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Wednesday, October 5, 2016

What I learned at the vice presidential debate

kaine pence.jpg

Mike Pence is the luckiest man alive.

Last night’s debate was the maximum expanse of his cone of uncertainty.

The second, and only unscripted, time in the campaign he’d have a big TV audience represented the greatest danger he’d slip and reveal who he really is: a religious zealot who cast off Catholicism for a Christianism whose cultural rage would have shocked Savonarola with its obsession to regulate the sexual and reproductive choices of others; the governor who tried to create a tax-funded Indiana state news service run by his appointees to spread the Good,  pre-approved- News; and the practitioner of the most primitive expressions of voodoo economics and social welfare policies the pre-visitation Ebenezer Scrooge ever dreamed of.

And he managed to get picked for the #2 slot on a presidential ticket by the only man in America would could make Mike Pence look presidential. Seriously.

Pence even bears the imprimatur of God’s pit bull, Franklin Graham, who slopped his followers’ Facebook troughs yesterday while proclaiming, “I know Governor Pence and his wife and have stayed in their home.”

Pence has dreamed of Dick Cheney’s epitaph becoming “second-most powerful vice president ever” since word slipped out that The Donald’s people wooed John Kasich with assurances that as president, after long nights of tweetstorming, then rising, doing his hair, sexually harassing the White House maids, and making America great again, the Vulgar Yam’d need a veep to run everything else.

And Pence pulled it off last night. You’d never guess there’s a giant okra pod in the basement of the Indiana governor’s mansion, set to open in 33 days.

Aided by Senator Tim Kaine’s channeling of Winnie-the-Pooh’s neighbor Tigger, Pence came across as a dull, stolid Midwestern pol with a McCarthyesque, pneumatic drone of a voice and the purse-lipped look of Dana Carvey’s Church Lady having just been told there was was an autographed boxed set of “Fifty Shades of Grey” cached somewhere on the Longwood University campus (Pence thought he was at Norwood U) with a forged “Ex Libris Mike Pence” bookplate in each volume, and clues to its location being tweeted by Senator Elizabeth Warren.

If Dan Quayle- the last GOP veep dreamboat from Indiana- had been 25 years older in 1988, he’d have been Mike Pence last night.

Pence even channeled his fellow Hoosier pol’s hapless grasp for greatness: where Quayle sought to be the next John F. Kennedy, Pence snuggled into the shroud of Ronald Reagan. “There they go again,” he said of Kaine and the absent Hillary Clinton, whom he hoped to recast as Chang and Eng, the Siamese Twins of Socialism.

It’s an old schtick, as Politico reported in September:

Pence, who met Reagan at the White House when he was a 29-year-old congressional candidate in 1988, has long sought to model himself after the Republican icon, sometimes even speaking in the same clipped manner, with the same wry grin and subtle tilts of the head.

But I will be the first to admit this: for the most homophobic nominee- for president or vice president- in history, that the rights of LGBT Americans did not come up- at all, in his one national debate- is proof, to me, that Republican Jesus has a plan for the Governor of Indiana: a cloud in the distance, no bigger than one of Donald Trump’s tiny, clenched hands.

Both candidates credibly handled Job 1: keeping the animal spirits of their base voters ginned up with hunks of raw meat and plenty of Lego Policy Talk: clickbait phrases, bolted together interchangeably, to assure the MSNBC/Fox News one-channelers the true faith will be upheld.

Pence talked like he had a Magic 8 Ball in front of him, rolling it over for every question to see which of the twenty catchphrases its icosahedral die would reveal. Among them was “your insult-driven campaign”; “a weak and feckless [fill in type of] policy”; “avalanche of regulations”; “struggling economy” “war on coal”; “stand tall” ; “small and bullying dictator of Russia”; and old reliables like “Yes”, “Signs point to yes”, and “Better not tell you now.”

Kaine, defiantly wearing what the North Carolina Republican Party boneheadedly misidentified as “a Honduran flag pin” during the Democrats’ convention (it’s a pin for parents of active duty Marines), had rather clunkier catchphrases, like “the You’re Hired President” vs. “the You’re Fired President”, but mostly did his best to spin Pence into a tight cocoon of Trump comments and then defy him to defend them.

Pence wriggled manfully in his understated way, only his crow’s feet giving signs of the titanic mental effort his immobile face belied. His expressions ran the gamut- as Dorothy Parker wrote of the young Katherine Hepburn- from A to B: an up-and-down nod; a side-to-side nod; a downturned mouth, and a smirk (I can’t recall seeing his teeth once in the entire program).

But he had a hard row to hoe, making The Donald out a prince of the great and the good. When he couldn’t, which was most of the time, he just denied that Trump had said the things Kaine said Trump had said, and that everyone on the planet knows he said, because social media.

In his contortionist’s eagerness to please his fickle (even feckless?) patron, Pence reminded me of Michael Dorsey, the hapless actor Dustin Hoffman played in Tootsie: “I can be taller!” he assured one director; at the next audition, hunched over, he cried, “I can be shorter!”

So when Senator Kaine reminded him how The Donald said there’d be no Russian invasion of Ukraine on his watch- there was, Kaine noted, no chance of that, since it had already occurred, two years earlier- Pence declared, “Well, obviously he meant to say it wouldn’t happen again!”

Other times, Pence dismissed the inconvenient truths of his senior by laming, “He’s not a smooth, experienced politician like you and Hillary Clinton.”

Pence made his first run for Congress 28 years ago, six years before Mr Kaine’s first campaign, and twelve before Mrs Clinton’s.

When Kaine challenged one of Pence’s dirges on the dire economy, Pence replied, “Well, you can roll out the numbers, but people know better…” It was one of a number of times Pence chided Kaine for having prepared for the debate; in this he proved himself truly Trump’s most apt apprentice, and made clear he thought Trump scored a righteous kill going after Crooked Hillary for being prepared.

The trouble with being as stuffed with talking points as a foie-gras-destined French goose is with corn is that getting them all out in ninety minutes becomes more important than ensuring they are used so that they actually make sense.

Thus did Governor Pence segue from a lamentation for the people of Aleppo (to stop the Russians bombing hospitals, he said, we should bomb the Syrians, and that will show “the small and bullying dictator of Russia” just how “broad-shouldered” a Trumped-up America is) into a riff on how the US Navy is the smallest “since 1916”- just before we entered World War I- and the Army is the smallest “since 1946”- when we demobilized a force of twelve million after World War II.

The point of that was elusive, at least to me: I’d have thought somebody would have recalled the last time that riff came up in a debate-, but non-serving war fetishists tend to have a feeble grasp of martial things (“We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines, Governor”, see Romney-Obama debate, September 22, 2012).

Before that, the last time I heard that sort of “rebuild the military” argument was when President Reagan spent $2 billion to refit four World War II battleships and send them to blast shells thirty miles into The Lebanon.

Aleppo is seventy miles from the sea. And we’ve got the jet thingies now, even though Ted Cruz said we don’t use them nearly enough to make the sand glow in the dark.

(I kinda miss that sneering, oiled latex mug, I’ll admit. I take comfort, however, that as soon as Little Felito wins his next Senate term in 2018, he’ll be launching the 2020 American Hindsight Crusade.)

Never mind that the time it takes an aircraft carrier to get from from laying the keel to “Mission Accomplished” banner is only slightly less than it takes biographer Robert Caro to produce another volume on LBJ. Just the threat will make ISIS fall like a flan in a cupboard, Pence huffed.

We will command the world’s respect, Pence said, and thus refute fecklessness in all its forms. We still have the largest navy on the planet, and 1.3 million active duty service members, but Pence says we must rebuild the military to make it even bigger, and get newer, shinier nukes, so the world will get respectier.

When the hopelessly outgunned moderator, Elaine Quijano, asked the two ostentatiously religious men for an example of a time they had to reconcile their church’s teachings with public policy, Kaine described how he enforced the death penalty as Virginia governor despite opposing it as a matter of faith.

Pence ducked the query. He preened over his freshman-year conversion to what became a Reaganesque lip service to evangelicalism in lieu of actual attendance anywhere, and his profound belief in the value of every life (“I’m also pleased with the fact we are well on our way in Indiana to becoming most pro- adoption state in America. I think you’ll be pro-life you should be pro- adoption”: except, of course, the gays, whose yen for reliable sources of recruitable children he blocked when he signed the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 2015).

Theocrats never find conflicts between religious nostrums and the law. They merge the two. It is most convenient, as Captain Renaud said of his bar tab at Rick’s.

The governor reached his nadir trying to defend the Trump tax returns. Senator Kaine beat him  like the bass drum in Bugs Bunny’s “What’s Opera, Doc?” as Pence tried to explain the brilliance and business acumen Trump displayed in the IRS filings Pence has never seen, and that Trump’s CPA says The Donald never saw either, until he signed them. Then Kaine chuckled “meep-meep” as he dropped an Acme anvil on Pence for having to cough up his own taxes for Trump’s review.

Then he loaded Pence into an Acme catapult as he recalled Trump’s boast that paying no taxes meant he was smart. Lofting Pence into a suborbital trajectory, he said, “I guess that makes the rest of us stupid.”

Pence looked tired as the minutes tick-tocked and Kaine calmed down and warmed to his task. When Kaine recalled- for the second or third time- Mr Trump’s evocation of hordes of rapists flooding America’s southern border, Pence snapped, “You whipped out that Mexican thing again.”

Eyebrows lifted.

The Republican obsession with penises (“Hillary got schlonged”; “Look at those hands. Are they small hands? And he referred to my hands if they are small, something else must be small. I guarantee you there is no problem. I guarantee you”) springs up at the oddest times.

A friend, who chides me for being small-minded and lurid, suggested that maybe Governor Pence just had a neural misfire that called up and spit out an old bit from Blazing Saddles:

Bart: [on grandstand to the townspeople] Excuse me while I whip this out.
[reaches into waistline as crowd gasps and screams; Bart pulls out paper, they sigh with relief]

Pence got more delphic in his pronouncements as the evening wore on. Talking about Russia brings out the inanity of people: when Ronald Reagan was cold-warrioring the Soviets into the ash heap of history, he gabbled on endlessly about “an old Russian proverb: ‘Trust, but verify’.”

Two generations of Gipper fanboys have trotted that one out on Sunday talk shows and the campaign stump to embrace everything from protecting yourself and your company from email viruses to the need for junk-checkers outside North Carolina public restrooms.

Pence, too, had his proverb ready- a Google search-proof whoopie cushion. “There’s an old proverb that says the Russian bear never dies, it just hibernates,” he intoned.

(In his Norfolk tomb 141 miles from the debate site, General Douglas MacArthur- still spinning from Trump’s evocation of his memory in the last debate- began redlining.)

Me? I flashed on another deathless exchange from Blazing Saddles, one that pretty much summed up the whole sorry waste of time:

Reverend Johnson: Order, order. Goddamnit, I said "order!"
Howard Johnson: Y'know, Nietzsche says: "Out of chaos comes order."
Olson Johnson: Oh, blow it out your ass, Howard.

None of it mattered. Aunt Hillary and the Great Cheeto will be back Sunday night. By all accounts, he’s gonna be talking penises again- Bill’s, this time- and forty percent of voters will still have no idea who Mike Pence and Tim Kaine even are.

If you need more proof of the event’s irrelevance, well, there’s this: the Republican National Committee accidentally released a press briefing on Pence’s big win- ninety minutes before the debate started.

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