A seemingly infinite volume of words has been lavished on the fight between progressives and moderates in the Democratic Party, and that’s largely warranted. It’s a real battle. It’s a meaningful one. And the side that President Biden comes down on will certainly affect his and his party’s fortunes.
Plenty has been written and spoken about the humiliation of what happened in Afghanistan. Biden is answering for that as well.
But there’s a larger issue — a question — that links those circumstances and overarches this perilous juncture in the first year of his first term. It, more than anything else, explains the plummet of his approval rating. It looms large for that small minority of voters without ironclad allegiances to either the Democratic or Republican parties.
They’re wondering this: Just how competent, really, is Biden? Just how knowledgeably and confidently in charge? I don’t mean neurologically, which I hasten to clarify, lest right-wingers suffering from Biden Derangement Syndrome disingenuously repurpose my comments. I mean administratively, legislatively, politically. And voters’ misgivings about that could be disastrous for him and for America — which cannot afford another go-round with Donald Trump or any of his coddlers — because they concern and corrode the very case that Biden made for his presidency.
He issued many particular promises but two sweeping ones: He would return the country, or at least the government, to some kind of psychic normalcy after the raging romper room of Trump. And because he, unlike the orange interloper, had so much experience in Washington and such an intimate understanding of how it worked, he could make it work for frustrated Americans.
On the first score, he has half delivered. The White House isn’t a scene of florid melodrama and cringe-worthy farce. And if that’s not true of the fractured territory around and beyond it, well, there are and always were limits to what Biden could do. I doubt that any of his supporters really expected him to defang Mitch McConnell, defuse Marjorie Taylor Greene and deprogram the conspiracy theorists coast to coast.
But they did hope for some concrete government action, some tangible results. They took that second sweeping Biden promise seriously. And that’s why, in the first months of his administration, when vaccines were being sped to millions of Americans and he signed a first big economic stimulus package, his approval rating soared. To some degree, he was benefiting from many Americans’ profound sense of relief that Trump had been ousted, but he was also being applauded for his and the country’s forward movement.
And since then? We seem to have stalled. The pandemic grinds on, as do the social dysfunctions that it spotlighted and amplified. Congress is as ugly and constipated a mess as ever; the decades Biden spent there didn’t endow him with some laxative magic. Elements of his strategy for passing his Build Back Better agenda have baffled many observers, including me. I hear some reasonable people around me asking not how much more of it he’ll succeed in enacting but whether he’ll enact any more of it.
We can pin that on McConnell or Manchinema or the Squad, but the buck, as they say, stops with Biden. That’s the hell of his job. The reality of it, too. And his pitch to Americans wasn’t a romantic one, like Barack Obama’s, or a rebellious one, like Trump’s. It was, in large measure, a practical one: I know the ropes, so hand me the reins.
Now he has them, along with a countdown clock on showing that he can use them to voters’ measurable benefit. I say that not in a disappointed frame of mind but in a worried one: Whatever Biden’s shortcomings, he and his Democratic allies are our best defense against a morally bankrupt crew of political figures who are content to trash democratic traditions and ideals if that serves their ambitions. Biden needs to do better because we need him to prevail.
For the Love of Sentences
I have read The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane most often on the subject of movies, but I’ll gladly follow him to any topic, such as “the enduring romance” of the overnight train, which he took from Portugal to Spain: “I relished every mile of it, pulling wide the curtains at the witching hour, as I brushed my teeth, to disclose a vacant platform and the sign ‘Caxarias — Fátima’ in a glowing haze; leaving them open as I lay on the bed, thus admitting the searchlight of the full moon; and, at last, stepping out into a Madrid morning as fresh as rising dough.” (Thanks to Tom Wild of Three Mile Bay, N.Y., for nominating this.)
Also in The New Yorker, here’s Ed Caesar on the unresolved, protracted debate over the urgency of removing a large, slowly corroding oil tanker parked off the coast of Yemen: “Each passing day seems like proof to one side that the worries about the ship are overblown, and to the other that one more inch on a bomb’s fuse has burned. The crisis unfolds at the speed of rust.” (Rosemary Fletcher-Jones, Palm Desert, Calif., and Peter Stumpp, Stow, Mass., among others)
There are political and civic virtues aplenty in centrism, including its pushback against extreme partisanship and its promise of a less vicious and perpetual seesaw. But there’s also literary virtue in Ryan Cooper’s description, in The Week, of a certain vague, noncommittal type of it, which he locates in Kyrsten Sinema: “This is political ‘centrism’ as a vacuous nullity, a lidless reptilian eye ever gazing into a lightless political tomb where no truth is spoken and nothing ever happens.” (Colleen Kelly, Manhattan)
Sportswriters have more fun — or so it seems when I read their best work, such as Adam Kilgore’s description, in The Washington Post, of what it’s like for an opposing team (in this case, the San Francisco 49ers) to know that the extraordinary quarterback for the Green Bay Packers is ready and waiting to get his hands on the football one more time before the clock runs out: “Aaron Rodgers stood on the other sideline, and from the Niners’ perspective, he may as well have been sitting on a pale horse.” (Carson Carlisle, Sonoma, Calif.)
Speaking of sportswriters, The Times recently asked a bunch of them to write 900 words each on the theme of freedom, leading to Phil Taylor’s beautiful and wise reflection on a trip to the playground with his 2½-year-old grandson, Rafa: “Rafa climbs the ladder to the top of the slide while I am directly below, tracking him like an infielder under a pop fly.” (Alan Stamm, Birmingham, Mich.)
Antigone Davis, the global head of safety for Facebook, testified before Congress early this month, and in The Times, Kevin Roose sized up the occasion this way: “Many of the questions to Ms. Davis were hostile, but as with most Big Tech hearings, there was an odd sort of deference in the air, as if the lawmakers were asking: Hey, Godzilla, would you please stop stomping on Tokyo?” (Conrad Macina, Landing, N.J., and Julie Noble, Austin, Texas)
Also in The Times, Ellen Barry reported on the distinctive, proudly native sound of one of the candidates for mayor of Massachusetts’s most populous hub: “Boston is a city that cherishes its accent — one that ignores R’s in some places, inserts them in others, and prolongs its A sounds as if it were opening its mouth for a dentist.” (Richard Rubin, Lynchburg, Va.)
Finally, I could pick any number of the sentences written by Sam Anderson in his superb profile of Laurie Anderson in The Times, but I’ll instead showcase words that she once wrote — and that he highlighted — about the death of her husband, Lou Reed, in 2013: “I have never seen an expression as full of wonder as Lou’s as he died. His hands were doing the water-flowing 21-form of tai chi. His eyes were wide open. I was holding in my arms the person I loved the most in the world, and talking to him as he died. His heart stopped. He wasn’t afraid. I had gotten to walk with him to the end of the world. Life — so beautiful, painful and dazzling — does not get better than that. And death? I believe that the purpose of death is the release of love.” (Lee Ann Summers, Westfield, N.J.)
What I’m Reading
I sometimes struggle with journalism about the embattled state of journalism: It can romanticize the profession and come across as self-congratulation. But the starving and dying of small newspapers across the country is a profoundly legitimate source of concern, and some of the effects of it are beautifully explained in this article in The Atlantic by Elaine Godfrey.
Also in The Atlantic, Elizabeth Bruenig’s analysis of why so many readers are so obsessed with the article “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?” in The Times identifies some important and deeply unsettling truths.
I was barely aware of the fiction writer Diane Williams before reading this profile of her by Merve Emre in The New Yorker, which also introduced me to writers she publishes in her magazine, NOON. That thrilled me. The art in this frenzied and ingenious world of ours is inexhaustible. There’s always another meadow to wander through, another mountain of ideas to climb.
On a Personal Note
First, a word about bats: Many of you wrote to me after last week’s newsletter, in which I described getting rid of the small winged creatures that had taken up residence in the eaves above my garage, and asked why I’d ever send them packing. You noted, rightly, that they keep insect populations in check.
If that was all they’d done, I would have gladly sheltered them forever, even thrown baby showers for the expectant bat mothers. But they also left visible bat guano on the driveway, on the siding of the house and on the shutters that flank the window below the eaves.
And they were noisy just before dawn, when they retired and I woke early to try to get some work done. I could hear them flapping and fidgeting no more than eight feet above my desk. They were probably leaving guano there, too.
So I bid them adieu — humanely, so that they would survive and thrive, ideally somewhere in or near my yard. Several of you suggested that I invest in bat houses. That is absolutely under consideration. I’m all for them having a roof over their bat heads. Just not my roof.
Several of you also suggested that I simply celebrate the wildlife around me and realize that it was here first and I’m the invader. I do celebrate it, and I don’t think that ushering the raccoons — again, humanely — from my not-quite-attic two months ago was any contradiction of that. It was simply sanitary.
Was the raccoon I saw sitting under a neighbor’s mailbox the other morning one of them? Regan and I, walking up the street, almost stumbled on the critter, which was so still and quiet that its presence didn’t register at first. It should have been yowling at Regan or skittering away. But it just stared at us cryptically, frozen in place.
And what I felt, beyond wonderment, was concern. Something was obviously wrong with it. I didn’t have my eyeglasses with me, so I flailed unsuccessfully when I tried to use my smartphone to locate some kind of animal rescue organization or agency to call. But I managed to text a neighbor — and learned that already, several people on our street had noticed the raccoon and set in motion the arrival of help.
Those people are invaders. We all are: the neighbor who leaves food in her backyard for deer; the neighbors who put out seed for birds; the neighbors who have constructed hives for bees; me, who prevents Regan from turning the bunnies who live under my hedges into canapés.
As individuals and as a race, we have imperiously claimed the patches of nature that we want and arrogantly tailored them to our comfort and delight. But we are not without awareness of that. We are not without restraint. And we are not without kindness.
When night falls, I drive more slowly and vigilantly, knowing that a deer might dart into the road. I’m not worried about what one of these majestic animals could do to my car. I’m worried about what my car could do to it — and about the traces of that collision on my soul.