Op-ed: The Arkansas shtick

  • By Bob Franken
  • Tuesday, October 24, 2017 10:47pm
  • Opinion

Sarah Huckabee Sanders is from Arkansas, and she frequently likes to spout regional sayings as she deflects tough questions about her boss. President Donald Trump is about as un-Arkansas as any person can be, but that doesn’t stop Sarah from employing the faux folksiness that she heard in her childhood to evade the truth about his latest outrage. She learned it from a distance, from the governor’s mansion, but she still has the affectation down pat.

So it was when she was defending factual inaccuracies in White House chief of staff John Kelly’s takedown of Rep. Frederica Wilson. The Democrat Wilson has become a “rock star,” to use her own words, ever since she harshly criticized President Trump’s consolation call to the wife of Army Sgt. La David Johnson. Sgt. Johnson was killed during an ambush in Niger. Rep. Wilson, who was listening in, along with Johnson’s family members, described Trump as insensitive during the brief conversation. When Kelly decided to respond and defend his boss, he went after Rep. Wilson. In the process of slamming her, he accused Wilson of falsely claiming credit for arranging the federal funding needed to build a new Miami FBI field office during the building’s dedication in 2015. However, a videotape of her speech showed that she did no such thing. Faced with that evidence, Huckabee-Sanders tried to gloss over Kelly’s inaccuracy in Trumpian fashion: She went on the attack against Rep. Wilson and her history of wearing distinctive — no, make that outlandish — hats.

We don’t know whether Sarah needed to consult her book of quaint farmer put-downs, but she was ready with one, declaring that Wilson was “all hat and no cattle.” For those city folks who have no earthly idea what she was saying, it means Wilson is all show and no substance.

I, too, am from Arkansas, so I know from Southern speak. I can say “y’all” with the best of them and put on a drawl whenever it suits my purposes. There are a lot of these banalities. One of my favorites is, “Why bless your heart.” What that really means is, “What you just said is truly stupid.” Reporters had asked if former Marine Gen. Kelly could face them again and explain the obvious discrepancies in his takedown of the congresswoman, and this is Sanders’ exchange with a persistent CBS correspondent Chip Reid (full disclosure: Chip and I are longtime friends):

“If you want to go after General Kelly, that’s up to you,” Sanders said. “I think that if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general —”

Reid interrupting: “That would be great if he would come out here and do it.”

Sanders finishing her sentence: “— that’s inappropriate.”

Why bless your heart, Sarah. It’s not inappropriate at all. Members of the media are not supposed to salute smartly when a general speaks. We need to ask them the same impertinent questions we ask all our leaders. How else are we going to gather the “fake news” your boss is always talking about. Why bless your heart, Donald, by the way.

The fact is, members of the White House press acted beyond appropriately when Kelly was defending his boss’s call, even to the point of accepting his limitation that questions come only from those who knew a Gold Star parent. That was in deference to the fact that Kelly is one; he lost a son, who was killed in Afghanistan combat seven years ago.

But now it was time for him to explain or defend his charges about Rep. Wilson, which apparently included false information. Did he get what the military calls “faulty intelligence”? It would seem he’d be anxious to maintain his reputation as a straight shooter and as a man who has spent his life defending American values, including the open government one, which is enforced mainly by skeptical journalism.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders and the president don’t share that reputation. Returning to her “all hat and no cattle” description, it’s fair to say that her reporter briefings are not meant to enlighten, that they are usually a way of spreading a load of male cattle excrement.

Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.

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