They announced the death of former First Lady Nancy Reagan late Sunday morning and it brought a touch of somber reflection to a current American political environment that is, by turns, absurd, bitter, comical, frightening and—occasionally—cognizant of human needs and national stress.
The announcement regarding President Ronald Reagan’s widow came too late for the Big Five Sunday Shows, which wallowed in the toxic stew of the Republican presidential campaign involving Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and John Kasich, a struggle that threatens to break apart the GOP into warring tribes.
The announcement of Mrs. Reagan’s death from heart failure at age 94 preceded by several hours the Democratic debate in Flint, Michigan, between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
This event opened with a moment of silence for Ms. Reagan. Although the following conversation illustrated significant differences between the Democratic candidates, their show took the high road of mutual respect and progressive agendas which, in many ways, overlap. It was civil, not civil war.
“We have our differences,” Ms. Clinton said near the end of the prime-time debate, which was moderated by CNN, “but compare the substance of this debate with what you saw on the Republican stage last week.”
She was referring to the mud-fight in Detroit’s Fox Theater Thursday night in which a booing, heckling crowd heard Mr. Trump open up by bragging—in a roundabout way—about the size of his penis.
That evening deteriorated from there with rude interruptions, taunting, verbal sucker-punches and what Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago in the 1960s used to call “Insinuendoes.”
Mr. Sanders, a Senator from the Vermont who calls himself both independent and socialist, followed Ms. Clinton’s observations by noting that some candidates want to invest more money in mental health.
“When you watch the Republican debates,” Mr. Sanders said, “you know why!”
In a much more serious moment, Mr. Sanders also addressed something he has not discussed much yet in the campaign: his Jewishness.
Prodded by Anderson Cooper in a follow-up to a question about prayer from an audience member, Mr. Sanders said he was proud of his faith and gave some personal background.
He said his father’s family was wiped out by Hitler in the Holocaust. Mr. Sanders, who grew up in Brooklyn, recalled seeing older people in his neighborhood—concentration camp survivors from World War II—with numbers tattooed to their arms by the Nazis for identification.
”I’m very proud of being Jewish,” Mr. Sanders said, “and that is an essential part of what I am as a human being.”
The debate was held in Flint because the water supply of that city was accidentally poisoned with lead while under the control of Governor Rick Snyder, a Republican. Mr. Sanders called again for Mr. Snyder to resign on Sunday.
Ms. Clinton, less harsh on Mr. Snyder a few weeks ago, increased her wrath and also demanded Sunday that Mr. Snyder either resign or be recalled.
Earlier in the day, in a CNN interview, Mr. Snyder said he would not resign and that it was his duty to fix what went wrong under his leadership.
As he spoke, his voice cracked and his eyes welled with tears. Along with the impending insolvency of the Detroit Public Schools, this is the backdrop to Tuesday’s primary in the Great Lakes State.
Some notes on the regular shows:
FOX NEWS SUNDAY You knew the Republicans were in serious trouble when the first guest on the right-wing show was Rush Limbaugh, the radio oracle who has done a swell job of bringing angry white men into the party. Mr. Limbaugh often distorts positions and tells half-truths but nobody can say he is stupid.
He spoke with host Chris Wallace about Mitt Romney’s speech last week in which the former Massachusetts governor and 2012 Republican candidate vowed to destroy the candidacy of Mr. Trump, who leads all rivals, and urged the starched-shirt Republicans to stand up to the rowdy mobs supporting Mr. Trump and pushing around any protesters.
“His Dad did it to (Barry) Goldwater in 1964,” Mr. Limbaugh said. George Romney—Mitt’s dad—was a governor of Michigan and a liberal Republican (yes, such a species existed before the era of Reagan and Limbaugh).
Regarding Mr. Trump, Mr. Limbaugh said: “There’s a lot bigger upside than downside. A lot of people disagree with me on this.” He said the Republican establishment wants “nothing of their base. They’re embarrassed by their base.” (These people are Limbaugh’s congregation).
Regarding Ted Cruz, the Canadian-born Texas Senator with the evangelical following and the preacher daddy, Mr. Limbaugh said something that almost all Republicans would dispute.
“He is a nice guy,” Mr. Limbaugh said of Mr. Cruz. “He’s a likable guy. He’s not crazy. He’s not nasty and he’s certainly not a liar. He’s got plenty of integrity.”
Mr. Limbaugh said that established Republicans will try to stop Mr. Trump at the convention in Cleveland and it “would cause a walkout” leading to “utter chaos.” He also predicted it could end in a party coming to its senses and unifying against the dangerous Democrats.
“I’m rarely wrong,” Mr. Limbaugh said. “I could be. There might be a third party.”
Fox News will host a Democratic town hall between Ms. Clinton and Mr. Sanders on Monday night at 6 p.m. in Detroit’s Gem Theater. In the panel discussion, Chuck Lane of The Washington Post told Mr. Wallace “the ideology and the coherence and the messaging of the (Republican) party has been completely scrambled by this campaign” which, he said, has “completely destroyed the party.”
Fox pushed what Mr. Wallace called Ms. Clinton’s “email scandal” and how one of her aides, Bryan Pagliano, has cut an immunity deal to testify in a federal investigation. Mr. Cruz, on tape, drew laughs from the panel when he said: “When Paulie flips and goes to the Feds, it ain’t good for Fat Tony.”
MEET THE PRESS Early in the NBC show there appeared a tape of Ms. Clinton saying “You just want to pull your hair out when you see the insult-fest that goes on among Republicans.” Like most of the shows, Meet the Press interviewed Mr. Romney.
He continued to call Mr. Trump a fraud who “crushed a lot of people” in some business deals and “bilked” others in scams. Like most hosts, Chuck Todd asked if Mr. Romney would accept a draft from a brokered Republican convention or front a third party.
In carefully measured words, Mr. Romney said “I’m not going to encourage, at this stage, the creation of a new party.” If Mr. Trump wins the nomination, Mr. Romney said he would vote for a third party or a write-in candidate.
On the pundit panel, Republican Mary Matalin, objected when Stephen Henderson of The Detroit Free Press suggested Republicans have brought on their own problems through years of dog-whistles to racists.
“Conservatives do not consider themselves bigots or homophobes or misogynists, OK?” she said “This is not a`races’ race. Let’s not go there.”
To this, Mr. Henderson replied: “I think it is… Republicans have done that for a long time.”
Mr. Todd also showed video of supporters of Mr. Trump on Saturday raising their right hands, at Mr. Trump’s request, to vow to support him. It looked eerily like an outtake from a Leni Reifenstahl film from the late 1930s in Germany, like a Nazi salute.
“If we’re going to get Trump,” panelist David Brooks said, “we might as well get Nuremburg rallies to go with it.”
Other conservatives took their shots. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham said “I’d rather risk losing without Donald Trump than try to win with him because it will do more damage over time. If Donald Trump is the nominee, the Republican Party will get killed, will get creamed, will lose and we’ll deserve it.”
Mr. Trump’s critics in both parties have accused him of ignorance, racism, sexism, narcissism, and others consider him a dangerous and unhinged bully never seen before in American politics.
“We’re in a demographic death spiral,” Mr. Graham said.
Mr. Graham also supported the official party position of refusing to let President Obama fill a Supreme Court vacancy in his last year to replace right-wing judge Antonin Scalia who died two weeks ago.
“The person I admire the most is me,” Mr. Graham said. “And if he nominated me, I wouldn’t vote for me this year.”
THIS WEEK WITH GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS The ABC host accidentally put Detroit’s “race riots” in 1968 when it happened the year before, but he got a lot of other things right in a show that included Jonathan Karl interviewing Ted Cruz on tape about the possibility of a brokered convention if Mr. Trump arrives in the lead but not with the necessary total to clinch.
“If that happens, we will have a manifest revolt on our hands,” Mr. Cruz said.
In the studio, the host asked Ohio Governor John Kasich “You’re 0-for-19 overall, so do you justify staying in the race?” Mr. Kasich replied that he was “closing fast in Michigan” and looked forward to a victory in his home state and other in the industrial Midwest and Great Lakes region, the Rust Belt.
Mr. Kasich seemed most upbeat about a brokered convention, when the delegates are released after the first ballot and the pols wheel and deal in an old-fashioned, unfamiliar and high-stakes way.
“We’re in a multi-ballot convention,” Mr. Kasich said. “What’s the big deal about that other than it’s exciting? It’ll be fantastic. I think it’ll be very cool.” Needless to say, the fourth-place Mr. Kasich would benefit most from such a scenario.
Such is the state of the Republican race that ABC consulted crackpot soothsayer Glenn Beck, who warned of Mr. Trump: “We should look at Adolph Hitler in 1929” and not the mass killer of 1940.
“He was kind of a funny character (in 1929) who ‘Said things people were thinking,’” Mr. Beck said. “Donald Trump is a dangerous man.”
Of the convention, Mr. Beck warned of “civil war on the floor and, quite honestly, it could lead to civil war in the country.”
In the panel chat, Ana Navarro seemed saddened by the demise of the “poetic” Mr. Rubio in a race that she said “turned into Beavis and Butthead.” Mr. Trump, she said, is “awful about Mexicans, awful about Muslims, awful about women, awful about the disabled.”
She said the Republican establishment let Mr. Trump rise without opposition until he took it too far with some double talk about the Ku Klux Klan. He sounded almost ambivalent about the hooded mobs of American terrorists and murderers who have gone in and out of style since the Civil War.
Van Jones said the Trump insurgency has a “deep, authoritarian feeling to it. Once you get that going in a country—any country—that’s dangerous.” He said Mr. Trump is “scary” in the industrial Midwest, still feeling the hurt of the Great Recession of 2008.
Ms. Navarro said “As a proud, card-carrying member of the Republican establishment, I can tell you we don’t like Ted Cruz at all.” However, considering the alternatives, “This guy is growing on me. Maybe like mold, but growing on me none-the-less.”
FACE THE NATION This is where the A-listers hung out Sunday. Among them were Mr. Trump, Ms. Clinton and Mr. Cruz.
All were tracked down in various places by host John Dickerson. In Palm Beach, Mr. Trump told him a third party would be “playing with fire.” Regarding water, as in waterboarding, Mr. Trump said we should “expand the law” to allow such things against ISIS terrorists who cut off heads and drown men in cages.
“We’re weak and ineffective,” Mr. Trump said, adding that Generals Patton and MacArthur would have known how to beat ISIS quickly. This developed into a quick exchange, Mr. Dickerson’s specialty.
TRUMP: “We have to beat the savages.”
DICKERSON: “And therefore throw all the rules out?”
TRUMP: “We have to beat the savages.”
DICKERSON: “By being savages?”
TRUMP: “No, we, well, look, you have to play the game the way they are playing the game.”
When Ms. Clinton and Mr. Dickerson discussed her aide cutting a deal with the feds, Ms. Clinton said “it’s a security review.” To this, Mr. Dickerson dead-panned “You see this as good news?”
In Mr. Dickerson’s interview with Mr. Cruz, taped Friday, the Texan from Alberta said “If Donald is the nominee, it is a catastrophe. Hillary would wallop him.”
He said reporters have told him they have information damaging to Mr. Trump but they are holding it until June or July.” When Mr. Dickerson seemed disbelieving, Mr. Cruz added: “Absolutely.”
Also, Mr. Cruz added, “I don’t really have any views on the size of any part of Donald Trump’s anatomy.”
On the panel, Ezra Klein of Vox said Republicans “really, really, really hate Ted Cruz” and would not unite behind him. Among other things, Mr. Cruz has led a shutdown of the government. Mr. Klein said the party finds itself in “a very profound place of dis-function.”
STATE OF THE UNION Dana Bash subbed for CNN host Jake Tapper and interviewed Mr. Rubio on stage at the right-wing Woodstock held every year. Mr. Rubio spoke of Mr. Trump.
“Donald Trump might have grown up the way he did with a lot of money and going to boarding schools,” Mr. Rubio said. “I can tell you this: Where I grew up, if someone keeps punching people in the face, eventually someone’s gonna have to stand up and punch him back.”
Perhaps this is why Mr. Rubio joked last week about Mr. Trump’s hands, which—wink-wink, nod-nod—represent what’s below the belt, where Republicans often punch.
Mr. Romney, making the rounds, told Gloria Borger that Mr. Trump “has tapped into an anger that is very much understood.” What he’s done with that anger, Mr. Romney said, is “to take it down a very dark alley.”
Mr. Romney said Mr. Trump’s debate performance Thursday night was poor.
“It shows that he cracks under pressure,” In further comments about Mr. Trump, Mr. Romney used the phrase “high crimes and misdemeanors,” which is the language of impeachment.
Calling Mr. Trump “degrading and demeaning,” Mr. Romney added that Mr. Trump “has taken this campaign in a very deep gutter.”
On the panel, conservative Hugh Hewitt said “After the death of Justice Scalia, everybody got very serious in the Republican Party.”
Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, the publisher of Observer Media.