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Opinion

The Beauty of John Roberts Fetching Popcorn in the White House

Astronomer Carl Sagan famously noted we all come from the same source: “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of star stuff,” he said. Extrapolating that a bit, comedian Bill Hicks once noted that “we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. There is no such thing as death; life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves. Here’s Tom with the weather.” So if we are indeed the universe merely trying to experience itself consciously, one could surmise by looking at the state of life in the United States today, the universe is confused, doesn’t like itself, or maybe we’re a virus the universe is trying to work out of its system.

Watching John Roberts from Fox News trying to extricate some popcorn from the machine in the White House briefing room Tuesday actually renewed my faith in humanity, though. After brute force failed to dislodge the bag of popcorn, Roberts put together an ingenious contraption made of notebook paper into the bottom of the machine and dislodged his food. Kind of like using dental floss on the popcorn hulls that always get lodged in between your teeth, I was suitably impressed as Roberts pumped his fist after getting the goods for which he paid. It says something this was the highlight for reporters in the White House in the last 10 days.

At the White House, the latest scandal started when Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah apparently held a meeting of White House staffers in which Kelly Sadler remarked about Senator John McCain’s opposition to Gina Haspel taking over the CIA that, “It doesn’t matter. He’s dying anyway.” On Monday, as Shah dodged bullets by defending Sadler’s ability to say such a callous thing in a private meeting, Jared Kushner, who has less security clearance than the White House calligrapher, showed up in Jerusalem praising the opening of the latest Trump Tower—I mean embassy—telling us Donald Trump always keeps his promises. Meanwhile, hundreds died in Gaza.The optics of the juxtaposition of Kushner and Ivanka Trump smiling in Jerusalem as they christened their new safe house while the violence in Gaza played out looked rather unnerving but was lost on an administration that apparently didn’t care. Not caring has become the watchword in D.C. The president is going to preach what he wants, uncaring of the reality other than the reality he wishes to create.

The comic Hicks also said, “This is where we are at right now, as a whole. No one is left out of the loop. We are experiencing a reality based on a thin veneer of lies and illusions. A world where greed is our God and wisdom is sin, where division is key and unity is fantasy, where the ego-driven cleverness of the mind is praised, rather than the intelligence of the heart.”

Meanwhile, Kellyanne Conway told Fox News that people in the White House are leaking information sometimes because they like to “shiv” each other. What an administration. The mob analogy is complete and Anthony Scaramucci, while scorned when he said it, was right several weeks ago: the morale in the White House has never been lower—especially if staffers are “shiving” each other, metaphorically or in reality, which some predict may soon be in the offing.

The anger and petulance inside the White House was only compounded by the administration’s concern about who leaked the Kelly Sadler information—and not necessarily about Sadler’s new normal of insulting a dying American hero. “I can’t say this to anyone in this office,” a White House staffer told me on background Monday. “But I’m ashamed. We are more concerned about defending whatever it is that we do that we don’t take a look at the bigger picture.” I’d say the ship sailed on that observation right around the time candidate Trump made fun of a handicapped reporter. But if you want to merely relegate the observation to the actual administration, I’d say you can go back to the very first press briefing when the now forgotten Sean Spicer defended the numbers of people attending Trump’s inauguration.

The Trump administration has never looked at “the bigger picture.” It has also never publicly admitted a mistake. It doubles down on the mistakes it makes and accuses the press of being “fake media” when information is broadcast or published that shows the administration, and particularly the president, in a bad light. The acidic atmosphere has corroded any vestige of civility and professionalism that once inhabited the White House. Young staffers who know no other reality believe the atmosphere is normal while those who know better are merely trying to survive this tribal, narcissistic nightmare the Trump administration has become—or always was.

The press briefings have degenerated into 15-minute PR presentations wherein Sarah Huckabee Sanders or Raj Shah shout “Go Trump!” as they present five minutes of positive spin. It is then followed by about 10 minutes and perhaps 10 questions of “We have to refer that to outside counsel,” or “I’ve already spoke to that issue,” or “I haven’t spoken to the president about that,” or “I have no information on that subject,” or the infamous, “We don’t want to get ahead of the president on that issue.”

Fat chance of getting ahead of the president on any issue. The last person to try to do that was Rudy Giuliani on Fox and in front of Sean Hannity (who accidentally tripped and fell into doing some actual reporting that night). Giuliani got ahead of the president and promptly set himself on fire talking about the Stormy Daniels affair.

The press office is thus merely a washing machine stuck on permanent spin cycle. And like the child who likes to twirl around, whoever is speaking from the podium is merely dizzy and disoriented without a clue as to what their real function is or how to effectively communicate with the rest of the country represented in that press room.

On Tuesday Don Lemon on CNN remarked that the office of the presidency “deserves respect” but it’s difficult when those outside of the office show more respect than the “current occupant” of the office. Thus Lemon outlined what is the central problem with covering the White House; the chief impediment to getting information and the conundrum reporters, staffers and long-time politicians have in dealing with Donald Trump. President Trump has shown none of the aspects of presidential respect others, no matter how loathsome, have had who inhabited the office.
The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your doors, buy guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love instead see all of us as one.
From his bromance and pillow-talk with Hannity to his courting of the extreme right and clergy men who claim Jews, Hindus and Muslims are all going to hell for a variety of other slights large and small, the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue appears to be killing the Republic and the presidency with 1,000 paper cuts, razor wounds and hammer blows that are harder and harder to witness. Everyone else trying to preserve the “idea” of the presidency and our Republic have bent over backwards to pretend business is as usual—whether it is a reporter trying to maintain a quiet dignity while the president trashes the Fourth Estate or a politician showing the office and the man respect when they’d really like to punch Trump in the nose.

The words from Bill Hicks come flooding back to me as a warning about fear and anger in this age, and though said a few decades ago, they still ring true: “The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your doors, buy guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love instead see all of us as one. Here's what we can do to change the world, right now, to a better ride. Take all that money we spend on weapons and defenses each year and instead spend it feeding and clothing and educating the poor of the world, which it would pay for many times over, not one human being excluded, and we could explore space, together, both inner and outer, forever, in peace.”

Tuesday afternoon the White House went on double-secret probation. Marine One was scheduled to leave and take the president to Walter Reed to visit the recuperating First Lady. No one in the press corps was supposed to report it until the president left. It made no sense to me. Members of the general public sitting outside the South Lawn fence could tweet, live-stream or photograph and otherwise report the helicopter coming and going, but those of us in the press were supposedly limited to secrecy until the helicopter left and the president arrived at Walter Reed Hospital.
It merely made no sense.

Nothing this administration does appeals to the logic of man. Nothing this administration does appeals to professionalism, continuity of the progress of the nation or the practices common to our constitution. It resembles a cancerous tumor, oozing and dripping fear and hatred, spreading and throbbing.

Maybe Carl Sagan was right. Maybe Bill Hicks was right. But whatever and however we look at this presidency, it says something that the most human moment in the White House this week came not from the president or a member of his pretentious staff “shiving each other,” but in watching someone trying to get their bag of popcorn out of a vending machine.

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