Opinion | Herschel Walker Tests the Importance of ‘Candidate Quality’
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By Frank Bruni
Frank Bruni is a contributing Opinion writer who was on the staff of The Times for more than 25 years.
Mehmet Oz could prevail over John Fetterman in Pennsylvania’s Senate election and, well, I’m not sure what that would mean. The carnival (and crudités) of that contest precludes tidy lessons. And it’s impossible to know what voters will or won’t make of Fetterman’s stroke earlier this year.
Ron Johnson could defeat Mandela Barnes in Wisconsin, and the deciding factors could be Johnson’s seasoning (two terms in the Senate) and age (67) relative to the 35-year-old Barnes’s youth. Race could come into it — Barnes would be Wisconsin’s first Black senator.
But if, in Georgia, Herschel Walker beats Raphael Warnock? That’s different. Purer.
It would probably mean that the 2022 climate was as hostile to Democratic candidates as Democrats initially feared it would be. And it would almost certainly say that party loyalty and ideological tribalism have rendered experience, character and competence all but obsolete — because Walker is about as ridiculous a Senate candidate as I can recall (and I recall both Christine O’Donnell and Todd Akin). Apart from the promise that Walker would vote with fellow Republicans, he brings little to the table.
Race doesn’t come into this race: Both Walker and Warnock are Black. And Georgia has seemingly turned from light red to purple, or very purplish, at least to go by Joe Biden’s slim victory there in 2020 and its election in 2021 of two Democratic senators, Warnock and Jon Ossoff.
Yes, Walker’s celebrity from his football days is of a kind and magnitude that Warnock can’t strictly match. But Warnock’s incumbency bridges any name-recognition gap.
The unbridgeable divide is between the two candidates’ credibility and coherence.
To read a deeply reported profile of Warnock by Shaila Dewan and Mike Baker that The Times published in January 2021 is to encounter a man with some minor messiness in his past, and with a history of blunt talk about racism in America that could be a political liability with some voters. But what comes across much more strongly is Warnock’s thoughtfulness and seriousness of purpose as he rose to the role of senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. worshiped and preached.
Thoughtfulness isn’t one of Walker’s hallmarks. During an appearance on Fox News after the massacre of schoolchildren in Uvalde, Texas, he was asked where he stood on suggested policies to prevent such bloodshed. His response: “Cain killed Abel and that’s a problem that we have. What we need to do is look into how we can stop those things. You know, you talked about doing a disinformation — what about getting a department that can look at young men that’s looking at women that’s looking at their social media. What about doing that? Looking into things like that, and we can stop that that way.”
On the campaign trail, Walker took issue with the Green New Deal by saying: “Since we don’t control the air, our good air decided to float over to China’s bad air, so when China gets our good air, their bad air got to move. So it moves over to our good air space. Then, now, we got to clean that back up.”
Eloquence can at times be overrated, less a reflection of intelligence than a separate skill and smoothness. But its polar opposite, embodied by Walker, is often a clue to the speaker’s cluelessness. Walker supplements his cluelessness with dishonesty. He has lied about having a background in law enforcement. He has lied about having a college degree. He began his campaign as the father of just one child whom voters and journalists knew about. Another three children came to light later.
When Mitch McConnell said in August that “candidate quality” could affect whether Republicans win control of the Senate, he was probably thinking of Oz. He was definitely thinking of Walker. If Walker ekes out a victory in Georgia in November, it will suggest how very little candidate quality matters anymore. And it will have implications far beyond the Peach State.
Ivanka in My Inbox
“My husband signed his new book,” Ivanka Trump recently wrote to me in an email.
He did? All on his own? How proud she must be! How good of her to advertise the feat.
“Advertise” being the operative word. The book, “Breaking History,” in which Jared Kushner recounts his immeasurable importance to the Trump administration and its incalculable benefit to the country, was published last month. Ever since, I’ve been deluged with digital missives from him, from her, about the book, the book, the book.
“Friend,” Ivanka confided in an email on Monday, “my husband signed only a few copies.” She added that he and she would “love for you to have one.”
“We can’t wait to hear what you think!” she added.
Well, friend, the wait is over.
I think that even by the standards of automatically generated, indiscriminately distributed emails, these are obnoxious — in their oppressive frequency, faux exuberance and utter disingenuousness.
I think that implying that you’re giving away something when you’re about to disclose that you want a minimum of $75 — but $100 is even better, and there’s a button you can click to give $250 if you’re feeling posh! — perfectly captures the general crassness of political fund-raising and the specific crassness of Trump World.
I think that I’m no more likely to click on $250 than I am to spend the roughly $21 that the book actually costs on Amazon because, while I read much that I find distasteful in the interest of staying current, there is no unplumbed wonder to Donald Trump, Ivanka Trump or Jared Kushner, no chance that we’re about to get an honest accounting from any one of them, no mystery about Ivanka and Jared’s motives here.
They want to be feted and they want to be funded. I just want them out of my inbox.
For the Love of Sentences
This space last week put more than glittering prose on display. It also showcased my musical ignorance. I included a reader-nominated sentence that likened a rushing-heavy football offense when Tom Brady is your quarterback to a bevy of drum solos when Eric Clapton is your guitarist. Many of you justly wrote in to note that when Clapton played with Cream, there were many extended solos by the band’s renowned drummer, Ginger Baker. I offer this paragraph as my percussion penance.
And now I turn to the death of Queen Elizabeth II — or, rather, to a mere sprinkle of the hundreds of thousands of excellent words written about it. In The Times, Hari Kunzru mulled the queen’s surrender to her peculiar station: “She seemed to accept that her role was to be shown things, so very many things.” (Thanks to Scott Kolber of Brooklyn, N.Y., for nominating that.) And Tina Brown described the queen’s cultured and deliberately opaque voice as having “the cut-glass tones of an everlasting British teatime.” (Chris Sheola, Ithaca, N.Y.)
In The New Yorker, Rebecca Mead posited that Elizabeth “spoke so seldom that even people who didn’t care what the queen said cared what the queen said.” (Ed Gallardo, Sun City West, Ariz.) And Anthony Lane looked beyond the queen to the trajectory of the nation that curtsied to her: “Could it be that what was once an empire, and then a commonwealth, will shrink to a single country, and then at last to one quiet village in Gloucestershire, with an empty church and a thriving line in marmalade?” (Eric Walker, Black Mountain, N.C.)
In The Washington Post, Ron Charles had great fun with his review of a hurried, bare-bones new thriller, “Blowback,” by James Patterson and Brendan DuBois. “The scenes are so short they could be written on napkins,” he wrote. “Several times the chapters break during conversations, as though somebody forgot to put a dime in the pay phone.” Additionally: “The dialogue is so corny it’s not delivered, it’s shucked.” (Carolyn Harrison, Kearney, Mo.)
Also in The Washington Post, Monica Hesse’s take on a new Apple TV+ road trip/interview show starring Hillary and Chelsea Clinton included Hesse’s description of Hillary’s tenseness when she re-emerges in the public eye: “It’s like the vague sense of unease when it’s been too long since your toddler made an appearance, and the cat and the finger paints are missing, too.” The Clintons, Hesse wrote, “approach comedy much as the Coneheads approached Earth.” And through their conversations with other celebrities, they “discover that comedy is more difficult for women, and fame is trickier for women, and moms are more judged than dads. If any of this is news to you, then I wish you a swift recovery from your head wound.” (Valerie Congdon, Waterford, Mich., and Christina Mitchell, Voorhees, N.J.)
And to return to — and end with — The Times, Katherine Rundell gorgeously distilled the poet John Donne’s belief in the expansiveness of our souls: “Tap humans, he believed, and they’d ring with the sound of infinity.” (Liz Keuffer, Cincinnati)
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, put “Sentences” in the subject line and include your name and place of residence.
Where I’ll Be and Whom I’ll Be With
On the first Friday in October, I’ll be onstage in New Jersey with the MSNBC anchor Katy Tur, for the opening night event at the Morristown Festival of Books. While we’ll talk in large measure about my most recent book, “The Beauty of Dusk: On Vision Lost and Found,” I bet that we’ll also discuss the state of the country, Katy’s excellent memoir “Rough Draft” and more. Ticket information for the Oct. 7 event is here.
On the last Friday in October, I’ll be on a stage near my home in North Carolina to interview my friend Alice Feiring, one of the country’s finest wine writers, about her terrific new memoir, “To Fall in Love, Drink This.” Ticket information for the Oct. 28 event is here.
In between those engagements, on Oct. 13 at Duke University, I’ll be interviewing my Times colleague and friend Bret Stephens about conservatism, the midterms and the most profound challenges facing the country and the world. The event, which is free and open to the public, takes place from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. in the Penn Pavilion on Duke’s campus. Here are additional details.
On a Personal (and Partly Regan) Note
The mercury dips and Regan rises. She no longer shuffles miserably through the gauzy summer humidity or lies down in protest just a quarter mile into a walk. She bounds. She prances, as exhilarated by the advance of autumn as I am. Beware, all you lumbering woodchucks and distracted squirrels. The huntress has her groove back.
She reminds me how profoundly the weather affects every creature’s movements and moods, how climate change translates into even more than melting ice, rising sea levels and burning forests (though those consequences are motive aplenty to deal with it). It has physiological and psychological implications, too. It augurs more days of weariness and — in terms of natural disasters — more nights of wariness.
We’re at the mercy of our natural environments, though that hasn’t spurred us to show them proper respect. We’re heedless. Profligate.
In the coming years, the woods that Regan and I range across will shrink. We’ve been warned. There are metal signs planted in various spots where trees meet pavement; each says that the street may be extended in the future. The growing population in our area of North Carolina will necessitate the construction or expansion of schools, and thickets will be sacrificed for that. Demand for housing around here outstrips supply, driving up prices, so new residential communities may be in order.
And there’s no wrong in any of that. There’s sense in much of it. We can’t rail at politicians about the affordable housing shortage and then say: No more development here, no more development there, not in my backyard, not in the meadows where Regan thrills to the presence of deer.
But we can be measured, conscious, responsible. We can do better than we’ve done in the past to recognize that our impact on the planet has an impact on us, that there’s a balance to be struck, that our technological advances haven’t separated our welfare — our happiness — from the state of the natural world.
The heat, the cold, the water, the wind — as they change, so do we. My morning walks with Regan remind me of that. They’ll grow longer in the coming months, our exertions rewarded by the kaleidoscopic pageant that the leaves put on. May we never forfeit that color, that magic. May we never be foolish enough to.
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