A Portrait of the Coronavirus Supposedly under “Control”

This is a photo of Donald Trump leaving the lectern at the end of Sunday’s White House press briefing. The surge of reported coronavirus cases is surely only beginning to take its toll, but here was the President assuring us that the virus is “something that we have tremendous control over.” Talk about a guy who suffers from a slow learning curve. Trump’s first public comments about the pandemic came on January 22nd on CNBC: “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s—going to be just fine.” (For other misleading statements, check out the video of the comments here.)

031620-01 First COVID-19 Presser

Does everyone on the stage behind the lectern on Sunday look “fine” to you? Hardly. The crew of The Titanic probably looked happier. Two people have their eyes totally closed, as if they can’t bear to watch the carnage about to unfold. Almost everyone’s eyes are cast downward in despair. The man over Trump’s shoulder looks downright stunned. As for the president, he looks angry as if the virus is mostly just a dastardly nuisance impeding his re-election.

When else have I seen words and looks in total contradiction during a disaster? Forlorn-looking and yet reassuring U.S. generals testifying to Congress that the Iraq War was going well. Japanese officials showing fear as they urged “calm” in the aftermath of the Fukushima Daicchi nuclear disaster, initially telling local residents that staying indoors would suffice. I would feel better, actually, if Trump did show a little sadness (empathy) or fear (realism). A man so given to anger is instead showing deep-seated resistance to the news that something terrible is happening under his watch. Why, truth be told Trump isn’t even in “control” of his own brooding anger, let alone anything else.  What a hoax this situation has become. A businessman adept at financial chicanery is now a president cheating us all of even a half-hearted degree of responsible leadership.

Bloomberg’s Luxury Liner Hits Iceberg Warren

I didn’t create this analogy. It comes from CNN political commentator Van Jones, who correctly noted that Michael Bloomberg’s $330 million-plus-and-counting advertising campaign for the presidency meant he came into last night’s debate in Las Vegas as the luxury liner The Titanic. What happened? “Titanic meet iceberg Elizabeth Warren,” Jones observed. Yes, there were other candidates on stage. As usual, Bernie Sanders raged, Joe Biden tried to find some zip, Pete Buttigieg continued to look increasingly like a Maltese Falcon digging his claws into others, namely Sanders and Amy Klobuchar, with the latter caught exhibiting more of her trembling smiles.

022020-01 Michael Bloomberg Emo Profile

None of it mattered, however. The key to the evening was Warren taking Bloomberg to task. How did the former Mayor of New York City handle the debacle? Not so well, as even Bloomberg campaign manager Kevin Sheekey had to acknowledge. “It took him [Bloomberg] just 45 minutes in his first debate in 10 years to get his legs on the stage,” Sheekey gamely offered about the numerous gashes torn into the starboard side of his candidate’s ship. Let me suggest that 45 minutes is a long time in a two-hour debate. So much for the argument about being ready to be president on Day One.

022020-02 Michael Bloomberg Characteristic Expressions

Nobody who has watched Bloomberg over the years expected the guy to be a happy camper. But, boy, was he grim. Merely 15% of his emoting on stage last night constituted some –often minor—begrudging degree of happiness. Startled and seemingly unprepared for attacks he should have expected based on his previous words and deeds, Bloomberg retreated into rolling his eyes, flashing skeptical “smiles” and basically trying to endure his beat-down and wait for another day. If he debated as well as he’s tweeted so far in sparring with Donald Trump, Bloomberg might have been in fine shape on stage in Las Vegas. As it was, he met an unmovable object not named either Trump or Sanders.

2020 State of Disunion Address (in Decoded Photos)

Well, from the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, dispensing with the usual introduction of calling it a “high privilege and distinct honor” to present the president of the United States; to Donald Trump not shaking Pelosi’s hand; to Pelosi ultimately ripping up her copy of Trump’s campaign rally / reality show version of a State of the Union address, what a mess. Hard feelings were everywhere on display:

020620-01 State of Union

Not once did Trump mention his impeachment or Senate trial during his speech. But what are the odds that ahead of the speech a sad and angry Chief Justice John Roberts wasn’t focused on a trial where U.S. Senators (Republicans especially) ignored his instruction to remain attentively in their seats? Note Roberts’ pinched, raised inner eyebrows (sadness and fear), his firmly pressed lips (anger), and his raised chin (sadness, anger and disgust).

020620-02 State of Union

Not on the same page, by a long shot – Pelosi with eyebrows arched in surprise and eyes wide open, along with feigned smile, after being snubbed by Trump after offering a handshake; Vice President Mike Pence and Trump with eyes closed or downcast (sadness), and Trump with a mouth pressed together in anger and hinting at a smirk.

020620-03 State of Union (Eric)

Eric Trump with eyes narrowed in anger, the slightest of (bitter) smiles, an upper lip raised unilaterally in contempt and a mouth pressed tight in anger as he looks over at his brother, Donald Trump, Jr.

020620-04 State of Union (Schiff)

Lead U.S. House of Representatives prosecutor, Adam Schiff, with a slightly jutting lower lip (disgust and sadness), eyebrows lowered, eyelids tight and mouth taut – all signs of anger, as he sits besides his fellow prosecutor, Jerrold Nadler.

020620-05 State of Union (Rush & Melania)(2)

An ecstatic Rush Limbaugh after being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in an impromptu “ceremony” featuring First Lady Melania Trump looking uncharacteristically happy while still not being able to evade her usual look of scowling (raised upper lip, narrowed eyes). To Limbaugh’s left, a more mildly happy Second Lady Karen Pence with a worried, vertical crease between her eyebrows.

020620-06 State of Union (Pelosi Rip)

The coup de grâce of a wretched, divisive spectacle: Pelosi with a grimly set, angry mouth as she rips Trump’s speech apart quite literally, piece by piece. This moment comes after Pelosi has exhibited a long series of distorted mouth grimaces while listening to Trump’s speech. Down and out (disgust and sadness) went her lower lip, when she wasn’t smirking or pressing her lips together, ever more tightly, in a range from annoyance to outrage.

Biden Sinks Beneath the Waves in Iowa

In 2008, I knew Hillary Clinton had lost to both Barrack Obama and John Edwards the morning of the Iowa caucuses. I was in a motel room breakfast nook watching Clinton being interviewed on national TV and her smile kept retreating moment by moment during the interview, like an elevator descending floor by floor. Despite trying to put a “brave face” on things, the super-disciplined candidate couldn’t hide the truth about to emerge and that her staff was probably already warning her about.

Dance ahead to 2020, and it was the same thing last night. As I write this piece, the final results from Iowa haven’t yet been announced. But the outline is clear: Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders are all bunched toward the top, with the second tier amounting to a food fight for 4th-place “bragging rights” between Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar.

020420-01 Jackie Biden Fear Smile

In short, for Biden – whose candidacy is based on his electability argument – it was a disaster. On stage, ever the pro he tried to smile big but it was the fearful, grimacing and despondent looks of his loyal wife, Jill, that told the real story. “We feel good about where we are,” said Biden. Yeah, right. “We are punching above our weight,” said Klobuchar. She might end up landing the V.P. slot on a ticket headed by Buttigieg or Mike Bloomberg, but she’s not yet (or ever) in the heavyweight class of boxers. A woman has to be on the ticket for the Democrats to win, I and others believe. In what slot, first or second, president or vice president, will a female appear? And who will get the nod (Warren, Klobuchar, or . . . somebody not named Jill and better at feigning a smile)?

020420-02 Jackie Biden Fear (2)

Serena Williams Falls at the Australian Open

To hear Chris Evert diagnose the situation, “Emotionally and mentally, she’s still a great champion.” So said Evert about Serena Williams after the 23-time female, grand-slam singles champion lost to China’s Wang Qiang in a third-round match in Melbourne. I beg to differ. Maybe Williams can push her physical conditioning some more, as Evert suggests. But at age 38, there might not be a whole lot more that Williams can do in that category. What I noticed instead was how an aura of anguish and, ultimately, self-pity seemed to envelope Williams as the match progressed, kind of like one of those particle rings that encircle the planet Saturn.

Occasionally, a professional athlete can elevate her or his game despite the influence of sadness. The NBA player Chris Bosh comes to mind, as sadness-filled a person as anybody I can think of since the Native American leader Chief Rain-in-the-Face. In Williams’ prime, disgust and anger were this tennis great’s signature emotions on-court during a match. No longer, for sadness now shares top billing. As a rule of thumb, sadness can slow you down both mentally and physically. (Williams had 56 unforced errors versus 20 for her Chinese opponent). To succumb to sadness increases the odds against winning, I believe. If sadness helped Bosh, it was due to the ability of sadness to also make us more empathetic – a benefit to Bosh as he settled for being a NBA all-star who became the third option on a Miami Heat team that likewise featured LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.

012720-01 Serena Anguish in Loss

In this case, there was Williams all alone with her grief on-court. Her empathy was for herself and the tremendous stress she feels trying to tie—and ultimately surpass—Margaret Court and her record of 24 grand slams (many in an era when key players would skip the long flight down to play in Court’s native Australia). “It’s all on my shoulders,” Williams said after her loss. Well, she played like it, too. More joy felt or at least more disgust and anger, combined with less sadness: that’s the only way back for Williams at this point in her career. Forget what Evert said. That earlier American star relied on low-grade anger to keep her focused. Williams is fiercer. For Williams, disgust means never settling for mediocrity, including the mediocrity that self-pity can induce.

Warren vs. Sanders in Their Dispute over Electability

In case you didn’t catch it, the highlight of the latest Democratic presidential debate was definitely the she said / he said dispute between Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders over whether Sanders told Warren in 2018 that a female candidate couldn’t win The White House in 2020. Warren insists Sanders said as much; Sanders denies the claim. On stage this week, there was first the topic being raised by one of the debate’s CNN moderators and then the refusal of Warren to shake Sanders’ hand afterwards. Assuming it wasn’t just some “big misunderstanding,” who might be “lying” about their account of what occurred in that 2018 conversation?

For my money, if forced to bet I’d say Warren was the more honest politician and here’s why. Go to the video to see the moments I’m referencing.

During the debate, when the topic gets raised (at second 0:14) not only do Sanders’ eyes flash wide open – as they so often do. Likewise, his eyebrows rise. All told, it’s a display of surprise and fear and yet Sanders couldn’t have been surprised that the topic came up, leaving fear as the likeliest explanation. Then again, at the 1:37 minute mark Sanders gulps and his mouth pulls slightly wide in another display of fear as he tries to extricate himself by citing Hillary Clinton’s vote total in 2016 as proof that he wouldn’t never say something as foolish as dismissing a female candidate’s chances.

011720-01 Warren & Sanders

What is Warren’s response during all of this? The corner of her mouth dips downward in a sign of sadness (disappointment) on hearing Sanders say: “Well, as a matter of fact I didn’t say it” (second 0:15). And her eyes and head are often downcast (second 0:39 and elsewhere), hardly an indication of somebody looking to leverage the moment. Finally, Warren shows a smirk – signaling distrust and disrespect – in response to Sanders’ words (1:09).

011720-02 Warren & Sanders

Most telling of all, the hot mics after the debate reveal Warren saying “I think you called me a liar on national TV.”

Warren is indignant; Sanders is left mouth agape.  “What?” he says, indicative of Sanders’ propensity to be a better bellower than listener. As always, there’s context to consider here. Back in 2016, female staffers on Sanders’ campaign complained of everything from a culture of sexual harassment to pay disparity as problems Sanders never addressed. If either candidate would seem less truly progressive in this particular exchange, the burden of proof is on Sanders’ side of the ledger.  He’s mostly just mad-mad-mad, a typical guy response. Warren isn’t so emotionally monochromatic. Her sad-to-have-to-become-angry mode is emotionally more diverse, on a topic where diversity is, indeed, the underlying, core issue.

Ghosn Goes Wild!!! Nissan Boss a Fugitive from Normalcy

011020-01 Mr Bean & Carlos Ghosn

Even on his better days, the deposed head of the Nissan-Renault alliance has always reminded me of an ill-humored version of the British sitcom character Mr. Bean. That’s because Carlos Ghosn’s eyebrows live in a state of constant arch-regard for himself (and nobody else). What have been Ghosn’s better days? I imagine he might point, for instance, to holding a Marie Antoinette-style party at Versailles for his second wife’s 50th birthday party. Talk about royal privilege, the kind of excesses that landed Ghosn in trouble in with American regulators, French officials, and finally the authorities in Japan.

011020-02 Mr Bean & Carlos Ghosn

All of which brings us to one of Ghosn’s worst days: his first, (two-hour-plus) press conference since skipping bail in Japan by flying to his native Lebanon on the lam. New billboards put up by Ghosn’s supporters in Beirut proclaim: “We are all Carlos Ghosn.” Let’s pray otherwise.

011020-03 Ghosn Sweating & Shadow

What happened this past Wednesday? Lashing out at former colleagues and Japanese prosecutors alike, Ghosn went on a wild, sweat-induced tirade peppered by occasional swearing. The crime of his being portrayed as a “cold, greedy dictator” incenses Ghosn. The optics at Versailles were cringe-worthy. On Wednesday, they weren’t any better – as the lighting ensured that Ghosn’s shadow was, at times, literally bigger than the man himself (indeed, nearly as big as his ego). In retrospect, it’s kind of amazing that Ghosn’s accomplices could find a box large enough to spirit him out of Toyko.

The 2010s: An Often Brutal Decade

Politically, the decade began with the Tea Party revolt against taxes, big government (Obamacare) and, yes, our country getting its first African-American president. Racism was part of the undertow. Now the decade has ended with Donald Trump being impeached, and my looking back fondly to the words that punctured Senator Joseph McCarthy’s career in 1954: the lawyer for the U.S. Army, Joseph Welch, saying “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness . . . . Have you no sense of decency?”

Substitute Trump for McCarthy, and you’ve got it in a nutshell: cruelty, recklessness . . . an unhinged mafia boss in The White House. Is it any wonder that the 2010’s also ended with a movie celebrating the epitome of a kind soul: Mister Rogers, the antithesis of twitter-carpet-bombing Trump. Did Tom Hanks fit his latest role well in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood? Not entirely. There’s too much guardedness in Hanks to pull it off entirely. His eyebrows lower more, with a vertical pinch between them. Other tendencies get in the way, too. Hanks’ eyes narrow more (angrily) than was generally true of the real-life Mister Rogers, and Hanks’ upper lip flares with a scorning disgust that, frankly, isn’t very good-neighborly.  Contrast Hanks’ look to Mister Roger’s truly joyful smile that includes more relaxation around the eyes.

123019-01 Tom Hanks & Mr Rogers2

Nevertheless, Hanks’ version of Mister Rogers is preferable to another look I can’t quite get out of my mind. Toward the end of Fidelity’s recent TV spot called “Straightforward Advice,” the woman in the couple shows a big-time smirk. Yes, the 2010’s have featured a booming stock market, first under Obama and now under Trump. I’m all for prosperity, but wealth a little more equally distributed across society would certainly be nice. To me, it’s as if the woman’s assured glance over at her husband signals: “I’ve got mine.” It’s a very smug look, too befitting of a president whose thought-pattern sadly revolves around I-me-mine as our era’s sense of collectivity withers.

123019-02 Fidelity Spot Smirk

Who Just Got Angrier: Joe Biden or Nancy Pelosi?

If fireworks during the Impeachment hearings aren’t enough evidence that our nation’s politics are super-heated nowadays, welcome to a pair of unlikely outbursts. The first arose because of Joe Biden being confronted by a MSNBC-watching voter in Iowa at a town hall meeting regarding his son’s role in Ukraine. The second was due to Nancy Pelosi being asked by a conservative journalist after a press conference about whether she “hates” Donald Trump.

120919-03 Joe Biden Head Down120919-01 Nancy Pelosi Anger

Which of the two Democratic leaders got angrier, and what have we learned or confirmed regarding their personalities and political chops? The answer to first question is Pelosi. Twice, she showed a more intense version of anger whereby the lips press together so tightly that a bulge forms below the lower lip. But that’s not all. Whereas Biden’s eyes mostly narrowed in anger, the other really vital emotional “grace note” here is that Pelosi showed disgust repeatedly, with either her upper lip flaring or else her lower lip pulling down and sometimes out as well.

120919-02 Nancy Pelosi Disgust

What’s the bottom line here?  Who proved more savvy in a moment of ire? Who displayed the best political chops?

Biden lost at least twice over, first by so often showing sadness (eyes closed, head bowed) in response to the voter’s concerns. It was as if he was surrendering to disappointment at being asked a legitimate question as to what kind of expertise his son brought to the board of that Ukrainian gas company that justified his compensation. Second, deriding a voter (who dislikes Trump) is far worse than brushing off a hostile journalist. Biden might be “proud” of his son’s judgment in taking the easy money, but who will second that motion? Did the gas company hope that by hiring Biden’s son the Obama administration might go soft on it in rooting out corruption?  That seems like a fair assumption, though it’s hardly a major scandal (especially given how Trump’s kids and Jared Kushner behave).

120919-03 Joe Biden Head Down

As to Pelosi, she managed to smile as often as she was angry or disgusted. She showed backbone and fire proportionate to the Constitutional stakes involved. And her disgust was entirely on-emotion, entirely in keeping with invoking her Catholic faith and, hence, revulsion regarding the President’s lack of ethics. Who’s the Democrats’ best street fighter among these two leaders?  Hands down, it’s Pelosi, whose eyes go wide (taking in information, ever alert) while Biden often resorts to closing his own.

120919-04 Nancy Pelosi Eyes Wide