The Age’s Most Uncertain Hour

Ten years ago it was The Simpsons Movie – Matt Groening’s send-up of just about everything – which of course had its earnest and rather clueless news anchor – “Kent Brockman here, reporting on a crisis so serious it has its own name and theme music.”

That nailed it. How else is America supposed to know how serious a crisis it faces? Give it a short snappy name – Chaos in Charlottesville or whatever – and add the ominous but not too intrusive minor chords in the background.

No one knows who started this – perhaps Fox News – but this has been going on for years. A friend at CNN once mentioned that in the days following the 9/11 attacks the management there had discussed using Paul Simon’s American Tune to segue in and out of their hard-news reporting. That might work. Simon’s tune is based on a melody from a chorale from Johann Sebastian Bach’s St Matthew Passion – “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” – and Simon simply extended that tune. But it was Simon’s lyrics that mattered – “I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered / I don’t have a friend who feels at ease / I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered / or driven to its knees / But it’s all right, it’s all right / We’ve lived so well so long / Still, when I think of the road / we’re traveling on / I wonder what went wrong / I can’t help it, I wonder what went wrong.”

CNN didn’t go there. That cut to close to the bone – and besides, George Bush had been leading the chorus that we had done nothing wrong, not now, not in the past, not ever. They hated us for our freedoms. That was it. That was all of it. We were the totally innocent victims, so Simon’s song was all wrong. It was time to kick butt. CNN understood that.

We kicked butt. That didn’t work out. Paul Simon was ahead of his time, and his American Tune ends with this – “We come on the ship they call the Mayflower / We come on the ship that sailed the moon / We come in the age’s most uncertain hour / and sing an American tune / But it’s all right, it’s all right / You can’t be forever blessed / Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day / And I’m trying to get some rest / That’s all, I’m trying to get some rest.”

That seems to be where America is now – exhausted and bewildered but having no choice other than to put one foot in front of the other and trudge on. That’s the Age of Trump.

That may change a bit:

President Donald Trump plans to unveil his new strategy for Afghanistan in an evening address to the nation on Monday, after struggling with the decision for months amid heavy lobbying from some of his top aides.

The White House appeared to keep a tight hold on the details of what exactly Trump will say, but he is expected to approve sending more troops to Afghanistan, deepening U.S. involvement in the region and indicating a more traditional approach to foreign policy than he promised on the campaign trail.

The move comes after the dismissal Friday of chief strategist Steve Bannon, who voiced skepticism about an increased military footprint in the region and preferred outsourcing some of the duties to private contractors. Vice President Mike Pence and national security adviser H.R. McMaster were said to have encouraged Trump to accept his commanders’ proposals to send more troops, though Pence’s office said he remained neutral…

Trump has refused to commit to a specific strategy for months, causing angst among U.S. and Afghan military commanders who wanted to boost the 8,400 American troops now in the country. The Taliban have grown in strength in Afghanistan, and Al Qaeda and the Islamic State terrorist groups have gained footholds that have caused the military concern.

Okay, Steve Bannon was fired. We won’t pull out of Afghanistan. We won’t hire contractors to fight the war for us so we’d have someone to blame if nothing changes. We’ll do it ourselves, reluctantly:

The seemingly endless conflict in Afghanistan has been the subject of significant debate within the administration. The president has at times expressed skepticism about the possibility of winning a war there. “I want to find out why we’ve been there for 17 years,” he told reporters at one point.

In June, Mattis told a Senate panel: “We are not winning in Afghanistan.”

The panel’s chair, Arizona Republican John McCain, challenged Mattis on the subject, long a sore point among America’s hawks.

“We want a strategy, and I don’t think that’s a hell of a lot to ask,” McCain said. “We’re now six months into this administration. We still haven’t got a strategy for Afghanistan. It makes it hard for us to support you when we don’t have a strategy.”

Now there will be a strategy, but there was that scene with another Republican president in Matt Groening’s 2007 movie:

Russ Cargill: Mr. President, you chose me, Russ Cargill, most successful man in America, to head the EPA, the least successful government agency. Why did I take the job? Because I’m just a rich guy who wants to kick some ass for good old Mother Earth. I want to give something back. Not the money, but something. That’s why I’ve narrowed your choices down to five unthinkable options. Each one will cause untold misery and…

President Schwarzenegger: I pick Number Three!

Russ Cargill: Really? You don’t want to read them first?

President Schwarzenegger: I was elected to lead, not to read. Number Three!

This might have been like that:

Top administration officials in favor of sending more troops to Afghanistan teamed up ahead of a high-level meeting on Friday to persuade President Donald Trump to step up American military involvement in the 16-year-old war, two sources told POLITICO.

Vice President Mike Pence and national security adviser H.R. McMaster rehearsed their pitch heading into the Camp David strategy session in an effort to persuade Trump to accept commanders’ proposals to beef up the 8,400 American troops in the country, the sources said.

But as of Friday evening, the president had not announced a decision on his plans for Afghanistan, where the Taliban have grown in strength and Al Qaeda and the Islamic State terrorist groups have a foothold. And no announcement appeared imminent.

The two sources – an administration official and a senior White House aide – also confirmed that Erik Prince, founder of the former Blackwater private security firm, had been scheduled to attend the session but that he was blocked at the last minute. The administration official said McMaster was the one who blocked Prince.

They tag-teamed Trump:

“The whole point with the rehearsals was to work out and, to be crass, was to get the president to agree to this proposal that he’s been against before,” the official said of Pence and McMaster’s plans. “They’re not giving any credence to the other options. They’re going ahead with the troop increase option.”

Number Three! That will do, and it may solve other problems:

Doug Wilson, a former assistant secretary of defense for public affairs in the Obama administration, said it was encouraging that Trump plans to explain his decision. “The challenge will be to explain the policy in the context of what has been a long-running goal that Afghanistan never be used as a springboard for terrorism against the United States or its allies,” Wilson said.

Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist who has worked with the White House on other issues, said “the address is designed to turn the page from the Charlottesville chaos and remind voters that Trump is commander in chief and has made an informed and responsible decision.”

That may be the point of all this – to turn the page on all the other chaos – and things like this:

President Donald Trump’s job approval rating in three key states that helped propel him to the White House – Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – stands below 40 percent, according to a trio of NBC News/Marist polls.

In addition, Democrats enjoy double-digit leads in Michigan and Pennsylvania on the question of which party voters prefer to control Congress after the 2018 midterms, and they hold an 8-point advantage in Wisconsin.

In all three states, more than six in 10 voters say Trump’s conduct as president has embarrassed them, compared to just a quarter who have said it’s made them proud.

Trump’s base is now embarrassed by him. They’d prefer Congress be in the hands of the Democrats next year, if they have to be stuck with Trump for a full term, which they are, which perhaps they wouldn’t be with Congress in the hands of the Democrats next year. A different House might impeach Trump. A different Senate could send him packing. Trump knows this. Trump knows that he needs to remind voters that he is the commander-in-chief and has made an informed and responsible decision. More troops! Number Three!

Something has to be done. Jonathan Swan reports this:

Not a single Trump administration official appeared on today’s Sunday shows to defend the president. I’m told the White House made no serious efforts to convince officials to go on, knowing the hosts of the shows would pressure the guests relentlessly on the president’s response to the racist carnage in Charlottesville.

The White House judged it was better to have nobody out there than risk providing fuel for another 24-hour negative news cycle on Charlottesville.

Rudy Giuliani was the only guy prepared to defend Trump on the Sunday shows after the Access Hollywood tape leaked. Today’s dynamics, post-Charlottesville, were no different.

And now it’s the damned evangelicals:

Former students at Liberty University are preparing to return their diplomas in a group protest of university president Jerry Falwell Jr.’s support for President Trump’s agenda.

In a group letter first reported by NPR, a small group of alumni is criticizing Falwell for supporting the president in the wake of Trump’s remarks blaming “many sides” for violence at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend. The letter slams Falwell for defending Trump’s comments, specifically for his saying there were “very fine people” protesting on both sides.

“This is incompatible with Liberty University’s stated values, and incompatible with a Christian witness,” the letter says.

One former student government president told NPR that Falwell was “complicit” in Trump’s support for “Nazis and white supremacists.”

“I’m sending my diploma back because the president of the United States is defending Nazis and white supremacists,” Chris Gaumer said. “And in defending the president’s comments, Jerry Falwell Jr. is making himself and, it seems to me, the university he represents, complicit.”

That led to this:

Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., a longtime ally of President Donald Trump, defended his controversial response to violence at a white supremacist protest in Charlottesville, Virginia last week.

In an interview on ABC’s “This Week,” Falwell repeatedly praised Trump’s defense of some of the protesters at the neo-Nazi rally in Virginia, suggesting that the president knew information about the attendees that wasn’t shared with the public.

“He has inside information that I don’t have,” Falwell said. “I don’t know if there were historical purists there who were trying to preserve some statues. I don’t know. But he had information I didn’t have.”

Right:

No members of the Trump administration appeared on the political talk shows on Sunday, an unusual decision following a turbulent week for the administration in which it lost its top political adviser and faced serious backlash. When ABC reached out to the administration to book a spokesperson, the administration told “This Week” to book Falwell, a longtime Trump ally.

Jerry Junior is reliable. He’ll say anything, but the New Yorker’s David Remnick writes in The Divider – “This latest outrage has disheartened Trump’s circle somewhat; business executives, generals and security officials, advisers, and even family members have semaphored their private despair.”

There’s more:

When Trump was elected, there were those who considered his history and insisted that this was a kind of national emergency, and that to normalize this Presidency was a dangerous illusion. At the same time, there were those who, in the spirit of patience and national comity, held that Trump was “our President,” and that “he must be given a chance.” Has he had enough of a chance yet? After his press conference in the lobby of Trump Tower last Tuesday, when he ignored the scripted attempts to regulate his impulses and revealed his true allegiances, there can be no doubt about who he is. This is the inescapable fact: on November 9th, the United States elected a dishonest, inept, unbalanced, and immoral human being as its President and Commander-in-Chief. Trump has daily proven unyielding to appeals of decency, unity, moderation, or fact. He is willing to imperil the civil peace and the social fabric of his country simply to satisfy his narcissism and to excite the worst inclinations of his core followers…

One of the more lasting images from Trump’s squalid appearance on Tuesday was that of his chief of staff, John Kelly, who stood listening to him with a hangdog look of shame.

Mike Allen has more:

Treasury Secretary Mnuchin yesterday posted a passionate response to Yale ’85 classmates who had published an open letter calling on him to resign:

“As someone who is Jewish, I believe I understand the long history of violence and hatred against the Jews (and other minorities).”

“I feel compelled to let you know that the President in no way, shape or form believes that neo-Nazi and other hate groups who endorse violence are equivalent to groups that demonstrate in peaceful and lawful ways.”

“I don’t believe the allegations against the President are accurate, and I believe that having highly talented men and women in our country surrounding the President in his administration should be reassuring to you.”

That made Mike Allen curious:

So why do the others stay? We talked to a half dozen senior administration officials, who range from dismayed but certain to stay, to disgusted and likely soon to leave. They all work closely with Trump and his senior team so, of course, wouldn’t talk on the record. Instead, they agreed to let us distill their thinking/rationale:

“You have no idea how much crazy stuff we kill.” The most common response centers on the urgent importance of having smart, sane people around Trump to fight his worst impulses. If they weren’t there, they say, we would have a trade war with China, massive deportations, and a government shutdown to force construction of a Southern wall.

Perhaps that’s noble, and there’s this:

“General Mattis needs us” – Many talk about their reluctance to bolt on their friends and colleagues who are fighting the good fight to force better Trump behavior/decisions. They rightly point out that together, they have learned how to ignore Trump’s rhetoric and, at times, collectively steer him to more conventional policy responses.

Russ Cargill tried that in Matt Groening’s 2007 movie, and there’s this:

“Trump’s not as evil as portrayed” – All of them talk up the president as more reasonable off Twitter and TV than on it. This gives them hope (though almost all increasingly say it’s fleeting hope) he will listen to his better angels, or at least the pleas of Ivanka.

“We like the power” – Well, no one comes out and say it this blatantly. But working in the White House, even this one, is intoxicating and ego-stroking. They have enormous say over regulations and rules, invites and implementation, government jobs and access to the Oval. They also know they are one step away from an even bigger job in government, so it’s hard to just walk away.

And one White House aide had this to offer:

I have absolutely no difficulty looking anyone in the eye. Here’s why: Will I have the same, incredible opportunities to make a true difference somewhere else? No.

If I leave, who will take my spot? Someone with my heart for making things better for ALL Americans? Maybe, maybe not. Huge value to country in good people serving right now.

The Presidency is bigger than the person. And the WH has expansive influence on execution of broad range of administrative authorities.

Mike Allen is not impressed:

This White House and key federal agencies are starving for well-intentioned talent. The possibility of a catastrophic crisis, abroad or at home, is real. Rookies or boot-lickers are not what we need in those moments.

Yeah, but that’s what we’ve got. Still, there’s this – “You have no idea how much crazy stuff we kill.”

That’s not comforting, but there’s this:

Former President Obama’s Homeland Security secretary said Sunday he doesn’t want to see any more defections from President Trump’s advisers.

Former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said he’d tell Trump advisers “you have to stay” in the administration if any of them asked, he told ABC’s “This Week.”

Johnson specifically named White House chief of staff John Kelly, Defense Secretary James Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster.

“I’d say absolutely not” if they asked me if they should resign, Johnson said.

They need to “right the ship,” he said.

Well, we did come on the ship they call the Mayflower, the ship that sailed the moon, and we came in the age’s most uncertain hour and sang our American tune. But it’s all right, it’s all right. You can’t be forever blessed. There may be no way to right this ship.

The New York Times’ editorial board can only offer this:

One measure of the despair caused by Mr. Trump’s behavior is that we find ourselves strangely comforted by things that in any normal presidency would be cause for concern. One of these is the sheer incompetence that this president has displayed. Apart from threatening environmental, safety and financial protections with largely unfulfilled executive orders, a demonstrably cruel deportation policy, and lamentable court appointments, the worst of Mr. Trump’s plans have thankfully faltered, like destroying the Affordable Care Act, while others are nowhere in sight…

There are some signs that our democratic system is working to contain Mr. Trump. The failure of his efforts to deprive millions of Americans of health care coverage, the continuing investigation of his administration by the FBI, court challenges to his immigration and environmental edicts, and a new willingness by self-interested allies to desert him all suggest he is not immune to the forces that have felled bad presidents before him.

That may be comforting, but maybe not:

The deeper question, to Mr. Trump’s remaining supporters, is not political but moral. It is whether they will continue to follow a standard-bearer who is alienating most of the country by embracing extremists. Yes, other Republican leaders, while claiming the mantle of Abraham Lincoln, have subtly and not so subtly courted bigots since the days of Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy.” But Mr. Trump has now made that subtext his text. Last week, he stripped away the pretense and the camouflage. In deciding to split Americans apart rather than draw them together, he abandoned the legacy of Lincoln for the legacy of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. He chose to summon not America’s better angels, but its demons.

Demons? Well, you can’t be forever blessed. And tomorrow’s going to be another working day. Try to get some rest. It’s always the age’s most uncertain hour. Just sing that American tune.

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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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