In every field, there are artists who rise above the rest of us. I look up and marvel at the beauty of the stars. My Uncle Ned, who's a Harvard/University of Michigan-trained PhD astronomer, sees and marvels at astrophysical processes that go far beyond my surface appreciation of a pretty night sky. The same is true of art, music, cooking, botany, architecture, and almost every human endeavor.
William Safire, who died Sunday at the age of 79, was an artist in the field of language. And his voice will be missed.
Artists and experts don't just know more about their subjects; they actually see them differently. Which has its pros and cons. Painters don't just see objects, they see a mix of light and shadow. Ever since becoming a pilot, I no longer see clouds as just pretty puffy things in the sky. I see high Cirrus, which means I may need to depart earlier than planned, because a change in the weather is coming. A breezy day isn't just nice. It means turbulence in the pass.
The ability to appreciate far more layers of detail means that far more details can also irritate. My brother David can appreciate many more fine points of a symphony than I can. But he'll also be bothered by the fact that the horns in the second movement came in just a tad too late. And once you understand the technical elements of a subject, it can be hard to look at it without that magnifying lens. There's a line near the end of the movie Men in Black where the Tommy Lee Jones character, about to have his memories of aliens erased, says that it's going to be nice to be able to look up and see just a beautiful starry sky again.
As they delve further into the details of their art, artists also run the risk of getting lost in their own personal forest of specifics and language, leaving the rest of us too far behind to follow. Which is fine, as long as you don't care about communicating any of your ideas or the wonder of your discoveries to the rest of the world. I interviewed a NASA scientist once who insisted that to say the satellite he'd worked on had a near-equatorial orbit was untrue. It was, he said, a low-to-mid-inclination orbit. I explained that the book was for a lay person audience, and most people didn't inherently know what a low-to-mid-inclination orbit was, unless we explained it further. "Well, any intelligent person knows!" he exclaimed.
The same possibility exists with language. There are purists who, I suspect, are writing more for their own enjoyment than the comprehension of the audience. They're in love with multi-syllabic words, even if only six people in the audience know or can envision what those words mean. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with that, any more than with a jazz artist who cares more about reaching the pinnacle of intense self-expression than commercial success. In fact, I think it's important to have some purists out there, if only to remind the rest of us that the world contains magnificent mountains beyond the familiar, local hills we see and use everyday. It's just important to be clear about the goal, and be okay with the consequences of your choices.
William Safire was fascinated almost to the point of obsession with the details of words, leading to many arcane debates with his readers over seeming minutiae of nuanced word origin, usage or meaning. Live by the sword, die by the sword. And there were undoubtedly times when his own love of little-known words kept readers away from the ideas he was expressing. But he also asked and explored thought-provoking questions--including, inthis 2008 blog entry, whether perhaps Pliny the Younger was the world's first real blogger. And in a world where the instant-word-factory-assembly-line crunch of blogging and email, and the word-annihilation of texting and Twitter (LOL if u no wht i mean), the presence of those who still love, explore, and use the full depths and twists of the English Language--or any language--becomes even more important if the art is not to die out.
I'm not a purist of language; I'm as concerned with getting the point across as I am with the beauty of the words I put together to do it. But I am still a practitioner of the art; a member of the symphony, if not its artiste solo perfectionist. And so I truly appreciate those whose passion skill and knowledge act as a beacon for the rest of us, pulling us further along than we otherwise would have gone.
Ammon Shea, a dedicated word-lover, wrote a book last year about the year he spent reading the Oxford English Dictionary, cover to cover. (Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages). His obsession for the task drove those around him nuts, and I can't say as I have the passion required to follow in his footsteps. But I loved his book, and all the discoveries he allowed me to share. To think! There's actually a word for a fear of dinner parties! Who knew?
I also don't have the stamina of a William Manchester, whose biography of Winston Churchill stretched over three volumes--the last of which had to be completed by someone else, because Manchester suffered a series of strokes that left him, in his last years, unable to write. In commenting on the tragedy of a man whose life's work was the loving caress of words having lost his ability to find them, essayist Roger Rosenblatt recited one of Manchester's passages about Churchill's funeral:
"When his flag-draped coffin moved slowly across the old capital, drawn by naval ratings, and bare-headed Londoners stood trembling in the cold, they mourned, not only him and all he had meant, but all they had been and no longer were, and would never be again."
Manchester, Rosenblatt noted, most likely "had only the scantiest idea where that sentence would end when he began it. Only when he caught up with it could he know. But then, there was another sentence running ahead of him. There was always another sentence. And now there isn't." I still look at Manchester's words ... and Rosenblatt's framing of them ... and feel as if I've been blessed with a combination of master performances so beautiful and perfect that if it they'd been played out in a concert hall, I would have shouted aloud, "Bravo!"
Communication doesn't have to be taught. We learn it instinctively as small children. But the art of language; exploring words and crafting them together with rhythm, poetry, and meaning, is a learned and practiced skill that few ever master as well as Manchester, Keats, Shakespeare, or Safire. Like master chefs, musicians, athletes or scientists, they show us what's possible, and add a layer of nuanced beauty to a sometimes overly practical world.
I didn't always agree with Safire's detailed focus or opinions. And sometimes his immersion in his art may have stood in the way of getting his point across to a broader audience. But maybe, the point he really wanted to get across was simply how much richness there was in this language we use everyday, if only we'd take the time to explore and savor the forest with a little more attention and depth. And on that point, his message was inimitably, powerfully, and exceptionally clear.
Commentators love to praise the peaceful handover of power—but this year, it stands as a reminder of the system’s fragility and shortcomings.
Every presidency is different, but inaugural coverage is always the same. Commentators congratulate Americans on the peaceful transition of power and intone solemn sentences about democratic renewal.
There is something unnerving about these reassurances, something overstated, even hysterical. When a British prime minister loses the confidence of the House of Commons and must suddenly trundle out of 10 Downing Street (as some six dozen of them have done since the job was invented in the 1740s; a few more than once), nobody marvels on television how wonderful it is that he or she doesn’t try to retain power by force of arms. Nobody in Denmark thinks it extraordinary when one party relinquishes power to another. Ditto New Zealand or Switzerland—all of them treat peaceful transfers of power as the developed world norm, like reliable electricity or potable water.
Donald Trump will take the oath of office on Friday, becoming the 45th president of the United States.
Donald Trump takes the oath of office on Friday, to become the 45th president of the United States.
The day’s inaugural festivities will get underway in the morning and continue through Saturday. The swearing-in ceremony, which will take place outside of the Capitol, is expected to begin at 11:30 a.m., followed by an inaugural parade at 3 p.m. and inaugural balls in the evening.
Thousands of attendees are expected to descend on Washington, DC for the ceremonies, which will likely be met with celebration and protest. We’ll bring you the latest updates from the nation’s capital as events unfold. Also see our continuing coverage:
He’s moved to establish his dominance of his party, of Congress, and of the media. Now, he turns to the nation.
Even for some Republicans, it is still a bit unbelievable. They have it all now—all the power. They won it fair and square. Donald Trump is assuming the presidency, and Republicans control the House and Senate.
They streamed into Washington this week to collect their reward, the activists and party hacks and true believers who helped make it happen. The members of the Republican National Committee, representing every state and territory, gathered in the ornate, slightly dowdy ballrooms of Washington’s Omni Shoreham hotel, where they took care of the party’s business between being feted at lunches, receptions, and inaugural balls. The mood was jubilant: Against all odds, after years of frustration, everything they worked for had come to pass.
A history of the first African American White House—and of what came next
In the waning days of President Barack Obama’s administration, he and his wife, Michelle, hosted a farewell party, the full import of which no one could then grasp. It was late October, Friday the 21st, and the president had spent many of the previous weeks, as he would spend the two subsequent weeks, campaigning for the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. Things were looking up. Polls in the crucial states of Virginia and Pennsylvania showed Clinton with solid advantages. The formidable GOP strongholds of Georgia and Texas were said to be under threat. The moment seemed to buoy Obama. He had been light on his feet in these last few weeks, cracking jokes at the expense of Republican opponents and laughing off hecklers. At a rally in Orlando on October 28, he greeted a student who would be introducing him by dancing toward her and then noting that the song playing over the loudspeakers—the Gap Band’s “Outstanding”—was older than she was.
Many Americans who support the incoming president feel hopeful about the future. But even some who plan to attend his inauguration are wary about what he’ll do.
Joseph Richardson believes Donald Trump is already working to turn his campaign promises into a reality. “He started talking to companies about keeping jobs in the U.S. even before taking office, and when it comes to business I think people do listen because he’s very successful,” the 23-year-old Trump voter from Delaware said in a recent interview. High hopes for the incoming administration, though, haven’t necessarily translated into fuzzy feelings toward Trump himself. “At the same time, he’s kind of a jackass,” he added.
When Trump takes over the presidency on Friday, he will face a deeply divided nation, and may be on track for historically low approval ratings in office. Many Hillary Clinton voters, shocked and devastated by the outcome of the election, remain unwilling to rally around Trump. But the way his supporters feel about the future, and the candidate they elected to the presidency, may be more nuanced—and, in some cases, more surprising.
Curfews, sports, and understanding kids’ brain chemistry have all helped dramatically curb substance abuse in the country.
It’s a little before 3 p.m. on a sunny Friday afternoon and Laugardalur Park, near central Reykjavik, looks practically deserted. There’s an occasional adult with a stroller, but the park’s surrounded by apartment blocks and houses, and school’s out—so where are all the kids?
Walking with me are Gudberg Jónsson, a local psychologist, and Harvey Milkman, an American psychology professor who teaches for part of the year at Reykjavik University. Twenty years ago, says Gudberg, Icelandic teens were among the heaviest-drinking youths in Europe. “You couldn’t walk the streets in downtown Reykjavik on a Friday night because it felt unsafe,” adds Milkman. “There were hordes of teenagers getting in-your-face drunk.”
As the president’s picks run into trouble, Democrats find themselves stymied by a Senate rules change they engineered.
A little over three years ago, Senator Mitch McConnell stood on the Senate floor and issued a warning to the Democrats who then controlled the majority.
“I say to my friends on the other side of the aisle, you’ll regret this,” McConnell, then the minority leader, told them. “And you may regret it a lot sooner than you think.”
At the urging of Majority Leader Harry Reid, Democrats had just voted along strict party lines to change the rules of the Senate, deploying what had become known in Washington as “the nuclear option.” McConnell and his Republican colleagues were furious. Under the new rules, presidential nominees for all executive-branch position—including the Cabinet—and judicial vacancies below the Supreme Court could advance with a simple majority of 51 votes. The rules for legislation were untouched, but the 60-vote threshold for overcoming a filibuster on nearly all nominations was dead.
The president-elect filled out his Cabinet on Thursday by nominating former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue for agriculture secretary.
Updated on January 19, 2017
A day before his inauguration, President-elect Donald Trump has filled out his Cabinet.
Trump on Thursday morning announced the nomination of former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue as secretary of agriculture, completing a search that took the duration of his presidential transition.
Perdue, who served as governor from 2003 to 2011, grew up on a farm in Georgia and earned a doctorate in veterinary medicine. “Sonny Perdue is going to accomplish great things as Secretary of Agriculture,” Trump said in a statement. “From growing up on a farm to being governor of a big agriculture state, he has spent his whole life understanding and solving the challenges our farmers face, and he is going to deliver big results for all Americans who earn their living off the land.”
We do not know if the period we are about to enter under the presidency of Donald Trump will be as turbulent as the 1910s, the 1930s, the 1940s, or even the 1960s. But it is a safe bet that if such turbulence were to recur in our lifetimes, it would happen under conditions like those of today—a superpower under radical and volatile leadership, geopolitical rivalries, a populist revolt, and a fragile global economy.
As we peer into that future, it makes little sense to talk of Trump’s foreign policy in terms of how it will cope with normal emergencies—North Korea testing an ICBM, the Islamic State attacking the United States, Venezuela collapsing, just to name a few. Yes, the National Security Council is disorganized. Yes, Trump is untested and impulsive. And, yes, chances are he will err, at least in the beginning. His team may learn from the experience, or they may not. But the real questions concern what unique crises they will face. What was previously unthinkable, but now plausible?