By Frank Bruni
Mr. Bruni is a contributing Opinion writer who was on the staff of The Times for more than 25 years.
If you travel in predominantly Democratic circles and want to have a really trying day, write or publicly say something unflattering but true about President Biden, a lament legible or audible beyond people who can be safely depended on to vote for him. Then brace for the furies.
Observe that it’s one thing — a noble, beautiful thing — for him to give steadfast support and unconditional love to his profoundly troubled son, but that it’s another for that son to attend a state dinner days after he had cut a deal with federal prosecutors on tax and gun charges. Many of your liberal acquaintances will shush and shame you: Speak no ill of Joe Biden! That’s an unaffordable luxury. You’re playing into his MAGA adversaries’ hands.
Note that Biden seems less physically peppy and verbally precise than in years past and suggest that it might be best, for him and for continued Democratic control of the White House, if he let Democrats choose a different 2024 nominee. You’ll be likened to an anchor for Fox News. You’ll be chided for age discrimination. Never mind that you’re examining his behavior, not the year on his birth certificate. You’re being counterproductive.
You’ll be asked: What do Hunter Biden and diminished vim matter next to the menace of Donald Trump and a Republican Party in his lawless, nihilistic thrall? That’s a fair question — to a point. But past that point, it’s dishonest and dangerous.
Dishonest because it’s often leveled at critics of Biden who have lavished, oh, 100 times as many words on Trump’s epic moral corruption as on Biden’s blind spots and missteps, creating zero impression of any equivalence.
Dangerous because it suggests that Americans can’t be trusted to behold politicians in their full complexity — and reality in all its messiness — and distinguish unideal from unconscionable, scattered flaws from through-and-through fraudulence. I don’t see how that’s consonant with the exaltation and preservation of democracy, in which it exhibits scant trust.
It also plays into the portrait of Democrats as elitists who decide what people should and shouldn’t be exposed to — what they can and can’t handle. How’s that a winning look?
I believe that a victory by Trump in 2024 would be devastating beyond measure for the United States. I believe that a victory by any Republican who has indulged, parroted or promoted Trump’s fictions and assaults on democratic norms would also be a disaster. His abettors have shown their colors and disqualified themselves. And I’ve said that — and will continue to say that — repeatedly.
I also believe that Biden has been a good president at a very difficult time, and that even if he’s not near peak vigor, we’d be much, much better served by the renewal of his White House lease than by a new tenant in the form of Trump or one of his de facto accomplices. Biden’s second term, like his first, would be about more than the man himself. It would be about a whole team, a set of principles, a fundamental decency, a thread of continuity, an investment in important institutions.
And I believe that there’s more than ample room in all the above to talk about whether Biden is the strongest of the possible Democratic contenders to take on Trump, Ron DeSantis or whomever — although that particular conversation may soon be moot, given the ever-shrinking amount of time for those contenders to put together campaigns and for Democratic voters to assess them.
Likewise, it’s possible — no, necessary — to have nuanced conversations about Biden’s and his administration’s mix of virtues and vices. If a big part of the horror of Trump is his estrangement from and perversion of truth, how is the proper or even strategic response to gild or cloak truth and declare it subservient to a desired political end?
The intensity of many House Republicans’ fixation on Hunter Biden is deranged, and journalists would be wrong to chronicle every breathless inch of their descent down that rabbit hole. But we’d also be wrong to ignore Hunter Biden entirely, and Democratic partisans who urge that aren’t being realistic and are doing as much to feed suspicions as to quell them.
As Peter Baker wrote in The Times last month, “In modern times, the harsh spotlight of media scrutiny has focused on Donald Nixon’s financial dealings with Howard Hughes, Billy Carter’s work as an agent for Libya, Neil Bush’s service on the board of a failed savings and loan, Roger Clinton’s drug convictions and of course the various financial and security clearance issues involving Mr. Trump’s children and son-in-law.”
Baker later added: “Even some of the president’s Democratic allies have privately said there were legitimate questions about Hunter Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine and China that seemed to trade on his name.”
This is a strange, scary time. The leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination is an indicted, twice-impeached former president who cares only for his own eminence and survival and doesn’t let a shred of civic concern, genuine patriotism or recognizable scruple dilute his solipsism. He could well take up residence in the White House again.
So the temptation, given the stakes, is to bathe whichever Democrat stands in the way of that in a beatific light, to sing that person’s praises as loudly and unflaggingly as vocal cords permit. That feels like the prudent response. It feels like the ethical one.
It’s neither, certainly not for those of us in the news media. It would put us in the business of creating outcomes, not chronicling events, which would be obvious to voters on top of being wrong. It would further erode our credibility, which has suffered plenty of erosion already. It would betray the fundamental purpose and real power of journalism.
We do best as a profession — and all of us do best as a democracy and a society — when we hold everyone accountable, regardless of the special circumstances, and when we’re honest across the board. To act otherwise is to send the message that all is gamesmanship and that integrity is for suckers. That’s probably not how we defeat Trump. It’s more likely how he defeats us, long before and long after whatever happens in November 2024.
For the Love of Sentences
In recognition of a time of year with much volitional long-haul air travel, David Mack mulled matters baggage-related in The Times: “I’m terrible at packing. Laughably terrible. Concerningly so. On a recent trip to Las Vegas with my boyfriend (I’m gay) and both our mothers (again, we are extremely gay) to see Adele (you get the idea), we both packed so much that you’d be forgiven for thinking we were moving there.” (Thanks to Conrad Macina of Landing, N.J., and Jean Dunn of Southbury, Conn., for spotlighting this.)
Also in The Times, Jane Margolies described a growing trend of corporate office buildings trimmed with greenery that requires less maintenance: “As manicured lawns give way to meadows and borders of annuals are replaced by wild and woolly native plants, a looser, some might say messier, aesthetic is taking hold. Call it the horticultural equivalent of bedhead.” (Sally Hinson, Greer, S.C.)
And Michael Kimmelman bemoaned the Sisyphean efforts to make Penn Station in Manhattan bearable: “The only thing everyone seems to know for certain is that nothing meaningful ever really happens to improve North America’s busiest and most miserable train hub, despite decades of demands and promises. Hope has long gone to die on the 6:50 to Secaucus.” (Guy Heston, Las Vegas, and David Ballard, Asbury Park, N.J.)
In The Globe and Mail of Toronto, Cathal Kelly pondered the cantankerous trajectory of the tennis star Andy Murray: “In his dotage, Murray has become the guy who’s visibly counting what you’ve put down in the ‘eight items or less’ checkout line.” (Hamish Cameron, Toronto)
In The Guardian, Stuart Heritage reflected on the end of the Sussexes’ deal with Spotify, for which Meghan Markle hosted “Archetypes,” a short-lived, inspiration-minded podcast on which she interviewed other prominent women: “As an entity, Harry and Meghan are only interesting for as long as they can destabilize the monarchy. Their Oprah interview did that. Their documentary did that. Harry’s book ‘Spare’ did that. ‘Archetypes’ did not do that, and as such was roughly as interesting as listening to changing-room chatter in the world’s most insufferable yoga studio.” (John Donaldson, Carlsbad, Calif.)
In The Boston Globe, Scot Lehigh pondered a popular current riddle: “DeSantis must have some political skills. Saddled with qualities that evolution traditionally rewards in porcupines but not politicians, he has still managed to succeed on a state level.” (Kathie Lynch Nutting, Mashpee, Mass.)
In The New Yorker, Julian Lucas profiled the trailblazing and visionary science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany, now 81: “With long white hair, heavy brows and a chest-length beard that begins halfway up his lightly melanated cheeks, Delany has the appearance of an Eastern Orthodox monk who left his cloister for a biker gang.” (Max Sinclair, DeKalb, Ill.)
And in a letter to the editor in The Washington Post, a reader named Michael D. Schattman poked fun at the oddities of a now-famous plaintiff: “A fair reading of the Supreme Court’s opinion in 303 Creative v. Elenis is that the Colorado anti-discrimination law is in fact constitutional, except when applied to a business that does not wish to provide a product it does not offer to a nonexistent gay couple who are not seeking a website for an imaginary wedding of which the business owner does not approve.” (Lee Hudson, Gilboa, N.Y.)
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 include your name and place of residence.
On a Personal Note
Not all seasons are created equal. If you live in a place with a real autumn — with that football-weather nip in the air, those leaves going out in a blaze of glory — you know that it has no match. And if you live in a place with a real spring — with that sudden return of birdsong, those pink and red and purple blossoms — you know that it comes a close second.
But how to rank summer and winter? Most of the people I know put winter last, and many of them misguidedly vault summer all the way to the top. For me, summer’s the bottom, and T.S. Eliot’s take on the calendar was all wrong. August is the cruelest month, barely edging out July.
In the great outdoors, it’s harder to get cool in the summer than warm in the winter, when layers do the trick. And it’s getting harder all the time. Earth experienced what scientists said was probably its hottest day in modern history a week ago Monday. Then it beat that — twice — in the days just after that.
The languid summer air is a soporific. And summer comes wrapped in the oppressive insistence that it’s the season of liberation, of abandon, of fun: no school, less clothing, vacations, the beach, the beach, the infernal beach. Summer is like New Year’s Eve that way. It’s decreed revelry. I like my revelry spontaneous, serendipitous and in soft, long-sleeved, flab-concealing flannel shirts.
I like seasons with fewer ticks, fewer mosquitoes, less sunburn. Summer is hazardous. I’m surprised it doesn’t make everyone sign some sort of waiver.
Perhaps you disagree? I hope you disagree. Because if you do, I invite you to send me, at this address, anywhere from one to four sentences arguing summer’s case. If I get enough deft, spirited responses, persuasive in their humor or eloquence, I’ll compile and share some of them in a newsletter between now and the end of this over-baked stretch of the calendar.
Meantime? Apply your sunscreen. Trim your toenails (all those damned sandals and flip-flops). HAVE FUN! Summer will tolerate nothing less.
Frank Bruni is a professor of journalism and public policy at Duke University, the author of the book “The Beauty of Dusk” and a contributing Opinion writer. He writes a weekly email newsletter. Instagram • @FrankBruni • Facebook
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