Light Entertainment

Don’t cry for me, Argentina? What? Andrew Lloyd Weber has a lot to answer for – Evita (1976) and Cats (1981) and The Phantom of the Opera (1986) – three wildly popular histrionic absurdities – but that’s what “serious” Broadway musicals are. Cole Porter knew to keep it light – three mugs in fedoras singing “Brush up your Shakespeare” and that sort of thing. Weber didn’t get the memo. He went for the serious stuff, starting in 1970 with Jesus Christ Superstar – Jesus and Judas in competing over-the-top boffo bring-down-the-house numbers. People seemed to like that, so he dusted off Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat – a short pop cantata from 1968 that became the 1973 musical – the story about the “coat of many colors” from the Book of Genesis, about family strife and redemption and all that, sung at high volume.

Such things are an acquired taste. Some folks liked that one, although the 1999 straight-to-video film version starring Donny Osmond was a bust. Perhaps one shouldn’t take liberties with old stories that many take seriously and even believe are true. Joseph came to be sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, and rose to become vizier, the second most powerful man in Egypt next to Pharaoh. When famine struck Canaan, Jacob (Joseph’s father) and Joseph’s brothers came to the Land of Goshen in Egypt and worked things out. Everyone knows that. No one was singing. You don’t change the story, or maybe you do:

Ben Carson stood by his long-held belief about ancient pyramids in Egypt, that they were used to store grain, rather than to inter pharaohs.

Asked about this Wednesday, Carson told CBS News, “It’s still my belief, yes.”

The subject came up when Buzzfeed published a 1998 commencement speech delivered by Carson at Andrews University, a college founded by Seventh-Day Adventists.

“My own personal theory is that Joseph built the pyramids to store grain,” Carson said. “Now all the archeologists think that they were made for the pharaohs’ graves. But, you know, it would have to be something awfully big if you stop and think about it. And I don’t think it’d just disappear over the course of time to store that much grain.”

Archeologists howled. They’d found the pharaohs’ tombs in there. What about that? There was this:

“Some people believe in the Bible, like I do, and don’t find that to be silly at all, and believe that God created the Earth and don’t find that to be silly at all.” Carson told reporters in Miami during a stop on his book tour. “The secular progressives try to ridicule it any time it comes up and they’re welcome to do that.”

It’s those damned secular progressives again – and evidence and science. In Genesis “Joseph stored up grain in great abundance like the sand of the sea, until he stopped measuring it, for it was beyond measure.” In the Bible, Joseph fed Egypt and the rest of the world during the seven years of drought that followed. Forget the damned pharaohs, although the back-and-forth on MSNBC’s Morning Joe was lively, with Joe Scarborough asking a question that logically follows – “I want to know if he thinks Noah built the Eiffel Tower.”

Be careful – Andrew Lloyd Weber might write a musical about that too – but Carson is the candidate leading all the others in the Republican scrum to see who their nominee will be. Perhaps Republicans simply like light entertainment that’s highly dramatic and a bit absurd. Donald Trump can’t carry the whole load. Ben Carson is amusing too.

Perhaps the whole thing on the Republican side is no more than light entertainment, because on Pyramid Day these folks also offered us a soap opera:

For as long as they have been in the public eye, members of the Bush family have been known for fierce loyalty, protective of one another in the face of attacks from the outside. Rarely have they engaged in a public quarrel among themselves – until revelations this week from a forthcoming biography of former President George Bush.

In the book, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham, the 41st president makes clear his displeasure with two of the leading figures in the administration of his son, former President George W. Bush – and both the 43rd president and his brother, who would like to be the 45th, were forced rather awkwardly to take sides.

The eldest Bush, in interviews conducted over a period of several years, offered sharp criticisms of former Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, saying both ill-served his son after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

There’s trouble in this family:

The 41st president suggested that the 43rd president’s 2002 speech describing Iraq, Iran and North Korea as part of an “Axis of Evil” included comments “that might be historically proved to be not benefiting anything.” He said that Cheney had “his iron-ass view of everything” and that Rumsfeld displayed a “lack of humility” and “was an arrogant fellow.”

“The lion in winter still has claws,” Mark McKinnon, who served as media adviser to George W. Bush, said of Bush’s father.

The book is Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush – and everyone was working from an advanced copy, where George H. W. says that “iron-ass” Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld didn’t serve his son George W. well.

His son had to cover his ass:

In a statement, George W. Bush said Thursday: “I am proud to have served with Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld. Dick Cheney did a superb job as vice president, and I was fortunate to have him by my side throughout my presidency. Don Rumsfeld ably led the Pentagon and was an effective secretary of defense. I am grateful to both men for their good advice, selfless service to our country, and friendship.”

Rumsfeld was pissed:

Rumsfeld, whose rivalry with the eldest Bush dates back decades, offered a terse response to the book in a statement: “Bush 41 is getting up in years and misjudges Bush 43, who I found made his own decisions…”

The old guy is losing it – ignore him – and then there’s the other son:

Appearing Thursday on MSNBC, Jeb Bush was asked whether he agreed with his father’s critiques of Cheney and Rumsfeld.

“My brother’s a big boy,” Jeb Bush said in response. “His administration was shaped by his thinking, his reaction to the attack on 9/11. I think my dad, like a lot of people that love George, want to try to create – a different narrative perhaps … just because that’s natural to do, right? But George would say … ‘This is under my watch, I was commander in chief. I was the leader. And I accept personal responsibility for what happened, both the good and the bad.’ And I think that’s the right way to look at it.”

Jeb Bush added that he believed Cheney served “my brother well as vice president, and he served my dad extraordinarily well as secretary of defense.”

Everyone stand back:

The public tension among the Bushes prompted many of those who served one or the other in the White House to keep their heads down Thursday, hoping to avoid being drawn into a spat.

Cool, and at Slate, John Dickerson frames this as a soap opera:

It’s the old family story: A vice president turned president criticizes his former secretary of defense who served as vice president to his son, another president, causing his son, the president, to distance himself from his president father, and also causing his other son, who is not yet president but would like to be, to distance himself, too.

When Jeb Bush announced that he was running for president, he said he was “a guy who met his first president on the day he was born, and his second on the day he was brought home from the hospital.” Father and son relationships are tricky when everyone is in the same profession, but in a household that is thick with presidents, the awkward moments are inevitable.

No one in Hollywood could devise a better plot than that, and there are wheels within wheels:

This is probably not what Jeb Bush wants anyone to be talking about right now as his campaign struggles: the mistakes associated with the Iraq invasion and the fascinating complexities of his family tree. That dynamic includes the fact that Rumsfeld had once wanted to be president and helped encourage Richard Nixon to send George H. W. Bush to China to remove a possible rival from the scene.

Ah, so THAT is why George H. W. Bush was our ambassador to China for a time. Who knew? But there’s even more going on here:

You don’t want to overdo the textual analysis of a son trying to cover for his father, but what Jeb seems to be saying is that people who love W. want to find some way to excuse the mistakes of his administration by blaming them on Cheney and Rumsfeld, which could mean two different things. Either people love W. so much they seek to excuse him even from the small mistakes of his administration by picking on Cheney. Or, the mistakes were so large that they pick on Cheney because they can’t imagine beloved W. could have been responsible for them. In any event, there seems to be something about George W. Bush that has people who love him looking for a narrative.

This doesn’t seem to have much to do with anything happening now, but it is fascinating, and so is this:

The question the book raises is whether everything about George H. W. Bush is outdated or whether he is a model the party and its president should return to – a noble kind of restraint in foreign policy based on diplomacy and prudence in domestic affairs.

Jeb Bush argues that the world has changed a lot since Cheney was secretary of defense. “The context changes – we’ve gotta get beyond, I think, this feeling that, you know, somehow the 1991 is – is the same as 2001, which is the same as 2017. It isn’t. The world has changed. It always changes.”… So is everything about George H. W. Bush’s presidency outdated?

That’s a good question:

At the moment, the GOP nominating conversation is dominated by efforts to show strength on every foreign front. Though as a candidate H. W. probably would be slinging the same hot rhetoric – he was a tough competitor – as a president he was far more diplomatic. (One of his critiques of his son in the book is over W’s undiplomatic language.) On domestic issues, he was from a different era. His decision to accept a tax increase to make a budget deal with Democrats doesn’t seem likely in today’s GOP, where agreeing to tax increases is considered an unforgivable breach of faith. Jeb Bush once said that decision was the most courageous one taken by a president in the modern era. Once the book is published, he’ll have a chance to explain if that context has changed, too.

And the family soap opera continues. That old show Dynasty – from the early eighties when television did evening soap operas – was about an apparently loving family of rich and wildly successful folks undermining and betraying each other in subtle ways, but sticking together. This is the new version. It’s about as relevant to real life as the old version – but it is entertaining.

Even so, Josh Voorhees, the Slate senior writer who lives in boring Iowa City, prefers True Crime stories:

Pressed during the last Republican debate about his history of questionable financial decisions, Marco Rubio effectively responded with a shrug. “You just listed a litany of discredited attacks from Democrats and my political opponents,” Rubio told CNBC moderator Becky Quick, “and I’m not gonna waste 60 seconds detailing them.” The Florida senator quickly pivoted to his preferred talking points – “I’m not worried about my finances; I’m worried about the finances of everyday Americans” – and the debate moved on.

Rubio, though, is finding that questions about his money management skills are not going away now that he’s surged to the front of the establishment lane for his party’s nomination. In the days since the debate, his rivals have begun to hammer Rubio on the issue – and it’s no surprise who’s leading the charge. “For years, I’ve been hearing that his credit cards are a disaster,” Donald Trump declared Tuesday, taking a welcome break from mocking Rubio for sweating too much.

There may be no crime here, but something is fishy:

Back in June, the New York Times detailed his many personal financial missteps at length: a brush with foreclosure on a second home in 2010 after being late with mortgage payments; his 2012 decision to spend part of a $800,000 book advance on a boat rather than paying down his considerable debts; his 2014 liquidation of a retirement account that prompted a hefty tax penalty; and the 2015 selling of his second home for $18,000 less than he and his friend paid for it a decade ago, to name a few.

Rubio, though, was able to survive the ensuing media storm much the way he dodged Quick’s question on the CNBC stage – by crying media bias and presenting himself as former working-class kid who faced his share of financial hardships. It’s no surprise the spin worked; it’s hard to see how struggling to make ends meet disqualifies a man from being the leader of a country were many people struggle to make ends meet.

But that spin may spin out:

It’s not as though the skills it takes to balance a family budget are the same as those needed to manage a country. This time, though, Rubio may not escape so easily. The attention has now shifted from decisions that were simply financially imprudent to ones that come with the distinct whiff of potential wrongdoing. Specifically, his rivals are eager to relive Rubio’s past use of a Republican Party credit card for personal expenses back when he was the speaker of House in Florida. Rubio has conceded that he did indeed use the GOP card for personal matters, but says he ultimately paid for those charges himself. He’s now being asked to prove it.

This adds drama to the situation:

His campaign says that won’t be a problem and has promised to release records in “the next few weeks” showing just that. “Our plan has always been to release these,” aide Todd Harris told the New York Times this week. That statement, though, is difficult to believe given that Rubio has rebuffed similar requests for years. “Those credit card statements are an internal party matter,” he told the editorial board of the Times-Union of Jacksonville in 2010. “I’m not going to release them.” More recently he declined requests for the records in June and again last month from the Tampa Bay Times. If Rubio wanted to release the records, he’d have done it by now.

This is not quite Nixon and those Watergate tapes, but it’s pretty cool, unless it’s nothing:

The most likely scenario is that any release would be much more embarrassing to Rubio than it would be damning. In 2010, the Tampa Bay Times got its hand on two years of the GOP credit card bills – for 2006 and 2007 – and what it found wasn’t exactly pretty: They showed Rubio had “routinely charged personal expenses, from a $10.50 movie ticket to a four-day, $10,000 family reunion.” He’s since offered a variety of explanations for those, ranging from pulling out the wrong card from his wallet to a mix-up with his travel agent – and partial records reviewed by the Times suggest that Rubio did indeed pay for some charges, though not on the “monthly basis” that Rubio suggested he had. Two years later, the Florida state ethics commission cleared Rubio of any wrongdoing – the facts, the investigator wrote, did not rise to the level of an “intentional wrongful act necessary to prove corrupt intent for successful prosecution” – but nonetheless said the level of “negligence” he exhibited was “disturbing.”

And what is disturbing is entertaining, because there’s always something more:

Rubio has a history of playing fast and loose with his finances and then excusing himself with a Whoops, my bad. Back in 2008, the Miami Herald discovered that Rubio failed to disclose “a $135,000 home-equity loan he obtained from a bank controlled by his political supporters.” Rubio responded by quickly amending his financial disclosures and dismissing the whole thing as an oversight. Likewise in 2010, the Tampa Bay Times discovered that Rubio “double-billed the Republican Party of Florida and state taxpayers for eight flights while he was House Speaker.” Rubio, again, dismissed it as an unfortunate mistake, and promised to repay the party what he owed.

Such excuses may have worked in the past. Rubio, though, is about to find out if they still will, now that he’s a GOP favorite for president.

Cool, and Salon’s Simon Maloy carries this further:

The problem revealed by Rubio’s shady history with state party credit cards isn’t that Rubio is bad at “managing his finances” – it’s that he’s a weasel who cashed in on his position of (limited) authority. The image of Rubio as a poor money manager with massive debt isn’t as damaging as his opponents and the press might think. Pretty much everyone in the country has trouble handling debt, and far too many people are carrying way too high a balance on their credit cards. Framing it in these terms just allows Rubio to make the point that he’s not wealthy and he copes with the same financial difficulties as everyone else. The damning part of all this is that he abused resources made available to him as Speaker. I’m not especially bothered that Rubio can’t balance his checkbook, but I do care that he’s a corruptible sneak.

Those are strong words, and Maloy adds this:

If reporters and Rubio’s opponents are looking for a way to make his personal financial troubles relevant, try bringing them up the next time Rubio justifies a balanced budget amendment by saying the government must balance its books just like American families do.

That’s more to the point, because the minor drama here really is quite minor:

I tend to think it’s a little more significant that much of Rubio’s policy platform is based on lies and discredited economic theories. Just today he released his plan for exploding the military budget well beyond its current levels as part of his neoconservative foreign policy vision to pick fights and spread freedom at gunpoint. He’s going to provoke international conflicts and preside over a vast expansion of defense spending while also blowing a hole in the budget by slashing tax rates, eliminating taxes on investments, and creating new tax credits for the middle class. The last Republican president implemented a more modest version of this policy agenda, and the results – intractable military quagmires, exploding inequality, huge deficits – left him so widely reviled that he put himself in political exile, where he remains to this day.

And, of course, Rubio is still moving to the right on immigration in an attempt to mollify conservatives who disowned him for his past heresies on “amnesty.” He’s running to be the nominee of a party in desperate need of support from minority voters, and to secure that nomination he’s inching closer and closer to the immigration position of the party’s nativist wing. Seems like a pretty serious problem!

So if you want to focus on Rubio’s credit card shenanigans and his past life as a small-time charlatan, go right ahead. Just don’t do him the favor of believing that’s his biggest weakness as a would-be president.

One can generalize from that. Ben Carson has any number of odd ideas. That he thinks the pyramids were grain silos is amusing, but he doesn’t know much of anything about the economy or international relations, or anything else. Jeb Bush is stuck in a dramatically dysfunctional family, but who isn’t? Does he have an actual position on anything? And Marco Rubio may be a bit of a corruptible sneak, but his ideas on what America should be doing are those that led to disaster in the Bush years, as even Bush’s own father admits, amplified – cranked up to eleven as they say. These guys are entertaining in their way, but the light entertainment they provide is deceptive. There’s real darkness underneath.

That’s something to consider. If you want wildly popular histrionic absurdities, stick to Broadway. Andrew Lloyd Weber is sure to come up with something new pretty soon.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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