trump’s tweets as hyperbole, but Mr. Sayoc took them to heart…Because of his cognitive limitations and mental illness, he believed outlandish reports in the news and on social media, which increasingly made him unhinged. He became obsessed with ‘attacks’ from those he perceived as Trump’s enemies…President Trump did nothing to dissuade this message.

Could this be the first time in legal history a defendant pleads not guilty by reason of another person’s insanity?  Regardless, this moves the needle from distasteful to irresponsible, but it still does not meet the Hitler comparison test.

Until event #3.  During an Oval Office photo op with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, in response to a question about the continuing presence of U.S. troops in neighboring Afghanistan, Trump responded:

I have plans on Afghanistan that if I wanted to win that war, Afghanistan would be wiped off the face of the Earth. It would be gone. It would be over in — literally in ten days. And I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to go that route.

But a man who values winning at any cost, in this case 35.6 million Afghans, just might.  Or a man, whose first wife Ivana, in a 1990 interview with Marie Brenner of Vanity Fair, described how she had “told her lawyer Michael Kennedy that from time to time her husband reads a book of Hitler’s collected speeches, My New Order, which he keeps in a cabinet by his bed.”

To be fair, one still should not equate Trump with Hitler.  After all, the German fuhrer tried to keep his efforts at ethic cleansing a secret.  Donald Trump brags about the possibility from the Oval Office.  Hitler did not have access to nuclear weapons and it took years to round up his victims one by one.  Trump does and merely needs to issue the code and it will all be over “literally in ten days.”

In his FT op-ed, Rachman asks, “When do you sound the alarm?” There is only one response now.  As Veronica Quaiffe (Geena Davis) warns in David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of The Fly when told by scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) there is nothing to worry about concerning his teleportation experiment, “No! Be afraid! Be very afraid!”

For what it’s worth.

The Spy Who Loathed Me

Image result for the spy who loved meThe title of this morning’s entry is a clear reference to the 10th James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me, starring Roger Moore as the fictional secret agent.  At the heart of the story (based on the 10th Ian Fleming 007 novel) is an attempt by a “man without a country” Karl Stromberg to destroy the world order to be replaced by an alternative of his own creation.  Today, the post-World War II geopolitical standard is the target of a real-life operative who, like Stromberg, sees success not by defeating his enemies, but setting the stage for his enemies to destroy each other.

The title came to me as I listened to several pundits question why Iran would risk overplaying its hand, seizing an British oil tanker in the Straits of Hormuz. [NOTE: Although bound for England, the ship is registered in Sweden.] The consensus opinion boiled down to, “if the U.S. sanctions cause Iran economic pain, the Iranians have decided to also cause some pain.”  However, that answer still begs the question, “Who benefits in the end?”

What if, in the style of Karl Stromberg (played by Kurt Jurgen), there is a third party manipulating the situation and who might that be?  To understand the situation, you first need to determine if this is an isolated event or view it in the context of a larger strategy.  And in the latter case are there “dots” that are not yet connected.  Like the detectives in any television or film crime story, you put a lot of pictures and notes on a bulletin board to build a case against the prime suspect, someone with the most obvious motive for committing the offense.  And then you draw the lines where the data points intersect.

At the center of my board is former KGB  director Vladimir Putin, the spy who has devoted his life to avenging the demise of the Soviet Union.  And how do you do that?   Disrupt the liberal democratic order which has dominated global politics since 1945.  Knowing he lacks the resources and military advantage to take on the Western alliance directly, he foments discontent between members of coalition and within each of the sovereign participants.  All you have to do is ask yourself, “If I were Putin, what would I do to energize disruptive forces among my enemies?”

  • Support Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s response to civil protests creating millions of refugees.
  • Conduct a disinformation campaign in support of populist candidates in several European elections.
  • Manipulate public opinion in favor of Brexit.
  • Assist in the election of a U.S. president who games the electoral college to capture the White House despite losing the popular vote.
  • Have that president withdraw from an international treaty which pits the U.S. against NATO.

What do all these have in common?  Putin’s surrogates represent an activist minority of the population in each of the target nations.  Bashar al-Assad is a member of the Alawhite sect of Islam which makes up just 12 percent of the Syrian population.  In the latest United Kingdom public opinion poll, only 44 percent of respondents still support Brexit while 51 percent prefer to remain in the European Union.  According to the FiveThirtyEight average of polls, only 42.7 percent approve of Donald Trump’s performance since taking office.   A CNN poll just prior to U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement showed 63 percent of Americans preferred staying in the compact.  Disinformation results in confusion.  Confusion causes apathy.  Apathy assures minority rule.  Minority rule spurs majority dissatisfaction and political unrest.

Putin tapped into the anger of the Russian people as the West celebrated its Cold War victory.  American prosperity increased fueled partly by what became known as “the peace dividend.”   In contrast, the Russian economy struggled as the central government lost control of many of the resources in its satellites in the Soviet sphere.  The rise of Vladimir Putin was largely due to these factors.

Related imageThis post began with a movie reference and will end with one.  In The Mouse That Roared, the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, on the verge of bankruptcy, devises a plan to garner American economic relief.  They declare war on the U.S. with the intent of immediately surrendering upon launching an invasion of New York expecting the American government to provide assistance similar to that offered Germany through the Marshall Plan.

The plot of this film was not unlike the situation in the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War.  Having been in Moscow in November 1994, two personal experiences provided insight into Russia’s future.  The first was visiting a flea market in Gorky Park.  Several acres were covered with tables at which Russians, desperate for any source of income, were selling everything from Soviet army uniforms to kittens.  The second was lunch with governor of the Moscow Oblast (region) Anatole Tshelov.  He told us the greatest challenge was to figure out how to transform an economy where the government took responsibility for providing basic necessities throughout one’s life to one where individuals were now expected to provide for their own well-being.

In other words, although not physically decimated, like Germany in 1945, Russia needed help to rebuild.  In addition, people needed income.  That meant they needed work.  And without a majority employer like the Soviet military/industrial complex and government purchase of many commodities, jobs were scarce.  One possible response, a second Marshall Plan.  International investment to upgrade Russian infrastructure and financial capacity.  It never materialized.

The lesson?  It is one thing to win a war, whether hot or cold.  It is quite another to win the peace.

For what it’s worth.


President Kevorkian


The most common question I get from readers is, “Where does this stuff come from?”  The simple answer: a good creative process.  Over the past 16 years I have instructed students and clients to approach life with a willingness to suspend judgment and look at the world with fresh eyes. As part of that experience, I found it useful to share the process through which my team and I developed lessons as well as the content within.  Today is a good opportunity to do the same with this blog.

The original title for this entry was, “Assisted Suicide.”  The premise being that, maybe, just maybe, Donald Trump has decided he does not want a second term.  After all, he prefers Mar-a-Lago and his gilded New York City penthouse to the White House.  He would rather watch television than govern.  So, how does one go back to a former lifestyle without admitting he is in way over his head and being labeled “a quitter?”  You commit political suicide.

I wondered if his strategy might be modeled after those who have chosen what is often referred to as “suicide by police.”  Do something heinous and let the cops take you out.  Except in Trump’s case, the fatal assist will come not from the men in blue, but from voters in 2020.  And everyone is happy.  Our latest national nightmare comes to an end (until the next one).  And Trump returns to the his favored role, victim-in-chief, with millions of equally aggrieved lemmings willing to pay the Trump organization for the privilege of being conned by the next Trump University or wearing Ivanka’s next line of clothing “with that special touch of Chinese forced labor.”

Not a bad thesis.  But as Edward de Bono, the man who coined the phrase “lateral thinking” reminds us, most people stop when they come up with one adequate answer.  The truly inventive keep searching for “the next right answer.”  Similarly, National Geographic photographer Dewitt Jones urges us to turn around, look at the situation from another perspective.

And that is exactly what happened at approximately 7:00 pm last night when the House of Representatives passed a resolution condemning Trump’s “go back where you came from” white nationalist meme by a vote of 240-187. Among the majority there were only four Republicans and former Republican Justin Amash.  Three days after Trump’s racist meltdown, the story was no longer whether he harbored bigotry, but the fact an overwhelming majority of GOP congressmen including minority leader Kevin McCarthy refused to call him out for it.

And there was the next right answer.  Trump is not the one looking for someone to relieve his pain and suffering.  He is Dr. Jack Kevorkian.  The patient is the Republican party.  It has been on life-support for some time, increasingly dependent on the backing of an aging, primarily white, lower-educated, rural base.  Promises of tax cuts for the donor class and the reversal of Roe v. Wade for evangelicals has kept just enough suburban voters in the fold to carry the electoral college despite losing the popular vote twice this century.

Image result for kevorkian death vanI guess the GOP’s demise was not quick enough for their own liking.  So, they invited Trump to drive his facsimile of the Kevorkian death van (pictured here) to their front door.  Except this time, it did not come in a plain white wrapper.  It more resembled the one driven by Cesar Sayoc, the man who mailed explosive packages to a dozen Democratic leaders and Trump critics.  Sayoc’s vehicle was plastered with symbols of hate and calls for revenge against perceived enemies, e.g. Hillary Clinton and CNN.

How times have changed.  In 2005, the Republican party at both the state level and in Congress intervened to keep Terri Sciavo’s family from “pulling the plug.”  Senator Bill Frist, a physician, made a professional assessment of her condition during Senate debate without ever examining Sciavo.  In contrast, there appears to be no Republican leaders willing to intervene when it comes to Trump terminating life support on their comatose body.  It’s just a matter of time before they realize the “Party” in GOP will be a wake.

POSTSCRIPT:  This morning, WBUR (Boston) reporter Kimberly Atkins used the economic term “inelastic” to describe Trump’s support.   It refers to the principle that the demand for a product does not increase or decrease depending on price, usually referring to monetary cost.  Yet it begs the question, “Is there any political price at which the GOP will abandon him?”  So far, the answer is no.

For what it’s worth.