- August 28, 2021
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Mr. Bruni is a contributing Opinion writer who was on the staff of The Times for more than 25 years.
Democrats are panicked that the debacle in Afghanistan will shake American voters’ confidence in not only President Biden but also the rest of the party, potentially costing it control of the Senate and the House in 2022. They’ve said as much — to me, to other journalists, to anyone who will listen.
I wish they’d stop, because their political fate is nothing next to the fate of Afghans on the wrong side of the Taliban. And every time they communicate as much concern with the party’s near future as with Afghanistan’s, they inch toward the very destiny they dread.
To review: There were explosions today outside the airport in Kabul, underscoring how gravely dangerous the situation there is. Afghans have been crushed to death in stampedes to that area. Many who took considerable risks to help us now justifiably fear brutal reprisals from the Taliban and cannot count on us to get them to safety. Refugees have traded one hell for another: fetid, sweltering, rat-infested camps unfit for even fleeting human habitation. And some of our allies have struggled to rescue their own citizens and lost yet more faith in the United States.
But, sure, let’s talk about domestic politics and the midterms — which, mind you, are more than 14 months away.
I’m not minimizing the stakes of those elections. Given the Republican Party’s capitulation to conspiracy theories, its contempt for democratic norms, the paranoia of Marjorie Taylor Greene, the depravity of Matt Gaetz, the cowardice of Kevin McCarthy and the stubborn pull of their orange overlord, a Republican takeover of Congress would likely be disastrous.
But you know how Democrats and the media can increase the odds of that? By framing too much in those terms. By conspicuously keeping score: This event works to our advantage, that development works in theirs, we drew blood here, they drew blood there. When everyone seems equally political, everything is reduced to politics, and voters have a harder time seeing who’s on their side. They see only a contest with contestants out for themselves.
Republicans are goading Democrats, that’s for sure. Donald Trump is mocking them and Fox News taunting them — by politically weaponizing the misery in Afghanistan and casting it as an illustration of Biden’s and Democrats’ unfitness to govern.
Let them. They look parochial at best, callous at worst and opportunistic through and through. They’re right to demand more of the country and its president than what we’ve seen in regard to Afghanistan, and it’s fine to discuss that, but not in a tone so nakedly partisan and not with a memory so audaciously selective.
Trump would have done us prouder? Hah. The United States was humiliated repeatedly and spectacularly under his, um, leadership, as he gleefully trashed our most cherished ideals. What’s more, there was nothing in his magnitude of ignorance, self-consumption and neglect to suggest that he would have accomplished a withdrawal from Afghanistan — which, mind you, he was insistent about — with more grace. Any assertion otherwise charts the confluence of runaway revisionism and pure fantasy.
But if Democrats want to be sure to beat Republicans, their best bet is to be not like them: to focus on the substance of problems rather than their political implications, to talk about solutions without calculating their political benefit. In these jaded times, a little genuine earnestness could go a long way.
That holds true for the media as well. In an excellent column in The Washington Post recently, Margaret Sullivan rued the fact that reporting on government has become reporting on politics, although the two aren’t — or at least shouldn’t be — the same. Her prompt was the fight between Democrats and Republicans over a congressional investigation into the events of Jan. 6. She implored journalists to “stop asking who the winners and losers were in the latest skirmish. Start asking who is serving the democracy and who is undermining it. Stop being ‘savvy’ and start being patriotic.”
Amen. A similar plea has a place in the coverage of Afghanistan. I’ve pretty much given up on Republicans for the time being, but I’m still rooting for better from Democrats, who should focus on how the United States honors the promises we made in Afghanistan, limits the suffering there and reclaims a place of honor and reliability in global affairs. I don’t want the handicapping of the 2022 horse race, at least not right now.
There was some criticism of Biden in last week’s newsletter, and while it was milder than it could have been, I knew the minute I wrote it that some of you would email to say versions of “Give him a break. He’s a hell of a lot better than Trump.”
I agree. He’s a hell of a lot better than Trump.
And I worry. “A hell of a lot better than Trump” cannot become our new presidential baseline.
Regan (for newsletter newcomers, my dog) is a hell of a lot better than Trump, but I don’t want her at the Resolute Desk. Except maybe for a very quick photo. The adorableness of which we could definitely forge bipartisan agreement about.
More seriously: We should, indeed, never forget the danger and shame of Trump in the White House, never become so gratuitously derisive of other political leaders that we lose the ability to draw the line between flawed and fraudulent, never let an omnibus cynicism reopen the door to Trump or his likeness.
But we also can’t let the freak show of his presidency and the righteous relief that many of us feel over its end become a get-out-of-judgment-free card for his successors. That was, in fact, one of the greatest dangers of Trump: an emphatic and enduring lowering of our standards and expectations.
The media coverage of Biden in terms of Afghanistan has been withering, and I agree that there’s some whiplash to that. I agree that we journalists tend toward unqualified verdicts and run in packs. I’m no media apologist. I refer you to the previous section of this newsletter.
But it’s imperative that Biden be measured by his promises, by his past assurances and by his potential, not by the flaccid and forgiving yardstick of Trump. Trump was four years in our history. If we want 40 more good ones, he can be no more the metric than the compass.
Thank heaven for Anthony Lane. I’ve been reading and loving him in The New Yorker for decades now, usually on the subject of movies. But this recent gem was about the Tokyo Olympics: “In the pool, the swimmers Caeleb Dressel, of the United States, and Emma McKeon, of Australia, won a dozen medals between them, thus proving that they are, to all intents and purposes, porpoises.” (Thanks to Russell Bershad of Hopewell Township, N.J., for nominating this.)
The whole article glittered, including his description of “Mondo Duplantis, a Swede with the demeanor of a Disney prince and the name of a tropical night club.” (Karen Gifford, Redding, Conn.)
Also in The New Yorker, Jill Lepore torched Facebook with the observation that “the more ethically dubious the business, the more grandiose and sanctimonious its mission statement.” (Robert Whalen, Marquette, Mich.)
A dreadful restaurant is a delightful opportunity for spirited prose, as Jay Rayner illustrated in his review in The Guardian of the Polo Lounge at the Dorchester Hotel in London: “The menu tells me they are delighted to bring ‘a taste of Tinseltown’ to London complete with ‘pink bougainvillea.’ And there it is, climbing the wall behind me. I touch it. The bougainvillea is plastic. So are the tables, the place mats and various of my fellow diners’ body parts. There’s anatomy on display tonight that hasn’t moved since 2010.” (Tom Richardson, Maplewood, N.J., and Rod Williams, Walnut Creek, Calif.)
I’m not a car person, so I didn’t know that car writing could have so much horsepower. But here’s a sample of what the reader who nominated it called the “gloriously overwritten” reviews by Dan Neil in The Wall Street Journal. It foreshadows an electric future for an iconic brand and revels in the petrol-powered present: “It’s strange to be contemplating Jaguars without the growl. No company ever fetishized the sounds of internal-combustion so completely. Our test car — equipped with a two-stage, active exhaust system and quad-exhaust outlets — was like an enchanted conch-shell of sentimental engine and exhaust notes.” (David Miller, Minneapolis)
Finally, my colleague Maureen Dowd outdid herself with last weekend’s column on Afghanistan, the final sentences of which were chilling: “We didn’t know 9/11 was coming, even though we should have. We didn’t know Jan. 6 was coming, even though we should have. We didn’t know the Potemkin government in Afghanistan that we’d propped up for two decades would fall in two seconds, even though we should have. What else don’t we know?” (Lee Jason Goldberg, Manhattan)
To nominate favorite bits of writing from The Times or other publications to be mentioned in “For the Love of Sentences,” please email me here, and please include your name and place of residence.
Alessandra Stanley, now editing Air Mail, communed with her television-critic past for a take on Afghanistan admittedly lighter in tone — but also much more original — than mine at the start of this newsletter. She forged a thematic connection between the botched American withdrawal and the limited HBO series “The White Lotus.” and gave it an inventive headline: “Kabul and Kaput.”
Thanks to the newsletter subscriber Lauren Green of Kingston, N.J., I now know about, and follow, the @DailyHemingway Twitter account, which tweets gems of Ernest Hemingway’s. For instance: “Never confuse movement with action.” And: “You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another.”
There’s a growing and striking body of journalism that suggests a profound change in how Americans are thinking about work. “The coronavirus threw everyone into Walden Pond,” asserted the subhead in this recent New Yorker article by Cal Newport. In a guest essay in the Times, Cassady Rosenblum declared that “work is a false idol.”
Not long after I moved to Chapel Hill, N.C., I got an email from Mark Overbay, one of the founders and owners of Big Spoon Roasters, a specialty nut butter business. He wanted to welcome me and Regan to town. He also wanted to make sure we knew about a local pet store brimming with distinctive toys and treats for Regan.
Its name, he informed me, is Phydeaux.
Take a few seconds with that. I had to.
Phydeaux. As in Fido, but with a slyer phonetic hand and grander alphabetical aspirations. I laughed, and then I groaned, and then I laugh-groaned and responded to Mark with an email that said, essentially, “Really?” Thus commenced an electronic conversation about businesses that get wildly creative — and sometimes carried away — when trying to coin inventive appellations.
Many decades ago, I noticed that hair salons excelled at that, and I compiled and toted a mental list, which the maxed-out hard drive of my brain eventually purged. But a quick web search after my conversation with Mark brought me to this post, a compendium of follicular fancy. Some of the, um, highlights from it:
I’ll Cut You
What could the web tell me about verbally ambitious nomenclature beyond the taming of tresses? I landed on this list, which includes:
A bakery named Bread Pitt
A bakery named Bread Zeppelin
A Middle Eastern restaurant and juice bar named Pita Pan
An Asian restaurant named Thai Tanic
A wine store named Planet of the Grapes
A tailor named Sew It Seams
A nail salon named Hand Job
A furniture store named Shack of Sit
Mark noted that haircutters have nothing on pet stores and pet stylists, whose business names include Petropolitan Dog Grooming, Groomingdale’s, Wags to Riches and Pretty Coat Junction (a reference, for those of you too young to remember, to an old television comedy called “Petticoat Junction”).
All of those made me chuckle, but none as much as Mark’s mention of a local food truck that sells souped-up hot dogs in a crisp cradle that’s an upgrade from the usual bun.
It’s called Baguetteaboutit.
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