I imagine this will be the last installment in the “weather flying with Marine One” series. Two previous entries here and here. (On the other hand, who knows that the incoming email inbox will hold.)
A person who has worked at the company that makes the current Marine One helicopter, aka VH-1, has this to say:
On your recent piece addressing the ability of the Presidential VH-1 to fly in bad weather. I would like to add some observations that my experience of nearly 10 years at Sikorsky Aircraft (the maker of the helicopter in question) allows me to contribute.
I was [a high-level official involved in] many “systems” for Sikorsky aircraft. I can’t say for certain (I lacked the necessary clearance for such information) which block upgrades the VH-1 received over the years, but what I can say is that aircraft from the VH-1 squadron were a constant presence at the Stratford factory for maintenance and system upgrades.
Generally speaking modern Sikorsky aircraft (which no doubt would includes the VH-1) will integrate:
RIPS – Rotor Icing Protection System, which is a system of heating elements and conductive wire brushes which warms the rotating blades and prevents freezing;
TAWS – Terrain Avoidance Warning System, which as you might guess is an integrated radar system which warns of terrain variations;
RIG approach - Rig approach landing systems, which are autonomous landing systems for dangerous landings primarily on oil rigs that obviously could be used in other types of dangerous landings; and
Windshield Wipers; in case anyone doubted it, yes helicopter pilots have wipers at their disposable for visibility.
In short, when I read that the aircraft could not fly in the wet, fall weather in France, I was stunned.
No one would buy a medium lift helicopter for tens of millions of dollars if it could not be flown in inclement weather. In fact, one of Sikorsky's best medium lift class markets is the oil rigs in the North Sea, which is among the most inhospitable operating environments on earth and requires rotor-wing aircraft that can fly in all types of weather.
More than most, Mr Trump, who has flown Sikorsky aircraft for years, should know his press office is uttering easily disprovable falsehoods in suggesting the aircraft was the cause of his absence from Armistice Day ceremonies.
While it was professional of you to withhold conjecture on the real cause, my suspicion was bruised feelings and the apprehension of appearing marginalized was at the core of the decision.
The purpose of my 152-installment Trump Time Capsule series during the 2016 campaign was to record, in real time, things Donald Trump said or did that were wholly outside the range for previous serious contenders for the White House.
I’ve resisted continuing that during his time in office, because the nature of the man is clear.
But his Twitter outburst this morning — as he has left Washington on another trip to one of his golf courses, as millions of U.S. citizens are without water or electricity after the historic devastation of Hurricane Maria, as by chance it is also Yom Kippur — deserves note. It is a significant step downward for him, and perhaps the first thing he has done in office that, in its coarseness, has actually surprised me. (I explained the difference, for me, between shock and surprise when it comes to Trump, in this item last week.) Temperamentally, intellectually, and in terms of civic and moral imagination, he is not fit for the duties he is now supposed to bear.
His first tweet, at the top of this item, dramatized his inability to conceive of any event, glorious or tragic, in terms other than what it means about him. People are dying in Puerto Rico; they have lost their homes and farms; children and the elderly are in danger. And what he sees is, “nasty to Trump.”
That was followed by:
This is an outright attack on the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulin Cruz, whose passionate appeals for her citizens would evoke compassion and support from any normal person — and from other politicians would stimulate at least a public stance of sympathy. I can think of no other example of a president publicly demeaning American officials in the middle of coping with disaster. There were nasty “God’s punishment!” remarks about New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, but they did not come from the White House or George W. Bush.
They “want everything to be done for them.” It is impossible to tell whether this is a conscious racist dog-whistle by Trump—these people! always looking for a handout—or whether it is instinctive. Either way, it is something that no other modern president would have said in public, and that no one who understood the duties of the office could have done.
This has not happened before. It is not normal. It should not be acceptable. The United States is a big, resilient country, but a man like this can do severe damage to it and the world — and at the moment, he is leaving many Americans in mortal peril.
During the campaign, I argued that the greatest responsibility for Trump’s rise lay not with the man himself—he is who he is, he can’t help it—but with those Republicans who know what he is, and continue to look the other way. Their responsibility for the carnage of this era increases by the day, and has grown by quite a lot this weekend.
As it happens, I wrote and published that preceding paragraph a week ago. The Republicans’ responsibility is all the graver now, and deepens by the day.
The relationship between the drama of a presidential campaign, and the literature and reportage that come from it, is shaky at best.
By acclamation the best modern campaign-trail book, What It Takesby Richard Ben Cramer (see Molly Ball’s assessment here), came from the historically very uninspiring George H.W. Bush-Michael Dukakis campaign of 1988. The book took Cramer nearly four years to write. Along the way, he despaired that he’d missed his chance to get it out before the next election cycle and that all his effort would be in vain. But the book endures because of the novelistic richness and humanity of its presentation of the politicians Cramer is writing about—they’re not simply the charlatans, liars, and opportunists of many campaign narratives (though each has elements of that) but complex, striving figures with mixtures of the admirable and the contemptible. Cramer chose what also turned out to be the inspired strategy of giving full time not just to the two finalists but also to four of the also-rans who fell back along the way: Gary Hart, Bob Dole, Dick Gephardt, and the young Joe Biden.
My friend and former Washington Monthly colleague Walter Shapiro applied a similar “equal time for the also-rans” strategy in his elegant little book about the 2004 campaign, One-Car Caravan. The title refers to the humble origins of nearly all campaigns (i.e., all but Trump’s), in their early stages when the only reporter interested is crammed with staffers into the single campaign car. The 1968 Nixon-Humphrey-Wallace campaign was brutal and violent; it also gave rise to Garry Wills’s memorable combination of reportage and scholarship, Nixon Agonistes, plus a book I remember being impressed by at the time, An American Melodramaby the British journalist team of Godfrey Hodgson, Bruce Page, and Lewis Chester. The 1972 Nixon-McGovern campaign was an all-fronts nightmare for the country, but from it came the lasting press chronicle The Boys on the Bus, by my college friend Timothy Crouse.
On the other side of the literary ledger are the routine backstage tick-tock accounts that over-apply the lesson of Theodore White’s seminal The Making of the President, 1960 book. White pioneered the idea that minutiae about what candidates ate, did, or said off-stage could be of great interest. Through overuse by other authors, and because the tick-tock is now a staple of regular campaign coverage, the approach long ago became a cliche. (A: “With an oozing Philly cheesesteak in one hand, Hillary Clinton forged her connection to the hard-pressed voters of this crucial swing state.” B: “It was not that Obama spurned the ritual of modern campaigning, he just did it appallingly badly. Faced with the famed Philly cheesesteak, after a day sampling various wursts, he couldn’t handle it, and promised to ‘come back for it later.’” One of these is a sentence from a real book about the 2008 campaign.)
* * *
This is a setup for saying: The 2016 election, a low point for the nation, has produced some impressive works. For instance, two books that each spent time as leading national best-seller:
Devil’s Bargain, a story about Steve Bannon and Donald Trump by my friend (and former Atlantic colleague) Joshua Green. It is fascinating, well-researched, and of lasting interest, despite Bannon’s ouster from the White House, because of his ongoing Breitbart- role.
Hillary Clinton’s own What Happened, as I argued 10 days ago, is much more interesting and edgy than the standard politician’s book. And while it places central responsibility for last year’s results on Hillary Clinton itself, it raises important questions about—and asks for similar introspection from—other participants, notably the “what about her emails?!?!” press.
Here are two more campaign-related books very much worth reading:
I watched the campaign through its ups and downs over the past two years; I often saw Katy Tur on her MSBNC and NBC broadcasts; I thought I’d heard, or could guess, pretty much what she would have to say.
In fact, this is also a quite revealing and powerful book, in addition to being very entertaining. Its details of Tur’s experience with the Trump campaign, from the start when she following what was assumed to be a brief novelty/vanity effort, to the fateful conclusion last November 8, amplify the strangeness of what we have been through—and the darkness.
Two themes are worth noting. One is the genuinely ugly menace of Donald Trump’s in-person dealings, especially with a young, attractive female reporter in whom he displayed an unsettlingly personal and intense interest during the campaign. (“There’s little Katy back there!” he would say randomly at rallies. In a famous episode, he gave her a backstage kiss before he went onto a TV show.) I won’t quote her whole description of an early interview with him, but it is disturbing, as are several of her other accounts. (She also talks about it, and the overall tone of menace, both from the candidate and from his supporters, in a Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross.) Sample:
His face is tight. He spits out answers. He glares at me during the questions. He never smiles. Now I see [watching a replay of the interview] what my producer saw. Trump is angry….
“It’s a wrong statistic” he spits back [after a question]. “Go check your numbers! It’s totally wrong.”
He’s trying to steamroll. Intimidate. Talk down.
“It’s Pew Research,” I say.
Now he’s fuming.
His rage didn’t register in the moment. I thought it was all part of his schtick. The reality show star. But watching his face on-screen, it’s clear Trump isn’t playing.
The other theme that impressed me was Tur’s explanation of why she decided that she would be leaving the world of Trump coverage when the campaign was over, no matter how it turned out. If he won, it would have been natural to follow him to the White House press pool, but she decided that she would rather not:
That’s a reality of beat reporting. When the people, places, and businesses you know well do well themselves, you’re in demand. If they’re a big deal, your work is a big deal. If they take off, you career can take off, too. This is especially true if you not only have access but knowledge.
I’ve been thinking a lot about access lately. Access is seductive. Access means good nuggets from the campaign … And somewhere along the way, out here on the trail, wherever it is I am right now, I decided that access journalism isn’t worth it.
Tur doesn’t pretend this is some heroic sacrifice—she’s now a TV anchor—but she is thoughtful about the tradeoffs involved in “access” reporting.
She also makes a point of saying that she doesn’t vote, “because I think it’s fairer that way.” I think that’s crazy, for reasons I laid out in Breaking the News (when Len Downie of the Washington Post announced a similar policy back in the 1990s). But that’s an argument for another time. You’ll enjoy and learn from this book.
Thanks Obama is a very different book from these other three, starting with its focus on the 2008 and 2012 campaigns rather than 2016. Litt was a 20-something precinct worker in Obama’s 2008 campaign, and eventually became part of his White House speechwriting staff. He had worked for The Onion before trying political speechwriting, and his specialty at the White House (in addition to some heavy-weather policy work) was Obama’s comedy riffs. Among these were Obama’s last few White House Correspondents Dinner appearances, including his celebrated “Luther, the Anger Translator” routine at the 2015 dinner.
The book is genuinely charming, and perceptive. You can get an idea of Litt’s tone from his very effective Fresh Air interview last week.
White House speechwriters, as a class, are—well, writers. This makes it the more noticeable that the collection of effective memoir-books by them is thinner than you would expect. Walter Shapiro, mentioned above, was a speechwriter during the Carter administration—as was I, and Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker, and the novelist Jerry Doolittle, and the newspaper editor Griffin Smith, and the now-Congressional candidate Bob Rackleff, and the newspaper reporter Achsah Nesmith, and others.
You could find a similar lineup for most administrations (until this one). But graceful, instructive, wry speechwriter memoirs like Litt’s are the exception rather than the norm. I think Thanks, Obama will join the ranks of lasting works about the culture and texture of political life, and of coming-of-age accounts by staffers who grow up personally and politically at the same time. (This is a category whose towering examples range from literary memoir-essays like The Education of Henry Adams, to romans-a-clef like All the Kings Men by Robert Penn Warren and The Gay Place by Billy Lee Brammer, to serious policy-essays like A Political Education by Harry McPherson. Please read them all!)
Staff memoirs are easier to write, or at least more fun, if you’re describing a meltdown or race-to-the-bottom political disaster—as in John Podhoretz’s mordantly comic Hell of a Ride, about his experience with George H.W. Bush. (I don’t agree with Podhoretz on much, but this is a funny, interesting book.) When I wrote about the Carter administration long ago in this magazine, it was also with a “how did that happen?” tone.
Litt takes on a much higher degree of difficulty by being mainly positive and respectful of Obama and his achievements. But he avoids a pious or reverent tone by directing many of his comic talents at himself. He’s aiming for, and mainly achieves, a self-presentation as a barely-skirting-disaster naif who gradually learns what he is supposed to do. The hoary Hollywood joke is that once you can fake sincerity, everything else is easy. The political counterpart involves being able to feign self-deprecation. It’s appealing in a speaker—one reason Donald Trump simply could not perform as a Correspondents Dinner-style after-dinner humorist is that self-deprecation is a necessary part of the schtick, but is wholly outside his range—and it’s appealing in an underling’s memoir like this.
Perhaps there are some people who, summoned to the Oval Office for the very first time, walk in there like it’s no big deal. Those people are sociopaths. For the rest of us, attending your first Oval Office meeting is like performing your own bris.
To make matters worse, when you have a meeting in the Oval Office, you don’t just go into the Oval Office. First you wait in a tiny, windowless chamber. It’s kind of like the waiting room in a doctor’s office, but instead of last year’s Marie Claire magazines they have priceless pieces of American art. And instead of a receptionist, there’s a man with a gun. And in a worst-case scenario, the man with a gun is legally required to kill you.
It turns out this little room is the perfect place to second- guess every life choice you have ever made… I was on the verge of losing it completely when one of the president’s personal aides emerged.
“Okay. He’s ready for you.”
To my credit, the first time I walked into the Oval Office, I did not black out. In front of me I could see a painting of the Statue of Liberty by Norman Rockwell. Behind me, out of the corner of my eye, I could see the Emancipation Proclamation. Not a photocopy or poster. The. Emancipation. Proclamation. I didn’t turn to look at the document, but I could feel the message it was sending through the room.
“I’m here because I freed the slaves,” it seemed to say. “What are you doing here?”
And, when it comes to the But Seriously Now part of the book, Litt says:
Eight years in Obamaworld taught me focus. Each news cycle—already shrunk to twenty-four hours when POTUS took office—lasted mere seconds by the time he left. He faced constant pressure to approach every issue with the frantic, hair- on- fire urgency of a tweet. More than once, I found myself frustrated by the president’s patience. To me it seemed more like delay. But nine times out of ten, Obama was right. The secret to solving big problems, I learned, is knowing which little problems to ignore.
The list of things Obamaworld Taught Me could go on for several pages. I learned that decisions are only as good as the decision-making process. That generosity is a habit and not a trait. That all human beings, even presidents, look goofy chewing gum.
But here, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is the single most valuable lesson I learned in public service: There are no grownups, at least not in the way I imagined as a kid. Once you reach a certain age, the world has no more parents. But it contains a truly shocking number of children. These children come in all ages, in all sizes, from every walk of life and every corner of the political map.
And this is the reason I’m most grateful for my time in Obamaworld. For eight formative years, often against my will, I was forced to act like an adult….
I read the book cover-to-cover in one evening. Very well done.
* * *
It’s a dark time, with some positive notes. These are worth your attention.
Last month, at the Aspen Ideas Festival, I emceed an hour-long discussion with Xavier Becerra, the new Attorney General of California, on how the nation’s most populous state planned to deal with a national administration that was taking a very non-California approach on topics from climate change to immigration. Becerra, a son of immigrant parents and graduate of Stanford and Stanford Law School, had been a long-serving congressman from a predominantly Latino district on the north side of Los Angeles. Michelle Cottle did a very nice profile of him for the Atlantic a few months ago. When Kamala Harris, who had been the state’s Attorney General, resigned to take her seat as a new U.S. Senator this year, Governor Jerry Brown—who (among his many other roles) had been Harris’s predecessor as AG — invited Becerra back from service in Washington to Sacramento, where as it happens Becerra had grown up.
There is no video of the session (that I’m aware of), but a Soundcloud audio file has just gone online. You can listen to it here or here. I found it enlightening—about Becerra himself, about California, about the country.
On Friday—a few hours before Donald Trump pardoned ex-sheriff Joe Arpaio, and before Hurricane Harvey made its devastating landfall on the Texas coast—I posted an item about Donald Trump’s newly redecorated Oval Office, which differed from his predecessors’ in one notable way. I asked readers if they could spot the main difference—which, for me, was the proliferation of flags beyond what most of his predecessors had displayed, especially beribboned military battle flags.
A huge amount of mail came in about another aspect of the new office, which I hadn’t noticed or mentioned. Obviously this does not “matter” remotely as much as the genuine emergencies now underway. But there was so much correspondence, and enough of it dealt with patterns of leadership and management, that I am reprinting some of it here.
(Editing note: I have shortened most of these messages, but otherwise I have left them unedited from the form in which they arrived.)
These first few are about the message of the Oval Office photos that I hadn’t mentioned:
Re your post on the Oval flags: Another detail that struck me in the pictures of the Oval was the position of the chairs near the president’s desk. Trump has four facing him, all the others have one or two on the side. I’m certain I’m reading too much into this, but: a president with no real confidents? A president who takes no counsel? A president who speaks “to” people and not “with” people.
It may very well be they aren’t always arranged that way, a striking detail for me nonetheless.
Pop culture apropos: I remember one of the final scenes ever of the West Wing being so powerful precisely because of those chairs. As I recall, the new president’s staff briefs him, they exit the Oval, and then the chief of staff, played by Bradley Whitford, takes his place in the side chair and begins to advise the president. A simple scene, but a powerful demonstration of what it means to be a counselor to a president.
To show what the reader is talking about, here’s a close-up view of the chairs at Ronald Reagan’s desk, where the real-life counterparts of staffers like Whitford’s might have sat.
From another reader, on the same theme:
Another difference in the pictures of the offices that struck me was the arrangement of the chairs by the President’s desk. Every other President has chairs for advisors that are adjacent to the sides of the desk, near to the President, suggesting perhaps a closer, more collaborative relationship between the President and his advisors.
President Trump has the only configuration in which these chairs are drawn back from the President and placed such that the desk is positioned fully between the President and his advisors.
The non-Trump arrangement is actually an odd, non-customary configuration to my eyes, but in the pictures you included in your article each and every President other than Trump set up the chairs that way.
The other significant change is the number of chairs placed in front of the Resolute Desk.
The maximum in the other pictures is three, for Eisenhower, and recent presidents seem to have had two. Trump has gone to four as a standard.
Of course, presidents had more chairs brought in when meetings got larger, but that is not the point; rather, it is that as a matter of course, Trump is *performing* in front of four chairs, and other presidents needed only two chairs for their standard meetings.
One more way Trump is fouling the presidency—making performance the core, and governance only an occasional side use of the Oval.
The most striking difference between Trump's Oval Office and every single one of the others, aside from his penchant for gold, is this: The arrangement of chairs in all of the other layouts places the president among his guests while Trump's place his guests as spectators or audience members.
No one sits next to Trump. No one sits behind Trump. All chairs are in front of the desk, facing Trump. There is a single chair pictured that, while still in front of his desk, does not point directly at him, but it looks like it’s there in the event that it needs to be pulled in front of the desk.
When you proposed we try spotting the difference in Trump’s office, the first thing I noticed was not the answer you provided. Only in the picture of Trump’s new lay out were the chairs of those with whom he is meeting, on the complete other side of his desk. Others must sit across from him and be separated by a large desk. All the other oval office photos had the meeting chairs set at the sides of the desk, or even behind the desk on the same side as the president.
This is interviewing and meeting 101. In order to convey that you are on the same level as those with whom you are working or collaborating, you eliminate the large furniture (aka space) that physically blocks the interaction. It could be interpreted that Trump has asked for the desk to continue to separate him from others to preserve his position over them.
The other thing I noticed besides the flags was the placement of the chairs. Previous presidents had chairs surrounding their desk, whereas Trump has them placed in front of him and away from him. I'm not sure if that's a permanent set up, but it seems like it could be a power move in his mind to put advisors in their place, whereas other presidents were confident enough to work with their advisors and acknowledge that they needed help, and not keep them at a distance.
While I agree with you about the flags, … both the quantity and layout are perhaps telling of how different this president works. With all previous images showing a couple of chairs next to the desk, indicating maybe that previous presidents worked closely with a couple advisors, this shows four chairs in front of the desk. Could that be his penchant for lording over a court? Just found the chair layout as interesting as the flags.
And just about finally for now:
Even more telling than flags is the “body language” position of the chairs near the Resolute Desk.
Notice how all other presidents have the chairs at the sides of the desk, suggesting “conversation, discussion, sharing”; Trump on the other hand has placed the chairs on the OTHER side of the desk, signifying “Who is Boss, Greater/Lesser, Grantor, Grantee, Interviewer, Applicant”—quite the opposite.
And this behavior is directed at HIS CHOSEN staff … Imagine how he treats strangers.
Finally-for-real on the instinct that might lie behind the chairs’ placement:
I have to admit I stopped looking and continued to read after I spotted what I thought was the difference: The placement of the chairs in front of the desk—rather than beside, or none at all.
There is a sense of I am the man behind the desk, I am in charge! Compared to allowing the visitor/guest/advisor a less, what I would consider, subservient position.
“I’m the President, and you’re not!!” Which is true, and until this recent interlude, I am not sure there was a president who needed to remind everyone who he is.
His self-centredness is the root of many of his problems. A basic insecurity where he must always prove himself to be the alpha male, right down to his imaginary bone spurs.
More on the flags themselves:
It’s not just the Oval Office. Flags are popping up all over the White House. And our Embassies when The president visits. And multiples wherever he makes a public statement.
I suspect there is someone on the staff there who has been placed in charge of conspicuous flag display wherever the president appears. Would be curious to have a reporter identify and interview that person.
You write: “(I can’t tell from this photo whether the other three service banners are there as well.)”
They’re there, you can see the flags of the Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard adding gravitas to this picture [with Russian visitors].
And with a slightly different spin:
Yes, Trump might have the flags to bolster his image. However, perhaps the flags are also a way of ingratiating the military that he needs to execute his (ill-formed) policies, protect him, and because he may some day ask them to perform unexpected and undesirable actions, perhaps against other americans for example.
The flags show his support and alignment with the military and to the extent it influences troops to believe they are supported and connected with the commander in chief, it may lower barriers and potential resistance in the future.
Isn’t this why leaders in the third world developing countries wear military uniforms?
But not everyone agreed with the flag- or chair-based analytical approach. Usually angry mail comes in under pseudonyms or no name at all, as in this case:
While the photos of the Oval Office decor through the years were interesting, your pathetic left-wing bias is obvious. Your attempt to make, as we say, a “mountain out of a molehill” by trying, as usual, like others in the lamestream media, to belittle the president falls way short, as evidenced in the Comments section.
In the future, please spare us your lame, uber-left tripe.
This man used his name:
I read your article about President Trump’s having military Flags in the Oval Office and did you ever cross your mind that he is showing support for our troops yeah I served militarily 101st Airborne/Air Assault Infantry and M. F. O. Peacekeeping forces I just curious did you ever serve a day in the military or did you just wimp out and ride the coattails all those who have and are serving using us to protect your rear end so you can go back to you cushy little job berating people
As did this woman:
Maybe the President included the Military Branch Flags in his office to show his support for the troops? Something your previous messiah wouldn’t due. Always looking for the bad and trying to spin the story to the left, Im a Marine back off.
And another woman with this aperçu:
At this point, I don’t think you qualify to me as a Ralph Lauren of the White House.
These flags remind all of what this country has sacrificed and who really has done that sacrificing ... its surely not you and your convoluted article that speaks to nothing but anti-trump sentiment.
The Oval never looked better Ralph.
Your article is a nothing burger, plain and simple.
Finally, that old staple, “we won, you lost”:
I have just read this little commentary you wrote concerning your appraisal of the new decorations in the oval office. What kind of nut are you to find fault with the honoring of our armed forces? To suggest that this represents an aggressive attitude and to insinuate that this is demeaning to the office is going way to far to find something to earn a few dollars with. Why not write an article on the reasons Hillary lost—and be truthful. You folks really need to get over it. You lost.
To some readers making the “honoring the troops” argument I replied: If it were strictly about supporting people in uniform, perhaps this idea would have occurred to the likes of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who himself commanded the vast Allied forces on D-Day, or the other presidents from John F. Kennedy to George H. W. Bush who fought in World War II. Yet leaders like these thought it inappropriate to cram the Oval Office with battle flags. I have no idea whether this makes any difference in these readers’ views.
I’ll consider the Oval Office topic closed at this point, unless there is yet another subtext in the photos that no one has yet brought up. Thanks for the responses, pro and con—and Godspeed to the people of Houston dealing with the flood, the police, fire fighting, ambulance teams and regular citizens helping their neighbors cope with the emergency, the local newspaper and broadcast reporters covering the news, and those around the country offering financial support. Support will be needed for a long time.
In response to three recent pieces—one discussing the public and private parts of the U.S. system of self-governance that are still working, another arguing that Donald Trump’s monologue to the New York Times represented a new frontier in self-revelation, a third saying that a handful of Republican Senators have the nation’s fate at their disposal—several reactions from readers.
What about the Democrats? A reader with long professional experience in government writes:
I just read your post calling for three Republicans to demonstrate civic courage. As you put it, “A country of 300-plus million people, with the world’s largest economy and most powerful military, should not rely for its orderly stability on the decisions-of-conscience of just three people.”
But it doesn’t—it relies on those three plus 48 Democrats. It is striking how often it’s just assumed that Democrats in this kind of situation will do the right thing.
But why should they? If the 10 Democratic senators up for reelection next year in states that Trump carried were consulting their political self-interest in the way that seemingly all Republicans are doing, some at least might not be resisting Donald Trump as they are. Yet they remain steadfast—just as Democratic members remained steadfast in 2009-2010 in voting for the ACA and cap-and-trade, even when their political futures were in jeopardy.
Perhaps it would be worthwhile sometime to do a post about how Democrats seem so much more able these days to maintain our standards of governance and to display civic virtue under pressure. That might be an edifying meditation.
What about the Attorney(s) General? In response to my noting that the Mueller investigation was (at the time) had not been derailed, a reader notes:
It is extraordinary that an article on this subject did not even mention the extremely important role played by the attorneys general of the several states in restraining Captain Combover. The role of the states in our political system has never been as significant as it is now.
Fair point. Last month at the Aspen Ideas Festival I did a very interesting (to me) Q-and-A with Xavier Becerra, long-time U.S. Representative from Los Angeles who has recently become California’s attorney general, on exactly this point. When a transcript or recording is available, I’ll post a link.
What about the Germans? I noted yesterday the historical, ummm... haziness with which Donald Trump discussed 19th- and 20th-century events in Europe, after his visit to Emmanuel Macron in Paris last week. (For instance: Trump apparently thought that Napoleon Bonaparte, conqueror of Europe who died in 1821, was the same Napoleon who oversaw the grand-boulevards redesign of Paris 50 years later. Like Frederick Douglass, you really couldn’t keep that Napoleon down.)
A reader who is originally from Europe and now works for a famous U.S. high-tech company, says Trump’s description was a little worse than I let on:
I just read your article about Trump’s NYT interview and was surprised (yes, really) about what he said about Napoleon and Hitler. Since I'm interested in WWII in general and the Soviet-German conflict in particular, I tried to parse this part, to no avail:
Trump: Same thing happened to Hitler. Not for that reason, though. Hitler wanted to consolidate. He was all set to walk in. But he wanted to consolidate, and it went and dropped to 35 degrees below zero, and that was the end of that army.
I guess this reflects a view many people hold—that the Germans went into war and froze to death because of lack of winter clothing—but it’s way too simplistic and doesn’t describe what really went on.
The Moscow campaign started in October when the going was still good for the Germans. They had been slowed down by the Russians but still had a chance. However, due to strong reinforcements from Siberia and very harsh punishments for deserters, the Soviets managed to stay in Moscow and even carry out a counter-attack. The latter was stalled after a while and the Germans held the ground over the winter through better tactics.
There were German deaths from cold in Stalingrad, but the city had been surrounded and there would have been deaths anyway. In fact, most of the “consolidations” (I would assume this means holding ground and strengthening defenses) of the German army actually improved their situation in the short run and hence prolonged the war.
The bottom line is, his description of what went on in WWII isn’t really any better than his account of Napoleon. Like I said to a friend, I used to be more focused on Chinese politics than American, but with Trump that has changed—it’s hard to focus completely on other parts of the world when this administration is in charge. That’s too bad.
Last week, Jim Fallows, who covered the fallout from the Watergate scandal 45 years ago, wrote about five reasons why President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey may pose an even greater challenge to the American system. In response, Stephen W.—a reader who was then a “young, idealistic college grad” working in Massachusetts politics—shared his own memory of the Saturday Night Massacre:
On the Saturday evening of October 20, 1973, I received a phone call from a mentor, Tom O’Donnell, a partner at Archibald Cox’s Boston law firm. I had heard the news earlier in the day: the firing of Cox, and the resignations of Elliot Richardson and William Ruckelshaus. Tom asked me if I could perform a favor. AG Richardson was about to land at Logan Airport and needed a ride to his home in Cohasset.
As I pulled up to the terminal curbside, I saw the tall, horn-rim–spectacled figure standing alone in the faint light. I greeted him softly, “Welcome home, sir,” and took his buckled valise from his hand to place it in the trunk. As we made our way down the Southeast Expressway toward the south-shore enclaves of Yankee Brahmins, the night seemed particularly dark and gloomy. Very few people were out and about. I distinctly remember feeling the weight of the moment.
I feel the same weight today as I watch the Trump family tragedy play out. But I also remember the quiet countenance of Mr. Richardson. It was a profile of a patriot, putting country before party or self-interest. His expression was calm and deeply reflective as he sat in the front seat next to me, without a hint of anger or upset. There were no words of any import exchanged between us. It didn’t seem appropriate to intrude on his thoughts.
We exchanged a simple “thank you and good night,” as I passed his only bag back to him. As I pulled out of the long driveway of the dark and secluded home, the encounter left me with a deep impression of the significance of integrity and reputation in the course of all human affairs.
Your article triggers my memory—a very personal memory of the import of our solemn duties and responsibilities exercised for the preservation and protection of those exceptional ideals of democracy, against those who would suborn the rule of law.
Dozens of other readers wrote in to share their thoughts about those duties and responsibilities, as exercised by government officials and private citizens in Nixon’s era and ours. Fallows passed the emails on to me, and I’ve collected a number of them here. From Dan Kimmel:
Excellent article, but, like many, it glosses over the role of Robert Bork in the Saturday Night Massacre. I was no fan of Bork and was glad he never made it to the Supreme Court, but when he became acting head of the Justice Department, he told Richardson and Ruckelshaus he would fire Cox because he believed that the president had the authority to so order, but then he would resign in protest as well. Richardson and Ruckelshaus prevailed on him NOT to resign because there was serious doubt as who, if anyone, was legitimately next in line at the Justice Department. It fits the later narrative of the right-wing Bork to depict him as a willing Nixon stooge, but that was not the case.
According to The New York Times’s 1987 account of those events, Bork apparently considered the firing of Cox to be a question of legal authority, whereas Richardson and Ruckelshaus resigned because of moral, not legal, concerns. But as another reader, Randy, points out, acting on principle can also be good politics:
As a follow-up to this article, I would suggest an article about what happens to politicians that bite the bullet and do what’s right for the country, not their party. Howard Baker and others, for example, became heroes. Did any of the Republicans that turned on Nixon lose?
I think it’s very clear that Rod Rosenstein is now an important figure in history. If he stays silent and things go south for Trump, he’s a co-conspirator, possibly, but if he does the right thing, he could become famous. It’s not too late. He could simply appoint a special prosecutor, resign, get rich in the private sector.
I think the personal loyalty oath [that Trump reportedly asked of Comey] is a huge deal. If that’s true, how can any FBI director pursue the Russian case?
Bill Popik likewise fears conflicting loyalties within the administration:
Early on in Trump’s administration (imagine—it’s actually still early, but it seems like an eternity ago) I thought that what might save us were the career bureaucrats three or four levels down in the government who would simply figure out ways to drag their feet to ensure that the most onerous dictates of this administration didn’t come to fruition. Now, I’m not so sure. We are seeing that Trump insists on loyalty, not to the Constitution, but to him and his causes above all else, and that he’ll enforce that through the appointment of loyalists who will drive fealty down through the agencies they lead.
Jay, on the other hand, is “unconcerned at this time”:
I think Fallows exaggerates Trump’s failings and Comey’s probity. We have too soon forgotten the evils of J. Edgar Hoover, a too-independent and too-powerful FBI chief. Comey was going Hoover on us with his dissing of Lynch and Trump. If he “lost confidence” in Lynch, imagine what little respect he would give to Sessions. It seemed clear to me, and I thought everyone else, that Comey’s days were numbered, and Trump only waited until he had an attorney general confirmed to can Comey.
Anyway, Clinton, Inc. and the Democratic Party present an immediate and serious threat to my rights and liberties under the 1st and 2nd Amendments. They also present the same danger to some freedoms I enjoy but that are not protected by the Constitution, such as sport hunting. It is for that reason I have a high tolerance for Trump’s shenanigans.
Jack was alive to remember Watergate, but writes, “I just do not think it has come to that—yet”:
Trump is many things, but not evil. Just a stumbling guy who stumbled upon a huge part of America that hated the Republican and Democratic/Academic/Media/Entertainment class that heretofore has controlled our political discourse and political system. He spoke to their concerns. That part of America elected him. You really should get used to it.
Stephen B. voted for Gary Johnson, but he’s also skeptical that the Watergate-Comey comparison may be overblown by partisanship:
We have been in a tit-for-tat race to the bottom since Watergate. A good percentage of Americans are simply playing a team sport. And like football, the brain damage is starting to accumulate to our society.
Whether you agree with the Watergate comparison or not, the reaction to the dismissal of Comey highlights the extent to which many Americans have lost trust—in government, in the media, or in their fellow citizens. And those accumulated losses could pose a very real threat. As Michael writes:
I just wanted to quibble with one statement made in the post:
At worst, such efforts [at interference by the Russian government] might actually have changed the election results. At least, they were meant to destroy trust in democracy.
I would argue that this is exactly backwards: The results of an election are a one-time thing, for the most part. (Brexit is an exception.) But I believe the Russian endgame is more about the latter than the former; I think it’s well documented that their MO is to sow confusion and uncertainty—even to the point of supporting both sides of a conflict—simply to render an opponent unable to act effectively.
In short, getting Trump elected was a nice-to-have; the real point was to weaken faith in democracy as an institution. This is the potential lasting damage.
In writing about the inevitable but sad passing of my last surviving uncle, Robert L. Fallows of the Philadelphia area, I mentioned the phenomenon of people who—like him, and like my own parents—are respected and influential in their own communities and essentially unknown beyond it. (Want to do a modern test of this hypothesis? Try an online search to learn about my uncle.) These local-scale civic virtues are what entire civilizations depend upon, but their nurturance is at obvious and increasing odds with many other forces in our current civilization.
Readers write about different aspects of this cultural tension. First, from a reader of my sons’ generation, who served as an officer during America’s recent wars. He writes about the military experience that was obviously so characteristic of my parents’ World War II generation and is so unevenly shared now:
I always have a thought nagging at me about families where generations are in and out of the military, which seems to me to be an ideal, as opposed to the current state where some families have long traditions of service; I think that state becomes toxic.
But it isn't much written on… and I'm not adequate material in which that thought can gel. Nonetheless we are less, as a nation, than the nation in which families like that were common.
Next, from a reader of my generation, about the pluses and minuses of a narrowly place-based conception of “community”:
Following the thoughts in your post about our parents’ (your uncle’s) generation as meriting enhanced recognition.
My (step) mother, born in the mid-1920s, has lived by herself for 15 years in a church-run elder community [in central Pennsylvania], where she & my father (a few years older) moved four years prior to his death in 2001. A very large proportion of the residents, my folks included, are/were clergy families (also white, protestant, and not radically evangelical).
I visit my mother frequently - her community is a terrific operation, quite exemplary - and I observe that she and her residential colleagues virtually all seem to be people for whom a) the phrase "purposeful living" would seem puzzlingly redundant, and b) the word "community" has always applied to everyone geographically within shouting distance.
For her "homies," to coin a phrase, these meanings have been reinforced, for better or worse, by the inclusive but relatively static and demographically homogeneous social and economic environment that defined "home" for most white European Americans (i.e. most of the "majority" population) at that time in the US, which continued into your and my childhood.
The home community was a base of strength - people of like mind and shared, or at least similar, experience in a community close-knit and collectively strong enough to extend its hand with good intention to selected outsiders. Recipients of this beneficence were referred to typically as "less fortunate" and implicitly regarded as inherently "good people," virtuous and/or unlucky enough to have deserved a better hand than life had dealt them. To these few the community could extend, and even over extend, its acceptance and generosity….
In any case, as for my parents' generation - with what mixed feelings do I now regard those paragons of that (great) American epoch - their indefatigable strength so daunting to our subsequent generations, their insularity so quaint.
As a preacher's kid, I'm typically awed by the superior strengths of my parents and their generation, rather than dismissive of the relative simplicity of the imperatives within which those strengths arose and were reinforced. But it could be the other way around I suppose, and someone other than myself could just regard the virtues of our parents' generation as natural adaptations to the era, subsequently eclipsed by global evolution in mobility, economics, information, and perceptions.
In this light, maybe Trump et al are the debt collectors - unduly harsh souls, heartless and randomly disruptive but an essential evolutionary digression, unsustainable but creating a space in/during which the imperfections & imbalances of human evolution, which all of us would prefer to ignore, deny or otherwise let pass like unpayable auto loan payments - can knit themselves into some new, more clear eyed social/economic/political fabric.
These are oversimplified late night thoughts that do not temper my commitment to work against this insurgent American "nativism," but I find myself perhaps too eager to latch onto some constructive meaning in how passively the US is responding to Trump's accession, in how uncannily he disarms the liberal argument with untruth and bullying, in how this brute has been empowered putatively to teach us just what we "have to lose." Unlike my parents and their generation, I'm not at all sure any of us really knows, and maybe this is what it will take to figure that out.
Finally for now, from another American of my own Boomer generation, who has recently returned to the country after many years in Europe.
He writes my description of people like my parents and my aunts and uncles: “talented, loving, curious, hopeful people who poured their heart and effort into the betterment of their small community and the well-being of their family”:
I’ve been busy establishing myself in [a culturally hip West Coast city], and re-establishing myself as a standardized test prep coach and higher education application essay editor, my business in Europe over the past decade.
Preparing to write an ad for my services on Craig’s List, I checked out my competition’s marketing efforts. Many touted their “Harvard/ Stanford” credentials. Now, I’m not particularly ashamed of my U. Penn / NYU Stern degrees. But I thought about this degree-pedigree-as-marketing-ploy to test prep clients: Does the degree of your test prep coach have any bearing on how much you might improve, how well you might do, on your standardized tests?
So I went to Penn and NYU. I don’t think any of my own teachers went to such now-prestigious institutions. My father went to CCNY nights, my mother maybe graduated high school. Yet somehow, my mentors raised me “higher.”
And all these Harvard/Stanford/MIT/Princeton swells: Where did their teachers and parents go to school? Where did Richard Feynman’s public school teachers, where did his parents, go to college? Feynman’s parents didn’t go to college. His mother was a homemaker, his father a sales manager from Minsk, in Belarus, where at least 2 of my own 4 grandparents came from circa 1900 (My other 2 grandparents came from the lesser known town of Slutsk, Belarus.).
Somehow Feynman’s not-college-educated parents, and his Rockaway HS teachers did not graduate from MIT, yet that’s where Feynman went.
In short: People who did not have the credentials of their students and children produced those students and children. I do not forget how I benefitted from the smart and capable women teachers in my public schools who, not able to ascend the corporate or political ladders in the 1950s and 1960s, as a few of my women peers, and many more of my contemporaries’ daughters and granddaughters have, poured their brains and passions generously into me and my schoolmates. Now, as a teacher and tutor myself, I am able to glimpse their vicarious satisfactions.
Here’s to the people who are not known - except by those who truly know how they’ve gotten where they are.
Well said, all. Thanks, all. Happy New Year to all.
One more installment to come, later this afternoon.
But in addition to that, books make the perfect gift. My own book choices are part of two seasonal wrapups.
One is the 2016 edition of the Atlantic’s “Best Books We Read This Year” feature by our staff members. I thinking about this feature, my working definition of “best” is “an interesting book I’d like to let people know about.” There are lots of good suggestions in this year’s report—I expect that I will remember for a long time When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi, which is Rebecca Rosen’s selection—but the one I chose to discuss and recommend is Underground Airlines, by Ben Winters. You can read my reasons why here.
The other is a “Books for the Trump Years” feature, compiled by Michael Winship for Bill Moyers & Company. I recommend a whole slew of books about the original Gilded Age and the response thereto, for reasons I explain. And of course many other people name their picks.
In my cover story in the December issue of the magazine, on how the United States should prepare for the possibility of a more truculent and repressive China, I mention the concept of the “Thucydides Trap.” The article describes the implications:
This concept was popularized by the Harvard political scientist [and my one-time professor as an undergraduate] Graham Allison. Its premise is that through the 2,500 years since the Peloponnesian warfare that Thucydides chronicled, rising powers (like Athens then, or China now) and incumbent powers (like Sparta, or the United States) have usually ended up in a fight to the death, mainly because each cannot help playing on the worst fears of the other. “When a rising power is threatening to displace a ruling power, standard crises that would otherwise be contained, like the assassination of an archduke in 1914, can initiate a cascade of reactions that, in turn, produce outcomes none of the parties would otherwise have chosen,” Allison wrote in an essay for TheAtlantic.com last year.
The idea Allison was getting across—that managing relations between the United States and China is enormously important, and also very complex, and not guaranteed to turn out well—is built into the themes Henry Kissinger expressed to Jeffrey Goldberg in the interview in that same issue, and that I was explaining in my article, and that every U.S. president from Nixon through Obama has reflected upon and, with some variations, built into his policy toward China, the Koreas, Japan, Asia, and the world as a whole.
Reduced to three elements, this outlook would be:
Relations with China really matter, for each country’s interests and for the world’s;
They’re very complex and less obvious than they seem, in part because the Chinese government sees the world differently from the U.S. government in some important ways; and
If poorly managed, they can lead to great danger, even the unlikely-but-conceivable disaster of military showdown. This is another way of stating the first point, with emphasis on the downside.
In his press conference yesterday, President Obama lightly touched on several of these points, while talking about the entities we usually refer to as “Taiwan” (the Republic of China, HQ in Taipei) and “China” (the People’s Republic of China, HQ in Beijing). Here is what he said, with emphasis added:
There has been a longstanding agreement essentially between China and the United States, and to some degree the Taiwanese, which is to not change the status quo. Taiwan operates differently than mainland China does. China views Taiwan as part of China, but recognizes that it has to approach Taiwan as an entity that has its own ways of doing things.
The Taiwanese have agreed that as long as they’re able to continue to function with some degree of autonomy, that they won’t charge forward and declare independence. And that status quo, although not completely satisfactory to any of the parties involved, has kept the peace and allowed the Taiwanese to be a pretty successful economy and—of people who have a high degree of self-determination.
What I understand for China, the issue of Taiwan is as important as anything on their docket. The idea of One China is at the heart of their conception as a nation. And so if you are going to upend this understanding, you have to have thought through the consequences because the Chinese will not treat that the way they’ll treat some other issues.
They won’t even treat it the way they issues around the South China Sea, where we've had a lot of tensions. This goes to the core of how they see themselves.
And their reaction on this issue could end up being very significant. That doesn't mean that you have to adhere to everything that's been done in the past, but you have to think it through and have planned for potential reactions that they may engage in.
And now we have Donald Trump, five weeks away from being president but determined to put himself in the middle of U.S.-China relations as he has everything else. (Please see update after the jump)
As a general principle of life, I’m skeptical of claims that begin, “Oh, this is too complex, leave it to the experts.” Usually there is a simple way to convey the essence of an issue. But the simple way to state the reality of U.S.-China-Taiwan relations is that they are very complex and the product of decades’ worth of trade-offs and understandings, and that they are much easier to destroy than they were to create and sustain.
The joke about Homer Simpson, as the lovably incompetent operator at the Springfield Nuclear Plant, is that he had no idea of the complexity of what he was dealing with—or the potential consequences of his blunders. It’s not that everything in the world is more complex than it seems; it’s that nuclear plants are more complex, and dangerous. So too in dealings with China.
I can tell you that virtually everyone on the Chinese, North America, Asian and ASEAN, etc. front of U.S.-Chinese relations has a similar dread about Trump’s tweet-based “policy” toward China. Of course any aspect of U.S. policy should be up for re-examination, including this one. But Trump appears to have no idea what he is dealing with, what it has taken to make the relationship as stable as it has been, or what it could mean for it to go awry.
In the sequence leading to this latest tweet, we see an example of the latter point:
Trump challenges and provokes the Chinese, with a literally unprecedented gesture toward Taiwan that—as Obama pointed out, and as Nixon, Reagan, and either of the Bushes, plus Kissinger would have confirmed—challenges what China’s leaders consider the irreducible heart of their national identity;
Once Chinese officials determine that he’s not just kidding (the initial press reaction noted that Trump was still a private citizen, soon followed by editorials saying that he was “speaking like a child”), the leaders get their back up, and take their own unprecedented step of seizing this maritime drone;
And then Trump, who as president-elect has been the major force provoking China, responds in today’s raise-the-stakes way.
I do not believe the United States and China are likely to go to war. There are too many buffers on each side; too many many positive linkages; too much awareness on the Chinese side of U.S. relative military advantages—and on both sides of the potential risks.
But if historians and citizens look back on our era as the transition point, at which 40 years of relatively successful management of U.S.-China relations gave way to a reckless focus on grievances and differences,tweets like the one today will be part of their sad record.
Governor Jerry Brown of California got Twitter-verse attention for saying two days ago that if Donald Trump shuts down satellite collection of climate data, “California will launch its own damn satellites.”
I’ve now seen the short speech from which that line was taken, thanks to a tip from reader CS. It’s remarkable enough to be worth your time. It’s a genuine fighting speech, with a tone that is resolute but positive, rather than resentful or doomed. It’s a rousing call-to-battle against the environmental backwardness and larger disdain for fact of the coming era, from a person who as he nears age 80 has struck a distinctive Happy Warrior tone of resistance. Happy, in its confidence. Warrior, in its resoluteness.
The 13-minute clip of an obviously extemporized speech is below, followed by a viewer’s-guide annotation:
Points to note:
Brown is speaking to the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union, in San Francisco two days ago. As reader CS says, this is “probably the largest single yearly gathering of geophysics related scientists in the world; close to 25,000 people attended it this year.” Brown’s remarks begin at around time 2:00, and you’ll see that he swings right from the introductory applause into a call for renewed energy on behalf of fact-based policies, science, truth.
From about time 3:30 to 3:50, the sound on the video fades away. Just wait it out.
From 4:30 to 5:15, Brown begins one of his “we’re ready to fight” riffs. The speech as a whole is unpolished, but among its charms is Brown’s ability to seem self-aware and even self-mocking. An example is in this passage: First he says that Big Tobacco was brought down by a combination of scientists and lawyers. Then, “And in California, we’ve got plenty of lawyers! … We’ve got the scientists, we’ve got the lawyers, and we’re ready to fight!”
At 5:30, he introduces the “What the hell do you think you’re doing, Brown? You’re not a country” argument, about the way California has used its technical advances and sheer scale to set national and even international environmental standards. “We have a lot of firepower! We’ve got the scientists. We’ve got the universities. We have the national labs. We have a lot of political clout and sophistication for the battle. And we will persevere!”
From 7:00 to 7:15, the defiantly confident declaration: “We’ll set the stage. We’ll set the example. And whatever Washington thinks they’re doing, California is the future!”
At time 8:00, Brown makes an offhand reference to “Breitbart, and the other clowns.” In the following minute and onward in the speech, he increasingly stresses the need for reality, fact, “honest science,” truth.
My favorite part of the talk starts at 8:30, when Brown embraces a role that long ago he seemed to resist: that of a consummate politician, who knows both the nobility and the squalor of his business as intimately as anyone still performing on the national stage. This was the theme that fascinated me when I was writing my profile of Brown for the magazine three years ago. During Brown’s first incarnation as California’s governor, when in his 30s he seemed to resist the craft of politics into which he had been born. During his second stint, when in his 70s he is the oldest person ever to be California’s governor, he has fully embraced the importance and the value of political skill. You get a distilled version of how he feels about politics in this brief passage, through time 9:20.
Starting at 10:00, the “our own damn satellites” riff. It also has a great “Governor Moonbeam” cameo.
At 10:50, a similarly defiant stance about how Lawrence Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore, and the rest of California’s science establishment will stand proudly against a fake-science, no-truth trend. If you’ve watched this far, stay through the “we can take a few data bases more” punchline.
Time 11:55, “This is not a battle of one day or one election. This is a long-term slog into the future. And you [the climate scientists in the AGU crowd] are the foot soldiers of change and understanding and scientific collaboration.”
Time 13:00, a nice in-your-face challenge to Rick Perry, who as governor of Texas had urged California companies to move to his lower-tax state. It ends with, “Rick, we’ve got more sun than you have oil, and we’re going to use it!”
Brown’s talk ends by time 15:45, following a “scientists of the world, unite!” pitch. I think that nearly every part of it is novel enough, in the current political world, to deserve a look.
This is one of the first speeches of the Resistance era that actually makes me feel better.
White nationalism, no. But I could go for some Brown nationalism of this sort.
Starting soon, I will be spending an extended multi-month period back in the California that Jerry Brown is describing, and away both from the Washington D.C. that will receive Donald Trump and from the overall world of online discourse. Details on that in a few days. Meanwhile, watch this speech! And check out my Brown profile, which I think does set up the performance you see here.
I have a soft spot for Rick Perry, finding his aw-shucks demeanor more natural-seeming than most politicians’. I can even remember the time, in the summer and fall of 2011, when Perry seemed the strongest Republican challenger to Barack Obama for the 2012 race. The reasoning back then: like George W. Bush before him, Perry was an affable-seeming, popular incumbent governor of an important state. Also like Bush, he was unusual among Republicans in maintaining broad Latino support without alienating immigration-hardliners in his own party.
Then came the Republican-primary debate of November 9, 2011, when Perry had his extended “Ooops!” brain-freeze. If you’ve forgotten the episode, Perry had promised to eliminate three whole federal cabinet departments. But when he tried to name them, he got through two (the Departments of Commerce and Education) but couldn’t come up with the third, not even after checking his notes and thinking about it.
If you haven’t gone back to see this moment in a while, it’s worth another look, in the clip below. Perry actually takes his on-stage embarrassment with good humor. Still, it is as agonizing a 60-second stretch as you’re likely ever to see in a live debate. And, as I remarked during the Time Capsule series, it was the sort of gaffe that back in the pre-Trump age could de-rail an otherwise promising candidacy, as it appeared to do to Perry’s.
Again, I find Perry more appealing as a person than some of the other characters now coming onto the national stage. But it is somehow an appropriate metaphor of our era that, if he is nominated and confirmed, this could be the sequence of U.S. Secretaries of Energy:
2009-2013, Steven Chu, winner of the Nobel prize in physics, professor of physics at UC Berkeley, director of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab;
2013-2017, Ernest Moniz, professor of nuclear physics at MIT, former under secretary of Energy;
2017- , Rick Perry, the man who couldn’t remember the department’s name.
Because many people don’t know this, it’s worth pointing out that the Energy Department officially runs most nuclear-energy and nuclear-weaponry programs for the United States, plus 17 of the famous advanced-research National Labs — Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore and Lawrence Berkeley, Fermi, and so on. That’s why the background in physics that Chu and Moniz shared was so relevant. Moniz also played a leading technical and diplomatic role in the Iran-nuclear deal.
Academic or research excellence doesn’t automatically translate into administrative success. The metaphor-for-a-moment point is simply that, if Perry becomes secretary, we’ll go from two leaders whose life work was part of the mission of the agency, to someone who couldn’t remember its existence.
In the United States, this pandemic could be almost over by now. The reasons it’s still going are pretty clear.
In the United States, this pandemic could’ve been over by now, and certainly would’ve been by Labor Day. If the pace of vaccination through the summer had been anything like the pace in April and May, the country would be nearing herd immunity. With most adults immunized, new and more infectious coronavirus variants would have nowhere to spread. Life could return nearly to normal.
Experts list many reasons for the vaccine slump, but one big reason stands out: vaccine resistance among conservative, evangelical, and rural Americans. Pro-Trump America has decided that vaccine refusal is a statement of identity and a test of loyalty.
In April, people in counties that Joe Biden won in 2020 were two points more likely to be fully vaccinated than people in counties that Donald Trump won: 22.8 percent were fully vaccinated in Biden counties; 20.6 percent were fully vaccinated in Trump counties. By early July, the vaccination gap had widened to almost 12 points: 46.7 percent were fully vaccinated in Biden counties, 35 percent in Trump counties. When pollsters ask about vaccine intentions, they record a 30-point gap: 88 percent of Democrats, but only 54 percent of Republicans, want to be vaccinated as soon as possible. All told, Trump support predicts a state’s vaccine refusal better than average income or education level.
In 1955, just past daybreak, a Chevrolet truck pulled up to an unmarked building. A 14-year-old child was in the back.
This article was published online on July 22, 2021.
The dentist was a few minutes late, so I waited by the barn, listening to a northern mockingbird in the cypress trees. His tires kicked up dust when he turned off Drew Ruleville Road and headed across the bayou toward his house. He got out of his truck still wearing his scrubs and, with a smile, extended his hand: “Jeff Andrews.”
The gravel crunched under his feet as he walked to the barn, which is long and narrow with sliding doors in the middle. Its walls are made of cypress boards, weathered gray, and it overlooks a swimming pool behind a white columned house. Jeff Andrews rolled up the garage door he’d installed.
Our eyes adjusted to the darkness of the barn where Emmett Till was tortured by a group of grown men. Christmas decorations leaned against one wall. Within reach sat a lawn mower and a Johnson 9.9-horsepower outboard motor. Dirt covered the spot where Till was beaten, and where investigators believe he was killed. Andrews thinks he was strung from the ceiling, to make the beating easier. The truth is, nobody knows exactly what happened in the barn, and any evidence is long gone. Andrews pointed to the central rafter.
The once-dynamic state is closing the door on economic opportunity.
Behold California, colossus of the West Coast: the most populous American state; the world’s fifth-largest economy; and arguably the most culturally influential, exporting Google searches and Instagram feeds and iPhones and Teslas and Netflix Originals and kimchi quesadillas. This place inspires awe. If I close my eyes I can see silhouettes of Joshua trees against a desert sunrise; seals playing in La Jolla’s craggy coves of sun-spangled, emerald seawater; fog rolling over the rugged Sonoma County coast at sunset into primeval groves of redwoods that John Steinbeck called “ambassadors from another time.”
This landscape is bejeweled with engineering feats: the California Aqueduct; the Golden Gate Bridge; and the ribbon of Pacific Coast Highway that stretches south of Monterey, clings to the cliffs of Big Sur, and descends the kelp-strewn Central Coast, where William Hearst built his Xanadu on a hillside where his zebras still graze. No dreamscape better inspires dreamers. Millions still immigrate to my beloved home to improve both their prospects and ours.
A newish wave of sophisticated, adult board games have made exploitation part of their game mechanics. A reckoning is coming.
The board game “Puerto Rico” begins after everyone around the table receives a mat printed with the verdant interior of the game’s namesake island. Players are cast as European tycoons who have trekked across the Atlantic at the height of the Age of Exploration. “In 1493 Christopher Columbus discovered the easternmost island of the Great Antilles,” read the back of the game box that once sat on my living-room shelf. “About 50 years later, Puerto Rico began to really blossom.” To win, one must “achieve the greatest prosperity and highest respect.”
In practice, that means the mechanics of “Puerto Rico” are centered around cultivation, exploitation, and plunder. Each turn, a player takes a role—the “settler,” the “builder,” the “trader,” the “craftsman,” the “captain,” and so on—and tries to slowly transform their tropical enclave into a tidy, 16th-century imperial settlement. Perhaps they uproot the wilds and replace them with tobacco pastures or corn acreage, or maybe they outfit the rocky reefs with fishing wharfs and harbors, in order to ship those goods back across the ocean. All of this is possible only with the help of a resource that the game calls “colonists,” —represented by small, brown discs in the game’s first edition, which was published by Rio Grande Games and is available in major retailers—who arrive by ship and are sent by players to work on their plantations.
I carried on for more than a year of the coronavirus pandemic, but I didn’t see the next plague coming.
After the end of the world, there will be birdsong. I used to imagine this when everything was going awry. I would lie in bed in my college dorm room and listen to the lone mockingbird who sang all night outside my window in the spring months. I was worried about something or other; he was getting on with things. It’s what birds do. They have a knack for it. In the Book of Genesis, after the devastation of the Earth by God’s cataclysmic flood, Noah releases from his ark a dove; he knows that the trial has ended when the bird does not return, having alighted somewhere out in the damp and dreary world, the first land-dwelling creature to begin the work of carrying on.
What else is there to do? When COVID-19 began to spread in the United States, late in the winter of 2020, I told myself as much. In plagues, as in life, there is a morally arbitrary hierarchy of luck, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that my family and I were among the lucky ones. I was in my late 20s, hale and hearty, my husband the same plus a couple of years. Our children were young—our baby was, in fact, under a year old, something I eventually mentioned in a meekly anxious aside to a doctor I was interviewing for a story on the emerging pandemic. He acknowledged certain risks in the way that doctors do, and then said: “Don’t worry. Kids are kicking ass with this thing.” I was both comforted and chastened; this wasn’t mine to panic about. The best I could do for those in peril was to carry on.
Does getting right with contemporary concepts of anti-racism mean reviving one of the state’s most shameful traditions?
“Liberté, égalité, fraternité!” is the cry that once stirred a nation to action, but out here in the crumbling state of California, we’re at a lower ebb. A hobbled people rally to a revolutionary whimper: “Put your pencils down.”
In May, the University of California announced an immediate end to the use of standardized testing in admissions and scholarship decisions at the nine schools in its system that accept undergraduates. It is a move so widely hailed by the administrators and faculty that you know someone’s getting hustled, and in this case the marks are the state’s low-income Black and Latino students––the very ones whom the new policy is supposed to help. The university has long claimed that it is “shaped and bounded by the central pervasive mission of discovering and advancing knowledge.” What’s one more lie?
Courses to train young people to be ethical consumers of porn have a hugely complex task ahead of them.
Earlier this year, Manhattan’s prestigious Dalton School bid farewell to Justine Ang Fonte, its then-director of health and wellness, who had guided the academy’s sex education for years. Their parting was the conclusion of a minor media scandal with all the makings of a major one: Fonte, who also gives presentations at other institutions, had become the subject of controversy after offering a frank porn-literacy course to high schoolers at Columbia Grammar & Preparatory School in May, resulting in a scandalized write-up in the New York Post. A handful of Columbia Prep parents were, it seemed, appalled by the allegedly explicit presentation Fonte had given their children.
Fonte was taken aback. In her nine years of teaching porn-literacy courses, she had always felt that her work was well received. Exposure to porn is an almost-guaranteed fact of adolescent life thanks to the rise of smart devices and the ubiquity of the internet—and yet, Fonte told me, some parents “may not be ready for the actual truth as to their role in addressing it, and the reality of what their child is actually seeing.”
American culture still treats disinterest in sex as something that needs to be fixed. What if any amount of desire—including none—was okay?
For more than half a century, the modern industry of sex therapists, educators, and experts has been eager to tell us whether we’re having enough sex, or the right kind of sex. But this industry is, like any other, shaped by the broader culture—it took for granted that the goal was to “get everybody to the point where they have a type of desire and quality of desire that fits within the cultural norms and values,” the sex therapist and researcher Michael Berry says. Decades ago that meant: straight, monogamous, within marriage, private, nothing too kinky.
As American culture has become more expansive in its understanding of sexuality, so has sex therapy. But this kind of sex positivity often doesn’t leave room for those who don’t want sex at all. The prevailing idea remains that, as Berry puts it, “if people are coming to see a sex therapist, the intent would be to get them to have sex.”
Why did so many Americans receive strange packages they didn’t think they’d ordered?
Sid Miller, the Texas agriculture commissioner, sat atop his stallion Smokey and faced the camera. It was Saturday, August 1, 2020. Miller had a message to share.
“Good morning, patriots,” Miller began, raising the coiled lasso in his right hand by way of greeting. “I don’t know about you, but I’m getting tired of all these surprises coming out of China. First it was the Chinese virus, then we had the murder hornets, then we had to close the embassy in Houston because of espionage … Now we’ve got all these mystery seeds coming in in the mail.”
It was the seeds that Miller wanted to speak about. By then, news of the seeds had been circulating for several days. Packets were turning up at homes across the United States; residents of every state would eventually report receiving them. Their address labels and Customs declarations indicated that they had been sent from China. The contents were usually described as an item of jewelry—something like “rose stud earrings”—but inside would be a small packet of unidentified seeds. There was no evident reason why particular people were receiving particular seeds, or why people were receiving seeds at all.
Roadrunner, a new documentary about the chef and television star, tries to uncover who he really was, but neglects vital parts of his story.
Regardless of whether you loved Anthony Bourdain—and the striking thing is that so many people who had even a spotty acquaintance with him or his work felt like they did—the end of Roadrunner is devastating to watch. Morgan Neville’s new documentary about the chef and TV star runs through two decades of Bourdain’s life onscreen before concluding with present-day scenes of his friends still struggling to parse his death by suicide in 2018, at the age of 61. “I don’t think he was cruel, and there’s such a cruelty to that [act],” the musician Alison Mosshart says. “What the hell is everyone supposed to do?” The artist David Choe weeps on camera, and then spray-paints over a mural of Bourdain, as if to challenge the hagiographic portraits of the Parts Unknown host that proliferated after his death. “Going out in a blaze of glory was so fucking lame,” he says.