Where, in This Senate Circus, Is Ketanji Brown Jackson?

If you thought that a misadventure in Cancún would tame Ted Cruz — would put bounds on his boasts, a cap on his condescension — then you sorely underestimated the Texas senator.

He’s back! Back with his grievances. Back with his grandstanding. Back with his lavishly derisive manner. Back even with his relentless self-promotion. I’m no historian of Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominees, but the current one, for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, is the first in which I’ve heard a senator hawk his own podcast, as Cruz did. Give him points for gumption.

And for props. As he decided to make Judge Jackson, who is poised to become the first Black woman on the nation’s highest court, answer for what some schools teach about race, he had an aide display gigantic poster boards of pages from a children’s book that he found objectionable. These blown-up illustrations had little to do with Judge Jackson’s qualifications — and were thus perfect emblems of the overblown hearing itself, which often seems to be about anything and everything but the person at its center.

It’s about Republican payback for what party leaders consider the unnecessary smearing of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing in 2018. It’s about the 2022 midterms and Republicans’ determination to use national television coverage to draw bold dividing lines between the Republican and Democratic parties.

It’s about the 2024 presidential race and potential Republican aspirants — namely, Cruz and two other senators on the Judiciary Committee, Josh Hawley of Missouri and Tom Cotton of Arkansas — who seem to be contemplating campaigns, at least if Donald Trump proves vulnerable, and who are preening to a point where they risk throwing their backs out. It’s about so many hot buttons that my fingers almost blister typing this.

As Jonathan Weisman and Jazmine Ulloa wrote in The Times on Tuesday, “The list of skeptical questions about Judge Jackson’s record read like a compendium of political touchstones animating Republican politicians and voters: critical race theory, parental rights, mask mandates and transgender women in sports.”

Cruz threw The Times’s 1619 Project and the abolish-the-police movement — which, mind you, President Biden and other Democratic leaders have rejected — into the mix. Cotton lambasted teachers’ unions, bemoaned illegal immigration and besmirched George Soros, a major Democratic donor and frequent subject of antisemitic conspiracy theories.

The relevance of those plaints to Judge Jackson? Got me. Most politicians these days respond not to circumstances but to megaphones. Give them one and out comes their preferred shout. Whether it’s germane is beside the point.

Cruz has been singular proof of that, and that’s why, despite my past admission that I sometimes overreacted to him, I’m rightly focusing on him now. He’s giving a doozy of a performance, though he has plenty of flamboyant company, as another Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, felt compelled to point out. On Wednesday he lamented what he called “the jackassery we often see around here.”

Analyzing the hearing with language a bit more elevated than that, Adam Liptak, who covers the Supreme Court for The Times, wrote that “confirmation hearings have long been criticized as empty rituals, or worse.” But, he added, “the complaints have mostly focused on nominees’ failure to answer questions about how they would rule. The questioning this week has been different and marked by increasing partisan warfare.”

Too much of American politics is precisely that: partisan warfare, waged reflexively and without limits on the weapons that the opposing armies haul out. The hearing for Judge Jackson’s nomination is simply this week’s front.

But it’s one that makes me feel especially frustrated and sad. Jackson sits in the hearing as an important trailblazer, deserving of celebration in that regard, and as someone whose background includes facets that would make her a distinctive presence on the Supreme Court in additional ways. She’d be alone among her fellow justices in having spent a significant stretch of her legal career defending poor people. She’d be one of just three serving justices who graduated from public high schools.

I don’t want that — I don’t want her — getting lost in the shuffle. But in American politics these days, all is kerfuffle.

For the Love of Sentences

Credit…Getty Images

There was widespread enthusiasm for George Will’s column in The Washington Post on March 4, which began: “Floundering in his attempts to wield political power while lacking a political office, Donald Trump looks increasingly like a stray orange hair to be flicked off the nation’s sleeve.” It went on to note that for Trump, “the suppurating wound on American life, and for those who share his curdled venom, war is a hellacious distraction from their self-absorption.” (Thanks to Mary Sullivan of Pittsboro, N.C., and Joanne Parrilli of Reno, Nev., among others, for drawing attention to it.)

Also in The Post, Sebastian Mallaby pushed back at defeatism and doubts about the U.S. dollar by taking a whack at China’s currency and noting: “A standing credit line in renminbi is the financial equivalent of fluency in Esperanto.” (Christopher Dodson, Montville, N.J.)

In The Times, Maureen Dowd presented this haunting appraisal of the challenge that the Russian president poses to his American counterpart: “It is a horrible position Biden is in, dealing with an irrational, soulless fiend with over 4,000 nukes who thinks he can glue the Soviet empire back together with the blood of innocents.” (Eve Dravecky, Huntsville, Ala., and Barbara Sloan, Conway, S.C., among others.)

Lily Burana charted the recovery of her mental health: “Eventually, I found I function and feel best with daily Lexapro, extended-release Adderall and the occasional Klonopin for intense spikes of anxiety. I cling to these pills like the lifeline they are, traveling with my meds in a tote bag clutched over my shoulder, pills rattling in their plastic amber bottles, marking each step like psychopharmacological maracas.” (Rik Jones, Santa Cruz, Calif.)

And Brent Katz fashioned this curiosity-piquing opening for an article about a jazz luminary’s peculiar pet practices: “Sometimes, at Charles Mingus’s apartment, you would have to wait outside the bathroom as a cat finished using the toilet.” (Cathy Meyer, Oakland, Calif.)

In The New Yorker, Alexandra Schwartz noted how wrestling with a new language late in life can separate you not only from other people but also “from your own articulate self.” She continued: “We are as much made of words as we are of flesh and blood. Personality dissolves in an unfamiliar language like a sugar cube dropped into a cup of tea; estrangement from a mother tongue can be as painful as estrangement from an actual mother.” (Amy Brown, Wilmington, Del., and Jean Sandhofer, Suffield, Conn.)

And Nick Paumgarten visited Latitude Margaritaville, a Florida retirement community for lovers of Jimmy Buffett’s music, and pondered Buffett’s career trajectory: “It is impressive, in that American way, how Buffett steered from there to here — from struggling singer-songwriter whom no one ever called the next Bob Dylan to surefire arena act and hospitality conglomerateur. A poor man’s Gordon Lightfoot grows into a drinking man’s Martha Stewart, hardly having to change his tune.” (Philip Schuyler, Seattle)

And in The Globe and Mail of Toronto, Ed O’Loughlin had this to say about mourning the dead: “The first echo is always the loudest. So we say our big goodbye at the grave side, or the crematorium, and let the universe take it from there. There’s no way to track that energy’s flight. But there is something eternal in what we say and feel for them. Everyone who was here, will always have been here. Everyone who was loved will have been loved forever. There is permanence in that, a ghost in the grammar.” (Lenie Ott, Toronto)

To nominate favorite bits of recent writing from The Times or other publications to be mentioned in “For the Love of Sentences,” please email me here, and please include your name and place of residence.

What I’m Reading (and Where I’ve Been Talking)

  • On NPR’s “Fresh Air” on Tuesday, I spoke with Terry Gross not only about aging, optimism and my new book, “The Beauty of Dusk,” but also about other chapters in my quarter-century (yikes!) career with The Times. Here’s the episode.

  • The millions of courageous people in Ukraine include journalists who are documenting the devastation there at great risk to themselves. This account by Mstyslav Chernov of The Associated Press describes what some of them have been through and seen, and is a reminder — the first of many that I promise to provide in this space over the weeks and maybe months to come — of what life can be like in a land deprived of the blessing of peace.

  • Anyone who has struggled to do right by a parent of severely diminished acuity will find stabs of recognition and currents of profound sadness in “Tasha: A Son’s Memoir,” by Brian Morton, which is being published in a few weeks. It’s named for Morton’s mother, an unforgettable character of unmitigated stubbornness, which Morton runs smack up against as he tries to arrange proper care for her after she suffers a stroke. She’s her own worst enemy, but a society with inadequate support and regard for its oldest members bears ample blame.

  • “Basic Instinct” just turned 30, a birthday that prompted this excellent appraisal by Jason Bailey in The Times. He rightly sees this pulpy, silly movie and the reaction to it as a reflection of many of the cultural preoccupations, pop and otherwise, of its era. He even more rightly notes the glory of Sharon Stone’s lead performance, pitched on the precipice of camp. The Academy Awards being what they are, she got her sole Oscar nomination later, for “Casino,” which had a loftier pedigree. But “Basic Instinct” is the essential Stone.

On a Personal Note

A spring flower just outside my house.Credit…Frank Bruni

Because this is my first spring in a new home, I didn’t know that a tree in the front yard, the one shaped like an unraveling umbrella, would greet winter’s end with white petals at the ends of its branches. It’s lovely.

It has a scraggly counterpart out back that’s turned purple, and snug against the house are bushes abloom with red and pink flowers. None of these colors was present when I moved in eight months ago, so I had no idea. I had no idea that the birds would mark the arrival of spring with such robust song. No idea that I’d occasionally see cardinals — at least I think they’re cardinals — streak past my upstairs windows, flares of orange that widen not just my eyes but my heart.

Next year I’ll know to look forward to all of this. I’ll await and assume it. But I didn’t this time around, and I recognize that I’ll never have this precise experience — this particular sense of discovery — again. I relish it all the more for that reason. I pause to take it in.

Following 36 hours of heavy rain recently, I learned that the nearby creek, a mere trickle in drier months, could rise high and roar. I was tempted to search Amazon for arks. The grass in the neighborhood was suddenly greener than I’d imagined possible, be it on the near or the far side of the fence. It was a revelation.

People I know and even people I don’t ask me why I made such a big swerve in my life, relocating to Chapel Hill, N.C., from Manhattan, trading an apartment within walking distance of almost anything I could really need to a house that’s about two miles from the nearest food, reducing my journalistic commitments so that I could teach, putting so much distance between me and most of my friends.

The creek, the cardinals, the white-tipped tree: They’re the answer. I craved a crop of pleasures that I didn’t expect, bits of scenery that weren’t familiar, daily and weekly rhythms that hadn’t become second nature.

I suppose I risked a harvest of disappointments instead: Those are the terms of change. That’s the deal. I took it because I hadn’t done so in too long, because I might not have the health or strength to do so down the line and because time isn’t infinite, so you might as well stuff in fresh experiences while you can.

My first March here will be followed by my first April and my first May, as the Chapel Hill spring introduces a mosaic and a music I’m unaccustomed to. I’m ready for the education. For the elation, too.

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