Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Star of the 2016 Election

Been over a year since I blogged, but there is an election upon us, the likes of which we have never seen. Since I've used this blog for a kind of therapy in years past, I thought I'd give it a go now.

Therapy begins...

I have watched reality TV shows, even a few episodes of The Apprentice, particularly the season of Celebrity Apprentice when poker pro Annie Duke and comedienne Joan Rivers were contestants.

The thing about reality shows is that they are relatively cheap to produce, and they give off the aura that they are a slice into the behavior of
  • pretty people under stress (The Bachelorette/Bachelor franchise, Real Housewives of... franchise, etc.); or
  • skilled and unskilled people under stress (Top Chef, Master Chef, Flip or Flop, Project Runway, Survivor, Amazing Race, Project Greenlight, Shark Tank); or
  • celebrities under stress (Dancing with the Stars, American Idol, The Voice, America's Got Talent)
The entire category of "reality television" is a derivative of another cheap-to-produce genre of "real life" entertainment - the venerable talent-contest format, which goes back to the dawn of the medium.

It is cheap entertainment, and a good bit of it is contrived. As we know from the "insiders" perspective provided by Lifetime's po-mo dramedy UnREAL, behind the scenes of these reality confections are writers and talent agents, associate producers and cameramen, dramatic themes and romantic complications, heroes and villains. For every audience, there is something to gawk at. For every character that horrifies one segment of the audience, there is another character (or the very same individual) who gladdens some other segment.

The most successful of these shows have a social media component. In a vertically integrated media market, any show that can generate Facebook likes and Twitter hashtags - what the industry calls "talk back" - is a show that is running on all media cylinders.

Let's not pretend any longer - Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump is the central character of a reality television series called Election 2016.

This is the first reality show/social media election in the history of the American republic. In terms of media novelty, it is as revolutionary as the 1960 campaign, the first to broadcast a nationally televised presidential election debate. One candidate - the one who went on to just barely win - was a master of the imagery of television; the other - the ultimate loser - was a sweating, nervous mess. The loser would never make the same mistake. When 20 year later a Hollywood actor-turned-politician ran for President, the die was cast for an easy media-induced victory.

Which brings us to 2016. The reality series we have been witness to these past 18 months is based on two prior series in which Trump also served as the central character.

The first tryout was The Apprentice. Lest you forget, in 2004 reality TV producer Mark Burnett (whose Survivor was the breakout summer hit of 2000, and has since given us Shark Tank, The Amazing Race, and many others) approached a skeptical Trump with an idea for a reality show, a kind of ultimate job interview. Ignoring his agent, Trump tried out the format, and within a half hour of taping he realized that even if the show was a flop, he could tap into a wider audience to promote his brand - in other words, free unfiltered advertising.

The Apprentice premiered in January 2004. It placed in the top-10 that first season. 28 million viewers watched the first season finale. GE was then finishing an acquisition offer from French-owned Universal, spinning off NBC to become NBCUniversal in May, 2004. Throughout The Apprentice's run, that conglomerate was about to be acquired by an even bigger media giant. Thus by 2013 NBCUniversal had become a wholly owned subsidiary of Comcast. (Remember all those snarky corporate jokes about GE and Kabletown in 30 Rock?)

The Apprentice ran for 4 seasons over 2-1/2  years on Thursday nights at 9 pm. It was moved to Monday, and then to Sunday, It never achieved the success of that first season, but it was cheap to make, had good ratings, and was profitable. Burnett even peddled a spin-off called The Apprentice: Martha Stewart to NBC for the 2005 season. Trump was one of its executive producers.

The Apprentice: Martha Stewart was not renewed.

By the sixth season, which ended in 2007, The Apprentice was in 75th place for the season, and only 10.6 million viewers watched the finale.

It was during the break between the last season of The Apprentice and the cynical re-tool known as Celebrity Apprentice that Trump had his second tryout for the character he is now playing. This was Trump's one and only miniseries.

Amongst the holdings of NBCUniversal are a number of cable outlets: Bravo, MSNBC, Syfy, E!, NBCSN, and USA Network - to name a few of the 30). On USA Network, Vince McMahon's weekly wrestling program was a profitable 2 hours of cheap scripted drama every Monday night from its inception in 1993.

Sometimes things work; sometimes they don't. GE and McMahon's WWF (now WWE) each lost $35 million on the failed one-season pro football league, the XFL. But NBC Universal and the WWE continued with a more lucrative connection - broadcast rights to Raw and its secondary series Smackdown. For a time McMahon moved his shows to a non-NBC Universal outlet, but by 2005 all of WWE's weekly offerings were on USA Network.

In pro wrestling, the big money is in pay per view. And nothing is bigger than the annual scripted drama known as Wrestlemania. As in any year, the lead-up to Wrestlemania XXIII, held in Ford Field in Detroit on April 1, 2007, was made up of dramatic narratives presented in episodic form on the USA Network. One of the narratives was entitled "Battle of the Billionaires" in which two wrestlers would settle a manly bet made in a moment of contrived drama between two billionaires on the USA Network weeks before.

McMahon's dramatic back-story as gargantuan owner of the WWE was perfect for the role of Billionaire A (a despised character, a scrapper, a braggart).Trump played the tough-guy outsider role of Billionaire B (an arrogant character; also a braggart; with cosmopolitan, New York airs). On April Fool's day 2007 the story came to its conclusion. I report this as a matter of fact: Trump clotheslined McMahon outside the ring. At the conclusion of the match, which "ended" inconclusively, Billionaire Trump shaved off the hair of Billionaire McMahon - that was the bet. Then, as a kind of "shocking" coda to the narrative, wrestler "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, playing the part of the common man rebelling against the preening Billionaires, delivered a patented finishing move (the "Stunner") on Billionaire Trump. The sequence ended with Trump prone in the middle of the ring. Cut to arena rock, time for the next drama.

Thus ended the one-season miniseries "Battle of the Billionaires." Celebrity Apprentice or The Apprentice would continue for another 7 seasons. As Trump has said repeatedly, NBC wanted him back after the 2014 season ended, offering a commitment for two further years. But by then Trump was preparing for another show.

Meanwhile, McMahon spent together with his wife Linda a reported $50 million on two failed bids to put Linda in the US Senate from the state of Connecticut, once in 2010 and again in 2012. The first first two attempts at WWE-ing a political campaign failed. But what if Billionaire B were to give it a try?

I repeat, the central character of our collective reality series known as the 2016 elections is Donald J. Trump. He causes angst on the Upper West Side and amongst Buckleyan Republicans; he evokes cheers from suburbia and fly-over country. He's more the swaggering tough guy of "Battle of the Billionaires," but he's got the decisive demeanor of the boardroom. He's also got social media by the throat.

Ratings come and ratings go. Writers rarely have enough fresh ideas for more than a season or two. It is the melancholy nature of television that a hit show will eventually lose steam.

But until that day, all vertically integrated media is good media. It's free. It's cheap. You just have to be comfortable in front of the camera. Same advice for a TV contestant - Be yourself.

Love you or hate you, they'll blog about you or tweet about you, and your name - on licensed properties around the world - shall go down in history. Maybe you'll be President.

Trump, in other words, is killing it.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Eulogy for My Mother

I offered this eulogy (hesped) at my mother's funeral last week:  

My mother was a brave woman. She did things her way. She left home soon after she graduated from high school to take a look at the bigger world – which for her meant first Detroit, and then California. She was a single working mom before the term had been invented. She lived through a tumultuous time with two tumultuous children.
The book of Proverbs asks eyshet chayil mi yimtza, which we usually render into English as “a woman of valor, who can find.” Chayil is translated here as valour, but we know this word chayil is not unrelated to the modern Hebrew word for “soldier” or “force.”
My mother Marian Harriet Goldish Kiener, Shivya Masa bat Shayne Bayle ve-Shmuel, was not only an unconventional woman of valor in the old-time religion sense of the book of Proverbs; she was also a kind of soldier and she was certainly a force to be reckoned with.
Any child can say this of his or her loving mother – no one has known me longer, worried for my welfare so thoroughly, took my side more often, and delighted in my accomplishments like my mother. My brother and I were rebellious young sons in a singularly rebellious time period. We defied our parents, and our mother in particular, at every turn. To paraphrase the GEICO commercial – “that’s what kids do.” 
She didn’t understand everything we tried or attempted, to be honest, we didn’t understand what we were doing half the time - but the love never wore off. More than 30 years ago my brother defiantly went off to California for a while to find his fortune, but my mother, a single woman in a time long before it was fashionable or acceptable, had already pioneered that path a further 30 years earlier. She acted like she couldn’t understand our youthful defiance, but she was a defiant youth herself, going off to Detroit, then to Minneapolis, then to Los Angeles. She was such a force of nature, a bit of the rebel herself, that even though she played the part of the baffled matriarch shouldered with two rambunctious and error-prone boys, she always forgave, and always found a way for us to come back to her embrace.
She was a soldier. She championed through a long career at Musicland and then earned her well-deserved retirement. She then bravely took off to Arizona to live the retirement dream. And she loved it. But she soldiered through her well-deserved retirement and outlasted almost every one of her friends, and then returned to the land where her two sisters lived.
Finally, my mother was a force to be reckoned with throughout her life and in her last home at Knollwood Place. You could be the CEO of Bristol-Palmolive or the local grocer - expect a long hand-written letter of complaint in wonderfully clear cursive script if you sold her shoddy merchandise or tried to swindle her. She made her expectations known to all, and had a sharp word for those who failed to meet them. But people loved her – because my mother had a marvelous sense of humor. She loved to smile and laugh.
Like a tough, hard-living, fun-loving rebellious soldier, for entertainment she liked to gamble. She ran the BINGO game at Knollwood Place, and helped convene the monthly trip to Mystic Lake. I remember childhood trips to Sioux City where we would bet on the ponies and buy a cooler full of oleomargarine to bring back to Minnesota. In her latter decades, she drew great joy from playing adult penny slot video games at Mystic. To paraphrase the Geico commercial – “that’s what old women do.”
So my mother was a woman of valor, a strong woman, a discerning woman, and a force to be reckoned with. I would not be the man I am today without her love and support. My brother can attest to the same awesome debt we owe her.
Sister to two remarkable women, mother of two, grandmother to six, great-grandmother to one – it’s really a beautiful story, a kind of fairy tale. It all worked out. It was a life well-lived.
Eshet chayil mi yimtza “Who can find a heroic woman?” All of us who knew her knows we saw the real deal. Yehi zikhra barukh– Her Memory has certainly been a blessing to all of us.

Friday, August 28, 2015

MOPing Up Israel

Massive Ordnance Penetrator

As I wrote recently for a lead editorial in my local Jewish newspaper, the opponents to the Iran Deal are "Losing the Battle" in Congress. Even clear-headed opponents to the deal have read the writing on the wall.

So now we move to the next phase, a phase that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to defer until after the Congressional vote - just how will the United States enhance Israel's security from both Iranian behavior outside the nuclear arena, and from the fear that Iran may still cheat on the deal.

There is one crazy idea circulating in Washington for years. It has been trumpeted most recently by the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy, the well-placed and highly-regarded pro-Israel think tank. I first heard the idea aloud in a conference call with former Ambassador Dennis Ross about a month ago. Two days ago, Ross was joined by former CIA Director and military wunderkind David Petraeus in an op-ed in The Washington Post to make the case for the crazy idea, entitled "How to Put Some Teeth into the Nuclear Deal with Iran." Coming from two respected insiders, the article is garnering an enormous amount of attention. Here's the gist of their presentation:

The Iranians also should know that if they produce highly enriched uranium — for which there is no legitimate civilian purpose — that we would see that as an intention to make a weapon and would act accordingly. There is no mention of highly enriched uranium in the president’s letter. Although Obama speaks in the letter of providing the Israelis with the BLU-113, a 4,400-pound “bunker buster” bomb, it would not be sufficient to penetrate Fordow, the Iranian enrichment site built into a mountain. For that, the Israelis would need the 30,000-pound massive ordnance penetrator (MOP) and the means to carry it. While some may question whether we would act militarily if the Iranians were to dash to a bomb, no one questions whether the Israelis would do so.
 Bolstering deterrence is essential in addressing key vulnerabilities we see in the deal. A blunter statement on the consequences of Iran moving toward a weapon and of producing highly enriched uranium would allay some of our concerns. Providing the Israelis the MOP and the means to carry it would surely enhance deterrence — and so would developing options now in advance with the Israelis and key Arab partners to counter Iran’s likely surge of support for Hezbollah and other Shiite militias after it gets sanctions relief.
Deterrence would be more effective — and full implementation of the agreement more likely — if the Iranians understand that there will be a price for every transgression, no matter how small, and that we will raise the cost to them of de-stabilizing behavior in the region. The president’s letter to Nadler was useful but fell short of addressing our concerns. It is still possible for the administration to do so.
So that's the crazy idea: give Israel the MOP.

The MOP is one big freaking bomb. It is more than 20 feet long and weighs a minimum of 30,000 lbs, though it only carries something more than 5,000 lbs of explosives. It was developed over the last 5 years by the United States specifically to penetrate through more than 200 feet of mountain protection, and thus could destroy even the most "impregnable" underground facilities in the Iranian nuclear enrichment program.

You can't put the MOP on the tip of a rocket, not even the biggest Minuteman ICBM in the US arsenal. It certainly can't be placed on Israel's largest surface-to-surface Jericho III ballistic missile. You can't mount it on an F-22 or F-35 combat fighter, certainly anything older like an F-16.

There are only two ways to deliver it - the American stealth B-2 Spirit strategic bomber (which can carry two MOPs), or a retrofitted subsonic B-52H Stratofortress strategic bomber (which can carry one). Neither heavy bomber is part of the Israel Air Force inventory.

Thus, to be perfectly clear, any MOPing of Israel entails a credible delivery system. To MOP Israel "and the means to carry it" is to supply Israel with strategic bombers. Period.

Now let's take a look at this a bit more carefully. First, the economics: a single B-2 stealth bomber costs about $2 billion per unit, though I've heard it said that if you deduct research and development, it is more like $900 million per plane. The United States has about 20 B-2s. A B-52H costs far less per unit - only $84 million. The US has 76 of those, with less than a dozen in reserve (the last one was built in 1962).

One can assume that no sane ally would deliver a squadron of supersonic stealth strategic bombers to Israel, which reportedly holds approximately 150 nuclear warheads of various sizes. So because of its expense, and because there are so few to move around, and because it is so dangerous, let's assume the B-2 is off the table, and was not what was intended by Ross and Petraeus.

So the only real option for MOPing Israel is to provide it what is affectionately known as the BUFF (Big Ugly Fat Fucker) - the B-52H. At full weight, the minimum runway length for a BUFF is 11,000 feet, and more typically 13,000 feet, though there are recorded take-offs and landings at shorter lengths. As best I can glean from published sources, there are only two working runways in all of Israel that can handle an eight-engine B-52H - one is at Ben Gurion Airport, and the other, built in the mid-2000s, is at Netavim airbase to the southeast of Beersheva.

Netavim Airbase

So now imagine the delivery of a handful of MOPs to Israel, and a wing (2 planes? 4? 8?) of B-52Hs to go along with it. The Israeli Air Force has never contemplated such a wing. There have been a few published reports in Israel that the Israel Air Force doesn't even want such a thing. The technology is 60 years old, and so are the refurbished airframes, which are projected to remain airworthy for another 30 years.

B-52 Boneyard at David-Monthan Airbase outside Tucson

The B-52 goes against IAF doctrine. Advanced avionics and high performance are the strategic mindset of Israeli fighter pilots. A slow subsonic, 6-person crew bomber from the 1960s just doesn't fit. The IAF would have to build massive facilities, and it would have to train a new generation of pilots, crew, and ground support personnel to handle the BUFFs. Even at an accelerated pace, such a squadron wouldn't be operational for years, and would come at fantastical cost.

Then imagine flying a slow-moving heavy bomber into a well-defended combat environment. Since the MOP is not a stand-off bomb that can be fired from a distance, it must be released in close vertical proximity to its target. And B-52s have been easy targets for a long time. Hell, the North Vietnamese shot down 16 B-52s in 11 days during an air operation in 1972. Without massive suppression of Iranian air defenses as a prelude, no sane Air Force would fly a B-52H into the area.

That doesn't mean that the government of Israel hasn't requested the MOP. It has, reportedly at least 3 times in the past 6 years, and such requests have been consistently rebuffed.

But there may be an even greater impediment to MOPing Israel. The United States and the Russian Federation are bound to a strategic arms agreement known as New START, which went into effect in 2011. According to Article IV of New START, "Strategic offensive arms subject to this Treaty shall not be based outside the national territory of each Party." Heavy bombers are just such "strategic offensive arms."

Article XIII of New START is even more explicit: "To ensure the viability and effectiveness of this Treaty, each Party shall not assume any international obligations or undertakings that would conflict with its provisions. The Parties shall not transfer strategic offensive arms subject to this Treaty to third parties. The Parties shall hold consultations within the framework of the Bilateral Consultative Commission in order to resolve any ambiguities that may arise in this regard. This provision shall not apply to any patterns of cooperation, including obligations, in the area of strategic offensive arms, existing at the time of signature of this Treaty, between a Party and a third State." (h/t @KingstonAReif)

Thus, to MOP Israel is to violate New START. Is the United States going to unilaterally violate its signature arms control agreement with Russia in order to calm Israeli concerns?

So let's put this matter aside, once and for all. It might sound good to Israel's supporters. As a bit of debate theater, the proposal to MOP Israel is an effective way to deflect some critics of the Iran deal. But MOPing Israel is a non-starter. Let's put this ridiculous idea to bed, now and forever.

Saturday, August 15, 2015


We can all imagine a worse world. We Americans are all living under the shadow of a bright blue morning in September that turned into a national nightmare. We now consume apocalyptic extravaganzas to a neurotic degree, something we haven't seen with this intensity since the Cold War's darkest beginnings (Them! It Came From Outer Space). While we're awake, we often perversely entertain ourselves with CGI zombies and rogue robots, with mutants and super-powered aliens.

We can all imagine a worse world.

We can imagine a nuclear arms race in the Middle East leading to an accidental nuclear detonation that leads to a chain reaction between the nuclear superpowers that leads to a post-apocalyptic alien world where apes become masters of the planet. 

We can imagine a terrorist getting a hold of a nuclear device, and in our darkest imaginations, we realize there is no Schwarzenegger to save us, and a bomb goes off in Miami that leads to a chain reaction between the nuclear superpowers that leads to a post-apocalyptic alien world where apes become masters of the planet. 

We can imagine a defiant Iran which despite this agreement secretly builds a bomb, and a reliable means to deliver it on Tel Aviv that leads to a chain reaction between the nuclear superpowers that leads to a post-apocalyptic alien world where apes become masters of the planet. 

We can imagine a massive multi-sortie American air bombardment using strategic B-52 or B-2 bombers to deliver on multiple Iranian targets the 15-ton Massive Ordnance Penetrator - one or two to each bomber - that wipes out the entire nuclear infrastructure of Iran which leads to a chain reaction between the nuclear superpowers that leads to a post-apocalyptic alien world where apes become masters of the planet. 

We can imagine it all, because we've seen it on our waking screens. Because of 9/11, we've become neurotic. Understandably so. 

Our neuroses are manifold. Our media has a celebrated sub-genre of apocalyptic fiction, and our non-fiction media - our scientific and verifiable non-fiction - contains a sub-genre which predicts a global mass extinction event in the far or near future.

But what if we imagined like John Lennon asked us to imagine? 

Can we imagine an Earth that - after a eugenics war (oops!) - becomes the center of a Federation of Planets of sentient beings across many galaxies? 

Can we imagine a complicit Iran evolving into a "moderate" Shi'ite theocracy in both its domestic conduct and international behavior? A Shi'ite theocracy that would establish diplomatic and economic relations with a Jewish state set next to an independent state of Palestine?  

Can we imagine a future with robots, intelligent communication devices, and Multivac? Our science fiction writers helped us to imagine these things. What was dream is now reality.

Can we imagine a future with clones, androids, warp-powered starships, and time travel? Of course we can, we've seen it in our waking dreams.

Shouldn't we embrace our hopes, and not our nightmares?

So that is the Iran deal in a nutshell. If it succeeds, it is its own reward. If it fails, be sure to always respond politely and promptly when you get pulled over by that ape cop.  

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Devilish Compromise

As promised in my last blog post, here is a link to this week's editorial in the Ledger on the Iran Deal: