Roger Ailes: The Maestro of Shock & Rage

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Who and what killed Roger Ailes? In a USA Today tribute to his long-time mentor, Bill O’Reilly writes that the “hatred” now “almost celebrated in some quarters” is what “killed him.” Loyal to the end, O’Reilly doesn’t name names. Instead, he writes of Ailes being “convicted of bad behavior in the court of public opinion” and “stunned” by a sudden exile from which Ailes “never really recovered.”

Meanwhile, detractors may vengefully rejoice over the death of Ailes. And in doing so, note the irony that Ailes’ fatal, head-banging fall at home in Palm Beach, Florida, followed on the heels of his fall from power at the Fox News channel he founded with Rupert Murdoch’s money. If so, those detractors will still have to come face-to-face with Ailes’ success and legacy.

The easy way out would be to regard Ailes as more or less the equivalent of Batman’s foe, The Penguin. Certainly, the aging, ever more corpulent Ailes looked the part.  Forget the top hat, the tuxedo, the white gloves, the cigarette holder, and even the umbrella. The key to the Penguin’s hold on our imaginations is that he’s wickedly smart and flush with belief in himself.

Might Ailes really be The Penguin, however? The answer is no, twice over. First, the Penguin is from an aristocratic family and Ailes hailed from blue-collar Warren, Ohio, and even when wealthy still saw himself as a working-class bruiser. Second, Ailes was no comic book character. His impact on America may be as profound as anybody in this country over the past half-century, and for many, many years to come.

The problem with family values is when in practice it means my family, not yours.

Let’s start with family values. Vice President Dan Quayle made the term famous in 1992, seeking votes. But leave it to Roger Ailes to make money from it by launching Fox in 1996. Now I for one have no issues with the term family values in theory. The support of a nurturing family while growing up is as emotionally healthy as enjoying a good, solid marriage or partnership in adulthood. The problem with family values is when in practice it means my family, not yours. When family values devolves into divisiveness – an issue of who is and isn’t worthy of respect and compassion – that’s when darkness descends.

Under Ailes, Fox was diabolically clever. While CNN aimed for the head, Fox went for the heart and the wallet and purse and cleaned up, big-time. In barely half a decade, the upstart Fox surpassed CNN, becoming the most-watched cable news network and staying No. 1 with a simple, grizzly emotional formula: anger compels. Once upon a time psychologists believed that venting enables the rage to pass. Now they know that stoking anger tends instead to keep it burning red hot. Ailes didn’t need professors and scientific research to uncover that fundamental truth about human nature.

Ailes was no fool. Yes, he displayed anger to a degree that exceeds what’s normal. Yes, he apparently once put his fist through a control room wall at Fox. (Somebody put a frame around the hole and wrote, “Don’t mess with Roger Ailes.”) But Ailes’ signature expression was crouched, lowering-the-boom eyebrows: a look of concentration and focus. In short, Ailes had the pulse of how TV can be exploited as a medium and was for the longest time a man on a mission.

In 1968, Ailes was at age 28 the executive producer of “The Mike Douglas Show” when Richard Nixon put in an appearance. In an off-camera conversation, Nixon mocked the medium as a “gimmick,” provoking Ailes to tell the candidate: “Television is not a gimmick and if you think it is, you’ll lose again.”

Soon, Ailes was producing Nixon’s presidential campaign commercials, leading to The White House and Nixon’s own opportunity to invoke family values in an exchange with gonzo-journalist Hunter S. Thompson. Told that Thompson’s mother, son and himself all hated Nixon, and that “this hatred has brought us together,” Nixon laughs and replies, “Don’t worry. I, too, am a family man, and we feel the same way about you.”

While Disney sought to make Disneyland the happiest place on earth, Ailes sought to showcase a version of traditional America under siege.

From Nixon to Donald Trump, Ailes helped to orchestrate Republican campaigns with the knowledge that the twigs of the bonfire you’re stoking are the latest incidences in the daily news cycle. The logs come in two forms: personalities caught or showcased on camera, and the beliefs or value systems of news anchors and especially the audience at home viewing the show.

Ailes once described his audience as TV “for people from 55 to dead,” putting on its ear the conventional wisdom that you strive for a viewership between the ages of 18 and 49 or some such demographic slice of America. A recently deceased aunt of mine fit Ailes’ model perfectly. Everyday my retired aunt would turn on the TV to learn about the latest indignities heaped on her sense of how the world should be and, transfixed by smoldering resentment, she would keep the TV on Fox all the way from breakfast to bedtime. Ailes gave her sunset years structure and meaning: witness more enemies and threats to be indignant about.

Ailes had only a passing resemblance to The Penguin. How about instead Alfred Hitchcock? As the maestro of shock and anger, wasn’t Ailes Fox’s equivalent to the famous director known as the master of suspense? Perhaps, but I prefer to think of Ailes as the antithesis of Walt Disney. While Disney sought to make Disneyland the happiest place on earth, Ailes sought to showcase a version of traditional America under siege. Think in terms of Main Street, U.S.A. with its storefronts figuratively lapped by flames.

O’Reilly was the perfect vehicle for Ailes’ version of current events. As angry as Ailes but more expressive of surprise than the sadness Ailes revealed when not angry, O’Reilly beat the drums for years and was equally, phenomenally successful. Ultimately, sex scandals involving Gretchen Carlson, Megyn Kelly and others would force out both the mentor and his signature on-air talent, exposing the reality that “fair and balanced” didn’t extend to gender issues within the newsroom. It’s a new era now at Fox, and in O’Reilly’s place is Tucker Carlson. He’s the stepson of an heiress and somebody given to the smiles and smirks that put him closer, temperamentally, to The Penguin than to Ailes.

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A new era it may be, but Ailes’ legacy will linger for some time to come. Perhaps it’s because tomorrow I leave on vacation to visit parts of disembodied Yugoslavia that the Balkans, namely the Balkanization, the fragmentation of America into ever fiercer, nonstop partisan bickering, so worries me.

I’ve been reading Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts and re-reading Rebeccca West’s older classic travelogue, The Black Lamb and the Grey Falcon, with its take on the former Ottoman and Hapsburg dynasties: “I hate the corpses of empires, they stink as nothing else.” There, people write memoirs with titles like Land Without Justice. Here at home, those who cast opposing votes now see each new White House administration not as victor but conqueror, without merit. And for that hard-nosed viewpoint, we have to thank Ailes in no small part.

Obamacare Repeal: Callousness as a Pre-existing Condition

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The numbers loom large, and so do the emotions involved.  The numbers first:  America’s annual national health care expenditures have reached $3.2 trillion or 17.8% of our gross domestic product. No wonder Warren Buffett is calling medical costs “the tapeworm of American economic competitiveness.” At the same time, about 25% of Americans have a medical history that means they have a pre-existing condition that has previously and may now again make them vulnerable to higher costs or even potentially no insurance coverage whatsoever.  As for the emotions involved in whether to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) with a Republican plan, they range from alarm, distress and despair to claims of “pride” and cries of “shame.”

What might cause such negative feelings should be obvious enough, even if not to the Idaho Congressman who told protesting constituents that “Nobody dies because they don’t have access to health care.” What stands out instead is Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, saying on ABC’s “This Week” program, “We’re proud of this effort.”

Pride is a combination of anger and happiness, and results from a feeling that you’ve taken control of circumstances (anger) and achieved success in doing so (happiness).  For Ryan, overturning Obamacare is a “rescue mission” to save a “collapsing” system. In a world full of half-truths or less, I’ll leave both those characterizations and the who-knew-it-could-be-so-complicated pros and cons of health care policy aside to focus here on one specific question: what if pride is really window dressing for callousness somehow justified?

Ryan is a long-time fan of the novelist Ayn Rand, who wrote: “Selfishness is a virtue.” Ryan has credited Rand as “the reason I got involved in public service” to weigh in on the “fight of individualism versus collectivism.” As both a devotee of Rand and a self-professed “devout, practicing Catholic,” Ryan is in a conflicted position as he helps to decide the fate of health care legislation in America. To go with Rand means self-interest defined as good when it leads to being productive (versus engaging in robbery).  To go with the writings of the apostle Paul in Philippians 2 means to “do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit.”

what if pride is really window dressing for callousness somehow justified?

How can Ryan reconcile those two opposing perspectives? Rand’s invoking of “robbery” as a point of reference is no coincidence. For her as for Ryan, I believe, the dynamic is between those who are “makers” and those who are “takers” in society.  Barack Obama referred to some countries that benefit from America’s efforts as “free riders” and supported Bill Clinton’s welfare reforms. So note that the maker/taker debate isn’t necessarily a partisan debate. But it’s true that Republicans invoke the debate as to who’s “deserving” of help more often than Democrats typically do.

In Ryan’s case, to hew too closely to Rand would mean endorsing her notion of “rational selfishness,” which rejects making sacrifices for others in favor of productivity, independence, integrity and pride. But what if pride is really contempt, an emotion that blends anger with disgust? The two emotions share anger but otherwise part ways. Pride also involves happiness, an emotion about embracing yourself as well as perhaps others who got you to the success. Disgust is in contrast an empathy-killing emotion about distancing yourself from that which you find poisonous.

What are the odds that Ryan considers himself to be a “maker,” not a “taker”? What are the odds that Ryan considers those who require health care assistance to a degree greater than their means to be “takers” and perhaps even “robbers”? Does seeing the “freeloaders” as robbers free him from the teachings of the apostle Paul to “not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others”? To put it bluntly: does callousness become for Ryan philosophical bedrock, a pre-existing condition that he chooses to take pride in?

Who Really Is Ivanka Trump, Anyway?

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Well, it’s out – not the latest, 140-character tweet from her dad, but a full-length book from Ivanka instead. In Women Who Work: Rewriting the Rules for Success, we learn that after a year and a half spent on the campaign trail, the news from from Ivanka is that “I have grown tremendously as a person.”  Perhaps so, but what’s the personality, the emotional base, that Ivanka is starting from?

There are now photographs of Ivanka Trump sitting beside the Donald in the Oval Office, and of Ivanka as “first daughter” attending a women’s leadership conference in Berlin, to go along with photos stretching back to childhood and a first career as a teenage model. The person who emerges from the photos displays most of all a sense of superiority and distance. Contempt is Ivanka’s signature emotion, the one that distinguishes her from the other celebrities I’ve been studying lately. Contempt conveys a sense that others aren’t worthy of respect, which makes Women Who Work a dodgy exercise. How sincerely can you be empowering those you disdain? That leads to another question: who exactly are these women who work if they’re not to be condescended to, even if inadvertently? As it turns out, this book about self-actualization is first and foremost for the actualization of women like the one Ivanka sees in a mirror: wealthy and powerful, with “your team” at work to support their efforts.

How sincerely can you be empowering those you disdain?

Now, contempt actually isn’t an emotion the Donald shows very much. It’s too reflective an emotion for him. So there’s a father/daughter gap there. But alongside the Donald in emotional terms is the other emotion that most distinguishes Ivanka: disgust. Like contempt, it’s an aversive, rejection emotion – only more visceral than contempt. Something “stinks” or tastes bad. Like contempt, disgust is an intimacy and empathy-killing emotion. Women Who Work not surprisingly therefore works as a plug for glambition fully accessorized with Ivanka Trump jewelry.

In Berlin, the conference moderator served up a minor dizzy of a question for Ivanka: “I’d like to ask you, what is your role, and who are you representing: your father as president of the United States, the American people, or your business?” The poised answer: “Well, certainly not the latter.” Plenty of people are hoping Ivanka proves to be a moderating voice that might, if not advance women’s interests, then at least keep them from getting frayed by the Donald’s policies. Those people might take heart from Ivanka’s current reading of Eleanor Roosevelt’s autobiography and her reaching out to Mary Barra and Ginni Rometty, the CEO’s of General Motors and IBM respectively.

Roosevelt, however, exceeded the happiness Ivanka feels while feeling only half as much fear as the First Daughter does. Will Ivanka eagerly fight for what she feels is right? Does she have the guts to hang in there when a very grumpy dad won’t change his mind, readily if at all? His amount of anger shown is over one-third greater than her own.  Ivanka’s brand of feminism is less about any sweeping societal changes than individual self-realization. By her own account, Ivanka liked her life in New York City before the election as much as her dad is wistful about his his pre-administration life. What are the odds that if frustrated , she fires herself from her White House role?

“Baby Buffett” Takes a Bath on Valeant

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No stranger to being in the business news headlines, William A. Ackman is at it again. This time, however, it’s for suffering a loss of about $4 billion for his investors after his firm, Pershing Square Capital Management, finally dumped its holdings in Valeant Pharmaceuticals. How does a billionaire investor like Ackman handle buying 27 million shares, on average, for $190 and selling for $12.11? He declares that “I have an enormous stomach for volatility,” and tries to quell the humiliation by having his firm say the change of fortune enables it to “realize a large tax loss.”

Only later in his annual letter to investors would Ackman admit that he had made “a huge mistake” by wagering so big on Valeant.

Eating humble pie certainly isn’t Ackman’s style. He cuts a dapper presence and as recently as last year was hailed by Forbes magazine as a “Baby Buffett” for becoming the hottest new name among the so-called activist investors who used to be known as corporate raiders. What distinguishes Ackman emotionally? Easily his most common facial expression is a combination of a slightly cocked right eyebrow, steely-eyed glares and slight, frosty smiles. Alert, determined and only a little congenial, Ackman couldn’t be temperamentally farther from the Sage of Omaha, Warren Buffett.

Bold with blind spots is a phrase that could describe both the since-departed CEO of Valeant and Ackman.

If Buffett has a signature expression, it’s the combination of furrowed eyebrows and a hearty smile. There’s a warmth to Buffett that eludes Ackman. Buffett exudes folksy charm, and his furrowed eyebrows express, among other feelings, an emotion that Ackman and his investors could benefit from: sadness. One advantage to sadness is that it slows you down and makes you more reflective. Certainly, Ackman has enjoyed coups. But he’s also been burned by his holdings in J. C. Penney and his on-going spat with the senior management at Herbalife may end badly for him.

At 28, Ackman made a name for himself by bidding for Rockefeller Center. Pershing Square’s office in Manhattan features a jet fighter’s ejector seat as a reminder that investors can bail on a bet any time they choose. The reminder is helpful, I suppose, but do Ackman’s investors fully understand that he’s not really running a hedge fund that hedges against risk so much as pushing the envelope again and again?

Valeant was a spiritual fit for Ackman, a pharmaceutical company rapaciously buying up other companies and refusing to do its own research and development work to establish new drugs. Bold with blind spots is a phrase that could describe both the since-departed CEO of Valeant and Ackman. Being a “Baby Buffett” on the other hand is a non-starter of a comparison. A Buffett lieutenant called Valeant a “deeply immoral” company for its loose accounting practices and price-gouging strategy. Ackman shot back at one of Buffett’s most famous investments, Coca-Cola, chiding the company for contributing to obesity and diabetes. Both men are wealthy investors, but one has plenty of EQ and the other isn’t bothered by himself or the management teams he invests in lacking it. A cocker spaniel and a pit bull are both dogs, for instance, but there the similarity ends.

When Every Kiss Begins with Groping

Sterling Jewelers Blog

Surprise and fear are closely aligned emotions because many a surprise is unwelcome and all surprises require adapting to strange, new circumstances. By now, sadly, many of the female employees of Sterling Jewelers are well past the surprise stage in recognizing that they inhabit a corporate culture rife with problems. A gender bias suit against the company goes all the way back to 2008, and involves a downright shocking 69,000 women joining in allegations focused on pay and promotion inequalities.

Some of the details coming to light now go far beyond those inequalities, into the territory of sexual harassment and, at times, even reports of rape. It apparently became common practice over the years for male managers at Sterling’s mandatory managers’ conference to be seen in swimming pools with topless female employees. Or for a woman who wanted a promotion to submit to “going to the big stage,” according to company lingo. At times, male managers would allegedly send scouting parties to the company’s stores to find female staffers to target for sex.

It should be no bouquet of flowers for Sterling that they’ve used arbitration to hold off settling the various charges for almost a decade by now.

Where was senior management during all of this? Joining in, it would seem. The allegations also accuse Sterling’s CEO, Mark Light, of demanding sexual favors and joining in the pool parties himself. Every corporate culture comes from the top, down. So it’s hard to take much solace in Sterling’s official denials, which emphasize that the bias allegations are separate from the almost 250 women and men who describe the company as a hotbed of sexual harassment.

It should be no bouquet of flowers for Sterling that they’ve used arbitration to hold off settling the various charges for almost a decade by now. Or that plenty of other companies also, regrettably, struggle with reports of gender issues. This is Sterling Jewelers, after all, the parent company of various brands, including Kay Jewelers – whose slogan is “Every kiss begins with Kay.” We should be thinking about romance, weddings, innocence, white dresses, and not female employees being groped.

Studies that have pitted male mice in battle have found that winning increases the secretion of testosterone and invites risk-taking. Winning makes the superior mice welcome returning to the place of their previous conquests. When asked if he was a man or a mouse, Groucho Marx said: “Give me a piece of cheese and you’ll find out.” Mark Light commands a salary of over $3.5 million and stock awards that exceed $4 million, but I guess that’s not enough to keep him from heading for the pool.

Best Supporting Roles in Oscar Awards Snafu

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Wow, can you believe how the 89th Academy Awards show climaxed with the wrong winner for Best Picture getting announced from the stage? Warren Beatty clearly couldn’t. Three times, at least, as Beatty stood there, looking puzzled, with an opened red envelope in hand, fear stretched his mouth wider. Throw in a gulp, a skeptical smile, and what’s a guy to do? As anybody who’s ever worked a job knows, the moment disaster strikes the key is to hand off responsibility for the disaster to somebody else.

Bonnie and Clyde co-star Faye Dunaway thought Beatty was kidding around, when he was actually trying to make a get-away. “You’re impossible,” Dunaway told Beatty as many in the crowd may have had the same thought I did: is Beatty feeling his age, had a few drinks – what’s going on? “Come on,” Dunaway then added, sealing her fate. Beatty hands her the suspect envelope, and she announces “La La Land!” without even taking a serious look at the card inside the by-now infamous envelope.

“La La Land!” Dunaway declared with a big smile, reinforcing happiness’s primary downside: bliss often tends to make you sloppy with the details. The upside is that happiness symbolically involves hugging the moment that fulfillment happens, and soon the La La Land team was on stage, with a trio of producers launching into acceptance speeches.  Meanwhile, the script for the final award of the evening was being hastily revised. With a guy with a headset on suddenly stage center, conferring with others behind him, La La Land producer Fred Berger got the word.

Eyebrow arched in disbelief, Berger suddenly lapses into “We lost by the way,” shrugs, and manages a faux smile. Besides Berger, another guy in a tux isn’t as gracious. Anger permeates his face. Meanwhile, Emma Stone can be seen mouthing the words, “Oh, my God.”

Who gets the award for the best supporting role in the Academy Awards’ most shocking screw-up ever? The nominees are . . .

Faye Dunaway – for not bothering to read the card that actually had Emma Stone’s name on it.

Warren Beatty – for not comprehending the mistake himself, followed by stepping forward to needlessly explain the error, still  vaguely puzzled, still fearful, still given to sheepish grins. Fortunately, Denzel Washington directed Beatty from Washington’s front row seat to the reality that Beatty should step aside and let Barry Jenkins, director of Moonlight, the actual winner, get to talk at last.

The Academy – for a history of winners being in reality the Most Popular Movie, not the Best Movie, given that cash is king in Hollywood as it is everywhere else, all artistic pretensions normally aside. And since La La Land is a tribute to the movie-making industry, who could imagine the Academy wasn’t going to reward being in love with itself?

who could imagine the Academy wasn’t going to reward being in love with itself?

Brian Cullinan – the PwC accounting firm ambassador, accorded a red-carpet entry himself, only to hand the wrong, backup envelope for Best Actress to Beatty. The explanation that Cullinan wishes didn’t make sense? His having most likely distracted himself from the task at hand by tweeting a photo of Emma Stone back stage after she won her award for Best Actress, just before disaster struck.

Jimmy Kimmel – the host for the show, for fatuously suggesting “Why can’t we just give out a whole bunch of them?” in response to La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz’s plight as winner turned loser of the evening’s most prized Oscar.

And the winner is . . . The Academy. It can’t possibly be Faye Dunaway because, after all, she was merely engaged in what psychologists call top-down mental processing, whereby existing beliefs influence, shape, and even dominant how we react to any new sensory input. In other words, people tend to see only what they expect to see: of course, the winner would have to be La La Land, in which Ryan Gosling’s character plays a white man trying to save jazz.  Wasn’t it almost inconceivable that Moonlight, directed by a black man filming a movie about a poor gay man, could win, after two years in a row in which no black person was even nominated for a major award?

Could anything be even more inconceivable for viewers at home as well as the slack-jacked, eyes wide, stunned and ultimately, mostly pleased, star-studded audience in attendance? That would be the spectacle of a white female director taking home either the Director’s prize of the one for Best Picture. A study has found that only 1.9% of the directors for the top 100 grossing films in recent years have been women.

Woops. “This is not a joke,” La La Land producer Marc Platt said on stage. “This is not a joke,” repeated producer Jordan Horowitz. Someone strongly agrees with them. Who was the one woman most prominent after the ceremony? That would be the Academy’s chief executive, Dawn Hudson. She summoned all of my other nominees – minus Kimmel – into the theatre’s green room for what was apparently an enraged talking-to, while the celebratory parties began elsewhere.

North Korea’s Reliably Erratic Kim Jong-un

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Nobody should doubt who killed Kim Jong-nam, the estranged older half-brother of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, in Kuala Lumpur’s airport earlier this month. Sure, the immediate culprit were the young women who grabbed the elder brother from behind at the airport and wiped his face with a poisoned cloth. But they were what intelligence officers call “lizard’s tails,” people who can be disposed of after an assignment is over.  The new revelation that the poison involved was VX nerve gas – a substance banned under the international Chemical Weapons Conventions of 1997 and 2005 – changes everything, and nothing.

Kim Jong-nam was harmless, a playboy living in Macau who had gone into exile after being caught trying to enter Japan in 2001 to visit Tokyo Disneyland. That the portly Mr. Kim had used the name Pang Xiong, Chinese for “fat bear,” on a fake Dominican Republic passport establishes his character clearly enough.

In contrast, understated humor isn’t exactly what distinguishes the now 33-year-old man who succeeded his father as North Korea’s ruler in 2011. Follow the timeline. In 2013, Kim Jong-un arranged for the execution of his uncle and closest advisor, Mr. Jang, as part of a blood purge of anybody who might threaten his hold on power. In 2014, how did Sony Pictures fare in the run-up to its release of The Interview, a comedy about an assignation attempt on Kim Jong-un?  Not too well, given a cyberattack, leaked emails, and embarrassed Sony executives initially halting the movie’s release.

It’s just not natural for somebody to be characterized both by eyes glinting with joy and eyes narrowed in cold fury.

Not one to be placated easily, North Korea’s ruler almost monolithically veers between two primary emotions: anger and happiness. When Mr. Kim isn’t cackling with mirth as he inspects military hardware or factory output, he scowls. While the old saying, when momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy, has struck fear in more than one husband, Mr. Kim has put not only his country on edge. In reality, the entire world is watching and wondering what he’ll do next.

It’s just not natural for somebody to be characterized both by eyes glinting with joy and eyes narrowed in cold fury. Ever watchful and on guard is the one consistency. That, and North Korea’s ever expanding nuclear weapons capabilities. The demilitarized zone between the two Koreas is becoming irrelevant as tests prove North Korea can send its missiles in increasingly longer flights. A cloth doused with nerve gas is but a proxy for a nuclear-tipped missile.

Joyful people have a tendency to play fast and loose with the details. Angry people hit out. Reliably erratic, Mr. Kim may have met his match in Donald Trump should America’s new leader choose to diplomatically engage with North Korea. For the world’s sake, we can only hope that their (most likely) indirect contact goes better than it did for Fat Bear. For the elder half-brother who never even once met his homeland’s new feudal leader, the ending was quick and merciless. On the way to the hospital, Fat Bear ’s last words were “Very painful, very painful.”

Kim Jong-nam’s death in Malaysia changes everything by signaling that North Korea’s ruler will carry his grievances across borders and strike in public. But at the same time, the murder changes nothing when it comes to Kim Jong-un’s basic emotional make-up. Note the willingness to hit hard, only to then laugh it off by having a North Korean government organization say the real responsibility for whomever may have been poisoned “rests with the government of Malaysia.” After all, the lucky guy didn’t die in Pyongyang, right, and who can dispute that?

Betrayal or Growth: Westbrook, Durant, and the NBA All-Star Game

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The former Oklahoma City Thunder teammates briefly shared the court at Sunday’s 66th annual NBA All-Star game, leading to Russell Westbrook scoring off a pass from Kevin Durant. After that play, you could feel a sigh of collective relief all the way from the West team’s bench as they huddled up in New Orleans, back to the NBA’s head office in New York City. Let’s not feud, guys. That’s the high road, but the main road of the human heart in situations where the word “betrayal” is in the air heads straight back in history to gut-wrenching analogies like Brutus and Caesar or Judas and Christ.

Westbrook and Durant were never an obvious pairing, emotionally. Westbrook’s eyes glint when he’s ecstatic. Durant instead broadly smiles when things are going well. Westbrook’s mouth drops wide open in joy or amazement. When Durant’s mouth sits open, he’s pondering the situation. When Westbrook’s angry, he scowls, eyes hard and wide – staring you down. Durant can get annoyed, but he’s just as likely to look down or away as straight at another player on court. And that’s just the facial expressions. Westbrook doesn’t ever just walk around. The spark-plug guard  swaggers, struts, stalks and prances, whereas Durant glides or ambles when the lanky forward isn’t sweeping toward the basket.

Betrayal would be Westbrook’s word for discovering – via a text message – from his teammate of eight years that Durant was going to sign with the Golden State Warriors instead of renewing with the Thunder. Durant’s move westward could be ridiculed. After all, at Durant’s first Warrior press conference he insisted that “This was the hardest road because I don’t know anybody here.” Never mind that the Warriors sported four players on the West’s All-Star squad this year, including Durant. But Durant was serious, echoing other statements he’s made about seeking personal growth.

“I’m trying to find out who I am,” Durant told The [San Jose] Mercury News in an interview conducted after his move to the Bay area. Clearly the move Durant had in mind transcended mere geography or perhaps even winning a trophy, as important as that is to him. Of Westbrook, Durant said: “He knew who he was. He knew what he wanted to do. He got married young. He met his girlfriend in college. I didn’t have none of that. I didn’t have two parents in a home with me. I’m still trying to search and find out who I am.”

“I’m coming,” Westbrook yelled at Durant during a testy timeout.

“So what,” said Durant in reply.

Confidence is a tricky proposition for any of us, especially great athletes who need all of it to achieve their dreams. Westbrook got snubbed as a starter in the back court for the West, losing out to Warrior star Stephen Curry based on an All-Star voting formula that gives the fans’ votes the edge in a tiebreaker situation. On a pace to become the first triple-double player in the NBA since Oscar Robertson in the 1961-1962 season, Westbrook responded by, first, warming up alone at the far basketball from his West teammates before the game, then scoring 41 points in a high-scoring game where somebody actually playing some defense would have been charged with a crime.

Westbrook’s lonely, even if he’s got his wife and his scoring, rebounds and assists to the less-talented teammates Durant left behind. After their lone collaboration in the All-Star game on Sunday night, Durant and Westbrook were part of a high-fiving huddle but continued to stand apart from one another.  Westbrook had posted a photo on Instagram of miniature cupcakes after Durant’s move out west, echoing a term a Thunder player has used when the team is playing soft. “Some run, some make runways” Westbrook said in a commercial for his new Jordan brand shoe around the same time, a likely reference to Durant.

A week before the All-Star game, the Warriors came to Oklahoma City. The fans wore “Cup-Cake” tee shirts and chanted the dessert at Durant, who was booed on being introduced for the game. “I’m coming,” Westbrook yelled at Durant during a testy timeout. In typical Westbrook style, the lone remaining Thunder superstar repeated his words with a nodding head-thrust for emphasis. “So what,” said Durant in reply.

An aggrieved, forlorn, betrayed, rock-hard Westbrook and, off-court, a more tentative, plaintive, forever evolving Durant: that’s the enduring contrast.  Anger and joyful happiness are Westbrook’s principal emotions. They’re both approach emotions (as opposed to fall-back emotions like disgust), befitting the hard-charging guard.  Normally, Westbrook’s routine is that anger leads to success, making him happy as a result. Or to state things a little too simply, getting angry can make Westbrook happy. But in this case, brooding resentment doesn’t offer release. No victory will bring Durant back into the fold. If loyalty is a feeling, acts that feel like betrayal are thunderbolts none of us ever quite forget being the victim of. One completed pass in the New Orleans arena named the Smoothie King Center can’t possibly heal the rift.

Angry Man Michael Flynn Resigns

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You could say Michael Flynn “enjoyed” a very short (24 day) run serving as Donald Trump’s national security advisor, but you would be wrong. Flynn doesn’t do happiness.  Back when Donald Trump’s intelligence briefings began, stories emerged that Chris Christie had to tell Flynn to “calm down.” Apparently, Flynn was repeatedly interrupting the briefers to challenge their assessments with his own Flynn Facts. Anger management issues became a Flynn anti-fact. Asked about contentious briefings, Flynn denied the stories, calling them “total bullshit” based on people “lying.”

Welcome to denials that reinforce the point being made. Don’t rash hotheads jump into making unfit-for-public-consumption statements like “total bullshit”? Hmm.  For Flynn to deny, in effect, that he suffers from anger when Politico has published an article entitled “How Mike Flynn Became America’s Angriest General” is, shall we say, a curiosity item.

Look at almost any photo of Flynn and tell me this guy’s not angry and in need of some calming down! What do we see? Note the glaring eyes, the lowering (the boom) eyebrows and, ironically, tight lips from a guy who said too much to Sergey I. Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States. Five phone calls on an unsecured line by the country’s future security advisor the very day President Obama announces measures against Russia for hacking our election is hardly a sign of discretion.

Flynn’s rise and quick fall is a tale of deception as well as self-deception.

I’m a Marxist, a Groucho Marxist based on Groucho’s saying: “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?” Flynn wasn’t honest with Vice President Mike Pence, White House spokesperson Sean Spicer, and others, including quite possibly President Trump, regarding the substance of his calls with Kislyak. When it turned out the FBI had monitored the calls, establishing grounds for Flynn to be guilty of violating the Logan Act that bars private citizens from negotiating with foreign powers in disputes with America, Flynn’s goose was cooked. Flynn’s resignation letter didn’t admit to deception, only that he had “inadvertently” engaged in providing “incomplete information” to senior officials.

Washington, D.C. is no stranger to cautionary tales involving collisions between ambition and truthfulness. Nor is this new ground when it comes to anger, an emotion that when taken to extremes becomes a matter of recklessly wanting to push ahead, make progress, on one’s own terms, e.g., Flynn Facts. Flynn’s rise and quick fall is a tale of deception as well as self-deception. But now in tweeting that he’s a scapegoat, maybe at least Flynn can use the occasion to admit he’s mad as hell.

Adele Feels Mortified at Grammys

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Adele’s rendition of “Hello” to open the 59th Grammys show was a little shaky at first, a case of performance nerves. But the fear combined with sadness and disgust as Adele heard from her seat at the Staples Center that she had won for Song of the Year was different. I know what Adele was feeling at that moment as the left corner of her mouth pulled wide in fear, and simultaneously downward in a display of sadness and disgust. On the other hand, I can’t say for sure what she was thinking.

But given how the Grammys imitate the Oscars in favoring one big annual winner, Adele may well have known what might follow.  She might, and did, go on to be declared the winner for Record of the Year before capping off her triumph with Album of the Year.

Adele is far, far more a singer than a (fake) actress. She shows how she authentically feels. Bowing to a gracious Beyonce seated in the front row before her, Adele was, as everyone could witness, remarkably candid.  Claiming “I can’t possibly accept” the Album of the Year award, Adele then called Beyonce’s more stunning Lemonade album “monumental.”  I only wish the Recording Academy’s voters had felt so equally shaken in denying Beyonce the evening’s big prize.

After a history of 62 Grammy nominations and only one big win, she had to be feeling personal disappointment.

For her part, Beyonce went from a wince, to a concerned, worry wrinkle between her eyebrows upon experiencing Adele’s raw feelings, to a tear in her eyes by the end of Adele’s respectful speech. Those signs of sadness by Beyonce were completely and poignantly understandable. After a history of 62 Grammy nominations and only one big win, she had to be feeling personal disappointment. And in the bigger picture, Beyonce stayed in the realm of sadness rather than anger or disgust in knowing that the Recording Academy has in the past five years overlooked Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar and herself in awarding the top prize to a slew of white musical acts: Mumford & Sons, Daft Punk, Beck, Taylor Swift, and now Adele.

It became a real show-stopper within the staged show: a gracious Beyonce and a fervent, distraught Adele making more than just eye contact. A beautiful demonstration of empathy, mutual respect and support united the two women, even as the stage behind the British diva filled with songwriters and producers from Adele’s nearly all white, male team.