About halfway through writing my biography of Henry Kissinger, an interesting hypothesis occurred to me: Did the former secretary of state owe his success, fame and notoriety not just to his powerful intellect and formidable will but also to his exceptional ability to build an eclectic network of relationships, not only to colleagues in the Nixon and Ford administrations, but also to people outside government: journalists, newspaper proprietors, foreign ambassadors and heads of state—even Hollywood producers? If Volume I had surprised readers with its subtitle—“The Idealist”—should Volume II perhaps be subtitled “The Networker”?
Whatever your views of Kissinger, his rise to power is as astonishing as it was unlikely. A refugee from Nazi Germany who found his métier as a scholar of history, philosophy and geopolitics while serving in the U.S. Army, Kissinger was one of many Harvard professors who were drawn into government during the Cold War. His appointment as Richard Nixon’s national security adviser in December 1968 nevertheless came as a surprise to many people (not least Kissinger himself), because for most of the previous decade he had been so closely identified with Nelson Rockefeller, Nixon’s patrician rival within the Republican Party. From his sickbed, the former President Eisenhower expressed his skepticism about the appointment. “But Kissinger is a professor,” he exclaimed when he heard of Nixon’s choice. “You ask professors to study things, but you never put them in charge of anything.”
Most writers who have studied his subsequent career in Washington have tended to explain the rapid growth of Kissinger’s influence in terms of his close relationship to Nixon or his talent for the very bureaucratic infighting he had condemned as an academic. This, however, is to overlook the most distinctive feature of Kissinger’s mode of operation: While those around him continued to be bound by the rules of the hierarchical bureaucracy that employed them, Kissinger from the outset devoted considerable energy to building a network that extended horizontally in all directions beyond the Washington Beltway: to the press and even the entertainment industry inside the United States and, perhaps more importantly, to key foreign governments through a variety of “back channels.” Kissinger brought to this task an innate capacity to make emotional as well as intellectual connections even with the most aloof of interlocutors, a skill he had honed long before his appointment by the famously aloof Nixon. It was Kissinger’s unique talent for networking, not just his scholarly acumen or his astute reading of power politics, that made him such a formidable figure. And it was his arrival on the political scene just as the world was shifting from the ideological bifurcation of the early Cold War—a duel between two hierarchical superpowers—to a new era of interdependence and “multipolarity” that made Kissinger precisely (in the words of TIME magazine) “the right man in the right place at the right time.”
Read more at Politico.
Every morning, Washington wakes up to Axios AM — Mike Allen’s top 10 stories of the day, filled with short bits of breaking news, feuding White House insiders, and, some days, sober, moral pronouncements on how weird the Trump era is. Go deeper: Learn how Axios became a major player in Washington in no time (and jumpstarted a vicious debate about access and “normalization” in Trump’s Washington).
It’s 6:20 a.m. on a frigid Friday morning and Mike Allen is sitting in a TV studio overlooking the Capitol, pinpointing — in the parlance of Axios, the short-form news outlet he cofounded — “Why It Matters.”
“Jonathan Swan has a good take,” Allen says, texting with his news protégé as they wait to appear on separate morning shows. “He just texted me, ‘Guarantee you that the Mike Schmidt story” — a piece in the New York Times about the Russia investigation — “was damage control [from] McGahn or Priebus’s lawyer,’” the White House chief counsel and former chief of staff, respectively. Allen texts back that Swan should say this good take when he appears on Morning Joe, but Swan, a 32-year-old Australian who has quickly become a dominant reporter on the White House beat, responds that he won’t because it’s too speculative. “Rare in TV,” Allen says approvingly.
By the order of Allen’s email newsletter, Axios AM, which he has written seven days a week since the company was founded a year ago, the Mike Schmidt story is the third most important thing that busy professionals need to know about this morning. The first two are 1) What’s true and what’s false in Michael Wolff’s explosive book documenting the roiling chaos of Donald Trump’s White House, and 2) How Trump’s threats of legal action, resisted by aides, likely jacked up book sales.
Despite outright falsehoods and violations of off-the-record understandings, Wolff nails two central ideas about the president, Allen writes: “His spot-on portrait of Trump as an emotionally erratic president, and the low opinion of him among some of those serving him.” Allen, who is recognized in Fire and Fury’s acknowledgments for helping make it a “smarter book,” concludes the item with a signature denouement, in keeping with Axios’s ethos of “smart brevity.”
Read more at Buzzfeed.
The National Portrait Gallery has unveiled the official portraits of former president Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, both painted by African American artists, and both striking additions to the museum’s “America’s Presidents” exhibition. The 44th president is seen sitting on a wooden armchair that seems to be floating amid a scrim of dense foliage and flowers in an image by Kehinde Wiley. The first lady, painted against a robin’s egg blue background, rests her chin on one hand and stares at the viewer with a curious mix of confidence and vulnerability in a canvas by Amy Sherald.
The artists, chosen by the Obamas, have combined traditional representation with elements that underscore the complexity of their subjects, and the historic fact of their political rise. And both painters have managed to create compelling likenesses without sacrificing key aspects of their signature styles. The Obamas took a significant chance on both artists and were rewarded with powerful images that will shake up the expectations and assumptions of visitors to the traditionally button-down presidential galleries.
Wiley, an established artist whose work is held by prominent museums worldwide, has produced a characteristically flat, almost polished surface, with intensely rich colors and a busy, sumptuous background that recalls his interest in historical portraiture.
Sherald, who won the National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever prize in 2016, has painted Michelle Obama’s face in the gray tones of an old black-and-white photograph, set against a preternaturally bright background, a technique she has used to introduce a heightened sense of the surreal in many of her works.
But both artists also have tempered aspects of their usual styles to create works that emphasize the dignity of the subject over the irony of the artist. Wiley, who has made portraits of LL Cool J, Michael Jackson and Notorious B.I.G., often skewers the pomp and grandiloquence of historical portraiture, painting his subjects in poses familiar from classic works by Napoleon’s propagandist, Jacque-Louis David, or Tiepolo or Peter Paul Rubens (Wiley depicted Jackson on horseback, wearing the armor of a Habsburg king, crowned by angelic flying figures). Many of his works, which engage with hip-hop culture, have a distinct homoerotic quality as well.
Wiley’s portrait of the former president doesn’t go there. Indeed, the pose of Obama, who is seen in a dark suit with an open-collar shirt, sitting with his arms crossed and resting on his knees, recalls Robert Anderson’s official 2008 portrait of George W. Bush, who is rendered in a similar, casual pose. Nor does Sherald, who often depicts her subjects with some curiously evocative object (a bunch of balloons or a model ship) that creates a dreamlike atmosphere, emphasize the phantasmagorical in her portrait of Michelle Obama.
Read more at The Washington Post.
The first time Nick Mullins entered Deep Mine 26, a coal mine in southwestern Virginia, the irony hit him hard. Once, his ancestors had owned the coal-seamed cavern that he was now descending into, his trainee miner hard-hat secure.
His people had settled the Clintwood and George’s Fork area, along the Appalachian edge of southern Virginia, in the early 17th century. Around the turn of the 1900s, smooth-talking land agents from back east swept through the area, coaxing mountain people into selling the rights to the ground beneath them for cheap. One of Mullins’ ancestors received 12 rifles and 13 hogs—one apiece for each of his children, plus a hog for himself—in exchange for the rights to land that has since produced billions of dollars worth of coal.
“I probably ended up mining a lot of that coal,” says Mullins, a broad-shouldered, bearded 38-year-old with an easy smile.
There were other ironies to savor too. Mullins was a fifth-generation coal miner. But growing up in the 1990s, his father and uncles—all of them miners—begged him not to get into coal mining.
“No one wanted to see you in the mines,” he says. “And they were all union miners too—had it good for a long time.” Those protections were gone by the time Mullins was growing up. The US government’s ongoing assault on organized labor through the 1980s and 1990s meant that the mammoth energy conglomerates that dominated the coal industry were free to open non-union mines with increasing impunity. But mining was still just as rough—replete with injuries, accidents, and black lung deaths.
During the coal bust in the 1990s, Mullins’ dad was laid off from Bethlehem Steel’s mines. Mullins recalls living off the green beans his family had diligently canned during the good times, and watching his parents grow desperate. Go to college, they urged him. Mining offered no future.
Mullins planned on following their advice. But he, like so many of his friends, family, and neighbors, soon found that the industry that has wreaked havoc on the economy of central Appalachia—composed of southwest Virginia, southern West Virginia, and eastern Kentucky—was also nearly impossible to escape.
Read more at Quartz.
The world is disturbingly comfortable with the fact that women sometimes leave a sexual encounter in tears.
When Babe.net published a pseudonymous woman’s account of a difficult encounter with Aziz Ansari that made her cry, the internet exploded with “takes” arguing that the #MeToo movement had finally gone too far. “Grace,” the 23-year-old woman, was not an employee of Ansari’s, meaning there were no workplace dynamics. Her repeated objections and pleas that they “slow down” were all well and good, but they did not square with the fact that she eventually gave Ansari oral sex. Finally, crucially, she was free to leave.
Why didn’t she just get out of there as soon as she felt uncomfortable? many people explicitly or implicitly asked.
It’s a rich question, and there are plenty of possible answers. But if you’re asking in good faith, if you really want to think through why someone might have acted as she did, the most important one is this: Women are enculturated to be uncomfortable most of the time. And to ignore their discomfort.
This is so baked into our society I feel like we forget it’s there. To steal from David Foster Wallace, this is the water we swim in.
The Aziz Ansari case hit a nerve because, as I’ve long feared, we’re only comfortable with movements like #MeToo so long as the men in question are absolute monsters we can easily separate from the pack. Once we move past the “few bad apples” argument and start to suspect that this is more a trend than a blip, our instinct is to normalize. To insist that this is is just how men are, and how sex is.
This is what Andrew Sullivan basically proposed in his latest, startlingly unscientific column. #MeToo has gone too far, he argues, by refusing to confront the biological realities of maleness. Feminism, he says, has refused to give men their due and denied the role “nature” must play in these discussions. Ladies, he writes, if you keep denying biology, you’ll watch men get defensive, react, and “fight back.”
This is beyond vapid. Not only is Sullivan bafflingly confused about nature and its realities, as Colin Dickey notes in this instructive Twitter thread, he’s being appallingly conventional. Sullivan claims he came to “understand the sheer and immense natural difference between being a man and being a woman” thanks to a testosterone injection he received. That is to say, he imagines maleness can be isolated to an injectable hormone and doesn’t bother to imagine femaleness at all. If you want an encapsulation of the habits of mind that made #MeToo necessary, there it is. Sullivan, that would-be contrarian, is utterly representative.
The real problem isn’t that we — as a culture — don’t sufficiently consider men’s biological reality. The problem is rather that theirs is literally the only biological reality we ever bother to consider.
So let’s actually talk bodies. Let’s take bodies and the facts of sex seriouslyfor a change. And let’s allow some women back into the equation, shall we? Because if you’re going to wax poetic about male pleasure, you had better be ready to talk about its secret, unpleasant, ubiquitous cousin: female pain.
Research shows that 30 percent of women report pain during vaginal sex, 72 percent report pain during anal sex, and “large proportions” don’t tell their partners when sex hurts.
That matters, because nowhere is our lack of practice at thinking about non-male biological realities more evident than when we talk about “bad sex.” For all the calls for nuance in this discussion of what does and doesn’t constitute harassment or assault, I’ve been dumbstruck by the flattening work of that phrase — specifically, the assumption that “bad sex” means the same thing to men who have sex with women as it does to women who have sex with men.
The studies on this are few. A casual survey of forums where people discuss “bad sex” suggests that men tend to use the term to describe a passive partner or a boring experience. (Here’s a very unscientific Twitter poll I did that found just that.) But when most women talk about “bad sex,” they tend to mean coercion, or emotional discomfort or, even more commonly, physical pain. Debby Herbenick, a professor at the Indiana University School of Public Health, and one of the forces behind the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, confirmed this. “When it comes to ‘good sex,'” she told me, “women often mean without pain, men often mean they had orgasms.”
Read more at The Week.