Step Right Up

In the wake of revelations that Donald Trump told Bob Woodward that he, Trump, had deliberately misled the American people about the dangers of Covid-19, White House officials reportedly are scrambling to assign blame. Aides are pointing fingers at each other, asking whose stupid idea it was to have Trump talk to Woodward in the first place.

The truth is, they couldn’t have stopped him.

Once upon a time I was a criminal prosecutor. It occasionally happened that I would find myself in trial on a case that looked far better on paper than it did when testimony was given in open court. Many was the time when I said, “Your Honor, the People rest,” and thought to myself, This case is a piece of crap. I’m gonna lose. Then the defendant would take the stand and lose the case right back to me. He’d say things that proved his guilt, or were so terrible that they made the jurors want to convict him as fast as they could. I’d win. Afterward, I’d think, Why did the defense put on a case at all? Why didn’t the attorney just rest right after I rested, and then argue to the jury that I hadn’t proved much of anything—certainly not enough to send a person to prison?

It took me a while to figure it out. The answer was that the defendant wanted to testify. Crooks tend to be people who have spent their lives pulling a fast one on family, friends, and acquaintances. They peddle bullshit, and over the course of time they hone their craft to the point that they think they will always be able to bullshit their way out of trouble. Then they get to court and it doesn’t work on strangers, and off to prison they go.

Their attorneys let them do this because it’s less hassle. If the attorney keeps the defendant off the stand and the jury convicts, the defendant is mad at his lawyer. If the defendant testifies and convinces the jury to convict him, he has no one to blame but himself. The attorney got paid up front, so who cares? Let the clown testify and convict himself.

Now think about how many decades Donald Trump has been peddling bullshit.

Trump is P.T. Barnum. He doesn’t worry about whether what he says is true. He is only concerned with whether what he says is useful. Life is all about—and only about—making a buck. If saying a thing makes him a buck, it’s right to say that thing. He thinks all the handwringing over the falsity of his statements is funny. He thinks you’re a loser and a sucker for thinking truth matters.

Trump thinks (wrongly) that his utilitarian view of language serves him well because he thinks (wrongly) that he is a successful businessman, and that lying has been one of the engines of his (illusory) success. So why wouldn’t he talk to Woodward? Trump didn’t talk to him for his last book, Fear: Trump in the White House, and the result was an unflattering portrait. Not this time. No sirree. This time, Trump the con artist was going to bullshit Woodward into writing a paean to the greatest President ever to appear under the Big Top.

No one in Trump’s orbit was ever going to stop him. It would be an affront to Trump’s ego to suggest that he couldn’t put one over on Woodward. Affronts to this President’s ego are not well-received. Why put your head on that chopping block? Let the clown testify and convict himself.

It is mildly interesting, I suppose, to wonder whether Trump understands the mistake he made. Does he know how badly he screwed up, or is he confused about all the fuss? If it’s the latter, he has come to believe his own bullshit. If it’s the former, he will never admit it. Either way, we can expect him to lash out soon at some unrelated target in an attempt to change the subject. The key to sleight of hand, after all, is to distract the mark while the con takes place just out of view. Come one, come all: the circus is in town.

The Speech That Should Be

“My fellow Americans:

“On this Memorial Day we remember the many thousands of American men and women who answered the call of their country and gave their lives to preserve and defend the greatest experiment in self-government the world has ever known. We recall and honor their ultimate sacrifice, and as we do so we cannot help but also recall the sacrifices made on the home front by those who were not directly engaged on the front lines, but who nevertheless felt themselves part of a great struggle in which they were called upon to do everything in their power to support the men and women fighting on the field of battle.

“Today we are engaged in another great struggle that tests our character as a nation and as a people. Our adversary does not hate us—for it is not human—and thus it cannot be made to abandon hatred or change its ways. It has no flesh and no face, and thus does not care how similar are the pigments of our skins or the features of our faces. It does not think, and thus cannot be deterred by any rational calculation. The adversary we face today exploits a fundamental characteristic of the human condition—our need for the company and society of other human beings. That need makes us vulnerable to a virus that exploits our social nature to propagate and to kill its hosts.

“It is precisely because we are being attacked at a point of such vulnerability that we must now summon a strength and unity that eludes us in happier, more pacific times. For this virus can only be defeated if we have the strength to persevere in the measures necessary to allow our front-line health care workers to do their jobs without being overwhelmed with new patients. It can only be defeated if we act with the unity of purpose that ensures we Americans not only keep ourselves safe, but that we protect the safety of our neighbors and our communities, as well. It can only be defeated if we understand that we all stand together or we all fall separately.

“Whatever differences we have in happier times do not matter now. Those differences are a luxury of sorts. A people secure in their health and wellbeing may squabble over economic policy or public morality. But a people engaged in a life or death struggle must be singularly focused on survival—their own, that of their neighbors, and that of their larger communities. When the battle for survival is won, we may indulge our grievances and resume our arguments. But for now, we must give meaning and effect to the name our founders gave us. We must be the United States of America.

“Memorial Day calls upon us to remember that our wars were most often fought by people who were not professional soldiers. Often they were not volunteers. Yet, in every conflict, they summoned the courage to overcome the hardships they were called upon to endure, and to surmount the challenges they faced. Not for one moment do I doubt the courage and dedication of our health-care workers who serve on the front lines of our current struggle day in and day out. Often they do so at the cost of their own wellbeing—sometimes at the cost of their lives. Yet they do not falter.

“Americans on the home front have always rallied to support those on the front lines. We have sacrificed our creature comforts and conveniences so that resources could be dedicated to the fight. We have done without because we knew the sacrifice was temporary—but also because we knew that success was vital.

“It is no less vital now. Americans are no less dedicated to victory and no less committed to the proposition that a free and fractious people will close ranks and stand as one when a threat appears from over the horizon. We may gripe about our desire for a haircut, or a manicure, or an evening out. But we know that these are small sacrifices to make so that weary doctors and nurses can end their shifts and return to their families. We may complain about having to wear a face mask, but we know that it is far easier to do so than to keep our national economy closed. We know that we can do these things for each other and for our nation. We know that when we tell our children about the Pandemic of 2020, we want to be able to tell them we did our part.

“I believe in the resolve and compassion of the American people. I believe that as our health care professionals and our state leaders decide how much we can reopen our country, and how fast, we will listen carefully. Together, we will ensure that all are safe and prosperous. Together, we will win this struggle and emerge stronger than before. On this Memorial Day, let us consecrate the sacrifices made by those whom we honor today by rededicating ourselves to the American experiment with a renewed spirit of national purpose and an unflinching commitment to this common cause. Thank you.”

Death by Chocolate Chip

Among my wife’s many redeeming qualities is a splendiferous singing voice. (She’s an alto.) Our local university has availed itself of her talent by inviting her to serenade audiences in its campus-community chorus. As a result, I have spent many an evening at the Mondavi listening to performances of music that I occasionally liked and regarding which I more often gave thanks that I never belonged to a religion that made me sit through such stuff. Regardless, I am an attentive and dutiful husband; what interests her interests me. Thus, when her director asked her to host a social gathering for the chorus in our home, I readily agreed and negotiated a suitable amount of time during which I was required to socialize and after which I could hide in our bedroom with my iPad and earbuds.

In preparation for the event, Linda baked cookies for one hundred people, give or take. Chocolate chip and peanut butter. Into the freezer they went, once she had extracted a promise from me not to conduct my usual raiding forays. (Although this should not need to be said, I do not steal cookies. Some escape, and others are liberated. This is not theft.) Then a relative of the director took ill, and the event was postponed. Then a pandemic swept the country, the chorus went on leave until the fall, and gatherings of any sort were verboten.

I said to Linda, “When this thing is rescheduled in the fall, are you really going to want to serve cookies that have been in the freezer for months?” She allowed as how she’ll probably want to start fresh.

I am midway through the fourth tin. This is a dangerous endeavor in a nation bereft of toilet paper. It’s a race against time, really. Will the stores restock before I finish two more tins? After two more tins, will I be able to hold my hands steady enough to operate a motor vehicle and drive to the store? Is the sugar rush worth the jitters and double vision? Okay, that last one’s easy.

These are tough times. Tough times call for tough measures. Tough measures and warm, gooey, chocolatey joy. Tell me I’m wrong. Actually, don’t bother; after the next tin the words will just slide off the page in front of my quivering, spasming eyeballs anyway.