Chris Christie and Bill Barr Have Some Explaining to Do

I admired the vigor and even eloquence with which Chris Christie, quixotically campaigning for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, made the case against Donald Trump. And I wrote as much.

But what he warrants today isn’t praise. It’s a lesson in chemistry. It’s a tutorial on beverages.

A little more than a week ago, during a public appearance at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, Christie told Leigh Ann Caldwell of The Washington Post that he would never back Trump in November but that he also couldn’t bring himself to vote for President Biden. To explain his Biden aversion, Christie used a vocabulary more appropriate for spoiled milk.

“President Biden, in my view, is past the sell-by date,” he said.

The sell-by date matters when you’re purchasing dairy and you have better, fresher alternatives. But when you’re choosing a president and the other candidate is arsenic?

That’s pretty much how Christie spent much of last year describing Trump — as a civic toxin, a poison to us all. And if drinking spoiled milk is the protection against arsenic, you drink the spoiled milk. One means a possible tummy ache. The other can lead to lesions, cancer, even death.

In 2016 and 2020, Trump was a catalyst for bizarre moral relativism and pitiable moral surrender, and it’s happening again.

Christie calculates a false equivalence between Biden, whose policies he opposes and whose years are showing, and Trump, whose character and conduct Christie professedly reviles.

Bill Barr, the former attorney general who saw up close how Trump tried to subvert the peaceful transfer of power and who said in August that Trump “shouldn’t be anywhere near the Oval Office,” now supports his return to it. Barr’s position, it seems, is that Trump’s lawlessness pales beside Biden’s liberalism and that authoritarianism is a small price to pay for keeping the woke social justice warriors at bay.

Then there’s Chris Sununu, the New Hampshire governor, who was all in for Nikki Haley until she was all out of hope. He’s now on Team Trump, as he confirmed last month during an inexpressibly depressing interview on the ABC News show “This Week” with George Stephanopoulos, who was dumbfounded, given Sununu’s past characterizations of Trump.

“You support him for president, even though you believe he contributed to an insurrection,” Stephanopoulos said, trying to make sure he understood Sununu correctly. “You support him for president, even though you believe he’s lying about the last election.”

“Yeah,” Sununu answered. “Me and 51 percent of America.”

That “51 percent” part gets to me as much as the rest of it: Trump is tolerable because many Americans (if not the “51 percent” that Sununu essentially invented) say he is. Must give the people whatever they want. I’m reminded of what our parents said to us when we argued for permission for something because all our friends were being allowed to do it: If those friends are jumping off a bridge, should you? Sununu’s answer, it seems, is yes. He’s jumping, along with all the other Republicans in moral free fall.

The conservative Daily Beast columnist Matt Lewis recently looked at a few of the most prominent of those Republicans, venting disgust over the rationalizations of not only Barr and Sununu but also Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, who once strongly denounced Trump’s part in the events of Jan. 6, 2021. Shocker of shockers: McConnell will vote for him in November.

“Keep in mind, following Trump’s second impeachment trial in 2021, McConnell said that ‘Trump’s actions preceding the riot were a disgraceful dereliction of duty’ and that ‘there is no question that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day,’” Lewis wrote. “Supporting a man McConnell has clearly deemed unfit for the office may make McConnell craven, cynical or absurd, but he’s not alone in his decision.” Far from it.

Christie at least isn’t supporting Trump. That’s something. And it’s a reason that he can hold his head higher than Sununu, Barr or McConnell can. But we’re talking inches, not yards, because his joint dismissals of Trump and Biden as similarly unsavory options gut his own appraisal, during that appearance in Chicago, of Trump as someone “wholly unfit to be president of the United States in every way you think.”

I’m not saying that Christie should be enthusiastic about Biden, that I don’t understand his qualms about the president or that I expect Christie and other longtime Republicans to have some sudden ideological conversion because their party’s nominee is such a grave threat. I’m asking Christie to remember that less than six months ago, he called Trump “a dictator.” And seemed to believe that.

But last week in Chicago he lumped Trump and Biden together: “If the American people are stupid enough to nominate these two guys, doesn’t mean I have to be stupid, too.” No, but the smart way to bar someone “wholly unfit” from the White House is to vote for that person’s opponent. That’s how elections work. “None of the above” isn’t a principled stand. It’s a moral cop-out — and its own dereliction of duty.

For the Love of Sentences

Credit…Phil Noble/Reuters

Much like Gary Shteyngart’s article on the world’s biggest cruise ship a few weeks back, Ron Charles’s appraisal in The Washington Post of Danielle Steel’s new novel, “Only the Brave,” was a start-to-finish jamboree of shining sentences: “By my count, ‘Only the Brave’ is Steel’s 152nd novel, but her publicist tells me, ‘It is closer to her 170th.’ Apparently, the actual number can only be guessed at, in the same way the total mass of dark matter in the universe is estimated by how it bends light.” Also: “In the months leading up to this week’s publication, Steel’s publicist reached out repeatedly to insist that I not mention that the author is a 76-year-old romance novelist. As always, we’re never ashamed of the right things.” (Thanks to Joan Pantsios of Chicago and William Harrison of Kelowna, British Columbia, among others, for drawing attention to Charles’s review.)

Speaking of book reviews — my Times colleague Dwight Garner weighed in memorably on both a memoir and a collection of essays by Joseph Epstein: “Epstein favors tasseled loafers and bow ties, and most of his sentences read as if they were written by a sentient tasseled loafer and edited by a sentient bow tie.” (Kevin Callahan, Forest Hills, N.Y., and Elinor Nauen, Manhattan)

Sticking with The Times, which was the source of most of your nominations over the past week — Margaret Lyons perfectly described the main character of the messy but mesmerizing “Baby Reindeer,” a new Netflix series about an aspiring stand-up comedian and his stalker: “Donny recognizes and articulates the dangers of wanting fame, how it warps his judgment but also could solve his problems. (One person knowing your darkest secret is unbearable, but a million people knowing it is stardom.) Agony and attention are bound together here — Look at me! No, not like that! — twin snakes choking the life out of their prey.” (Linda Trocki, La Quinta, Calif., and Stephen Ranger, Toronto)

And Maggie Haberman and Jonah E. Bromwich used a wide-angle lens to look at Trump’s current criminal trial. “Eventually, the case could threaten not only Mr. Trump’s freedom but also the central tenets of a lifelong ethos ever-present in the former president’s patter: a convenient disregard for the truth, the blunt denial of anything damaging and a stubborn insistence that his adversaries are always acting in bad faith,” they wrote. (Cynthia Croasdaile, Portland, Ore., and Veronica Stinson, Halifax, Nova Scotia, among others)

In The Atlantic, Thomas Chatterton Williams rued the “impersonal, tech-saturated” sameness of a new generation of cars: “Could a child ever dream about a Lucid or Rivian? These are generically good-looking, low-emissions vehicles that only a cyborg could lust over. They are songs sung through Auto-Tune, with clever and forgettable lyrics composed by ChatGPT.” (Marjorie Ivey, St. Louis)

In The Guardian, Ryan Busse pivoted from Kristi Noem to another Republican governor with animals in his sights, Greg Gianforte of Montana: “In 2021, Gianforte illegally shot and killed a collared Yellowstone wolf that had its leg caught in a steel-jawed trap. He wanted to stuff the wolf and display it in his office — presumably without its radio collar, which would have dampened the effect he was going for.” (Kurt Griffin, Sioux Falls, S.D.)

To return to The Washington Post — Michael Dirda’s review of Anne Curzan’s “Says Who? A Kinder, Funner Usage Guide for Everyone Who Cares About Words” included this rumination on writing: “Effective prose, in truth, doesn’t resemble conversation. It’s more like sculpting with clay. You start with an inchoate mass, shape it a bit, hate the result, start over, try this, try that, give up, slink away in disgust, come back, work some more and eventually end up with something that looks vaguely like a pot or an essay.” (James Martin Thompson, Washington)

Having begun with Ron Charles, I’ll also end with him. In a recent Washington Post newsletter, he marveled at the actress Judi Dench’s astonishing ability to recite most of the lines from her long-ago parts in Shakespeare plays. “Such memorization is a lost art,” he wrote, adding that when he stares at the ceiling at night, “My mind is a tangle of bits of string, and all I can come up with is something like: ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. Won’t you lay me down in the tall grass and let me do my stuff?’” For those of you not fluent in Fleetwood Mac, that last sentence is a lyric from the song “Second Hand News.” (Denise Showers, Janesville, Wis.)

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 Doing, Planning and Reading

Credit…Mark Peterson for The New York Times
  • I spoke about my new book, “The Age of Grievance,” which came out this week, on “The Bulwark Podcast” with Tim Miller, and The Free Press just published the latest excerpt from it, about some of the particular ways in which the modern American economy sows envy and resentment. As someone whose diminished eyesight has made him a big and grateful consumer of audiobooks, I found it meaningful to do “The Age of Grievance” narration myself; here are its first five minutes. In the coming days and weeks, I’ll be making appearances in Montclair, N.J.; Philadelphia; and Washington, among other cities: My full schedule is on my website, where you’ll also find a range of information about the book. Also, I just added another event near my Chapel Hill, N.C., home, at McIntyre’s Books in Fearrington Village, on May 23; more details on that here.

  • Two Times colleagues whom I like and respect immensely have books of their own coming out in the next few weeks. “Chasing Hope” is Nick Kristof’s look back at his extraordinary journalism career, including his travels to places most of us have never been and will never see. “Trippy: The Perils and Promise of Medicinal Psychedelics” is Ernesto Londoño’s mix of candid personal reflection and deep reporting, illuminating a growing trend in mental health that many of us don’t understand.

  • Campus protests have riveted and divided Americans and led to bitterly tense scenes such as the arrests on Tuesday night of protesters who had barricaded themselves inside Hamilton Hall at Columbia University. How to make sense of it all? Two of the best recent takes came from George Packer in The Atlantic and Lydia Polgreen in The Times. I don’t agree with every paragraph or sentence that each of them wrote, but that’s not what I’m looking for in a piece of journalism, especially one covering such an important topic. I’m looking to be made smarter and to understand the dynamics of a situation more fully, and I’m looking for analysis that seeks to lower rather than raise the temperature. Both articles fill that bill.

On a Personal Note

Richard Gadd, left, and Jessica Gunning in “Baby Reindeer.”Credit…Ed Miller/Netflix

I was happy to include a few lines about the Netflix series “Baby Reindeer” in this week’s For the Love of Sentences section not only because the lines in question are terrific but also because they reminded me to say a few words of my own about the show.

It’s definitely not for everyone. It’s harrowingly dark, and it’s also repetitive, revisiting or lingering on developments and details that have been amply examined. Streaming services these days seem to take the approach that any story that can be told in X number of hours or installments should be given 25 to 50 percent more time than that. Bloat is a given.

But little that I’ve watched lately gripped and haunted me the way “Baby Reindeer” did. It’s the story, based on real events, of a struggling (really, failing) comedian and his stalker, and it is so raw and so true on the subject of human neediness that it’s a gut punch. Who among us hasn’t felt some version of the desperation that these characters do? Hasn’t made awful choices just for the sake of having company, of being seen, of being admired, no matter the flaws, delusions and demands of the admirer?

“Baby Reindeer” isn’t a simple perpetrator-and-victim tale. It examines how we see and don’t see what’s right in front of us, depending on what we’re intent on believing. That’s true in politics, as the past few years have vividly demonstrated. But it’s even truer when we’re looking for love. Or hope. Or just the barest smidgen of affirmation.

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