Sunday, January 27, 2019

Sunday Reading

Here Beginneth the Lesson — John Cassidy in The New Yorker on how Trump got schooled.

Perhaps the most disturbing lesson of the stupid and pointless five-week partial government shutdown, which ended on Friday, is that Donald Trump and his cronies—step forward, Wilbur Ross—are just who they appear to be: rich, out-of-touch old white guys who don’t have any conception of what it is like to be a regular government worker living from paycheck to paycheck. The other takeaway, a more encouraging one, is that Trump is also just a regular politician, subject to the normal laws of political gravity.

Speaking in the White House Rose Garden on Friday afternoon, the President said he would sign a temporary spending bill, which will enable shuttered federal agencies to reopen and allow about eight hundred thousand federal employees to start receiving back pay for the wages they have missed out on. He also expressed confidence that Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill would use the three weeks to reach a “fair deal” on additional spending for border security. And he claimed that the Democrats had “finally and fully acknowledged that having a barrier, a fence, a wall, or whatever you call it, will be an important part of the solution.”

The Democrats haven’t acknowledged anything of the sort. Earlier in the week, House Democrats indicated that, if the President agreed to reopen the government, they would support a $5.7-billion spending package—matching Trump’s figure—for over-all border security. They also made clear that this package wouldn’t include any money for a wall. With his poll ratings falling and some key Republican senators threatening to abandon the White House, Trump did what any other President who had dug himself into such a hole would do: he capitulated and tried to put a positive spin on things. But the lengthy, campaign-style speech that he delivered didn’t fool anybody on either side of the political divide. “This is the first time I’ve ever seen a President go to the Rose Garden and take a defeat lap,” the Democratic congressman Dan Kildee, the chief deputy whip, said, on CNN. Jonathan Swan, Axios’s White House correspondent, tweeted, “A former White House official texts me, unsolicited: ‘Trump looks pathetic…he just ceded his presidency to Nancy Pelosi.’”

That was going too far. Trump is still the President, and, at the end of his speech, he repeated his threat to use his Presidential powers to declare a national emergency if he doesn’t get what he wants out of the upcoming negotiations. But, whatever happens next, he’s just learned a pair of harsh lessons: how futile government shutdowns are, and how constricted Presidential power is when the opposition party controls at least one house of Congress. In the modern era, divided government has become the norm in Washington. At some point in their Presidencies, Trump’s four most recent predecessors—George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama—had to learn how to deal with it. Now it is Trump’s turn. In the words of Robert Reich, a former Labor Secretary in the Clinton Administration, “Nancy Pelosi just showed that Congress remains a coequal branch of government, despite Trump’s refusal to accept the limitations of his own power.”

The President can’t say he wasn’t warned about the risks he was taking. Back before Christmas, when he started the shutdown and indicated that he was prepared for it to be an extended one, he was apparently working on the theory that the longer it lasted, the more leverage he would have in his campaign to get the funding for his beloved border wall. Practically everybody else in Washington, including Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, and Paul Ryan, the departing House Speaker, believed the political dynamic would work in the opposite direction—the longer the shutdown went on, the more angry the public would get, and the more pressure there would be for the President and his party to cave. Of course, he could try to blame Democratic obstructionism, but that was always going to be difficult, especially since he had preëmptively seized ownership of the shutdown during an Oval Office meeting with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer.

According to reports, McConnell and Ryan both advised Trump not to take the plunge. He ignored the advice, as he is apt to do. And, of course, the wizened old pols turned out to be right. As a two-week shutdown turned into a three-week shutdown, then a four-week shutdown, then a five-week shutdown, stories emerged of federal employees attending food banks and being unable to afford their chemotherapy sessions. Public opinion turned sharply against the President. By Friday morning, even Christopher Wray, the man Trump appointed to lead the F.B.I. after he fired James Comey, had had enough. “Making some people stay home when they don’t want to, and making others show up without pay, it’s mind-boggling, it’s shortsighted, and it’s unfair,” Wray said, in a video message to the Bureau’s thirty-five thousand employees, many of whom were working without pay. “It takes a lot to get me angry, but I’m about as angry as I’ve been in a long, long time.”

By that stage, Trump had already accepted the inevitable and decided to sue for peace. This was all but confirmed on Wednesday, when Pelosi refused to allow the President to deliver this year’s State of the Union address from the House chamber; rather than going into a rage, Trump responded more or less politely. At that point, McConnell, who had remained above the fray for weeks, reëngaged. The same night, Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally, floated the idea of using a temporary spending resolution to reopen the government and allow time for further negotiations on some sort of border-security package, even with no guarantees of any money for the wall.

Even though the President had stated repeatedly that he wouldn’t open the government until he received adequate funding for his wall, this was the deal that he ended up accepting. Once he made the announcement, it didn’t take long for the darts to start flying in from right field, including this one, from the columnist Ann Coulter, who was one of the people who encouraged him to start the shutdown in the first place: “Good news for George Herbert Walker Bush: As of today, he is no longer the biggest wimp ever to serve as President of the United States.”

Get Your Programs — Laura Collins Hughes in The New York Times on what it means to hold a theatre program in your hands.

“Could I get a program, please?”

You can feel the bafflement percolating in the audience when ushers have nothing to give out before a performance in New York. We theatergoers have gotten used to the fact that some shows don’t want us getting our paws on a playbill until afterward — they don’t want us distracted, maybe, or a surprise spoiled — but the new twist is no program at all.

At least not one we can hold in our hands.

Often, they want us to go online to read a digital version — a money-saving move, surely, but one that shortchanges artists and audiences alike.

That lovely Palestinian actor, Khalifa Natour, who starred in “Grey Rock” at La MaMa in early January? I’d have loved to glance down at a piece of paper that evening and find out that he’d been in the movie “The Band’s Visit,” which I adored. But that fact was in the program, and the program was online.

I don’t mean to pick on La MaMa. Going digital has become such a trend Off and Off Off Broadway that I’m no longer surprised to be directed to a theater’s website if I want to know whose work I’m seeing. It’s not just a wrongheaded tack, though. It’s also counterintuitive, because it’s contrary to the spirit of live performance.

Theater is one of our most intimate art forms, one that asks us to step away from the outside world and — this sounds like yoga talk, but it’s valid anyway — be present for a while, our attention on what’s unfolding in the room.

But any information you access on a phone or tablet exists in a space that lets the whole restless world in, coming at you in a calm-shattering barrage of text messages, emails and news alerts. A digital program doesn’t stand a chance of holding someone’s attention against all that. It’s not a great place to send people to think about the art and artists they’ve just seen.

And an e-playbill, unlike a printed one, won’t ease anyone into the experience of seeing a show, acclimating them as surely as an overture would. If that sounds like an exaggeration, think about how focused you feel reading a physical book or newspaper, and how relentlessly interrupted when your eyes are on a digital device.

I don’t say that as a Luddite; I’m writing this on a digital device. It’s not that I’m unconcerned with saving trees, either, or unaware of the punishing economics of nonprofit theater.

But theaters have been alert for a long time to their need to compete for an audience that has a jillion other ways to spend its time. That’s part of the reason they devote such resources to engagement, with all the pre- and post-show programming, and all the fun extras that they put online.

Programs, though, aren’t extras; never mind what the British have decided, with their practice of charging for them. They’re essentials that help spectators navigate the production and process it afterward. (That’s why those one-sheet playbills can be so frustrating, with their frequent lack of bios and other crucial information.)

My youngest brother, who is in his 20s, isn’t a habitual theatergoer, at least not yet. But when he goes with me to a show, he sits down and opens his program right up, reading it to see which actors he knows and what the director might have to say. He peruses the ads for other shows, too, in case any of them appeal.

So it’s not just the oldsters who like a good paper program, though they can be downright poignant in their dismay when they don’t get one. Recently at Classic Stage Company, a good chunk of the row behind me went all aflutter when they thought for a moment that someone sitting nearby had printed out the online program.

I’m sure that wasn’t the effect Classic Stage intended. But when a theater bypasses paper playbills, it is outsourcing a job to its audience members — saying that if they want to know more, that’s on them. Why do that to people who’ve already proved their curiosity by their presence? If they don’t want to take the thing home, they can always give it back.

I’m not a program hoarder, either, actually; I hang onto all of them for a while, then keep the ones that mean the most to me. I find it comforting — and useful — that Playbill, the company, has an archive of its programs online, and that digitization is preserving other programs from long ago. But that’s for history. In the moment, I want that tangible souvenir.

When I admire something I’ve seen onstage, I often spend my subway ride home scouring the artists’ bios, my paper program in full view of fellow riders — advertising that doubles, sometimes, as a conversation starter. But honestly (and I’m talking here about shows I’m not writing about), if the onus is on me to track that information down, there’s an excellent chance I won’t do it. When I turn on my phone, I’ll probably use it to read the news.

Program-wise it seems lately that many theaters — whether they use e-playbills or not — are moving boldly in a direction to which the audience is meant to adjust. So it was heartening at the Public Theater’s Under the Radar festival to see an about-face midstream.

Early in the run, ushers politely told theatergoers that if they wanted a festival program, they could find one in the first-floor lobby — not the most helpful response if you’re two stories up at the time, and stymieing given the scarcity of booklets down there. (My personal quest to get one took two days.) Later in the festival, though, ushers would hand one right to you. Progress!

Still, after that, I caught myself feeling relieved at the Prototype Festival to be given a program with my ticket. And I was completely charmed by the buoyant young usher at “Colin Quinn: Red State Blue State” who greeted each person with: “Would you like some programs?” Plural.

The most sensible approach I’ve seen recently on the playbill front was at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, where when I arrived for “Lewiston/Clarkston,” the box office offered a choice: Printed program, e-program or both?

I went with printed, of course, and what I got was nothing fancy — just a sheaf of pages stapled together. But, riffling through them, I found everything I needed.

Doonesbury — Vocal disconnect.