Is America Ready for a Single President?

Cory Booker

Originally published in POLITICO Magazine.

The American public is fascinated by bachelorhood, and also eager to see single men married off—hence our keen interest in the dating habits of British royals, and the umpteen-thousand hours produced of “The Bachelor.” As much as the boundaries and definitions of marriage have changed—and over the course of the nation’s history, they’ve changed dramatically—matrimony is still seen as the normal state of a responsible adult. And, under most circumstances, we want our presidents to seem normal, and responsible.

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How Trump Got Bad at Twitter

Donald Trump

Originally published in Politico Magazine.

If you still think of Trump as the tweeter-in-chief, master of the pithy insult and well-placed exclamation point, just visit his feed. The crisp, unpredictable tweets from the start of his presidency have largely become rambling and verbose. His account is weirdly turgid, loaded with ponderous attacks on his perceived enemies and obscure multipart arguments about his legal situation. At other times, it veers as close as Trump has ever sounded to Washingtonesque.

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Christine Blasey-Ford and the Power of Vulnerability

Christine Blasey Ford, wearing a navy blue suit, tears up while testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Originally published in Politico Magazine.

What we weren’t prepared for was the quaking. The quivering voice, the shy affect, the facial expression of abject terror. Reading Christine Blasey Ford’s prepared statements to the Senate Judiciary Committee, released to the public on Wednesday, was nothing like watching it on TV or hearing it on the radio. The words on paper were moving; the live event was overpowering—so filled with raw emotion that, on Twitter, a stream of women reported that it was wrenching to watch.

Thursday’s hearing was always going to be an uncomfortable hybrid, with some of the trappings of a courtroom proceeding and some of a political spectacle: Arizona prosecutor Rachel Mitchell, using Republican senators’ time with polite but methodical grilling, alternating with Democratic senators’ emotional statements, calibrated for a viewing audience. It wouldn’t be due process, exactly—not a forum for weighing evidence, but a test of character and credibility. That’s why the prehearing chatter Thursday morning was heavy with speculation about Ford’s motives: rallies she had attended, money she had given to Democratic candidates, reasons she might have waited to accuse Judge Brett Kavanaugh by name.

But as Ford started talking, the fact that she had undergone real trauma was hard to dispute. Mitchell, a seasoned prosecutor in sex crimes cases, acutely aware of how cross-examinations can sound to a sympathetic jury, acknowledged it from the start: “I just wanted to tell you that what first struck me from your statement this morning is that you were terrified. I just wanted to let you know, I’m very sorry. That’s not right.”

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Is this the next Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?

Ayanna Pressley is pictured. | AP Photo

Originally published in Politico Magazine.

A few weeks before Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won her New York congressional primary, Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley spoke to a roomful of young Democrats at the Bell-in-Hand, a Boston tavern that dates back to 1795. She was explaining why she should unseat a congressman who, she suggested, might as well have been in office for that long.

It wasn’t that her opponent in Massachusetts’ 7th District, 10-term Rep. Michael Capuano, had a voting record that was objectionable, or had neglected the district for a national profile—the standard complaints you hear in a primary challenge. Instead, it was a question of approach, of personal history translated to legislative priorities, of the value in filling Massachusetts’ only majority-minority district—currently served by a 66-year-old white man—with a 44-year-old black woman who has experienced the struggles of the inner city. Pressley talked, with a lyrical lilt, about growing up in Chicago with a single mother; her father’s incarceration; her survival of sexual assault. She said she’d draw renewed attention to the economic and social disparities within the district, the way income and life expectancy vary precinct by precinct.

“Voting the right way is one thing,” Pressley told the group. “But I want to lead, and I want to legislate our values.”

The Pressley-Capuano contest, which takes place September 4, is not just another battle in the civil war between the Democratic Party’s progressive left and its moderate center. Instead, this race tells a different story about the party, and its clogged pipeline of talent.

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How to raise a Trump

Originally published in the Boston Globe.

If you’re obsessed with the news cycle and inclined toward anxiety, one way to get through this strange time in American history is to see it as just that: another chapter in a long national story, full of novelistic characters with rich back stories and complex motivations.

Peel away the politics and unfounded innuendo from “Fire and Fury,” Michael Wolff’s book about the first months of the Trump administration, and that’s what you get: a family saga about a colorful band of social climbing publicity hounds who never expected to actually be handed global power, and don’t really know what to do with it.

These same characters are the focus of “Born Trump,” the new family biography by Vanity Fair senior reporter Emily Jane Fox. But unlike “Fire and Fury,” this book is not concerned with policy positions, or really about government at all. It starts on the day of Trump’s inauguration, then promptly moves backward in time to become an encyclopedic retelling of pre-2016 Trump family drama (largely featuring the children, along with Jared Kushner), for those of us who weren’t following the New York gossip press for all of those decades.

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Camilla and what might have been

Camilla

Originally published in WBUR’s Cognoscenti

It was a lovely wedding, wasn’t it? Perfect day, perfect dress, perfect crowd, perfect songs, all to underscore how much has changed: the traditions that were waived, and possibly scrapped, so these two people could get what they deserved. Meghan and Harry didn’t need to worry about lineage or parentage, divorce or religion or race, any of the outdated rules that used to dictate lives in the fishbowl of the Palace. All they had to think about was love.

So the preacher preached, and the TV commentators gushed: they’re in love, love is grand, love is the most important thing. Al Roker, standing alongside British street in a purple suit and hat, was so buoyant that it seemed like he might float into the sky.

I scanned St. George’s Chapel on the TV feed, and everyone seemed happy in there, too, with a few apparent exceptions. One was Victoria Beckham, but her customary wardrobe is stilettos and a scowl. Another was the former Camilla Parker-Bowles, Duchess of Cornwall, wife of Prince Charles. And for a moment there, I guessed what she might have been thinking: Under different circumstances, some four decades ago, she might have had a wedding like this, too.

Yes, I’m making a leap. It could be that Camilla was smiling when the cameras weren’t looking, or frowning because her colossal hat was making her scalp itch, or because she was having a little spat with Kate. But if you’ve gorged on TV dramas about the royal family, followed the comic and tragic turns of these strange and sheltered people, it’s easy to imagine the sting. What if all of those traditions hadn’t mattered years ago?

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How Trump inspired ‘Roseanne’

Roseanne

Originally published in Politico Magazine.

In the first episode of “Roseanne,” the ’90s sitcom that launches a revival run on ABC on Tuesday, we learn that Roseanne Conner and her sister Jackie haven’t spoken in a year, on account of the 2016 election. Roseanne, played by the outspoken comedian Roseanne Barr, voted for Donald Trump. Jackie, played by Laurie Metcalf, did not. “Not only did she vote for the worst person on Earth,” Roseanne says, “but she was a real jerk about it, too.” Jackie shows up at the house wearing a pink pussy hat and a “Nasty Woman” T-shirt. After a tense dinner, the sisters shout and parry; Roseanne explains her vote—“He talked about jobs, Jackie. He said he’d shape things up”—and Jackie tells Roseanne what she was really thinking on Election Day, and whom she really voted for. No one switches sides, but they declare a truce and return to their default relationship, loving but comically strained.

It’s the most overtly political exchange in the episode, and in the nine-episode season overall, says executive producer Bruce Helford. But the way he describes it, it’s also a metaphor for the series and its overarching goals. Barr herself is a vocal Trump supporter, and has talked about how meaningful it felt to place one of TV’s quintessential working-class families in Year Two of the Trump administration. So I asked Helford, who also worked on the original show, about the producers’ intention. Was it to appeal to Trump voters, who might finally see themselves in sympathetic TV characters? To explain the Trump-voter mind-set to coastal elites? To bridge the gap between two sides?

Helford responded by talking about conversations. As ever-present as politics might be in people’s lives today, he notes, we often avoid tough discussions, in real life, with people on the opposite side.

“There are lots of families that are divided. It’s like a civil war,” Helford says, recounting some of his own family gatherings, where people steered away from political topics because they knew things would get too heated or cruel. “What’s really important to ‘Roseanne,’ and for all of us, is to put the whole discourse out in the open,” he says. “We’re hoping we can bring a kind of dialogue back.”

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Why isn’t Hillary Clinton moving on?

Hillary Politico

Originally published in Politico Magazine.

It’s tough to lose an election for student council, let alone for president. So it made sense that, after November 2016, Hillary Clinton would have spent some time wallowing in the past, howling at the universe with a side of Chardonnay. That’s the frame of mind she described in What Happened, her post-campaign memoir that came out in September, which was more of an angry play-by-play of how she was wronged than a clear-headed self-assessment of the race. Now, five months after the book came out, 15 months after the election, Clinton’s been spotted promoting family friend Lanny Davis’ new book, The Unmaking of the President 2016: How FBI Director James Comey Cost Hillary Clinton the Presidency.

We just passed Groundhog Day on the calendar, but it feels like we’re still living it; we can’t break free from the gnashing and rehashing of the 2016 election. It’s not just the Mueller probe and legitimate questions about Russian influence. It’s the emotional notes of triumph and defeat. President Donald Trump hasn’t dropped the subject, which is as perplexing as anything else Trump has done. But Clinton hasn’t dropped it, either. And at this point, she should.

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Doritos and a Lady-Friendly Future

Doritos

Originally published in WBUR’s Cognoscenti.

Don’t talk to me right now. I am sad, in the way that only a hormonal woman can be sad, about the fact that Doritos won’t be coming out with a line of “lady-friendly” junk food.

Word of that glorious product spread like wildfire after Indra Nooyi, the (female) CEO of Doritos’ parent company, went on a podcast and describedsome market research that yielded important insights into the feminine mind: Women don’t want to chew too loudly, they don’t want to lick powdered fake-cheese residue from their fingertips, and they want a bag of snacks they can fit into their purse.

Has Nooyi seen a normal woman’s purse? Mine is so large that it could hold a party-size bag of Doritos, a two-liter bottle of soda, and a roast chicken, though it would take me 15 minutes to root around and find them.

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Oh, the places you’ll go when you’re blinded by politics

Melania books

Originally published in WBUR’s Cognoscenti

By now, you’ve likely heard about the Cambridge school librarian and her open letter to Melania Trump. The First Lady had committed the act of sending the school 10 free Dr. Seuss books, in honor of National Read a Book Day. The librarian published a blog post rejecting the gift — it should go to needier schools, she wrote — and trashing Dr. Seuss for good measure, on the grounds of being “a tired and worn ambassador for children’s literature” who is also “a bit of a cliché,” and … wait for it … “steeped in racist propaganda.”

It’s such luscious Cantabridgian self-parody that picking it apart feels almost too easy. As most preschoolers are taught, the proper response, when presented with a gift you don’t want, is “thank you,” with no further commentary. And dismissing Dr. Seuss’s entire body of work as racist? “The Sneetches,” published in 1961, is the foundational text for teaching the perils of prejudice. (If you don’t believe me, ask Barack Obama.)

The Cambridge schools have already taken care of scolding the librarian. Now, we’re left to consider the sadder part of this story: why it’s so easy, these days, for smart people to lose all sense of perspective. Because this librarian is hardly alone. In an age of outrage, tribal warfare, and proudly-proclaimed resistance, we’ve lost something big: The ability to call them as we see them.

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