Santos is embedded in popular culture. He’s the subject of satire and SNL cold openings and TV monologues. And while he may protest the characterizations, he does so with the grand, self-aware gesture of a man who’s settling into his infamy. He’s laying claim to his shame.
Santos is the man in the crewneck sweater and the sport jacket: entitled, privileged. He’s a man for this age, one in which facts are fungible, the truth is opaque and mediocrity can take a person far. Santos is everything. And he is nothing at all.
WASHINGTON — It’s not a pretty sight when pols lose power. They wilt, they crumple, they cling to the vestiges, they mourn their vanished entourage and perks. How can their day in the sun be over? One minute they’re running the world and the next, they’re in the room where it doesn’t happen.
Donald Trump was so freaked out at losing power that he was willing to destroy the country to keep it.
I went to lunch with Nancy Pelosi at the Four Seasons to find out how she was faring, now that she has gone from being one of the most powerful women in the world — second in line to the presidency — and one of the most formidable speakers in American history to a mere House backbencher.
I was expecting King Lear, howling at the storm, but I found Gene Kelly, singing in the rain. Pelosi was not crying in her soup. She was basking as she scarfed down French fries, a truffle-butter roll and chocolate-covered macadamia nuts — all before the main course. She was literally in the pink, ablaze in a hot-pink pantsuit and matching Jimmy Choo stilettos, shooting the breeze about Broadway, music and sports. Showing off her four-inch heels, the 82-year-old said, “I highly recommend suede because it’s like a bedroom slipper.”
The party is struggling to become something new. It has to find a way to restore its peace and poise.
Two stories. I suppose they have to do with navigating one’s professional life, though they could apply personally too. One stayed with me for decades, the other is recent; either might be helpful to a reader as the new year begins.
The first is about David Letterman. In 1992 he was famously passed over to succeed Johnny Carson as host of “The Tonight Show” in favor of Jay Leno. Months passed, Mr. Leno’s ratings wobbled, NBC offered Mr. Letterman a second chance. And even though he was now fielding better offers from other networks and syndicators, he still had to have Carson—it was his dream from childhood to succeed that brilliant performer, have that show. He couldn’t give it up.
His advisers, in the crunch, told him a truth that is said to have released him from his idée fixe. There is no Johnny Carson show anymore, they said, it’s gone. It’s the Jay Leno show now, and you never wanted to inherit that.
Soon after, Mr. Letterman accepted the CBS show where he finally became what he wanted to be, No. 1 in late nigh
Sometimes you have to realize a dream is a fixation, its object no longer achievable because it doesn’t exist.
The other story involves Norman Lear, who produced many of the greatest television comedies of the latter half of the 20th century, the television century. At a recent 100th birthday party, he shared wisdom with friends. He said there are two words we don’t honor enough. One is “over” and the other is “next.” There’s a kind of hammock between the two and it is right now, this moment we’re sharing. He was saying: Be present. But as he talked, I heard embedded within his words a layer of advice: That it’s actually a key skill to be able to see when something’s over, when it’s the past, not the future; that you have to have eyes that can find the next area of constructiveness, which may take time; and in the time between, the hammock, you must maintain your peace and poise.
So—here we sigh—I’ve been thinking of this because of what happened in the House this week. It was a bit of a disaster, bad for America (they’ve lost their gift for self-government) and its conservative party (they don’t even know who they are anymore). Some of the spectacle connects in my mind to the fact that Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy had a longtime idea that he must be speaker, and would do anything for it, and left his colleagues thinking eh, he just wants to be speaker—he’s two-faced, believes in little, blows with the wind. So they enjoyed torturing him. And in the end he made the kind of concessions that make a speakership hardly worth having. (A single member can force a vote to remove him?)
If you cede the power of the job to get the job, the job has no point. The job itself is diminished.
As this is written, the balloting will continue into a fourth day. I guess Mr. McCarthy’s strategy is simply to wear his foes down. However it ends, a better path would have been for him to protect the speakership, and himself, by saying: I can’t be speaker under the conditions you ask, because that office can’t function with much of its authority sacrificed. So I will take myself out of the race. With so much tension and division I must be part of the cause, anyway, so I’ll remove myself from the drama and help you resolve it.
How modest this would be. The chaos that would follow could hardly be worse than the chaos we’ve seen. And if no new leader emerged, they might come back begging: Please, get back in! But to play that cool game you’ve gotta be a cool cat. Instead we’re in classic when-you-want-it-bad-you-get-it-bad territory.
It must be said of his foes that a lot of them, maybe all, have never been part of a functioning institution. Congress hasn’t worked as a governing body in a long time. Many of their frustrations are justified.
Beyond that this is the old House Freedom Caucus reasserting itself. They are Trumpian but preceded Donald Trump, and showed this Wednesday when he publicly called on them to back off and support Mr. McCarthy. None did; they picked up a vote. They aren’t afraid of Mr. Trump anymore, which means they know their voters won’t punish them for defying him.
The problem with the Freedom Caucus people is and always has been that they do not have the numbers to win, to dominate. America, a big, broad place, doesn’t like them. They represent a tendency within the party in which they are seceding from “the establishment,” “the swamp.” They think throwing snares and making Congress ungovernable is progress. It isn’t progress but nihilism, and it is connected to the endless loop of performance art that has taken over our politics. Once, you had to be a legislator and pass bills. Now you just have to play a legislator on media. You do TV hits, enact indignation, show you’re the kind of tough person who gets things done. You don’t have to do anything. If that is your business model—and these people are in business, and fundraising off this week’s spectacle—it isn’t bad for you if Republican leadership flounders (they’re squishes anyway) or the Democrats take over (you get to be the fiery opposition.) They tell themselves they are speaking truth to power, but real conservatism involves an ability to see and respect reality and to move constructively within it, nudging it in desirable directions.
Many of them are stupid and highly emotional, especially the men. Most have no historical depth. If they have little respect for institutions, it’s because they have no idea how institutions help us live as a nation, and they’ve never helped build one.
They aren’t serious and don’t have a plan, only an attitude and a talking point. They present themselves as freedom fighters, but that isn’t what they are. I would actually like Rep. Lauren Boebert if just once she would identify herself during roll call as the member from Late Weimar. Or Rep. Matt Gaetz insisted his name be recorded as The Devil’s Flying Monkey.
This fight has been going on since 2015, that epochal year when Mr. Trump rode down the elevator and, three months later, John Boehner stepped down as speaker, his leadership made impossible by the Freedom Caucus.
Someone is going to have to win this fight.
A hard-core group of 20 have so far stopped Mr. McCarthy, but 10 times that number supported him, including moderates, centrists, old- and new-style conservatives. The 200 have to find a way to re-establish their power and face down the fringe. They are being pushed around by a small minority, which once again is being painted as the face of the party, and the 200 need to push back, with or without Mr. McCarthy.
Flood the airwaves, take to the floor, go for broke. For eight years you’ve tried to humor and mollify. It hasn’t worked. Show America what normal, serious Republicans look like. It’s your party too. Normies, arise.
2022 has ushered in enormous economic and geopolitical uncertainty. The world is confronting ravaging inflation, an energy crisis, high interest rates and a possible recession. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sent international tensions sky-high. And yet, when you sit back and examine it carefully, the country that looks most capable of navigating these murky waters is the United States of America.
As an essay in the Harvard Business Review puts it, “The current reality of the U.S. economy is that highly profitable firms are employing a record number of workers and paying them rising wages.” This is causing some problems as the Federal Reserve tries to slow the economy down, but those strengths are surely of long-term benefit. Americans’ personal savings have never been higher thanks to government covid-19 relief programs. American banks are stable — and dominate the world — thanks to the reforms implemented after the 2008 financial crisis. The United States has abundant energy of all kinds, old and new. And, thanks to the dollar, the U.S. government can run up debts with greater ease than any other country in the world.
Meanwhile, Europe faces a dire energy crisis, which will take years to fix. China has utterly botched its exit from its zero-covid strategy. Russia is isolated from global economic and technological flows because of harsh sanctions that were imposed in response to its invasion of Ukraine. Developing countries face the double whammy of high energy prices and a strong dollar (in which a significant chunk of their debt is denominated). The United States has problems — but it’s still the country I would bet on.
So why does the United States show so much promise at a time when others are struggling? Behind the economic data, there does seem to be in America a spirit of innovation that is unusual and powerful. A recent book — though it is not directly about this subject at all — has helped me crystallize some of my own thoughts on this subject: Ronald Brownstein’s brilliant history of American pop culture in the mid-1970s, “Rock Me on the Water.”
Brownstein begins by describing American popular culture in the early and mid-1960s, particularly the movies and television shows, as bland, apolitical and lifeless. Hollywood was addicted, he writes, to “World War II movies, Westerns, musicals, and above all, gargantuan historical epics” such as “The Ten Commandments.” Television, right up to the late 1960s, was dominated by what was considered wholesome fare, which meant shows such as “Gunsmoke,” “Bonanza,” “Here’s Lucy,” and “The Wonderful World of Disney.” The rising tide of baby boomers were tuning out. Weekly admissions at movie theaters fell by more than 50 percent from 1950 to 1960.
Then came rebellion and revolution in the form of sharp breaks with this conformist culture, first in music, then in movies and finally in the broadest of all formats, television shows. By the mid-1970s, rock music reigned supreme. The movie industry had been remade by sharp, edgy fare such as “Five Easy Pieces,” “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Taxi Driver.” The top television show was the funny but intensely political (and politically incorrect) “All in the Family.”
This break with the past strikes me as deeply American. Young people rejected the wisdom of their elders, dispensed with tradition and forged their own way — making new music, movies and television. They were disrespectful and disruptive, consumed with a kind of manic energy. But that energy created a new popular culture that remade America and the world. It is difficult to imagine that kind of attack on hierarchy and tradition coming out of other, more settled societies.
It sounds exciting in retrospect, but Brownstein reminds us how jarring the break was to many (perhaps most) Americans. Along with it came a disruptive, disrespectful politics that was often more than just angry. It was violent and messy. Those were the years of political assassinations, the Black Power movement, the Black Panthers and the Symbionese Liberation Army (the group that kidnapped Patty Hearst and engaged in what was back then “the largest police firefight that had ever occurred on American soil”). The New Left activism of Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda was a wholesale attack on both political parties and the entire U.S. political system.
The rebellion did not last long, and it triggered a backlash. Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and other politicians rode to power denouncing the radical youth culture of the time. And yet that culture has proved deeply influential and lasting. In his biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson ties the entrepreneurial spirit of Silicon Valley in the 1970s to this same spirit of youth rebellion. The new, scrappy technology companies of the period — Microsoft, Apple, Intel — ended up remaking the global economy.
I do wonder whether American culture today still retains the elements that made it so disruptive in the 1970s. It feels more bourgeois; nowadays what starts as radical rebellion often turns quickly into big business. Ross Douthat describes much of the popular culture today as decadent and derivative — with endless remakes of comic book characters and stories. Where there is anger, often on the populist right, it is the kind of nostalgic rage that fueled Nixon and Reagan — a desire to take America back, not forward. The left, which once encouraged raucous, free-for-all debates on campus, has become more interested in creating safe spaces, policing thought and discouraging the airing of difficult, controversial disagreements.
I have to believe that this “decadence” is temporary. The United States’ core character remains one that encourages attacks on power and hierarchy, celebrates the upstarts and cares little for tradition and established practice. Businesspeople often quote Jobs’s famous commencement advice to Stanford students — “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish” — but Jobs was actually quoting Stewart Brand’s “Whole Earth Catalog,” an icon of the 1970s counterculture. You still see that spirit in many parts of American society — especially among the young, who are eager to break sharply with their elders, whether on race relations or climate change. They should take some inspiration from America in the 1970s — when the world’s richest and most powerful country demonstrated that it somehow retained the capacity for dissent, dissatisfaction and radical change. Somewhere in there is the country’s secret sauce for enduring success.