Commemorate World AIDS Day with this rediscovered recording of Ronald Reagan's press secretary cracking gay jokes in the '80s.

By the time President Reagan got around to publicly acknowledging the existence of AIDS in 1985, something like 5,000 Americans had already died from the syndrome. But thanks to the badgering of Glenn Beck progenitor Lester Kinsolving, Reagan’s appointed mouthpiece Larry Speakes had to address the epidemic as it was first unfolding. 

For his new documentary short, When AIDS Was Funny, Scott Calonico dug up some old, previously unpublicized recordings of Speakes and Kinsolving going back and forth in the White House press room and giggling about man cooties. Kinsolving does not exactly come off as what you would today call an ally—at one point, he tries to lead Speakes into an official pronouncement against cruising, which he presumably learned all about from the Al Pacino S&M murder mystery that came out a few years earlier—but at least he was pressing the administration to respond in some way. Speakes, on the other hand, alternates between disinterest and utter contempt. The rest of the press corps seem to love it. 

Speakes had a mean reputation in his day. And yes, times have certainly changed, on AIDS, and an array of related issues. But even 30 years later, it’s hard to listen to him laugh at the idea of people dying of “gay plague” and not conclude that his spite was a perfect reflection of U.S. government policy toward one of the most devastating diseases of the 20th century. 

January 19, 2017

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Trump is on track to fulfill the right’s dream of eviscerating programs people like.

It’s no secret that the Heritage Foundation has been in the driver’s seat for Trump’s incoming administration. While it may not have quite the influence it had in the early days of the Reagan administration, when its phone book–sized Mandate For Leadership was Reagan’s playbook, it has been vetting candidates for job openings and supplying potential Supreme Court nominees. On Thursday, The Hill reported that Trump is planning on fulfilling one of Heritage’s longtime goals: defunding the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and privatizing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which helps fund thousands of local public radio and television stations. Major unspecified cuts are also proposed for the Commerce, Energy, Transportation, Justice, and State departments.

Republicans have argued that cutting funding for these entities is necessary to reduce the debt, though they have sometimes balked at seeing them through. They claim that axing all three would “reduce federal spending by $10.5 trillion over 10 years,” per The Hill. But reducing the debt is often a euphemism for cutting programs that Republicans don’t like—raising taxes on rich people is a much better and more efficient way to reduce the debt, and it has the added bonus of not destroying programs beloved by rich and non-rich people alike.

But the $10.5 trillion number is especially ridiculous when you consider the fact that these programs do not cost very much money in the grand scheme of federal spending.

This is why Trump’s team is throwing out a huge proposed number of budget cuts: It is a Trojan Horse to cut programs they don’t like—public services, in other words—which they will claim was necessary to reduce the debt.

Rick Perry didn’t know what the Energy Department was until about a month ago.

Say what you will about Donald Trump, but he does have a knack for identifying people’s weaknesses. In a primary campaign full of memorable jabs, Trump’s best insult was one of his first. Targeting Perry, who would drop out of the race shortly thereafter, he said, “He put on glasses so people think he’s smart. People can see through the glasses.”

When running for president in 2012, Perry famously forgot the third government department—the Department of Energy—that he wanted to cut. Five weeks ago, Trump nominated Perry to lead that department and he accepted. And on Wednesday evening, The New York Times and Politico published stories suggesting that Perry did not know what the Energy Department did—including its principle task of regulating nuclear arms and energy—until after he accepted Trump’s offer. The Times reports:

When President-elect Donald J. Trump offered Rick Perry the job of energy secretary five weeks ago, Mr. Perry gladly accepted, believing he was taking on a role as a global ambassador for the American oil and gas industry that he had long championed in his home state.

In the days after, Mr. Perry, the former Texas governor, discovered that he would be no such thing — that in fact, if confirmed by the Senate, he would become the steward of a vast national security complex he knew almost nothing about, caring for the most fearsome weapons on the planet, the United States’ nuclear arsenal.

Perry’s views about the department have shifted, however—as, reportedly, have his views on climate science. At his hearing today, Perry plans on repudiating his call to scrap the DoE. “My past statements made over five years ago about abolishing the Department of Energy do not reflect my current thinking,” Perry plans to say, according to Politico. “In fact, after being briefed on so many of the vital functions of the Department of Energy, I regret recommending its elimination.”

Michael McKenna, a former Perry adviser who has worked on the Trump transition, described Perry’s arc to the Times: “If you asked him on that first day he said yes, he would have said, ‘I want to be an advocate for energy.’ If you asked him now, he’d say, ‘I’m serious about the challenges facing the nuclear complex.’ It’s been a learning curve.” Perry may be learning, but no one would confuse him with a nuclear scientist. The problem is, he’ll be replacing one at the Department of Energy.

January 18, 2017

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Barack Obama won’t promise to remain silent about President Trump.

In the final press conference of his presidency on Wednesday, the president reiterated that he’ll largely keep quiet once President-elect Donald Trump takes office on Friday. “It is appropriate for him to go forward with his vision and his values,” Obama said.

Yet Obama also detailed “certain issues or certain moments where I think our core values are at stake” that mightmerit me speaking out.” He cited “systematic discrimination being ratified in some fashion,” “explicit or functional obstacles to people being able to vote,” “institutional efforts to silence dissent or the press,” and “efforts to round up kids who have grown up here and for all practical purposes are American kids and send them somewhere else.”

Given that a few of Trump’s campaign pledges fall under these categories, it’s likely Obama will be speaking out in the next four years. The president’s die-hard supporters will also hold out hope that he’ll be a candidate again someday. Despite having said he’d run his last campaign, Obama said on Wednesday he’s not running for office again “anytime soon.” So you’re telling me there’s a chance?

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EPA nominee Scott Pruitt: I don’t “know about” the science of lead poisoning.

As Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt has sued the Environmental Protection Agency 14 times, including a failed suit in which more than 20 states attempted to block an agency rule limiting mercury emissions from oil- and coal-fired power plants. So it’s no surprise that he was asked in Wednesday’s Senate confirmation hearing about the regulation of harmful pollutants.

“Do you believe there’s any safe level of lead that can be taken into the human body, particularly a young person?” Senator Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, asked.

“That’s something I have not reviewed nor know about,” Pruitt replied. “I would be concerned about any level of lead going into the drinking water. Or obviously human consumption. But I have not looked at the scientific research on that.”

That the would-be head of the agency responsible for regulating lead pollution in our air and water has “not looked at the scientific research” is concerning, to say the least. All Pruitt need do is spend a few minutes on the CDC website, which says, “There is no known identified safe” level of lead in the bloodstream. “Millions of children are being exposed to lead in their homes, increasing their risks for damage to the brain and nervous system, slowed growth and development, learning and behavior problems (e.g., reduced IQ, ADHD, juvenile delinquency, and criminal behavior), and hearing and speech problems.”

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Tom Price has already screwed up his insider trading defense.

Price’s nomination to be secretary of Health and Human Services hit a couple of big snags over the past week. The Wall Street Journal reported that Price and fellow Congressman Chris Collins (coincidentally the first House Republican to endorse Donald Trump) received sweetheart deals from a small Australian biotech firm looking to introduce multiple sclerosis drugs to the U.S. market. The stock, which Price and Collins purchased for a measly 18 cents a share, has since gone up more than 400 percent, though Price has pledged to divest if confirmed. And on Monday, CNN reported that Price had introduced legislation benefiting a company he had recently purchased stock in—and that the company, Zimmer Biomet, then gave Price campaign contributions. The Journal also reported that Price had traded $300,000 in health care stocks while working on health care legislation.

The Trump campaign has demanded that CNN retract its story. Price, too, defended himself against the accusations at his hearing on Wednesday, saying, “Everything that we have done has been above-board, transparent, ethical, and legal.” But Price also contradicted his own defense of his actions. After the reports alleging potential insider trading circulated, Price defended himself by saying that his trades were made by a financial adviser from a broker-directed fund operated by Morgan Stanley. But when questioned, Price said that Collins informed him about stock in the Australian company.

His testimony indicated that all of his trades were not, in fact, made by a financial adviser from a broker-directed fund and that he did play a role in what stocks were and were not purchased or sold.


The cover for Hypertension. Photo via: luakabop.com

Goodbye, Fantastic Man William Onyeabor.

The visionary funk musician has died at age 70. From the mid-70s to the mid-80s, Onyeabor recorded nine albums. All of them had spectacularly good titles, like Great Lover (1981), Hypertension (1982), and Atomic Bomb (1978). He is perhaps best known for his song “Better Change Your Mind,” which is characteristic of his synth-rich, melodic sound. Newcomers to Onyeabor’s oeuvre could start with the luscious “Good Name.”

Onyeabor worked mostly alone at his own studio, which was filled with imported analog equipment. He then pressed his records at Wilfilms Limited—his own enterprise. After this extraordinarily prolific period, Onyeabor turned to various business enterprises. He was born again in 1985, according to the record label Luaka Bop.

Onyeabor’s music came to widespread international attention in 2013, when Luaka Bop managed to get in touch with him after five years of searching. Founded by David Byrne of the Talking Heads, Luaka Bop reissued Onyeabor’s music (after some convincing) on the compilation record Who is William Onyeabor? Onyeabor did not indulge the publicity that surrounded his international “comeback” of recent years with interviews.

Onyeabor’s distinctive sound is often called synth-funk, which slightly disguises the strangeness of his process. He used strangely childish sound effects from time to time, over sophisticated horn and guitar work. His relaxed, almost angular vocals were often backed by woman singers. His keyboard work was joyful and varied.

In 2014, Vice’s vertical Noisey released a short documentary on the musician, called Fantastic Man. The documentary brought Onyeabor’s work and career to a broader and younger audience. A 2014 live touring show of Onyeabor’s music featuring David Byrne, Devonté Hynes, The Lijadu Sisters, Ahmed Gallab, and more also stoked interest in his work.

Onyeabor was six-foot-five. He died after a short illness. He was born outside Enugu, Nigeria (formerly the Biafran capital), and died there. He is survived by four children and four grandchildren. Watch the Noisey documentary about Onyeabor here:

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Has the office already changed Donald Trump?

“I’ve had a lot of briefings that are very … I don’t want to say ‘scary,’ because I’ll solve the problems,” the president-elect told Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei in an interview for their new media company, Axios, published Wednesday. “But … we have some big enemies out there in this country and we have some very big enemies—very big and, in some cases, strong enemies.”

In a sense, the fact that Trump is a little freaked out is good. Trump is impulsive and reckless in a way that’s literally threatening to global stability. If clear-eyed threat assessments leave him sobered—“dare we say, humbled,” Allen and VandeHei wrote—that’s heartening.

But the Axios founders would have us read Trump’s jitters as evidence that Washington changes presidents: “Dick Cheney’s friends used to tell us he was a decidedly darker, changed man once he started reading the daily intel reports after 9/11.” The bigger story is that Trump is woefully unprepared for this job—totally out of his league on deadly serious national security responsibilities. It’s no wonder he’s spooked.

Chris Christie has shifted from being Trump’s man servant to being his whipping boy.

Once upon a time, Christie—the first Republican presidential candidate to endorse Trump—thought he was headed towards a plum cabinet appointment. Attorney General Chris Christie. Secretary of State Chris Christie. Vice President Chris Christie! By endorsing Trump he had turned lemons—in this case, Bridgegate and crushing unpopularity in his home state—into lemonade. But then he was outmaneuvered by Jared “Count of Monte Cristo Jr.” Kushner and was betrayed: First subjected to a number of humiliations by Trump that were subsequently leaked to the press, then exiled back to New Jersey, where he may or may not serve out his final year in office.

But Christie still held out hope. A week ago, Politico reported that Christie liked the way things were shaping up. “I think he’s one who feels that there will be a good amount of turnover and so Trump will be looking for a range of different people and talents as time goes on,” a New Jersey Republican said.

But, alas, Christie’s hopes appear to have been dashed again. The Trump transition is going very poorly and its leaders are blaming Christie, who was shitcanned as transition leader shortly after Trump won the presidency. Per Axios Presented by Bank of America:

Trump’s advisers tell us privately that many parts of the operation remain messy — in large part, they say, because New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie left them with virtually no preparation for a transition. Advisers told us horror stories of struggles to fill key roles — including getting handed files of candidates, most of whom were Democrats. This is only adding to the confusion and slowed policy-making discussions.

As badly as things have gone for Trump, he’s always had Chris Christie to blame. That may ultimately be Christie’s saving grace. Eventually, Trump may need to bring him back into his orbit, if only to use as a scapegoat.

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Republicans have clearly learned nothing about Donald Trump.

Almost as soon as Trump came down the escalator in Trump Tower and declared war on the American political system, establishment types on both sides have been placing blind hope in a series of neutralizing forces—that he was a fever that just had to burn out, that voters would slowly wake up to the threat he represented, that Republican delegates would rebel and install a saner alternative at the convention, that he would eventually pivot towards something resembling orthodoxy, and that, finally, his cabinet picks and advisers would be able to temper his worst instincts.

Trump has shown a small willingness to bend to respected advisers—Gen. Michael Mattis seems to have been successful in convincing Trump that torture is actually bad—so it should come as no surprise that Republicans are placing all of their hopes in those closest to the president-elect. On Tuesday night, The New York Times published a fascinating look at incoming Chief-of-Staff Reince Preibus’s role in the administration. Preibus apparently has already played a stabilizing role in Washington, acting as a go-between between Paul Ryan and Trump when Ryan needed help in aborting a Republican attempt to neuter the Office of Congressional Ethics. According to the Times:

This is the way that many mainstream Beltway Republicans, and more than a few tremulous Democrats, pray the Trump White House will work. In a city bracing for convulsive change, Mr. Priebus has emerged as an unlikely symbol of stability, someone who they hope will domesticate the new president and transform his storm-the-gates campaign into a normal, functional White House that can “make America sane again,” in a phrase making the rounds this week among congressional Republicans.

Preibus may have been successful here, but it was in getting Trump to criticize unruly congressional Republicans, not in checking his own instincts. The OCE anecdote reveals what Preibus will probably be good at: acting as a conduit between Ryan and Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump. But there’s nothing yet to suggest that Preibus is the mythical Trump whisperer—someone who can get Trump to behave, or to check his worst, most destructive instincts. It’s likely that person doesn’t exist.

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If confirmed, Betsy DeVos will be a disaster for students with disabilities.

DeVos told members of the Senate Health, Education and Pensions Committee tonight that “it should be up to the states” to determine whether publicly funded schools should be forced to adhere to provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act. That’s disturbing news for parents of children with disabilities.

Voucher schools are already legally able to refuse to provide necessary accommodations for students with disabilities.That’s precisely why advocacy groups like the Council for Exceptional Children oppose voucher programs. And charter schools aren’t reliably better.

DeVos should know this. Here’s The New York Times on Michigan’s charter system, the very same system she’s promoted and funded for years:

As the state embraced and then expanded charters over the past two decades, its rank has fallen on national reading and math tests. Most charter schools perform below the state average.

Compared to traditional public schools, Michigan’s charter system also serves fewer children with disabilities. The National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools’s Lauren Morando Rhim attributed this in part to a lack of resources.

It’s difficult to overstate how nightmarish DeVos’s policy positions would be for students with disabilities and their parents. With no guaranteed access to publicly funded private education, parents of these students would have little choice but to send their children to public schools—even if they’re underfunded due to local voucher programs. That would create a discriminatory, two-tiered educational system. And that doesn’t seem to bother DeVos, who refused to say whether she’d preserve funding for public education.

And if your child is sexually assaulted at school, good luck: DeVos also would not confirm her intention to enforce Title IX as it’s currently defined.