Thursday, December 31, 2020

the last book I ever read (A Promised Land by Barack Obama, excerpt twenty-two)

from A Promised Land by Barack Obama:

The next day—Friday, April 29—was mostly travel. I was going to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to survey the damage from a devastating tornado outbreak and had an evening commencement address to deliver in Miami. In between, I was scheduled to take Michelle and the girls to Cape Canaveral to see the final launch of the space shuttle Endeavour before it was decommissioned. Ahead of leaving, I sent an email asking Tom, Denis, Daley, and Brennan to meet me in the Diplomatic Reception Room, and they found me just as the family exited to the South Lawn, where Marine One awaited. With the roar of the helicopter in the background (along with the sound of Sasha and Malia engaging in some sisterly bickering), I officially gave the go-ahead for the Abbottabad mission, emphasizing that McRaven had full operational control and that it would be up to him to determine the exact timing of the raid.

The operation was now largely out of my hands. I was glad to get out of Washington, if only for the day—to occupy my mind with other work and, as it turned out, to appreciate the work of others. Earlier in the week, a monstrous supercell storm had swept across the southeastern states, dropping tornadoes that killed more than three hundred people, which made it the deadliest natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina. A single mile-and-a-half-wide tornado fueled by 190-mile-per-hour winds had ripped through Alabama, destroying thousands of homes and businesses.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

the last book I ever read (A Promised Land by Barack Obama, excerpt twenty-one)

from A Promised Land by Barack Obama:

For similar reasons, the growth of the non-bank financial sector made Glass-Steagall’s distinction between investment banks and FDIC-insured commercial banks largely obsolete. The largest bettors on sub-prime mortgage securities—AIG, Lehman, Bear, Merrill, as well as Fannie and Freddie—weren’t commercial banks backed by federal guarantees. Investors hadn’t cared about the absence of guarantees and poured so much money into them anyway that the entire financial system was threatened when they started to fail. Conversely, traditional FDIC-insured banks like Washington Mutual and IndyMac got into trouble not by behaving like investment banks and underwriting high flying securities but by making tons of subprime loans to unqualified buyers in order to drive up their earnings. Given how easily capital now flowed between financial entities in search of higher returns, stabilizing the system required that we focus on the risky practices we were trying to curb rather than the type of institution involved.

And there were the politics. We didn’t have anything close to the votes in the Senate for either reviving Glass-Steagall or passing legislation to shrink U.S. banks, any more than we’d had the votes for a single-payer healthcare system. Even in the House, Dems were anxious about any perception of overreaching, especially if it caused the financial markets to pull in their horns again and made the economy worse. “My constituents hate Wall Street right now, Mr. President,” one suburban Democrat told me, “but they didn’t sign up for a complete teardown.” FDR may have once had a mandate from voters to try anything, including a restructuring of American capitalism, after three wrenching years of the Depression, but partly because we’d stopped the situation from ever getting that bad, our mandate for change was a whole lot narrower. Our best chance for broadening tha mandate, I figured, was to notch a few wins while we could.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

the last book I ever read (A Promised Land by Barack Obama, excerpt twenty)

from A Promised Land by Barack Obama:

According to poll data, my address to Congress boosted public support for the healthcare bill, at least temporarily. Even more important for our purposes, it seemed to stiffen the spine of wavering congressional Democrats. It did not, however, change the mind of a single Republican in the chamber. This was clear less than thirty minutes into the speech, when—as I debunked the phony claim that the bill would insure undocumented immigrants—a relatively obscure five-term Republican congressman from South Carolina named Joe Wilson leaned forward in his seat, pointed in my direction, and shouted, his face flushed with fury, “You lie!”

For the briefest second, a stunned silence fell over the chamber. I turned to look for the heckler (as did Speaker Pelosi and Joe Biden, Nancy aghast and Joe shaking his head). I was tempted to exit my perch, make my way down the aisle, and smack the guy in the head. Instead, I simply responded by saying “It’s not true” and then carried on with my speech as Democrats hurled boos in Wilson’s direction.

Monday, December 28, 2020

the last book I ever read (A Promised Land by Barack Obama, excerpt nineteen)

from A Promised Land by Barack Obama:

After FDR imposed a nationwide wage freeze meant to stem inflation during World War II, many companies began offering private health insurance and pension benefits as a way to compete for the limited number of workers not deployed overseas. Once the war ended, this employer-based system continued, in no small part because labor unions liked the arrangement, since it enabled them to use the more generous benefit packages negotiated under collective bargaining agreements as a selling point to recruit new members. The downside was that it left those unions unmotivated to push for government-sponsored health programs that might help everybody else. Harry Truman proposed a national healthcare system twice, once in 1945 and again as part of his Fair Deal package in 1949, but his appeal for public support was no match for the well-financed PR efforts of the American Medical Association and other industry lobbyists. Opponents didn’t just kill Truman’s effort. They convinced a large swath of the public that “socialized medicine” would lead to rationing, the loss of your family doctor, and the freedoms Americans hold so dear.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

the last book I ever read (A Promised Land by Barack Obama, excerpt eighteen)

from A Promised Land by Barack Obama:

After the speech, I had a chance to visit with Václav Havel, the playwright and former dissident who had been president of the Czech Republic for two terms, finishing in 2003. A participant in the Prague Spring, he’d been blacklisted after the Soviet occupation, had his works banned, and been repeatedly jailed for his political activities. Havel, as much as anyone, had given moral voice to the grassroots democracy movements that had brought the Soviet era to an end. Along with Nelson Mandela and a handful of other living statesmen, he’d also been a distant role model for me. I’d read his essays while in law school. Watching him maintain his moral compass even after his side had won power and he’d assumed the presidency had helped convince me that it was possible to enter politics and come out with your soul intact.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

the last book I ever read (A Promised Land by Barack Obama, excerpt seventeen)

from A Promised Land by Barack Obama:

Maintaining this social compact, though, required trust. It required that we see ourselves as bound together, if not as a family then at least as a community, each member worthy of concern and able to make claims on the whole. It required us to believe that whatever actions the government might take to help those in need were available to you and people like you; that nobody was gaming the system and that the misfortunes or stumbles or circumstances that caused others to suffer were the ones to which you at some point in your life might fall prey.

Over the years, that trust proved difficult to sustain. In particular, the fault line of race strained it mightily. Accepting that African Americans and other minority groups might need extra help from the government—that their specific hardships could be traced to a brutal history of discrimination rather than immutable characteristics or individual choices—required a level of empathy, of fellow feeling, that many white voters found difficult to muster. Historically, programs designed to help racial minorities, from “forty acres and a mule” to affirmative action, were met with open hostility. Even universal programs that enjoyed broad support—like public education or public sector employment—had a funny way of becoming controversial once Black and brown people were included as beneficiaries.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

the last book I ever read (A Promised Land by Barack Obama, excerpt sixteen)

from A Promised Land by Barack Obama:

Of the four key leaders, I knew Harry best, but I’d had my share of interactions with McConnell during my few years in the Senate. Short, owlish, with a smooth Kentucky accent, McConnell seemed an unlikely Republican leader. He showed no aptitude for schmoozing, backslapping, or rousing oratory. As far as anyone could tell, he had no close friends even in his own caucus; nor did he appear to have any strong convictions beyond an almost religious opposition to any version of campaign finance reform. Joe told me of one run-in he’d had on the Senate floor after the Republican leader blocked a bill Joe was sponsoring; when Joe tried to explain the bill’s merits, McConnell raised his hand like a traffic cop and said, “You must be under the mistaken impression that I care.” But what McConnell lacked in charisma or interest in policy he more than made up for in discipline, shrewdness, and shamelessness—all of which he employed in the single-minded and dispassionate pursuit of power.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

the last book I ever read (A Promised Land by Barack Obama, excerpt fifteen)

from A Promised Land by Barack Obama:

The filibuster isn’t mentioned anywhere in the Constitution. Instead, it came into being by happenstance: In 1805, Vice President Aaron Burr urged the Senate to eliminate the “motion to proceed”—a standard parliamentary provision that allows a simple majority of any legislature to end debate on a piece of business and call for a vote. (Burr, who seems never to have developed the habit of thinking things through, reportedly considered the rule a waste of time.)

It didn’t take long for senators to figure out that without a formal way to end debate, any one of them could bring Senate business to a halt—and thereby extract all sorts of concessions from frustrated colleagues—simply by talking endlessly and refusing to surrender the floor. In 1917, the Senate curbed the practice by adopting “cloture,” allowing a vote of two-thirds of senators present to end a filibuster. For the next fifty years the filibuster was used only sparingly—most notably by southern Democrats attempting to block anti-lynching and fair-employment bills or other legislation that threatened to shake up Jim Crow. Gradually, though, the filibuster became more routinized and easier to maintain, making it a more potent weapon, a means for the minority party to get its way. The mere threat of a filibuster was often enough to derail a piece of legislation. By the 1990s, as battle lines between Republicans and Democrats hardened, whichever party was in the minority could—and would—block any bill not to their liking, so long as they remained unified and had at least the 41 votes needed to keep a filibuster from behing overridden.

Without any constitutional basis, public debate, or even the knowledge of most Americans, passing legislation through Congress had come to effectively require 60 votes in the Senate, or what was often referred to as a “supermajority.” By the time I was elected president, the filibuster had become so thoroughly integrated into Senate practice—viewed as as essential and time-honored tradition—that nobody much bothered to discuss the possibility of reforming or doing away with it altogether.

Monday, December 21, 2020

the last book I ever read (A Promised Land by Barack Obama, excerpt fourteen)

from A Promised Land by Barack Obama:

We spent the next three hours mapping out a strategy. Job one was reversing the cycle of contracting demand. In an ordinary recession, monetary policy would be an option: By lowering interest rates, the Federal Reserve could help make the purchase of everything from homes to cars to appliances significantly cheaper. But while Chairman Ben Bernanke was committed to trying out a range of unorthodox strategies to douse the financial panic, Tim explained, the Fed had used up most of its bullets over the course of the previous year: With interest rates already close to zero, neither businesses nor consumers, already badly overleveraged, showed any inclination to take on more debt.

Our conversation therefore focused on fiscal stimulus, or, in layperson’s terms, having the government spend more money. Though I hadn’t majored in economics, I was familiar enough with John Maynard Keynes, one of the giants of modern economic and a theoretician of the causes of the Great Depression. Keynes’s basic insight had been simple: From the perspective of the individual family or firm, it was prudent to tighten one’s belt during a severe recession. The problem was that thrift could be stifling; when everyone tightened their belts at the same time, economic conditions couldn’t improve.

Keynes’s answer to the dilemma was just as simple: A government needed to step in as the “spender of last resort.” The idea was to pump money into the economy until the gears started to turn again, until families grew confident enough to trade in old cars for new ones and innovative companies saw enough demand to start making new products again. Once the economy was kick-started, the government could then turn off the spigot and recoup its money through the resulting boost in tax revenue. In large part, this was the principle behind FDR’s New Deal, which took shape after he took office in 1933, at the height of the Great Depression. Whether it was young men in the Civilian Conservation Corps put to work building trails in America’s national parks, or farmers receiving government payments for surplus milk, or theater troupes performing as part of the Works Progress Administration, the New Deal’s programs helped unemployed Americans get desperately needed paychecks and companies sustain themselves with government orders for steel and lumber, all of which helped bolster private enterprise and stabilize the faltering economy.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

the last book I ever read (A Promised Land by Barack Obama, excerpt thirteen)

from A Promised Land by Barack Obama:

I signed my first bill into law on my ninth day in office: the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. The legislation was named after an unassuming Alabaman who, deep into a long career at the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, had discovered that she’d routinely been paid less than her male counterparts. As discrimination cases go, it should have been a slam dunk, but in 2007, defying all common sense, the Supreme Court had disallowed the lawsuit. According to Justice Samuel Alito, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act required Ledbetter to have filed her claim without 180 days of when the discrimination first occurred—in other words, six months after she received her first paycheck, and many years before she actually discovered the pay disparity. For over a year, Republicans in the Senate had blocked corrective action (with President Bush promising to veto it if it passed). Now, thanks to quick legislative work by our emboldened Democratic majorities, the bill sat on a small ceremonial desk in the East Room.

Lilly and I had become friends during the campaign. I knew her family, knew her struggles. She stood next to me that day as I put my signature on the bill, using a different pen for each letter of my name. (The pens would serve as keepsakes for Lilly and the bill’s sponsors—a nice tradition, though it made my signature look like it had been written by a ten-year-old.) I thought not just about Lilly but also my mother, and Toot, and all the other working women across the country who had ever been passed over for promotions or been paid less than they were worth. The legislation I was signing wouldn’t reverse centuries of discrimination. But it was something, a step forward.

This is why I ran, I told myself. This is what the office can do.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

the last book I ever read (A Promised Land by Barack Obama, excerpt twelve)

from A Promised Land by Barack Obama:

The night before, Michael Chertoff, President Bush’s secretary of homeland security, had called to inform us of credible intelligence indicating that four Somali nationals were thought to be planning a terrorist attack at the inauguration ceremony. As a result, the already massive security force around the National Mall would be beefed up. The suspects—young men who were believed to be coming over the border from Canada—were still at large. There was no question that we’d go ahead with the next day’s events, but to be safe, we ran through various contingencies with Chertoff and his team, then assigned Axe to draft evacuation instructions that I’d give the crowd if an attack took place while I was onstage.

Reverend Jakes wrapped up his sermon. The choir’s final song filled the sanctuary. No one beyond a handful of staffers knew of the terrorist threat. I hadn’t even told Michelle, not wanting to add to the day’s stress. No one had nuclear war or terrorism on their minds. No one except me. Scanning people in the pews—friends, family members, colleagues, some of whom caught my eye and smiled or waved with excitement—I realized this was now part of my job: maintaining an outward sense of normalcy, upholding for everyone the fiction that we live in a safe and orderly world, even as I stared down the dark hole of chance and prepared as best I could for the possibility that at any given moment on any given day chaos might break through.

Friday, December 18, 2020

the last book I ever read (A Promised Land by Barack Obama, excerpt eleven)

from A Promised Land by Barack Obama:

I also became particular about my debate-day rituals. The morning was always devoted to going over strategy and key points, the early afternoon to some light campaigning. But by four o’clock I wanted the schedule cleared. To shed excess adrenaline, I’d get in a quick workout. Then, ninety minutes before heading to the venue, I’d shave and take a long hot shower, before putting on the new shirt (white) and tie (blue or red) that Reggie had hung in the hotel closet beside my freshly pressed blue suit. For dinner, comfort food: steak cooked medium-well, roasted or mashed potatoes, steamed broccoli. And in the half hour or so ahead of the debate, while glancing at my notes, I’d listen to music delivered through earbuds or a small portable speaker. Eventually I became a tad compulsive about hearing certain songs. At first it was a handful of jazz classics—Miles Davis’s “Freddie Freeloader,” John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things,” Frank Sinatra’s “Luck Be a Lady.” (Before one primary debate, I must have played that last track two or three times in a row, clearly indicating a lack of confidence in my preparations.)

Ultimately it was rap that go my head in the right place, two songs especially: “Jay-Z’s “My 1st Song” and Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.” Both were about defying the odds and putting it all on the line (“Look, if you had one shot or one opportunity, to seize everything you ever wanted in one moment, would you capture it? Or just let it slip…”); how it felt to spin something out of nothing; getting by on wit, hustle, and fear disguised as bravado. The lyrics felt tailored to my early underdog status. And as I sat alone in the back of the Secret Service van on the way to a debate site, in my crisp uniform and dimpled tie, I’d nod my head to the beat of those songs, feeling a whiff of private rebellion, a connection to something grittier and more real than all the fuss and deference that now surrounded me. It was a way to cut through the artifice and remember who I was.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

the last book I ever read (A Promised Land by Barack Obama, excerpt ten)

from A Promised Land by Barack Obama:

In a different time and a different place—say, a swing-state Senate or gubernatorial race—the sheer energy Palin generated within the Republican base might have had me worried. But from the day McCain chose her and through the heights of Palin-mania, I felt certain the decision would not serve him well. For all of Palin’s performative gifts, a vice president’s most important qualification was the ability, if necessary, to assume the presidency. Given John’s age and history of melanoma, this wasn’t an idle concern. And what became abundantly clear as soon as Sarah Palin stepped into the spotlight was that on just about every subject relevant to governing the country she had absolutely no idea what the hell she was talking about. The financial system. The Supreme Court. The Russian invasion of Georgia. It didn’t matter what the topic was or what form the question took—the Alaskan governor appeared lost, stringing words together like a kid trying to bluff her way through a test for which she had failed to study.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

the last book I ever read (A Promised Land by Barack Obama, excerpt nine)

from A Promised Land by Barack Obama:

Only once did the full meaning of my nomination hit me. By coincidence, the last night of the convention fell on the forty-fifth anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech. We had decided not to draw too much attention to that fact, figuring that it was a poor idea to invite comparisons to one of the greatest speeches in American history. But I did pay tribute to the miracle of that young preacher from Georgia in the closing bars of my speech, quoting something he’d said to the people who’d gathered on the National Mall that day in 1963: “We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.”

“We cannot walk alone.” I hadn’t remembered these particular lines from Dr. King’s speech. But as I read them aloud during practice, I found myself thinking about all the older Black volunteers I’d met in our offices around the country, the way they’d clutch my hands and tell me they never thought they’d see the day when a Black man would have a real chance to be president.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

the last book I ever read (A Promised Land by Barack Obama, excerpt eight)

from A Promised Land by Barack Obama:

Both Axe and Plouffe thought the world of Tim Kaine, and like me, they knew he’d fit seamlessly into an Obama administration. But also like me, they wondered whether putting two relatively young, inexperienced, and liberal civil rights attorneys on a ticket might be more hope and change than the voters could handle.

Joe carried his own risks. We figured his lack of discipline in front of a microphone might result in unnecessary controversies. His style was old-school, he liked the limelight, and he wasn’t always self-aware. I sensed that he could get prickly if he thought he wasn’t given his due—a quality that might flare up when dealing with a much younger boss.

And yet I found the contrast between us compelling. I liked the fact that Joe would be more than ready to serve as president if something happened to me—and that it might reassure those who still worried I was too young. His foreign policy experience would be valuable during a time when we were embroiled in two wars; so would his relationships in Congress and his potential to reach voters still wary of electing an African American president. What mattered most, though, was what my gut told me—that Joe was decent, honest, and loyal. I believed that he cared about ordinary people, and that when things got tough, I could trust him.

Monday, December 14, 2020

the last book I ever read (A Promised Land by Barack Obama, excerpt seven)

from A Promised Land by Barack Obama:

Trim and fit, with a PhD in international relations and economics from Princeton and an orderly, analytical mind, Petraeus was considered the brains behind our improved position in Iraq and the individual to whom the White House had essentially contracted out its strategy. We took a helicopter together from the Baghdad airport to the heavily fortified Green Zone, talking all the way, and although the substance of our conversation wouldn’t appear in any press write-ups, as far as my campaign team was concerned that was just fine. It was the photographs they cared about—images of me seated next to a four-star general aboard a Black Hawk helicopter, wearing a headset and aviator glasses. Apparently it proved a youthful, vigorous contrast to an unfortunate depiction of my Republican opponent that happened to surface on the very same day: McCain riding shotgun on a golf cart with former president George H. W. Bush, the two of them resembling a couple of pastel-sweatered grandpas on their way to a country club picnic.

Meanwhile, sitting together in his spacious office at coalition headquarters, Petraeus and I discussed everything from the need for more Arabic-language specialists in the military to the vital role development projects would play in delegitimizing militias and terrorist organizations and bolstering the new government. Bush deserved credit, I thought, for having selected this particular general to right what had been a sinking ship. If we had unlimited time and resources—if America’s long-term national security interests absolutely depended on creating a functioning and democratic state allied to the United States in Iraq—then Petraeus’s approach had as good a chance as any of achieving the goal.

But we did not have unlimited time or resources. When you boiled it down, that’s what the argument over withdrawal was all about. How much did we continue to give, and when would it be enough? As far as I was concerned, we were approaching that line; our national security required a stable Iraq, but not a showcase for American nation-building. Petraeus, on the other hand, believed that without a more sustained U.S. investment, whatever gains we’d made were still easily reversed.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

the last book I ever read (A Promised Land by Barack Obama, excerpt six)

from A Promised Land by Barack Obama:

And so I still brood about this string of poorly chosen words. Not because it subjected us to a whole new round of bludgeoning at the hands of the press and the Clinton campaign—although that was no fun—but because the words ended up having such a long afterlife. The phrases “bitter” and “cling to guns or religion” were easily remembered, like a hook in a pop song, and would be cited deep into my presidency as evidence that I failed to understand or reach out to working-class white people, even when the positions I took and policies I championed consistently indicated the contrary.

Maybe I’m overstating the consequences of that night. Maybe things were bound to play out as they did, and what nags at me is the simple fact that I screwed up and don’t like being misunderstood. And maybe I’m bothered by the care and delicacy with which one must state the obvious: that it’s possible to understand and sympathize with the frustrations of white voters without denying the ease with which, throughout American history, politicians have redirected white frustration about their economic or social circumstances toward Black and brown people.

One thing’s for certain. The fallout from my gaffe that night provided my San Francisco questioner a better answer than any verbal response I might have given.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

the last book I ever read (A Promised Land by Barack Obama, excerpt five)

from A Promised Land by Barack Obama:

Outside, after the service was done, I saw another colleague of Dr. King’s, Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, a legendary and fearless freedom fighter who had survived the Klan bombing his house and a white mob beating him with clubs, chains, and brass knuckles, and stabbing his wife as they attempted to enroll their two daughters in a previously all-white Birmingham school. He had recently been treated for a brain tumor, leaving him frail, but he motioned me over to his wheelchair to talk, and as the marchers gathered, I offered to push him across the bridge.

“I’d like that just fine,” Reverend Shuttlesworth said.

Friday, December 11, 2020

the last book I ever read (A Promised Land by Barack Obama, excerpt four)

from A Promised Land by Barack Obama:

Nowhere was this more evident than in March 2007, when I attended the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, that Congressman John Lewis hosted each year. I’d long wanted to make the pilgrimage to the site of Bloody Sunday, which in 1965 became a crucible of the battle for civil rights, when Americans fully realized what was at stake. But my visit promised to be complicated. The Clintons would be there, I was told; and before participants gathered to cross the bridge, Hillary and I were scheduled to speak simultaneously at dueling church services.

Not only that, but our host, John Lewis, had indicated that he was inclined to endorse Hillary. John had become a good friend—he’d taken great pride in my election to the Senate, rightly seeing it as part of his legacy—and I knew he was tortured by the decision. As I listened to him explain his reasoning over the phone, how long he had known the Clintons, how Bill’s administration had supported many of his legislative priorities, I chose not to press him too hard. I could imagine the pressure this kind and gentle man was under, and I also recognized that, at a time when I was asking white voters to judge me on the merits, a raw appeal to racial solidarity would feel like hypocrisy.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

the last book I ever read (A Promised Land by Barack Obama, excerpt three)

from A Promised Land by Barack Obama:

“You need to talk to Kennedy,” he said. “He knows all the players. He’s run himself. He’ll give you some perspective. And at the very least, he’ll tell you if he plans to support anyone else.”

Heir to the most famous name in American politics, Ted Kennedy was by then the closest thing Washington had to a living legend. During more than four decades in the Senate, he’d been at the forefront of every major progressive cause, from civil rights to the minimum wage to healthcare. With his great bulk, huge head, and mane of white hair, he filled every room he walked into, and was the rare senator who commanded attention whenever he gingerly rose from his seat in the chamber, searching his suit pocket for his glasses or his notes, that iconic Boston baritone launching each speech with “Thank you, Madam President.” The argument would unspool—the face reddening, the voice rising—building to a crescendo like a revivalist sermon, no matter how mundane the issue at hand. And then the speech would end, the curtain would come down, and he would become the old, avuncular Teddy again, wandering down the aisle to check on the roll call or sit next to a colleague, his hand on their shoulder or forearm, whispering in their ear or breaking into a hearty laugh—the kind that made you not care that he was probably softening you up for some future vote he might need.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

the last book I ever read (A Promised Land by Barack Obama, excerpt two)

from A Promised Land by Barack Obama:

Rarely does a week go by when I don’t run into somebody—a friend, a supporter, an acquaintance, or a total stranger—who insists that from the first time they met me or heard me speak on TV, they knew I’d be president. They tell me this with affection, conviction, and a certain amount of prise in their political acumen, talent spotting, or soothsaying. Sometimes they will cloak it in religious terms. God had a plan for you, they’ll tell me. I’ll smile and say that I wish they had told me this back when I was thinking about running; it would have saved me a lot of stress and self-doubt.

The truth is, I’ve never been a big believer in destiny. I worry that it encourages resignation in the down-and-out and complacency among the powerful. I suspect that God’s plan, whatever it is, works on a scale too large to admit our mortal ribulations; that in a single lifetime, accidents and happenstance determine more than we care to admit; and that the best we can do is to try to align ourselves with what we feel is right and construct some meaning out of our confusion, and with grace and nerve play at each moment the hand that we’re dealt.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

the last book I ever read (A Promised Land by Barack Obama, excerpt one)

from A Promised Land by Barack Obama:

Over the course of the week I’d spent traveling with Dick, a tropical weather system that had formed over the Bahamas crossed Florida and deposited itself in the Gulf of Mexico, picking up energy over the warmer waters and aiming itself ominously at the southern shores of the United States. By the time our Senate delegation landed in London to meet with Prime Minister Tony Blair, a ferocious and full-blown catastrophe was under way. Making landfall with 125 mph winds, Hurricane Katrina had leveled entire communities along the Gulf Coast, overwhelmed levees, and left much of New Orleans underwater.

I stayed up half the night watching the news coverage, stunned by the murky primordial nightmare washing across the television screen. There were floating corpses, elderly patients trapped in hospitals, gunfire and looting, refugees huddled and losing hope. To see such suffering was bad enough; to see the slow government response, the vulnerability of so many poor and working-class people, made me ashamed.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

the last book I ever read (J. D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey, excerpt seven)

from Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger:

Re-seated, Mrs. Glass sighed, as she always sighed, in any situation, when cups of chicken broth were declined. But she had, so to speak, been cruising in a patrol boat down and up her children’s alimentary canals for so many years that the sigh was in no sense a real signal of defeat, and she said, almost immediately, “I don’t see how you expect to get your strength and all back if you don’t take something nourishing into your system. I’m sorry, but I don’t. You’ve had exactly—“

“Mother—now, please. I’ve asked you twenty times. Will you please stop mentioning chicken broth to me? It nauseates me just to—“ Franny broke off, and listened. “Is that our phone?” she said.

Saturday, December 5, 2020

the last book I ever read (J. D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey, excerpt six)

from Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger:

Not five minutes later, Zooey, with his hair combed wet, stood barefoot at the washbowl, wearing a pair of beltless dark-gray sharkskin slacks, a face towel across his bare shoulders. A pre-shaving ritual had already been put into effect. The window blind had been raised halfway; the bathroom door had been set ajar to let the steam escape and clear the mirrors; a cigarette had been lit, dragged on, and placed within easy reach on the frosted-glass ledge under the medicine-cabinet mirror. At the moment, Zooey had just finished squeezing lather cream onto the end of a shaving brush. He put the tube of lather, without re-capping it, somewhere into the enamel background, out of his way. He passed the flat of his hand squeakily back and forth over the face of the medicine-cabinet mirror, wiping away most of the mist. Then he began to lather his face. His lathering technique was very much out of the ordinary, although identical in spirit with his actual shaving technique. That is, although he looked into the mirror while he lathered, he didn’t watch where his brush was moving but, instead, looked directly into his own eyes, as though his eyes were neutral territory, a no man’s land in a private war against narcissism he had been fighting since he was seven or eight years old. By now, when he was twenty-five, the little stratagem may well have been mostly reflexive, just as a veteran baseball player, at the plate, will tap his spikes with his bat whether he needs to or not. Nonetheless, a few minutes earlier, when he had combed his hair, he had done so with the very minimum amount of help from the mirror. And before that he had managed to dry himself in front of a full-length mirror without so much as glancing into it.

Friday, December 4, 2020

the last book I ever read (J. D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey, excerpt five)

from Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger:

Franny nodded solemnly. She was looking at a little warm blotch of sunshine, about the size of a poker chip, on the tablecloth. “I had to strain to write it,” she said.

Lane started to say something to that, but the waiter was suddenly there to take away the empty Martini glasses. “You want another one?” Lane asked Franny.

He didn’t get an answer. Franny was staring at the little blotch of sunshine with a special intensity, as if she were considering lying down in it.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

the last book I ever read (J. D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey, excerpt four)

from Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger:

Lane was speaking now as someone does who has been monopolizing conversation for a good quarter of an hour or so and who believes he has just hit a stride where his voice can do absolutely no wrong. “I mean, to put it crudely,” he was saying, “the thing you could say he lacks is testicularity. Know what I mean?” He was slouched rhetorically forward, toward Franny, his receptive audience, a supporting forearm on either side of his Martini.

“Lacks what?” Franny said. She had had to clear her throat before speaking, it had been so long since she had said anything at all.

Lane hesitated. “Masculinity,” he said.

“I heard you the first time.”

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

the last book I ever read (J. D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey, excerpt three)

from Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger:

“Oh, it’s lovely to see you!” Franny said as the cab moved off. “I’ve missed you.” The words were no sooner out than she realized that she didn’t mean them at all. Again with guilt, she took Lane’s hand and tightly, warmly laced fingers with him.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

the last book I ever read (J. D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey, excerpt two)

from Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger:

Lane was about halfway through this particular reading of the letter when he was interrupted—intruded upon, trespassed upon—by a burly-set young man named Ray Sorenson, who wanted to know if Lane knew what this bastard Rilke was all about. Lane and Sorenson were both in Modern European Literature 251 (open to seniors and graduate students only) and had been assigned the Fourth of Rilke’s “Duino Elegies” for Monday. Lane, who knew Sorenson only slightly but had a vague, categorical aversion to his face and manner, put away his letter and said that he didn’t know but that he thought he’d understood most of it. “You’re lucky,” Sorenson said. “You’re a fortunate man.” His voice carried with a minimum of vitality, as though he had come over to speak to Lane out of boredom or restiveness, not for any sort of human discourse. “Christ, it’s cold,” he said, and took a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket. Lane noticed a faded but distracting enough liptstick streak on the lapel of Sorenson’s camel’s-hair coat. It looked as though it had been there for weeks, maybe months, but he didn’t know Sorenson well enough to mention it, nor, for that matter, did he give a damn. Besides, the train was arriving. Both boys turned a sort of half left to face the incoming engine. Almost at the same time, the door to the waiting room banged open, and the boys who had been keeping themselves warm began to come out to meet the train, most of them giving the impression of having at least three lighted cigarettes in each hand.

Monday, November 30, 2020

the last book I ever read (J. D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey, excerpt one)

from Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger:

Though brilliantly sunny, Saturday morning was overcoat weather again, not just topcoat weather, as it had been all week and as everyone had hoped it would stay for the big weekend—the weekend of the Yale game. Of the twenty-some young men who were waiting at the station for their dates to arrive on the ten-fifty-two, no more than six or seven were out on the cold, open platform. The rest were standing around in hatless, smoky little groups of twos and threes and fours inside the heated waiting room, talking in voices that, almost without exception, sounded collegiately dogmatic, as though each young man, in his strident, conversational turn, was clearing up, once and for all, some highly controversial issue, one that the outside, non-matriculating world had been bungling, provocatively or not, for centuries.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

the last book I ever read (The Friend: A Novel by Sigrid Nunez, excerpt seven)

from The Friend: A Novel by Sigrid Nunez:

“You put him in a kennel?”

“I put him in a kennel,” she says, bristling at my tone, “because I didn’t know what else to do. You can’t explain death to a dog. He didn’t understand that Daddy was never coming home again. He waited by the door day and night. For a while he wouldn’t even eat, I was afraid he’d starve to death. But the worst part was, every once in a while, he’d make this noise, this howling, or wailing, or whatever it was. Not loud, but strange, like a ghost of some other weird thing. It went on and on. I’d try to distract him with a treat, but he’d turn his head away. Once, he even growled at me. He did it sometimes at night. It would wake me up, and then I couldn’t get back to sleep. I’d lie there listening to him until I thought I’d go mad. Every time I managed to pull myself together, I’d see him there waiting by the door, or he’d start keening like that, and I’d fall apart again. I had to get him out of the house. And now that he’s been gone, it would be cruel to bring him back. I can’t imagine him ever being happy in that house again.”

Saturday, November 28, 2020

the last book I ever read (The Friend: A Novel by Sigrid Nunez, excerpt six)

from The Friend: A Novel by Sigrid Nunez:

When she remarried you swore you never would. There followed a decade of affairs, most of them short-lived, but a few all but indistinguishable from marriage. Not one do I recall that did not end in betrayal.

I don’t like men who leave behind them a trail of weeping women, said W. H. Auden. Who would’ve hated you.

Friday, November 27, 2020

the last book I ever read (The Friend: A Novel by Sigrid Nunez, excerpt five)

from The Friend: A Novel by Sigrid Nunez:

One of the many legends about Edith Piaf also concerns a miraculous restoration of sight. The keratitis that blinded her for several years as a child was said to have been cured after some prostitutes who worked in her grandmother’s brothel, which happened also to be little Edith’s home at the time, took her on a pilgrimage to honor St. Thérèse of Lisieux. This might be just another fairy tale, but it is a fact that Jean Cocteau once described Piaf as having, when she sang, “the eyes of a blind person struck by a miracle, the eyes of a clairvoyant.”

Thursday, November 26, 2020

the last book I ever read (The Friend: A Novel by Sigrid Nunez, excerpt four)

from The Friend: A Novel by Sigrid Nunez:

Last night, in the Union Square station, a man was playing “La Vie en Rose” on a flute, molto giocoso. Lately I’ve become vulnerable to earworms, and sure enough the song, in the flutist’s peppy rendition, has been pestering me all day. They say the way to get rid of an earworm is to listen a couple of times to the whole song trhough. I listened to the most famous version, by Edith Piaf, of course, who wrote the lyrics and first performed the song in 1945. Now it’s the Little Sparrow’s strange, bleating, soul-of-France voice that won’t stop.

Also in the Union Square station, a man with a sign: Homeless Toothless Diabethee. That’s a good one, a commuter said as he tossed change into the man’s paper cup.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

the last book I ever read (The Friend: A Novel by Sigrid Nunez, excerpt three)

from The Friend: A Novel by Sigrid Nunez:

Walking with Samuel Beckett one fine spring morning, a friend of his asked, Doesn’t a day like this make you glad to be alive? I wouldn’t go as far as that, Beckett said.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

the last book I ever read (The Friend: A Novel by Sigrid Nunez, excerpt two)

from The Friend: A Novel by Sigrid Nunez:

I was not the only one who made the mistake of thinking that, because it was something you talked about a lot, it was something you wouldn’t do. And after all, you were not the unhappiest person we knew. You were not the most depressed (think of G, or D, or T-R). You were not even—strange as it now sounds to say—the most suicidal.

Because of the timing, so near the start of the year, it was possible to think that it had been a resolution.

Monday, November 23, 2020

the last book I ever read (The Friend: A Novel by Sigrid Nunez, excerpt one)

from The Friend: A Novel by Sigrid Nunez:

During the 1980s, in California, a large number of Cambodian women went to their doctors with the same complaint: they could not see. The women were all war refugees. Before fleeing their homeland, they had witnessed atrocities for which the Khmer Rouge, which had been in power from 1975 to 1979, was well known. Many of the women had been raped or tortured or otherwise brutalized. Most had seen family members murdered in front of them. One woman, who never again saw her husband and three children after soldiers came and took them away, said that she had lost her sight after having cried every day for four years. She was not the only one who appeared to have cried herself blind. Others suffered from blurred or partial vision, their eyes troubled by shadows and pains.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

the last book I ever read (The Silence: A Novel by Don DeLillo, excerpt seven)

from The Silence by Don DeLillo:

Names of countries keep rolling through his mind and people are trying to talk to him and to each other and he thinks of his daughter with two kids and a husband in Boston and the other daughter traveling somewhere and for one strange and compressed and claustrophobic moment he forgets their names.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

the last book I ever read (The Silence: A Novel by Don DeLillo, excerpt six)

from The Silence by Don DeLillo:

She had hoped to hear something libidinal, arousing. She understands that he has something more to say and she looks and waits.

He says, “Greenland is disappearing.”

She gets to her feet and faces him.

Friday, November 20, 2020

the last book I ever read (The Silence: A Novel by Don DeLillo, excerpt five)

from The Silence by Don DeLillo:

In the second silence all heads turn toward Martin.

He speaks of satellites in orbit that are able to see everything. The street where we live, the building we work in, the socks we are wearing. A rain of asteroids. The sky thick with them. Could happen anytime. Asteroids that become meteorites as they approach a planet. Entire exoplanets bloom away.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

the last book I ever read (The Silence: A Novel by Don DeLillo, excerpt four)

from The Silence by Don DeLillo:

The young man was standing at the window and Diane wondered if he planned to head home to the Bronx. She imagined that he might have to walk all the way, up through East Harlem to one of the bridges. Were pedestrians allowed to cross or were the bridges for cars and buses only? Was anything operating normally out there?

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

the last book I ever read (The Silence: A Novel by Don DeLillo, excerpt three)

from The Silence by Don DeLillo:

Max was in the kitchen putting food on plates. She wanted to go for a walk, alone. Or she wanted Max to go for a walk and Martin to go home. Where are the others, Tessa and Jim and all the others, travelers, wanderers, pilgrims, people in houses and apartments and village hutments. Where are the cars and trucks, the traffic noises? Super Sunday. Is everyone at home or in darkened bars and social clubs, trying to watch the game? Think of the many millions of blank screens. Try to imagine the disabled phones.

What happens to people who live inside their phones?

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

the last book I ever read (The Silence: A Novel by Don DeLillo, excerpt two)

from The Silence by Don DeLillo:

“Are we afraid?” she said.

He let this question hover, thinking tea and sweets, tea and sweets.

Monday, November 16, 2020

the last book I ever read (The Silence: A Novel by Don DeLillo, excerpt one)

from The Silence by Don DeLillo:

She was right, let’s not check our bags, we can squeeze them into the overhead. He watched the screen and thought about the game, briefly, forgetting who the Titans were playing.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

the last book I ever read (The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino, excerpt fourteen)

from The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino:

I went up the ladder. “Cosimo,” I began, “you’re over sixty-five—how can you continue to stay up there? What you wanted to say you’ve said, we’ve understood, you had great strength of mind, you did it, now you can come down. Even those who’ve spent their whole life at sea, at a certain age they disembark.”

Of course not. He said no with his hand. He hardly spoke anymore. He got up every so often, wrapped in a blanket up to his head, and sat on a branch to enjoy a little sun. He went no farther. There was an old woman of the people, a saintly woman (maybe an old lover of his), who went to clean and bring him hot food. We kept the ladder leaning against the trunk because there was always a need to go up to help him, and also because we hoped that he would at any moment decide to come down. (Others hoped; I knew what he was like.) There was always a circle of people around in the square who kept him company, discussing among themselves and sometimes addressing a remark to him, although they knew he had no desire to speak.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

the last book I ever read (The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino, excerpt thirteen)

from The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino:

If youth vanishes quickly on the earth, just imagine in the trees, whence everything is fated to fall: leaves, fruits. Cosimo was becoming old. So many years, with all the nights spent in the cold, in the wind, in the rain, in frail shelters or none, in the open air, with never a house, a fire, warm food… Cosimo was now a shrunken old man, legs bowed, arms long, like a monkey, hunchbacked, bundled up in a fur cloak with a hood, like a furry friar. His face was burned by the sun, wrinkled as a chestnut, with light round eyes amid the wrinkles.

Friday, November 13, 2020

the last book I ever read (The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino, excerpt twelve)

from The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino:

The trial of the revolutionaries was held promptly, but the accused succeeded in proving that they had nothing to do with it and the real leaders were precisely those who had escaped. So they were all freed, since with the troops stationed in Ombrosa, there was no fear of other uprisings. A garrison of Austro-Sardinians also stayed, to guard against possible infiltrations by the enemy, and in command of it was our brother-in-law D’Estomac, Battista’s husband, who had emigrated from France in the escort of the Count di Provenza.

So I found my sister Battista in the way again, with what pleasure I will let you imagine. She settled in my house, with her officer husband, horses, orderlies. She spent the evenings telling us about the recent executions in Paris; in fact, she had a model of a guillotine, with a real blade, and in order to explain the end of all her friends and acquired relatives she decapitated lizards, blindworms, worms, and even mice. So we passed the evenings. I envied Cosimo, who lived his days and nights on the run, hidden in some wood or other.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

the last book I ever read (The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino, excerpt eleven)

from The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino:

In other words, there were also among us all the causes that led to the French Revolution. Only we weren’t in France, and there was no revolution. We live in a country where causes always come true and not effects.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

the last book I ever read (The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino, excerpt nine)

from The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino:

Viola’s loving obstinacy met Cosimo’s, and sometimes they clashed. Cosimo shunned hesitations, softness, refined perverseness: he liked nothing that was not natural love. Republican virtues were in the air: times were brewing, severe and licentiousness at once. Cosimo, an insatiable lover, was a stoic, an ascetic, a puritan. Always in search of amorous happiness, he was nevertheless hostile to sensuality. He went so far as to distrust the kiss, the caress, verbal flattery, everything that obscured or claimed to replace the health of nature. It was Viola who revealed to him the fullness of it, and with her he never felt the sadness after love preached by the theologians. Indeed, he wrote a philosophical letter on that subject to Rousseau, who, perhaps distressed, didn’t answer.

But Viola was also a sophisticated, capricious, spoiled woman, all-embracing in blood and spirit. Cosimo’s love filled her senses but left her imagination unsatisfied. From that arose disagreements and shadowy resentments. But they didn’t last long, so various was their life and the world around.

Monday, November 9, 2020

the last book I ever read (The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino, excerpt eight)

from The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino:

Of all the gestures and conversations of the exiles hovered an aura of sadness and mourning, which corresponded in part to their nature, in part to a willful determination, as sometimes happens in those who fight for a cause whose convication are poorly defined and try to make up for it by the grandeur of their bearing.

In the young women—who at first glance all seemed to Cosimo a little too hairy and with skin too opaque—a hint of liveliness meandered, always curbed in time. Two of them were playing badminton between plane trees. Tic and tac, tic and tac, then a little cry: the shuttlecock had fallen into the street. An Olivabassa kid picked it up and, to throw it back, demanded two pesetas.