Peaks are lonely places. They don’t accommodate crowds. And Joe Biden, at the pinnacle of American politics, is to some degree isolated, as all presidents wind up being. Not many people have real, meaningful access to him. Not many voices break through.
But he’ll spend Thanksgiving Day on Nantucket in a tight circle of trust, among family members who command his affection and have his ear. It’s perhaps the best and last opportunity for those relatives, as a group, to talk about the grueling, uncertain road from now to Election Day 2024.
I wish them a tender turkey. I wish them an equally tender heart-to-heart.
I hope that Biden’s family, as proxies for many of the rest of us, give him thanks for the seriousness and sageness that he brings to the presidency and for the prudent investments that he has made in America, reflecting his commitment to its ideals. I hope that they thank him for saving us from the alternative, a foul-tempered tyrant whose insistence on adulation trumps any shred of respect for democracy.
But I also hope that they make sure that Biden is equipped to do that again. That he has the right answers for the toughest questions, the right energy for the toughest junctures. That he has a clearheaded, ego-purged understanding of the odds against him, which must seem incredible: After all of Donald Trump’s contemptible actions and all of his contemptuous words, can he really be this viable a contender? Can he possibly be in a position stronger than he was four years ago?
Yes, he can. In an angry and twitchy era, incumbency isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, no matter the incumbent’s accomplishments. “The proof is in the pudding,” Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, told reporters on Monday, which was Biden’s 81st birthday, citing the many high points in his record and defending his fitness for another four years. Indeed it is, but voters could well crave a different dessert, even if it’s the devil’s food cake that gave them indigestion before.
Biden’s family can tell him that with a frankness that key aides no doubt skirt. His relatives needn’t fret as much about irking him. They needn’t worry about being cut off.
I’m sure that he understands that the stakes are as high as they were in 2020. Actually, to go by the coup that Trump attempted after voters rejected him then and his vocabulary since (“retribution,” “final battle,” “vermin”), the stakes are higher.
But does Biden understand how distant and out of touch he seems to many younger voters? They were key to his 2020 victory, but there’s increasing evidence that some of them are drifting away from him, their estrangement accentuated by generational differences of opinion about Israel’s actions and Palestinians’ plight.
He’ll have several of his seven grandchildren with him at the Thanksgiving table. Maybe one of them — perhaps Naomi Biden, 29, with whom he’s especially close — could probe whether he has a message for people their age. For many young people, America is a land of unaffordable luxuries and exorbitant necessities, with prices higher because of the inflation on his watch.
Whether he’s responsible for that doesn’t matter — he must answer for it nonetheless. That’s how the presidency works. And he needs better answers than the ones that he has been giving so far; he should focus less on litigating the past than on recognizing the here and now. He has to reassure voters that he’s in tune with their hurt, in touch with their anxiety, on top of fixes for it — that Scranton Joe hasn’t vanished behind all that White House frippery and gilt.
It’s the economy, always. Foreign conflict is in the foreground of the news right now, but seldom in the forefront of most voters’ minds when they choose presidents. And the discrete abortion votes this year and last don’t really tell us how much of an advantage Biden might get next year from his support of reproductive rights. Voters looking beyond the economy will be weighing an array of factors.
They’ll be weighing illegal immigration. Can Biden communicate adequate concern about that despite a surge in border crossings during his administration? Can he squarely acknowledge and persuasively allay voters’ fears about crime?
They’ll be weighing the candidates’ vigor, too. The polls are clear on that. Biden’s family can surely broach that topic more bluntly than his aides can. They should ask him again, even if they’ve asked him before: Does he have a plan for the pace of the next 11-plus months? When he’s brutally honest in his self-assessment, does he feel the same vim that he did in the past?
If he doesn’t, there’s no shame in that — in fact, there’s honor in the acceptance of it. His family should make that clear, just as they should promise him that if it’s all systems go, if this is it, they’ll be there for whatever he needs. They’ll be rooting for him harder than they ever have. That’s precisely what I’ll be doing. It’s what I’ll urge everyone else to do as well.
Words Worth Sidelining
When you tell me that you’re now giving it to me straight, should I assume that you were previously giving it to me crooked? That’s my question whenever people begin sentences with the phrase “to tell the truth,” the word “honestly” or another preamble along those lines.
I know, I know: They’re often using the expression reflexively, ornamentally, the way a sprig of parsley is nestled beside an overcooked charity-banquet chicken breast. I’m not supposed to digest it.
But I do. And the assurance has an effect opposite its intent.
“In all honesty,” “to be perfectly honest” — were you in the realm of partial or imperfect honesty before?
“Truthfully” — does that mean you said everything else mendaciously?
I recognize other possible dynamics behind those locutions. The people deploying them may be doing so consciously, in an effort to put whatever they say next in a spotlight, to signal that it’s the kind of thing about which other people frequently lie, to underscore the daring of their candor. They may be deliberately fiddling with the music of their syntax.
But are any of those benefits worth the cost, which is that skeptics like me go into high alert? The way I see it, people proactively vouching for their own credibility must have reason to believe it’s in doubt. Methinks they doth protest too much.
And me points out the name of the social media platform that Donald Trump, one of the most prolific liars I have ever beheld (or is that beheard?), turned to after his fictions got him tossed from Twitter:
It’s called Truth Social.
Words Worth Sidelining is a recurring newsletter feature. It last appeared in this newsletter in early September.
For the Love of Sentences
In The Times, Dwight Garner noted how little a certain conservative cable network has been affected by the revelations of its bald fictions and blatant exaggerations: “Fox News, at this point, resembles a car whose windshield is thickly encrusted with traffic citations. Yet this car (surely a Hummer) manages to barrel out anew each day, plowing over six more mailboxes, five more crossing guards, four elderly scientists, three communal enterprises, two trans kids and a solar panel.” (Thanks to Steven R. Strahler of Oak Park, Ill., and Barbara Walker of Rapid City, S. D., among many others, for nominating this gem.)
Matt Flegenheimer traced the trajectory of Russell Brand: “With Jesus-length hair, multidenominational tattoos and promises of unspecified revolution, Brand, 48, had in recent years been reaching millions daily across a media and wellness empire, fusing the downward-facing dogmatism of a proper guru with the cold efficiency of the YouTube algorithm.” (Mika Cooper, Bloomfield Hills, Mich., and Peter Pruim, Easton, Penn., among many others)
Jamelle Bouie diagnosed the problem with the Florida governor’s presidential campaign: “Ron DeSantis cannot escape the fact that it makes no real sense to try to run as a more competent Donald Trump, for the simple reason that the entire question of competence is orthogonal to Trump’s appeal.” (Pat Marriott, Wilmington, N.C.)
Ross Douthat mulled Vivek Ramaswamy: “Underneath all the attention seeking, trolling and performative obnoxiousness, there’s a guy making some interesting points that no other Republican is making. Underneath the guy making some interesting points, alas, there’s an attention-seeking troll.” (Bob McNabb, St John, Virgin Islands, and Dan Stone, Centerport, N.Y., among others)
And Nicholas Kristof reported soulfully after a trip to the Middle East: “If you weep only for Israeli children, or only for Palestinian children, you have a problem that goes beyond tear ducts.” (Michael Rubin, Napa, Calif.)
In The Washington Post, Monica Hesse reflected on a devolution in congressional comportment: “The Capitol has become, since the events of Jan. 6, 2021, much like an expensive sofa purchased by the parents of toddlers. In the beginning, there were rules — no food, no shoes — and an agreement that this object is to be treated with care and respect. But then someone has a massive diaper blowout on the center cushion — an insurrection, if you will — and the stain can’t be removed, and after that a few toast crumbs no longer seem like such a big deal. Before you know it, the whole Congress is spray-painting the couch with grape juice and Go-Gurt.” (Pam Walker, Corning, N.Y., and Georgia Walsworth, Cranston, R.I., among many others)
Also in The Post, Ron Charles recalled: “During the War of 1812, the British burned the Library of Congress. (This was long ago, when our young nation had to outsource the destruction of its books.)” In the same article, he implored readers to remember: “Every time someone goes to a book festival, a book-banning devil loses his wings.” (Lana Nelson, Annapolis, Md., and Carol Ross, University City, Mo.)
In The Wall Street Journal, J.R. Moehringer weighed in on the Talyor Swift-Travis Kelce romance: “More study has been dedicated to the opening salvos of their relationship than to the first seconds of the Big Bang, and thus far both origins remain a mystery. People have even speculated that Kelce somehow spoke his desire into the universe and just — manifested Swift?” (John Russial, Eugene, Ore., and Steve Magnino, Columbia, Mo.)
And in The Globe and Mail of Toronto, Cathal Kelly used the controversy surrounding the University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh as a springboard for observations about Americans’ attachments to their alma maters and to college sports: “In America, university isn’t a place you drink for four years. It’s a personality. You aren’t just an accountant. You’re an accountant who went to Carnegie Mellon.” Also: “One of the many ways in which America makes no sense is the adulation, verging on veneration, it bestows on college sports coaches. The guys who got Apollo to the moon? Borrrring. The guy at Alabama who perfected the wishbone? Let us learn from you, wise master.” (Michelle Gage, Toronto)
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.
On a Personal Note (Travel Edition)
If it’s strange to be far from home and separated from your loved ones on any major holiday, it’s doubly strange if you’re an American, you’re somewhere outside the United States and the holiday in question is Thanksgiving. Nobody gets it.
Christmas? There are many countries that out-jingle and out-Kringle ours. Easter? We’re not unique in our regard for it, either.
But our turkey-forward feast in late November doesn’t translate beyond our shores, so you find yourself in a sort of expat limbo, or at least I did during a Thanksgiving that I spent in Italy during my years there as The Times’s Rome bureau chief.
Luckily, my limbo was the Umbrian hill town of Todi.
My friend Elizabeth Minchilli — also an expat of sorts, and an Italian food sage whose work you should know if bucatini is your bliss — has a place and American friends there. I joined them all for the holiday. I don’t recall many of the details, which included (I think?) a turkey cooked in a backyard pizza oven. But I definitely remember Todi, which was my gateway to an appreciation of — and further adventures in — the region of Umbria.
Umbria abuts Tuscany, which has the greater glamour, the rosier glow. Fewer tourists put Umbria on their bucket lists or mention it as a shorthand for la bella vita. They’re unwise to the magic of the hill towns of Umbria, with their high perches, their panoramic views, their stone labyrinth centers that transport you far back in time.
Maybe they’ve heard of Spoleto, because of its arts festival, or Assisi, because of St. Francis.
But Todi? It draws people on their third or fourth trips to Italy, and that’s part of what I like about it and other Umbrian hill towns. They’re visited by people who’ve settled into a less rushed, twitchy appreciation of Italy and don’t shout at those travelers, imploring them to pay heed. They whisper.
Especially Gubbio, with its medieval core. It may be my favorite of the places in Umbria that I visited on trips there after that Thanksgiving. The Apennine Mountains rise around Gubbio; as I wandered its alleys and plazas, I looked up as well as down. And it’s terraced and tiered in a distinctive way, an urban Escher print. I haven’t been there in many years, but I remember much vigorous walking, which counteracted much omnivorous eating.
That’s the trick of touring Italy: making sure to earn and burn some of the extra calories you consume. I suppose that’s the trick of Thanksgiving, too. I wish you a healthy as well as happy one, which is to say: Consider brisk walks before and after the stuffing. They’ll heighten the enjoyment of stuffing yourself.