My Big Question About The Democratic Debates

The last two nights of television were mesmerizing, not because they included dramatic shoot-em-ups or humorous “reality”, but because each night 10 real presidential candidates supplied real answers to real questions. 

Granted, a lot of the spontaneous remarks were planned, but they were still well stated.

For example, on Thursday night, several candidates tried talking over each other and words flew around like fireworks. That’s when Kamala Harris “spontaneously” came out with  “Hey, guys, you know what? America does not want to witness a food fight. They want to know how we’re going to put food on their table.”

That shut down the fireworks… for a several whole seconds.

Elizabeth Warren took part in the wrong debate night… Well, maybe. Her moral outrage at Trump, Big Business, and Republicans stood out on Wednesday. It would have been drowned out by Bernie’s high volume self-righteousness on Thursday.

Also on Wednesday, Beto O’Rourke was about as compelling as a boy scout at a drinking party. Tulsi Gabbard (rep from Hawaii) was credible. Jay Inslee (Washington Governor) very impressive with real governing experience. John Delaney (rep from Maryland) was pragmatic and smart (he described calling hospitals in Maryland to ask about Medicare-for-all; they all told him they’d go broke if that was their only source of income).

Bill de Blasio was… New York obnoxious, I guess. it would have been interesting to see Bernie and Bill on the same night, two shouters going at it. 

(Wow! how about a sequel to these debates? How about a Bill- Donald-Bernie WWE takedown!).

Overall, Wednesday was kind of boring, though. Without Warren, I might have read a newspaper.

The Thursday team learned from the Wednesday team. They came out swinging – primarily at Trump – but also at Biden.  

Kamala Harris sucker-punched Biden, by first saying she knew he wasn’t a racist, then, by accusing him of racism by bringing up 1) his somewhat admiring remarks about Eastland and Talmadge – two racist senators from the 60’s and 70’s – and 2) his attempt to throttle school busing. While he had explanations for both, they were more detailed than he had time for, not to mention a little weak. So, the audience was left wondering if he is a racist. Kamala packs a powerful punch.

She kept the Anita Hill hearings in her quiver, possibly for another debate. But be warned, candidates, this is a take-no-prisoners competitor. 

Buttigieg is refreshing as a candidate. He’s very smart, forthright, and well spoken, with unexpected humility. He didn’t dodge the police controversy in city of South Bend: when asked why he didn’t have a more racially diverse police force he said “Because I couldn’t get it done”.

(Just for one delicious moment, imagine Trump answering a question like that).

Michael Bennet, Senator from Colorado, was reasoned, sensible, and highly experienced, as was John Hickenlooper, former Colorado governor (must be the mountain air). 

Who the heck was Marianne Williamson? Her chyron said “author”. Are we now so desperate, we’re running authors for President? If so, I’d rather hear from John Grisham or Tom Clancy. They’re way cool.

Harris won the night, narowly, in my view. Biden’s gaffe last week will have lasting impact. Had he simply apologized for opposing busing, he would have won. But hubris can complicate a 46 year career. He represents a more hopeful time, a prouder time. His age didn’t show as a flaw; it showed as wisdom, patience, steadiness – qualities that have been sorely missed. He may not be up to the political fighting of 2019. But, particularly in view of the swipes from some of the younger candidates, he reminds us of what we miss in a leader.

But the coolest part of either night, for me, was the audio mess-up on Wednesday. When Lester Holt, Savannah Guthrie and Jose Diaz-Balart took a break and were replaced by Rachel Maddow and Chuck Todd, their mics weren’t cut, so their back-stage chit-chat competed with Maddows and Todds’ on-air questions. Confusion reigned everywhere. To fix the audio, NBC took one of the longest commercial breaks on record. Now that’s drama.

In an earlier life, I worked in TV, including remote (out of studio) production. In all that time, including remote productions for NBC, I never saw anything like that.

So… a computerized audio board hiccup? FOX hacked the production truck? Trump sabotage? A Putin spy? Hmmm.

The debates were cool. But, hey NBC – what happened to the mics?

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The difference between black and white and grey

Although I can’t anticipate everything that will be broached in the Democratic debates this week, I’m sure Joe Biden will get a lot of heat for his recent boast about his ability, in his early years as a Senator, to get along with segregationist Senators James Eastland (D-Miss.) and Herman Talmadge (D-Ga.). In his telling, he also joked that Eastland never called him “boy”, just “son”.

That boast and the “boy”/“son” comparison immediately short-circuited the entire Democratic grid. 

New York’s Mayor and Democratic Presidential candidate Mayor Bill de Blazio: “Eastland thought my multiracial family should be illegal & that whites were entitled to ‘the pursuit of dead n—–s,’ ” 

California Senator and Democratic candidate Kamala Harris (“If those men had their way, I wouldn’t be in the United States Senate and on this elevator right now.)

New Jersey Senator and Democratic Candidate Cory Booker: “Vice President Biden’s relationships with proud segregationists are not the model for how we make America a safer and more inclusive place for black people, and for everyone.”

de Blasio and Harris are absolutely right. Eastland and Talmage did carry the standard for repulsive beliefs.

But Cory Booker’s was absolutely wrong. Biden’s relationships with Eastland and Talmage were, in fact, a model for making this country “safer and more inclusive place for black people, and for everyone.”

Here’s why.

First, Senators don’t get to choose other Senators; their voters do. So if 1970’s voters in Mississippi and Alabama were racist (which they were), they would probably send racist Senators to Washington (which they did).

Second, Biden had two choices: work with Eastland and Talmadge on issues that didn’t involve race or refuse to work with them on anything because they were racists. If you look at Congress today and over the last few administrations, you can see the cost of refusing to work with people whose beliefs you abhor: dysfunctional government.

Congress in the 70’s, in contrast, got things done.

Biden’s comment about being called “son” instead of “boy” showed he’s either inured to racism at a base level or has never understood it.  

It marked him as “The White Man” in the race and will stick to him like dog poop on a shoe.

But that doesn’t negate his point about reaching across the aisle – in politics or life.  

Which brings up a much larger question: when is someone’s political, religious, or secular beliefs so abhorrent that we stop discussion and go to war? That is not an idle question: Oregon had to shut down their state house last Friday “due to a militia threat”. Why? Because of disagreement – not over racism – but over a climate change vote.

Republicans and Democrats used to get to know each other outside of Congress – at cocktail parties and such. That’s the atmosphere Biden was citing. Now they don’t mingle. So the only thing they know about each other is that they are either friends or enemies. There is no trust and no way to build it. 

Which makes governing almost impossible. Not all differences in today’s world are as black and white as racism. 

I have no use for Donald Trump as a person or President, for myriad reasons. Ditto Pence, McConnell. I have friends who do like all three, though. These friends are honest, kind people. Should I reject their friendship because of their politics? Should they reject me because of my politics?

A lot of people today would say yes to both questions. But that would obviate the other qualities that we like in each other. Our choice of friends would be reduced to one area: political preference.

Here’s an irony: my other friends, those who also dislike Trump, Pence and McConnell, are also honest, kind people. Really. Both groups have very similar values outside of politics. 

Would Biden have hung out with Eastland and Talmadge if they weren’t Senators? I doubt it. But the fact that he had to look past their racism to other qualities, or not do his job, allowed him and them to govern.  

What we lack in Congress and in personal relationships now, is that. Not all differences are as black and white as racism, Nazism, etc. Disagreement over climate change is just one example. And refusing to debate leaves one ugly alternative. 

I don’t know whether Biden will or should be elected. I just hope that whoever wins has the ability to see the difference between black and white and grey. 

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How To Buy A Car…And Retain Your Dignity

Years ago I had an office in the old library building in Wayne, PA. The guy in the next office, Ben, worked for the Ford Motor Company as coordinator between dealerships in the area. He had worked for Ford since getting out of the Navy after the Korean War. He had great stories about Ford, including Allentown’s Lee Iacocca and the origin of the Mustang (according to Ben, Iacocco needed a quick answer to Chevy’s Corvette, so he told his designers to put a sporty new body on the Ford Falcon and – Presto! – an American icon).

Ben also told me why people don’t trust car dealers. 

During WWII, American automobile plants became war machine plants – making tanks, Jeeps, airplanes, etc., instead of cars. After the war, there was pent up demand for new cars. According to Ben, until supply began to catch up to demand, a buyer might go into a dealership and make a deal for a car for delivery several weeks or months later. When it came time to pick up the new car, the dealer would have either sold the car to someone else for a higher price or simply demand more money. 

Haggling over the price of a car continues to this day, with a few exceptions. Saturn (before GM and unions throttled it) offered a fixed price for new cars, as did the original Prius and now Tesla. CarMax and others do the same with used cars. But haggling is still the rule.

If you like combat, buying a new car is nirvana. If you don’t, it’s like getting a tooth pulled in slow motion. Last week, it was my tooth… uh, turn.

Here’s what I learned:

Don’t read Consumer Reportsor Motor Trendor Car And Driveror any of the other magazines that review cars. They get very detailed about everything from mileage to interior space to engine details. Too much detail can kill the fun. I read one article on Honda CRV’s that compared something called a CVT to a normal transmission. 

CVT, CVS, CBS …who cares?  

If you want to actually drive several cars before deciding on which one to buy, don’t tell anyone. Especially the sales manager. 

I test-drove a Hyundai in Downingtown, PA. When I asked the salesman for a brochure, he said he’d ask his manager.  About ten minutes later a somewhat annoyed guy sat down in front of me, said he was the manager and, instead of giving me a brochure, said,  “What do I have to do to sell you a car today!?” 

I decided to be honest: “Actually, I’m not buying a car today. I just wanted to drive one.” 

That’s when one of us decided I should leave. Without a brochure.

Do join Costco or AAA. They have negotiated bottom line prices with a variety of dealerships, so you just have to tell the dealer you’re a member to skip several days of negotiations.

Do compare prices with nearby dealerships, but don’t confuse Wilmington DE with Wilmington, NC.  That would be very stupid. 

Don’t get upset when you agree on a price with the salesman and he takes you to the “Finance Manager”, who is really just another salesman, who says he’s videoing you and spends the next hour trying to sell you a whole bunch of extras, from warrantees to floor mats. Then, when you decline, he refuses to close on the car until you sign a legal document saying you don’t want any extras.  

Remember, he’s just trying to be helpful, kind of like high school, when your teacher described the benefits of memorizing the periodic table.

Don’t read the manual before you start driving your new car. Americans are known for not reading directions until all else fails, so you have a legacy to uphold. If the new car is more computer than car, just ask your kids how to turn on the engine, radio, navigation system, and parking break. Everything else can wait until you’ve mastered your smart TV.

And most important, don’t tell anyone how much you paid for your car. Ever. They’ll just laugh at you.

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What’s Wrong With Birthdays

I used to love birthdays.  Particularly my kids’ birthdays. They were so cute. And they were so happy with things like balloons and candy – easy stuff.

As kids grow into teenagers and adults, the special nature of birthdays evolves. My kids became more discriminating as they grew. Shrieks of glee and laughter now required more than balloons and candy. They required things like preparation and thought. 

That’s OK, because I was always up to the task. At least in my mind.

My kids developed adult judgment at a reasonably early age – kindergarten, I think.  That’s the first time I saw eye rolls from them or heard the term “Dad Jokes”. 

What most kids don’t know is that growing up or “maturing” is an ongoing process. Some people call it “gaining wisdom”, but, really, it’s just growing up. 

Breaking news, kids!  You’ll never completely mature. You’ll just get better at faking it.  

My biggest advance in that area came last week at the twins’ birthday party, when I realized most kids survive their parents’ immaturities very well. In fact, that’s what I told the twins – “You guys survived your upbringing really well!” 

Well, no. To be honest, I said that to my grandchildren. 

When my kids complain about their upbringing, I bring up baseball or tell Dad Jokes. If that fails, I bring up politics. Works every time. (And you thought only politicians knew that trick.)  

Aging is different than maturing. Aging is when you can’t hit the golf ball as far, when you stop recognizing the movie stars on the late night shows, when the answer to a trivia game was an everyday staple of your youth. 

Aging is when the “old days” were your heydays.

I’m not there yet. That is, I am not aging, despite what my doctor, my neighbors, or my kids say. And there’s a good reason for that: I don’t want to. 

Why age, when you don’t have to? It’s a choice, not a requirement.

Now, I’m not suggesting people past their prime try out for the NFL or join the Navy Seals. But I am suggesting you can walk around the block a few times instead of around the living room. 

And you can change some of the basics of life. For example, a few years ago, I stopped celebrating my birthday the old fashioned way. 

Instead of adding a year at each birthday, I subtract a year. Last year I was a year older than I am this year. And the year before I was two years older. 

I can hardly wait until next year.

And with each year, I get two benefits: I feel more energetic and I have an excuse for doing stupid things: I’m younger and we all know how stupid younger people are.

Now, I do occasionally meet resistance. The receptionist at my doctor’s office is getting suspicious, so this year she asked me, not how old I am, but what year I was born. Fortunately I quickly did the math, and she dutifully changed her records.

I do not want to lose Medicare, though, so next year I’m going to tell her I have a special dispensation from the government. On account of my unique medical condition of I’m part of a hush-hush government research project, code name: Button Benjamin. 

I’m not worried about my social security payments – I’m just a nine-digit number to them and they to me.

My high school classmates are so decrepit, they haven’t noticed that I’m attending reunions for the younger classes; I tell the younger ones I transferred into their class my senior year, but it’s OK if they don’t remember me right away.

My college classmates are not as easily fooled. But they’re very nice. They just put an arm around my shoulder and tell me I’m doing fine.

The dog doesn’t care how old I am as long as he gets his walks and his treats and can sit at my feet while I watch old reruns on TV. That’s what I like about my dog. He never judges.

As you can see, getting a year younger every birthday works quite well.

What’s wrong with birthdays? Nothing. 

Next week: the difference between senility and dementia… if I can remember.

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