Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Biden, Breyer and Babka

 by Michael Liss

I come to praise bakeries past and present. And older men and women faithfully carrying out their duties to their grandchildren.  Of bakeries, once too many to count in my city, but, like old loves, we remember Glaser’s (closed every August so the family could return to Germany), Gertels (each cake caused a local sugar shortage), and Lichtman’s (the Times called it “The Da Vinci of Dough”). Still with us, Moishe’s and Andre’s, Veniero and Ferrara’s, and for the breads of your dreams, Orwashers and Eli’s.

I could go on. In fact, I could go on for some time, but there’s a Supreme Court nomination and the Midterms looming, and duty comes before carb-loading. To be more precise, in this essay, it comes both before and after carb-loading but, be patient with me while I take the strings off the boxes and plate the pastry.

As a President gets top billing, even over the dearly departed French pastry shop on First with the spectacular petit fours and crusty rolls that launched a thousand crumbs, it’s time for me to turn to Joe. However, I will not be insulted if you skip the meal and go directly to dessert. You will find it below the fold.

When I think of Biden, I can’t get out of my mind a quote attributed to Lincoln: “Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”

America did decide; it saw the fire, saw two deeply flawed candidates, and picked Joe. Like every other President since John Adams, Biden stepped into his predecessor’s shoes, and his predecessor’s challenges. Adams had the impossible task of replacing Washington. Lincoln a secession crisis. FDR inherited the Great Depression; and Truman, WWII. Ike got Korea and McCarthyism; JFK, the Cold War; LBJ and Nixon, Viet Nam; and so on. What’s more, regardless of where they start, few get through their own terms without a fresh crisis or two.

Then, there’s Joe Biden. A raging inferno (or something substantially more scatological) is what he stepped into. From pandemic to poisoned politics, Joe went in with both feet.

Them’s the breaks. If you want the job, you have to be prepared to clean up on aisles three, four, and five simultaneously, as well as deal with anything new walking in the door, including, in his case, a failed but still smoldering insurrection. Joe got elected, and it was his turn.

You have probably read somewhere that Biden is the worst President of all time, an unbroken litany of awful. He’s a terrible speaker. He doesn’t give press conferences. When he does, he talks too much. He called the esteemed Peter Doocey an SOB, which sent so many commentators into space that Elon Musk is looking for royalties. One prominent conservative (out of concern for his feelings, let’s just call him Rumpelstiltskin) offered, “I still haven’t stopped shaking after last night’s attack on the free press.” Can we find this man and send him some bath (and smelling) salts?

Biden, irrespective of his myriad flaws (of which there are myriad myriads), is basically a decent man with a conscience, and so he personally apologized to Mr. Doocey, which of course, showed how weak he is. Biden is also weak with the Chinese, who are about to take over the world. He’s weak on the Southern border, where massive caravans of evil-doers lurk in Fox-built Potemkin Villages, ready to surge towards the Rio Grande at a moment’s notice. He’s weak on the Ukraine crisis, where GOP Shadow Cabinet Secretary of State Tucker Carlson is making his thoughts and prayers known to his viewers while angling for an Order of Lenin. He’s weak on inflation, because the American Rescue Plan helped too many workers, which creates upward pressure on wages. Finally, he’s weak on the cost of fast food, and Granny is now skipping her blood pressure pills to get her Big Macs.

Into this mess, the Gods just delivered to Joe a golden apple. Stephen Breyer, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, has announced his resignation. Before I dive into the politics of this, just a few words about Breyer. He’s an old-fashioned man in the best sense of the word, considerate, tempered, deliberate, and courteous.

Breyer also believes in what ought to be the central mission of the Court, to view the law impartially and in a non-partisan way. In a lecture at Harvard Law, he spoke of the challenges: “The justices tend to believe that differences among judges mostly reflect not politics but jurisprudential differences. That is not what the public thinks.”

Breyer is right, the public doesn’t think it. When the content of the lecture was made public, he was (not so gently) mocked as antique and worse—but there is an aspiration there that expresses the highest possible function of the Court. It must be seen as a fair arbiter, an honest broker, and not merely an arm of one party and one ideology. It can lean in one direction or another, but the moment it is perceived as just muscle, it loses its place of respect.

So, why does Breyer’s resignation provide an opportunity for Biden, since it will not change the ideological makeup of the Court? For one thing, it lessens the angst of many Democrats over Breyer’s staying, and having Mitch McConnell select yet another Justice. It also reminds Democrats of the essentialness of sticking together, working towards a better result, and focusing, as the Midterms loom, on recruitment, voter registration, messaging–and tangible accomplishments. Democrats need this, and Biden needs it. Current political polling is gruesome, redistricting and Democratic retirements are making things much harder, and there remains the looming threat that states with GOP-led governments will flip the votes they can’t suppress. Democrats are simply going to have to fight, and fight hard, for every seat, from the school board to the Presidency.

There is also a reason beyond just political rhetoric. The public needs to see the implications of the choices they make, and this Supreme Court is going to make it clear just what those choices mean. In a matter of a few months, this Court will hand down a series of decisions which are going to frighten some people to the core. Rights many thought they had, principles that have stood for longer than many of us have lived, will evaporate. This isn’t just about abortion and who gets to use what bathroom, as many folks think. It has the potential to reorder the relationship between the individual and the state, rearrange the interrelationship of the three branches of government, elevate those who claim faith-based objections over the rest of us, encourage vigilantism with regard to enforcing personal morality, and strike at things that many of us believe are no one’s business but our own. This Court needs a youthful, intellectually and temperamentally vigorous champion of the rights that we are about to see lessened or even extinguished. Breyer, as accomplished as he is, would not be that person. Perhaps Biden’s nominee will be.

Of course, there is the little matter of getting that nominee confirmed, and the GOP outrage machine is already at a roar because Biden reaffirmed his promise to select a Black woman. Having just gotten past their annual holiday ritual of reciting a single Martin Luther King quote, they are now left to decide amongst themselves if any at all dare cross party lines and admit that any Biden choice might actually possess, in abundance, the “character” to which Dr. King was referring. My cynical take is that, if McConnell thinks he can’t get either Sinema or Manchin on board, he will let a couple of his folks off the leash, but only after Biden’s nominee is thoroughly roughed up as inadequate and illegitimately selected.

Whoever the nominee is, however brutal the process, it’s just going to have to run its course, because Biden can’t put out every fire. Likely he can’t put out most of them. He needs to choose where to leverage his office best.

If I were he, I might start by going to a bakery (he can call me for a specific suggestion). Last month, at the request of my wife and (adult) children, I made a pilgrimage to one I hadn’t been to since before the start of the pandemic. It was at some distance, but the need for high-quality cake was becoming paramount. Go, I was told, and bring back the essentials of life. Multiple texts flowed in from the interested parties: Marble cake, sponge cake, cookies with cherries on them, kichel, cookies with sprinkles, chocolate cigars, cinnamon cigars, cupcakes (vanilla cake with vanilla icing, with sprinkles and not). Along with the shopping list, I must also bear in mind that our children have their own places, and so the quantity purchased should be reflective of the need to satisfy multiple households.

I grabbed multiple bags (and a pith helmet), and set off on my trek. Machete in hand, I hacked my way through the forest, and stealthily approached the store. My heart sank for just a moment when I saw the gates up and little light emanating from within. Seriously? Then I remembered the gates were always up and it was always dim inside. I passed the window, noting what and what was not on display (possible a cupcake crisis), opened the door, and there, in all its thoroughly unrenovated state, was my personal El Dorado.

I was masked, of course. Behind the counter, in the same cheerfully unrenovated state as I had last seen her, was the tiny, energetic woman who had been waiting on me since the time I was pushing strollers through the door. For brevity and privacy I’m going to call her Mrs. B (B for Babka). In all my visits, I have never heard anyone use her first name. It was always Mrs. B, regardless of the status and age of the customer. “Good morning, Mrs. B, how are the rolls?” “Hello, Mrs. B, can I have four slices of rye?” “Mrs. B, is the cheese danish fresh?”

Mrs. B was not a woman to exaggerate. If something wasn’t good, she would tell you. She and I had a routine down, unchanged by time. Since I came infrequently and ordered a lot, we took it slowly, and as customers came in, I would tell them to go ahead of me. This invariably stretched out the visit (something that never bothered me), but this time we had a snag—in fact, two snags. First was an insuperable issue: No sponge cake. There was something, that, to my eye, looked like sponge cake, but she wouldn’t sell it to me. “No good,” she pronounced. As to marble cake, there was no fresh marble cake in the store, but she could get some. Could I wait?

Of course I could wait. Imagine me not waiting, what kind of a father and a husband would I be? So Mrs. B got on the phone to the owner, who told her 45 minutes, and I agreed.

I knew it wasn’t going to be 45 minutes. I was pretty sure the owner was coming from Brooklyn. But it’s never a sunk cost to wait in a bakery for the marble cake of my wife’s dreams. Besides, I was enjoying myself. Mrs. B was a gas. More customers, more me telling them to go ahead, more “Hello Mrs. B, do you have a little seven layer cake today?” Occasionally, people would come in, sit in the metal folding chair for a few minutes to catch their breath, observe the world around them, and maybe buy half a seeded rye. With some customers (the more bilious ones), Mrs. B stuck to business, but with others, she was cracking jokes, smiling, making a little gossip with the change. Think New York version of Floyd’s Barbershop in The Andy Griffith Show.

All through this, Mrs. B started to fill the non-cake portion of my order. Pounds and pounds of cookies, packed into boxes. Kichel in a giant plastic bag. Jokes, plenty of them. Occasionally, I’d step outside to breathe without the mask on, and update my wife. 45 minutes passed, no cake, and Mrs. B started to get worried about my health. Maybe I had low blood sugar? She kept passing me cookies (to keep up my strength, no doubt.)

She talked about her life. She had grandchildren and great grandchildren. How many, I asked? “You don’t count,” she said. “Bad luck.” Her oldest son, a doctor, was retiring at 70. (Yes, you can start doing the math). She’d been working in the store since 1955 (more math). Emigrant from Poland, although she didn’t have much of an accent, which suggested she came as a child, which would have had to have been before September 1939 (even more math). About Mr. B, no word, and I didn’t ask.

The more time I spent, the more she reminded me of my grandmother, who lived to her late 90’s. Short, tough, sharp, funny, not giving in to age. Whatever the world had thrown at her, she’d managed.

An hour in. I paid her for the non-marble cake portion; it might have been approximate, since Mrs. B uses a lined piece of paper and a heavy black pencil. Thought about finding an ATM. Updated my wife. Walked back in, and Mrs. B let me in on a secret. She watched Fox. She didn’t think COVID was dangerous—her son the doctor had told her that the hospitals were recording other types of deaths as COVID because insurance paid more. This information did not cause me to go screaming out the door. When you are waiting for the essential marble cake, these things seem of very little import.

Time stretched on, so she passed me some babka. Not on my list, but OMG, seriously good chocolate babka. Behind my mask, I couldn’t stop grinning. A Fox-watching Covid-doubting 90-ish woman who cracks jokes and feeds you—there is no way you are arguing with her. Certainly not while she’s laughing a child’s laugh, like the sound of a brook, and you are laughing with her.

75 minutes in, the Boss, and the sheet of marble cake arrives. It is magnificent. How much do I want? Enough for one box? Two? I go for three…just about 6½ pounds of it. Mrs. B. smiles at me, smiles at her boss, and we ring it up. As always, in cash, and as always, I told her to put the change in one of her charity boxes. An old-fashioned store like this doesn’t leave a jar for tips, it leaves tins for education, for the poor, to plant a tree, etc.

We were done. I filled my bags with goodies, thanked Mrs. B one more time, and headed for a bus….way too many pounds to handle walking back. Scents of lemon and cherry and chocolate emerged. Plus an unmistakable babka bouquet that was not to be ignored (of course I bought one, it would have been wrong not to). While I had not succeeded in getting everything on everyone’s list, the core of the mission had been accomplished. The family would be fed. Hunter-gathering at its best.

You might reasonably ask why I’ve gone on this long about a trip to a bakery. It’s because it was all so incredibly unrushed, so filled with the littlest of details and of small, brief, human interactions. It was all so normal, so decent, when both are in short supply.

I have a feeling that Joe Biden gets the idea of simple neighborliness. If he does, if he can find a way to help return us to something closer to a community, then a lot of the drama infecting so many facets of our lives might move to the fringes, where it belongs. With that, perhaps we can find value again in what was given to us, including the idea that we are one country with a common legacy and destiny of freedom.

Justice Breyer says America is “an experiment that’s still going on,” based on its Constitution and founding principles. “My grandchildren and their children, they’ll determine whether the experiment still works. And of course, I am an optimist, and I’m pretty sure it will.”

I’m an optimist as well. I’ll leave it at that, for now.

Biden, Breyer and Babka first appeared on and you can find my work there every four weeks at

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

The Demands Of Citizenship: JFK At Vanderbilt

The Demands Of Citizenship: JFK At Vanderbilt

But this Nation was not founded solely on the principle of citizens’ rights. Equally important, though too often not discussed, is the citizen’s responsibility. For our privileges can be no greater than our obligations. —John F. Kennedy, May 18, 1963, Nashville

May, 1963. JFK is in a centrifuge, buffeted by a series of challenges from abroad and at home that would have taxed anyone. Underneath the glamour and optimism of Camelot was a roiling mess of seemingly intractable problems, including the global threat of an aggressive, expansive Communism, and domestic unrest related to the irrefutable moral logic of the Civil Rights Movement set against implacable, and often violent, resistance.

All of this, the triumphs and the troubles, are, for the first time, playing out in black and white (and occasionally in living color) on television screens across America. We have clearly moved into a “see it now” age: in just the decade of the 1950s, the percentage of households with sets went from about 9% to about 87%. Soft censorship (reporter circumspection and editorial oversight) still existed, but the vast majority of people were getting their news visually, and sometimes that news contained graphic and unforgettable images.

Kennedy clearly understood the power of the new medium. He wrote a short essay for TV Guide in November 1959, in which he discussed his concerns about television’s potential for demagoguery, but also said it gave an opportunity to the viewing public to judge for itself a candidate’s sincerity—or lack of it. If that was a prediction, it was a pretty good one: Ten months later, in what was a decisive moment in the 1960 election, he was debating Richard Nixon, and winning, in part, on style points.

Charisma or not, glamour or not, it’s arguable JFK wasn’t quite ready for the Presidency when, at 43, he became the youngest man ever to be elected. His prior service in both the House and Senate had been unremarkable, and he had no executive experience. He made mistakes, some of them big ones. The Bay of Pigs fiasco, as well as expanding the American presence in Viet Nam are the most notable, but his often-fractious relationship with Congress, particularly in his first two years, didn’t help.

What Kennedy did have, in abundance, beyond just charisma, was the capacity to communicate (which is not necessarily the same thing as eloquence), the ability to express optimism, and the willingness to accept responsibility when he failed—in short, to lead in both good and bad times. Paired with that were personal qualities that gave substance to the image, most notably his intelligence, firmness of purpose, and coolness under fire, as his deft handling of the immensely dangerous Cuban Missile Crisis displayed.

What would eight years of JFK have looked like? None of us, fans, critics or somewhere in between, can know. Part of the enigma that was JFK stemmed from what the historian Robert Dalleck referred to as his “unfinished life.” We can project upon that life what we would like.

What we do have is the historical record of what he did, and what he said, if not always his inner thoughts. For those, we have to find opportunities to peek behind the curtain of the carefully choreographed. Such a moment may have come when he accepted an invitation to speak in Nashville to commemorate the 90th Anniversary of the founding of Vanderbilt University.

I had forgotten about this speech until Larry Sabato, Director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, and a JFK scholar, posted a link to a portion of it on Twitter. The image is a bit grainy and the sound quality isn’t perfect, but there’s something about it that is worth taking notice of.

JFK’s demeanor is serious and a bit subdued, and his words, while interesting and thoughtful, reflect that. It is not particularly eloquent; it doesn’t soar or stir the heart the way some of his more famous orations did. It is actually a bit flat (direct, but flat) when talking about Civil Rights, as if Kennedy is implicitly acknowledging that he knows there are no magic words to make the issue go away. Still, in its linkage of duty and rights, of the critical nature of education in a democracy, and of the greater obligations to society due from those who have more, there is clarity and real power.

I speak to you today, therefore, not of your rights as Americans, but of your responsibilities. They are many in number and different in nature. They do not rest with equal weight upon the shoulders of all. Equality of opportunity does not mean equality of responsibility. All Americans must be responsible citizens, but some must be more responsible than others, by virtue of their public or their private position, their role in the family or community, their prospects for the future, or their legacy from the past.

“Some must be more responsible than others.” This is such an interesting observation, especially when viewed through a contemporary lens. Nowadays, we no longer seem to speak this language at all. Our arguments about the obligations of the “uber-haves” are inexorably (and seemingly exclusively) connected not to service but to money, things like taxes and preferential legislative treatment. As to the “intellectual elites,” too many of us are tied up in self-congratulation that turns to entitlement. Our public-spiritedness is limited to those things from which we will benefit—schools and athletic facilities (until our kids graduate), libraries, museums and cultural centers that we patronize. Sometimes, what we give is not a gift at all—it’s a license to demand preferential treatment when public policy choices are being made.

Kennedy would never have accepted this. His sense of duty was, like many of his generation, more acute and personal. Roughly 70% of the members of Congress were veterans, and if you were a man and not a Vet, you needed a very good reason for it. Kennedy himself was a war hero, and he had lost an older brother, Joe Jr., in World War II when the experimental “drone” he was flying exploded prematurely. Service wasn’t just an abstraction, like mere patriotic words. Rather, JFK’s conception of service was a giving of yourself to an ideal, to your community, to your fellow citizen, to your country.

You have responsibilities, in short, to use your talents for the benefit of the society which helped develop those talents. You must decide, as Goethe put it, whether you will be an anvil or a hammer, whether you will give to the world in which you were reared and educated the broadest possible benefits of that education.

Kennedy pivots from the general to the specific. How must this audience of educated citizens serve.

Of the many special obligations incumbent upon an educated citizen, I would cite three as outstanding: your obligation to the pursuit of learning, your obligation to serve the public, your obligation to uphold the law.

Again, JFK voices a concern that has a very contemporary feel to it. Defend education from those who will try to dumb it down and tear it down.

If the pursuit of learning is not defended by the educated citizen, it will not be defended at all. For there will always be those who scoff at intellectuals, who cry out against research, who seek to limit our educational system.

Kennedy was speaking to a seemingly perpetual reality; the potent emotional argument, articulated in Richard Hofstadter’s 1963 Anti-intellectualism in American Life, that education was actually something pernicious. Science was bad, the humanities a sign of weakness, the educated snobbish, detached, and, when put in charge of anything, technocratic. In short, the egghead was neither a doer nor a person of conviction, but rather a shadowy figure, possibly insidious, corrosive of manly virtues, and thoroughly lacking in common sense.

Kennedy explicitly rejects this, asserting that knowledge is essential to democracy:

[T]he ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all, and [] if we can, as Jefferson put it, ‘enlighten the people generally … tyranny and the oppressions of mind and body will vanish, like evil spirits at the dawn of day.’

Kennedy wasn’t done calling upon his audience:

[T]he educated citizen has an obligation to serve the public. He may be a precinct worker or President. He may give his talents at the courthouse, the State house, the White House. He may be a civil servant or a Senator, a candidate or a campaign worker, a winner or a loser. But he must be a participant and not a spectator.

If Kennedy had lived to see social media, would he have thought the constant online commenter (or author of an article such as this) a “participant”? I don’t think so. Service is not sport; it is giving something, with the only payback expected a sense of satisfaction. Service is communitarian in the best sense of the word. Service is not good intentions without action, it is commitment at a cost, and a cost willingly paid.

I would hope that all educated citizens would fulfill this obligation—in politics, in Government, here in Nashville, here in this State, in the Peace Corps, in the Foreign Service, in the Government Service, in the Tennessee Valley, in the world. You will find the pressures greater than the pay. You may endure more public attacks than support. But you will have the unequaled satisfaction of knowing that your character and talent are contributing to the direction and success of this free society.

“You may endure more public attacks than support.” How incredibly (and tragically) prescient. I don’t think we need much more commentary than that.

[F]inally, the educated citizen has an obligation to uphold the law. This is the obligation of every citizen in a free and peaceful society—but the educated citizen has a special responsibility by the virtue of his greater understanding.

Kennedy is not talking about jaywalking here. He is getting at something bigger, the struggle between the federal government and those states resisting desegregation. It’s an interesting framework—Kennedy is not trying to inspire, as Lincoln did at Gettysburg, by referring to Jefferson’s majestic words in the Declaration of Independence: “all men are created equal.” Instead, he is connecting citizenship to respect for the law.

He knows that law is the adhesive force in the cement of society, creating order out of chaos and coherence in place of anarchy. He knows that for one man to defy a law or court order he does not like is to invite others to defy those which they do not like, leading to a breakdown of all justice and all order. He knows, too, that every fellowman is entitled to be regarded with decency and treated with dignity. Any educated citizen who seeks to subvert the law, to suppress freedom, or to subject other human beings to acts that are less than human, degrades his heritage, ignores his learning, and betrays his obligation.

Certain other societies may respect the rule of force—we respect the rule of law.

For Kennedy, essentially a gradualist with an eye towards the 1964 election (and the need for Southern votes), it is perhaps the only framework he can use with conviction. However a person feels about minorities and minority rights, Americans are committed to the rule of law, and the world judges us on whether we are capable of holding to that standard. In May of 1963, we weren’t there.

The Nation, indeed the whole world, has watched recent events in the United States with alarm and dismay. No one can deny the complexity of the problems involved in assuring to all of our citizens their full rights as Americans. But no one can gainsay the fact that the determination to secure these rights is in the highest traditions of American freedom.

In these moments of tragic disorder, a special burden rests on the educated men and women of our country to reject the temptations of prejudice and violence, and to reaffirm the values of freedom and law on which our free society depends.

And, with that, Kennedy, having made his last points, moves to generic closing remarks. I don’t think he needed to do more.

We do. I wonder, if you took the text of this speech, scrubbed the references to Vanderbilt and the Tennessee statesmen, and republished it under another name, how people across the political spectrum would react. I suspect it would anger many, and for all the wrong reasons.

Professor Sabato has a pinned JFK quote on his Twitter account:

“The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.”

We are in those times.

The full text of the address may be found at the website of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

This essay was first published on on December 6, 2021

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