TRUMPED: REALITY, REALITY SHOWS, AND REAL TV – TOM CURLEY

Ellin and I were on a brief ski trip a couple of weeks ago up in Vermont. We learned three things.

  1. We are still not too old to ski.
  2. Gravity is a harsh mistress.
  3. It’s getting harder and harder to figure out what’s real and what’s not.

Let me explain.

We were on our trip on a Tuesday. One of the Super Tuesdays. I forget which one because they’re all Super now. We’re both fascinated by this incredibly bizarre presidential campaign, so of course we were watching …

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House of Cards on Netflix. We love that show.

In between binge watching episode after episode, we’d check in on the (real) election coverage. And that’s when I noticed that on House of Cards, the characters are constantly on CNN with Wolf Blitzer, on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, CBS This Morning, and so on. All this stuff is shot on the actual news sets with real people playing themselves — while reporting on a fictional presidential campaign.

I’m not going to reveal any spoilers, but this season’s episodes were filmed way before the actual election began. Despite this, the show (House of Cards) contains a lot of surprisingly prescient plot lines.

We sat there watching CNN, MSNBC, CBS and all the other news shows interview and talk with Frank Underwood as he brilliantly manipulates the government and the world to get whatever he wants.

Then we’d change the channel to watch CNN, MSNBC, CBS and all the other news shows talk — with Donald Trump — where they were debating whether or not Trump has a large penis.

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Then, a bunch of pundits complained this (real) campaign is nothing more than a bad reality show. They are correct. The Republicans are currently trying to throw their leading candidate off the island, but inextricably, he keeps winning the immunity idol.

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The other questions everyone keeps asking is “How did a reality show star end up running for President?”

Good question. But I know the answer.

It’s all Dan Quayle’s fault.

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You remember Dan Quayle, the guy who was George Bush Senior’s Vice President, don’t you? Dan had a reputation for not being the sharpest pencil in the box.

He was famous for misspelling potato as “potatoe” at a campaign stop at an elementary school in 1992.

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Most people have forgotten the other important thing he did.

He started a fight with Murphy Brown.

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Murphy Brown was the fictional TV journalist and anchor. Played by Candice Bergen, she headed the cast in a 90’s sitcom about a fictional news show called FYI.

In one of the late seasons, she got pregnant and was going to be a single mother. Quayle gave a campaign speech (real) calling her out as being against “Family Values” because she didn’t have a husband. Murphy Brown was “mocking the importance of fathers” (an actual quote from Quayle’s speech).

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Here’s where it got brilliant. The producers and writers of the show didn’t put out a statement denouncing his speech. They had Murphy Brown go after Quayle on the television show. It made front page headlines (real) all across the country.

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So, now you had Dan Quayle fighting with — and being mocked by — a fictional character on a fictional show. And he fought back. In real life.

Pretty much nobody said “Has anyone noticed the Vice President of the United States is fighting with A FICTIONAL TV CHARACTER ????”

No one appeared to notice. Or care.

That’s was the beginning of the end, when American politics started down the rabbit hole. What began as a real-life politician appearing on a fictional TV news show, morphed into fictional politicians on real TV news shows. And real news shows showing up on fictional TV shows.

And a bad reality host running for President of the United States.

In the real world.

At least I think it’s the real world. I’m not sure anymore. I used to have to take drugs to get this confused. Personally I’d rather watch House of Cards. It makes more sense.

To paraphrase a quote from one of my favorite movies, Galaxy Quest, our current reality is a poorly written episode. And it’s not over, not nearly.

WHY I DON’T BELIEVE IN CONSPIRACIES

After many years of not watching “The X Files,” Garry and I ran out of stuff to watch. So … we started watching the series. Now, maybe a dozen episodes in, I have some thoughts on conspiracies and secrets.

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Has anyone ever confided a secret to you? The moment that happened, it stopped being a secret.

Have you ever told someone something, then realized you shouldn’t have said anything? Wished you hadn’t said it? Asked them to please, not tell anyone else?

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How did that work out for you?

Now. Think about getting the entire military-industrial complex including politicians — basically the who’s-who of power in the nation and the world — to keep a secret. For decades. And not tell anyone.

That’s my point. Not that aliens might be here — now or in the past — but that a secret of such magnitude could or would be kept for a day, much less decades. Not going to happen in this or anyplace where there’s a press corps. Maybe not in any country where the Internet and computers exist. Which is … everywhere.

THE LAST HURRAH: SURVIVING OUR POLITICS – GARRY ARMSTRONG

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Marilyn stirs the pot for this piece on our political porridge — which is boiling over.

So many seemingly poor choices on the menu of presidential candidates. How do you choose without a four to eight year siege of mental Montezuma’s revenge?

The potty mouth exchanges between the Republican candidates are less and less funny with each passing day. It’s no longer Spring Training. They’re playing for keeps — with our baseballs.

John Ford’s classic, “The Last Hurrah”, celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. It’s still very timely. I frequently used a clip from the film during my working years until it was suggested I was riding a dead horse.

I didn’t agree then and don’t agree now. Spencer Tracy, aka Frank Skeffington, aka James Michael Curley, explains how Politics has become a media show — the number one spectator sport in the land.

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I knew many of the real life characters from the movie based on the popular novel about Boston politics. “Tip” O’Neill, the late, legendary Speaker of the House, was my friend, confidante, and muse. O’Neill frequently explained how he cut bi-partisan deals while orchestrating “good cop-bad cop” scenarios so no one looked bad on “the hill.”

O’Neill said he used an end-game big picture hand to win big political pots. He knew how to bluff the bully boys who didn’t know when to walk away from the game.

Today, there’s a lot of bluster from the bully boys. Who has the best hand? Some have already folded and walked away. The cards appear a bit grimy. Maybe they need a new deck.

Tip O’Neill urged me to always look and listen beyond the sound and fury. He smiled in recollection of the deals brokered while end-of-days threats filled Congress. Sadly, there are no Tip O’Neills today, but his advice about not yielding to the bully boys remains valid — and relevant.

When the rhetoric abates, it’s our duty to vote with intelligence — and not fold our hand.

 

PICKING THE PRESIDENT – AMERICAN-STYLE

The United States isn’t a democracy. We are a constitutional republic. Over all, the system is pretty good and usually works, eventually. Except when it comes to election law and picking a president.

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The first time this became apparent, it was 1800. The U.S. was a mere 24-years old. It was only our second real national election because George Washington was selected, not elected. Due to a glitch in the architecture of the electoral college, the Democratic-Republican candidates — Thomas Jefferson, for President and Aaron Burr for Vice — had the same number of electoral votes.

According to History Central: 

… no one had the majority of votes, and the election was turned over to the House of Representatives. The House deliberated from February 11th to February 17th and voted 36 times. The Federalists had decided to support Burr … (and) would have won since they were the majority of the outgoing House. However, the constitution called for the election of a President by the House on a state-by-state basis. The Federalists could not carry enough states. On the 36th ballot Jefferson was selected.

That glitch got fixed in time for the election in 1804, but the fun was just beginning. Twenty years later, there was a four-way election starring John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, William H Crawford, and Andrew Jackson. The electoral vote broke down thusly: Jackson – 99, Adams – 84, Crawford – 41, Clay – 37. The three leading candidates went to the House of Representatives for a final decision. With a little help from media-fueled scandal, J.Q. Adams won on the first ballot of the House … and after taking office, appointed Henry Clay as Secretary of State. Hmm.

This was also the last time the House made the pick. But it wasn’t the last race to be decided outside the ballot box.

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In 1876 the Democrats nominated Samuel Tilden while the Republicans nominated Rutherford B. Hayes. Tilden won the popular vote by 250,000 votes (out of approximately 2 million), but the vote was tight in South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana. Exactly how this got resolved is complicated. Suffice to say, it was a cooperative bag job by Congress and the SJC. The final decision landed Hayes in the Oval Office and brought an end to Reconstruction. Which, oddly, is what the south wanted.

Tilden won the battle. Hayes won the war.

In the election of 1888 Grover Cleveland (incumbent Democratic President) faced Republican Benjamin Harrison. Cleveland won the popular vote, but lost the electoral vote. Harrison became President, but lost to Cleveland in a rematch four years later. Making Cleveland the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms. It’s also the only “disputed” election settled by an election.

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In my lifetime, the first memorable election was the very tight race between Kennedy and Nixon in 1960. It was the first election I watched on TV. It went on through the night and was still not decided as the sun rose.

kennedy election posterI was 13. I liked Kennedy. He had excellent hair, didn’t sweat, made great speeches, and was cute. He looked honest. The electoral vote was extremely close, but Kennedy held a lead in the popular vote for the entire race. This was the first time I remember hearing everyone say, after Nixon had conceded: “We should overhaul the electoral college.” I’m still waiting.

Thirty-six years later, in 2000, the Supreme Court stepped in and stopped the recount of the tightest election in our history. Just over 537 votes out of more than 6 million separated Gore and Bush. Evidence strongly suggests Gore was the true winner, but the Supreme Court called the play. Which they had — have — no authority to do. The problem is, no one else had (has) the authority to decide a disputed presidential election. What’s a country to do?

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There are precedents, but each is a one-off, a Rube Goldberg solution cobbled together to patch up the crack in the liberty bell. If it happens again — we can safely assume it will — a new quickie solution will be thrown together.

When the Supreme Court stopped the recount in 2000 — a vote which was entirely along party lines (party lines don’t officially exist in the Supreme Court), nothing in the Constitution gave the SJC the right to do it. But in the U.S., the Supreme Court is “the final word.” You can’t argue with the Supreme Court, can you? With no precedent for disputing the authority of the Supreme Court, we accept it.

The buck stops there. We grumble, complain, rail, and rant. But no one refuses to obey a Supreme Court ruling.

It’s something to ponder while we watch a terrifying election. Maybe it’s not the most terrifying election ever. As Stephen Colbert noted the other night, “Trump might not actually be the worst ever president. We’ve had some really bad presidents …”

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Indeed we have. That’s the awful part of freedom. We are free to be stupid, free to trade our freedom for empty promises. We wouldn’t be the first or last country to choose a terrible leader. I just hope we survive our choices.

DIVIDE AND …

DIVIDE

Divide and conquer?

A house divided against itself cannot stand?

Divide the pie equally among all of you.

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We divide to share, but we also divide to avoid sharing. Sometimes, we divide our share so someone else — who has nothing — can have some too.

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Lately, dividing seems to involve building walls and separating us from one another. To protect us? It that it?

There is Hadrian’s Wall. The Romans built it. It never protected them. The Great Wall of China did not protect the Chinese from the Mongols.

What are we protecting? Walls lock people in as much or more than they keep Others out. Walls define a prison. Are we going to build a giant American prison?

Shall we rewrite the Constitution to open with the deathless line: We the prisoners of the United States … ?

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We cannot wall out the world nor any part of it. We don’t live on isolated islands. The oceans do not protect us from Others. If we are not protected by mighty oceans and mountain ranges that scrape the clouds, how much less effective will be any wall we build?

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The answer isn’t dividing. It’s including. Figuring out — finally –at this late date in human history to live together. In peace. With tolerance, affection, and justice. Maybe even love.

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Different isn’t dangerous. It’s our fear of differences which is the danger.

THERE ARE SECRETS … AND THEN, THERE ARE SECRETS

A BIG SECRET. VERY BIG.

Yesterday, Donald Trump said he didn’t know who David Dukes (leading American white racist and general professional hater) is … OR … what the Ku Klux Klan, aka the KKK is about. For Trump, it’s a secret.

A secret? Really? Never heard of them?

He’s ready to deport every Muslim and Mexican person in the U.S. which is many millions of people, but he’s not clear on who those guys are in the white sheets? The very symbol of hatred and racism?

The lynchers and cross burners?

Never heard of them? It’s such a well kept secret? And Donald Trump, big bad billionaire — the guy who’s gonna “make America great again” — has never heard of them. Not sure if he wants their support.

Wow.

Let us, briefly, digress and define the word “secret” in case anyone in this audience isn’t clear on its meaning.

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So. Was information about the Klan kept from Trump? Another conspiracy perhaps? A cabal of astonishing proportions?

You think? Do you really think?

PLAY NICE AND PUT DOWN THE SHOVEL

It’s one of the first things every mother teaches her kid. Or should.

“Play nice. Don’t hit little Jimmy with that shovel. Don’t take Ellen’s doll. Play nice or other children won’t want to play with you.”

Apparently, mom’s lesson went in one ear and out the other. Because no one remembers how to be nice anymore. Civility has vanished. Everyone seems to be on some kind of weird narcissistic power trip where only their needs, their opinion, their feelings matter. Screw everyone else. It’s all about me. Only me.

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Mother — yours and mine — had a point. If you don’t play nice with the other kids, they won’t like you. They won’t invite you to their parties. They may not like you anyway, but if you’re mean and hit them and take their toys? They definitely won’t like you.

We’ve been binge-watching “Scandal.” As we head around the bend into the final few shows of the fourth season, I looked at Garry and said “If they weren’t so horrible to each other … if they weren’t always spying on each other, threatening each other, torturing and killing each other … they wouldn’t have so many enemies. They wouldn’t have to watch their backs all the time. If they were just nicer to each other, a lot of problems would vanish. All it would take is simple civility.” Of course it wouldn’t make a very interesting show, but that’s a completely separate issue.

Which is not, apparently, all that simple.

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And not just on the TV series. In the real body politic. On a national and international level. Everyone is so adversarial, nasty, cruel, ugly, dirty, mean-spirited. They’ve forgotten the old “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar” thing. Not that I ever understood why you’d particularly want to attract flies, but obviously, that’s not the point.

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What it — and all our mothers — meant is that being nice often works out better, gets you what you want in more situations than being unpleasant and contentious. When I watch television and they show reporters attacking the people they are supposedly trying to interview, I remember that Garry never attacked anyone … and he always got his interview. Because he knew that some chit-chat — friendly conversation — would get him a better interview than an attack.

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We should all get back to basics.

Please. Thank you. Excuse me. Like that.

Not hitting each other with shovels, verbally or otherwise. Our world could be a fine place if we would just play nice. We are in the sandbox together. We might as well make an effort to get along.

You think?