“[B]etter days have got to be ahead.” Yup, that’s what I wrote in my very first newsletter of the year, posted on the now ominous, cue-the-scary-music date of Jan. 5, 2021. Instead came 12 months that went from vaccine optimism to vaccine denial, from “Trump might do a coup” to “Trump is still doing a coup.” But, hey, we did survive 2021 and now better days have got to be ahead. Right?
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Pa. prodigal son David McCormick isn’t as sexy as rival Mehmet Oz, just more dangerous
The McCormick family, formerly of Bloomsburg, Pa., rose to prominence in the Keystone State in the last third of the 20th century through its dedication to that era’s great Big Idea: that affordable, accessible higher education was the way forward for Pennsylvania’s middle class.
How odd, then, that the son of a Pennsylvania educational icon – James McCormick, 1970s president of (now) Bloomsburg University who in 1983 became the very first chancellor of the 14-school Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education – would devote his life to those two institutions so determined to undo the American way of college: Wall Street and the 21st century Republican Party.
After spending years away in Connecticut’s mansion zone to become a hedge-fund super-rich guy on Wall Street, prodigal son David McCormick is wrong-way crossing the Delaware to become the latest big-spending out-of-stater to get bug-eyed over the once-in-a-lifetime open-seat opportunity to represent 12.9 million total strangers in Pennsylvania as our next U.S. senator. Well apparently, anyway.
McCormick hasn’t formally entered the May 2022 GOP primary to replace the retiring Sen. Pat Toomey. But a Christmas-themed ad from McCormick’s Senate “exploratory committee” that the hedge-funder paid for himself with $1 million — probably the spare change under his sofa pillows — is a pretty good clue that he’ll join the race where so far celebrity TV physician Mehmet Oz has been hoarding the oxygen mask.
In theory, McCormick and Oz are the yin and yang of that Republican primary — polar opposites, and not just because a few years before McCormick won a Bronze Star fighting for the Army in the first Gulf War, the Ohio-born Oz served in a different uniform with the Turkish Army. But Oz’s ticket to the Republican dance is his fame, launched by no less than Oprah and powered by a daily TV show where he’s known to embrace cures that his critics call quackery. In contrast, few Pennsylvanians have heard of McCormick, even though he’s currently CEO of the world’s largest hedge fund and thus many times more powerful.
But when it comes to politics, I’m struck by how similar Oz and McCormick really are: two men with no fixed principles except for rank careerism. Before Oz decided to run for office in today’s Donald Trump-dominated Republican Party, the TV doc talked like a centrist Republican, even giving an eloquent defense of the abortion rights he now suddenly opposes.
Yet McCormick can raise him one. Upon coming home mid-’90s after his military service, he admits he chose Pittsburgh to work for evil (no, seriously) consultancy McKinsey & Co. and then to launch a software start-up firm because he was thinking about entering politics in his native state — as a registered Democrat. As McCormick himself told it just last year, it was almost a matter of logistics that he ended up instead as a Republican — but what a long strange trip these last 20 or so years have been.
Even as he burnished his credentials with the GOP Establishment with a stint in George W. Bush’s Treasury Department and then on Wall Street in becoming CEO of Bridgewater Associates, McCormick gradually cozied up to TrumpWorld — literally in the case of his wife, Dina Powell, a Goldman Sachs executive who served as the 45th president’s deputy national security adviser.
In 2021, McCormick’s fast-casual 2000s switch from Democrat to Republican has nothing on his full-blown embrace of Team Trump, even as the first president to be impeached twice remains under investigation for his role in a Jan. 6 insurrection that is looking more and more like an attempted coup. Among those said to be advising his incipient Senate campaign are former high-level Trump aide Hope Hicks and also Stephen Miller, the architect of some of Trump’s most immoral immigration schemes — including the family separation policy in which young migrant children were torn away from their parents at the Rio Grande.
“Stephen actually enjoys seeing those pictures at the border,” one external White House adviser told Vanity Fair. Miller’s horrific track record — which earned him a voluminous rap sheet from an anti-hate group, the Southern Poverty Law Center — should be a nonstarter for any candidate who’d want to convince Pennsylvania voters he hasn’t gone full-on MAGA. But McCormick doesn’t care about how it looks. He cares about winning.
I don’t know why McCormick was a registered Democrat before he started this downward spiral, but I can’t help but think it had something to do with watching his father’s work in running the public university in Bloomsburg as he grew up in the 1970s — the time when the American Dream of affordable college education as the path toward doing better than your parents still flourished. Under James McCormick, Bloomsburg U. doubled its budget in 10 years, added degrees in nursing and business, built new dorm rooms and a student center. And Pennsylvania taxpayers footed 75% of the cost, because educating young people was still seen as a public good.
Ironically, the ambitious, careerist McCormick joined the GOP right when the party abandoned public higher education (today, taxpayer funding in Pennsylvania is just 25%) for an increasingly privatized system, built on a pyramid of usurious loans or scammy for-profit schools backed by McCormick’s new pals on Wall Street. Anyone too morally blind to notice that problem also lacks the inner compass to see what’s wrong with putting Stephen Miller on his team.
More plugged in, better connected, a lot richer and more willing to wallow in the Trump mire than Oz, McCormick is the truly dangerous one in the Pennsylvania Senate race. I just wonder what his dad thinks about all of this.
Yo, do this
The holidays are mostly a time for food and family, and maybe reflecting on what the heck just happened these last 12 months, including pop culture. The angst-ridden year was a surprisingly good one in most genres, except for movies, which still seem a tad infected by the COVID-19 blahs. Some of what I liked best had (coincidentally?) a Philly flavor, including my two favorite films, Don’t Look Up (see below) and Questlove’s stunning documentary, Summer of Soul. And I’d say that HBO’s Delco-inspired Mare of Easttown was the best thing I’d seen on TV in years — if I hadn’t just been utterly mesmerized by Season 3 of Succession. Other cultural home runs included Louis Menand’s massive tome The Free World, which showed how the art and writing of 1940s and ’50s shaped the planet I was born into, and the current season of Slate’s Slow Burn, which will change your understanding of the Rodney King beating and the 1992 L.A. uprising. But the 2021 music we will never forget echoed across time and space from January 1969, and the remarkable you-are-there-for-eight-hours immersive achievement of The Beatles: Get Back, which somehow stole the moment in a year when so many of us wanted to curl up in a ball of memories of lost youth.
Ask me anything
Question: Did you see Don’t Look Up? I’d love to hear your thoughts if you did. — Via @BerksGasTruth on Twitter
Answer: I jumped at the chance to answer this; as a few of you may recall, I touted the killer-comet-as-metaphor-for-climate-change movie written and directed by Philly suburban native Adam McKay with its all-star cast (Leo, Jennifer, Meryl, etc., etc.) in this newsletter sight unseen — and then came some prominent bad reviews. Nonetheless, I finally streamed it on Netflix on Christmas Eve, and now I can’t stop thinking about it. It doesn’t hurt that Don’t Look Up’s biting satire makes you laugh at mock-ups of Morning Joe or the Trump White House, which you thought were past the point of parody. But in the end you’ll better appreciate not just our jumbled world of science and faith, but our fundamental humanity. More important, you’ll want to save it.
History lesson on Joan Didion (1934-2021)
“The center was not holding.” With those words, inspired by the William Butler Yeats poem that serves as the epigraph for her 1967 article “Slouching Toward Bethlehem,” Joan Didion launched her 50-year reign as one of America’s top essayists and social commentators. The sentence captured a true moment of the American spirit, the stunning summer of 1967 that reached its apotheosis in San Francisco’s hippie-infused Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, where Didion found the sordid underbelly of the new psychedelic drug scene. Now, 54 years later, the center is collapsing yet again — but we can only imagine how Didion in her prime would have covered the death spiral of American democracy. She died last week at age 87, leaving no immediate close survivors, just the essays and books that bottled the essence of this boomer’s lifetime.
Didion somehow managed to break out as a star of the ’60s’ and ’70s’ “new journalism” as a woman writer when the genre was mostly drenched in testosterone and stale lager. I think that was part of the tension that made her work so alive — she was constantly, and consciously, looking for that thin wall between the reporting and the reporter that most of her macho contemporaries just awkwardly bulldozed right through. And wowza did she know how to start a piece, none better than 1979′s what-the-hell-just-happened-in-America essay “The White Album,” which opens: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” These days it’s common to wonder how some great wordsmith of yesteryear would have coped in the Age of Twitter. But no writer could ever say more, more often, in fewer than 280 characters than Joan Didion in her time.
Inquirer reading list
Only one column this past week on account of the Christmas holiday, so for Sunday’s paper I took a look at some disturbing trends in criminal justice, showing how hard it’s been for the protest movement sparked by 2020′s police murder of George Floyd to bring substantial progress. New York’s new ex-cop mayor, Eric Adams — bringing back solitary confinement and policing tactics linked to past brutality — is the avatar of a counterrevolution that’s also seen the rate of police shootings and arrests of journalists remain so disappointingly high in 2021.
OK, so we’re all in agreement that 2021 won’t go down as one of the all-time great years, but it did happen to be a true banner year for photojournalism. Starting with the pyrotechnics of the Jan. 6 insurrection through the hope of a vaccine and the tempered joy of the wrongfully convicted, finally free, photojournalists from The Inquirer were out there every day telling stories with a lens that — even, or especially, in an era when all of us pretend to be photographers — only a professional can truly tell. The annual piece showing these best pictures of 2021 is really something. But the vanishing art of photojournalism will only survive as long as its viewers are willing to pay for it. Consider doing your part by subscribing to The Inquirer.
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