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By Frank Bruni
Mr. Bruni is a contributing Opinion writer who was on the staff of The Times for more than 25 years.
Messages don’t come any more mixed.
An overwhelming majority of Democrats and independents who lean Democratic believe that President Biden has done a good job — 81 and 78 percent, respectively, according to a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll. They can see what an increasingly ungovernable country we’ve become, how much he has accomplished despite that, how admirably he has kept his cool (for the most part) and how well he has honored his overarching promise: to put the puerile and corrosive drama of the Trump administration behind us. For Donald Trump, we needed noise-canceling headphones. For Biden, hearing aids.
The silence is golden.
Regardless, 58 percent of those same Democrats and independents said that they want a Democratic presidential candidate other than Biden in 2024. They seem to like him. They’re apparently grateful for him. Yet they’re ready to kick him to the curb.
It doesn’t add up. And the person to whom the arithmetic must feel strangest — and coldest — is Biden.
During his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, he strongly signaled that he’ll seek re-election. So that settles that? I don’t think so, not when you factor in the metabolism of politics today, the predictable unpredictability of the world, and his age, 80, which comes with the increased possibility of deteriorating health and sudden illness.
The worries about his ability to endure the rigors of a presidential campaign and come out a winner aren’t going away. Nor will the calls for him to wise up, stand down and let a younger, fresher, more dynamic Democrat claim the center of the stage.
My Times colleague Michelle Goldberg issued such a plea in a column on Monday. I second it. I agree with her analysis, including her assessment of a Democratic bench deeper and more interesting than the party’s perpetually self-doubting downers realize. I wrote about that bench last November — and I didn’t even include Gov. Wes Moore of Maryland or Gov. Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania, promising leaders for whom 2024 is just a bit too soon.
But I nonetheless want to pause and fully acknowledge what an extraordinary and difficult thing Michelle, I and others are asking Biden to do.
It took him, well, forever to reach the top. That’s perhaps the most compelling part of his political story — his patience, his perseverance, his resilience. And now that he finally stands at the summit, we’re telling him not to get too comfy or savor the view for too long?
In saving us from a second term of Trump, Biden quite likely saved us from ruin. And so … we’re done with him?
That’s beyond cold. It’s close to cruel.
On Tuesday night, as he delivered his State of the Union speech, he mustered more energy than he was thought to possess, projected as much confidence as he ever has and radiated a good humor that’s at odds with the heavy burden of the presidency. It was the kind of performance that, in some ways, should quiet people’s doubts. But it won’t.
I know because my doubts aren’t quieted. I registered his endearing brio as he made his remarks, but I also registered his stumbles, the moments when he seemed to lose his way. He has had many of them over recent years. There are surely many, many more to come.
And while it’s impossible to say what or how much they mean, it’s equally impossible to deny that they could mean something; that a presidential campaign is a physically and psychologically grueling odyssey for anyone, let alone for someone who’s 80; and that any unsteadiness Biden exhibits is a window of opportunity for a Republican challenger. That’s a big, legitimate concern.
Campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, Biden told us to choose him over the other contenders because the stakes of depriving Trump a second term were incalculable and he was the safest bet against Trump. He carried the least risk.
Well, the stakes in 2024 aren’t much different, whether or not Trump secures his party’s nomination, because whichever Republican emerges victorious from the Republican primaries will have been touched and corrupted by Trump’s election denialism, his attacks on democratic institutions, his zest for provocation, his resentments, his divisiveness.
So, Democrats once again need to tread a cautious path. That caution explains the paradox of the poll I previously mentioned, and that caution is Biden’s lesson and legacy — which is how he should look at it. Democratic voters aren’t faithless or fickle. They’re fearful, just as he told them to be.
In other words, they’ve been listening to what he’s been saying since Trump came along. That’s a compliment to him. It’s a tribute. May he bask in it.
For the Love of Sentences
We usually end with The Times but let’s start there this week, especially given Victoria Kim’s gorgeous description of living (and driving) on the jagged slopes of Big Sur: “He listened for trickling water, for tumbling rocks big and small, for errant rumbles — signs that the earth was once again about to mock the hubris of those who once saw fit to carve a road into the Santa Lucia Mountains where they plunge directly into the ocean.” (Thanks to Clive Mostyn, of Parksville, British Columbia, for nominating this.)
Also in The Times, Susan Dominus went to the doctor: “The meeting was only my second with this gynecologist, a woman who struck me as chic, professional and in a bit of a hurry, which was to be expected, as she is part of a large health care group — the kind that makes you think you’d rather die from whatever’s ailing you than try to navigate its phone tree one more time.” (Daphne Chellos, Boulder, Colo., and Liz Regula, Hackensack, N.J., among others)
Nicholas Kristof questioned various words on linguistic scolds’ no-fly list: “As for my friends who are homeless, what they yearn for isn’t to be called houseless; they want housing.” (John Jacoby, Cambridge, Mass.)
Michelle Cottle previewed the State of the Union address: “One question that always carries with it a frisson of unease during big presidential addresses: On a scale of 1 to Lauren Boebert, how disrespectfully will members of the opposing party behave?” (Elaine Walter, Syracuse, N.Y.)
Adam Liptak reacted to the supposed condescension that Ted Cruz, who went to Princeton, expressed toward graduates of what he deemed “minor Ivies” like Brown and the University of Pennsylvania: “That may strike you as slicing the baloney of elitism awfully thin.” (Henry Von Kohorn, Princeton, N.J.)
And Clay Risen paid tribute to the iconic status of Peeps, the marshmallow Easter confections: “It’s the sort of pop-culture celebrity to make a Mounds bar jealous.” (Andrew Wolff, Brooklyn, N.Y.)
The Economist examined a winter pastime: “In ancient Israel, somebody walking across a body of water constituted a miracle. In Minnesota, it just means that it is ice fishing season.” (Rich Scissors, Sarasota, Fla., and Bill Smith, Toronto)
In USA Today, Rex Huppke marveled at Biden’s interactions with booing Republicans on Tuesday night: “I’ve never seen anything like it in a State of the Union speech — they ran at him like a pack of lemmings and, with a wink and a grin, he politely directed them to the cliff.” (Rudy Brynolfson, Minneapolis, and Millie Baumbusch, Atlanta, among others)
In The San Francisco Chronicle, Soleil Ho traced the trajectory of restaurant meals from early 2020 on: “Dining out became pretty janky; and then, after Covid restrictions were pulled back, it took on a refreshed and uncanny grandiosity, like the guttural, ecstatic scream you might unleash after a week of silence.” (David Zielonka, San Francisco)
And in The Atlantic, Sophie Gilbert described the onetime ubiquity of an American sex symbol with the first name Pamela: “In the ’90s, Anderson was one of the most famous women in the world, the highest-paid actress on the most-watched television show (that would be ‘Baywatch’), her scarlet swimsuit and box-blond curls covering more bedroom walls than Sherwin Williams.” (Peggy Crowe, Asheville, N.C.)
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, Writing and Saying
Although I’ve never actually lived in Austin, Texas, I’ve easily spent, in aggregate, a year’s worth of time there, from 1999 to the present. For a while I was a regular at the Austin City Limits Music Festival every fall. I watched the city grow and grow, and up until at least 2010 and maybe even 2015, I disagreed somewhat with locals’ complaints about that: Austin was still amply funky, but with a newly cosmopolitan shimmer that flattered it. Now? Austin is in a whole new, tall, traffic-snarled and unaffordable league — and its measure is taken perfectly and fascinatingly by Lawrence Wright in this excellent article in The New Yorker.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders was inaugurated as the governor of Arkansas on Jan. 10 and had never held elected office before. So Republicans’ selection of her to give the party’s official response to President Biden’s State of the Union address on Tuesday says a great deal about their confidence in her, their hopes for her and their belief that she personifies the Republican Party today. I reflected on all of this in an essay about her rise that The Times published on Tuesday.
The paperback of my most recent book, “The Beauty of Dusk,” was released on Tuesday. The book’s website has additional information about it. So does this review in The Times that was published last February, right before the hardcover came out. I recorded the audio version in a studio in Chapel Hill, N.C., not far from my home, and that had special meaning for me, given the nature of my story and how many books I now “read” with my ears.
On a Personal (By Which I Mean Regan) Note
There’s an amplitude of joy and magnitude of relief that tip into mania, and that’s Regan’s state when I return from a work trip of several days, as I did last weekend, to retrieve her from the “lodge” for dogs where I sometimes board her.
She hurls herself against me, bounces off and then runs madly in circles while making these ear-shredding sounds that aren’t exactly barks and not quite yelps but definitely the result of bottled-up emotion exploding. I imagine that she’s regaling me with a litany of the ways in which she has been deprived, admonishing me for my betrayal and outlining my penance, starting with a trip to the nearby Starbucks for a “pup cup” of whipped cream.
But what really gets me — the reason I’m sharing this, its relevance beyond us dog lovers — is her behavior minutes later, when we arrive home and she jumps from the car. She zooms to the center of the front yard, finds the best vantage point and does a visual sweep of the cul-de-sac, as if to make sure that nothing has changed. Then she zips into the house and does a similar inspection, room by room.
Her water and food bowls, in a corner of the kitchen: check.
Her main bed, just beside the hearth in the living room: check.
Her other bed, in a spare room upstairs: check.
My bed, on which she jumps whenever she pleases: check.
Her inventory is methodical, and when it’s finished, the sense of comfort, security and contentment that settles over her and emanates from her is palpable. If it had a voice and a script, they would be Judy Garland’s in “The Wizard of Oz.” There’s no place like home.
She can’t know, as I do, how lucky we are to have this one. But she can savor it nonetheless, and it’s clear to me that she’s doing precisely that when, depleted by the days of uncertainty and disorientation, she collapses on one of those beds and falls into an unfathomably deep sleep.
I look at her and see more than a still mound of silky fur. I see the meaning and the gift, in a world that often separates us without warning from the people and places we love, of a refuge where everything is as you left it. Where your defenses can come down. And where you can find peace enough to dream.
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