On Genius

“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” — Confucius

“To know, is to know that you know nothing.  That is the meaning of true knowledge.” — Socrates

hqdefault1“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” — William Shakespeare

“I have no special talent.  I am only passionately curious.” — Albert Einstein

“I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our own intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.” — Albert Einstein

“Wile E. Coyote — Super Genius!” — Wile E. Coyote

“Actually, throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart.” — President Donald Trump

“I went from VERY successful businessman, to top T.V. Star . . . to President of the United States (on my first try). I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius . . . and a very stable genius at that!” — President Donald Trump

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The Presidential Knife Fight Hypothetical

It’s the end of 2017, folks.  Time to stop worrying about the minor stuff, and to start thinking about big-picture issues — like whether Donald Trump or, say, Chester A. Arthur is more likely to prevail in a knife-fight to the death among American Presidents.

james_buchananBelieve it or not, people have given serious thought to this concept — so serious that they’ve even figured out what kind of motorized wheelcraft FDR would use in such a fight, and what kind of knives the Presidents would employ.  This is important stuff, far beyond the Hall of Presidents at Disney World and much more important than developing phony resolutions that you’ll forget within moments after the new year arrives.  Which Presidents are likely to survive until the bitter, bloody end — and, equally important, which Presidents are likely to be the first to give up the ghost?

The prevailing view seems to be that Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt are likely to be the last Presidents standing.  Jackson, because he was a bloodthirsty killer, Lincoln, because his height, rail-splitting strength, wrestling skills, and saintly notoriety make him somebody who would survive the initial killing frenzy, and Roosevelt, because his Bull Moose fitness and hunting prowess would give him a leg up over perceived presidential wimps like, say, Woodrow Wilson.  I’m not sure that the analysis gives sufficient credit to the more recent Presidents — like Harry Truman, who would be happy to stay in the kitchen heat, slashing away at his predecessors, or President Obama, who probably would enter the fray wearing a bicycle helmet and would use his basketball moves to avoid that fatal thrust.

chester_arthurThat’s all well and good, but to me the more crucial question is which President would be the first to meet his maker.  I’d bet on James Buchanan, pictured above with his really horrible case of bed head.  Seriously, who cut this guy’s hair.  Putting aside the fact that he was a horrible President, who did nothing to prevent the Civil War — just look at the guy’s face.! Who wouldn’t want to stab this loser and probably punch him square in the mug, besides?  Add in the fact that he was the only bachelor President, who couldn’t even deal with having a spouse, and you can’t help but see Buchanan cowering in a corner once the bloodsport begins, ready to be stabbed repeatedly by other Chief Executives.  I’m convinced Buchanan would the first to go, before even out of shape guys like Tubby Taft or wheelchair-bound Presidents like Roosevelt.

As for Trump?  I think he’d cut a deal with somebody like Matthew Van Buren and make it past the first wave, then get cut down mid-tweet.  I’m convinced Trump would outlive the sideburned Chester A. Arthur, somehow.

The Big Disconnect

At some point in the future, perhaps, we’ll look back at the Trump presidency with some sense of perspective.  For now, though, as we’re in the midst of it, it’s just one weird thing after another.  And with each new, unseemly tweet or attempted put down, it becomes more and more apparent that there is a significant disconnect between the President and his supporters and at least some of the rest of us.

wrestlemania-23-donald-trump-vince-mcmahon-battle-of-billionaires-670x433The President’s various petty feuds with members of the news media are the best example of this phenomenon.  Every day, the President seems to become locked into some bitter dispute with a TV show host or a network.  His crude, mean tweets about the hosts of the Morning Joe show on MSNBC are strange because you’d expect the President to be able to remain above the fray.  Surely the President has bigger things to deal with, right?  And, even if he did feel the need to respond to the comments of a particular broadcaster, couldn’t he do so in a fashion that doesn’t involve referring to somebody’s purported plastic surgery?  Wouldn’t most Presidents conclude that very few people out in the country watch, or are even aware of, Morning Joe and therefore responding to its hosts can only call attention to what they are saying?

The President’s recent video tweet, showing a tinkered version of footage of Donald Trump at a Wrestlemania broadcast, body-slamming somebody with the CNN logo superimposed on his head, is the latest example of the disconnect.  Trump evidently thinks that the footage shows, in graphic form, that he’s not afraid to take on CNN and other members of the “mainstream media,” and that his supporters will cheer because they think the press is biased and deserves its comeuppance.  But many of the rest of us shake our heads, and not just because it seems bizarre and childish that the President would tweet out doctored footage of himself engaging in an act of physical violence.

No, the President’s latest tweet also manages to remind some of us:  Oh my god, we’ve actually elected a President of the United States who once voluntarily agreed to appear on Wrestlemania!

Confirming That Standards Still Exist

I’ve always considered Kathy Griffin to be an unfunny, no-talent hack who always seems to be willing to do or say anything in a desperate bid to get some attention.  Calling her a “comedian” is an insult to people who have a legitimate sense of humor and make people laugh for a living.

So it was no surprise to me that Griffin did something stupidly provocative — in this case, posing for a photo with a mock-up of a bloody, severed head of Donald Trump — in a bid to try to remain “edgy” and in the news.   The fact that anyone, even a pathetic attention grubber like Griffin, would think that posing with the severed head of the President of the United States was funny, tells you something about how out of touch some people can be with prevailing human sensibilities.

mqdefaultWhat’s encouraging, though, is the reaction to Griffin’s photo.  She was universally criticized by everyone, left and right, liberal and conservative, irrespective of whether they support Trump or think he’s the worst President ever.  Griffin also was, not surprisingly, removed from gigs and jobs, including participating in the CNN New Year’s Eve show that I’ve never watched, because someone who thought, even for a second, that that kind of photo was funny is obviously so lacking in judgment that she’s capable of doing or saying other things that are grossly inappropriate.

The broad condemnation of Griffin’s ill-advised publicity stunt shows that we still have some standards of propriety in this country.  To be sure, drawing the line at posing for a photograph with the President’s head may be a low bar, but it’s nevertheless nice to know that the bar is still there.

When Griffin realized that she crossed the line and was being subjected to withering criticism by just about everyone, she issued an apology of sorts, asking for forgiveness, calling herself “a comic” and saying:  “I cross the line. I move the line, then I cross it. I went way too far. The image is too disturbing. I understand how it offends people. It wasn’t funny. I get it.”  You wonder, though, whether Griffin really does “get it” — and in fact she and her celebrity attorney are supposed to hold a press conference today where they will explain the “true motivation” behind Griffin’s bloody Trump head image, and “respond to the bullying from the Trump family she has endured.”   That’s right:  Griffin apparently is claiming that she has been “bullied” because the Trump family harshly criticized her callous and outrageous stunt.

Trying to reposition yourself as the victim is a classic, last-ditch tactic when you’ve done something so colossally wrong-headed, so it’s no surprise that Griffin is trying it.  It will be interesting to see whether anyone lets Griffin get away with it, when in reality she has only herself to blame for her witless, self-inflicted injury.

Looking “Presidential”?

Last week President Trump ordered a missile strike on a Syrian base that was implicated in a toxic chemical attack by the Syrian government against Syrian citizens.  This week we’ve got an array of U.S. Navy ships heading into the western Pacific regions, apparently as a show of force against North Korea, which has been engaged in repeated missile tests and is continuing to develop its nuclear weapons program.

2017-04-08t082322z_1_lynxmped3705y_rtroptp_2_usa-china-cfCouple the military maneuvers with a few presidential summits with foreign leaders like the Chinese head of state and the president of Egypt, and you’ve also got a lot of people talking about Donald Trump looking “presidential.”  Of course, Presidents always are said to look “presidential” when they are dealing with foreign policy or ordering military action; that’s because those are areas where the President can act unilaterally, without having to try to convince balky Congresses to take one action or another.  It’s been a time-honored technique of the residents of the Oval Office for decades — if you’ve had a rough time on your domestic agenda, have a foreign leader over for a visit or try to shift the focus to the actions of a “rogue state” or “terrorist threat.”  So, whether through careful planning or happenstance, Donald Trump is following a well-thumbed presidential playbook.

It’s interesting that we frequently associate ordering military action and foreign policy positioning with looking “presidential,” because in doing so we’re really encouraging Presidents to spend their time on those areas rather than focusing on the domestic issues  that never seem to get addressed and actually trying to convince Congress to do something about those nagging problems.  How many Presidents, deep in their heart of hearts, have been tempted to engage in a little sabre-rattling or to lob a few missiles at a terrorist encampment or an air base to shift the focus of national attention and raise their approval ratings a few points?

Donald Trump isn’t the first President to receive the “looking presidential” kudos, and he probably won’t be the last, either.  But the association of military action and photo ops with foreign leaders with “looking presidential” troubles me.  Wouldn’t we rather incentivize our Presidents to focus on fixing what’s gone wrong in this country, and reserve the highest, gushing “looking presidential” praise for when the President does what the Constitution contemplates, and signs domestic legislation that has passed both Houses of Congress into law?

Trump’s Business Approach

Here’s a surprise:  Congress is mired in disputes about the new legislation that is supposed to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act (or at least claims to do something to deal with the ongoing problems with President Obama’s signature legislation).  There was supposed to be a vote on the legislation on the floor of the House of Representatives yesterday, but the tally got postponed over concerns that the legislation might fail.

President Trump has been involved in the wrangling, and last night he weighed in with what the Washington Post described as an “ultimatum.”  According to the Post, Trump told the Republicans in the House to either pass the legislation on Friday, or reject it, in which case Trump will move on to other items on his agenda.  Trump apparently will leave it up to the Republicans in the House to figure out whether they can agree or not.

the-interview-donald-trump-sits-down-with-business-insiderIt’s an interesting approach, and I suspect that it comes from Trump’s years of working in the business world.  Corporations typically don’t engage in open-ended negotiations, allowing events to marinate and slowly come together — which often seems to be how Congress works (if you believe that Congress works at all).  Instead, because there’s a time value to money and limits to corporate resources that can be expended on potential deals that don’t materialize, corporations set establish priorities, set deadlines, and push.  Once a deadline gets set, it becomes another means of applying pressure to the parties to reach an agreement, and if the deal doesn’t get done by the deadline, typically that takes the transaction off the table, the corporation moves on, and there is no going back.

Trump’s approach to this legislative test is, obviously, also informed by political considerations; he wants to set a deadline so members of Congress are actually forced to do something concrete, and we don’t have the lingering story of “what’s going to happen to Obamacare” attracting all of the media attention and detracting from the other things he’s trying to accomplish.  It’s a gamble, because if the legislation Trump is backing doesn’t pass, he could be painted as a failure in the early months of his Administration, making it less likely that he’ll be able to obtain passage of other parts of his agenda, like tax reform.  We already knew that Trump is a gambler, of course — his whole campaign was a bizarre, otherworldly gamble that paid off.  Now he’s bringing some of that high-stakes, business world approach to the legislative political realm.

We shouldn’t be surprised, by now, that Trump is going to continue to gamble and continue to do things in confounding ways.  Today we’ll get another lesson in whether his approach can actually work in Washington, D.C., even on a short term basis.

Trump’s 2005 Taxes

There was a dust-up yesterday about Donald Trump’s taxes.  MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow obtained two pages of Trump’s 2005 personal tax returns, which apparently had been leaked — by someone.  The two pages show that, in 2005, Trump reported income of $150 million, paid $38 million in taxes, primarily through the alternative minimum tax, and benefited from a continuing write-off of losses that apparently date back to 1995.

48550944-cachedThe White House bemoaned the leak of the two pages of the tax returns, noting that an unauthorized leak of tax returns is a violation of federal law.  At the same time, the White House noted that the two pages show that Trump paid a big chunk of money in federal taxes — while also pointing out that he has no obligation to pay one penny more in taxes than the law requires, a position that virtually every taxpayer heartily agrees with — and added that Trump also paid “tens of millions of dollars in other taxes, such as sales and excise taxes and employment taxes, and this illegally published return proves just that.”

In addition, some Trump supporters used the two pages of the return to refute some of the things said by Trump opponents during the presidential campaign — namely, that Trump wasn’t releasing his taxes because he was a poor businessman, his business empire really wasn’t that successful, and his returns would show that he paid no taxes at all.  As a result, some people are speculating that Trump himself engineered the leak and is using the 2005 return to play the media like a Stradivarius — by releasing limited documents that appear to refute opposition talking points, while at the same time objecting to leaks in violation of federal law.

It’s a messy story, and we’ll have to see whether we learn anything further about the source of the leak.  For now, I hold to two basic points:  (1) if Trump didn’t approve the leak and somebody in the federal government (specifically, the IRS) leaked the two pages of the 2005 return to advance their own personal political agenda, that is both illegal and a grossly inappropriate intrusion into Trump’s personal information and should be opposed by anyone, regardless of their political views, who has entrusted the government with their confidential information, via tax returns or otherwise; and (2) the returns show why presidential candidates should release their returns and why, if they object to such a release, voters should insist that they do so.  The 2005 returns indicate that Trump paid millions of dollars pursuant to the alternative minimum tax — a tax that Trump has talked about abolishing.  The public deserves to know whether political positions are motivated by a politician’s own self interest.