House Speaker Kevin McCarthy strode to a lectern in the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, called for an impeachment inquiry into President Biden, brandished the word “corruption” the way a dominatrix does a whip, and then slipped away, having once again done what he felt was necessary, no matter how senseless, to hold on to his lofty position.
I watched him and I thought of Mitch McConnell clinging to a different lectern in a different city two weeks earlier, his physical struggle unquestionable but his thirst for dominance still unquenched. I thought of Rudy Giuliani marching merrily into the public square in late 2020 and early 2021, his hair a melting mess and his mouth a spigot for conspiracy theories but his demeanor strangely buoyant because he was back in the game. I thought of all the other Republicans — Mark Meadows, Peter Navarro, Lindsey Graham, the list is endless — who prostituted themselves for Trump.
And I thought about them not as a portal into the G.O.P.’s moral void but as a parable of how crazily intoxicating power is and how thoroughly the many broken people in our political culture will debase themselves to maintain their relevance or reclaim it. McCarthy right now is the main character in that story. And what a pathetic character he is.
Bear in mind that by all appearances, his principal motivation in opening this particular inquiry during this particular week — by unilateral decree, without a vote by the full House — wasn’t the emergence of some new revelation about Hunter Biden’s business dealings and his father’s relationship to them. It wasn’t that the accumulated evidence had finally crossed some threshold or reached some tipping point.
It was that a group of rabidly right-wing Republicans high on their own power were coming for him. The impeachment inquiry is chum for approaching sharks, meant to distract and divert them, at least partly. It’s a desperate attempt by an unscrupulous man to keep their teeth from sinking too deep into his torso.
Good luck with that, Mr. Speaker. (Already, it’s not working.) And congratulations on the consistency of your inconsistency, the reliability of your willingness to tailor all your talk and all your decisions to what’s necessary to keep this job of yours, a miserable one by any rational standards.
En route to it, you had to pretend that Trump wasn’t telling lies about the 2020 election before you had to denounce his behavior on Jan. 6, 2021, before you had to reverse yourself once again and beg his forgiveness. You have eaten so much crow that you’re still coughing up the feathers.
You had to make nice with and seek input from Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose counsel doesn’t rise to the level of a Magic 8 Ball’s. And then, to be elected speaker at the start of this year, you had to endure rejection after rejection over five days and 15 rounds of voting — the longest such fight on the House floor since 1859 — before you were given the gavel.
And now you have to spend every minute of every day fretting that it will slip from your grasp. That’s what your moves this week have been about. And that’s part of what makes you such a sad emblem of these sorry times.
For the Love of Sentences
In The Washington Post, Rick Reilly, a native of Boulder, Colo., and a graduate of the University of Colorado, exulted in the early-season promise of its football team, the Buffaloes, by noting their awful past. “A couple of years ago, a buddy said he left two Buffs tickets on his desk at work and somebody broke in overnight and left two more,” he wrote, going on to note that Colorado lost to Minnesota by 42 points in 2022. “Most schools could start the faculty against Minnesota and not lose by 42 points.” Part of the problem, he suggested, is how inhospitably monoracial Boulder, where the university is, can feel to Black players: “We are whiter than Tucker Carlson eating a Wonder Bread mayonnaise sandwich at Cracker Barrel.” (Thanks to Glen Feinberg, of Pleasantville, N.Y., and Tarek Khan of Sacramento, among others, for flagging Reilly’s column.)
Also in The Post, Josh Tyrangiel put cryptocurrency in its place: “Crypto is what happens when libertarian financiers get high on their own supply and warp an interesting but limited technology, the blockchain, into a tool for trading currencies backed by the full faith and credit of a meme. Crypto is a bicycle. A.I. is a bullet train.” (James Glickman, Northampton, Mass.)
In The Wall Street Journal, Jason Gay took issue with a prize his daughter won at a state fair: “I don’t know how many of you own a six-and-a-half-foot, bright blue stuffed lemur, but it is not exactly the type of item that blends into a home. You do not put it in the living room and say: perfect. It instantly becomes the most useless item in the house, and I own an exercise bike.” (Thomas M. Paciello, Yonkers, N.Y.)
In Entertainment Weekly, Maureen Lee Lenker reviewed the new movie “Saltburn,” a tale of sexual obsession set among Britain’s upper crust: “If you did a line of coke off a copy of ‘Brideshead Revisited,’ you might approximate the ‘Saltburn’ viewing experience.” (Jack Keegan, Oxford, Ohio)
In The Times, Charles Blow questioned many of Trump’s political opponents’ reluctance to talk about his indictments: “This idea of a dignified silence has a long political history, but its utility and efficacy is unclear in a modern context. It feels a bit like a ‘Happy Days’ nostalgia in a ‘Walking Dead’ reality.” (Lawrence Berman, Westfield, N.J., and Bob Trigg, San Anselmo, Calif., among others)
Also in The Times, Matthew Futterman paid tribute to the power of the tennis player Ben Shelton, 20, who became the youngest American man to reach a U.S. Open semifinal since Andy Roddick in 2003: “There is a specific sound that comes off Shelton’s racket when he lays into a serve or a stroke like only he and Carlos Alcaraz, the world No. 1, can these days. It’s nothing like the familiar thwop of strings hitting a felt ball, but more like a sledgehammer nailing a spike into a railroad tie.” (Patricia Hewitt, Manhattan)
Jamelle Bouie traced the implications of Wisconsin Republicans’ threats to impeach a Democrat who only just took her seat on the state’s Supreme Court: “In the absence of national regulation — and against the backdrop of a federal Supreme Court that is, at best, apathetic on issues of voting rights — states are as liable to become laboratories of autocracy as they are to serve as laboratories of democracy.” (Robert Daasch, West Linn, Ore.)
And Maureen Dowd eulogized her friend Jimmy Buffett: “When he was a young scalawag, he found the Life Aquatic and conjured his art from it, making Key West the capital of Margaritaville. He didn’t waste away there; he spun a billion-dollar empire out of a shaker of salt.” (Cliff Seixas, Elmwood Park, N.J., and Sophie Kent of Mamaroneck, 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.
What I’m Reading, Listening to and Writing
My experiences teaching at Princeton and now Duke have convinced me that many of the students who get into such selective schools equate achievement and breaching exclusive sanctums; all the world is a competition and a culling. In that context, I was fascinated by this recent article in The Atlantic by Rachel Shin, an Ivy League junior who discovered that admission to Yale was a mere prelude to yet more applications, more auditions and more self-marketing once she got there.
While we’re on the topic of college and stress, this episode of the “Grit — Stories of Resilience” podcast showcases the thinking and work of Anne Drescher, whose course on mental health and wellness for undergraduates at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill struck a vein. Drescher discusses the challenges that students today face and how parents can help.
In last week’s newsletter, I mentioned how central Biden’s age is to voters’ feelings about him. Many of you wrote to me to point out that Trump is almost as old as Biden is. True! So why is there less focus on that? In an essay that The Times published on Monday, I answer that question.
On a Personal Note
Many of you have written to me about the excellent illustrations that accompany the opening items of this newsletter, and you’ve asked about the illustrator, his work and how he so deftly augments and complements whatever syllables I’ve managed to throw together.
His name is Ben Wiseman. He has been the go-to artist for my work in Times Opinion for more than a decade now. I had no hand in our professional marriage, but I’m immensely grateful for it — and I’ve made sure that my editors know that, lest they rethink our union.
Ben and I have never met. Until I called him recently to get some of the information that follows, we’d never spoken. But I’m such an admirer of his that, with his permission, I printed and framed a bunch of my favorite illustrations of his when I moved from New York to North Carolina, and they hang all around my house here. Visitors are constantly admiring them, not realizing their connection to me unless and until I volunteer it.
Ben is 37 and lives in Litchfield County, Conn., with his longtime romantic partner, Brian Levy, an accomplished pastry chef and cookbook author. He grew up in Lexington, Ky., and moved east to attend the Parsons School of Design in Manhattan.
What initially drew him to his current line of work, he told me, was his love of books. He’d often wander through bookstores admiring the volumes’ cleverly, beautifully designed covers. He wanted to create eye-catching, evocative, world-distilling images like those.
So he learned to and did, but book covers have been just a part of his career. His illustrations have appeared not only in The Times but also in Time magazine, The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications. He frequently creates the images on posters for theatrical productions. Additionally, he has done advertising work. You can see and savor examples of all of that in a gallery on his website.
For this newsletter, the editors and I send him a partial draft of what I’m writing or a description of what I intend to write. Working on a Wacom pen tablet, Ben creates a variety of digital illustration options and sends us three to five. We pick one.
Ben confessed that our favorite and his aren’t always the same, and that the unpredictability of what we and other clients pick has taught him to be careful about what he sends. “I’ve learned that I have to edit out what I’m not proud of,” he told me.
His hobbies? “I’m always going for long walks, listening to podcasts,” he said, singling out the ones by Michelle Collins. He’s also an ardent fan of ballet.
He recently designed the jacket for an upcoming work of nonfiction by … me. My publisher, Avid Reader Press, thought to ask him and then surprised me with that news and with the result. Which I loved!
Poor Ben. He just can’t shake me. Here’s hoping that he never tries to.