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Trump, Biden and the Tough Guy, Nice Guy Politics of 2020 – The New York Times



Kindness. Humility. Responsibility. These traits were once “the definition of manliness,” Barack Obama told a crowd on Saturday, campaigning in Flint, Mich., for his former running mate, Joseph R. Biden Jr.

Though he did not name him, it was clear who the former president was talking about.

“It used to be being a man meant taking care of other people, not going around bragging,” Mr. Obama said.

The words were evocative, and not simply because Mr. Obama followed them by knocking down a slick three-point basketball shot at the gymnasium of the high school where the drive-in rally was held — a kind of viral punctuation mark to his thoughts on manliness.

In two days, Americans will take their shot, making a choice between two presidential candidates who resemble vastly different case studies in what a man, even in 2020, should do or be.

On the one extreme is President Trump, who leaves little subtlety in his approach: Bragging about his sexual prowess, along with the size of his nuclear button, proclaiming “domination” over coronavirus and mocking his opponent for the size of his mask (“the biggest mask I’ve ever seen”), as if mask-wearing is somehow weak. (The two dozen sexual assault allegations against him have not hampered the bragging.)

He has said he believes men who change diapers are “acting like the wife.” “Macho Man” is the song that plays at his rallies, even after the Village People objected. “He seeks to distinguish himself as the manliest — and thus, in his mind, the most-qualified — person to be president,” said Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

On the other end of the spectrum, or perhaps somewhere in the middle, is Mr. Biden, a “Dad-like” figure, as the philosopher Kate Manne put it, who has vowed to be America’s protector through a dark period, with some combination of strength, empathy and compassion.

He chose Kamala Harris, a barrier-breaking woman, as his running mate. He has surrounded himself with strong women. “He’s offering a more paternalistic type of masculinity, in that you can be a strong leader, but still be compassionate and empathetic,” said Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at Stanford University who studies gender and work.

Mr. Obama, the man with whom Mr. Biden served, had to navigate the more complex demands of Black masculinity in the public eye. He did it with a “cool-dad” approach — self-confident but without crowding out the love.

Mr. Biden is perhaps a more sensitive new-age grandfather, who speaks tenderly of his family — he’s made a point to take phone calls from his grandchildren at any time, especially in front of cameras — and isn’t afraid to express emotion. But he will also drive a Corvette in a campaign ad or challenge a voter (and his opponent) to a push-up contest. (Yes, he will call Mr. Trump a “clown” during a debate but he will later say he regretted the language.)

“He reads as a man who won’t start a fight, but would punch back if provoked,” said Robb Willer, a sociologist, also at Stanford, who has studied the way threats to masculinity influence men’s behavior.

Remember four years ago, when Democrats planned to celebrate the election of the first woman as president by dropping 200 pounds of confetti shaped like glass shards to signify the crumbling of that “highest, hardest” glass ceiling? Or how, just last year, the Democratic field was still the most diverse, and female, in history?

It seems hard to parse how, in 2020, against a backdrop of a global pandemic that has left a disproportionate number of women out of work — and with polls predicting what may be the biggest gender gap in electoral history — the presidential election has become, among other things, a referendum on masculinity.

And yet here we are.

“Ultimately, masculinity still matters, we’ve learned. It’s how candidates still try to prove they are the best candidate,” said Ms. Cooper. “And so, even in 2020, Democrats decided the safest bet to beat a white man in his 70s is another white man in his 70s.”

Credit…Bettmann/Contributor, via Getty Images

White American masculinity has been a factor in nearly every presidential election since the nation’s founding. “Trump is an exaggeration of an existing phenomenon, but he didn’t create it,” said Jackson Katz, the author of “Man Enough? Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and the Politics of Presidential Masculinity.”

From Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan and right on through Mr. Trump, largely white, Christian, heterosexual presidential candidates have “performed” manhood in all sorts of ways: Donning hard hats and posing inside military tanks; battling over who would be the better guy to have a beer with; and implying their opponents were soft, weak, or “sleepy.”

Reagan, a former Hollywood actor, began dressing the part (cowboy hats, bluejeans) while George W. Bush — a graduate of Yale and Harvard — bought a ranch in Texas (along with a series of very big belt buckles) shortly before announcing his candidacy.

Sometimes these men were Democrats, but often they were Republicans — a party that has long recognized the power of “strong man identities” to appeal to working-class white voters, said David Collinson, a professor of leadership and organization at Lancaster University who, with colleague Jeff Hearn, professor of gender studies at Örebro University in Sweden, has written on the contrasting masculinities of Biden and Trump.

Credit…Michael E. Samojeden/Associated Press

In 1987, when George H.W. Bush, who had once described his quest for a “kinder, gentler nation,” appeared on the cover of Newsweek with the phrase, “The ‘Wimp Factor,’” his advisers, which included Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes, quickly shifted into gear.

“Michael Dukakis had a 17-point lead over Bush in the summer of 1988,” said Mr. Katz, whose book on presidential masculinity has been adapted into a documentary called “The Man Card.” “So what did they do? They relentlessly attacked his manhood. They suggested he was a failed protector, that he was ‘soft,’ that he wasn’t a ‘real man.’”

A decade later, when the younger Bush ran against John Kerry, he took a similar tack: He taunted his opponent for speaking French and painted him as an out-of-touch aristocrat even as he tried to present himself as a “war president.”

“This happens all the time,” said Tristan Bridges, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the co-editor of the journal, Men and Masculinities. “One guy presents himself as a kind of salt of the earth, a person you could hang out with, and then effectively emasculates the other by presenting them as the opposite.”

“I think the performance of masculinity means a lot,” he noted, “because it has the potential to eclipse all else.”

One notable performance, Mr. Bridges said, was in 1840, when William Henry Harrison, a presidential newcomer, relentlessly pilloried the incumbent, Martin Van Buren (“Marty,” as he called him) as “effeminate and obsequious.”

Harrison won by a landslide, but there was a twist. He delivered the longest inauguration speech on record, on a cold day in Washington in the middle of winter, and refused to wear a coat. Three weeks later, Harrison fell ill with pneumonia. He was dead a month into his term.

Not wearing a coat — or, say, a candidate rolling up his sleeves when talking with voters — are small contests with dignity, said Mr. Bridges. But they can have big consequences.

Ms. Dittmar, the author of a book on stereotypes in political strategy, explained it this way: Political strategy 101 involves paying attention to what voters want in a candidate. They look at polling data, and inevitably hear words like “tough” and “strong,” or issues like “national security.” The words in and of themselves are not gendered, and yet, have historically been associated with men — and often, certain types of men.

Which leaves not only men, but also women to display masculinity traits, though it tends to be more complicated for them. When women exhibit traits that tend to be associated with male leadership — like toughness — they are often viewed as too aggressive, but they must also not seem too “soft” to lead. It leads to a complicated dance.

Ms. Dittmar noted that Hillary Clinton’s one-time adviser, Mark Penn, wrote in a 2006 memo to Mrs. Clinton that while voters may not be ready for “the first mama” president, they could be open to “the first father being a woman,” whatever that was supposed to mean.

(When she ran again eight years later, of course, the guidance was different.)

Part of what makes the role of gender in politics so complicated, said Ms. Cooper, is that while women are still contorting into a masculine framework, men are continually having to prove themselves as man “enough.”

Social scientists call this “precarious masculinity,” the idea that manhood is something that must be proven over a lifetime while womanhood is perceived to be fixed. Girls receive a message that they “become” women — typically through a biological event like menstruation — while men are told throughout their lives to “be” men or to “man up,” as if masculinity is something that can be easily lost.

“You don’t really say ‘be a woman’ the way you say ‘be a man’ or ‘man up,’” she said.

Credit…Eric Draper/The White House

It’s that enduring need to prove, she said, that can have far-reaching implications.

Research by Robb Willer, of Stanford, found that when masculinity is challenged, men tend to overcompensate by increasing their support for more stereotypically masculine things, like war or wanting to purchase an SUV.

Daniel Cassino, a political scientist at Fairleigh Dickinson University, found in 2016 that just the mention of women as breadwinners led some men to abandon their support for Hillary Clinton and express support for President Trump. (The same was not true for those who supported Bernie Sanders, indicating that people were responding to a woman as a potential leader, not a Democrat.)

And 2018 research by Ms. Cooper and four colleagues, published in the Journal of Social Issues, found that the need to prove one’s masculinity can be particularly damaging in a workplace context — leading to unreasonable or unnecessary risk-taking, bragging, cutting corners, bullying, even sexual harassment.

Such behavior was most likely to be found in male-dominated environments characterized by a “winner-takes-all approach” — and where winners tended to exhibit traits like toughness or ruthlessness, the study found.

In Ms. Cooper’s view, those traits are central to presidential politics today.

“Trump is the personification of this masculinity contest culture,” Ms. Cooper said. “It’s bad for organizations, it’s terrible for a country.”

If the return to masculinity, exaggerated or calibrated, is dispiriting to some, there is perhaps a silver lining: Americans — or at least, American women — may finally be more cleareyed about its limits.

Since the 1980s, women have turned out to vote in higher numbers than men — and the latest polls predict a potentially historic gender gap between the candidates.

Maybe women were always the intended audience for the contests. Whether that’s true, they seem to be ready to render a clear judgment. Mr. Biden is leading among women by as much as 20 points.

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Biden wrestles with politics in effort to depoliticize the Justice Department – CNN



This creates competing realities for Biden. He must get an attorney general confirmed by a Senate that could be controlled by Republicans, some of whom tell CNN they will only vote for a candidate who pledges to continue an investigation into the 2016 election.
But even more significant, Biden is also feeling pressure from top Democrats and allied groups who believe he must nominate a person of color to at least one of the top four Cabinet posts, likely as attorney general.
Democratic lawmakers and allied groups are pressuring Biden’s transition team after Biden selected White nominees for both his top job at the State and Treasury departments. The calculation is complicated by the fact that Michele Flournoy, who is also White, is seen as Biden’s leading contender to lead the Defense Department.
On the right, there’s a new hurdle for Biden to clear, following the appointment of John Durham as special counsel investigating whether intelligence and law enforcement violated the law in investigating the 2016 presidential campaign. Senate Republicans are signaling they will require any attorney general nominee to commit to keeping Durham in place. A source familiar with the deliberations inside the transition said Thursday that the ongoing Durham probe “won’t impact” who Biden selects for attorney general.
Biden’s list of contenders for the job — from Sally Yates, former deputy attorney general, to Doug Jones, soon to be former senator from Alabama who was defeated in November — largely centers on former prosecutors whose history at the department could lend credibility with the public and career officials.
Others said to be in contention include Deval Patrick, former Massachusetts governor and former Justice Department civil rights chief; Jeh Johnson, the Homeland Security secretary under Obama; California Attorney General Xavier Becerra; and Lisa Monaco, a former Homeland Security adviser in the Obama White House and who previously worked at the FBI and as top national security prosecutor at Justice.
Biden, along with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, are interviewing contenders and weighing the decision. They are not expected to announce a decision until next week at the earliest, people familiar with the matter told CNN, but with a goal of doing so well before the holidays. The timing is also contingent on the nomination of a Secretary of Defense.
The job, for whomever Biden picks, will be a heavy lift. The pick will be stepping into a Justice Department damaged by the Trump administration and with low morale among career officials, many of whom have been publicly called out by President Donald Trump, Barr and other Republicans.
And Senate leaders are already demanding Biden select someone who will leave Durham in his special counsel job.
Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican who sits on Senate Judiciary, told CNN on Thursday that the next Attorney General nominee “absolutely” must commit to keeping Durham as special counsel.
“It’s non-negotiable,” he said.
The nominee will also be tasked with overseeing Biden’s attempts to tackle questions about race and policing, an issue that dominated the political conversation over the summer in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in May and the subsequent widespread protests, as well as calls to protect the right to vote and use the power of the Department of Justice to combat climate change.
Biden said Thursday he will make sure his Justice Department operates independently, he told CNN’s Jake Tapper in an exclusive interview. “I’m not going to be telling them what they have to do and don’t have to do. I’m not going to be saying go prosecute A, B or C — I’m not going to be telling them. That’s not the role, it’s not my Justice Department, it’s the people’s Justice Department.”

Yates and Jones

Yates, multiple sources told CNN, had long been one of Biden’s leading contenders for the job, with the longtime official reflecting Biden’s focus on career officials in the picks he has already made.
But her nomination could be contentious.
Yates’ order for the Justice Department to refuse to enforce Trump’s first travel ban prompted her firing in January 2017, making her a “Resistance” hero to liberals and served as a highlight for Yates in a speech to the Democratic National Convention in August, during which said Trump “trampled the rule of law, trying to weaponize the Justice Department to attack his enemies and protect his friends.”
As quickly as Yates has become a hero to the left, she has become a villain on the right — Barr, then a private citizen, wrote that her decision was “incoherent and untenable” — a fact that could complicate her nomination to a Republican Senate. If nominated, Republicans are likely to revisit that episode, as well as the fact that the FBI launched its investigation of ties between Russia and the Trump campaign during Yates’ tenure. In recent months, Yates sat for a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee to discuss some of the mistakes the FBI made during that probe.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, who is in line to chair Senate Judiciary in a GOP majority, told CNN on Thursday that Durham’s probe into the 2016 election will be key to the consideration of a new nominee.
“Yes, from this standpoint,” Grassley said when asked if keeping Durham would be central to the nomination. “Everybody came to me when I was chairman of the committee and wanted to make sure that I would take action to make sure that Trump didn’t fire Mueller.”
After noting he sponsored legislation aimed at protecting special counsels, Grassley added: “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, so I want to make sure that Durham gets the same respect.”
Sources also told CNN that Biden is serious about his intent to move beyond the Trump era in hopes of unifying the country and wonders whether Yates could be too divisive of a nominee to lead the Justice Department and her confirmation could be complicated by Senate Republicans.
Jones is seen as someone easier to confirm. The current senator from Alabama who lost his bid for reelection in November previously worked as the US Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama and was the lead prosecutor suing KKK members responsible for the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, strong selling points to advocacy organizations.
Both Yates and Jones, however, are White, an issue for an incoming administration seeking diversity among its appointees that could be compounded by picks Biden has already made.
The former vice president has picked Antony Blinken to be his Secretary of State and Janet Yellen to be his Treasury secretary, and the frontrunner to be Biden’s Secretary of Defense is Flournoy. All three are White.
“I don’t think they can politically do that,” said a source familiar with the transition. “I don’t think they can get away with that.”

Political considerations

Attorney General, like other nominations to the Cabinet, is hardly made in a vacuum, so the likelihood of Biden picking Johnson, Patrick and Becerra could increase if Biden has not already chosen a Black nominee for another top Cabinet post.
Biden is seriously considering Patrick, believing he could have a smoother path to confirmation, sources told CNN. Patrick was viewed to be an attorney general candidate in the latter years of the Obama presidency, but instead went into the private sector before mounting an ill-fated presidential bid late in the nomination process. His relationship with Biden could be strained, however, after Patrick largely ran for president by arguing none of the other candidates — including Biden — had what it took to beat Trump.
Johnson is someone Biden knows from his time in the Obama administration, where he led the Department of Homeland Security from 2013 to 2017 and previously as the general counsel of the Department of Defense. And Johnson is also said to be under consideration by Biden for other positions, including Defense Secretary.
“I like how Jeh Johnson handles himself,” Grassley said Thursday.
But Johnson comes with some baggage for the left, particularly how the Obama administration handled the deportation of undocumented immigrants during his tenure at Homeland Security. Biden has sought to distance himself from that record, including explicitly saying he would handle deportation differently than President Barack Obama.
Becerra is also under consideration, people familiar with the matter say, and has many allies inside the Biden transition. He served in Congress for more than two decades and despite his criticism and myriad lawsuits against the Trump administration, officials believe at least a handful of Republicans would join Democratic senators in confirming him.
Monaco, like Johnson, has been considered for other Biden administration roles. If Trump fires FBI Director Christopher Wray, as he at times mused that he might, then Monaco is a top candidate as the first woman to fill that vacancy. She was on the shortlist for the job when Obama picked James Comey in 2013.

The challenges

Whoever Biden picks for attorney general will inherit a Justice Department damaged by perceptions of politicized decision-making, thanks to Trump’s Twitter rantings, and low morale among career employees.
Taking on the job is likely to be a major challenge, particularly because the Justice Department’s top job in recent decades increasingly has become the focus of partisan fights between Congress and the White House no matter who holds it. And many in the Democratic base want to see the Department of Justice do more to combat systemic racism in policing, protect the right to vote and crack down on the kinds of financial abuses that were seen to run rampant during the Trump administration.
After four years of Trump, some Democrats are also hungry for the Department of Justice under Biden to prosecute some of the decision made during Trump’s tenure.
Biden has largely resisted those calls and plans to try to put distance between the Department of Justice and his White House by issuing an executive order “directing that no White House staff or any member of his administration may initiate, encourage, obstruct, or otherwise improperly influence specific DOJ investigations or prosecutions for any reason.” The move is a rejection of the Trump administration, which saw Trump repeatedly lean on the Department of Justice for political reasons, especially under Barr.
Justice employees welcomed Barr to his second stint as attorney general, with hopes high that he would protect the department from the steady diet of attacks from Trump, who regularly criticized Jeff Sessions, his first attorney general. Instead, Barr has embraced Trump’s rhetoric, doing damage to the department’s reputation with the courts, the public and its own employees, current and former Justice officials say.
After months of complaining privately about career prosecutors resisting his demands, Barr used a September speech to a conservative college audience to compare career officials to Montessori pre-schoolers. The point of the speech was to underscore that political appointees are the bosses, but Barr used demeaning terms to complain about career civil servants who serve under Republican and Democratic administrations.
Barr’s defenders say he has done as much as possible to keep politics out of the department in an unorthodox presidency. Under public pressure from Trump to target Biden and Obama over what Trump claims were spying violations against his campaign, Barr publicly said the department wasn’t doing that. People close to Barr also say his conduct in office isn’t evidence of doing Trump’s bidding, but more a reflection of a deeply conservative Republican attorney general who believes the political left was out to get Trump.
Phillip Halpern, who left the department this fall after 36 years as a federal prosecutor, says one example of potential long-term damage from the Barr era comes from his push to drop charges against Michael Flynn, claiming in part that Flynn’s lies to the FBI weren’t material, or big enough, to matter.
“His excuse on the Flynn case on the standard of materiality was as stupid as what Trump said about injecting bleach into your body,” Halpern said in an interview. “It’s a lie, it’s offensive.”
A future attorney general will have to restore trust, Halpern said.
Other current and former officials say the department’s civil rights enforcement and voting rights sections will require work after the Trump era. And after months of protests over police conduct and accountability, the Justice Department under Biden will be under pressure to help encourage changes to policing.
And the pick will be tasked with what to do about special ongoing probes launched under Barr, in an apparent effort to placate Trump. These include the investigation by John Durham into the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation.
And that could be the first test of Biden’s pledge to take a hands-off approach with the Department of Justice.
“I will not do what this president does,” Biden told NBC News last month, “and use the Justice Department as my vehicle to insist that something happen.”
But the special counsel investigation will now be waiting for Biden.

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America's Covid politics, historical revisionism and why Cold War conformity isn't the answer – NBC News



Americans are losing their jobs, getting sick and dying because of inaction by the federal government and by their governors and because of resistance — sometimes violent resistance — to the few public health measures that are in effect.

How did we end up with a new member of Congress, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who used her first moments in Washington to criticize masks? Why has the federal government given up on a national response to the Covid-19 pandemic? Why are people threatening violence against governors who propose even modestly restrictive public health measures?

Why are we being so reckless about something so important?

The short answer is that public health has become politicized, and political conflict makes us stupid.

The short answer is that public health has become politicized, and political conflict makes us stupid. Most people know almost nothing about public policy, and when we make political arguments, we reason in ways that would be embarrassing in other contexts. Being smart offers little protection, and it can even make us more vulnerable to distorted political reasoning.

In 2013, Yale researcher Dan Kahan worried that politics could quickly pollute the science communication environment about vaccines. Even though beliefs about vaccine science and immunization policy were not then strongly associated with political identities, he was concerned that this could change quickly. Something similar had happened before: In the 1990s, beliefs about climate change were not significantly politically polarized; that consensus evaporated in the first decade of the 2000s.

In 2020, it has become clear that Kahan was right to be worried. Americans’ willingness to accept vaccines and their feelings about vaccine laws are increasingly split along party lines. The same is true for views about Covid-19 lockdowns, mask mandates and social distancing. The new Covid-19 vaccine could be political dynamite.

Dec. 3, 202004:38

A common explanation for some people’s resistance to public health measures is that previous generations were more virtuous than we are. You might point to the example of the school-age Polio Pioneers who participated in vaccine testing and to Jonas Salk’s (supposedly) altruistic refusal to patent the polio vaccine.

But it is a self-congratulatory fiction to attribute the public health compliance of earlier generations to a now-lost commitment to fairness and solidarity. A truer story would focus on the fact that earlier Americans had more in common and were more obedient to authority figures.

Consider that, until the 1970s and the 1980s, patients rarely provided informed consent to medical procedures. While the medical abuses of the Holocaust illustrated that patients and research subjects should have the right to make their own decisions, American doctors largely rejected the 1947 Nuremberg Code’s call for informed consent and continued to practice more paternalistic medicine — they would continue to treat patients over their objections or otherwise disregard patient preferences — until the law forced their hand.

America also used to be a more collectivist place, at least in much of the post-World War II era. Most people were bound by a shared civil religion of patriotism (including a Cold War hatred of communism), and their private religious beliefs were more often connected to churches that occupied centrist positions in political life. Among white Americans, there was greater economic equality, more optimism about improving standards of living and greater trust in social institutions (including government, medicine and science). Racism and, more importantly, the influence of white supremacy — in education, housing and the workplace, among other things — shaped a shared experience for white Americans and imposed a similarly common oppressive way of life on nonwhite Americans.

Cold War conformity and Jim Crow terrorism are not good models for contemporary social cooperation. We applaud the accomplishments of the civil rights and patients’ rights movements. We are glad to live in more pluralistic and diverse communities.

However, the loss of common identities and shared political aspirations has led directly to rising levels of political polarization around policies that used to be less controversial.

Common enemies often generate a sense of shared purpose. Perhaps the Covid-19 pandemic will become so severe that our mutual vulnerability will cultivate recommitment to public health measures. For example, some Republican governors have recently reversed themselves and embraced mask mandates. But even if this trend continues, it is not likely to be a stable basis for an ongoing public health consensus after the pandemic.

It seems more likely that opposition to a foreign enemy — say, China — could cultivate longer-lasting common political commitments in a diverse America. Political leaders of both parties support America’s imperial projects, and most citizens seem open to bipartisanship in the name of resisting (supposed) existential threats to the country. This kind of shared political identity could be more stable, but only if the struggle lasted a long time and only if it did not result in catastrophic wars. But this is a dangerous and unethical basis for political consensus.

We hope, instead, that Democrats and Republicans can find common cause in conceptions of freedom that express our shared values. We all ought to be free from restrictions on what we say and believe, and we have good reasons to protect valued spheres of civic life from the corrupting influence of politics and the unwelcome oversight of government. We all also ought to be free to live in healthy and peaceful communities, participate in well-functioning economic systems and have access to targeted social welfare programs. Whether America can re-create stable public health governance depends on whether Americans can promote these kinds of freedoms in our ongoing work of living together.

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All Santa Wants for Christmas Is to Stay Out of Politics – The New York Times



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All Santa Wants for Christmas Is to Stay Out of Politics

After a brush with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, professional Santa Clauses are just trying to get through this holiday season safely.

Credit…Julien Sage for The New York Times
  • Dec. 4, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ET

Ric Erwin is one of thousands of men for whom Santa Claus is both a sacred idea and a seasonal occupation. Earlier this year, he was looking forward to donning his red velvet suit and hat this December, just as he has each winter for the last decade.

But the pandemic has thrown a wrench in the usual Christmas shows and shopping mall photo ops. And Mr. Erwin, 62, who is the chairman of the board of the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas — a national association for men who grow and maintain their own beards to play Santa Claus at holiday events — has found himself advocating for 500 professionals to safely support their work while virus cases are surging.

In September, Mr. Erwin, who lives in Hemet, Calif., testified virtually before the Centers for Disease Control’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. He noted that the production and distribution of an H1N1 vaccine in 2009 allowed Santa Claus performers to save Christmas that year. He hoped the C.D.C. could similarly expedite a vaccine in time for this holiday season.

After his testimony, Mr. Erwin received several phone calls, voicemails and emails from Michael R. Caputo, the assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, who hoped to broker a deal with the Santas. Mr. Erwin recalled Mr. Caputo telling him that the White House was interested in having Santas participate in a 35-city rollout campaign for Operation Warp Speed, the federal effort to develop a coronavirus vaccine. In exchange, he promised the Santas access to a vaccine by mid-October.

A Santa meet-and-greet at Bass Pro Shops in Bridgeport, Conn.
Credit…Seth Wenig/Associated Press

“That sounded like a great deal to us,” Mr. Erwin said. “Within 24 hours we had over 100 volunteers. The response was overwhelming.”

Mr. Caputo told Mr. Erwin he couldn’t wait to tell President Trump that the Santas were onboard with the plan. Then, Mr. Erwin said, Mr. Caputo, the C.D.C. and the H.H.S. ghosted him.

Mr. Erwin realized Mr. Caputo was never going to call him back when The Wall Street Journal published an article in late October stating that the campaign, which was meant to include not only Santa players but also celebrities, had been scrapped. (In a statement to The New York Times, an H.H.S. spokeswoman reiterated: “This collaboration will not be happening.”)

“We saw the handwriting on the wall and we knew there was not going to be a collaboration at that point, so if we were going to save Christmas this year it was just going to be the Clauses,” Mr. Erwin said.

In addition to stoking some false hope, his negotiations with the federal government drew attention to the myriad societies Santa Claus performers belong to today (though the word “performers” is scorned by those who take a method approach to the role). There are regional groups (like the Lone Star Santas and the New England Santa Society), as well as national and international ones.

For the most part, these organizations try to stay out of politics, activism and other kinds of campaigning. So some Santas were annoyed.

Credit…Houston Cofield for The New York Times
Credit…Julien Sage for The New York Times

“First of all, Santa lives in the North Pole — he doesn’t live in the United States,” said Stephen Arnold, 70, a Memphis resident and president of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas (I.B.R.B.S.), a trade group with more than 2,000 members. “He might have an interest in seeing that the United States is a calm and safe place for him to visit and deliver Christmas presents, but as a Santa Claus, you shouldn’t have a political posture.”

Mr. Arnold added that his understanding was that only four or five people would end up eligible for an early shot of the vaccine according to the offer Mr. Caputo made to Mr. Erwin.

To be fair, Mr. Arnold and Mr. Erwin have some history. The Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas (F.O.R.B.S.) emerged out of the dissolution more than a decade ago of the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas (A.O.R.B.S.), which was wrapped in scandal at the time. (“If you Google ‘Santa Wars,’ you’ll find articles on it,” Mr. Arnold said.) Today, F.O.R.B.S. is much smaller than I.B.R.B.S., which also includes Mrs. Clauses, and there are members of each group who will not forget the Santa tension of years past.

Personal matters aside, Mr. Arnold said his resistance to take part in the government campaign revolved largely around a desire to remain apolitical.

“Most of our members were reluctant to consider being first in line because they felt that the whole thing on vaccines was being politically manipulated,” he said. “We work very hard on not being political. We do not allow any political posts or anything on our Facebook group pages.”

“If somebody posts something that’s even slightly interpreted as a political statement, it’s gone instantly,” he continued. “It’s just deleted.”

Should a member like to make a statement out-of-character, that’s fine, Mr. Arnold said. “We encourage all of our Santas who want to make political posts to create a separate page where they don’t wear any red, and don’t indicate they’re Santa Claus or have Santa in their names,” he said.

Credit…Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

At this point, according to C.D.C. recommendations, Santa players shouldn’t expect to be vaccinated before Christmas. So, what does that mean for this holiday season?

“Generally speaking, within the Santa community, we are being as cautious as possible,” Mr. Arnold said. “There’s a small contingency of people who have laughed it off and said ‘I’m going to go on normally, I won’t be performing with a mask.’” Most members of Santa organizations, however, are considered high-risk coronavirus candidates: They are retirees in their 70s and 80s and many have underlying health conditions, Mr. Erwin said.

“There isn’t a group of people that are more compromised than the Christmas Committee,” Mr. Arnold said. “A lot of us are old and have diabetes. Most of us have a heart problem, most of us are obese. We check every box.”

While many Santa-related innovations have come out of 2020 — holiday-themed masks, plexiglass and acrylic walls that can be made to look invisible in photos, video calls, drive-through greetings — Mr. Erwin is most enticed by the idea of placing Santa in a vinyl dome.

The dome provides physical separation, but it can also be explained with a clever story for the children to understand, Mr. Erwin said.

“If parents don’t want to explain virus transmission, they can say Santa got trapped in a snow globe by an elf magician and you have to come visit him at the globe,” he said.

But Mr. Erwin won’t be scheduling any in-person visits this year. His father-in-law suffered a stroke in April and was hospitalized for 30 days before he died; none of his family members were able to visit because of the pandemic. Mr. Erwin told his wife and his mother-in-law, who makes Santa costumes and goes by Mother Claus, that he would not take any chances with the virus.

“I don’t even care about giving up my season,” Mr. Erwin said. “I’m thinking about the 150,000 plus people that did not have to die.” He blames the rising toll on the current administration and plans to deliver fitting gifts to its members this Christmas.

“As a Santa, I am neutral and love everybody, but as a citizen I have to say something,” Mr. Erwin said, adding that he would not be giving politicians coal. “They are getting dryer lint, at best.”

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