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There's Never As Much Time As You Think
Reflections on classified documents and friendships
Happy Friday morning and welcome back to Doomsday Scenario, Issue #5. It’s the second anniversary today of Joe Biden’s inauguration—a day that you’ll remember seemed an oasis of calm and normalcy after two heartwrenching weeks that led from 1/6 and insurrection to impeachment a week later to an inauguration a week later. Today, the news remains dominated by both Trump and Biden, the trials stemming from 1/6, and these two years feel simultaneously like both a lifetime and also like Groundhog Day.
1) Classified Docs-Gate
I have an op-ed in the New York Times today about the Biden-Trump classified documents mess, and why Trump’s situation is not just legally distinct from Biden’s, but also historically distinct. I feel like I’ve spent far too much time in the last decade writing about officials mishandling classified documents; back in 2016, I was one of only two reporters to read the entire FBI case file on Hillary Clinton’s email server mess and recreated how bizarrely mundane and stupid that scandal really was. As I wrote at the time, the FBI files “depict[ed] less a sinister and carefully calculated effort to avoid transparency than a busy and uninterested executive who shows little comfort with even the basics of technology, working with a small, harried inner circle of aides inside a bureaucracy where the IT and classification systems haven’t caught up with how business is conducted in the digital age. Reading the FBI’s interviews, Clinton’s team hardly seems organized enough to mount any sort of sinister cover-up.”
Biden’s case, as I argue in the op-ed, seems likely to be a similar nothing-burger—politically damaging and embarrassing, sure, but so far there’s no sign of anything approaching criminal conduct.
In a NYT Opinion Q&A today that accompanied the main essay, I made a couple of additional points that get lost in these not-nuanced-at-all manufactured scandals. There are two that I think are really worth highlighting:
There is a real scandal at the heart of the classification system, but it’s about just how routinely the government overclassifies documents.
The government classifies too much and at too high level. That makes it hard to share information inside government and with trusted local, state, and foreign partners in the moment, but it’s also a pretty serious issue for historians and for citizens, because it means that it can be decades—sometimes even a quarter- or a half-century—before key documents end up getting declassified and released to researchers and historians. As I’m working through my current book on UFOs, I was researching a file this week from the mid-1950s that was only declassified and released in 2012, while the National Archives was working through a backlog of some 2 *billion* classified documents it needed to process.
When I wrote my history WATERGATE last year, one of the major “new” revelations I incorporated was the 2011 release of documents from the LBJ Presidential Library that showed Richard Nixon interfered in the Paris Peace Talks regarding the end of the Vietnam War while he was a presidential candidate in 1968—documents that had been locked away for decades even though they showed what are some of the most credible allegations of, effectively, treason we have regarding a US official in the 20th century. Lyndon Johnson knew in real-time in 1968 and then the classified documents were hidden away in his library until long after the major figures were dead.
What America should be outraged about is how the overclassification of documents helps politicians and officials avoid accountability for their actions. What other secrets and scandals are buried in those classified files that we should know about but don’t? Liza Goitein has a great thread about this problem and how to fix it if you want to read more.
Also, one of my favorite and most interesting what-ifs of American history is how different our political trajectory would have been had Nixon been prosecuted and sent to prison — how would Iran-contra, the Clinton scandals and the Trump era have played out differently if America had a precedent of charging presidents for criminal acts in office?
2) New Year’s Resolutions
I spent a big chunk of last week grieving with colleagues and friends our former POLITICO coworker Blake Hounshell, who lost his battle with depression last Tuesday. The tragedy was a stark reminder of a quote from British poet Blake Auden that I keep taped to a corner of my office bulletin board: “in the end it all comes down to this: there’s never as much time as you think.”
The experience inspired me to write today about the only New Year’s resolution that I’ve ever actually succeeded at internalizing.
While I do spend a lot of January doing project and research planning for the year ahead, I’ve never been much for resolutions generally. I know my behavioral quirks and have generally made peace with who I am over the years.
The one idea that actually changed the way I approach life day-to-day started somewhat mundanely some year I was working at Washingtonian. A big part of my job was reading dozens of other magazine every month; at Washingtonian, we subscribed to upwards of a 100 magazines, from glossy fashion magazines to dry journals, news magazines to food, shelter, sports, and music publications, as well as just about every other city and regional magazine in the country—even Playboy for many years. Over conferences and coffees, I’d gotten to know many of the writers and editors at those other publications, and I resolved some year that I was going to do a better job of writing those I knew when I saw and enjoyed work they’d done.
The resolution started simple: Every day I was going to try to tell one person I was proud of them.
It started somewhat consciously: Looking every day in the news, social media feeds, and assorted publications that crossed my radar for someone I knew who’d done something cool and, literally, noteworthy—something worth writing a note to say, “Congratulation on this cool thing you did.”
Not surprisingly, once I consciously started to acknowledge such achievements, I pretty quickly realized there were many such opportunities a day to say to someone I cared about how awesome they were. There are so many life milestones that we normally let pass unacknowledged (or, in my mind, worse, acknowledge only through a thumbs-up or like on a social media post). A new job. An award. A blog post that went viral. A promotion. Something painful that someone persevered through. A new painting. A big trip.
It makes a big difference, it turns out, to go that one extra step, with not just a “like” but an actual email, text, or random phone call—the New York Times actually this month endorsed in its happiness challenge the “8-minute telephone call.”
Writing, texting, or calling people each day to celebrate their accomplishments also ends up providing an enormous reservoir for personal hope and optimism about the world. Amid all the awful news and doomscrolling of daily life, you have a chance to mark and internalize how much amazing stuff also is happening every single day—that there’s so much energy and effort being put into meaningful things that change the world and make people better off.
Over the years, this resolution became more ingrained and automatic—I’m faster to send off a quick one-line email or quick text when someone has a birthday, promotion, or accomplishes something cool.
And then this past week, on Tuesday at 2:39 p.m., I got the opposite kind of text—the bolt-out-of-blue notification of tragedy.
The journalism world had lost my old POLITICO colleague Blake Hounshell; I was tasked with the tragic honor of writing his obit last Tuesday, and that afternoon found myself 30 minutes after I learned he’d died staring at a blank Microsoft Word document, wondering where to begin to tell the story of his life. What had he done? What were his goals? What motivated him? Who were his closest friends? Who should I call? I had about three hours to both learn everything I could about him and then write it up.
The truth I found over the next few hours was that I didn’t know my friend nearly as well as I wish I had; he had entire chapters of his life that I’d never really discussed with him.
Blake’s death came just days before the second anniversary of the death of my Aspen colleague Savilla Pitt, who died two years ago this Monday after just a 17-day battle with pancreatic cancer, after which I also scrambled to try to write a remembrance of her to send out to the Aspen Institute staff.
Both experiences were critical reminders: Tell your friends that you love them, yes, but more than that, pester them with questions—ask them directly about their backgrounds, their life dreams, their goals, what’s motivated them, what success looks to them. Try to understand why they’re who they are.
Often we get to know these things over long periods of conversations and years of friendship, but not always—and the moment you realize the questions you desperately more than anything want to ask may be one moment past when you’re able.
Obits, done well, can be masterpieces—who hasn’t been totally captivated by a half-page New York Times obituary of someone you’ve never heard of who turned to lead a fascinating life—and yet even in the most voluminous accounts there’s never room to properly mention everyone, everything, and everywhere that mattered. In fact, as John Irving once wrote, “What is hardest to accept about the passage of time is that the people who once mattered the most to us wind up in parentheses.” I know I missed—and never knew—some of the most important moments of Blake’s life.
Maybe this year’s resolution should be not just to remind friends I’m proud of them, but every day to ask a friend something I don’t know about who they are.
After all, there’s never as much time as we think.
PS: You may remember from my last newsletter that I’m having a blast listening to the audiobook of Bono’s memoir SURRENDER: 40 SONGS, ONE STORY. I’m almost half-way through right now, and it continues to be fantastic—as much meditation and provocation as memoir. Last night, I listened to a chapter that ended with the observation how U2’s career began to take off, in part, as they reflected and for the first time “t[ook] the minutiae of our own lives seriously.” As one of the band members said, “It’s all you’ve got—that’s it. Your thoughts, they decide who you are.”
That’s good advice too.