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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 1, 2015

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Candidates, X

If only the Republican candidates had known before announcing their decision to run for president that the public debates would be so unfair in their allocation of time. In all previous debates that I recall, each candidate had a certain amount of time, interruption and heckling were forbidden, and the questions were built around topics of genuine interest to the electorate.

Instead, a mike-grabbing moron kept interrupting everybody -- but that was understandable, since CNN saw to it that most of the early questions were about him.

That's right -- as CNN sees it, the Republican nomination should be decided by how the other candidates respond to Donald Trump.

The result is that the best candidate to run for the Republican nomination in many years, Scott Walker, became a victim of his own diffident, noncombative personality. Being "above the fray" made him invisible, even though he was the only candidate to have governed a state where he faced the gut-check issues.

His enemies try to portray him as anti-union, but that is false. He was against monopoly unions that use their power to steal from the pockets of taxpayers.

For many years in Wisconsin, where (as in most states) the state Democratic Party is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the National Education Association, Democratic Party officials supposedly represented the people when negotiating pay and benefits with the leftist ideologues of the NEA, who supposedly represented the teachers.

That meant that the teachers' compensation packages had been "negotiated" with the NEA's people sitting on both sides of the table. Nobody spoke for the taxpayers, and nobody spoke for non-radical-leftist teachers.

Walker's changes were modest indeed, but you'd have thought he was beheading teachers in the public square. Teachers' unions always claim that anyone who opposes them is "against education." But when Walker faced a recall election and won, it became clear that a majority of Wisconsin voters knew that the NEA had been stealing from them, and wanted a slightly fairer sharing-out of taxpayer funds.

Through it all, Walker never lost his cool -- while his opponents screamed and vilified, insulted and slandered him like ... like ... Donald Trump attacks anybody and everybody.

No Republican candidate had proven himself in office and in political combat like Scott Walker. When he talked about cutting taxes and cutting spending, everybody knew that he could do it and would do it, never backing down.

But you can't run a campaign without money -- for staffer salaries, for transportation, for advertising. And that's the real primary election -- people vote with their wallets.

Now Trump is whining about how Fox News hates him. This is absurd, of course -- the other networks hate everything about Trump except the ratings he generates and the fact that if he were the Republican nominee, the victory of any Democrat would be virtually assured.

And that's why Fox News treats Trump differently. At Fox, they still remember how to ask hard questions that challenge candidates. You know -- good political reporting.

While at the other networks, they have been softballing Democrats since the Clinton regime of lies, stonewalling, bribery, and corruption. Under Obama, they have become cheerleaders.

And boy, are they cheerleading for Trump. Not openly, but by giving him way more serious coverage than he deserves, and by asking him nothing but slow-pitch softball questions. His flippant, arrogant, stupid replies generate high ratings -- and make all Republicans look stupid. That's exactly what the leftist media want.

Fox News alone among the networks actually cares about the quality of candidates from both parties. Because you never know what can happen, and whoever gets either nomination has a reasonable chance of holding the White House for four years.

On the Democratic side, all the networks seemed content to assume the nomination belonged to Hillary Clinton because it was "her turn." Well, no, because it was "a woman's turn" and she was the token woman whose resume, though not her achievements or her character, hinted that she might be qualified.

But since almost every Democratic politician who has worked with the Clintons actually hates Hillary -- and, come on, what's not to hate -- there has been barely-closeted glee about Bernie Sanders' poll numbers.

This unknown socialist-leaning Vermonter is doing to Hillary what Eugene McCarthy did to Lyndon Johnson in 1968 and Pat Buchanan did to Bush Senior in 1992 -- he's showing the softness in the "leading candidate's" support.

Now, if the national media had done their job, riding the Benghazi and illegal-server stories the way they rode even the most absurd anti-Bush stories (like the way he caused Hurricane Katrina), Hillary Clinton's weakness would be even more apparent than it is.

But the very fact that someone as marginal (and White male) as Sanders is doing so well, without real money behind him, has made Democrats look around for a viable alternative to Hillary (which Sanders probably is not). The name they've come up with is Joe Biden, rumored to be our current Vice-President and masseur-in-chief.

Joe Biden was once a serious presidential contender back in the 1980s until he (or a speechwriter) was found to have plagiarized from a British politician of yore. After that, he revealed himself to be the stupidest man in the Senate, once Al Gore had left it.

Indeed, both Clinton and Obama showed their stripes by choosing two of the dumbest running mates ever. Whether this was to make sure nobody ever wished the veep were prez, it's certainly the opposite of what the most secure candidates do. George W. Bush chose someone much more experienced and, in some ways, more qualified for the office than he was -- as did John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and Mitt Romney. (Eisenhower couldn't do that because nobody in America was close to being as qualified for the presidency as he was.)

But Biden was Obama's choice, and so they run his name in the polls and Hillary instantly stops being the choice of a majority. Most Democrats want somebody else.

And that speaks well of the Democratic Party. They know that even though the Left always pretends that their naked emperors and empresses are wearing designer fashions, in fact Hillary is a liar and a criminal, lacking only impartial judicial procedure (something that will never happen under the Obama Justice Department).

Given a chance, Democrats would rather vote for a candidate they can take some honest pride in. A candidate they don't have to lie to defend.

But just as Eugene McCarthy would probably have made a better president than any of the men who actually made it to the 1968 ballot (Nixon, Humphrey, and, in many states, Wallace), Bernie Sanders would certainly be better than either Hillary or Biden. (I refer to her by her first name because there's another Clinton still around.)

Let's remember that unless you have a president like Obama, with his contempt for the Constitution, democracy, and the rule of law, electing someone with a socialist program like Sanders's doesn't mean that socialism will immediately become law. Not even if a solidly Democratic Congress is elected. There are still plenty of opportunities for Republicans to push back and roadblock any "reforms" that go too far in that direction.

And Sanders seems to be that rare thing among politicians: A decent human being who refuses to engage in personal attacks while trusting the people to listen to actual ideas and programs as they decide whom to vote for.

If I had to choose between Sanders and Trump, I'd choose Sanders. (Trump vs. Hillary is a toss-up. The cretin or the crook -- that's a choice?)

But that won't be the choice, because the poll numbers of Republicans who hate Trump are as high as the numbers of Republicans who like him. And his support is paper-thin, because his "following" will flock to any other "outsider" who shows spunk.

Why outsiders? Because of the Republican stupid factor, that's why. Led by Sean Hannity, these conservative "purists" demand that politicians show perfect fidelity to the incoherent mishmash of dogmas that comprise conservative "philosophy."

No politician who actually holds office and tries to make a difference can ever measure up (or down) to that standard. Sure, you can be a purist -- but then you become like Jesse Helms -- "Senator No" -- whose only role was as a roadblock.

Anybody who actually hopes to pass legislation or carry out a program has to compromise. And here's what compromise looks like. You figure out what your opponent has to have in order to vote for a bill, and what you can live with as the minimum achievement of your own goals.

The result is a bill that neither you nor your opponent is really happy with -- but that you both recognize is way better than nothing. Something must be passed, and this is way better -- for both sides -- than the other side getting their way.

Then, when this compromise comes to a vote, honor demands that you vote for the bill.

The result is that anybody who has legislated in good faith will have voted for laws that Sean Hannity can point to with disdain as not being "conservative" enough. But Sean Hannity doesn't have to govern anything -- not even his own mouth -- and so he's free to speak scornfully of excellent, courageous legislators like Paul Ryan and John Boehner.

The kind of conservative who lines up behind Sean Hannity -- and there are huge numbers of them, wrapping themselves in the "Tea Party" flag -- accepts his opinion that the Republicans in Congress have somehow "failed" or become corrupted.

This is a lie, plain and simple, and he knows it, or should. Many Republicans represent districts that aren't actually conservative -- they rode into office in the anti-Obama landslides of 2010 and 2014, and they can't vote as pure conservatives if they hope to remain in office.

Getting reelected is how you gain seniority and influence over time. Hannity remains deliberately blind to the way these "impure" Republican Senators and Congressmen labor to achieve compromises without alienating their constituencies.

Nor does Hannity recognize that legislators have a duty to represent the wishes of their constituents, as far as they can without violating their conscience.

This "stupid faction" of Hannity and his ilk is the reason why "outsiders" get a premium in Republican polling right now, even though the people who have actually held office and governed or legislated are far more likely to know how to use the power of the Presidency.

We've had eight years of an amateur President who always acts as an ideological purist and never, ever compromises with anybody. A right-wing version of Obama would be no better for America than the left-wing version has been.

Carly Fiorina is an attractive replacement for Trump as an outsider candidate, however. If you want the clearest reason, recall that Trump has officially been a candidate for president since June 1st. That's three months. Yet he is still answering vital questions about national and international policy with vague statements that "I'll consult the experts on that" or "we'll look into that."

When will he do that? He's a rich man. He can hire experts to school him, he can assemble think tanks to help him work out policy -- and he can do it right now. Yet he has chosen not to.

His policies are as stupid, empty, and off-the-cuff as his insulting remarks about other candidates and about huge swaths of the American population -- and in three months he has done nothing to improve his thinking in either area.

Contrast him with Fiorina, whose answers are incisive and well-informed. I often disagree with her, but it is obvious that (a) she's smart, and (b) she gives a damn about how she'd act once in office.

Neither she nor Trump has ever governed anything, and both are likely to find that there's a steep learning curve once you have the power. It is a very different thing to lead or work with organizations in which you can't fire or reassign anybody.

But Carly Fiorina is trying to prepare herself, and Trump is not. Even if you insist on an "outsider," shouldn't you choose somebody who actually cares about doing well?

There remains one candidate who has been an effective legislator at the state and national level, and whose conservative credentials are secure (except in the eyes of Know-Nothings who hate him for being the son of hispanic immigrants).

Marco Rubio has been my wife's choice all along, and now that Scott Walker has suspended his campaign, I have joined her in supporting Rubio. Unlike Trump and most other Republican candidates, he is actually sane, compassionate, and decent on the issue of immigration.

And mark my words: If the Republican nomination goes to someone who has staked out an anti-Mexican, anti-immigrant position, like Trump, the nomination won't be worth having.

The overwhelming majority of the American electorate does not vote for candidates who are anti-immigrant. Trump and the others can pretend that they're only against "illegal" immigration, but the attitude of hatred and vindictiveness among the anti-immigrant wing of the Republican Party are crystal clear, and nobody is fooled.

Most of them aren't bothered only by illegals. They're bothered by a lot of brown-skinned Spanish-speaking people living and working in places where "they don't belong." The more these unwelcoming Americans explain themselves, the clearer their xenophobia becomes.

The tragedy of all this is that Latin American immigrants should have been the natural allies of the Republican Party. These are hard-working people who are ambitious to improve their lives, coming to America at great personal risk. They are mostly moral conservatives, mostly Christian, and they believe in the free market. (In fact, open immigration is a free market principle, and the anti-immigration people are the stupidest kind of protectionists.)

How are they not Republicans? Because, among Hispanics, only an idiot would vote for a party filled with xenophobes who are screaming that Mexicans should go back to their own country, that they're all criminals and welfare cheats. Every word Trump says drives the huge Hispanic-American voting population farther from the Republican Party.

Only Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush -- Rubio by birth, Jeb by marriage -- have immunized themselves from the loathing of Hispanics. Only they can go to this huge number of legal voters and say, "See how my program will benefit you as Americans!"

The other candidates carry the burden of Trump's highly publicized xenophobia around their necks -- especially because none of them has had the guts to argue against it.

Only if Rubio or, to a lesser degree, Bush is the Republican nominee is there any chance of Republicans getting a significant percentage of the Hispanic vote.

Right now, Hispanics represent more than 17 percent of the U.S. population. If they vote solidly Democratic, and they're added to the Black population with 13 percent, thirty percent of the voters are owned by the Democratic Party coming out of the gate.

That means Republicans would have to win 71 percent of the non-Black, non-Hispanic vote in order to have the election even be close. There aren't enough whites who are not disgusted by the immigrant-hating stance of most Republican candidates to even come close to that percentage.

And don't imagine for a moment that Hispanics won't come out in droves to oppose a xenophobic candidate. Nominate Trump, and you energize the Hispanic vote as in no previous election.

That's why immigrant-baiting is such a profound loser for Republicans. And that's why only Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush are viable candidates on the Republican side.

But with Marco Rubio as nominee, besides his strong record and his thoughtful policy stances (even the ones I disagree with are at least not-stupid), Republicans actually have a chance to make inroads into the Hispanic vote. They have a chance to carry Florida, California, Texas, and New Mexico -- which will not be possible with a candidate that Hispanics are energized to vote against.

Trump has made this election more race-centered than Obama's candidacy made the election of 2008. And the Republican best-situated to make this a positive for Republicans is Marco Rubio.

The dream ticket is Marco Rubio for President, Carly Fiorina for Vice-President. Fiorina is not a token choice -- she's actually running for president on her own and getting credible poll numbers, which Sarah Palin and Geraldine Ferraro did not do.

The nightmare ticket is Donald Trump and ... well, anybody. A Trump nomination would make the Goldwater defeat in 1964 look like a near-tie. The Democrats could nominate anybody and win. I'm not even sure their candidate would have to be alive. He or she would still win in a landslide because most Americans would be ashamed to cast a vote for such a hateful clown as Trump.

I mean really -- what does Trump have to be so angry about? Why is he so nasty? How could anybody have ever picked his name when a pollster asked who they wanted for President? Get your act together, Republicans.

The sooner Trump is off that stage, the sooner you can start moving toward the possibility of winning the White House in 2016. And on the basis of foreign relations and defense policy alone, our national survival depends on it.

That's why Republicans have a patriotic duty to make a responsible nomination in this election. And so far, Republicans, you're off to a miserable start.

*

Ever since Sue Grafton began writing her Kinsey Millhone mysteries, beginning with "A" Is for Alibi, "B" is for Burglar, and "C" Is for Corpse, it became clear that her series was going to run out of titles after 26 volumes.

I heard that an elderly reader wrote to Sue Grafton along about "K" Is for Killer, asking her to hurry it up, please, or he was not going to be able to live long enough to read them all. I have no idea what Grafton's answer was, but one book a year is all that one can reasonably expect from a writer; anything more, and the writer is simply showing off.

Almost from the start, there has been speculation about what "X" would be for, in the title of the 24th volume. There aren't a lot of English-language words that begin with x. Grafton ducked the problem by simply naming that volume X. It isn't "for" anything.

Except that it might well represent a word that doesn't begin with x: "Ex." The book opens with a betrayed ex-wife who realizes, too late, that her ex-husband, who knows nothing about art, ended up with a potentially million-dollar painting in the settlement. She knows that if she tries to get it back from him and his new wife (her former best friend), he will never give it to her. So she resolves to steal it.

X then fulfils the promise of that opening by ending with Millhone discovering the plot and finding a perfect resolution.

But along the way, most of the action and all of the danger comes from a completely unrelated plotline. Millhone is helping the widow of a former colleague deal with some absurd demands from an IRS agent. In going through the papers of this corrupt private investigator, Millhone finds a paper written in code.

In a way, the coded message is a kind of treasure map, once you know the factor that binds it all together. The X can represent the "X marks the spot" treasure map tradition, or the algebraic "solve for x." And X can also represent the target Millhone is painting over her own heart: "Insert bullet here."

Sue Grafton graduated from the University of Louisville (Kentucky) with a degree in English, and after her first few novels failed to make a splash, went into writing for the screen. She had a good career as a screenwriter, working alone and collaborating with her eventual husband, Steve Humphrey. But, disgusted with the way writers' work was treated in Hollywood, she went back to novel writing with "A" Is for Alibi, vowing that she would never allow the Kinsey Millhone series to be adapted for the screen.

And those of us who remember what a dreadful travesty television made of Robert Parker's Spenser For Hire series (even though we all loved Avery Brooks as Hawk) and how much worse Mike Hammer, Private Eye was, despite the brilliant performance of Stacy Keach -- we can't help but agree with Grafton's decision.

There are tv writers who would do a wonderful job of adapting the books -- the talent is there. The problem is that even with the best intentions, they would bend the stories to fit the needs of television -- whether as a one-hour drama or a series of TV movies. And network executives, vain or terrified actors, and the struggle for ratings would cause ever more changes until neither Grafton nor her readers would recognize any of the characters.

Grafton has threatened her children that she will haunt them if they sell her books to Hollywood after she's dead.

When Grafton wrote "A" Is for Alibi in 1982, she set the story in the fictional city of Santa Teresa, California -- her way of paying tribute to the brilliant, seminal mystery writer Ross Macdonald, who gave that name to his fictional version of Santa Barbara. By the time she got to "G" Is for Gumshoe, she was earning enough from her fiction that she could quit writing for television.

One thing that makes writing a "contemporary" mystery series so attractive is that you can simply use the culture around you in volume after volume. There are things you still have to research -- settings, police and government procedures, and so forth -- but you can surround your characters, as you write each volume, with the very culture you're living in while you're writing.

The drawback is that your character must age right along with the culture. How long could we believe that Spenser would be able to beat up his adversaries, no matter how diligently he trained as a boxer? This was one of the problems that encouraged Parker to switch to writing other, younger sleuth characters who operated on the fringes of Spenser's Boston. They could keep doing all those hard-boiled detective things that Spenser was aging out of.

Sue Grafton may have aspired at first to make Kinsey Millhone "timeless." I remember early on in the series conversing with my wife about how much story time had elapsed between the volumes. We realized that Grafton was keeping the story remarkably free of temporal markers.

But eventually, timelessness broke down, probably because of technology. And it became clear that about three months pass between the volumes, so that Millhone remained in the 1980s as the world moved on. So when you read X, it is now a "period piece" -- still moving through a world without mobile phones, texting, or Facebook. Most offices are still not computerized. Millhone herself writes up her "reports" on a typewriter. Clickety clack.

And don't kid yourself. Grafton now has to research all kinds of things, even though she lived through the 1980s and 1990s. Because human memory is imperfect. When exactly did car phones become popular? What year did handheld cellphones become small and light enough to be able to carry them around (in holsters at first, because they made pockets too baggy)? When did payphones disappear?

Which songs would be playing on the radio? When did minivans become popular? SUVs? When did people stop wearing furs? When did "wetbacks" become "illegal immigrants"? When did we switch from vinyl and cassettes to CDs? And then to MP3s? When did they stop abridging audiobooks? What month, what year exactly?

I ran into this problem in 1991, writing my novel Lost Boys, which is based on my family's experiences when we first moved to Greensboro eight years before, in 1983. I needed the song "Every Breath You Take" for a particular series of events in the novel, and I knew the song came out "about that time" -- but the events were in the autumn and the song didn't come out till months later. If I had relied on memory alone, the song would have been in the book -- and then, when I realized the mistake, it would have driven me crazy ever since. Instead, I used a different and nowhere-near-as-appropriate song.

That's what Grafton has to deal with every time she writes a book set in the recent past. Because even though the 1980s and 1990s feel recent to me, the current generation of teenagers and young adults has no memories of that time. It's history to them!

Sometimes, though, the past and the present come together. At the time of X, California is going through a dangerous drought, though water rationing has not yet become mandatory. The story frequently touches on the efforts of Millhone's landlord, Henry, to conserve water. Since Grafton wrote this volume while California was (and still is) going through an even worse drought, so that people are praying for an El Niño year, it gives the novel an oddly contemporary air.

Grafton is in her seventies. She had a lot of gall, beginning a 26-volume series at the age of 42 and then assuming she'd live long enough to finish it. The actuarial laws are on her side as far as life expectancy is concerned, but she must surely have been aware of how early-onset Alzheimers shattered Ross Macdonald's mystery-writing career way too early.

So even though I fully expect her to be able to finish the remaining two books -- Y and Z Is for Zero (she has announced that title) -- I still hope she has written down an outline of what is supposed to happen to Millhone in those last two volumes. We know there are people still extant who want Millhone dead. We know there are family issues left to resolve. We want her to finally end up with True Love instead of her string of impossible relationships.

I assume that in one of the last two books, she'll have to deal with the death of her elderly neighbor and landlord, Henry; I assume that Henry will leave the house to her in his will, and that she'll find a tenant for the house and continue to live in her garage-size apartment. (The house can't burn down; Grafton has already done that.) Rosa will retire and the food at her restaurant will become more edible but the place will be nowhere near as fun to visit. Maybe Millhone will get a carphone.

The important thing about the Kinsey Millhone series, however, is this: Every novel stands completely alone. You can begin with any book, including X, and have a completely satisfying mystery-reading experience.

And what gives Grafton her cachet is her brilliance with unforgettable minor characters. In X, one of the great pleasures of the book is the pair of elderly neighbors who move in next door and begin to make life strange for Henry and Kinsey. Grafton's mysteries are earnest and deal with great pain, danger, and loss; yet there is always comic relief, usually from the awfulness of ordinary people.

If you haven't treated yourself to reading these books yet, start now. Start with X. If you are equipped to listen to audiobooks, Judy Kaye's reading of them is, as usual, absolutely wonderful. It's time and money well spent.


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