I did not and will not crack open the cover of Stephanie Grisham’s White House memoir, but yesterday I read sneak peeks and synopses of it, and there was a moment — a horrifying moment — when I warmed to her. It was when I learned that Grisham, the White House press secretary from July 2019 to April 2020, used the book to characterize Jared Kushner as “Rasputin in a slim-fitting suit.”
I wish that I’d come up with that line, back when I was regularly writing about Kushner and the whole miserable lot of them.
I wish that Grisham had possessed the courage to call out Kushner in real time, when it mattered much more.
But no. She was too busy savoring her perks, relishing her access, enjoying the roller coaster ride. She was in crowded company that way, and the size and tenacity of that crowd are what has always bothered me more than the reckless actions and rancid character of the president — I’ll spare you his name — whom that crowd was serving. After all, the world is full of bad apples, some of whom are bound to wind up at the summit of government, their ascent in fact served by their wormy foulness. I’ve always been aware of that.
But I sometimes forget that a whole wretched orchard can take shape, one on the scale of the administration in which Grisham worked. And that’s the more disturbing part, because it shows how very widespread human rottenness can be.
I’m deliberately omitting the title of Grisham’s book. I refuse to plug it, and no matter how keen your curiosity, you should refuse to buy it. Her (profitable) candor now is inadequate atonement for her complicity then. It shouldn’t be rewarded. Besides, the book is as superfluous as it is self-serving: Anyone who has been paying any attention to the news and to the veritable library of tell-alls so far has more than enough evidence of how unhinged the 45th president of the United States could be and how much of a danger he posed — and still poses — to our democracy. You can responsibly turn a blind eye and deaf ear to what Grisham has to say.
But not to what Grisham represents, which is how deep people will bury their consciences when it plumps up their egos, professional statures, bank accounts. When it’s exciting. When it’s high-wire. She saw how shallow her boss was, but she continued to serve him. She saw how tempestuous, and just kept forging ahead. She saw how indulgent of Vladimir Putin he could be, and she found a way not to care.
She saw, in other words, what scores of other sycophants did — hundreds if we count craven Republican lawmakers inside and outside the Beltway — and did what they did: calculated that it was to her immediate benefit to look away. As I said, I haven’t read the book; maybe she offers some rationale, as many of those other enablers do, and claims that a few of the president’s priorities were absolutely vital to the nation or that he was holding back some socialist tide.
Please. The offense of that president’s conduct and the peril he posed trumped all else. And, no, the verb in that last sentence doesn’t count as a violation of my name-avoidance pledge. It deserves to be redeemed, even if Grisham doesn’t.
At the same time that snippets of her book were leaking out, Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was testifying before Congress and answering questions about his behind-the-scenes efforts to contain the commander in chief — to head him off at the pass, essentially. The revelation of those efforts has driven the likes of Tucker Carlson to derangement, which is reason enough to applaud them.
Milley embodies the alternative to Grisham: someone who, though nominated by that president, realized that loyalty to him must have its limits and that those limits had been reached. Someone who factors the national interest into the equation. A patriot.
I mean to be neither naïve nor simplistic. Too many government officials too frequently picking when to support a president and when not to creates the possibility of chaos. But there are also extraordinary circumstances.
And I’m not painting Milley as a hero through and through. He has matters — Afghanistan, for example — to explain. And his leaking to journalists about his babysitting of the president probably had a measure of vanity in it. He wanted credit.
But that babysitting couldn’t have been comfortable or easy, and he did what needed to be done in real time. He didn’t merely bide his time, like Grisham, who’s rebelling only now that it’s convenient. “Rasputin” — that’s funny at first blush, but outrageous and sad at second, because what she’s describing is the amorality she enabled.
Words Worth Scrutiny
Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary provides three definitions of the noun “maiden,” and the second and third are revelations to me. Apparently, “maiden” can refer to “a former Scottish beheading device resembling the guillotine.” It can also mean “a horse that has never won a race.”
The first definition is the one I more or less expected: “an unmarried girl or woman.” Actually, that pegs “maiden” as a more straightforward, neutral term — merely a signifier of marital state — than I consider it to be. For me and, I know, for many others, it has an old-fashioned, damsel-in-distress, eight-maids-a-milking ring. It’s out of date, out of touch and arguably insulting.
So why is the phrase “maiden name” so persistent and prevalent? Margaret Marks of Greenville, S.C., posed that question in an email to me, saying, “I keep trying to come up with a male equivalent to suggest male virginity before marriage, to no avail.”
That complaint and question have been kicking around a good long while. Salon published a thoughtful reflection on the subject by Kate Tuttle more than six years ago — and that was hardly the start of it. Tuttle framed her essay as “a modest proposal to retire the descriptor.”
That proposal was not accepted.
The Times, for example, still routinely uses “maiden name.” I found “maiden name” in The Washington Post and in PolitiFact in the past few weeks, too. It’s ubiquitous, and maybe that’s the rationale for it: It’s so familiar, so automatic, that it’s devoid of any particular connotation and merely the handiest, most quickly understood way to communicate what’s being communicated. By this logic, people don’t really see and hear “maidenname.” They see and hear “unmarried name.”
So then why not use the latter phrase? Or “former name”? Or “birth name”? Or one of many alternatives that have been floated time and again?
I ask this, mind you, as someone who believes that we can often be oversensitive these days, divining slights where they don’t genuinely exist, and as someone who believes that while language can often mean everything, it can sometimes mean very little. It can be the unconsidered product of habit. It can be more reflexive than reflective.
But I’ve long been struck by disparities in language used for women versus for men.
More than nine years ago, in a column with the headline “One-Way Wantonness,” I wrote:
That came back to me when I read Marks’s email. She’s right: There’s no modern male analogue for “maiden,” and that’s reason enough to look askance at “maiden name.”
“Words Worth Scrutiny” is a recurring feature. To suggest a term or phrase, please email me here, and please include your name and place of residence. You can also email me at that address with nominations for “For the Love of Sentences,” which will return next week.
More Mercantile Mischief
Scores of you have sent me emails that flag artful, whimsical and just plain eccentric business names that currently exist or once existed. As promised, I’ll occasionally share some of those.
This week’s winners:
Dozens of you have also sent in business names that, in a world even more playful and imaginative than ours, would exist. Those include:
On a Personal Note
I thought Regan and I had just about seen it all.
Without proper maps, we’d figured out which trail in the woods skirting our Chapel Hill, N.C., neighborhood led to Lake Hogan; which trail petered out at a cul-de-sac even prettier than the one that our house faces; which trail dumped us into a nearby school’s parking lot; which trail connected us, with a few disorienting jags, to the Carolina North Forest. We’d demonstrated considerable enterprise and outsize adventurousness since our arrival in mid-July. And, yes, we’d done the requisite tick checks along the way.
But one recent night, as I boasted to neighbors that I’d probably met all of the area’s deer and Regan had barked at no small fraction of them, I was asked if I’d explored the trails hidden beyond the end of a street about a mile northeast of us. I hadn’t. This was the first I’d heard of them.
You can guess where Regan and I headed the next day.
What we found at first confused me. Was this mere thread of partially uncovered earth the promised pathway or just a fluke of how the trees had grown and the leaves had blown? We kept walking, and about 500 feet farther into the forest, we encountered a broad dirt trail that was clearly no accident. Bingo.
But where did it go? I hadn’t grilled my neighbor properly on that. Did it loop in a fashion that would keep Regan and me reasonably near the point of origin? Or would we wind up in Virginia if we forged forward long enough?
I didn’t know.
How I love not knowing.
By that, I mean I love this stage of a relationship: when there are still secrets in store, epiphanies around every bend, the nerve-prickling suspicion that you have no idea where you’re headed, the pulse-slowing realization that you’re fundamentally on track. I’m talking about my relationship with a new place, but I could, of course, be talking about a relationship with a new person or new job. I could be talking about any significant crossroads, any major change.
Such change has phases. I relish that. The highs and lows of discovery segue into the pleasure-stabilizing virtues of familiarity, which allows you to edit your experiences for maximum efficiency and peak payoff. Then comes intimacy, with its signature rewards: You settle, in the most relaxing sense, into a groove, and if you’re good at sprinkling small surprises into the equation, that groove never becomes a rut.
Each phase is different. Every phase is good. But this phase I’m in now, the one en route to familiarity and intimacy, may be my favorite.
Regan and I took that dirt trail. Then we forked onto one of its slender, scruffy tributaries, then took an offshoot of that. It curved in directions I hadn’t expected. We walked for five minutes, for 10, for 15. The trees pressed ever closer together, blotting out more and more sunlight. A chill ran through me. I wasn’t sure which way to turn.
Regan was. Maybe she sensed my bafflement, maybe she was just tired of walking, but she reversed course, looked over her shoulder to make sure I was following and perfectly retraced our steps. We came out of the woods exactly where we’d gone into them.
But for a while there, for a brief and electric while, I’d been lost.
Months from now, I’m going to be miss being lost.
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