The short story for December
We found Felsenthal’s claim to have drawn straws determining the New Year’s Eve duty roster implausible. How does one person, the news director himself, draw straws? He would know which was shortest.
That was just an expression, my colleague Silver speculated. Felsenthal meant he had randomly generated the list. But then how did he come up with the names? Throwing darts?
Pulling them from a hat? It was one more small mystery in a long list of mysteries having to do with our magazine’s coverage of Y2K.
For some months, the editors had been making plans to cover the breakdown in civilization that would happen at midnight, January 1, 2000, when a bug mistakenly programmed into computers would cause global chaos: airplanes plummeting, bank accounts draining, databases vanishing, clocks stopping, stoplights blinking, 911 lines failing, television fading to black, radios going silent, and the internet, of course, crashing. Felsenthal and the editors were convinced that our weekly magazine would be the one strand to which the panicked population would cling. New Year’s Eve was to fall on a Friday night, when those of us who weren’t closing stories should have been enjoying our Sabbath dinner before spending an evening getting pleasantly sloshed with our friends, if we had any.
When Felsenthal’s roster was passed around by the mute, bug-eyed, suspenders-wearing staffer whose entire job consisted of photocopying documents and then walking up and down the halls handing them out or sliding them under doors, I scanned it and quietly celebrated the fact that my name wasn’t on it.
Silver was in my office within minutes, complaining about the injustice of the roster, the questionable method by which names might have been selected.
Quickly, another theory about the roster was circulated: Being on it meant you were seen as somehow indispensable. The ending of the world was a story that required the magazine’s best and most talented, so the core group whose names were listed were the elite staffers, those who could be trusted to write, edit, fact-check, and copyedit stories amid the general collapse of civilization.
Before I had time to worry about my name not being on the roster, the suspenders-wearing copy boy came back down the hall with a new roster that had everyone’s name on it. We would all be here on New Year’s Eve.
And what is the point of that? I asked Silver. If the world really is ending, then won’t our computers, our QPS software, our telephones and fax machines, also stop working? What are we going to do, handwrite our stories?
He said that he heard they were digging up more old Selectrics for all of us.
A few of us still had electric typewriters in our offices, though nobody used them anymore. Now, apparently, in the event of the Y2K bug, we would all be equipped with 1980s technology.
But what about the grid? I asked. If the grid goes down, then electric typewriters will be useless.
He said that they were also retrieving a truckload of old Royals from some warehouse in Pennsylvania. We may be writing our stories on the same typewriters that James Thurber used.
He never worked here, I told Silver. He worked at the New Yorker.
Oh, then how about S.J. Perelman?
No, also the New Yorker.
Well, anyway, we’ll have some old typewriters just in case.
I had been working at the magazine for two years. I was one of a dozen younger writers hired by the managing editor to infuse youthful sensibility into the magazine. There had been no orientation, no instruction, no one to welcome me on my first day. I was assigned to the business section, where instead of infusing I started mimicking, seeking to make my stories as indistinguishable as possible from those that came before and after, whether in that particular issue or chronologically since the founding of the magazine in 1922.
I took some pleasure in watching my peers fail to simulate the voice of the magazine, fail to get their stories into the magazine, and in time fail right out of their jobs. Felsenthal insisted that all this was by design, that they never instructed us so they could ascertain who among us was a self-starter. We competed to be the best at mimicking the magazine, which meant we were essentially mimicking each other, as gradually, once the less successful impersonators were weeded out, we became the writers relied on to fill the book each week. The first year it had been fun to sense that I was going to make it at the magazine; the second year, making it at the magazine began to seem a tragic fate.
We wanted to be writers, or at least I did, and we knew this was bad for us, this imitating instead of writing, or at least those of us who wanted to be writers knew. The rest of them were graduates of elite colleges killing time before law school or business school, whether they knew it or not.
As the editors sensed the literary ambitions that caused unrest in our souls, they offered us raises, bonuses, stock options. We had unlimited expense accounts, or I suppose there were limits, but we never reached them. And why not? The magazine had made hundreds of millions of dollars the year before, when a slew of popular celebrities and royals had passed away. They trickled some down to us. That part, the money and perquisites, was like a drug. When I thought about leaving, moving to some smaller, cheaper city and writing my novel, I would suddenly feel unsure. Had I already become too soft? Was I already hooked on the income, the company AmEx?
The future, if I stayed, meant becoming an editor, moving up to the 24th floor, getting so entrenched and glued-in that a demolitions team would be needed to remove me.
There was, however, another path. Internet startups had picked off a few of the promising young writers, dangling even more money and stock than we were getting here. These were companies we had never heard of before discovering that Gullickson and Cohen and Gupta had jumped to become chief content officers of sites with names like Bladefish.com or BizInsight.com or Dotcom.dotcom. There were millions in venture-capital financing sloshing around, and these new media companies still believed there was some cachet in poaching from old media brands.
I wrote about the internet, often about the very same companies that were so eager to hire me. Headhunters called and emailed a few times a week, asking if now was a good time to talk. I would close my door and listen as they told me about another start-up with another improbable name, about who the VCs were and who had done the mezzanine round, and about the salary range and equity stake they were offering. For example, I could earn $200,000 a year and own 1.5 percent of SemperAugustus.com, a website devoted to covering speculative mania. If the company went public, as so many had, then I could be worth millions. Look at what happened to the guys at Street.com or Globe.com!
We were all receiving these offers. We all kept them secret.
I no longer attended the Tuesday-morning meeting, during which the week’s stories were decided and assigned. It was an opportunity to display wit, if one had any, or insight or knowledge on the topics of the day, if one had any. But the stories assigned there seldom made it all the way to Friday before being overtaken by events. Lazy senior writers knew that picking up a Tuesday assignment virtually guaranteed Thursday and Friday off, as by then the editors would have lost interest in those stories. Those writers would be at home in Bronxville or Hastings-on-Hudson while we were crashing news stories.
We had smaller, sectional meetings after the 24th-floor general meeting, cramped affairs in which writers, photo editors, designers, and researchers piled into a senior editor’s office as he gave a rundown of what had happened upstairs. Our editor, Avelini, a taciturn man who had spent most of his career covering the energy sector for a business magazine, was a surprisingly agile editor despite his anti-social manner. If your story had been killed, instead of breaking it to you gently, he grinned, formed his hand into a gun and pretended to shoot at you. It was that sociopathic cruelty that had convinced me I would follow him anywhere.
At that morning’s meeting, Avelini explained the strategy of preparing an entire magazine just in case the world didn’t end on New Year’s Eve. If the world ended, then that would bump the cover—Bill Bradley gearing up for a presidential run—and most of the stories. But in the meantime, we had to write contingency stories just in case the world didn’t end—
Pardon me, but may I make a nuisance?
The question came from a tall, skinny brunette in a blue denim shirt, dirty jeans, and a kind of canvas sneaker that I had never seen before. They were like imitations of Converse All Stars, only with thinner soles and an oddly rectangular toe. I looked over at Silver, jerked my head in her direction, and made a raised-shoulder and upturned-hands “who is she?” gesture. He shrugged.
She was too foreign-sounding to be a writer, too unfashionable to be a designer, and too young to be a researcher.
If the world concludes at Old Year’s Eve, as you’ve been suggesting, then wouldn’t this danger also cause us to be damaged? Perhaps we will be ourselves passed away by the, the fires ignited by these electrical-systems failures.
Avelini looked at the girl, seemed also to be wondering who she was, and then ignored her.
Okay, let’s go to work people.
Anya had been given the office across the hall and two doors down from mine. She worked for a weekly German news magazine and was here for a three-week exchange program, though as she explained when I introduced myself, it was not, if she could speak in all honesty, an exchange.
There is no one coming to join us in Berlin. We would be happy to host you, for example, if you should wish to have a look at our magazine in old Europe.
We often had foreign journalists passing through, but they usually came in packs or at least pairs, and as they were disregarded by the staff, they confided in one another in their native language. Anya was here alone, and when she met me, she asked if there was a sectional leader or floor captain who could show her where, for example, the loo was, or the canteen.
I took her down the hall to where the restrooms were and then explained to her that the canteen, or cafeteria, was down on six.
No, the sixth floor.
Ah, she nodded. Perhaps you would like to join me in the canteen for cake?
She pointed to her enormous red watch with a thick band that seemed to be made of small squares of red wood. It is a fine time for cake.
I told her that I was busy but definitely later, maybe.
Silver was sitting next to Yuman, an Asian-American administrative assistant who spent all day buying and selling Beanie Babies on eBay. He worked in a cubicle outside Avelini’s office, and he was supposed to answer our phones when we were out, but he never answered my phone. He did take messages for Avelini.
What are you doing? I asked Silver.
I’m writing a story about eBay, so I’m watching Yuman place bids.
Why don’t you just do it yourself?
Well, I could, but this seems easier. Markohnhorst is also filing from California.
Markohnhorst was our San Francisco bureau chief. He would be sending Silver a package of interviews and observations. We wrote our stories from these files, adding in our own original reporting, just as Silver was doing right now.
My own story was about how some college students were converting their compact discs into digital files, mp3s they were called, and then swapping these on some college intranets and building up huge libraries of free music. Avelini, our editor, had described the whole system as a free jukebox.
I had tried the process myself, having an IT department guy come down and set up my computer with a music player, but it took 30 minutes to download a song and then the file wouldn’t play.
I doubted the editors would publish both the eBay story and my digital-music story in a typical week, but in the contingency magazine they were preparing in case the world didn’t end, both these evergreen stories could run.
And sure enough, down the hall came the suspenders-wearing copy boy with a mock-up. On it were both stories, mine slugged Bmusic and Silver’s slugged BeBay. A few minutes later, the copy boy came back with another mock-up, this one with every page of the 92-page-book slugged Ny2kcrisis. Apparently, if the world ended, we would run an entirely advertising-free issue. And I wouldn’t have to write my story. I was rooting for the world to end.
Felsenthal, the news director, stopped by my office to make sure that I had cleared my New Year’s Eve schedule.
I didn’t value New Year’s Eve particularly, but it seemed that the rest of the world had been planning for the millennial celebration for months—we had run two covers on the subject—and here I was, shut out of the fun. I didn’t have anything to do for New Year’s. I didn’t have any friends who didn’t work at the magazine. But it was the presumption of the editors, and Felsenthal, that offended me.
Why everyone? I asked Felsenthal. Why not just a skeleton crew? Not only is it New Year’s, it’s the Sabbath, you know.
I never realized you were so observant, he said. And if you are, then it’s not your New Year’s anyway. If systems fail, we will need all hands to produce the magazine.
If systems fail, I’m fucking out of here, I felt like saying, but I just nodded.
Yeah, sure, like do I have a choice?
We’ll have champagne here, he said. We’ll make it a party.
I took a livery car down to Harry’s in the financial district where Settembrini was waiting for me at a two-top next to the bar. Settembrini was the founder of Semper-Augustus.com. He had been an editor at Forbes before starting his own well-regarded investment newsletter, and now he had wrangled two and a half million dollars in venture capital to start his website about speculative excess. He needed a chief content officer.
Settembrini was a tall man with a disproportionately spacious forehead above thick frame glasses that rested on a long, thin nose. Everything about him seemed stretched. He often appeared on CNBC as a pundit who spoke about Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve, and the money supply. I had spoken to Settembrini once before, when I called him for a quote for a story about the new secretary of the treasury. I don’t know if I made an impression or if Settembrini was simply determined to hire someone from a well-regarded magazine, but he assumed I knew much more than I did about bond prices, historical yield curves, and Fed policy. He said if I jumped from the big shop, as he called the magazine, to the little shop, as he called his new venture, it would be a great opportunity. He was determined to own the speculative mania space, to be the first mover in bubble coverage.
Do you like a challenge? He asked.
I had never thought of challenges in a generic sense, nor did I think a challenge, in and of itself, was something to be sought out. But I nodded and said, Of course I do.
In this era of start-ups, the new economy, as it was called, it had come to be understood that a challenge was what you had to get through to get to the money.
Great! Settembrini sipped his juice.
We discussed what types of stories the website might feature, the charts, the graphs, the gifs, the daily—no, hourly!—updates.
What’s the business model? I asked.
He said he hadn’t decided, probably advertising, subscriptions, memberships, all of the above?
I was surprised at how earnestly I was pitching myself, how if you were listening, you would have assumed I desperately wanted to join Settembrini. And I suppose I did, though throughout our conversation, I never for a minute pictured myself actually working with Settembrini, hiring a team of writers and designers, producing any of this boring content in a room full of others producing boring content. There would be no offices at SemperAugustus.com. It was to be an open plan. I didn’t want to work in a place where everyone could see me not working.
Yet I left Harry’s that evening having created the impression I was ready to join. Everybody was going to work at internet companies, right? Who was I to buck the trend?
On Wednesday, Felsenthal came up with a new plan. We were going to start up all the Y2K stories, have reporters interview computer experts, tech-company founders, government officials, power-company CEOs, find some of the retired programmers who had written all this defective code back in the 1970s, engage them in conjectural conversations for quotes that we could plug into stories if and when all the systems went down.
As writers, we were to formulate stories that started with “anecdotal lede tk” and then write these articles about how various segments of society had failed—air-traffic control systems or the power grid or financial-services firms—and describe, in general terms, the impact these failures would have on society. Travelers would be stranded, cities without power, banks besieged by anxious depositors.
Silver was standing in my office, relaying this new plan that he had heard at the morning meeting.
That’s fucking insane, I said.
And we have to do our other stories? So we each have to do two stories?
He nodded again.
Whose idea was that?
Felsenthal’s, Silver said. This fucking place.
Two Dominicans, who usually worked in the messenger center and also took our football bets, came down the hall pushing a cart with old typewriters stacked atop, dropping off an upright Royal under a grey vinyl sheath at the front door of each office. I removed the cover, looked at the dried-out ribbon, the bunched type-bars, the depressed keys. These machines would never work again. I left the typewriter in the hall.
I went down to Felsenthal’s corner office. He kept hundreds of stuffed animals in his corner office, and inflatable animals, and plastic animals still in their boxes along the walls and crowded onto the sills that faced down 6th Avenue and across 44th street. I don’t know what he was attempting to communicate with all these toys, and I never heard any explanation as to the meaning or significance of them.
So now we have to write both stories? I asked.
Felsenthal did not turn to look at me, continuing to gaze at his computer screen. Not both, he said, the Y2K story is sort of a detailed outline, with quotes and context and the structure of a story, and we’re going to put it through the system and edit it, but it won’t become a story until the events described actually happen.
Have you all lost your fucking minds? I wanted to shout. Instead I said, Is that really a prudent plan? Should we really be front-running the news like that?
When you’re running the magazine, then you can schedule whatever stories you like, Felsenthal said. For now, you’re not.
I walked back to my office and returned a call from the headhunter, who had left a message telling me that Settembrini was very excited about moving the conversation forward.
The headhunter told me Settembrini thought I was just the guy to help him build the portal that would own the boom. If we could nail down the terms, could I start, say, Monday, January 3?
I could start Friday, I told him, I could start right now.
That afternoon, Anya knocked on my office doorframe.
And how do you do today?
Okay, I guess. You?
I am well. Yes, quite well.
Was she pretty? How had I not determined yesterday? Between her odd wardrobe and her stiff, formal, sexless manner, I hadn’t noticed that her fine, delicate features were quite lovely. She had fish-shaped eyes and impossibly smooth, small-pored skin. Her cheeks always seemed flushed pink, almost unnaturally, as if she were wearing rouge or had a dusting of acne, but this was just her color. There was about her a slightly sweet, but definitely synthetic odor, some sort of soap I had never smelled before. I wondered if she had brought her own bar from Germany.
So, we will all be working on the Old Year’s Eve, she said.
I doubt you have to be here, I told her.
I quite like it, if I might be totally candid about this matter. I don’t know much people here, so for me, to be in this office at this evening is actually very okay.
Well, it sucks for me.
She smiled. Yes, I can imagine, to be with your friends, having a schnapps, that would be a better spirit of celebration, no?
I, yeah, that would be better.
She made this strange gesture rubbing her hands on her thighs; I understood it to be intended as an enticement, though I don’t believe I had never seen anyone make that particular motion before.
Perhaps today, you would like to join me for cake?
Instead of descending to the canteen, where Anya assumed we were going, I wanted to take Anya to a nicer place for coffee and cake. I recalled a patisserie in Rockefeller Center that I had walked past but never entered. But during this holiday season—Chanukah had ended two weeks ago—there was still a line out the door waiting for a table, so instead, desperate to find a cake solution, I took Anya to the only other place where I recalled cakes on display. We didn’t have our coats, and so we ran the block across town and then wove quickly through the throngs of tourists milling on Seventh Avenue.
The Stage Deli had massive chocolate, German chocolate and white frosted cakes on stands, along with cookies the size of hockey pucks, in a window case near the front cash registers. We sat in a booth across from the counter and ordered coffee. Anya had studied the cakes on the way in and then picked up the vast menu when it came. She began reading at the very top left of the four panel gate-fold menu, saying out loud each item as she came to it, chopped liver, stuffed cabbage, potato pirogi—what’s that?—gefilte fish—what’s that?
I worried that she would read the entire menu aloud and so directed her to the dessert section, where she began reading again, Rice Pudding, Tapioca Pudding—what’s that?
I further guided her to the cakes, where she read the list, gradually her voice slowing in disappointment as she came to the end, Chiffon Cake.
Hmmm, she said, scanning the menu, as if the particular cake she was looking for might have been accidently listed elsewhere.
I was looking forward to johennisbeeren kuchen.
I don’t know what that is.
It is a cake, of course, with a small red fruit, um, you call it a berry? A cake with a berry?
Like a pie? I asked. A cherry pie?
No, not a cherry, a small berry.
I don’t think they have that.
It’s red, and has a small seed, though it can also be darker, almost—
They don’t have it.
Oh, she continued to study the menu, ah, I see they specialize in the sandwiches of the famous.
Yeah, I guess so. Look, do you want anything?
Who is Al Roker? She asked.
He’s a weatherman.
Here they have a sandwich for your mayor, Mr. Giuliani. I wonder if he will be working this Old Year’s Eve, as we will, in case the Y2K insect makes the big mess of things.
I shrugged. I wondered if she was going to read through each of the named sandwiches.
The waiter returned with our coffee. I ordered a slice of chocolate layer cake, just so the waiter would take the menu away from Anya.
She had actually grown up in East Germany, in a town outside Magedeburg, and had been lucky enough to come of college age after reunification, attending university in Aachen, West Germany, where she had been made fun of by her classmates for her odd wardrobe and Eastern accent. She’d been an intern at a newspaper in Munich and then had joined the magazine in Berlin. For a woman, an Ossie no less, to have risen to her station was quite an achievement.
There is nothing now in Magdeburg, she said. It is a place you stop for petrol on the autobahn to Berlin.
It is my goal, she said, to have this kind of job, writing at a magazine.
My own story was far less inspiring. I had graduated from Vassar, interned at the Paris Review, worked as a researcher and writer at the New Republic, and then was hired by the magazine. As straight a career path as existed in this business.
And now? Anya asked, What is your desire?
For some reason, I blurted it all out, my conversations with the headhunters and Settembrini, the offers I had been getting, the current negotiations to join SemperAugustus.com. But what I really wanted to do was write my novel.
The cake was served, a massive wedge that looked like an eighth of a car tire.
Anya frowned as she looked over the cake.
Do you always want so much? she asked.
Everything. Americans always want so much.
When it was midnight in Wellington, New Zealand, we would just be waking in New York. Unless the kiwis were geniuses when it came to debugging their computers, the first glitches would already be apparent, and certainly by the time Tokyo hit midnight four hours later, we would be deep in the shit as global systems began crashing. Instead, by the time we were arriving in our offices, the wire services had moved just a handful of items about computers malfunctioning but nothing catastrophic. It was obvious that the Y2K stories had been wasted work—a writing exercise, as we called killed stories—but I hadn’t written any stories, neither for Y2K nor the contingency magazine. Leaving me on Friday morning with nothing but a few stringer files from college campuses that were noticeably lacking in quotes, because all the students were on winter break, and a lede I had written the day before.
I got two 10-milligram Ritalin tablets from Silver, who was prescribed the ADHD medication, and crushed them on my desk, snorting the burning white powder in two lines, and then spent five hours cobbling together a passable story from old Wired magazine clippings and a few RIAA press releases. It was the sort of glib, facile crap I had become adept at unspooling, By now the long-running legal battles between the Record Industry Association of America and the millions of college kids downloading free jams over the Net has begun to resemble those chewing-gum commercials where fusty old geezers shake their canes at crazy kids and their ‘flavor crystals.’ Did that even make sense? Who cares? I was determined to file this story and leave the office as soon as possible. I had told Anya that we would go to a movie, maybe The Talented Mr. Ripley. I checked the story into QPS, saw that Avelini had checked it out, put on my coat, and was gathering my shoulder bag when Felsenthal stopped in.
Where are you going?
Out. If there is something wrong with the story, I’ll come back.
But it’s New Year’s.
So we have to wait, just in case.
Y2K didn’t happen.
It’s not midnight yet.
But there was no crisis in Tokyo, in Moscow, in London. They’re all ahead of us. The shit would have hit the fan.
We don’t know that.
Yeah, we do.
We’re staying, until we’re sure.
That’s, that’s—you’re just being obtuse.
Felsenthal ignored me and went back to his office.
I sat back down. The Ritalin had left me agitated but listless, the energy jolt of the 20 milligrams having dissipated, leaving me jittery rather than alert.
I was sitting in my chair, still in my coat, pumping my knees when Silver entered.
I am going to go fuck up Felsenthal.
I stood up, taking off my coat.
No, hey no, you can’t go and hit the editors.
Yes, yes I can. This is stupid.
Still, you can’t hit Felsenthal.
I stood up, attempting to push past Silver, who put his hands on my shoulders.
Anya had been attracted by this small commotion and now stood behind Silver, smiling. The sight of her settled me down. I suddenly felt ridiculous, my fists clenched, obviously agitated and angry. She was a calming influence; her faint, sweet, chemical smell was a soothing odor.
Okay, okay, I’m fine.
Once Silver had departed, I told Anya that she should gather her coat and bag.
I don’t care about Y2K. Let’s go.
On our way out, I grabbed a bottle of champagne from the hallway refrigerator where dozens were chilling.
We walked up 6th Avenue, crossed 59th street, and wandered into Central Park. It was a clear, cool night and had just dipped below freezing. There were a surprising number of revelers in the park bundled up, sitting on blankets on the lawn or perched on rocks overlooking Wolman skating rink and The Pond. We found a spot on the rocks, sat against the cold stone, and I opened the bottle of what turned out to be California sparkling wine.
Sorry we don’t have glasses.
I handed Anya the bottle and she took a sip. She smiled and gazed around the park, lighting a cigarette.
In Germany today, at my home, my mother makes a gans, do you know this word gans? It is a bird, like a duck.
Yes, a goose. There is so much fat. You must take it out while it is cooking, or it can be quite dangerous.
I have never had goose. Is it like duck? I like duck.
It is almost the same, I think, goose and duck. Similar flesh.
Anya was staying at a youth hostel in midtown where she was not allowed guests. I invited her to my apartment in Chelsea, an alcove studio with a kitchenette tucked into a closet. I could have afforded a nicer apartment, a proper one bedroom, but I had not yet gotten around to looking.
She stayed over that night. We lay on my futon for a while in our clothes, side by side, holding hands with the lights on. We made out. She smelled so clean, of that by-now-familiar soap as well as some sort of shampoo that gave off a faint alcohol smell. We removed our clothes, and in the moonlight, the first moon of the new millennium, I traced my hands up and down her pale body, white soft flesh, no tan lines, the vast tangle of unshorn pubic hair that even grew down the inside of her things.
Our sex was earnest and lacking in nuance; Anya undertook it as I would imagine she might do a few dozen jumping jacks or pull-ups, as a physical exercise to be completed. Or should I have been more assertive?
But we improved, as we got to know each other, and over that first week of the millennium, we lived a strange sort of life where Anya got up every morning and went to her office at the magazine while I stayed at home. I hadn’t officially quit. I just never showed up again.
No one at the magazine knew that we were together, yet Anya didn’t prove a very resourceful reporter in terms of gathering what my former colleagues were saying about me. From Silver I heard that Felsenthal was claiming I had been fired, while Avelini told everyone at the Tuesday meeting that I was taking some time off. I suppose both were true, or neither, but what’s the difference? The result was the same.
When it was time for Anya to return to Germany, I went with her to her youth hostel, where she gathered her clothes and sundries in a big, tan canvas backpack that she threw over her shoulder. She also had a leather cowboy hat and a brown leather jacket, the whole ensemble, combined with the cigarette she was smoking, making her look something like an Aryan Marlboro Man. I used one of my old vouchers from the magazine to hire her a black car to take her to the airport. I considered getting in the car with her when it drove down 55th street, but then felt that an airport farewell would show too much need and desperation for a casual relationship just one week old. She got in, rode away, her head silhouetted in the rear window of the Lincoln.
I arrived at SemperAugustus.com at 9 a.m., took my seat at my desk next to Settembrini’s. There was also a chief technology officer who had been hired from Infoseek, who spent all his time wearing headphones and leaning forward, looking at strings of numbers in various windows open on his pair of monitors. It was just the three of us, in a long, low-ceilinged office big enough for two dozen. They used PCs; at the magazine we had been one of the very few companies that still used Macs. Settembrini spoke loudly on the phone, practically in his CNBC voice, as if I wasn’t there. I understood that I was supposed to be devising content about the speculative boom. That morning, I opened a new document, at the top typed the words Story List…and that’s all the work I ever did for SemperAugustus.com.
I slipped out while Settembrini was on the phone, waving goodbye to him as I left, though I don’t think he understood that I was quitting.
I took the subway back to my apartment, packed a valise, my Powerbook G3 (which belonged to the magazine), and left for the airport. I called Anya from the radio car—I was also still using vouchers from the magazine. I reached her answering machine, or at least I thought it was her machine. There was a woman’s voice speaking in German, and then a beep.
I told her I would be visiting Berlin, hoping that my tone communicated spontaneity and exuberance rather than desperation, as if I was the type of person who had myriad reasons to be visiting Berlin in the middle of winter, rather than the type who had no reasons to remain in New York.
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Must-Reads from Magazine
With the demise of the filibuster for judicial nominations, the Senate has become a more partisan body. Members of the opposition party no longer have to take difficult votes to confirm presidential nominees, and so they no longer have to moderate their rhetoric to avoid the appearance of hypocrisy. Many expected, therefore, that Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings would tempt Democrats to engage in theatrics and hyperbole. Few, however, foresaw just how recklessly the Judiciary Committee’s Democratic members would behave.
The sordid performance to which Americans were privy was not the harmless kind that can be chalked up to presidential ambitions. Right from the start, Democratic committee members took a sledgehammer to the foundations of the institution in which they are privileged to serve.
Sen. Cory Booker made national headlines by declaring himself “Spartacus,” but the actions he undertook deserved closer attention than did the scenery he chewed. Booker insisted that it was his deliberate intention to violate longstanding Senate confidentiality rules supposedly in service to transparency. It turns out that the documents Booker tried to release to the public had already been exempted from confidentiality. Booker was adamant, though, that he had undermined the Senate’s integrity. You see, that, not transparency, was his true objective. It was what he believed his constituents wanted from him.
Booker wasn’t alone. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse appeared to share his colleague’s political instincts. “I want to make it absolutely clear that I do not accept the process,” he said of the committee’s vetting of Kavanaugh’s documents. “Because I do not accept its legitimacy or validity,” Whitehouse added, he did not have to abide by the rules and conventions that governed Senate conduct.
When the committee’s Democratic members were not trying to subvert the Senate’s credibility, they were attempting to impugn Judge Kavanaugh’s character via innuendo or outright fabrications.
Sen. Kamala Harris managed to secure a rare rebuke from the fact-checking institution PolitiFact, which is charitably inclined toward Democratic claims. “Kavanaugh chooses his words very carefully, and this is a dog whistle for going after birth control,” read her comments on Twitter accompanying an 11-second clip in which Kavanaugh characterized certain forms of birth control as “abortion-inducing drugs.” “Make no mistake,” Harris wrote, “this is about punishing women.” But the senator had failed to include mitigating context in that clip, which would have made it clear that Kavanaugh was simply restating the arguments made by the plaintiffs in the case in question.
Later, Harris probed Kavanaugh as to whether he believed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which has never been explicitly ruled unconstitutional, was wrongly upheld by the Supreme Court. Despite calling the decisions of this period “discriminatory,” Kavanaugh declined to elaborate on a case that could theoretically come before the Supreme Court. This, the judge’s detractors insisted, was “alarming” and perhaps evidence of latent racial hostility. In fact, it was an unremarkable example of how Supreme Court nominees tend to avoid offering “forecasts” of how they will decide cases without having heard the arguments—a routine deemed “the Ginsburg Rule” after Ruth Bader, who perfected the practice.
Over a week later, Harris had still not explained what she was getting at. But she doesn’t have to. The vagueness of her claim was designed to allow Kavanaugh’s opponents’ imaginations to run wild, leading them to draw the worst possible conclusions about this likely Supreme Court justice and to conclude that the process by which he was confirmed was a sham.
Harris may not have been alone in appealing to this shameful tactic. On Thursday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein shocked observers when she released a cryptic statement revealing that she had “referred” to “federal investigative authorities” a letter involving Kavanaugh’s conduct. It’s human nature to arrive at the worst imaginable conclusion as to what these unstated claims might be, and that’s precisely what Kavanaugh’s opponents did. It turned out that the 35-year-old accusations involve an anonymous woman who was allegedly cornered in a bedroom by Kavanaugh and a friend during a high-school party. Kavanaugh, the letter alleged, put a hand over her mouth, but the woman removed herself from the situation before anything else occurred. All were minors at the time of this alleged episode, and Kavanaugh denies the allegations.
Some thought it was odd for Feinstein to refer these potentially serious allegations to the FBI this week and in such a public fashion when the allegations contained in a letter were known to Democrats for months. The letter was, after all, obtained by Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo in July. But it doesn’t seem confusing when considering the facts that the FBI all but dismissed the referral off-hand and reporting on the episode lacks any corroboration to substantiate the claims made by the alleged victim here. It is hard not to conclude that this is an attempt to affix an asterisk to Brett Kavanaugh’s name. Democrats will not only claim that this confirmation process was tainted but may now contend that Kavanaugh cannot be an impartial arbitrator—not with unresolved clouds of suspicion involving sexual assault hanging over his head.
Ultimately, as public polling suggests, the Democratic Party’s effort to tarnish Kavanaugh’s reputation through insinuation and theatrics has had the intended effect. Support for this nominee now falls squarely along party lines. But the collateral damage Senate Democrats have done to America’s governing institutions amid this scorched-earth campaign could have lasting and terrible consequences for the country.
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While the nation’s attention is focused on the Carolina coast, something very odd is happening across the country in Sunspot, New Mexico.
Sunspot is hardly a town at all–the nearest stores are 18 miles away. It’s actually a solar observatory 9,200 feet up in the Sacramento Mountains. It is open to the public and has a visitor’s center, but don’t visit it right now. On September 6th, the FBI moved in and evacuated all personnel using Black Hawk helicopters. Local police were told to stay away. The only explanation being given by the FBI is that an unresolved “security issue” is the cause of the evacuation.
The sun is the only astronomical body capable of doing major damage to planet earth without actually hitting us. A coronal mass ejection aimed at the earth could have a devastating impact on satellites, radio transmission, and the electrical grid, possibly causing massive power outages that could last for weeks, even months. (It would also produce spectacular auroras. During the Carrington Event of 1859, the northern lights were seen as far south as the Caribbean and people in New England could read newspapers by the light.)
So, there are very practical, not just intellectual reasons, to know what the sun is up to. But the National Solar Observatory right now is a ghost town, and no one will say why. Such a story should be catnip for journalists.
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It's not paranoia if they're really out to get you.
Americans awoke Thursday morning to a familiar noise: The president of the United States waxing conspiratorial and declaring himself the victim of a nefarious plot.
“3,000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico,” Donald Trump declared on Twitter. He insisted that the loss of life in the immediate aftermath of 2017’s Hurricane Maria topped out in the low double-digits and ballooned into the thousands well after the fact because of faulty accounting. The president did not claim that this misleading figure was attributable to flaws in the studies conducted in the aftermath of last year’s disaster by institutions like George Washington University or the New England Journal of Medicine but to a deliberate misinformation campaign orchestrated by his political opponents. “This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible,” Trump insisted.
If, for some mysterious reason, Trump wanted to attack the validity of these studies, he might have questioned the assumptions and biases that even their authors admit had an unavoidable effect on their confidence intervals. But Trump’s interest is not in accuracy. His desire is to shield himself from blame and to project his administration’s failings—even those as debatable as the disaster that afflicted Puerto Rico for the better part of a year—onto others. The president’s self-consciousness is so transparent at this point that even his defenders in Congress have begun directly confronting the insecurities that fuel these tweets.
Donald Trump has rarely encountered a conspiracy theory he declined to legitimize, and this tendency did not abate when he won the presidency. From his repeated assertions that Moscow’s intervention in the 2016 election was a “hoax,” to the idea that the FBI shielded Hillary Clinton from due scrutiny, to the baseless notion that “millions and millions” of illegal-immigrant voters deprived him of a popular vote victory, all of this alleged sedition has a common theme: Trump is the injured party.
The oddest thing about all this is that these are the golden days. Trump-era Republicans will look back on this as the halcyon period in which all of Washington’s doors were open to them. The president’s ostensible allies control every chamber of government. The power his adversaries command is of the soft sort—cultural and moral authority—but not the kind of legal power that could prevent Trump and Republicans from realizing their agenda. That could be about to change.
The signs that a backlash to unified Republican rule in Washington was brewing have been obvious almost since the moment Trump took the oath of office. Democrats have consistently overperformed in special and off-year elections, their candidates have outraised the GOP, and a near-record number of Republicans opted to retire rather than face reelection in 2018. The Democratic Party’s performance in the generic ballot test has outpaced the GOP for well over a year, sometimes by double-digits, leading many to speculate that Democrats are well positioned to retake control of the House of Representatives. Now, despite the opposition party’s structural disadvantages, some are even beginning to entertain the prospect of a Democratic takeover in the Senate.
Until this point, the Trump administration has faced no real adversity. Sure, the administration’s executive overreach has been rejected in the courts and occasionally public outcry has forced the White House to abandon ill-considered initiatives, but it’s always been able to rely on the GOP majorities in Congress to shield it from the worst consequences of its actions. That phase of the Trump presidency could be over by January. For the first time, this president could have to contend with at least one truly adversarial chamber of the legislature, and opposition will manifest first in the form of investigations.
How will the White House respond when House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings is tasked with investigating the president’s response to a natural disaster or when he subpoenas the president’s personal records? How will Trump respond when Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler is overseeing the investigation into the FBI’s response to Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, not Bob Goodlatte? Will the Department of Homeland Security’s border policies withstand public scrutiny when it’s Mississippi’s Bennie Thompson, not Texas’s Michael McCaul, doing the scrutinizing? How will Wall Street react to a Washington where financial-services oversight is no longer led by Jeb Hensarling but Maxine Waters? If the Democrats take the House, the legislative phase of the Trump era be over, but the investigative phase will have only just begun.
In many ways, this presidency behaved as though it were operating in a bunker from day one, and not without reason. Trump had every reason to fear that the culture of Washington and even many of the members of his own party were secretly aligned against him, but the key word there is “secret.” The secret is about to be out. The Trump White House hasn’t yet faced a truly adversarial Washington institution with teeth, but it is about to. If you think you’ve seen a bunker mentality in this White House, you haven’t seen anything yet.
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Podcast: Google and Kavanaugh.
Will Google survive the revelations of its political bias, or are those revelations nothing new? We delve into the complexities of the world in which important tech companies think they are above politics until they decide they’re not. Also some stuff on the Supreme Court and on polls. Give a listen.
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Smeared for doing the job.
When then-presidential candidate Donald Trump famously declared his intention to be a “neutral” arbiter of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian territories and put the onus for resolving the conflict on Jerusalem, few observers could have predicted that Trump would run one of the most pro-Israel administrations in American history.
This year, the Trump administration began relocating the U.S. embassy in Israel to the nation’s capital city, fulfilling a promise that began in 1995 with the passage of a law mandating this precise course of action. The administration also declined to blame Israel for defending its Gaza border against a Hamas-led attack. Last week, the administration shuttered the PLO’s offices in Washington.
The Trump administration’s commitment to shedding the contradictions and moral equivalencies that have plagued past administrations has exposed anti-Zionism for what its critics so often alleged it to be.
This week, Department of Education Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights Kenneth Marcus announced his intention to vacate an Obama-era decision that dismissed an alleged act of anti-Semitism at Rutgers University. Marcus’s decision to reopen that particularly deserving case has led the New York Times to publish an article by Erica L. Green full of misconceptions, myths, and dissimulations about the nature of the anti-Israel groups in question and the essential characteristics of anti-Semitism itself.
In reporting on Marcus’s move, Green declared the education activist and opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement a “longtime opponent of Palestinian rights causes,” a designation the paper’s editor felt fine printing without any substantiating evidence. You could be forgiven for thinking that BDS itself constituted a cause of “Palestinian rights” and not an international effort to stigmatize and harm both Israel and its supporters. If you kept reading beyond that second paragraph, your suspicions were confirmed.
Green contended that Marcus’s decision has paved the way for the Education Department to adopt a “hotly contested definition of anti-Semitism” that includes: denying Jews “the right to self-determination,” claiming that the state of Israel is a “racist endeavor,” and applying a double standard to Israel not “expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” As Jerusalem Post reporter and COMMENTARY contributor Lahav Harkov observed, this allegedly “hotly contested definition” is precisely the same definition used by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. In 2010, the IHRA’s working definition was adopted almost in total by Barack Obama’s State Department.
Green went so far as to say that this not-so-new definition for anti-Semitism has, according to Arab-American activists, declared “the Palestinian cause anti-Semitic.” So that is the Palestinian cause? Denying Jews the right to self-determination, calling the state of Israel itself a racist enterprise, and holding it to nakedly biased double standards? So much for the two-state solution.
Perhaps the biggest tell in the Times piece was its reporters’ inability to distinguish between pro-Palestinian activism and anti-Israeli agitation. The complaint the Education Department is preparing to reinvestigate involves a 2011 incident in which an event hosted by the group Belief Awareness Knowledge and Action (BAKA) allegedly imposed an admissions fee on Jewish and pro-Israel activists after unexpected numbers arrived to protest the event. An internal email confirmed that the group only charged this fee because “150 Zionists” “just showed up,” but the Obama administration dismissed the claim, saying that the organization’s excuse—that it expected heftier university fees following greater-than-expected attendance—was innocuous enough.
Green did not dwell on the group, which allegedly discriminated against Jews and pro-Israeli activists. If she had, she’d have reported that, just a few weeks before this incident, BAKA staged another event on Rutgers’s campus—a fundraiser for the organization USTOGAZA, which provided aid to the campaign of “flotillas” challenging an Israeli blockade of Gaza. USTOGAZA’s links to the Turkey-based organization Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH), which has long been associated with support for Hamas-led terrorist activities, rendered the money raised in this event legally suspect. Eventually, as Brooke Goldstein wrote for COMMENTARY, even BAKA conceded the point:
After community members demanded that Rutgers, a state-funded university, hold an investigation before handing over any money to USTOGAZA, the school responded by offering to keep the money raised in an escrow account until a suitable recipient could be found. In June 2011, BAKA sent out an e-mail admitting the University had, after “much deliberation” and despite their initial approval, “decided that they are not willing to release the funds to the US to Gaza effort” due to concerns of being found liable for violating the material-support statutes.
Rutgers prudently limited BAKA’s ability to participate in on-campus events after these incidents, but the organization that took their place—Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP)—is no better. The Times quoted officials with the Center for Law and Justice who praised Marcus’s move and cited SJP as a source of particular consternation, but the reporters did not delve into the group’s activities. If they had, they’d find that the organization’s activities—among them declaring that “Zionists are racists,” supporting anti-Zionist individuals despite credible accusations of child abuse, and endorsing Hamas’s governing platform, which labels the entire state of Israel “occupied territory”—fits any cogent definition of anti-Semitism. This is to say nothing of the abuse and harassment that American Jews experience on college campuses that play host to SJP’s regular “Israel apartheid weeks.”
Some might attribute the Times’ neutral portrayal of groups that tacitly support violence and people like Omar Barghouti—an activist who “will never accept a Jewish state in Palestine” and has explicitly endorsed “armed resistance” against Jews, who he insists are “not a people”—to ignorance, as though that would neutralize the harm this dispatch might cause. But the Times piece has emboldened those who see Israel’s Jewish character as a threat both to its political culture and our own. That worrying sentiment was succinctly expressed by New York Magazine’s Eric Levitz: “You don’t have to be a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause to question Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.”
The benefit of the doubt only extends so far. Even the charitably inclined should have discovered its limits by now.