The Intricacies of Smiling

When it comes to political and emotional opposites, you can’t do much better than the Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi sideshow as they sat behind Donald Trump during the recent State of the Union speech. Pence has long ago mastered a look of supposed discernment as he takes in the wonders of Trump’s rhetoric. There are head-nods, yes, and smiles. But most of all there’s how a vertical crease forms between the Vice President’s eyebrows as he lowers and pinches them together as if trying to scoop up every pearl of wisdom. In contrast, the Speaker of the House looked like she was sucking on a lemon anytime she wasn’t instead rifling through the pages of the speech. Here, she’s giving the President a mock burst of applause.

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Did Pelosi do her level best to distract TV viewers from Trump’s words by handling the speech’s text as she did? Maybe she was just bored (the speech and Trump’s Mussolini-like thrusts of his defiant chin went on seemingly forever).  Trump’s almost never happy. At least he made some of the female Democrats in attendance pleased by mentioning the new jobs he’s created, namely, like theirs!

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As you can tell from the President’s displeased smiles, he wasn’t so happy to be upstaged. Happiness no longer seems to be what it once was. You can’t seemingly count on anything anymore.

Or maybe things were always like that. The two newly unearthed instances of Virginia politicians having gone the route of blackface should remind us that happiness isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. Here is Al Jolson in the move Mammy (1930), inhabiting a fabled land where black folks are supposedly too dumb to be anything but happy all the time.

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While Jeff Bezos was busy pushing back against an apparent blackmail attempt by The National Inquirer, what else went on this past week? Well, for one thing we had Amy Klobuchar managing to do a great job imitating somebody happy to be declaring her candidacy for president amid a snow storm.

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Meanwhile, off in Europe her fellow Minnesotan, Lindsey Vonn, was managing to win the bronze medal in the world championship downhill in her final race ever. How remarkable was her success after a fabled career? Five days earlier she had fallen in another race, ending up with a bruised rib and a black eye. And three months earlier she had torn a ligament in her left knee, the one operated on something like a gazillion times.

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At least every now and again, a smile is still really a smile: the embracing of life!

On a Mission or Simply Under Duress

Let’s start with the good news, especially for those who live in New England or have become admirers of the Belichick-Brady dynasty. Akin to getting a smile out of Chuck Norris in a movie role, it’s downright odd—almost creepy—to see a smile from Belichick. There were some afterwards, but much more in character is Belichick here gripping the victory trophy, eyebrow cocked in wary appraisal of the world around him while his eyes and mouth are tightly gripped in a look of determination. Maybe when Brady turns 50, Belichick will tire of winning. Meanwhile, . . . the victories and trophies accumulate.

Who also won this soporific Super Bowl? Many think it was the Bud Light / Game of Throne mash-up. What’s the Bud Light Knight’s facial expression? In his everyman role, beer-drinker as knight saving himself from sobriety, Budweiser doesn’t want us to know. We should be projecting ourselves into the role. Is he happily soused and sporting a smile, or brandishing the equivalent of Belichick’s scowl? The great mystery lingers.

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If there are winners, there must be losers, too, and there were this past Sunday. One was the Rams’ coach, Sean McVay, who admitted to having been “outcoached” by Belichick.  Both coaches have their chins pulled up in a sign of anger, disgust and sadness. The difference between them: notice also how the corners of McVay’s mouth are turned downwards, tilting the emotions displayed more in the direction of sadness for the moment. (Don’t worry, Rams’ fans: there’s determination being expressed as well, a determination to win again and often.) Besides the Rams, I think Burger King lost the Super Bowl. I’m sure some clever ad agency guy thought pulling out the old footage of Andy Warhol eating a hamburger showed his artiness, but mostly it revealed a lack of emotional intelligence. Time and again while eating the burger, Andy smirks—a sign of disrespect (for the product). It’s hard for the company’s offer to be the hero when it’s actually the goat (and I don’t mean GOAT as in Roger Federer being the Greatest Of All Time).

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Meanwhile, everyone’s running for president, inspired by Donald Trump’s example. If blatant incompetency and dishonesty can get you to the White House, why not give it a shot? Cory Booker has joined the Democratic field (looking delighted but not at ease), and maybe Howard Schultz is going to run an independent campaign. Fiscally conservative, socially liberal is Schultz’s promise. Whether a tepid smile and a lip turned down in disgust, as shown here, is an emotional formula for winning I doubt it.

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Who’s definitely going to lose? That’s easier to say. Playing a losing hand is an apt description of the ultimate fate of both Virginia governor Ralph Northam (looking mighty uneasy given the raised inner eyebrow, a sign of sadness and fear) and Venezuela’s leader Nicholas Maduro (trying his best to imitate Belichick, but the eyebrows pinched together give away Maduro’s existential fear of being shot by rebels within his own military). In Northam’s case, he held the most insane of press conferences last Saturday. Among the highlights, denying he was one of the men dressed up as a Klansman or in blackface in a medical school yearbook picture (after admitting the night before that, in fact, yes, that was him in the photo). A safe prediction: he won’t join the others running for the Democratic presidential nomination. In Maduro’s case, inflation is running at something like 10 million percent and there’s no food left . . . except at his residence. When people are literally starving to death en masse, rubber bullets won’t matter. Next stop, Moscow, Mr. Maduro, if only you’re so lucky.

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Week 4, 2019: From Indifference to Mendacity

Sometimes a muted emotional response is commendable. When called for a foot fault on match point during her quarterfinal at the Australian Open this past week, Serena Williams hardly “batted an eyelid.” What a contrast to the ruckus that ensued during last fall’s U.S. Open. On the other hand, a lack of emoting can and usually does signal indifference. Cue Wilbur Ross, the billionaire in charge of the Commerce Department. “I know they are, and I don’t really quite understand why,” Ross said on national TV in response to being asked about furloughed federal workers going to food banks to make ends meet. Quite honestly, a dead man would have shown more compassion than Ross did as he then suggested those same workers might apply instead for emergency, “low interest” loans. Did he mean like the almost 9% loans his department’s federal credit union was offering during the crisis?

Here is Ross as dead man walking during the federal shut-down on CNBC.

And here is Ross earlier this year telling Congress (in effect): “Yes, I’m not only tone deaf I’m literally deaf, too.”

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The good news is that we’re not yet Russia, though Ross’s cabinet colleague, Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin, is trying to help bring America and the former “Evil Empire” together by ending sanctions on Russian tycoon Oleg Deripaska. Study this next photo and ask yourself: does this guy have the look of a nice man? Most of Deripaska’s smiles could be mistaken for snarling, and his eyes are typically narrowed in an angry expression I refer to as “snake eyes.” Then there are Deripaska’s cocked eyebrows. There I don’t blame in. The further East you travel in Europe, the less people genuinely smile as a rule of thumb in the belief that if you’re happy you’re a fool. As in, don’t you realize the true nature of the socio-political environment you inhabit?

012919-02 Oleg Deripaska

I’d say this woman does. She’s Anastasia Vashukevich, a Belaursian escort and blogger who was just returned—against her wishes—to Russia, where as she noted strange things happen. Among her clients is none other than Deripaska, Putin’s buddy, of whom Vashukevich claims she has evidence of Russian collusion. How long she stays alive now that she’s back in Russia from Thailand is anybody’s guess, Putin aside (as he no doubt knows exactly how long he’ll go before “intervening”).

012919-03 Anastasia Vashukevich

Notice a visual theme (hint: cocked eyebrows, the sign of those who are wary in a lawless land).

Speaking of festering sore spots around the world, there’s little chance of Zimbabwe improving anytime soon. Yes, Robert Mugabe is gone—replaced by his former, loyal lieutenant, Emmerson Mnangagwa. Here is the man known as “the crocodile” returning to Robert Mugabe International Airport in Harare this past week after making a pit-stop at the Davos Conference. Why was Mnangagwa there? To insist he’s a great guy, eager for foreign investment. Notice in this case how not only the Crocodile’s upper lip is raised in a sign of disgust, but also how emotionally in synch his aides are. The three men to Mnangagwa’s right in this photo are all spotting the same look. As a spurning emotion, a sign of something “stinks” or tastes bad, disgust hardly suggests openness.

012919-04 Emmerson Mnangagwa

One final note here among the photographs that caught my eye this week. Let’s admit that being “open” (as in “open for business”) doesn’t necessarily provide a safety net when it comes to ensuring good governance. Roger Stone has been mugging for the TV cameras during the past few days, doing his best to imitate Richard Nixon’s “victory salute”: the very same one Nixon gave even on boarding the helicopter that took him away from the White House after resigning his presidency. I could be showing Stone’s imitation of Nixon’s victory salute or even the Nixon tattoo he’s got on his upper back.

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But somehow this photo of an eyes-wide-open, eager to cash-in Stone flanked by his fellow swamp mates Paul Manafort and Lee Atwater on the occasion of opening their K-Street lobbying firm back in the 1980’s was just too sweetly bitter for me to pass up. Among their clients were foreign dictators, overseas political parties with likely ties to drug trafficking and, of course, also some guy named Donald Trump.

From Incompetent Officials to Something’s Great (But It’s Not Trump)

Welcome to a very different version of “Faces of the Week.” Focusing on a single story per posting is, frankly, too limiting. There’s always so much of interest going on. So while the occasional posting may focus on a single specific story, by and large I’m going to move to a potpourri of stories, going with whatever catches my eye (and engages my heart).

Let’s start with incompetency and Brexit.

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Pity the British prime minister, Teresa May, as she struggles with plans B-Z now that Plan A was sounded defeated in Parliament. All the while, where, oh where is Boris Johnson, the man who helped lead the charge in favor of leaving the E.U. because the world would be coming up roses if England went its own way? As usual, he’s lost somewhere in his own mix of bluster and bafflement as to what it was he actually was thinking. “I said what?” seems to be the caption to many a moment of lip curling, mouth ajar Johnson caught on camera.

As pointed out in Pankaj Mishra’s article for The New York Times, however, a mediocre “chumocracy” has often ruled England. Case in point is Lord Mountbatten, whose hurried declaration of independence for India led to an estimated one million deaths as the country unraveled. The article came complete with this photo:

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From left seated at the table, Jawaharlal Nehru, vice president of India’s interim government; Earl Mountbatten, viceroy of India; and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, president of the Muslim League, discuss Britain’s plan for India, June 2, 1947. 

As a facial coder, what struck me immediately was the anger on Jinnah’s face. Could anybody have imagined independence was going to be a cake-walk? More specifically, did Mountbatten even really notice the emotions roiling around him? He himself admitted the transfer of power he chose was a “ludicrously early date.” Then he gave the task of drawing the new boundaries to a British lawyer who had never visited India. Like Brexit, a mess was certain and that’s putting it mildly.

Speaking of incompetent officials, the stakes were a wee bit lower when the NFL official failed to call pass interference on this play late in the NFC championship game. Would you say that New Orleans Saints’ coach Sean Peyton was stunned by the no-call?

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Seeking to move from U.S. Senator (D-CA) to the White House, Kamela Harris joined the ranks of contenders for the Democratic nomination this past week. With Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) already declared, how can Harris distinguish herself? For starters, she has the best smile of the three women. But a wide-eyed, on alert look is her other signature expression. Warmth and concern: it’s a great combination. My hunch is that of the three, she might prove the most effective on the campaign trail (time and the voters and the money raised will tell; remember what a 20th century Republican party boss said: Only two things matter in politics . . . money and I can’t remember the other thing.” Well, actually emotion is the other currency!)

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What was great in the past few days was this man, the rising Greek tennis star Stefanos Tsitsipas, managing to beat his idol, Roger Federer, in a thrilling match at the Australian Open. “I’m the happiest man on earth” Tsitsipas said afterwards and it wasn’t hard to believe him. Just look at the elation on his face.

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Maybe the question of the week, however, was what was on the face (and in the heart) of the student from Covington Catholic High School in Washington, D.C. to join an anti-abortion protest. Nick Sandmann said he stood this close to a Native American activist trying to step in between two opposing groups. No disrespect was intended, Sandmann said. But in wearing a Make America Great Again (MAGA) red hat, linked to Donald Trump and his disparaging reference to senator Warren as “Pocahontas” (among many other racist or all but racist remarks, over time), one is left wondering.

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The Native American shown here to the right, Nathan Phillips, sure felt uneasy about Sandmann being so in his face. There’s a slight smirk to the right on Sandmann’s face, and an upper lip curled in disgust. Despite the accompanying smile, it’s hard to reconcile Sandmann’s expression with the notion that no disrespect was intended.

What’s easier to judge for sure than Sandmann’s expression? That would be the look on the face of the Confederate soldier emblazoned on the digital sign outside his school back in Kentucky. Note the eyes tight with anger, and for that matter the street on which the school sits. I rest my case, even if Sandmann is still protesting his innocence.

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Mr. Sunshine, Julian Castro, Declares Presidential Bid

Memo to Joe Biden, should you decide to enter the race. When it comes to big, flashing, electric smiles, you’ve now got some competition. Meet Julian Castro: formerly the mayor of San Antonio as well as a Housing and Urban Development secretary in Barack Obama’s administration. Is Castro really the second coming of Biden, however? I don’t think so. Easy laughter isn’t part of the package. And many of Castro’s smiles—no matter how joyous—contain a whiff of some additional emotion, too.

For starters, there are only two emotions where Castro stands out. He shows above average amounts of happiness (especially the strongest two flavors of it—sparkling-eyed joy, and minus that look the pleasure signaled by large grins). And the same is true of contempt. What does that combination of happiness and contempt suggest? In a word, it would be confidence. As for where the smirks emerge, look for the tension that appears along the left corner of Castro’s mouth in the photo on the left here, and next at how his upper lip raises and curls a bit in the photo to its right.

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Now, joyful smirking is already a little odd.  Tom Brady and Vladimir Putin both smirk when they smile, but rarely while offering a big, glowing smile. Happiness is about, in effect, hugging others and embracing opportunity. Contempt is laced with scorn and dismissal.  Contempt could be thought of as the equivalent of strong-arming somebody trying to tackle you in a football game.

That fairly uneasy, even unnatural combination plays out in this next smile of Castro’s. The happiness is more subdued here, but again the upper lip flares with contempt (and disgust). Is there some chance that another side of Castro exists beyond being Mr. Sunshine? Could he be vaguely imperial, a little aloof, with some modicum of darkness creeping in after all?

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I think that could be true, but we’ll have to wait and see how this all plays out on the campaign trail. For now, Castro is presenting himself as the Hispanic Obama, a quick learner who represents the next generation in an ever more multicultural society. Education is his big issue, something that helped propel him to Stanford and Harvard. And as for rising fast, well, his mother ran (unsuccessfully) for a seat on San Antonio’s City Council when she was 23, and he got there by the age of 26. If elected to the White House, Castro would become our country’s third youngest president ever.

Youth is at the heart of Castro’s sunshine appeal. His grandmother, orphaned by the Mexican Revolution, crossed the border at a young age. Relatives in San Antonio took in her and a sister. Castro has called his recently released autobiography An Unlikely Journey: Waking Up from My American Dream.  Noting how details like his grandmother’s diabetes, depression and even a suicide attempt get passed over as quickly as his mother’s alcoholism and his parents’ separation, a reviewer in The New York Times characterized An Unlikely Journey as offering “little in the way of introspection.”

What exactly is Castro waking up from? Can he beat Donald Trump, as promised, by not making the error of trying to “out-gutter” him? Who knows for sure.

Castro’s expansive, frequent smijuliale limits evidence of sadness, anger and fear to levels well below what’s customary in the famous people I’ve analyzed over the years. So time will have to tell which version voters perceive. Might whatever is in the shadows of Castro’s personality fortify him, helping him demonstrate empathy and emotional depth? Or might everything except “sunshine” (happiness) get treated instead as merely a nuisance to be kept out of view (even from himself) as much as humanly possible?

Elizabeth Warren Heads to Iowa to Begin 2020 Presidential Race Campaigning

Imagine the horses going around the track at the Kentucky Derby not once, but 40 or 50 times, and you begin to approach the exhausting insanity known as the “horse race” for the White House. The earliest incumbent to file for re-election ever is Donald Trump: five hours after taking office. But on the Democratic side, first in this time around is Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). Iowa doesn’t hold its caucuses for a year still, and the initial Democratic presidential debate isn’t until June in California. But as January promises to be a crowded month for Democratic candidates to enter the race, I figured I might as well already start emotionally handicapping the race now. In other words, what do Warren’s non-verbal body language (facial expressions especially) suggest about her personality and how she might fare on the campaign trail?

I expected fist-pumping and finger-pointing from Warren, and saw it. As a strong, (to some) even strident liberal, Warren could be expected to be eager to rally against, and identify, situations in which citizens-as-consumers aren’t being treated fairly.

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I also expected to find plenty of disgust as well as contempt. As a reformer, Warren not surprisingly scores above average for those two emotions. There are corporations she doesn’t trust or respect, and as far as she’s concerned unethical actions being undertaken that simply “stink.” Note the raised upper lip that accompanies her smile. But an upside-down smile, an expression signaling disgust, sadness and anger, won’t to my mind earn her supporters or helpful media coverage for her “brand.”  Being a passionate advocate for broad change is a plus for Warren; coming across as a sour-puss isn’t.

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What I didn’t expect from Warren, however, and got was plenty of surprise and an above average amount of fear. Eyebrows raised in alarm and a mouth pulling slightly wide in fear play well only to the extent they signal the danger the country is in, as opposed to a shaky messenger.

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Frankly, Warren looks less confident than other notable people I’ve analyzed. Maybe the gaffe about being baited by Donald Trump into taking an ancestry DNA test to verify that she’s part Native American will prove to be a one-time misstep. But with a huge Democratic field of candidates likely, including as many as three other prominent female Senators, there won’t be much room for making errors over the next, nearly two-year stretch.

Chief of Staff John Kelly Joins Those Cast Aside

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Our Commander in Chief of insults, Donald Trump, might as well have called them Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dumb for the way their fates have converged. After all, at the very same time John Kelly decided/agreed/was forced to resign by year’s end, the ghost of former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson re-emerged to criticize Trump and be called, in turn, “dumb as a rock” and “lazy as hell.” Such is life in the orbit of Trump, who can reduce even a retired U.S. Marine Corps general like Kelly to expressions of anguish not so far removed from Mantegna’s painting of St. Sebastian.

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Let me turn autobiographical for a moment, and recall my working (briefly) in a P.R. shop aiding real estate magnets in mid-town Manhattan. (Trump wasn’t among its clients.) Turn-over there was horrendous (exceeding 200%), and the stress great enough that my neck soon became so stiff I had to kneel and face my alarm clock, straight on, in the mornings to turn it off because I couldn’t bend or move my head sideways one iota. When I mentioned my predicament to a colleague at work, her reply: “Oh, everyone gets sick their second week here.” Welcome to hell.

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Now back to Trump: whatever the ultimate attrition rate proves to be among his senior-level aides, it’s sure to be of historic proportions. Already at an earlier point in his administration, the Donald was shedding cabinet level officials at a rate 20% higher than Bill Clinton’s chaotic White House and on pace to have, across all White House staff regardless of level, the greatest turn-over rate of any president ever. Why is Trump’s White House (in Kelly’s words) such a “miserable place” to work? A new article in The Wall Street Journal, “The Dark Triad and the Evolution of Jerks,” might shed some light. Here’s what psychology professor Glenn Geher wrote, with the linkage to Trump just waiting to be made (or so it seems to me).

Apparently, about 10% of the population scores high on what’s been dubbed the Dark Triad: narcissism, Machiavellian manipulation (of others for one’s own gain), and psychopathic disregard of everybody else. Stressful, harsh or unstable child-parent relationships are thought to be the root cause of the Dark Triad, which could point the finger for Trump’s behavior back to moments like learning not to stand in front of the door of a tenant’s apartment—just in case a bullet came flying his way. That was back in the day when the Donald would join his real estate magnet father, Fred, in going around trying to collect rent monies in Queens.

How do Dark Triad folks tend to behave? For one thing, they incessantly cut people out of their lives. (See the photo below of a White House gathering, of which only Vice President Mike Pence remains in place.) For another, even the slightest “transgression” against them leads to their enacting revenge. Does that sound like anyone we know living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? Add in habits like aggression and deceit, and a Dark Triad person becomes a truly dark star. Finally, as to Michael Cohen’s payments to Stormy Daniels, on Trump’s behalf, a Dark Triad type also tends to specialize in pursuing brief sexual encounters. As I said, does that sound like the victim of a “witch hunt” to you?

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George H. W. Bush’s Funeral – The Words and So Much More

With shorter life spans and the absence of airplanes to ease the logistics, having five living U.S. presidents together for an event never happened in American history until the dedication of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in 1991. Then it was Reagan, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, George H. W. Bush, along with Jimmy Carter as the one Democratic president in attendance. Now for George H. W. Bush’s funeral, Donald Trump found himself in the front pew alongside three former Democratic presidents he’s disparaged as illegitimate (Barrack Obama), as guilty of assaulting women (Bill Clinton), and as the supposedly second most worst president ever (Jimmy Carter), behind Obama. Did that make for a fun greeting between them all when Donald and Melania joined the other presidents and their spouses for the service at the Washington National Cathedral?

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Hardly, as everyone’s facial expressions made evident then and in the immediate aftermath of Donald joining the group. Barrack Obama managed an aggrieved smile, with an upwardly pushed chin expressing disgust, anger and sadness at least as prominent as the happiness conveyed on enjoying the sitting (truly sitting) president’s presence. After a smile for Melania Trump, Michelle Obama became far grimmer and more subdued, eyes lowered, than before the Trumps crashed the party. Most notable of all, though, was how Bill Clinton only slightly turned his head Donald’s way, with neither man making any attempt to exchange a handshake—while Hillary Clinton stared straight ahead, eyes wide and lips firmly set in anger. As for the Donald, well, he soon crossed his arm and was pouting as usual: a man without friends.

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George W. Bush making his way down the cathedral’s main aisle led to still more interesting body language. The Donald (mouth agape with a modicum of surprise) had hardly stood up to greet Bush ’43 before W. had moved on to greeting the Obamas. Michelle and Jimmy Carter gave the grieving son the biggest, most reassuring smiles among those assembled there in the front pew. (Hillary didn’t get the memo to be cordial, and barely managed a smile.)

121018-03 George HW Bush Funeral GW Greeting

Next it was on to the formal remarks. For the first time since LBJ’s funeral when Nixon was in office, the current president wasn’t invited to eulogize a predecessor. That’s probably a good thing given how Donald’s most memorable words as his own dad’s funeral had been to say his father’s greatest achievement in life had been his “fantastic son.” Instead, George W. Bush and family showed us what true grief looks like in remembering the man he called “the best father a son or daughter could have.” Eyes closed, head down, eyebrows knitted together in concentrating on not totally “losing it,” W. nearly crumpled in sorrow. Family members in the opposite front pew from the former presidents weren’t far behind. Want to know what sadness looks like? Note the puffy eyelids, the wince across the cheeks, and the corners of the mouth drooping among the expressions from those assembled there.

121018-04 George HW Bush Funeral GW Tears

Was George H. W. Bush as decent a man as his son recalled him being? Largely so, I’d say.  Sure, there were shortcomings from invoking Willie Horton to nominating Clarence Thomas to joining Reagan in being a slow train in addressing the AIDS epidemic that was the leading killer of young men in America by the time that Bush ’41 left office.  But the sadness George H. W. Bush often showed in life was more in the reflective, pondering mode—a mode that the impulsive Donald Trump isn’t even vaguely familiar with. It’s as if Trump feels sadness in that he wants his greater glory to be more widely, even universally acknowledged. So he feels disappointed when that’s not the case. In contrast, Bush ’41 came as humbly close as someone who achieves the Oval Office could ever most likely come to not wanting any attention bestowed on himself at all.

121018-05 George HW Bush Funeral Bush Family

All in Favor of a “Public Hanging,” Vote Cindy Hyde-Smith

Remember the U.S. Supreme Court five years ago rolling back the Voting Rights Act of 1965? Back then, Chief Justice John Roberts was claiming “things have changed dramatically” in favor of no longer needing electoral safeguards in states with a history of racial bias. Well, Roberts’ rationale is looking more ludicrous by the day. For one thing, isn’t it odd how most conservatives didn’t object to that ruling as another case of “activist judges” mandating from the bench? I guess re-activist, reactionary judges are okay.

For another, consider the U.S. Senate race just concluded in Mississippi. First, the Republican candidate, Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, espoused the view that it’s a “great idea” to make it harder for “liberal folks” to vote. Then she was photographed wearing a Confederate hat and brandishing a rifle before being filmed at a campaign event lauding a campaign supporter with the words, “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be in the front row.” Who might be victimized? (Hyde-Smith’s opponent is, by the way, Mike Espy: the first African-American elected to Congress from the state since the Reconstruction era.)

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Welcome to Mississippi, a place where over 600 lynchings of black people took place between 1877 and 1950 (more than any other state). With the election next Tuesday, the one and only debate was held earlier this week at an event where an always-nervous looking Hyde-Smith came to the lectern with a massive pile of notes to guide her through the evening. Now at last the Senator was ready to make an apology for her “public hanging” remarks by seeming to read her apology verbatim from her pre-assembled notes.

112818-02 Cindy Hyde-Smith Notes

“For anybody that was offended by my comments” (in other words, anybody not part of my base), “I certainly apologize,” Hyde-Smith began. “There was no ill-will, no intent whatsoever in my statements.” How fortunate it is that the Senator didn’t, at least, say she was sincerely apologizing. Nothing would have been farther from the truth. From her apology, note the flared upper lip (indicative of contempt for feeling forced to issue an apology); followed by closed-eyes (I can’t believe I’m saying this) and a lip pushed downward in disgust while affirming there “was no ill-will.”

112818-03 Cindy Hyde-Smith Apology

Let nobody be fooled—not even you, Judge Roberts. Notice a pattern? Disenfranchised voters may have made the difference in Georgia’s governor’s race, and in Florida the Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob DeSantis issued a warning during the campaign for voters not to “monkey it up” by supporting his African-American opponent Andrew Gillum.

In her excellent, penetrating book, Democracy in Chains, Duke University professor Nancy MacLean unearths how the billionaire Koch brothers game plan for re-imposing robber baron capitalism in America took its legal impetus from the writings of an obscure economist, James McGill Buchanan. What got Buchanan’s goat? Why, it was the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 that called for the dismantling of segregation in public schools. A way of life was threatened. For the rest of his career, Buchanan looked for ways to neuter the federal government’s power and thereby limit equality and fairness. Long live Dixie? I certainly hope otherwise.

The Low-Down on the Trump-Acosta News Conference Duel

It’s now been a week since the mid-term elections and, a few recounts aside, the dust has largely settled. What I can’t get out of my mind, however, is the confrontation between the President and CNN’s Jim Acosta during a rare formal East Room news conference the day after the voting. If Rembrandt, that master of depicting emotions, were alive today, what rich material he would have to work from!

Given that Acosta had his press pass to the White House suspended afterwards, the first question has to be: is Acosta really guilty of “placing his hands on” the female intern seeking to take the microphone away from him? That charge is, after all, the basis for press secretary Sarah Huckabee denying Acosta access to doing his job. While video shows Acosta’s outstretched left arm appearing to press down enough on the intern’s own outstretched arm for her arm to momentarily bend and give way, Acosta is at the same time saying “Pardon me, ma’am,” hardly the makings of Huckabee decrying CNN’s “outrageous disregard” for everyone working in the Trump administration.

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Is the young intern angry with Acosta after failing to retrieve the mic from him? Absolutely; notice her taut, lower eyelids and grimacing mouth.

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Is Acosta on edge himself? Absolutely; notice his grimacing gulp as Trump alternatively mocks and lambasts him.

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The fellow reporter who stands up for Acosta isn’t any more at ease himself. Notice his starkly open eyes and raised eyebrows, indicating fear.

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Trump himself winds up jabbing finger at Acosta, berating Acosta for being a “rude, terrible person” and CNN for again being the “enemy of the people” whenever it reports “fake news, which CNN does a lot.”

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But actually, Trump is fearful as well. Notice how his mouth pulls wide just when Acosta starts in with “I’d like to challenge you on one of the statements you made.”

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With the news conference broadcast live worldwide, there’s also the rich emotional theater of how the other media figures in the East Room were reacting. There we’re really in Rembrandt territory. The Dutch artist’s famous Nightwatch painting meets its contemporary rival in scenes like these:

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For Trump, raised on the mantra of “Be a killer, be a winner” by his aggressive real estate kingpin of a father, ugly emotional territory feels like home. But for many others along for the bumpy ride, unease rules the day.