Let’s ease in softly on a pretty day.
Spring came to New York this week after a month of gloomy cold and drizzle. The sun was out. Monday afternoon just before dusk there was a bird outside my window, all by itself and singing so loudly—byeet-byeet-chur-chur-chur. Over and over as if it had just discovered its voice. I was emailing with a friend, your basic hard-bitten journalist, and told him what I was hearing—it sounded like the beginning of the world. He wrote back not with irony but with the information that a band of baby rabbits had just taken over his garden and were out there hopping and bopping: “They are so excited to be on earth.” This struck me as the most important news of the day.
My bird sang on a few minutes and then flew away, but it made me think, for the first time in years, of William Carlos Williams of 9 Ridge Road in Rutherford, N.J., and his famous poem from his 1923 collection, “Spring and All”:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
No one is sure what it means, though a poem doesn’t have to mean. To me it’s about how so much depends on reality—on what is, on the suddenly seen tenderness of what is, and how it can catch you unaware.
So now to what I’ve been thinking about, which is a question: What is required of us at this point in history? What is required of those of us who aren’t making history but observing it, watching with concern or alarm? There’s a sense now of not getting the news but listening for what shoe just dropped.
Thursday morning there was the president’s latest unhingement, in a phone interview on “Fox & Friends.” He was agitated; he spoke of witch hunts, monsters, fakes, phonies and killers. They are “trying to destroy” his doctor, who withdrew his nomination as secretary of veterans affairs. James Comey is “a leaker and he is a liar.” “There is no collusion with me and the Russians.” “Fake news CNN actually gave the questions to the debate.” “They have a witch hunt against the president of the United States.” “It is a horrible thing that is going on, a horrible thing. Yet I have accomplished, with all of this going on, more than any president in the first year in our history. And everybody—even the enemies and haters admit that.” He’s disappointed in his Justice Department. The “corruption at the top of the FBI, it’s a disgrace.” Michael Cohen represented him “with this crazy Stormy Daniels deal.” “But I’m not involved, and I’m not involved—I’ve been told I’m not involved.” He gets along with Kanye West. “I get along with a lot of people frankly.” “CBS and NBC, ABC—they’re all fake news.” They tried to suppress the Trump vote, so that his supporters on Election Day would say, “So let’s go to a movie, darling, and we’ll come home and watch Donald lose.” “Let me tell you the nuclear war would have happened if you had weak people.” “I don’t watch NBC anymore; they’re as bad as CNN. I don’t—by the way I made them a fortune with ‘The Apprentice.’ ”
You could call the interview far-ranging or scattered, you could call it typically colorful or really nuts, but you couldn’t hear it without feeling more disquiet and unease. And that was just Thursday’s installment of “As the Trump Turns.”
So what is required of us at this roiling time? What are some behavioral rules for the road? The political turbulence we’re experiencing isn’t going to go away, and what’s important at such a time is to absorb the daily shocks, think long-term, speak your mind, share your heart, and do your best.
Beyond that, I think the great requirement of this moment, in the second year of the Trump era, is: Don’t lose your composure. Don’t let it rob you of your peace. Maintain your poise. Don’t let the history around you destabilize you. Don’t become sour. Keep on your game, maintain your own standards. There are people on television who level the gravest charges against the administration. But they don’t look sad, they have a look of cackling glee. History isn’t unfolding for your amusement. If it’s such a tragedy, you could now and then look stricken.
It would be good for people to dig deep. Everything in our national political life is in flux. Don’t just oppose. Take time to look at why you stand where you stand. Why are you a Democrat? What truths, goals, realities of that party deserve your loyalty? Republicans, the same.
And we should stick to our knitting. Help your country in every way you can within your ken. National figures come and go, but local realities sink in and spread; families fail or flourish. We are a great nation and an earnest people. We forget this, especially in cynical times, but we are.
Many of our political figures are not enjoying their spring.
Republicans on the Hill are bracing for a blue wave. Some have gotten out of the way, some have hunkered down.
Mr. Trump is their problem. Whatever magic he has is not transferable. The base continues to shift under their feet.
Democrats, too, are antsy. Their party continues to split, and they don’t know where the safe area is between the rising left and its demands, and the old Clintonian moderation and its rewards.
What is required of Republican politicians who wish to survive?
To succeed in a dramatic era, a politician needs a combination of caution and imagination. Caution—a knowledge of human nature, an understanding of coalitions, and an admission that history laughs. Imagination—the ability to ascertain the lay of the land and smoke out possibilities, even find room for compromise, knowing history sometimes bows. This involves the ability to make distinctions. Being imaginative doesn’t mean being unrealistic, and caution isn’t cowardice. To be imaginative is to be open and intuitive as—yes—an artist, not like some gerbil munching on numbers with little pink hands.
You can’t allow yourself to be reduced to just repeating things that were revolutionary 40 or 50 years ago but no longer seem fully pertinent to the country we’re in, or its circumstances.
You have to be sensitive to cultural vibrations. Republican politicians treat social issues as something to be spoken of now and then, mostly when the public brings them up—in part because such issues divide, in part because they don’t know how to speak of them. They’re not philosopher kings. But a politician with a sense of how people are thinking would observe that when the conversation turns to marriage and family formation, the best commercial for both in the past decade was the recent celebration of the life of Barbara Bush. A marriage of 73 years, the idea of marriage as both love affair and partnership, was burnished and made new for everyone who passed a screen. What was being celebrated was the pleasure and sacrifice that go into building something that endures.
And you have to know what time it is. Life moves, things change.
So much depends on reality, on what is. All of politics does.