Democrats’ Dangerous Appetite for Eating Their Own

The other day, something extraordinary happened. I went six hours — maybe even seven — without seeing anything on the internet about what a disaster Kamala Harris is.

I must have been haunting the wrong sites. I’d clearly failed to check in with Twitter. Whatever the reason, I had a reprieve from Democratic carping about Democratic crises that reflected Democratic disunity and brimmed with Democratic doomsaying. Being briefly starved of it made me even more aware of the usual buffet — and of Democrats’ insatiable hunger for devouring their own.

To follow Harris’s media coverage, made possible by the keening and wailing of her Democratic colleagues and Democratic analysts, she’s not merely mismanaging an apparently restless, frustrated staff. She’s bursting into flames and incinerating everything in her midst, including Democrats’ hopes of holding on to the White House in 2024.

The chatter around Joe Biden is hardly cheerier. Riveted by low approval ratings for him that they’ve helped to create, Democrats in government murmur to Democrats in the media that he’s in dire political straits — which is partly true, thanks in some measure to all those fellow Democrats. As Jonathan Chait wrote recently in a cover story for New York magazine, Biden is trapped “between a well-funded left wing that has poisoned the party’s image with many of its former supporters and centrists unable to conceive of their job in any terms save as valets for the business elite.”

“Biden’s party has not veered too far left or too far right so much as it has simply come apart,” Chait added. And it has done so noisily, its internal discontents as public as can be.

These intraparty recriminations aren’t unusual in and of themselves: Democrats have never possessed Republicans’ talent for unity. But the intensity of the anger and angst are striking, especially given the stakes. A Republican takeover of Congress in 2022 and of the presidency two years later would endanger more than the social safety net. It would imperil democracy itself.

“Democrats, big and small D, are not behaving as if they believe the threat is real,” Barton Gellman wrote for The Atlantic this month. “Some of them, including President Joe Biden, have taken passing rhetorical notice, but their attention wanders. They are making a grievous mistake.”

Gellman’s article, titled “Trump’s Next Coup Has Already Begun,” had an apocalyptic tone, matched by an accompanying note by the magazine’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg. He wrote that while he prefers to avoid “partisan entanglement,” he and the rest of us must confront the truth: “The leaders of the Republican Party — the soul-blighted Donald Trump and the satraps and lackeys who abet his nefarious behavior — are attempting to destroy the foundations of American democracy. This must be stated clearly, and repeatedly.”

Chait put it this way: “It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that the fate of American democracy may hinge on President Joe Biden’s success.”

But the media is drawn to, and amplifies, Biden’s failures. The Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank recently collaborated with the data analytics unit of the information company FiscalNote to measure journalists’ treatment of Biden versus Trump, and he concluded that “Biden’s press for the past four months has been as bad as — and for a time worse than — the coverage Trump received for the same four months of 2020.”

“My colleagues in the media are serving as accessories to the murder of democracy,” he wrote, later adding: “The country is in an existential struggle between self-governance and an authoritarian alternative. And we in the news media, collectively, have given equal, if not slightly more favorable, treatment to the authoritarians.”

That news media includes more Democrats than Republicans. And its naysaying depends on the irascibility and volubility of Democratic officials complaining about other Democratic officials. Democrats don’t need Pelotons: They’ve turned finger pointing into an aerobic workout.

Such self-examination and self-criticism are healthy to a point. And Democratic pessimism isn’t unfounded: Polls show real frustration and impatience among Americans, who reliably pin the blame on whoever is in charge. Additionally, the party’s loss in the Virginia governor’s race — and the implications of that — can’t be ignored.

But neither can the potential consequences of some Democratic politicians’ refusals to compromise and come together. None of the ideological rifts within the party matter as much as what the current crop of Trump-coddling Republicans might do if given the chance.

So enough about Biden’s age, about Harris’s unpopularity, about the impossibility of figuring out precisely the right note of Omicron caution, about lions and tigers and bears, oh my! It’s scary out there, sure. But it’ll be scarier still if Democrats can’t successfully project cooperation, confidence and hope.

For the Love of Sentences

Pismo Beach, Calif., in 1951.Credit…Los Angeles Examiner/USC Libraries/Corbis via Getty Images

You’re going to giggle or groan at this line by Justin Ray, in The Los Angeles Times, about the disappearance of bivalves from a California beach: “The clam community’s crash created a calamity.” (Thanks to Roy Oldenkamp of West Hollywood, Calif., for spotting and nominating this.)

Same goes for this headline on an article in The Bulwark about a certain physician’s recently announced Senate bid: “Dr. Oz Quacks the Code of Republican Politics.” (Steve Read, Nice, France)

Here’s Derek Thompson in The Atlantic on the devolution of Congress: “From 1917 to 1970, the Senate took 49 votes to break filibusters, or less than one per year. Since 2010, it has had an average of 80 such votes annually. The Senate was once known as the ‘cooling saucer of democracy,’ where populist notions went to chill out a bit. Now it’s the icebox of democracy, where legislation dies of hypothermia.” (Weigang Qiu, Queens, N.Y.) Derek’s entire article is insightful, thought-provoking and very much worth reading.

Here’s Michael J. Lewis in The Wall Street Journal on some of the more untraditional proposals for restoring the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, damaged from that 2019 fire: “Is that lovely victim, saved in the nick of time and made whole again, now to be whisked, still groggy, straight from the hospital into the tattoo parlor of contemporary art?” (Jim Lader, Bronxville, N.Y., and Kathleen Hopkins, Oak Park, Ill.)

In a characteristically tongue-in-cheek commentary in The Washington Post, Alexandra Petri advocated the banning of all books: “They make you cry, show you despair in a handful of dust, counterfeit life in strange ways and cheat you with shadows.” (Irma Wolfson, Irvine, Calif.) I was equally fond of these additional snippets: “Books follow you home and pry open your head and rearrange the things inside.” They “replace your answers with questions or questions with answers.” “They make strange things familiar to you and familiar things strange again.”

Moving on to standouts from The Times: Reggie Ugwu profiled Ron Cephas Jones, noting that he’s “the kind of actor who works like chipotle mayo — you don’t always think to look for him, but you’re happy when he shows up.” (Peggy Sweeney, Sarasota, Fla.)

Following his return to an area of Alaska that he hadn’t visited in more than 35 years, Jon Waterman contemplated climate change and caribou: “We didn’t see many, but we knew they were out there, somewhere, cantering in synchronized, thousandfold troupes, inches apart yet never jostling one another, their leg tendons a veritable orchestra of clicking castanets, their hooves clattering on stones.” (Harriet Odlum, Bloomfield, Conn., and Robert Lakatos, Glenmoore, Pa.)

Credit…Adam Friedlander for The New York Times

In Bret Stephens’s weekly online conversation with Gail Collins, he noted: “The supply-chain situation has gotten so out of hand that there’s even a cream-cheese shortage at New York City bagel shops, which is like one of the 10 biblical plagues as reimagined by Mel Brooks.” (Susan Gregory, Bala Cynwyd, Pa., and Deborah Paulus-Jagric, Landvetter, Sweden, among others)

In a review of the Mel Brooks memoir “All About Me!,” Alexandra Jacobs trots out the technical term for fear of heights to fashion this gem: “Brooks himself reads as the opposite of acrophobic: scaling the icy pinnacles of Hollywood without anything more than a pang of self-doubt, using humor as his alpenstock.” (Jennifer Finney Boylan, Rome, Maine)

And in a preview of the new limited series on HBO Max “And Just Like That,” which continues and updates “Sex and the City,” Alexis Soloski noted how little about its plot was revealed or known in advance: “Eager fans have analyzed that 30-second teaser clip with the exegetical rigor typically reserved for ancient hieroglyphs.” (Allan Tarlow, West Hollywood, Calif.)

To nominate favorite bits of recent 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.

Bonus Regan Picture!

Credit…Mike Valerio

Many of you chide me if I go two weeks or more without publishing an image of my furry companion. I love you for that. So here she is, during our walk on Sunday morning. We covered five miles, mostly in the woods, which we had to ourselves, because we headed out early and the weather was cold. She looked for deer and settled for squirrels, sprinting madly toward many of those she spotted. Much about dogs fascinates me but nothing more than their mix of tameness and wildness — of gentleness and ferocity — and the suddenness with which they shift between the two. One minute, a hugger. The next, a huntress. Regal all the while.

What I’m Reading (and Watching, and Listening To)

The director Jane Campion, right, on the set of “The Power of the Dog.”Credit…Kirsty Griffin/Netflix
  • People are often more complicated than you imagine. So is life. Both of those truisms animate Bill Adair’s engrossing, moving account, in Air Mail, of Stephen Glass’s journey after he was exposed as one of contemporary journalism’s most prolific and audacious fabulists. Glass went on to tell another big lie. But you may find yourself cheering him for it.

  • Moral complexity: It’s present in the elegant, addictive novels of Amor Towles, and I’m currently listening to, and relishing, his latest, “The Lincoln Highway.” The Times’s adoring review of it is precisely right.

  • A friend and I have argued fiercely over the director Jane Campion’s latest film, “The Power of the Dog,” which is streaming on Netflix. He thinks that it’s genius. I think that it’s overrated — and that, like some of Campion’s other work, it plods at times, more cerebral than visceral, a bid for your admiration rather than your involvement. But the intensity of our back-and-forth means that there’s plenty in “Dog” to chew on. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) I’m glad I watched it.

On a Personal Note

I’m sick of the sound of my own voice.

I know, I know: Writing those words is like wearing a “kick me” sign. The obvious rejoinder is that you’re sick of my voice, too. But you’d mean my musings, my opinions, and I mean the actual sound of my audible voice. I mean that I’ve been in a recording studio for much of this week, talking and talking and talking into a microphone.

My next book is done — more on that below — and for the audio format, the publishers asked me to be the one to read it aloud. That made abundant sense: The book is largely about my own experiences, with long stretches in the first person. But, still, I was hoping they’d recruit someone else.

That’s because I’ve done this twice previously, for earlier books, and it’s no cakewalk. (Or should that be caketalk?) You have to go slowly and enunciate clearly, and if you bobble a word, you redo much of the sentence or even paragraph. Forward, backward, forward, backward. You’re a Sisyphus of syllables.

For my memoir “Born Round,” I was in a studio in Manhattan devoted to audiobooks. I noticed a basket of muffins and bagels right outside the airless, soundproof booth in which the reader sits. “How hospitable!” I thought.

No. How strategic. Many readers, like me, have skipped breakfast and may be planning, for efficiency’s sake, to skip lunch. Their stomachs growl. Mine did. And the microphone picked it up. The solution was a chunk of sound-muffling starch.

The studio’s technicians told me that some of the actors hired to record novels refuse those calories. So blankets are wrapped around their tiny waists, to silence hunger’s roar.

The studio I’ve been using this week is here in Chapel Hill, N.C., just a 15-minute drive from my house. I’ve eaten a light breakfast each morning; my stomach has behaved. And so the audio should be ready for release, along with hardcover and digital versions, on March 1.

The book, “The Beauty of Dusk: On Vision Lost and Found,” is about my brush with the prospect of blindness and how that changed the way I look at setbacks and limits and aging. And I mention it in part as a segue into an update on my eyes, which many of you kindly and regularly ask about.

My right eye will forever be useless for reading, computer work and the like, but my left eye hangs in there, undiminished. The nature of what happened to me, a kind of stroke of the optic nerve, is such that if my left eye does fail me, it is likely to do so in an instant. There’s perhaps a 20 percent chance of that.

So I’ll be good until I’m not. But even then, I’ll manage. That’s what I’ve come to see. That’s what the book is really about: acceptance, resilience, optimism. It describes the honing of those qualities. It’s also the fruit of them.

It’s alchemy — trepidation into determination — or at least intends to be. And the opportunity to tell my story is a privilege, as is the invitation to perform it, no matter how Sisyphean. I shush my stomach. I clear my throat. I raise my voice. I even make peace with it.

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