The smartest takes on Trump and Trumpism have been written and I don’t have anything to add to that canon. And instead of defining the reasons I held hope for this presidential election in the negative, I’ll list some of them in the affirmative: my belief in the power of the vote, the excitement of first-time voters this year, the heroic efforts to expand ballot access despite all the GOP-led suppression tactics around the country, the ritualistic exercise in civic participation that gives us a glimmer of what holds us together (barely).
Our worst-ever week in America for the coronavirus pandemic coincided with our election night-turned-week, one in which the networks still haven’t called a winner despite the result being so clear now that it’s become a joke how long we’ve been held “hostage” by cable news anchors, vamping.
This was my first presidential election night in America since 2012, when Obama resoundingly won a second term against Mitt Romney. Newsrooms (or reporting the news) are my natural habitat on election night but this year, I could just watch. Incidentally this was also the case in 2012 because I was on maternity leave for my firstborn, Eva. Election nights are no time to be alone, but because of COVID — everything this year seems appended with “because of COVID” — we had to make really careful plans for a get together.
Jen and Drew, whose pool hosted Sunday swim dates and brunches all summer, found a way to project the coverage of returns on a big screen in their backyard out by the pool. I brought all the fresh banchan they had left at H Mart and drank soju from wine glasses. Drew grilled ribeye, New York strip and shishito peppers. Jen made a bunch of yummy sides. Good thing so much food and drink was around because anxiety and uncertainty ruled the night, just as it rules this entire year.
And here we are, Saturday morning, still unfinished. I believe the President is currently speaking some more wild falsehoods about “fraud” at a place called Four Seasons Landscaping, not to be confused with the Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia, which had to issue a tweet to emphasize they are not the same. Anyway none of this week’s “fraud” posturing really matters, in the scheme of things. Joe Biden’s our next president. He’ll have a thankless, terrible job ahead of him.
We are witnessing this weekend an exodus of Republican party leaders from Donald Trump, their nominee for the highest office in the land. The floodgates broke open after an 11-year old video leaked in which Trump’s saying predictably horrifying things about women and basically bragging about his previous sexual assaults. That he just “grabs them by the pussy,” he says, and kisses women whenever he wants, because “when you’re a star” you can get away with it. He is aided and abetted on that tape by all the men who were with him on a studio lot’s bus, and in particular by the known bro, television host Billy Bush.
Why now? Trump’s attitudes about women were long known (a case of marital rape, calling women “slobs” and “dogs,” saying breastfeeding is “disgusting” and a whole slew of nose-cringing comments). So were his other attitudes, that actor Josh Gad laid out succinctly:
“We screamed until we were hoarse that calling Mexicans rapists, banning people based on their religion, not disavowing Klan members, calling women fat and disgusting, dishonoring POWS and Purple Heart fallen soldiers, and making fun of the disabled was not only unpresidential but unbecoming of a human being. And most importantly, for eight years we have sat astonished that a political ascension could be gamed out of questioning the birthplace of our first black President.”
All of this has been clear about Donald Trump. Why abandon him now? It seems one answer is, because these GOP leaders have people in their personal lives that are affected by the hatefulness of his speech and the sexual assault he’s advocated. One thing we are hearing a lot from Republican lawmakers and officials now is the “I have daughters” line, or “I have a wife.”
This need for proximity to a person affected by an injustice in order to believe in it is really eating at me this weekend. Our elected representatives are not chosen to just represent their families or their personal experiences. And if they’re only going to take stands based on that, there are entire groups of people and experiences that would never benefit from justice: What if you don’t know a poor person? Or disabled person? Or someone without health insurance? Or a Muslim? Or an immigrant? Or a refugee? Do the injustices affecting them not matter?
“The existence of your neighbors pain is not dependent on your belief in it,” actor and activitst Jesse Williams said. And it comes up again and again in a time of serious racial strife and division in America.
I was reminded of Ohio Senator Rob Portman’s change of heart on same sex marriage a few years ago. He changed his position at the lobbying of his son, who is gay. While it’s good for gay people that someone in power changed his position to their side, the reason why he did it is worth interrogating. Matt Yglesias wrote on this topic back then:
“But if Portman can turn around on one issue once he realizes how it touches his family personally, shouldn’t he take some time to think about how he might feel about other issues that don’t happen to touch him personally? Obviously the answers to complicated public policy questions don’t just directly fall out of the emotion of compassion. But what Portman is telling us here is that on this one issue, his previous position was driven by a lack of compassion and empathy.”
When I went on a slew of tweets about this subject last night, one person responded by saying, we’re only human. And that’s true. It’s easier to have compassion and empathy for those we consider our neighbors and our friends. But that then drives another point and theme I’ve been turning over and over again in my head this election year: The critical need to be nearer to those, have more conversations with, collisions with, friendships among those who aren’t like us. We’re in a period of resegregation in America, by many quantifiable measures. And that is only making it harder for people to have empathy for those who look different, talk different, have different backgrounds.
It was a bit of serendipity then, that I found this quote in my old notes from philosopher John Stuart Mill from back in 1848. It’s truer now than it was back then, I think.
“It is hardly possible to overstate the value, in the present low state of human improvement, of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar … Such communication has always been, and is particularly in the present age, one of the primary sources of progress.”
I hope we all do some soul searching when this election is over in a month. But the work of trying to better understand each other and care for each other is a long, something difficult slog. I don’t know that humanity has any other choice but to do the work.
I’ve never covered Hollywood, so the White House Correspondents Dinner is the only place I’ve seen so many celebrities in one room. Granted, the dining room at the Washington Hilton holds 3,000 so it’s a large pool from which to find bold-faced names. The dinner — and the weekend of partying that grew up around it — is quintessentially “Washington,” for better or for worse. (Much like SXSW, apparently the event has gone from a well-meaning celebration of one idea to a marketing-laden orgy of totally different priorities.) A glutton for new experiences and an avid reader of celeb-blog The Superficial, I am game to witness the absurdity.
The whole event is sensory overload. You can’t turn your head without seeing someone famous or familiar-for-some-reason-you-can’t-quite-place. The long hallway shoot of pre-dinner receptions and a few post-dinner parties is in a basement, probably the only time Michael Douglas or Nicole Kidman hang out in a basement. After going through security with Don Draper’s wife Megan (actress Jessica Pare) to get in the ballroom, the likes of Kevin Spacey, Steven Spielberg and Claire Danes get gawked at near the stage. Packed in that giant ballroom, it was easy to walk right into and nearly run over a tiny Hayden Panettiere. Last year, I found myself reapplying lip gloss next to Kate Upton* and Anna Paquin. Ron Kirk snapped iPhone photos of people wanting pics with his friend Eric Holder. Tony Romo and his wife told me details about the birth of their baby, since we Texans just instantly bond that way, I guess. This year the Romo’s showed up again.
“Y’all are becoming real White House Correspondents Dinner regulars,” I said to him.
“It’s her. She loves to put on a dress,” Romo said jokingly, of his wife.
Saturday, Friend Matt decided to offer me his dinner ticket with only 90 minutes to spare. It took an incredible amount of perfect timing and logistical savvy for us to drive across town and do the pass off in time. (And to shower and get ready in 10 minutes.)
What I learned last year was that it’s actually the parties preceding and following the meal, the ones sponsored by real power — Fortune 500 companies and VC-backed startups — that are actually “fun”, if you want to call it that. (Fun in the weird Washington way.) Loved seeing old friends** and meeting new ones. Frankly, it was all so much better than when I attended while pregnant last year because this time I could drink through it. (!)
My memories of the weekend exist in single frames: A Swavorski crystal toilet at a late night house party. Asking Kevin Spacey about House of Cards spoilers (“I don’t know anything,” he said). Making new friends while in a super long bathroom line at The Atlantic’s Friday night confab. Seeing Gayle King and Joaquin Castro at every hoppin’ spot in town. Getting momentarily spooked when Gus Fring (the Breaking Bad villain who got half his face blown off) walked past my dinner table and looked me right in the eye WITH HIS WHOLE FACE. The AC dropping to temps in the 50s so a room of 3,000 wouldn’t wind up sweating. Conan really yelling into that mic. My gal pal Judy. Piano renditions of Coldplay at the Turkish Ambassador’s house. Delicious dolmas. Lots of red carpets and velvet ropes but way more gawkers than celebs. Celebrating a startup incubator in an unexpected place. Signature drinks named AT&Tini’s. Gorgeous views at the Sunday brunch. Corporate sponsor after corporate sponsor after corporate sponsor. Big brands. Medium brands. Small brands. Business cards. Bacon. Introductions. Jewel tones. John Oliver!
The single best thing about living in DC is that people I love come into town frequently for one reason or another. Since presidential inaugurations only come around every four years, MANY people I love came into town at the same time. I had been training my liver for this weekend for awhile.
My only other DC inauguration experience was when I covered Bush’s first inauguration in 2001 as an intern for WFAA-TV. Attending that swearing-in ceremony was the coldest I’ve ever been. I remember getting dressed up for the Texas State Society’s Black Tie and Boots ball in the public bathroom of Belo’s DC bureau building at 13th and G. I remember anchor Gloria Campos being in DC to anchor the coverage and wanting her scripts printed in bigger type, and how I had to help rush reporter Jim Fry into a cab so he could go do a post-parade live shot.
I remain on maternity leave, so I got to take part in this inauguration as a straight-up spectator. I skipped the weekend balls but was looking forward to the Common/T-Pain/John Legend concert since, as many of you know, Stiles loves loves LOVES Common. (BTW: Where WASN’T John Legend this weekend? Anyway.) We waited until the day before to respond to the ticket email and it was too late. Instead, we went to a delicious Indian restaurant for our 2nd anniversary dinner, seven months late. (Hey, 2012 was a little busy, okay?)
“From what I understand from doctors, [pregnancy from rape] is really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” –Missouri US Senate Candidate Todd Akin
To be clear, it’s totally nonsense (and Akin has admitted as much) that human women’s bodies can “shut that whole thing down” and reject sperm if raped. But interestingly, a 2008 episode of RadioLab explains that female DUCKS do have that capability. Fascinating. (Hat tip to my friend Reeve for pointing this out to me.) The audio of this discussion starts around the 13:15 mark, but I excerpted a key part here.
“The thing about the duck is … ducks engage in forced extra-pair copulations. What he’s really saying is the males are “raping” the females. A couple of years ago, we were dissecting a female duck and a doc called Patty Brennan (sp) called me and said “Look at this, I found a funny structure in the female vagina…
What we found was that in species where the male had an enormous phallus, the female had the most complex vagina we’d ever come across. Some have two or three side branches and a very long spiral, like a corkscrew at the end of the vagina. If you think about it, what seems very likely here is the female has got these structures to deflect the male. If she’s being raped, she might contract part of her reproductive tract to send the male off down a blind alley. If he avoids that, she can just tighten up the spiral so his sperm can’t get to the right place. So what you’ve got here is a kind of warfare. The male says, I’m coming in here like it or not, and the female says, you’re getting nowhere, like it or not. Remarkable case of females evolving counter-adaptations to keep males at arm’s length. Or penis length, so to speak.”
“This is the season when a clutch of successful women—who have it all — give speeches to women like you and say, to be perfectly honest, you can’t have it all. Maybe young women don’t wonder whether they can have it all any longer, but in case any of you are wondering, of course you can have it all. What are you going to do? Everything, is my guess. It will be a little messy, but embrace the mess. It will be complicated, but rejoice in the complications. It will not be anything like what you think it will be like, but surprises are good for you. And don’t be frightened: you can always change your mind.”