Graig Nettles, the great New York Yankees’ third baseman of the 1970s, once observed that if you want an entertainer, hire (comedian) George Jessel — meaning that he was paid to hit and vacuum up ground balls from opposing batsmen, something he was quite entertaining at.
But in today’s world, it’s not enough to be good at what you do. You have to be relatable. Thus many in the media said that special Russkiegate prosecutor Robert Mueller gave a poor performance in two July 24 House committee hearings on Capitol Hill, as if he were Ralph Fiennes in “Coriolanus,” instead of a special counsel tasked with investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election (big time, he said) and possible Trumpian obstruction of justice (well….). Perhaps that’s why he failed to get an Oscar nod. He wasn’t Eliot Ness enough.
Nettles notwithstanding, there’s more latitude for sportsmen as entertainers. Certainly, Wimbledon champ Novak Djokovic thinks entertaining the crowd spreads the gospel of tennis, which reigning bad boy Nick Kyrgios sees as a pathetic attempt to be loved.
But it’s one thing for the president of the ATP Player Council to play to an audience; quite another for the president of the United States and the British prime minister to do the same. With the ascendance of Boris Johnson as the new P.M., we have, some would say, the mirror of Donald Trump — blond, New York-born if not bred, buffoonish. British comedian John Oliver, host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” would argue that Johnson differs from Trump in that his is a calculated act designed to disguise his incompetence and mendacity. But I’m not sure Trump’s baby voiced, dainty hand-gestured (what’s with the waving of the thumbs and index fingers forming circles?) schtick is any less calculated.
Johnson may be better educated — I doubt Trump knows ancient Greek when he’s barely acquainted with English — but they’re both playing a dangerous game, Johnson with Brexit, Trump with race-baiting.
With the United Kingdom scheduled to crash out of the European Union on Halloween (I know, this stuff just writes itself), Johnson is taking a tough stance on the backstop — the provision to keep an open border between Northern Ireland, part of the U.K., and Ireland, part of the E.U., and thus avoid a return of the famed “Troubles” between the Protestant North and the Roman Catholic Republic. The E.U., which has Ireland’s back in this, has said that the backstop and indeed the whole exit strategy it negotiated with former P.M. Theresa May cannot be renegotiated. In other words, take it or leave it. Johnson, however, is counting on his mussed bouffant, shirttails hanging cutesiness to stand up to the E.U. for a better deal. That bit of ’tude sent the pound tumbling Monday.
It’s easy to understand here why Queen Elizabeth II reportedly said to Johnson — as blabbed by the P.M. himself in a breach of etiquette — “I don’t know why anyone would want the job.” Why indeed? The E.U. won’t budge. Parliament has already voted down the May agreement numerous times. What makes Johnson think he can do better?
If it’s to be a hard Brexit, with no agreement, old Boris is undoubtedly counting on the special relationship with the U.S. to make up for a hit that the British economy will take. But a glowing review of Boris’ sterling qualities from the Donald notwithstanding, any trade agreement would exact a high price from the Brits. And don’t forget that the Good Friday Agreement that established the peace between Northern Ireland and the Republic remains one of America’s signature foreign policy achievements of the last half of the 20th century. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said Congress, which must approve any trade deal negotiated by the president, isn’t going to throw that away.
So Boris is, unbeknownst to him, between a rock and a hard place. But Trump is also walking a fine line, with his comments about Rep. Elijah Cummings, chairman of the House Oversight Committee that’s conducting several investigations into El Presidente and his handling of the disgusting White House-made crisis at the southern border. Those comments about Cummings’ Baltimore district included several Trump tried and truisms — rat and crime infestation, inner cities, people of color. It brought out Rev. Al Sharpton in a case of the pot they both like to stir calling the kettle black.
Trump’s in a better position than Johnson but for how long? His base loves his hate performances, saying he’s just telling it like it is: Baltimore has its problems. Sharpton has agitated against whites.
Except that Trump never has a good thing to say about cities, people of color or anyone who opposes him for any reason. He’s supposed to be president of all Americans. You read President John F. Kennedy’s heroic, comforting words in Douglas Brinkley’s absorbing new book “American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race,” and you could just weep at how far we’ve fallen in half a century. When did we as in “We choose to go to the moon” become them and us?
Trump and Johnson — who both rose to power amid the anti-immigration zeitgeist — may like to play the clowns, but there’s nothing funny about the hard lines they are drawing.
Besides, since when do the clowns run the circus?