Opinion | For the Sake of Democracy, Celebrate Mike Johnson

Equipo
By Equipo
13 Min Read

We’ve seen movies aplenty in which a deeply flawed protagonist, someone we’d pretty much given up hope on, has a stirring of conscience or change of heart and puts his immediate interests at risk for the sake of something bigger. The music swells. The credits roll.

I never expected the music to swell and the credits to roll with Mike Johnson’s face in the center of the frame.

Johnson, the House speaker, reversed a position that he’d previously held, banded with Democrats and infuriated some of the loudest, meanest and most vengeful members of his party — that’s Marjorie Taylor Greene you hear wailing in the wings — to pass a $95 billion aid package for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan last weekend. We’ve read all about it.

But before we move on to the next congressional melodrama, let’s make sure we’ve given Johnson his due. I say that not as any fan of his — he had no business being elected speaker, given his assertive role in trying to overturn the 2020 election — and I think that’s all the more reason to say it. In an era this intensely and corrosively partisan, it’s especially important that we give warranted praise and appropriate thanks to people with whom we usually disagree. Tribalism discourages that, but a healthy democracy demands it.

I strongly support the aid package while understanding the qualms about it, but its merits aren’t my focus here. Johnson’s principled course is. He made common cause with political adversaries. He potentially put his speakership in greater jeopardy than if he’d taken a different tack (though these matters are tricky and time will tell).

What impresses and encourages me most, though, are accounts of how he arrived at his backing of the bill: He educated himself. As Catie Edmondson reported in an article in The Times on Sunday, Johnson “attributed his turnabout in part to the intelligence briefings he received, a striking assertion from a leader of a party that has embraced former President Donald J. Trump’s deep mistrust of the intelligence community.”

Seeking more information. Not dismissing it out of hand because of its provenance. Humbly conceding that your prior understanding was faulty or incomplete. Encouraging others to look beyond their stubbornness to the possibility of enlightenment.

None of that should be exceptional. All of it is. May it be a model for the lawmakers around him, for all politicians, for the rest of us.

And may we take another lesson from this: All is not lost. What Johnson did and how this episode ultimately played out constitute another instance of the government pulling through — a budget passes at the final hour, a debt ceiling is finally raised — after terrifying signs that it might not. That doesn’t redeem all the wasted time and what it cost. But it’s an important counter to the very worst of our pessimism, a reminder not to let our premonitions of doom utterly consume us and become self-fulfilling prophecies.

In Politico on Tuesday, Jonathan Martin presented an insightful take along those lines, also noting the manner in which Johnson and others had neutered Trump, whose opposition to Ukraine funding sort of petered out before last weekend’s vote: “The Republican Party is drifting from its Reaganite past, but when faced with the burden of leadership, there’s still muscle memory to be found; Donald Trump is more committed to self-interest than any ideological anchorage and can be managed accordingly; and bipartisanship remains possible when bad actors are removed from the negotiating table.”

Martin quoted a previous House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, calling Johnson “courageous.” He quoted the Democratic strategist James Carville, who said, “This is a country saved by unexpected people.”

”Saved” may be going too far. It has an out-of-the-woods music to it that even the most optimistic part of me can’t hum along to. But all of me believes the following, which is the moral of Mike Johnson’s arc: While the times we live in are profoundly dysfunctional, they are by no means hopeless.


For the Love of Sentences

In Time Out, Adam Feldman reviewed a Broadway revival of “Cabaret” and questioned Eddie Redmayne’s performance in the role that Joel Grey played in the movie version. “The theory seems to be that increasing the Emcee’s power exponentially will make him more exciting: That energy, if you will, is equal to Emcee squared,” Feldman wrote. (Thanks to Christine Tralongo of Manhattan for nominating this.)

In The Guardian, the characteristically caustic critic Jay Rayner thrilled to the look of a new Spanish restaurant in London: “When I die, a moment keenly anticipated by certain chefs, I want the team that did the interiors at Lita in Marylebone to knock up my coffin. Because darling, the joinery! It’s an orgy of tongue and groove, dovetail and pocket. They haven’t stinted on the finish either. There’s a soft gloss and polish to the place that would, I think, lend a comely glow to my corpse in repose.” (James Bullock, Edmonton, Alberta)

In Esquire, Charles P. Pierce reflected on an emblematic American newspaper: “Ever since USA Today first darkened the doors of our rooms in various Marriott properties, we’ve all had fun mocking the way it served up the news in easily digestible nuggets (and also pie charts!). Of course, given the aerosolized way we get our news these days, the old USA Today looks like The Paris Review.” (Stephen Wertheimer, Boca Raton, Fla.)

In The Times, David Brooks rued the contemporary retreat from reason: “Since the Trump years, this habit of not consulting the evidence has become the underlying crisis in so many realms. People segregate into intellectually cohesive teams, which are always dumber than intellectually diverse teams. Issues are settled by intimidation, not evidence.” (Mary Ann Skold, Detroit)

Also in The Times, Ross Douthat identified pessimism and apathy as main culprits of American drift and dysfunction: “We are more melancholic than choleric; more disillusioned than fanatical.” (Jeanine F. Jewell, Lincoln, Neb.)

In The Washington Post, Ron Charles marveled approvingly at the construction of “The Spoiled Heart,” a new novel by Sunjeev Sahota: “Along the way, Sahota throws so many disparate parts into this story that it’s something of a miracle when they begin to coalesce — like a box of gears and springs tumbling down the stairs and coming to rest in the shape of a clock.” (Lynn Boatwright, Chattanooga, Tenn.)

Robin Givhan considered Donald Trump’s appearances in a Manhattan courtroom last week: “This is a trial that reminds us of the smallness of Trump even as the idea of him, the myth of him has become outsize.” (Betsy Snider, Acworth, N.H.)

And Karen Tumulty chronicled the Kennedy clan’s effort to quash the candidacy of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: “In an election fueled by fear and resentment, there is no torch to be passed — except for the one that the Kennedys fear would be used to set fire to what’s left of the family’s name.” (Greg Howard, Vancouver, Wash.)

Bonus Miscellany: Several readers nominated the words of a Manhattan woman who did not make the cut of Trump-trial jurors after Trump’s lawyers discovered that she wrote on social media that she wouldn’t trust Trump even if his tongue were notarized. That’s a wickedly funny gibe — but I immediately had the feeling that it must have been said by someone else previously, if not about Trump, then about another serial liar. Thank you, Google! Turns out that Alair Townsend, who was a deputy to former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, once said, “I wouldn’t believe Donald Trump if his tongue were notarized.” A sane assessment. Also a prophetic one.

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 Writing, Doing and Reading

The picture above is a font of false impressions.

You look at it and you think: What a spoiled girl. Gets to flop down wherever she likes.

Wrong! She is allowed on any and all furniture upstairs in the house, where the blue futon in question resides. Never, ever downstairs.

You think: Frank positioned that throw pillow there.

Wrong! Regan may not have opposable thumbs — and I shudder to imagine what she’d do with them if she did — but those white-gloved paws of hers are busy little appendages, and she’s dexterous with her snout. She’ll nudge or bat one or more of the three throw pillows on the futon to the floor if she feels that they’re in her way. Or she’ll rearrange them for maximum comfort.

I wouldn’t be entirely shocked if one of these days, I come home to find that she has moved one of the pillows to the love seat in the first-floor living room because its placement there makes more sense to her. She’s a mysterious creature with a mind of her own.

But with a sense of limits and boundaries. You think: Frank’s a softy and she gets the better of him. Half wrong! Yes, I’m too liberal with treats. Yes, I tell her I love her about as often as I exhale. Yes, I let her in and out, out and in, as if I’m a hotel doorman.

But when I firmly tell her to do something, she does it. When I lay down clear rules, she doesn’t break them. At the risk of romanticizing and anthropomorphizing the hell out of Regan, I like to believe that what we have with our dogs is what we have with so many of the people in our lives: an understanding. A truce. Indulge me this much and I’ll indulge you that much.

And if that’s pure fiction, well, it’s harmless, and it makes me and Regan happy.

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