Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones, But Humor Is Way More Fun!

The last time a Presidential candidate shot his competitor was around 7:00 AM, July 11, 1804. To be sure, it was some years after Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr had first competed for the public’s approval, and Hamilton never actually ran for President, but the intensity of their dislike for each other resulted in the famous duel that cost Hamilton his life and Aaron Burr his reputation (which, in those days was considered as important as one’s life – hence the duel.)

It was triggered by animosity that had flown back and forth between the two men for years as Burr chased the Presidency and Hamilton opposed him. 

There was Hamilton’s line in 1796, “I feel it is a religious duty to oppose his career.” 

Or his January 4, 1801 comment, “Mr. Burr will probably make stipulations, but he will laugh in his sleeve while he makes them and will break them the first moment it may serve his purpose.”  

(Hey! History does repeat itself!)

That didn’t do it though. What really got under the burr in Burr’s saddle was being called “despicable” by Hamilton in April of 1804. Three months later he was dead.

Apparently in those days, “despicable” was a fighting word.  

(It’s not an exact repeat of history, but Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” immediately comes to mind. I wonder how she did in American History.)

35 years after Hamilton’s death, in 1839, British author Edward Bulwer-Lytton decided that “the pen is mightier than the sword”.  I’m not sure that officially ended politicians’ shooting each other, but it makes a nice coda, doesn’t it?

And it may be why British politicians decided to use humor to leaven political insult.

”The Right Honorable Gentleman’s smile was like the silver plate on a coffin. “ – Benjamin Disraeli about Robert Peel.

“He was a great man in an era of small events.” – Winston Churchill on Prime Minister Lord Rosebery.

“If Gladstone fell into the Thames, that would be a misfortune. If anybody pulled him out, that, I suppose, would be a calamity.” – Former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli on Former British Prime Minister William Gladstone.

John Montagu: “Sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox!” John Wilkes: “That, sir, depends on whether I first embrace your Lordship’s principles or your Lordship’s mistresses.”

Winston Churchill on Prime Minister Clement Attlee: “An empty cab pulled up to Downing Street. Clement Attlee got out.”

“She probably thinks Sinai is the plural of sinus.” – MP Jonathan Aitken on Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

British Prime Minister David Cameron on former Prime Minister Tony Blair: “He was the future once.”

Not to be outdone, American politicians have also brought wit to politics.

“No more backbone than a chocolate éclair.” Assistant Secretary of the Navy Teddy Roosevelt on President William McKinley.

“People might cite George Bush as proof that you can be totally impervious to the effects of a Harvard and Yale education.” Barney Frank.

“Bill Clinton’s foreign policy experience is pretty much confined to having had breakfast once at the International House of Pancakes.”  Pat Buchanan.

“History buffs probably noted the reunion at a Washington party a few weeks ago of three ex-presidents: Carter, Ford, and Nixon — See No Evil, Hear No Evil, and Evil.” – Bob Dole

“He’s a nice guy, but he played too much football with his helmet off.” Lyndon Johnson on Gerald Ford.

And then there was the more recent 2011 Correspondents’ Dinner, when Obama offered “the long version” of his birth certificate: a clip of the birth scene from The Lion King (see it here: 

Now, that was really funny and really insulting .

To me, those zingers are a lot more effective than “despicable”, if for no other reason than they trigger laughs, not duels. 

Humor does bring civility to an otherwise brutal contest.

I know what you’re thinking. Now he’s going to compare these political zingers to those of the politicians of today. He’s going to compare people like Churchill and Disraeli, Roosevelt and Dole, to (at this writing) 26 candidates and “he-who-needs-no-introduction”.

Nah…. why would I do that when the next 16 months will do it for me?

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Why Did Superman Turn Into Clark Kent?

If ever a hero could have ridden to rescue of truth, justice and the American way, it could have and should have been Robert Mueller.

But it wasn’t.

Part of the reason may have been politics. The Mueller hearings were more than hearings. People (including the Director of the FBI) wouldn’t read the over 400 pages (some estimates indicate only 3% of the country read it), so Democrats had to put it on TV to get eyeballs. 

The Party of Trump didn’t attempt to refute a single conclusion of the report. They knew it was rock solid. Instead, they attacked Mueller and the motivation for the report in a typical Trump move: if you can’t win on substance, attack the messenger; if you can’t attack the messenger, distract by attacking something – anything- else.

If you paid close attention, you saw Mueller make some damning statements, but they were the equivalent of whispering “Fire” in a theater filled with screaming people. 

Here are some of those statements:

* Mueller said Trump was not exonerated, despite Trump’s claim to the contrary.

* He said Trump did obstruct justice – at least 5 times – and could have been indicted, but for the Justice department policy to not indict a sitting President.

* He said witnesses supplied by Trump lied, repeatedly.

* He said Trump asked his staff to falsify records.

* He said Trump was unpatriotic because of looking for campaign help from Russia.

* When asked about Trump’s glee at Wikileaks leaks, he said, “problematic is an understatement.”

* He said the only option for holding the President accountable was Congress.

It’s worth repeating: in nearly six hours of hearings Republicans did not even attempt to refute the basic facts of the report. 

So, that’s all pretty damning, right? 

Beyond that, Mueller brought a sterling reputation to the investigation. He served in the Marines in Viet Nam, won a Bronze Star for saving a wounded Marine and a Purple Heart for being shot. He was a homicide prosecutor in Washington, US assistant attorney general for the criminal division of the Justice Department, and headed the FBI. He went after and convicted Mafia kingpins and foreign kingpins, such a Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega.

This was a man of courage and strength, of thoroughness and old-school integrity. He was Superman in a button down shirt.

Then he turned into Clark Kent. 

He gave mostly one-word responses. He hesitated and stumbled on longer answers. He consistently just reiterated portions of the report. Many times, he just refused to answer. His whole appearance was weak, uninformative, and without conviction.

He’s famous for disliking the spotlight. But he has made stands in the past when it was important to the country. One example: a lifelong Republican, he stood up to Bush and Cheney, refusing to allow the FBI to do “enhanced interrogation” (torture). 

And that’s what’s so disappointing.

He knew Trump had tried to obstruct his investigation. He knew Russia had tried to swing the election to Trump. He knew the country needed to be informed, clearly and forcefully.

But he didn’t do it.

He could have made a short statement at the beginning, simply listing the points from his own report that I noted above – with page numbers, but without commentary. That would have made clear to the whole country the main facts of the investigation – no more, no less. 

But he made no statement. Why? 

He let these major conclusions get buried in the barrage of electioneering by both panels. Why? 

The Mueller hearings were the last chance to inform the public. Instead, Mueller hid behind 400+ pages that no-one will read. Why?

Astoundingly, when asked, he even refused to read aloud passages from his own report. 

At a time when we most needed – and had – a Superman to inspire the country against Russian attacks on our democracy and bullying by the White House, he turned into Clark Kent.

The question is: why?

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Going Back To Dallas

The plane left in a steep climb to 10,000 feet. Two hours to Dallas and the Easterner still wasn’t sure he should be going. He’d gotten an email a few days earlier from the widow of a fraternity brother. “Sad News”, it said. Another friend had called her “to say that Tek had passed early that morning”.

What? Wait! Tek … Kimbell? 

He remembered a tall, lanky guy with a Texas drawl, a big Adams Apple and an open-mouth laugh. Tek and Kyle and Hamilton and Redle and Gifford and others had helped ease the intimidation of one of the country’s top universities, not to mention California in the 60’s, for this life-long Easterner.

He had seen Tek once in 55 years, at their 50th reunion. A few grey hairs and a few more pounds were the only differences. Well, and a wife. He remembered the party at Betsy Gifford’s house, hearing how they had met. Tek had almost lost a leg in an accident while in the Navy after college and Nancy was one of the military team who nursed him back to health. The two had slow-danced like teenagers that night, almost 50 years after they met. Some love never ages. 

Still, once in 55 years? Why was he attending this funeral when he had skipped so many others over the years? Maybe because of that: because it had been so many years? Nah! He was pretty sure he was invading someone else’s grief. 

He thought back to the last time he’d been in Dallas. It was 1963 and he’d stayed at another friend’s house. The friend’s father had talked about “N—-’s” and how he’d shoot any who came onto his lawn and it was perfectly legal in Texas. “And I’d shoot Kennedy too”, the father said. The Easterner never forgot that moment.

He and Tek and Redle and Gifford had shared an off-campus apartment that year. Tek had come back that fall to finish some courses so he could graduate, but he had no tuition money because his father had cut him off for not graduating on time. The three paid his share of the apartment so he could work to pay for those last few courses. Such was the bonding of these fraternity brothers.

On the morning of November 22nd, he and Redle and Gifford listened to the radio’s initial reports of Kennedy’s assassination. He remembered the Dallas father’s threat and wasn’t surprised. The others were stunned, but dry-eyed when Tek walked into the apartment, tears flowing. The Easterner said something, like “Only in Dallas!” and Tek just stood there, absorbing the anger. Later, when the Easterner apologized, Tek said he’d been crying, not just for Kennedy, but also out of shame for Dallas. The Easterner never forgot that, either.

He met up with his friends from Oregon, Montana, and California at the hotel. They fell into conversation as though there had been no gap. He remembered the lack of measuring, the lack of judgment of those college years. Some things don’t change. 

As the funeral started, he again wondered why he had come. He knew none of the 150 to 200 people there: the wife, kids, all those people who knew and loved Tek from elementary school forward. 

He was wondering what he was even doing there when one of the eulogists, a lifelong friend of Tek, mentioned Tek’s returning to campus after graduation to take some extra courses. The Easterner leaned over to Kyle and asked how they could have that wrong. “Probably Tek never told anyone he didn’t graduate on time” was the whispered answer.

At the gathering after the funeral, he watched her greeting people with soft hugs and an occasional small smile. His fraternity friends introduced him to Nancy. 

“Tell her” said Kyle. So he did. He told her about three fraternity brothers helping another at a time when he really needed brotherly love. And he told her of his shame at watching Tek cry in shame for his beloved Dallas.

She brightened, visibly. She called her son and daughter and he told them, too. They smiled, too.

He took those smiles with him, the next day in the plane as it soared above a Dallas sparkling in the morning sun, and all the way home.

He wouldn’t forget that moment either.

(If you like this, pass it on. If you don't, pass it on anyway. Why should you suffer alone?)

Kids Are Born Curious. Grownups? Well…

My kids, all of whom are brighter than the average lightbulb, were no exception to the “Kids are curious” rule. As a good father I learned early on to answer all their questions truthfully and thoroughly. 

Take Santa Claus, for example. 

One day one of my kids found out from a friend that his mother had been a little more wistful than truthful in explaining the bearded giver. And I had been way too busy re-reading the back of the cereal box to contribute. 

The power of giving?  I can explain that any day of the week. The notion of being thankful? In a second. But Santa? Uh….

The news from his friend devastated him. And us. Until the dog started barking in empathy and then chased the cat straight into the Christmas tree, which shed ornaments like snowflakes (except with more noise), which led to a few well-expressed sentiments from his mother, which made my son laugh. 

Which happily ended the discussion about Santa.

His mother and I were so devastated by his sadness that no more children were produced for what felt like years. And then we had two at once, which, I explained to him, was a result of waiting so long.

Having lots of kids has taught me the art of explaining things I knew nothing about. 

Electricity, for example. “Dad?” he asked one day at around four years old, as I tucked him into bed, “how does a lamp know when to turn on and when to turn off?”  

“Easy”, I said. “The magic in your back.” I walked over to the wall switch and leaned against it. “Let me show you.” I rub my back up and down against the switch and Presto! – the lamp turned off and then on.

“Oh.” He nodded thoughtfully. Then, “Dad? The switch is too high for a little kid. How do I turn it on and off?”

“You call me or your Mom.” I gave him a kiss good-night and turned off the light with my magic back on the way out. 

Or take toilets. By four, he knew how to use one, but hadn’t really considered how they worked until one day when I was changing his new sister’s and brother’ diapers. 

“Ew!” he said. “That smells, Dad!”

“Yes, it does”. I said. “It’s worse than smelly fish. That’s why we teach kids about the toilet as early as possible.”

“Boy, I’m glad you taught me about toilets!” Then, “ but how do they work, Dad? And where does it all go?”

My first thought was to run and get his mother, but I controlled my fear. “Well”, I said, “that’s hard to explain”.

“And what about the pee-pee. Does it go to a different place than the poo-poo?”

“Uh… no. It all goes to the same place”. I took him into the bathroom. I raised the lid of the toilet. “See down there?” I said, pointing to the water.

“That’s where it goes” – closing the lid – “and then, we turn this handle” – turning the handle – “And…” a great whishing sound filled the room. 

“…That’s the ThroneMan taking it all away!”

“What’s a ThroneMan, Dad?”

“He’s the invisible King of the bathroom. He keeps the toilet clean.”

“But…where does he put all the —?”

“—That’s one of the mysteries of life, Korwin.” I say sagely. “Like where flies go in the winter or why ice cream tastes so good.”

I thought that ended the discussion until early last week, when I was in the Children’s Section of a book store and discovered two in a series of new children’s books called The Invention Hunters. One explains electricity, the other machines, including toilets. Both are aimed at kids 4 and up. 

It was very upsetting.

You see, the kids in the books are the smart ones. The grownups, The Invention Hunters, are doofuses. They tumble down from a rocket-ship house in search of new inventions for their Museum of Inventionology. Everyday objects trigger intense curiosity – and childlike guesses – from them.  A little girl and boy (looking suspiciously like a 4 year old I once knew) patiently explain how these things work.     

My favorite part is the picture of a fish going down the toilet.

(The Invention Hunters was written and illustrated by a constantly curious ex-four year old, Korwin Briggs, and published by Little Brown and Company.) 

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The difference between dignity and fear

When the Women’s Team won the World Cup on Sunday there were cheers of “USA!, USA!” from players wrapped in US flags and fans sporting red, white and blue.  

But then came a second cheer, a full-throated chant from the crowd: “EQUAL PAY!, EQUAL PAY!”

This team did more than win a World Cup. They increased awareness of the pay disparity between men and women.

They are paid 60% less than the men’s team, the one that didn’t even qualify for the 2018 Men’s World Cup. So, in March, they filed suit against the US Soccer Federation for gender discrimination, a move that reverberated well beyond the world of soccer.

Today, even well paid women make only 81% of what men make, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 1979, it was 62%.

Let me introduce you to the three, economicly middle class women, who were in their prime in 1979, at 30 years old. The names are changed for obvious reasons – dignity being the biggest – but these are real women.

In 1979, “Suzy” was 30. She worked as a secretary throughout two marriages and did most of the work of raising a daughter. Two divorces later she has a small nest egg. She makes around $9 an hour at a women’s clothing store and gets discounts.  The store limits her hours to 29 a week to avoid giving her benefits, even sick days. In slow times, they drop her hours down to 20 a week or less. The most she can make, at 29 hours, is $1044 a month. So she works a second job cleaning houses at $80 to $125 a day. That, and a net of $860 in social security a month, has to cover food, car, rent, taxes, utilities, etc. When she is too old to work, she will have only the $860 a month.  She is 70 years old.

“Alice” started an accounting firm with her husband. They paid him more than her to save on social security payments. They were divorced 30 years ago when the kids were in high school. Her social security, after deductions, is around $800 a month, so she works three jobs: bookkeeping, care-taking old people (“a Granny Nanny”), and delivering meals at night. Those three jobs average about $12/hour or $1920 a month. With social security that’s $2720 a month before taxes. She will have only the $800 when she can’t work. She is 73.

“Anne” immigrated to the US in her 20’s with one suitcase and a degree in nursing. But she wasn’t licensed in the US so she worked for an American nursing degree, which got her a nursing job paying  $4/hour. She married and worked on a horse farm. After divorcing, she worked and paid for a Master’s degree in education. She now teaches at a private school. She has three sources of income: teaching, tutoring after school, and renting out two rooms of a small condo she bought. She has one more year to retirement and, with the sale of her condo, can afford a small house in Florida. Relative to the other two, she did well. But the school gives no pension. Her long career and master’s degree paid off with social security income of around $2000 a month. But that’s all she’ll have when she can’t work. She is 74.

While women like these were being paid less than men, they were also paid nothing for home-making and raising children after they got home from work. 

The impact of paying women less than they’re worth, less than men with similar jobs, isn’t simply a matter of conscience; it’s also a matter economics.

Being paid 62% of a man’s salary in 1979 has compounded over 40 years, even as the disparity went down. Today the cost of an “old folks” home, is between $4,000 and $9,000 a month. These three women do not have that kind of money and never will, even as costs rise. 

Today there are five 85 year old women for every two 85 year old men. By 2050, in 30 years, the elderly population will double to 80 million. Sure 81% of men’s pay will help, but the disparity will still compound. And women will still suffer in their helpless years.

Those soccer players will no doubt get equal pay and get it this year. But what about their mothers, aunts, teachers, grandmothers and other loved ones?  And what about your mother, your aunt, your children’s teacher, your grandmother, and other loved ones?

That’s the difference between dignity and fear.

(If you like this, pass it on. If you don't, pass it on anyway. Why should you suffer alone?)