Only two offices in American political life have a double function, one official and the other ceremonial, offering, and demanding, a second role that everyone knows about, but no one quite articulates. The Presidency is one: it’s both political and monarchical. He (or, soon, she) gets the top job in politics, and is also the embodiment of the state. Presidents who do both jobs passably well—Reagan and Kennedy, and Obama, too—get many a break from their constituents, and from the history books. We want a guy who looks the part. Those who never did—Nixon, Carter—get kicked around, perhaps unduly.
When Ted Cruz lies, he appears to be praying. His lips narrow, almost disappearing into his face, and his eyebrows shift abruptly, rising like a drawbridge on his forehead into matching acute angles. He attains an appearance of supplication, an earnest desire that men and women need to listen, as God surely listens. Cruz has large ears; a straight nose with a fleshy tip, which shines in camera lights when he talks to reporters; straight black hair slicked back from his forehead like flattened licorice; thin lips; a long jaw with another knob of flesh at the base, also shiny in the lights. If, as Orwell said, everyone has the face he deserves at fifty, Cruz, who is only forty-two, has got a serious head start. For months, I sensed vaguely that he reminded me of someone but I couldn’t place who it was. Revelation has arrived: Ted Cruz resembles the Bill Murray of a quarter-century ago, when he played fishy, mock-sincere fakers. No one looked more untrustworthy than Bill Murray. The difference between the two men is that the actor was a satirist.
The extraordinary legal saga of Michael Skakel took its most surprising turn last week. In 2002, Skakel was convicted of murdering his neighbor Martha Moxley, in Greenwich, Connecticut, in 1975, when both of them were fifteen years old. After more than a decade of futile appeals, a Connecticut Superior Court judge granted Skakel a new trial on the grounds that his attorney, Michael Sherman, had provided ineffective assistance under the Sixth Amendment.
The hundred-and-thirty-six-page opinion by Judge Thomas A. Bishop is a peculiar document. It is designed to prove that Sherman did an incompetent job, but Bishop seems principally interested in proving that Skakel was in fact not guilty of the murder. Bishop, it seems, wanted to dispense rough justice—that is, to free an innocent man from prison, using whatever legal tools he had at his disposal.
On a road trip through Ohio a few weeks ago, I stopped at a gas-station market, where a bulletin board outside the restrooms was covered with flyers. Somebody was selling black-and-white piglets; a pumpkin patch was offering hayrides. And there were several handmade leaflets fund-raising for people who couldn’t afford their medical costs. Two of them I particularly remember: one seeking help for a four-year-old who required dental surgery and whose family couldn’t afford the anesthesia, and another for a smiling older couple; the husband had ocular melanoma and could no longer see.
There are three things to recognize about the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and all the criticism of it: First, the Web-site glitches really are a problem. Second, the hearings that Republicans in Congress insist on holding are no way to fix them. Third, when it comes to evaluating the worth of Obamacare we may not remember the Web-site hiccups all that well. What we will remember, and what ultimately matters, is whether, in the next year, the A.C.A. fulfills its promise: to provide affordable health insurance to people who did not have it through an employer, could not afford it on their own, were denied it on the basis of preëxisting conditions, paid more for it than they should have because they were, say, women of child-bearing age, or could no longer get by because their insurance benefits had been capped. In short, people like those on the flyers, who were trying to scrape together the money from neighbors or from passing strangers to pay for health care that they desperately needed.
The nominating committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has announced its finalists for induction in 2014, and leading the list of sixteen is Nirvana, represented now by its two surviving members, the bassist Krist Novoselic and the then-drummer Dave Grohl (and, if you count “Sirvana,” Sir Paul McCartney). Nirvana is this round’s only band to have been nominated in its first year of eligibility, i.e., twenty-five years after the release of a first single or album. (That would be “Love Buzz,” 1988—pre-Grohl, who joined in 1990.)
Wang Gongquan, who was charged in Beijing on Sunday with “assembling a crowd to disrupt order,” hardly fits the profile of a classic Chinese political activist. He doesn’t lead a threadbare life on the margins of an increasingly prosperous society. He doesn’t scrape by on a mixture of tiny grants, consulting fees, and the sale of obscure essays. On the contrary, Wang, who is fifty-two, is a plutocrat, one of China’s most famous venture capitalists. He made a fortune in real estate, technology, and other investments. People call him a billionaire, or maybe just a multimillionaire—in China, it can be difficult to know for sure. He has indulged in the decadent excesses of his moment, most memorably in 2011, when he announced that he was leaving his wife to journey abroad with his mistress—news that he broke on Weibo. “I am giving up everything and eloping with Wang Qin,” he wrote to his social-media followers, whose numbers eventually grew to more than a million. “I feel ashamed and so am leaving without saying goodbye. I kneel down and beg forgiveness!”
He came back. His fans, by and large, forgave him. (He even seemed to get credit for what some interpreted as an act of true romance.) But Wang is not a man accustomed to living within limits, and he had begun to bridle against other restraints.
Few small magazines remain so for long. A handful get larger over time; most die at a fairly young age. One exception is Dissent, the independent left-wing quarterly that was founded in the dark days of the McCarthy era by the literary critic Irving Howe and the sociologist Lewis Coser, which will celebrate its sixtieth anniversary later this week. For decades, Dissent’s subscription list has hovered around the mid-four figures, never going much higher or lower; today, it has just over ten thousand followers on Twitter, its editors never pay themselves a penny, and its writers don’t make a whole lot more. Creatures that function at a consistently low metabolic rate are prone to being picked off by predators or to just stop moving. And yet, Dissent has survived its founding editors, eleven Presidencies, the rise and fall of neo-conservatism, Ramparts, The Public Interest, Talk, and George. The reasons for this longevity are more interesting than sheer persistence.
After a week in which it looked like the Great American Way was closer to a suicide pact than a governing arrangement—with so many undemocratic choke points that the polity strangles—a whole new way of thinking about our domestic arrangements may be in order. A woman who has been held at gunpoint by her husband for a week, to suggest a situation with certain parallels, might want to get out of the relationship. Tea Party types, like abusive family members, may tend to ask whether we really think the neighbors have it any better. And so it seemed apropos when a friend passed on, the other day, a new book proposing that the answer to all of America’s problems is not to blame Canada but to join it.