The Tragedy of James Comey

James Comey is about to be ubiquitous. His book will be published next week, and parts may leak this week. Starting Sunday, he will begin an epic publicity tour, including interviews with Stephen Colbert, David Remnick, Rachel Maddow, Mike Allen, George Stephanopoulos and “The View.”

.. Yet anybody who’s read Greek tragedy knows that strengths can turn into weaknesses when a person becomes too confident in those strengths. And that’s the key to understanding the very complex story of James Comey.

.. Long before he was a household name, Comey was a revered figure within legal circles.
.. But he was more charismatic than most bureaucrats — six feet eight inches tall, with an easy wit and refreshing informality. People loved working for him.
.. If you read his 2005 goodbye speech to the Justice Department, when he was stepping down as George W. Bush’s deputy attorney general, you can understand why. It’s funny, displaying the gifts of a storyteller. It includes an extended tribute to the department’s rank and file, like “secretaries, document clerks, custodians and support people who never get thanked enough.” He insists on “the exact same amount of human dignity and respect” for “every human being in this organization,”
.. Above all, though, the speech is a celebration of the department’s mission.
.. Many Justice Department officials, from both parties, have long believed that they should be more independent and less political than other cabinet departments. Comey was known as an evangelist of this view.
.. Comey sometimes chided young prosecutors who had never lost a case, accusing them of caring more about their win-loss record than justice. He told them they were members of the Chicken Excrement Club
.. Most famously, in 2004, he stood up to Bush and Dick Cheney over a dubious surveillance program.

But as real as Comey’s independence and integrity were, they also became part of a persona that he cultivated and relished.

.. Comey has greater strengths than most people. But for all of us, there is a fine line between strength and hubris.

Trump is Sarah Palin but better at it

Palin remains critical: to a faction of the Republican Party, and to understanding the emergence of Donald Trump and Trumpism — the ideology created by the president’s most ardent supporters, though not necessarily by the president himself.

.. From the moment Palin entered the national scene, the praise for her on the right was heavily tied to her image.

.. Kathleen Parker said of her initial interest in Palin: “She was the antithesis and nemesis of the hirsute, Birkenstock-wearing sisterhood — a refreshing feminist of a different order who personified the modern successful working mother.”

Nowhere in the piece were Palin’s conservative viewpoints referenced; her views on, say, health care or school choice, or even abortion, went unmentioned. Palin’s problem, in Parker’s view, wasn’t her beliefs but her tendency to ramble. What mattered about the governor was what she could reflect back to a hungry Republican base: an “attractive, earnest [and] confident” woman in a position of power.

.. Palin said what the base was thinking.

  • She accused Barack Obama of “palling around with terrorists.”
  • She praised those willing to “screw the political correctness.” She cheered the birther movement promoted by one Donald Trump.
  • As the keynote speaker at the first-ever National Tea Party Convention in February 2010, she taunted Democrats, “How’s that hopey-changey stuff working out?”

.. Palin was an avatar for how her supporters felt about themselves and the world they wanted to see, one they saw rapidly slipping away from them. Sure, she might be wrong, they seemed to say, but she’s like us. She is us.

.. her departure left an opening that was filled by Trump

.. Trump campaigned on the Palin model. In fact, he improved upon it. His identity was his trademark, rendering the constant shifts in policy goals and promises almost meaningless. His base saw in Trump what they wanted to see.

  • .. Some saw a fighter who would stand up for them,
  • others saw a vaunted truth-teller,
  • and a few, truth be told, likely saw a potential white-nationalist hero.

And he gave it to them: the image, the veneer, the blank slate upon which their deeply held dreams

..His fans weren’t dissuaded by
  • his past support for Democrats (including his 2016 opponent),
  • or his lies,
  • or his personal liberalism,
  • or his crudeness,
  • or his long history of mistreating small-business owners of the kind he claimed to champion,
because his fans weren’t voting for Trump. They were voting for what Trump meant to them personally.
.. his base will not leave him, because to abandon Trump would not be to abandon the current president but to leave behind deeply held beliefs of their own.
.. His popularity is cultural, not political, resilient to the notions of truth and fiction and to Trump’s own failures.

Katy Perry Woke Up. She Wants to Tell You All About It.

Thanks to Madonna’s restlessness, female pop stars are expected to reinvent themselves every few years, but there’s no guarantee that listeners will accept the changes. For Ms. Perry, the stakes couldn’t be higher: She believes she is now revealing her true self. The old Katy Perry is gone.

.. She has a well-known strategy for frustrating the paparazzi (wearing the same Adidas track suit when she leaves home to make the photographs less sellable)

.. For all of Ms. Perry’s talk about feminism and unity, it felt like a conventional catfight.

.. you have to understand her relationship to her biggest album, “Teenage Dream.” It had five No. 1 hits, tying a record Michael Jackson set with “Bad,” and solidified her image as a charmingly goofy sexpot who sings about love, partying and inner strength.

.. Part of the pressure stemmed from maintaining her hypersexual image, which Ms. Perry takes responsibility for helping create. “I used to be scared of intimacy, I used to use my sexualization as attention, I used to oversexualize myself because that was the only way I knew how,”

.. later explained why she holds queer women in high esteem: “I admire that they’re doing it for themselves. They are not doing it for the male gaze.”) It’s easy to read her drastic haircut and new stylistic choices — her live stream finale outfit covered her in neck-to-toe sequins — as a reaction to having worn whipped-cream bras in the past.

.. Ms. Perry credits her shift in perspective on her sexuality — she calls it “a full sexual liberation” — to resolving issues with her father. “The reality is that I was retriggered on the election,” she said. “I was retriggered by a big male that didn’t see women as equal. And that had been, unfortunately, a common theme in my upbringing.”

.. the Katy Perry I spent several days with: gregarious, intense, bold, endearing and full of contradictions.

.. she proclaimed herself devoted to dialogue but spoke in a near uninterrupted monologue.

.. The old Katy Perry wasn’t a construct, she explained, and she isn’t dead. “I didn’t kill her, because I love her, and she is exactly what I had to do then,”

Miley Cyrus’s Creepy Return to Wholesomeness

when I spoke to her in 2014 (back then, she and Hemsworth were done, she was dating a woman, and had taken to sticking her tongue out all the time), I was struck by how earnest she seemed about everything. She pulls from a seemingly bottomless font of sincerity

.. Most everybody readily acknowledges the artifice inherent to pop music—as consumers, we know and understand, to some degree, that the whole business is and always has been an aggressively managed charade. Part of the deal is that we still feign chagrin or incredulity (or both) when a pop star announces another reinvention. These shifts aren’t so interesting for what they broadcast about the state of an individual performer’s philosophical posture—in fact, I’d argue that, in that regard, they’re largely meaningless; far more compelling is what they indicate about an artist’s commercial potential, which is inextricably tied to the public’s hunger for change, and for new and flashier iterations of the same thing

.. Pop singers seeking colossal stardom tend to operate in only one of two modes:

  1. guileless, fresh-faced ingénue;
  2. or a sex-starved, lingerie-clad vixen.

(“Regular” has yet to become an especially profitable option.)

Why the Trump White House Is So Leaky

But in other cases, Trump’s anger is aimed at members of his own staff and probably his own family, who use the media to undermine competitors in the administration. Senior adviser Steve Bannon uses his old website, Breitbart.com, to throw brickbats at his enemies. Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and a sort of prince regent in the Trump administration, is widely believed to use MSNBC’s Morning Joe for similar purposes.

The whole spectacle is actually pretty hilarious. “They shouldn’t be allowed to use sources unless they use somebody’s name,” Trump thundered in a speech in February. “Let their name be put out there.” A few weeks later, Trump met in the Oval Office with news anchors who attributed his comments to a “senior administration official.” Indeed, the president frequently calls reporters — Americans he describes as “enemies of the people” — on “background,” doling out dollops of “anonymous” information.

.. What’s new in this White House is not the phenomenon of leaking but the scope and nature of it. After every meeting, participants race to their phones to put their anonymous spin on what happened. The reports read like parody. The Washington Post’s in-depth story on the Comey firing was based on “the private accounts of more than 30 officials at the White House, the Justice Department, the FBI and on Capitol Hill, as well as Trump confidants and other senior Republicans.”

.. few people in the Trump White House have much experience working in a White House, contributing to the shocking lack of internal discipline and clear lines of authority.

.. Some reporters tell me it’s simply “[posterior]-covering.” Maintaining good relationships with the press is an insurance policy. It’s always useful to have friends in the media, particularly if an administration goes off the rails. Being able to tell reporters, “Well, you know it wasn’t me” when stuff hits the fan could save your career. Another explanation is that this kind of palace-intrigue reporting has become a staple of the new media climate.

.. But I think the problem ultimately goes back to the president himself. He thrives on drama, particularly drama he creates. He cares about, and monitors, media coverage like no president in American history. Trump likes to pit subordinates against each other, which encourages staffers to be free agents.

.. his failure to provide a consistent philosophical or policy agenda beyond “Make the boss look good.” In short, he values loyalty above all else but offers few incentives for it.

Amex, Challenged by Chase, Is Losing the Snob War

“I don’t think it would be American Express,” one diner said. “I feel like that would be braggy, like I’m trying to prove I’m a big shot.”

.. “An Amex says you’re rich, but this says you’re interesting.”

.. Chase was succeeding by, essentially, copying the American Express playbook and chasing the same up-and-coming elites who had traditionally joined Amex’s ranks.

.. Could it be that American Express, the card that had defined ostentatious luxury and capitalist striving since the 1980s, was on the brink of becoming passé? What kinds of hoops would Amex need to jump through to attract these new hoodie-wearing moguls and young tycoons?

Was it possible .. millennials would never be convinced that income inequality was something they should aspire to?

.. For more than 30 years American Express has reaped enormous profits by telling its customers that they are successful, elite, the cream of the moneyed crop

.. people paid American Express up to $7,500 for the privilege of carrying cards that are very similar to the ones Visa and MasterCard give away free.

.. Last year, for instance, the number of American Express cards in use declined by almost 18 percent

the company’s relationships with Costco and JetBlue ..  summarily ended when those firms found alternative credit card partners.

.. Chase and Citibank, have started beating Amex at its own game, often by hiring the same executives who built Amex.

.. “They can book travel for you, they have concierges to recommend the best restaurants. If you leave your reading glasses inside a hotel room in Budapest, Amex will get them mailed back to you. No one else does that.”

.. Millennials, however, don’t really need travel agents or concierges: They have Priceline and Yelp.

.. American Express, for decades, has essentially sold snob appeal

The Chase Sapphire Reserve .. is all about emphasizing what cardholders can do, rather than what they can buy.

.. This is a card for accumulating experiences.”

.. now gives cardholders an annual $200 credit with Uber.

.. more than a third of its new cardholders last year were millennials

.. many people who work at American Express aren’t all that millennially minded themselves. If you visit Amex’s headquarters in Lower Manhattan, you’ll find squared-jawed men in bespoke suits and fashion model-glamorous women, but not a lot of young people in the uppermost ranks.

Goodbye, Evangelicalism

Many of these “influencers” have little or no theological education, they haven’t done any Biblical scholarship, but they have wide audiences because they are perceived as authentic or “write from the heart”.

This applies equally to progressive and conservative influencers, I hasten to add. Some of them are very well-expressed, but many of the ideas they share are simply at odds with a Christian worldview.

.. a great many of these people who had been raised on Scripture, prayer, and Sunday School lacked any kind of cohesive Christian worldview. They knew dozens, maybe hundreds, of Bible verses but could not connect them to larger themes or ideas. The problem is that when ideas about sex or greed or whatever are not grounded in a larger framework, it’s easy to simply discard them. “We don’t practice animal sacrifice as Leviticus tells us, so why should I take what it has to say about sex seriously?”

.. the minute that a younger Christian faces cultural pressure because of their beliefs, the inclination is to ask “How important is this particular belief?” rather than “Is my entire framework for living going to collapse if I change?” And what I saw was that despite all the Bible study and whatnot, the culture won almost every time.

.. Even in youth groups, certain kids were held up as role models of what good Christian kids look like, even though the entire county knew those same kids were hammering down beers illegally on Friday night, bragging about stealing, and even discussing sexual adventures on social media. Yet come Sunday they are “walking right with the Lord”. And there seemed to be an invisible but very real pressure among families to present as the Mr. & Mrs. Perfect Christian Family, as if problems don’t exist in truly Christian households.

.. My Evangelical church does almost nothing together except sing. We don’t say any common prayers, or creeds; we don’t confess or repent together; even our Communion ritual is centered around “what Jesus did on the Cross for us”. We don’t do any community events, or really even sponsor any organizations – educational, charitable, whatever – in our area, but leave it to the individual congregants to do that.
In a nutshell, we’re a very atomized, even alienated group.

.. The Evangelical emphasis on right belief is in many respects admirable, but it is also stifling: what if I end up helping someone who isn’t an exact theological copy of me? The horror!

.. we’ve lost 18 legacy members of the church recently, basically the next generation of church leaders, who have all decamped to a newer, slicker church where nobody over the age of 40 is allowed in “public-facing ministry”.

.. my brief and not-at-all comprehensive survey suggests that it’s the 40-60 crowd that likes contemporary praise music; the young people don’t like an awful lot of it because they think it’s “cheesy”, “manipulative”, and “trying too hard”.

.. “We know church music is supposed to be different, so why are they trying so hard to sound like pop music?”

.. our whole church service is focused on the conversion moment, the proverbial altar call.