“There are men of character in the U.S. Congress, both House and Senate. There are women of character, too. But the evidence for ‘character’ needs to be something other than the iteration of the word itself,” writes Marjorie Garber in her book “Character: The History of a Cultural Obsession.”
That is a useful frame for trying to make sense of the dramas that proliferated on Capitol Hill this week as Congress took up multiple nominations to President Joe Biden’s Cabinet and held its first hearing on the January 6 insurrection. As Garber notes, the translation of individual traits into a “national character” most often occurs at “times of stress, as a marker not so much of social progress as of social and cultural anxiety.”
We saw this. Conviction and commitment (and the lack of same), and in darker terms, eccentricity, hypocrisy and excuses made for bad behavior were on full display on the nation’s highest political stage.
Dismissing hypocrisy with a laugh is part of what has left America’s political discourse vulnerable to infiltration by dangerous conspiracy theories, wrote Frida Ghitis, reacting to Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson’s remarks during hearings about the violent Capitol riots. He suggested, citing multiple discredited claims, that the day had a “jovial,” “festive” tone and that the assault had been a false-flag operation. As Ghitis pointed out: “That conspiracy theories exist and are spreading is not news, but hearing them uttered by a US senator during an official congressional hearing marks a new low, one that demands we sit up and take notice.” And because tens of millions of Americans “believe the same thing[s]… by uttering that poisonous nonsense from the halls of Congress, Johnson is pumping more fuel into a dangerous fire.”
While no huge new revelations emerged during Tuesday’s testimony about the US Capitol riots, the hearing sharpened the contours of the story, bringing into focus staggering security, defense and leadership failures, Jill Filipovic observed: “There was no shortage of finger-pointing and blame-passing, but one big takeaway was clear: We’ve barely scratched the surface of what happened on one of the most ignominious days in American history.”
Meanwhile, Biden Cabinet nominees Neera Tanden (Office of Management and Budget), Deb Haaland (Interior) and Xavier Becerra (Health and Human Services) came under fierce questioning from Republicans, putting the focus on the need for support from key moderate Democrats like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema if they are to be confirmed. In Tanden’s case, the fate of her nomination was in doubt at week’s end. Andrea González-Ramírez, writing for Gen, noted of the nominees, all of whom would be history-making firsts in their positions if confirmed: “I saw a familiar pattern develop. Regardless of their actual record and without even having a chance to discuss it, nominees of color … have been painted as ‘famously partisan’ people with ‘radical’ ideas.” (González-Ramírez, joining a huge portion of the internet, also mentioned the hypocrisy of going after anyone in the Biden administration for “mean” tweets, given the behavior of the previous administration.)
More smart takes:
Thomas Balcerski: What Biden and Pelosi can learn from a 1941-1942 presidential commission
Going big on relief
Some pandemic-era unemployment benefits are set to expire March 14, and the House kicked into high gear this week to advance the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package—which included a provision to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour from $7.25. On Saturday the House passed the relief bill — and the minimum wage hike, though that will be stripped out in the Senate version after a ruling by the Senate parliamentarian. Colleen Doody wrote in the Washington Post’s “Made By History” that much of the debate on that issue leaves out an important historical point borne out by the original New Deal minimum wage legislation: “The basic idea: Raising wages would increase consumption, thus giving businesses the incentive to hire more workers. It worked, reminding us today that mandating higher wages doesn’t just increase standards of living. It boosts the economy.”
The relief bill now heads to the Senate. Writing for CNN Business Perspectives, economist Joseph Stiglitz argued that “Congress must pass this legislation or risk an anemic and devastatingly incomplete recovery.” In the Washington Post, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman took issue with the package as overly massive and insufficiently bipartisan: “The Biden administration’s partisan approach repeats the same mistake that Barack Obama made early in his presidency. It sets the wrong tone for the beginning of a new administration and risks undermining other bipartisan efforts going forward.”
A pandemic turning point?
On the grim milestone of 500,000 Covid deaths, CNN medical analyst Jonathan Reiner offered a reminder that big lies can be deadly: “The January 6 attack on the United States Capitol was a vivid demonstration of the havoc that can result when a really big lie is repeatedly injected into the body politic. But there was another big lie in 2020, also propagated by former President Donald Trump…a lie that systematically downplayed the severity of Covid-19 and the utility of face masks, and very likely resulted in the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans.” The pandemic’s cost isn’t limited to lives lost; it also includes a tally of lives broken beyond repair. Writing in the New York Times, nurse Theresa Brown shared harrowing stories of nurses across the country whose careers and existences are crumbling under the onslaught of unyielding and traumatizing demands.
As vaccine efforts continued, Bhaskar Chakravorti described how expanding accessibility to modern technology could make the rollout more equitable as Black Americans continue to bear the brunt of the pandemic: “Black households tend to have less access to computers and the internet compared with White households. …The digital divide only exacerbates the issue of equitable access to public health. The first step to fixing this inequity is acknowledging that Covid-19 is more than a public health crisis and an economic crisis. It is also an information crisis.” Kent Sepkowitz, also a CNN medical analyst, wrote about life after receiving both doses of the vaccine and the questions it raises: What can I do now? What should I not do? “For me,” he reflected, “the answer is clear…. The best advice, alas, is what the CDC is pushing: continue to hunker down and keep on doing what you’re doing.“
More key insights:
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Sheila Davis: Bring on the reinforcements: The workers who could get us through this crisis
Kathy Giusti: What Covid can teach us about cancer
Dr. Megan Ranney: I’m worried the Olympics can’t be made safe against Covid
Trump has CPAC, but Biden has kryptonite
The American Conservative Union’s annual Conservative Political Action Conference was one of the first big GOP stages to set its lights for Donald Trump. The defeated former president, under pressure after the Supreme Court gave the Manhattan DA access to his tax returns and banned from Twitter, is making this year’s conference — themed “America Uncanceled” — the site of his first major public address since he left the White House.
For Dean Obeidallah, CPAC’s invitation to Trump was itself a clear signal that conservatives and Republicans are trying to sell a new “Big Lie”: that assaulting democracy through post-election lies and incitement to insurrection isn’t that big a deal — “or worse, such conduct is acceptable in pursuit of political power.”
One key aspect of CPAC: It’s sure to put a spotlight on the MAGA side of the intra-squad tension among Republicans over whether they should remain the Party of Trump. Former RNC chair Richard Bond explored how those factions have warred within the life and career of a single lawmaker: Lindsey Graham, whose whipsawing transformation from voice of reason to sycophant reveals him to be, in Bond’s estimation, the consummate “political opportunist [who] has placed his desire for power above his own professed standards of decency.”
According to Julian Zelizer, Trump’s CPAC appearance gives Biden a unique opportunity to counter Trump’s likely bluster — by not reacting. “Starting this weekend, the President can deliver the kind of political blow that hurts Trump more than anything else — he can ignore him. Indifference is Trump’s kryptonite. If Biden can pull it off…this will leave him on the strongest political ground.”
Another smart take:
Jennifer Rodgers: On Trump’s taxes, here’s where it gets interesting
Biden’s global challenges
On Friday, the Biden administration released a long-anticipated intelligence report on the gruesome death in 2018 of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The report found Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman responsible for the killing, but Biden declined to take any direct action against him. In so doing, affirmed Peter Bergen, Biden’s administration is reflecting the reality of a longtime marriage of convenience between Washington and Riyadh: “the new administration is hoping a mere rebuke and a slap on the wrist will be enough to signal the changing tides of US foreign policy after the Trump administration. At the same time, the Biden administration wants to maintain an alliance that has served both countries’ interests reasonably well for the better half of the last century.”
With an airstrike Thursday against Iran-backed Syrian militias, Biden signaled in a measured and direct way — more than his previous two predecessors — that Iran can no longer use militias in Syria and Iraq as proxies to attack western, especially American, interests anywhere in the region, argued David Andelman. He wrote: “If the administration’s posture in the region remains one of reasoned but consistent toughness, Iran may restrain itself from any tit-for-tat retaliation and response. It may now understand the price it could pay for failing to respond to US overtures at diplomacy — and continuing to back those militias.”
More sharp commentary:
Michael Eisner and Abdullah Alaoudh: How Biden can strike a blow against Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations
The time is now to confront hate
As the disturbing rise in violence against Asian Americans continues, former federal prosecutor Shan Wu argued that prosecutors need to charge anti-Asian violence as hate crimes to effectively deter future racists from inflicting pain not just on the victim but on the entire Asian American community. Prosecutors are often reluctant to charge hate crimes because they don’t want to risk losing, Wu wrotes, but “having hate crime laws on the books and not using them undermines confidence in the criminal justice system far more because it sends the message that hate crimes do not really matter.”
Bigotry and hatred in our history, unless rooted out and fully addressed, leave toxic traces that cannot heal. As the US contends with its Confederate monuments and slavery-built past, wrote Lev Golinkin, the nation must also reckon with its role in allowing some Nazi and Nazi collaborators to seek refuge here after World War II. Golinkin wrote: “We’re in the middle of a heated national conversation fueled by a hunger for racial justice. But how can we hope to acknowledge the impact of centuries-old institutions like slavery and Jim Crow when we can’t be honest about coddling perpetrators of the Holocaust, which still has living eyewitnesses, victims and veterans? We can’t get to 1619 if we can’t get past 1945.”
The problem with comfort zones
This is the last weekend of Black History Month, and US House majority whip Rep. James Clyburn took stock of the sobering challenges Americans face: the pandemic, chronic economic insecurity, growing racial divides and gender inequities. Clyburn made a passionate case that getting beyond this difficult moment requires all of us to reflect on moments in Black history when people got out of their comfort zones to help make America better: “We may feel safe and secure remaining inside our bubble interacting only with those who look and think like us. But doing so risks living in echo chambers and insular existences.“
How to bridge the gaps between those echo chambers is one goal of “Renegades: Born in the U.S.A.,” a new podcast with former President Barack Obama and rock superstar Bruce Springsteen. And while their “conversations across the divide” approach may work for these two legends, observed Nicole Hemmer, they don’t “truly reckon with the structures and forces that are eroding American democracy, nor get at the deeper challenges around race and justice in the US.” The show “feels like it’s doing the hard work of thinking about race,” noted Hemmer, and the problem is “that will suffice for people whose primary goal is to feel like they’re doing that work.” Actually getting the change made is another matter entirely.
More on Black History Month:
Peniel Joseph: We can finally meet the real Malcolm X
Terence Moore: What Tiger Woods means to Black America
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The Beat legend who was the hive and the honey
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who died this week at 101, was the center of a literary revolution, remembered Tess Taylor. As a poet, the founder of City Lights and City Lights Press—respectively, a bookstore that democratized literature as the first to sell only paperbacks and a press that fought for free speech in its publication and defense in court of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” — Ferlinghetti was the crux of an ecosystem of poetry and culture that fostered generations of poets, including Taylor, and built a California world where words could thrive for all.
Wrote Taylor: “Here was not only a poet but a movement. Here was a hive and honey. Whether we ever wrote poetry like Ferlinghetti, or like the Beat Poets he championed, or like the formalist poet Marie Ponsot, who he also championed, he had made more spaces to which we could respond, as if the web of connections he had built simply made more oxygen in the air.”