Marching for Our Lives

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She was standing alone. A pretty girl, she couldn’t have been more than 15 or 16 years old. I don’t know how she arrived at City Hall, in downtown Cincinnati, on this shivery March day, with wet snow beginning to fall. Maybe her parents dropped her off? Maybe she rode with some older friends?

She was holding a large orange sign with hand-scribbled words and numbers. The numbers signified annual handgun deaths in various countries around the world. The statistic for America was staggering. It dwarfed the others. While I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the numbers, it is true that the U.S. gun-related murder rate is 25 times higher than other high-income nations.

At the bottom of her sign, as a coda, she’d written “God Bless America.” Probably a touch of sarcasm. But she’s young, and she looked like she was from a good family. Personally, I’d have chosen a more scorching coda.

***

It was the March for Our Lives rally in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.A. on March 24, 2018, and “Eliza” was just one of thousands who’d gathered in front of City Hall to protest. There were many other rallies around the country, in addition to the one in the nation’s capital that drew a quarter million people – many of them young – in the wake of the recent mass murders in Parkland, Florida.

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Eliza, with some sobering figures

The rallies are an effort… another effort, after Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Aurora, Portland, and other tragedies too numerous to count – to force our intransigent elected officials, many of whom campaign using gun lobby dollars, into addressing America’s shamefully lax gun laws.

At one time, firearm deaths were handgun-related only, guns purchased both legally and illegally. They were primarily restricted to the inner city, the evolutionary endpoint of a welfare society infected by poverty, drugs, racism, and corruption, attributed to punks, criminals, and cops (some of whom, as we’ve seen recently with crystal clarity, enjoy squeezing triggers). And attributed, secondarily, to the gun industry. Most of us got our dose of gun violence via local evening news: “info-tainment,” delivered while we sipped our cocktail of choice. Then, later in the evening, we jumped to fictionalized violence, courtesy of “the All-New (fill in the blank)” television drama.

Slowly and imperceptibly, however, gun violence crept into our suburbs. And now it’s exploded in our educational institutions. Our schools were once places of learning, and also havens of safety. Now, our kids and grandkids are getting blown away by legally purchased AK-47s.

There’s something profoundly sad when children are forced – literally, at gunpoint – into organizing a protest to repair the damage wrought by their parents.

***

I arrived at 801 Plum Street fairly early. The streets around City Hall were cordoned by police, and several cops were stationed at various points. A large television camera was positioned in front of the building near the edge of the street. Several long tables were pushed against the building, with several volunteers manning them. About 50 people milled about the front steps. One of them was adjusting a microphone stand.

Is this all there is? I thought. I’d attended a gun control rally in downtown Columbus back in the ‘90s and was disappointed at the small turnout. I’d hoped for a larger turnout today. Maybe the 32-degree temp and snow forecast discouraged people. I overheard one woman remark “Does the NRA control the weather, too?”

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Some ugly guy with a green sign. If you want change, you’ve got to vote.

Gradually, though, the crowd swelled. It eventually spilled into the street, then the opposite sidewalk, then extended down the street. It was a diverse cross section: young and old, male and female, white and black. Most of them carried signs, many homemade. The signs expressed all different sentiments. Many of them blasted the National Rifle Association (NRA), at one time merely a club, but now a potent right-wing political force. Some singled out individuals, like Trump, or Ohio Senator Rob Portman (R), or Ohio congressman Steve Chabot (R), who have consistently pandered to the NRA.

In fact, some Republican politicians refuse to even use the phrase “gun control” (similar to their avoiding “climate change”). I’ve visited their websites off and on for years, so I know. Their dropdown boxes for issue selection have no options for “Gun Control” or “Firearm Violence.” Instead, it’s “Crime/Violence” or “Second Amendment Rights.” They know who buys their meal tickets.

Eliza’s sign was my favorite: a cold, clinical dose of reality. Another favorite was the one that bragged about the “F” grade the sign holder had received from the NRA.

I didn’t bring a sign, but one of the volunteers asked if I’d like to encourage voter registration, and I agreed. During the speeches and subsequent march, I held my sign high, so the NRA can at least see that its opponents and critics are voters, too.

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All ages showed up.

The speeches began about 11 a.m. The first speaker was Rasleen Krupp, a junior from nearby Wyoming High School. This girl was amazing. Her bullhorn voice seethed anger and power, as she implored the crowd to stand up to opponents of gun control and fight to reform America’s gun laws. She delivered an oratory that would make Cicero proud.

Ethel Guttenberg, from nearby Amberley Village, had a granddaughter killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Her speech was courageous and strong, calmly thanking everyone for turning out, and, like Krupp, encouraging everyone to keep fighting, to not give up despite the disappointments ahead. She also noted that some politicians refused to even meet with her.

I wonder if she was referring to Portman, or Chabot, or both.

Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley (D) spoke, to mild applause and a few boos. He decried gun violence (someone yelled out “from cops!”) and encouraged people to register and vote in November.

A teacher from Mount Healthy school system spoke while hugging his son. He lambasted Trump and others for suggesting teachers be armed, saying that he’s “not trained to use a firearm,” and shouldn’t be required to defend his students just so individuals can legally purchase weapons of death.

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Whole families turned out to peacefully march and protest.

A young boy spoke. I didn’t get his age, but he looked about 9 or 10. He’d earlier addressed City Hall. He explained, haltingly, that his school had held a drill, like a fire drill. The kids were told to huddle together in a corner of the room. He said that he wanted to be in the center of the huddle, so that he might be more protected from gunfire, but that he felt sorry for his friends in the outer circle. I’m not a psychologist. But I would think a drill like this could have lifetime consequences for a child.

***

The march went for about a mile, winding through downtown Cincinnati. Lots of chanting, a few sidewalk spectators and building residents cheering us on. It felt good to be moving with passionate people of similar mind. The march conjured memories of old marathon races I’d run, except this race had much more significance.

After the march, all the signs were dumped on the steps of the local office of Senator Portman. Not surprisingly, he didn’t show his face.

***

Some people are saying that the Parkland massacre is a tipping point. That American citizens are finally getting fed up. I thought this same thing after Sandy Hook, when first-graders were mowed down in cold blood. Yet nothing happened in Washington. Once we verbalized our thoughts, and said our prayers, we shuffled back to reality TV.

Another riveting speaker on Saturday, a woman representing Mom’s Demand Action, noted that this is a “uniquely American problem.” Other nations, including allies and some we’ve defeated in wars, now look at us and shake their heads in disgust. 0324181039-00America is fast losing the global standing and respect it once had. And it’s not just about Donald Trump. It’s about a culture of guns and violence that has permeated our fabric and is ripping us apart from the inside.

If we’re going to remedy this cancer we’ve encouraged for so many years, it’s going to take much more than thoughts, prayers, marches, and speeches. Right now, gun manufacturers and the NRA have a stranglehold on our elected officials. The only way to loosen that grip is to fire the political puppets we currently have and remain single-minded on regularly and consistently electing gun-control candidates in local, state, and national elections, who will raise their middle finger to the NRA, and pass common-sense gun legislation.

At this latest juncture, it’s youth who are leading the charge (and who can blame them, when their lives are on the line?). While their activism is encouraging, young people’s priorities shift, just as my generation’s did after Vietnam and Watergate: we fall in love, start careers, get married, invest in Wall Street… we lose focus, and forget.

A public health crisis on this scale requires the attention of everyone, who will remember never to forget.

Never.

 

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The Massacre at My Lai, South Vietnam

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Friday, March 16, was the 50th anniversary of the My Lai massacre. It was the worst atrocity committed by U.S. soldiers in Vietnam (there were others).

A total of 504 unarmed Vietnamese, including 173 children, 56 infants, 82 women (17 of them pregnant), and 60 elderly men were systematically murdered over a period of four hours. Many women and young girls were gang raped.  The soldiers took a lunch break after the killings.

Two villages were involved: My Lai and My Khe, located a mile away on the South China Sea.

This war crime was quickly covered up by U.S. military leadership (retired four-star general and former Secretary of State Colin Powell  denied allegations of similar Vietnam brutalities).

The massacre was only revealed to the public over a year later through the efforts of independent investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. Only one soldier was ultimately convicted: Lieutenant William Calley. He was sentenced to prison at Fort Leavenworth, but a day later President Richard Nixon ordered him released and transferred to house arrest at Fort Benning, pending appeal. He served only three and a half years of house arrest, then was released.

The atrocities at My Lai and My Khe were one tragedy.  Here’s an article in The Atlantic about the behavior of many Americans afterwards, and the lesson the U.S. should have learned, but hasn’t:

https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/03/my-lai-50/555671/

(Header photo San Francisco Bay View)

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A Knowledge of Ashes: A Tribute to Tom Rapp

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“If you can’t be universal, you can at least be ambiguous”
– Tom Rapp

In 1994, I wrote a letter to Tom Rapp after reading an interview with him in Dirty Linen magazine. I don’t usually write fan letters, but I made an exception with Rapp. It was a typically obsequious fan gush: “I love your music,” “Listened to Balaklava non-stop one entire summer,” etc. I didn’t hold out hope for a reply.

A few weeks later, I got one. Rapp not only thanked me for me thanking him, but he sent a cassette of two unreleased, alternate versions of my two favorite songs of his: “Another Time,” and “Translucent Carriages.” I still have the letter and cassette.

I hope that my letter made him smile. Rapp was a prodigious talent, wickedly funny, by all evidence kindhearted, and he deserved better than what this world offered him. He died of cancer February 11 at the age of 70.

***

Tom Rapp started life in 1947 in Bottineau, North Dakota, a speck of a town on the cold northern prairie, way up near the Canadian line. His father was a teacher who was blacklisted for union activities, and who then became a loan officer. After being fleeced for $15,000 one night, he disappeared into the woods for a month without telling his family. The disappearances would continue off and on, and when he was home, he was frequently drunk. Rapp’s song “Rocket Man,” written on the day of the first moon landing, but about his father, talks about a man who flew between the planets, while his lonely wife and son went outside only when it was cloudy, and the stars couldn’t be seen.

(Bernie Taupin claimed he and Elton John wrote their own “Rocket Man” after hearing Rapp’s composition. Both are great songs, but totally unlike. Two major differences: one song made lots of money, and the other made nothing. Also, the John-Taupin song is about space. Rapp’s song occurs in the human heart.)

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The first Pearls Before Swine lineup. L to R: Lane Lederer, Tom Rapp, Roger Crissinger, Wayne Harley (Photo Sandra Stollman)

When he was ten, Rapp did a cowboy-Elvis Presley impersonation for a talent contest held in Rochester, Minnesota. He took second place. First prize was won by a baton twirler in a red sequined dress. Fifth-place honors went to an older Minnesota boy named Bobby Zimmerman, who later changed his last name and became somewhat famous.

(Wouldn’t it be great to locate the girl in the red sequined dress? Or track down one of the judges? Wouldn’t it be great if we could prove justice is real?)

Dale Rapp whisked his family out of the flatlands for Minnesota, then Pennsylvania, then Eau Gallie, Florida, where his son graduated high school. In 1963, after hearing Peter, Paul, and Mary’s version of “Blowing in the Wind,” Tom became intrigued with the song’s author, Bob Dylan. He had no idea they’d earlier performed on the same stage.

He began writing songs himself. On a lark, he and three friends made some rough demos, then sent them to New York-based ESP-Disk Records, an experimental underground label that had helped pioneer free jazz.  They’d also recorded the infamous Fugs, rock’s first leftist revolutionary band, which featured Beat poet and political agitator Ed Sanders. ESP-Disk invited Rapp and the boys to come up and make a record. In those days, things like that happened.

So, Rapp had to find a name for his band. Cocky, erudite, and only 19, Rapp chose “Pearls Before Swine,” taken from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. It may be the most honest band name in history, and it actually has meaning – albeit ambiguous:

“Give not that which is holy unto the dogs; neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.”

The name was also prophetic.

The first Pearls Before Swine album was titled One Nation Underground and recorded in only four days in the cheapest NYC studio available. Visitors to the studio included Sanders, Peter Stampfel (Holy Modal Rounders), and a standup comic and clown named Hugh Romney (later “Wavy Gravy”), who tried to ply Rapp with LSD tabs, to no success. Like Melville’s Ishmael, Rapp chose to wander through the weird happenings and times as an omniscient narrator only.

One Nation Underground was released in 1967 at practically the same moment as the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper. Both albums broke ground in popular music. But whereas the Beatles effort was polished to perfection and had a world audience waiting, the Pearls debut was jagged, challenging, defiant, and burst like a green shoot through pavement cracks.

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(Family Photo)

It included one of the first anti-Vietnam War songs, “Uncle John,” directed toward Lyndon Johnson, where Rapp ended up on the studio floor screaming into the mic. “Another Time” is a haunting song, the first Rapp ever wrote, about a horrific car crash where he survived with only minor cuts. While in the cop car on the way to the hospital, he overheard, on the police radio, reports of people drowning and being burned to death. He surmised that “the universe doesn’t care at all.” But…

“Did you find, that if you don’t care… this whole wrong world will fall?”

“(Oh Dear) Miss Morse” is the humorous flip side to Rapp’s “constructive melancholy.” In this song, he adopts a Victorian persona and attempts to seduce a very proper and very sexy lady, using Morse code, and sounding out the letters F-U-C-K. “Dit-dit… dah… dit” etcetera. Over the years, Rapp loved to recount the story of how deejay Murray the K played this song and was bombarded by angry calls from Boy Scout leaders, the only listeners who understood the code.

One Nation Underground sold about 200,000 copies, surprisingly good for a debut album of psychedelic baroque-folk on a shoestring underground label. Some of its success may have had to do with the eye-catching sleeve art: Rapp chose the apocalyptic “Hell Panel” from Hieronymous Bosch’s 15th century painting “Garden of Earthly Delights” (the hard rock band Deep Purple later used this for its third album, and longitudes also borrowed it for its series on Nazism).pearls

Encouraged by this modest success, Rapp made a follow-up album with ESP-Disk. I’d review Balaklava here, but I’m straining my space limit, and I plan to cover it later this year on its 50th anniversary. So, I’ll merely say it’s arguably the best record by the Pearls/Rapp, an existential concept album about war (Vietnam, again) with moments of astonishing beauty. For Balaklava’s sleeve art, Rapp chose “The Triumph of Death” by Pieter Brueghel the Elder.

ESP-Disk seemed like the perfect vehicle for Tom Rapp’s music. It was a label that allowed the artist total creativity, no restrictions, whose studio floor was littered with exotic instruments like celesta, marimba, vibraphone, clavinette, Nepalese sarangi, and “swinehorn,” and whose owner, Bernard Stollman, was an energetic advocate of the universal language Esperanto. Problem was, Rapp didn’t make a dime (things like that happened in the ‘60s, too). He would later humorously claim that Stollman was abducted by aliens, who washed Stollman’s memory of where all the record profits went.

Rapp soon disbanded the original Pearls and jumped to the mainstream label Reprise. By this time, all sorts of rumors had arisen about the band, since there were never any photographs or interviews. Some fans thought all the members were geriatrics. Others believed the drummer was a dwarf. While on Reprise, Rapp’s songs became less strange, but tighter. He wrote beautiful songs, such as  “Rocket Man,” “The Jeweler,” “Island Lady,” and “Look into Her Eyes,” the instrumentation and presentation cleaner, the songs no less transcendent.

Eventually, after several lineup changes and paltry earnings, Rapp dropped the Pearls Before Swine name and used his own, jumping to Blue Thumb Records for two albums.  He opened for many of the top names in the 1970s: Pink Floyd, Gordon Lightfoot, Patti Smith, and much earlier was invited to the original Woodstock festival, but declined because he was living in The Netherlands and couldn’t afford to make the trip.

A typical show was like the one in Philadelphia in 1974, during Watergate, when he appeared with Genesis and Wishbone Ash. He was told backstage that he only had a few minutes, and that he could back out while still being paid. Rapp insisted on going on. And he made a bet with someone that he’d get a standing ovation. After walking out on stage, Rapp asked the crowd “If you believe he’s guilty, please stand up and cheer,” without even saying who “he” was. Rapp easily won the bet.Bill O'Leary

It’s not difficult to see where this is headed. It was a matter of time before Rapp was serving popcorn in a Boston movie theatre, his young family surviving on oatmeal. Surprisingly, he was happy. “I knew at the end of the week, every single week, I would get $85. I was insane with joy!”

With an indomitable will, he put himself through college, attending classes by day and working nights. He earned a law degree at University of Pennsylvania. He joined a law practice in Philadelphia, continuing his ‘60s work by fighting for social justice, this time in court on behalf of people who’d been discriminated against. His briefs often deviated from standard judicial dryness. One of them, filed for a man who was fired after contracting AIDS, reads partly: “In a civilized community, it is an intolerable wrong to abandon the sick and put them out to die.” Classic Rapp.

In the late 1990s, Rapp made a mild comeback. He was lauded by various British journalists and musicians, including The Bevis Frond and This Mortal Coil, and appeared at several small music festivals (why do the Brits always have to show us Yanks what we’ve ignored in our own backyard?). He also made a remarkable album, his first in 26 years, entitled A Journal of the Plague Year, with the wrenching “The Swimmer (for Kurt Cobain).” Rapp borrowed the evocative album title, characteristically, from a book by 18th-century novelist Daniel Defoe. Assisting him with the music were members of the American group Galaxie 500, Bevis Frond, and his son, David.

He also lost his job. Now living in Florida, Rapp and another lawyer became litigants, charging age discrimination, just like some of the people he’d once fought for.

***

Rapp appreciated history and the old things. He understood that old things have value. He sang about people who were flawed, physically or psychically: lepers, old Jews with lisps, lonely jewelers with cracked and bleeding hands, strangers with scars on their heads from wearing crowns. He chronicled and championed insignificant people who were lost in the ashes of time.

He undoubtedly saw himself as one of them.

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(Photo Bill O’Leary/Getty)

(Special thanks to the Washington Post and Gene Weingarten, who wrote the best article on Rapp I’ve yet read)

A Conclusion: Tom Rapp’s Lesson of the ‘60s:
(shared by longitudes)

Love is real.
Justice is real.
Everything is not for sale.
Honesty is possible, and necessary.
Governments have no morals, and you’ve got to kick their ass.
And, most importantly: never buy drugs from a policeman.

The Trump Wall: A Progress Report

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As a candidate for U.S. president, some of Donald Trump’s most notorious campaign platform items were his controversial ideas on foreign travel and immigration. One was his so-called “Muslim ban” (ultimately Executive Order 13769, which was blocked by the courts and superseded by Executive Order 13780, which was blocked by the courts then supplemented by Presidential Proclamation 9645, currently undergoing more litigation along with La La Land ). Another bright idea consisted of building a “great wall” along the U.S.-Mexico border to stem illegal Mexican immigration.

In 2015, I interviewed then-candidate Trump and touched on his wall policy. Now that Trump has (illogically) begun the second year of a presidential administration, I thought it might be worthwhile to visit with him for a status update on this wall. I’m curious to find out how big a priority the wall still is, and if the idea will lose air like so many other balloons the right-wing floats prior to every election (such as “locking up” Hillary Clinton for perceived “crimes”).

The United States of Amnesia deserves to be informed of how its elected officials are carrying out the duties for which they were elected. After all, “we” elected Trump, so “we” obviously deserve to know when and how this wall will be built. Has our government yet interviewed any landscape architects? Have we been privy to any blueprints? Will Mexico ever agree to finance construction? Will the wall extend all 2,000 miles of the border, or will Mother Nature assist in our exclusion effort? Will graffiti be permitted? If so, may we spray-paint obscenities at Trump, Mike Pence, and Paul Ryan without being tossed into Guantanamo?

Trump and I met on the back nine of one of his many golf courses. I was shocked at his appearance. The bags under his eyes were heavier, and his trademark scowl was even more hideous. Nonetheless, he proved to be an ingratiating host, kidding me about my frequent shanks and divots, and interrupting our interview only 22 times to tweet angry reprisals at his critics (who seemed to multiply as we neared the 19th hole).

I’ve tried to reconstruct the interview as best I can. However, it was difficult to record the conversation, since Trump and his favorite Secret Service agent (Special Agent Rocco Infante) sat in the golf cart, while I had to cling to the back, sharing space with the golf bags (Trump’s bag was a typically garish monstrosity and took up most of the area). Also, I think he was still mad at me for dissing his juvenile reality show in favor of PBS during our first interview.

___________

longitudes: Thanks for meeting with me again, Mr. Trump.

Trump: My pleasure. I always enjoy mingling with the little people. Please call me “President” Trump.

longitudes: Speaking of which, how do you like your new job?

Trump: It’s not as easy as I thought! I have all these meetings and stuff. You’re also supposed to know stuff. Know what I mean? Covfefe.

longitudes: Uh… what?

Trump: Nothing. Hey, look at that hu-u-u-u-ge sand trap! C’mon, betcha ten grand that your ball lands in the dirt, Skippy.

longitudes: Please call me “greenpete.” I’m not a betting man, and those aren’t my kind of stakes. I’m not a golfer, either. But I’d like to ask you about your wall.diaper

Trump: Uh… (Trump feverishly taps something into his favorite toy). Uh… what wall is that?

longitudes: The one along the Mexican border you promised to build if elected.

Trump: Oh. That wall. Uh… you didn’t think I was serious, did you? Such a thing would be impossible. Even with a Congress loaded with short-sighted, hypocritical Republicans, believe me.

longitudes: Yes, I tried to tell you that in our last interview.

Trump: Don’t get smart, Skippy, or I’ll tell Mike Pence you’re gay.

longitudes: Your few meetings with Mexican President Peña Nieto haven’t gone well. Are you concerned that your supporters will get impatient that you honor your campaign promise?

Trump: My supporters? You mean those white nationalists and old ladies with dementia? They’d support me even if I defaced the Lincoln Memorial while wearing the American flag as a diaper. All they care about is that Hillary isn’t president, believe me.

longitudes: So you don’t think some will turn their backs on you in 2020?

Trump: That’s right. Anyway, any Democratic victory will be rigged. Fake news, baby. I’ll make sure I float that balloon, believe me. The Electoral College will come through for me again. Thank God for underpopulated red states like North Dakota.

longitudes: But even if the United States of Amnesia forgets about your promise to build the wall, aren’t you concerned about your…um… legacy?

Trump: Look, ok? Look. I’m no worse than your buddy Obama, the worst president in the history of presidents in every country in the history of the whole universe, believe me.

longitudes: I believe history will show Obama as a great president.  What evidence do you have that he’s the “worst”?

Trump: I don’t need evidence. Rush Limbaugh and FOX News say he is. I’m the executive now, and my job is to slash taxes for people like me! I keep telling people, I DON’T NEED TO KNOW STUFF!

longitudes: Well, Mr. Trump, on that illuminating note, I’ll bring our interview to a close and hop off.

Trump: Hey, aren’t you going to join me on the 19th hole for, like, refreshments? Or supper with Mike Pence? (No chicks, of course… Mike’s a traditionally married man).

longitudes: I’ll pass. I have a WordPress deadline to meet. But before I leave, let me just say that, in our last interview, you called me a “loser.” You’ve also disparaged certain immigrants. On behalf of us losers and immigrants, and the many that you’ve insulted over the years, including, as president, Puerto Ricans and the family of the woman who was run over in Charlottesville, I just have three words: shame on you. Covfefe ?

But Trump doesn’t hear me. He’s stepped out of the presidential cart and is twirling his 9-iron while strolling toward the water hazard, where agent Infante just lifted from the muck, and repositioned, the bright orange golf ball emblazoned with his profile.

Only God, Allah, and agent Infante know how many more “mulligans” this man will be allowed.

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(Disclaimer: this was a fantasy interview.  The only real interviews I’ve done are with people I like.)