Sunday, July 02, 2017

Presidential Material & Zabar's On a Friday

Dan Rather talks with CNN's Don Lemon
Earlier this morning I was watching an excerpt of former CBS News anchor Dan Rather's Friday evening interview with CNN's Don Lemon.

In the same calm, rational and analytical manner that made him one of the most influential and trusted television journalists of the 20th century, Rather explained why Donald Trump's childish insults about MSNBC's Mika Brzezinski are damaging to the nation.

Rather expresses his disappointment with top Republican political leaders for their willingness to ignore the deeper repercussions of Trump's irrational and boorish behavior, particularly with regards to the damage it's causing to the institution of the presidency and America's global reputation.

As he has so often in the past, Rather effectively summed up the feelings of a majority of Americans when he observed, "It's a humiliation for President Trump, it's a humiliation for our country."

This morning Democratic Senator Mark Warner told CNN's Fareed Zakaria that Trump's widely-condemned tweets about Brzezinski were "frankly, beneath the office of the presidency." and criticized the comments as insulting to women.

Trump's response was predictably shallow.

Did you see the doctored video clip Trump posted to his Twitter account this morning with a CNN logo superimposed onto the head of a man he body-slammed during a Wrestlemania event years ago?

It speaks volumes to the question of presidential material.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I was particularly taken with Mark Binelli's recent in-depth Rolling Stone interview with Democratic Minnesota Senator Al Franken.

Senator Al Franken
Franken is a stark contrast to Trump's lack of impulse control, delusional narcissism and inability to grasp the basic subtleties and minutiae of the office he occupies and its roll in the federal government.

Binelli's RS piece reveals Franken as an intelligent, thoughtful and principled politician who clearly views the office in which he serves as a platform to serve the interests of the people he represents - regardless of their political leanings.

When Trump does bother to venture out of his hermetically-sealed White House - Mar-a-Lago cocoon to meet directly with his constituents, it's not to discuss policy with them or hear their concerns.

It's simply an occasion to stand at a podium and talk about himself and denigrate those he considers his "enemies".

In Binelli's RS interview, he describes accompanying Franken to a meeting with members of the Minnesota Farmers Union in Dakota County, Minnesota on a rainy April morning.

"Inside, Franken takes questions from a roomful of farmers, mostly men, many of them senior citizens wearing plaid shirts. Franken speaks fluently about Canadian milk subsidies, crop insurance, ethanol support, potential changes in the farm bill, and Trump's secretary of agriculture, Sonny Perdue, whom Franklin, in a rare kind word for the president, considers an excellent choice."

In the article Democratic Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren describes her admiration for Franken as a political wonk who fastidiously studies and researches policy and considers it his duty to dive into the weeds of legislation.

I've yet to hear Trump comment intelligently or meaningfully on anything, let alone policy specifics.

Dan Ackroyd as chef Julia Childs in the classic
Saturday Night Live skit written by Al Franken. 
But more importantly to me, the quality that impresses me most about Franken is his razor sharp wit and piercing insight.

The kinds of things a politician must have in his or her tool bag if they plan on being president.

What stood out for me in Binelli's article was his description of how Franken's gift for comedy and his eye for humor are attributes that have helped him to stand out as one of the leading progressive voices on Capitol Hill.

The qualities that served Franken as a writer and occasional performer on NBC's Saturday Night Live for 15 years, and as the author of books like Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot, also make him uniquely positioned in the Senate to serve as one of the politicians willing to confront and fact-check the idiocracy that is the Trump presidency.

As Binelli observes: "The man with a sixth sense for bullshit taking on the da Vinci of bullshit artists...Franken has weaponized the gifts that proved so useful for comedy a sharp eye, a sharper tongue, the ability to tease out the essential absurdity of a given situation and deliver the goods with maximum impact"

I can personally attest to Franken's sharp tongue and uncanny ability to tease out the essential absurdity of a given situation having witnessed it first-hand in New York City.

This would have been sometime between 1998 and 2000 when I was living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

It was a sunny Friday afternoon in late spring or early summer and I'd stopped by Zabar's grocery store on the west side of Broadway between West 79th Street and West 80th Street after working out at the Crunch gym that was located above H&H Bagels on West 80th Street.

A Shabbat dinner 
Now as some of you may know, many religious Jews observe Shabbat, or the Sabbath, from just before sunset on Friday, until (according to Wikipedia) three stars appear in the sky on Saturday evening.

Zabar's, an Upper West Side institution since 1934, is a specialty grocery store that not only has all kinds of really good pre-cooked and pre-made foods, it offers a huge selection of gourmet cheeses, coffee, breads and baked goods, an amazing fish counter - and an array of Kosher foods.

So if you go into Zabar's on a Friday afternoon, it's going to be packed and busy, with many Jewish folks running around picking up stuff for Shabbat; often hurrying to get home by sunset.

In my years of experience shopping there people are usually very polite (especially the people that work there) but they're often rushing and on occasion, manners can fall by the wayside.

Zabar's has different entrances, and I was on the far left side of the store where there are big refrigerated shelves lined with all kinds of pre-made foods in containers that you just have to take home and warm up -it's a bit pricey but the quality is really good and it's convenient for the busy New York lifestyle.  

So I'm standing in front of this refrigerated shelf that has all these gourmet pre-made sandwiches and wraps, it was only about 3-feet wide so only 1 or 2 people could comfortably stand in front of it at one time.

I waited for this younger woman to grab something and as she scooted off, I walked up to check out the selection holding my little basket in my left arm.

By rights, I was clearly the next person and it's an unwritten rule of conduct in Zabar's because it's a bit tight in there - you wait for people to grab their thing, then you step up.

Zabar's on Broadway in New York City
So I'm looking at the sandwiches, all of a sudden this tiny little elderly Jewish lady literally elbows in front of me and positions her body in front of mine so she can inspect the sandwiches.

She's kind of squinting at the selection, and she looks it up and down with a frown, elbows her way past me and walks off sort of muttering to herself as if she couldn't find what she was looking for her or didn't like what she saw - she didn't pay any attention to me at all, didn't glance at me once or say excuse me.

Now I'm always a polite and considerate person, and will always make way for someone older, but what she did was so rude that I just stood there stunned, because most people in Zabar's are usually pretty nice.

Being a college-educated African-American man in Zabar's on a Friday surrounded by white people, I also remember being suddenly conscious of not only my race, but of the complex social invisibility that black Americans often face that writer Ralph Ellison wrote of so eloquently in Invisible Man, his National Book Award-winning work of fiction-social commentary published back in 1952.

I was sort of looking around wondering if anyone had seen what had happened, and I'm thinking to myself, "Oh my God, did she really just do that? Did she not see me, or did she just not care?"

Just as I was beginning to think that maybe I was overthinking it, I saw this dark-haired man with glasses appear next to me on my left and heard this deep voice yell out, "EXCUSE ME!!" 

The voice sort of stunned me because it had this tone of sarcasm and pointed anger in it - and I understood that this man had seen what had happened in the middle of this store and he was so appalled at the rudeness of it that he yelled out so the old woman would hear him.

I turned around and recognized that it was Al Franken; same guy I'd seen on SNL for years.

Customers at Zabar's fish counter
He was standing there glaring at the old woman (who was hustling off into the crowd pretending she hadn't heard him) and when I say yelled, I mean he YELLED that out so that everyone within earshot heard it.

Al Franken saw the absurdity of the situation and though I was a total stranger to him, he stuck up for me - but I also sensed that he was partially in disbelief that I hadn't said something to the little old lady because of her rudeness.

But as I said, I was too stunned to do anything.

I was also conscious of the fact that if I, a 6'7" black man had said something to the little old lady, people would look at me askance - and I just didn't want to fight that battle, I just wanted to get my food and get the hell out of there.

But Al Franken didn't hesitate, however small it might be, he saw a wrong and felt obliged to say something about it; in fact he was so annoyed by what he saw he didn't say anything to me.

I've never forgotten that incident in Zabar's, in fact this is the first time I've written about it, and I understand that Al Franken ran for political office because he genuinely cares about sticking up for what's right.

If the 2016 presidential elections showed us anything, it's that the establishment of the national Democratic Party worked to quash the populist progressive movement that Senator Bernie Sanders started.

My sense is that the progressive voice that was so loud in 2016 is going to be even louder in 2018 and 2020, and as a Democrat I think that voice just might be best served by Al Franken - I firmly believe he could earn the Democratic nomination for president in 2020.

It's often said that the character of a man can be judged by how he treats the person who can do the least for him or her, as a guy who was working as a bartender and dreaming about being an actor and a writer, there wasn't much I could do for Al Franken.

But he stuck up for me that day in Zabar's, and that's the quality of a real president.

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