As an Earthling, it’s easy to believe that we’re standing still. After all, we don’t feel any movement in our surroundings. Yet when you look at the sky, you can see evidence that we are moving. What exactly is the speed of Earth around the sun?
Some of the earliest astronomers proposed that we live in a geocentric universe, which means that Earth is at the center of everything. They said the sun rotated around us, which caused sunrises and sunsets — same for the movements of the moon and the planets. But there were certain things that didn’t work with this vision. Sometimes, a planet would back up in the sky before resuming its forward motion.
We know now that this motion — which is called retrograde motion — happens when Earth is “catching up” with another planet in its orbit. For example, Mars orbits farther from the sun than Earth. At one point in the respective orbits of Earth and Mars, we catch up to the Red Planet and pass it by. As we pass by it, the planet moves backward in the sky. Then it moves forward again after we have passed.
Another piece of evidence for the sun-centered solar system comes from looking at parallax, or apparent change in the position of the stars with respect to each other. For a simple example of parallax, hold up your index finger in front of your face at arm’s length. Look at it with your left eye only, closing your right eye. Then close your right eye, and look at the finger with your left. The finger’s apparent position changes. That’s because your left and right eyes are looking at the finger with slightly different angles.
The same thing happens on Earth when we look at stars. It takes about 365 days for us to orbit the sun. If we look at a star (located relatively close to us) in the summer, and look at it again in the winter, its apparent position in the sky changes because we are at different points in our orbit. We see the star from different vantage points. With a bit of simple calculation, using parallax we can also figure out the distance to that star.Click here for more Space.com videos…This video will resume in 18 seconds
How fast are we spinning?
Earth’s spin is constant, but the speed depends on what latitude you are located at. Here’s an example. The circumference (distance around the largest part of the Earth) is roughly 24,898 miles (40,070 kilometers), according to NASA. (This area is also called the equator.) If you estimate that a day is 24 hours long, you divide the circumference by the length of the day. This produces a speed at the equator of about 1,037 mph (1,670 km/h). [How Fast Light Travel?]
You won’t be moving quite as fast at other latitudes, however. If we move halfway up the globe to 45 degrees in latitude (either north or south), you calculate the speed by using the cosine (a trigonometric function) of the latitude. A good scientific calculator should have a cosine function available if you don’t know how to calculate it. The cosine of 45 is 0.707, so the spin speed at 45 degrees is roughly 0.707 x 1037 = 733 mph (1,180 km/h). That speed decreases more as you go farther north or south. By the time you get to the North or South poles, your spin is very slow indeed — it takes an entire day to spin in place.
Space agencies love to take advantage of Earth’s spin. If they’re sending humans to the International Space Station, for example, the preferred location to do so is close to the equator. That’s why cargo missions to the International Space Station, for example, launch from Florida. By doing so and launching in the same direction as Earth’s spin, rockets get a speed boost to help them fly into space.
How fast does Earth orbit the sun?
Earth’s spin, of course, is not the only motion we have in space. Our orbital speed around the sun is about 67,000 mph (107,000 km/h), according to Cornell. We can calculate that with basic geometry.
First, we have to figure out how far Earth travels. Earth takes about 365 days to orbit the sun. The orbit is an ellipse, but to make the math simpler, let’s say it’s a circle. So, Earth’s orbit is the circumference of a circle. The distance from Earth to the sun — called an astronomical unit— is 92,955,807 miles (149,597,870 kilometers), according to the International Astronomers Union. That is the radius (r). The circumference of a circle is equal to 2 x π x r. So in one year, Earth travels about 584 million miles (940 million km).
Since speed is equal to the distance traveled over the time taken, Earth’s speed is calculated by dividing 584 million miles (940 million km) by 365.25 days and dividing that result by 24 hours to get miles per hour or km per hour. So, Earth travels about 1.6 million miles (2.6 million km) a day, or 66,627 mph (107,226 km/h).
Sun and galaxy move, too
The sun has an orbit of its own in the Milky Way. The sun is about 25,000 light-years from the center of the galaxy, and the Milky Way is at least 100,000 light-years across. We are thought to be about halfway out from the center, according to Stanford University. The sun and the solar system appear to be moving at 200 kilometers per second, or at an average speed of 448,000 mph (720,000 km/h). Even at this rapid speed, the solar system would take about 230 million years to travel all the way around the Milky Way.
The Milky Way, too, moves in space relative to other galaxies. In about 4 billion years, the Milky Way will collide with its nearest neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy. The two are rushing toward each other at about 70 miles per second (112 km per second).
Everything in the universe is, therefore, in motion.
What would happen if Earth stopped spinning?
There is no chance that you’ll be flung off to space right now, because the Earth’s gravity is so strong compared to its spinning motion. (This latter motion is called centripetal acceleration.) At its strongest point, which is at the equator, centripetal acceleration only counteracts Earth’s gravity by about 0.3 percent. In other words, you don’t even notice it, although you will weigh slightly less at the equator than at the poles.
NASA says the probability for Earth stopping its spin is “practically zero” for the next few billion years. Theoretically, however, if the Earth did stop moving suddenly, there would be an awful effect. The atmosphere would still be moving at the original speed of the Earth’s rotation. This means that everything would be swept off of land, including people, buildings and even trees, topsoil and rocks, NASA added.
What if the process was more gradual? This is the more likely scenario over billions of years, NASA said, because the sun and the moon are tugging on Earth’s spin. That would give plenty of time for humans, animals and plants to get used to the change. By the laws of physics, the slowest the Earth could slow its spin would be 1 rotation every 365 days. That situation is called “sun synchronous” and would force one side of our planet to always face the sun, and the other side to permanently face away. By comparison: Earth’s moon is already in an Earth-synchronous rotation where one side of the moon always faces us, and the other side opposite to us.
But back to the no-spin scenario for a second: There would be some other weird effects if the Earth stopped spinning completely, NASA said. For one, the magnetic field would presumably disappear because it is thought to be generated in part by a spin. We’d lose our colorful auroras, and the Van Allen radiation belts surrounding Earth would probably disappear, too. Then Earth would be naked against the fury of the sun. Every time it sent a coronal mass ejection (charged particles) toward Earth, it would hit the surface and bathe everything in radiation. “This is a significant biohazard,” NASA said.
When you purchase an independently reviewed book through our site, we earn an affiliate commission.
GENIUS & ANXIETY How Jews Changed the World, 1847-1947
By Norman Lebrecht
Reciting Jewish achievements and Judaism’s contribution to civilization in order to fight anti-Semitic propaganda is a well-established genre that flourished in 19th-century Europe. After reaching the United States in the first part of the 20th century, it arguably culminated in the 1960s with the writings of popular authors like Max Dimont. Norman Lebrecht’s “Genius & Anxiety” belongs to that genre: Both the subtitle of his book and the preface testify to Lebrecht’s commitment to demonstrating “how Jews changed the world” as a response to the current moment, which, he laments, is yet again beset by anti-Semitism.
Spanning a century, between 1847 (the death of Felix Mendelssohn) and 1947 (the United Nations’ vote in favor of the creation of the State of Israel), the book features dozens of remarkable scientists, artists and politicians of Jewish descent. Lebrecht’s wide net captures the usual suspects — Marx, Freud, Kafka, Einstein — but also many lesser-known, and equally fascinating, individuals, like Karl Landsteiner, the father of blood types; Albert Ballin, the shipping industry magnate who changed trans-Atlantic journeys and migration patterns; and Eliza Davis, an acquaintance of Dickens who harassed him until he amended “Oliver Twist,” doing away with negative Jewish references in the book’s later editions. Some of Lebrecht’s transitions from one vignette to the next flow particularly well: His account of the revival of ancient Hebrew under the auspices of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, meant to foster a Jewish national consciousness, is aptly followed and contrasted by the depiction of the near-simultaneous creation of Esperanto by the Polish idealist Eliezer Ludwig Zamenhof, who strove to create a universal idiom that would encourage greater understanding among peoples.
Each chapter, while loosely thematic, is organized around a specific year. So “1875: Carmen Quand-Même” deals with people in the performing arts, from the composer Georges Bizet (who was married to a Jewish woman) to the actress Sarah Bernhardt, who invented stardom as we know it, while “1897: Sex and the City” revolves around Freud, the playwright Arthur Schnitzler and their analyses of the role of eros and the psyche in fin de siècle Vienna. In “1911, Blues ’n’ Jews,” Lebrecht, a music critic and biographer of Gustav Mahler, details the musical revolution of another composer of Vienna’s golden age, Arnold Schoenberg, presenting his employment of atonality as an outsider’s jab at the Viennese respectable bourgeoisie.
Lebrecht attributes the inroads made by Jews to their marginal status: “They do not expect acceptance. On the contrary, knowing that their ideas are likely to be rejected leaves them free to think the unthinkable.” However, some of his characters’ behavior does not fit his own description, and can be explained only by their desire to gain entry into a hostile society. In Germany and Austria particularly, their display of love for a fatherland that ultimately turned against them is part of the tragedy.
Such is the case with the scientist Fritz Haber, the Faustian character of Lebrecht’s tale, who developed and advocated chemical warfare during World War I in spite of the 1899 and 1907 Hague conventions that had banned it. Eager to show his patriotism, Haber notoriously declared: “During peacetime a scientist belongs to the world, but during wartime he belongs to his country.” In the 1920s, scientists in his research institute developed the pesticide Zyklon A, which paved the way to the invention of Zyklon B, used in gas chambers by the Nazis. Haber died in 1934, in exile. Many members of his family were killed in the camps.
Lebrecht does not dwell on tragedies, and opposes what the great historian Salo Baron called a “lachrymose conception of Jewish history.” When he addresses the Holocaust, it is mostly to mention those who saved lives. In that regard, the project resembles Simon Schama’s “The Story of the Jews,” which also emphasizes continuities and contributions rather than disruptions, but whose narrative is more carefully crafted.
A major problem of Lebrecht’s volume lies in the disconnect between its title and its treatment. “Genius & Anxiety” feels like an afterthought, tagged on to a bubbly inventory of individual trajectories. The chapters’ contents often appear disjointed. “1938: Cities of Refuge” describes the activities of the Chinese consul-general in Vienna, Dr. Feng-Shan Ho, who helped 5,000 Jews escape to Shanghai in the wake of the Anschluss; it sketches the death of the Soviet poet Osip Mandelstam in a labor camp in Siberia (hardly a refuge) and closes with the role of Leo Szilard, a Hungarian Jew, in the Manhattan Project, which led to the atomic bomb. None of these compelling episodes fit the chapter’s title; what’s more, they extend far beyond 1938.
In his introduction Lebrecht writes of anxiety as “a sense of dread or apprehension,” which “most psychologists” consider “a negative, inhibiting emotion.” But Freud, he notes, “does not see it that way,” viewing it instead as an “engine of fresh thinking.” In a rather infelicitous simile, Lebrecht goes on to say that anxiety has acted on the Jews “like an Egyptian taskmaster in the Book of Exodus. It goads them to acts of genius.” But he should have gone much further. In “Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety” Freud argued that “anxiety comes to be a reaction to the loss of an object.” Had Lebrecht analyzed his subjects’ anxiety in relation to loss and mourning, which all of them experienced, either personally or collectively, he would have written a more nuanced and richer book.
IF YOU OWN A MOBILE PHONE, its every move is logged and tracked by dozens of companies. No one is beyond the reach of this constant digital surveillance. Not even the president of the United States.
The Times Privacy Project obtained a dataset with more than 50 billion location pings from the phones of more than 12 million people in this country. It was a random sample from 2016 and 2017, but it took only minutes — with assistance from publicly available information — for us to deanonymize location data and track the whereabouts of President Trump.
A single dot appeared on the screen, representing the precise location of someone in President Trump’s entourage at 7:10 a.m. It lingered around the grounds of the president’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., where the president was staying, for about an hour.
Then it was on the move.
The dot traveled to the Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter, about 30 minutes north of the hotel, pinging again at 9:24 a.m. just outside the compound. The president was there to play golf with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan.
There the dot stayed until at least 1:12 p.m., when it moved to the Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, where the world leaders enjoyed a private lunch.
By 5:08 p.m., the phone was back at Mar-a-Lago.
The president had what he called a working dinner with Mr. Abe that night.
THE DEVICE’S OWNER was easy to trace, revealing the outline of the person’s work and life. The same phone pinged a dozen times at the nearby Secret Service field office and events with elected officials. From computer screens more than 1,000 miles away, we could watch the person travel from exclusive areas at Palm Beach International Airport to Mar-a-Lago.
The meticulous movements — down to a few feet — of the president’s entourage were recorded by a smartphone we believe belonged to a Secret Service agent, whose home was also clearly identifiable in the data. Connecting the home to public deeds revealed the person’s name, along with the name of the person’s spouse, exposing even more details about both families. We could also see other stops this person made, apparently more connected with his private life than his public duties. The Secret Service declined to comment on our findings or describe its policies regarding location data.
The vulnerability of the person we tracked in Mr. Trump’s entourage is one that many if not all of us share: the apps (weather services, maps, perhaps even something as mundane as a coupon saver) collecting and sharing his location on his phone.
Americans have grown eerily accustomed to being tracked throughout their digital lives. But it’s far from their fault. It’s a result of a system in which data surveillance practices are hidden from consumers and in which much of the collection of information is done without the full knowledge of the device holders.
For the nation’s security agencies, however, privacy is critical to the safety of military, defense and security operations across the country and abroad. If threats to that privacy have seemed abstract in the past, the trove of location data we have analyzed has brought them into sharp relief. Military and intelligence officials have long been concerned about how their movements could be exposed; now every move is. As a senior Defense Department official told Times Opinion, even the Pentagon has told employees to expect that their privacy is compromised:
“We want our people to understand: They should make no assumptions about anonymity. You are not anonymous on this planet at this point in our existence. Everyone is trackable, traceable, discoverable to some degree.”
We were able to track smartphones in nearly every major government building and facility in Washington. We could follow them back to homes and, ultimately, their owners’ true identities. Even a prominent senator’s national security adviser — someone for whom privacy and security are core to their every working day — was identified and tracked in the data.
Capitol BuildingNote: Period of one month. Satellite imagery: Microsoft and DigitalGlobe
WHILE THE CONSTITUTION PREVENTS COMPANIES from sharing location data with the government without a warrant, there are no federal protections limiting how they use or share it privately. No such protections are currently being debated before Congress — even though we found that we could track people through Congress’s own halls as easily as any place else.
When we reached out to some lawmakers to show what we found, the outrage proved bipartisan.
“This is terrifying,” said Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, who has called for the federal government take a tougher stance with tech companies. “It is terrifying not just because of the major national security implications, what Beijing could get ahold of. But it also raises personal privacy concerns for individuals and families. These companies are tracking our kids.”
“Tech companies are profiting by spying on Americans — trampling on the right to privacy and risking our national security,” Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat running for president, told us. “They are throwing around their power to undermine our democracy with zero consequences. This report is another alarming case for why we need to break up big tech, adopt serious privacy regulations and hold top executives of these companies personally responsible.”
Agencies can limit how their employees use location-sharing apps and services, but that doesn’t mean those guidelines will be strictly enforced — or extended to personal devices.
But no matter how comprehensive an organization’s policies and regulations are, getting everyone to follow them is nearly impossible as many of these apps’ surveillance practices are not visible to consumers.
“The human being is the weak link,” said Martijn Rasser, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer who is now a senior fellow in the technology and national security program at the Center for a New American Security. “It’s really difficult to enforce a lot of these rules and regulations. Sometimes, all it takes is one person to violate the rules to completely negate the purpose of having those rules in the first place.”
Despite the sensitivity of this information, it is put to everyday use. Packaged with millions of other data points, location information is turned into marketing analysis and sold to financial institutions, real estate investors, advertising companies and others. Companies say they vet partners carefully and tend to work with larger players that have a clear business case for receiving the data.
Like all data, the vast location files are vulnerable to hacks, leaks or sale at any point along that process. The data we reviewed was provided to Times Opinion by sources who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to share it and could face severe penalties for doing so.
Multiple experts with ties to the United States’ national security agencies warned in interviews that foreign actors like Russia, North Korea, China and other adversaries may be working to steal, buy or otherwise obtain this kind of data. Only months ago, hackers working for the Chinese government allegedly targeted location data for people moving throughout Asia by breaking into telecom networks, according to a report by Reuters.
“People literally go to work every day, sit down at a desk, check the sports, send an email or two to their girlfriend and then start looking for databases they can steal,” said James Dempsey, the executive director of the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology. “They just do that 9 to 5, every day.”
The American government may conduct similar intelligence operations against its adversaries, experts said, though under stricter legal frameworks.
Using the data, we identified people in positions of power by following smartphone pings as they moved around the White House, Capitol Hill, the Supreme Court and other government facilities. In many cases, the data trails led back to the smartphone users’ homes. In this series, we did not name any of the identified people without their permission. And the data below has been obscured to protect device owners.
Senior Officials and Security Staff
Data has been obscured to protect device owners.
Secret Service agentWhite HousePentagonU.S. Capitol
Secret Service agentWhite HousePentagonU.S. Capitol
Technology at the Supreme CourtWhite HousePentagonU.S. Capitol
Department of Defense officialWhite HousePentagonU.S. Capitol
Director at a House committeeWhite HousePentagonU.S. Capitol
Advisor for a SenatorWhite HousePentagonU.S. Capitol
Note: Driving path is inferred. Source: Microsoft, DigitalGlobe (satellite imagery)
CONNECTING A PING TO A PERSON was as easy as combining home and work locations with public information. A seemingly random set of movements turned into a clear individual pattern after we added just one other piece of information.
Plenty of corroborating information is already floating around dark corners of the web, given the frequent high-profile data breaches of the past decade. Consider what China already knows: In 2015, a federal database containing the personal information of more than four million people with security clearances was stolen by Chinese hackers presumed to be state actors.
“From those very detailed documents, they may gather a good deal of information about a person,” said David S. Kris, a co-founder of the consulting firm Culper Partners and former assistant attorney general for the national security division of the Department of Justice. Mr. Kris said he was also included in the data that was hacked. “The more you can combine location-based data into a mosaic with other information, the more likely you are to gain real insight into an adversary.”
Location data potentially gives any enemy an opening for attack. Russians, whose intelligence apparatus has worked for decades to disrupt American democracy, could simply leak location information to embarrass the government, the legal system or particular officials.
“Think about Russia’s efforts to undermine public trust and confidence in our democratic institutions,” Suzanne Spaulding, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former under secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, told us. “Think about all of the ways they could use location data to do that. Think about tracking judges everywhere they went and how you could use that to undermine confidence in our courts and our justice system.”
After Ms. Spaulding raised the danger of tracking judges, we checked the data file for courthouse employees. In minutes, we found dozens of potential targets by watching smartphones sharing their precise locations inside Washington courthouses. One person whose movements we traced has a role in the technology division, which controls servers containing data for the Supreme Court.
For people with political power, knowing those locations could put their safety — and our national security — at risk. Experts told Times Opinion that foreign governments could use the data to monitor sensitive sites and identify people with access to them, and their associates.
“Not everybody in the department has a national security position, not everybody has access to classified or higher-level stuff,” the senior Defense official said. “But everyone in the department is of some interest or value to a lot of adversaries just by virtue of being a member of the Defense Department, just by working at the Pentagon.”A typical day at the PentagonSatellite imagery: Imagery
THE POSSIBILITIES FOR BLACKMAIL ARE ENDLESS. Once stolen, details on sexual interests and extramarital affairs can provide opportunities for extortion. Targets could be coerced in ways large and small, compelled to make decisions or take actions for a foreign government. Or the locations themselves could provide valuable intelligence about security practices, contacts, schedules and the identities of people in prominent and sensitive posts, with access to state secrets or critical infrastructure.
With no training and far more limited technical tools than those of a state intelligence service, we were able to use the location data — date, time and length of stay — to make basic inferences. By determining whether two people were in the same place at the same time, it was easy to zero in on spouses, co-workers or friends. Cataloguing their movements revealed even more associations, creating the map of a robust social network that would be nearly impossible to determine through traditional surveillance. In cases where it was difficult to identify an individual, associations offered more clues about workplaces and interests.
In one case, it proved difficult to confirm the identity of a man listed in public records who had a common name. Examining his associations revealed that he met multiple times with someone carrying another phone that was being tracked. That person was, we soon learned, his brother. That piece of information doubled the pool of digital breadcrumbs to follow, ultimately helping confirm both of their identities.
Now consider elections. Bad actors could monitor candidates and elected leaders for intelligence that could be leaked or used to blackmail them. There are also no regulations limiting how long location data can be stored. Data swept up today may prove valuable in the future, as everyday citizens rise to positions of authority and influence only to have their precise movements from years gone by reviewed for damaging insights.
Defense contractors and employees at secure locations like power plants are all at risk.Nuclear power station in FloridaSatellite imagery: Vexcel Imaging, Microsoft and DigitalGlobe
We found smartphone pings at all of these sorts of sites. In one case, someone who spent their weekdays at the Pentagon visited a mental health and substance abuse facility multiple times.
Even just commuting to work can be risky for people in prominent positions. “The easiest way to figure out how to get to you is know you always have the same routine,” said Mr. Rasser, the former Central Intelligence Agency officer. He said he mixes up his own routine, partly because the C.I.A. emphasized such methods when he joined.
The threats will only grow as more data is collected and shared. More apps will enter the marketplace using tracking technology. And companies are becoming more sophisticated at collecting location data, adding signals from Wi-Fi networks and Bluetooth beacons. They also often rely on one-time consent or disclosures that don’t explicitly state what’s collected or shared.
Experts emphasized how location data has joined many other kinds of sensitive information in the espionage toolkit, showing how intelligence agencies must continually adapt to the digital age.
“We need to learn to operate with fewer secrets,” Ms. Spaulding said.
Even areas once thought to be secure showed up in the data. Personal phones aren’t generally allowed inside the C.I.A. or the National Security Agency. But while no pings registered inside the C.I.A. headquarters, we found thousands of pings in the parking lots outside, with trails that led to the homes of likely employees.Central Intelligence AgencySatellite imagery: Microsoft and DigitalGlobe
Similarly, there were no blackout areas in many sensitive government buildings. We observed thousands of pings inside the Pentagon, on military bases, in F.B.I. headquarters and in Secret Service facilities across the country. (Intelligence facilities also have secure areas where certain electronic devices aren’t permitted.)
The risks posed by location-tracking remain largely unaddressed by the government. Beginning last year, the Department of Defense prohibited geolocation features and functionality from being used by its workers on devices in “operational areas” like foreign military bases. For all other locations, the department said it would consider the risks and issue specific recommendations to personnel.
For now, the department does not issue guidance to employees about downloading specific apps, including those that might share location data with third parties. “Instead, we focused on certain core characteristics of the geolocation functionality and identified what risks those characteristics posed,” a department spokesman, Lt. Col. Uriah L. Orland, said in an email.
Agencies with a need for heightened security are left in a vulnerable position. Phones are ubiquitous, and so long as granular location tracking remains legal, even the Defense Department must play along. “We cannot stop our workforce of 3.6 million people from living their everyday lives,” a senior department official told us.
We haven’t identified any serving elected representatives in our data, but we found a former House representative and dozens of prominent public officials, including chiefs of staff, security officials and subcommittee staff members.
Given their proximity to public figures with public schedules and their presence at training sites and field offices, Secret Service agents were particularly easy to identify. With little difficulty, we were able to track a Secret Service agent who spent most of his daytime hours in the West Wing of the White House. He also joined President Trump at the National Cathedral the day after the inauguration.United States Secret Service James J. Rowley Training CenterSatellite imagery: Microsoft and DigitalGlobe
WHILE THE DATA REVIEWED by Times Opinion is from three years ago, similar information is being collected daily and often resold to third parties, meaning anyone with current access to such data could feasibly, in near real time, track people within arm’s reach of the president or other powerful figures.
“If you want to take action against someone, you have to find them first,” said Mr. Kris, the former Department of Justice official. “I’m wary of breathless, pearl-clutching, speculative, sensationalistic counterintelligence concerns. This doesn’t strike me as falling into that category. I think there is a legitimate concern here.”
Leaked location data may open the door to other cyber vulnerabilities. Foreign actors could learn movement details and infer meeting locations, which could be used to conduct a type of scam where targets receive fake emails — posing as a friend you just met with or a business you just visited — including a phony link meant to steal your password or install malware.
“Location tracking data of individuals can be used to facilitate reconnaissance, recruitment, social engineering, extortion and in worst-case scenarios, things like kidnapping and assassination,” warned Kelli Vanderlee, manager of intelligence analysis at the cybersecurity company FireEye.
Those are not theoretical threats. The phone of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was assassinated in 2018, was allegedly compromised, possibly allowing his location data to be used to follow him.
Last year, Strava, a company that makes a fitness app, released a global map showing 700 million activities that clearly revealed American military bases abroad. The Department of Defense issued its recent guidance after discovering the problem. The data reviewed by Times Opinion revealed several points on domestic military bases as well, showing how some of the nation’s most secure armed sites can be exposed.
“An adversary can still glean a lot from your whereabouts on the base itself,” said Mr. Rasser, the former C.I.A. officer. “If you’re always at a certain part of the base, at a certain time, you can start piecing together what the function of that corner of the base could be based on the person’s job duties.”
Using base locations as a guide, Times Opinion accurately surmised the job title of a commander in the U.S. Air Force Reserve. He regularly traveled to the Pentagon and visited Joint Base Andrews, perhaps best known as the home of the president’s airliner, Air Force One.Joint Base AndrewsSatellite imagery: Microsoft and DigitalGlobe
It’s not necessary for someone to visit sensitive locations to be open to scrutiny or criticism. Location data could become a powerful political tool, exposing the private lives of wealthy elites who prefer to adopt a more egalitarian persona. It is not difficult to imagine efforts to undermine a political campaign by exposing travels through private airports or visits to expensive restaurants and luxurious spas.
The sources who provided the trove of location information to Times Opinion did so to press for regulation and increased scrutiny of the location data market. Some solutions exist that could help improve privacy while ensuring businesses can still perform some of the analysis they do today, like limiting the ability to identify individual paths, changing how long the information is stored and limiting how it’s sold.
So far, Washington has done virtually nothing to address the threats, and location data companies have every reason to keep refining their tracking, sucking up more data and selling it to the highest bidders.
Stuart A. Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a writer and editor in the Opinion section. Charlie Warzel (email@example.com) is a writer at large for Opinion. Alex Kingsbury contributed reporting. Lora Kelley, Ben Smithgall and Vanessa Swales contributed research. Graphics by Stuart A. Thompson. Additional production by Jessia Ma and Gus Wezerek. Note: Visualizations have been adjusted to protect device owners.
He’s vintage Sherman. A legend rapping in real time. Oh, a chip? On the shoulder? Sherman confirms milliseconds into this conversation that, even at 31 with a bust in Canton secured, that chip is still there, still throbbing and, no, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
“You never lose it,” he says. “You never lose the way people treat you, the way people slight you, because they are always looking for a way to slight you.”
Sherman has had it with this ambiguous they.
Sure, there have been All-Pro teams, Super Bowls, paydays. But always he feels the doubts.
“I feel like I’ve gotten respect in spurts,” he says. “Now, they‘re like, ‘Oh, he’s a veteran.’ No. I’m still the best to play in this game.”
The night before, quarterback Aaron Rodgers was ignoring Sherman’s side of the field like the plague in a 37-8 San Francisco obliteration. “It’s been like that for years,” Sherman says, back to the Legion of Boom’s heyday. Not many cornerbacks get that treatment. And to Sherman, only two corners in today’s NFL can even claim to be in his category: the Patriots‘ Stephon Gilmore and the Bills‘ Tre’Davious White. Yet there are people out there, they, who have the nerve to say other cornerbacks are better than him, corners who surrender as many yards in a game as he does in a season. They can’t get enough of certain corners for following receivers, results be damned.
Sherman hears it all, and he feels a slight. Uses the slight. Has since he entered the league nearly a decade ago and established his brand: ruthless, unapologetic, loud, from the start.
There’s no camera in his face today. No receivers to mug. No fans to entertain. He sits in a dim banquet room at David’s Restaurant, a Hail Mary’s toss away from Levi’s Stadium. Chairs are neatly stacked against the wall. The wind howls outside. A family of Packers fans lick their wounds on the other side of a divider. No doubt, they can hear Sherman going off. His signature intonation.
“Because the moment I stop having motivation and stop having fun in this game,” he says, “is when I’ll hang ’em up. I’ll be done. When you stop seeing that fire in my eyes, and it’s gone out, that’s my retirement press conference.”
And yet viewing Sherman through a prism of memes and tweets and sound bites can cheapen the essence of the man.
He’s intelligent yet brash. Tender one moment, stinging the next. Filterless. Always.
Attitude, no question, is part of it. Sherman still seems fueled by a deep supply of hostility toward anyone who dares doubt him. But there’s more.
Five months ago, Sherman told B/R, “If people understood what I was built of, there wouldn’t be a lot of questions.” At the time, he wouldn’t elaborate on what exactly that was, beyond, “s–t they don’t make no more.”
Now, he looks inward. He’s ready to get it all out, and nothing’s off-limits—from the field to the training room to the negotiating table, from experiences that have made him the way he is to the imprint he needs to leave behind.
Not only on football but on the entire world.
Growing up, Sherman’s family didn’t live in the best neighborhood, in Compton, but his parents let strangers come in all the time to eat their leftovers. All one lady wanted was the spoiled milk. “It clears me out!” Sherman remembers her saying. Those same people would look out for the family anywhere it would go. A real community resulted. And it stuck with him. At 11, when Mom gave him $20 to buy food at McDonald’s, he handed the money over to a homeless man fumbling through loose change at the counter instead. The man seemed to need it more. To this day, he can’t stand to see people ignore those in need. Not too long ago, he stopped to speak with a homeless person, who told him: “This is the first conversation I’ve had in three years. People just walk past me like I’m part of the street.” Sherman stayed to talk as long as he could, offered to help in any way he could, and when he finally walked away there were tears streaming from Sherman’s eyes.
Sherman takes the only object on the table, a voice recorder, and moves it in all directions to illustrate the play in his mind.
One receiver’s running an in-route. (He slides the recorder.) One’s running a go route. (He slides it again.) One’s running a stop. (He slides it once more.) There are only so many routes to run, and after more than 140 games in the NFL, Sherman pretty much knows them all. Receivers, he explains with a sly smile, are merely pawns. And he can see where these pawns are going to slide.
So he attacks accordingly.
Pressed on this, told it’s impossible to know what a receiver’s thinking, he smirks again. “But I do.” Nowadays, Sherman says, he knows what route the receiver in front of him is going to run at least 70 percent of the time.
He learned long ago, from Charles Woodson, to rely on brain over brawn. Play “above the shoulders,” Woodson told him. Sure, Woodson was athletic. But over time, he realized he was working too hard physically, so he relied on his mind.
Sherman took that advice to heart and turned the field into his chessboard.
“I don’t care if you’re the most outstanding athlete in the world; you’re simply a pawn,” Sherman says. “You’re a pawn in the grand scheme. You don’t get to call your own shot. If you individually can say, ‘On this play, I’m doing this and I can do whatever the f–k I want,’ then it would be much harder to stop people. But when all I have to do is understand the person calling the plays and understand the situation I’m in, then you’re just the move getting made.
“That’s how I play the game, and that’s how I’ve played the game my whole career. I’ve said I’m never going to depend on athleticism.”
Get beat on any play at any point in your career, Sherman tells other defensive backs on his team, and you can fully expect to see that play again. Take the win over Green Bay. Sherman knew Rodgers would try to fool him on a concept the Vikings used last year and the Browns copied this year, where two tight ends line up on one side in a pair with a receiver motioning in toward them “but not too tight.” Sherman saw it coming…was ready…and the 49ers secondary forced Rodgers to hold on to the ball for a sack.
Sherman looked over at his DB coach on the sideline and yelled, “That’s it!” because that’s the key: diagnosing these concepts on the fly and reacting with conviction, with guts. The game is not played on a computer.
“After you get up off the ground,” Sherman says, “and you’re fatigued and it’s the fourth quarter and sweat’s dripping in your eyes and your hand just got stepped on, can you recognize it? Can you see it?”
He’s now reenacting a play with two fists a few feet above the table. Can you see, right then, where you are on the field, that it’s 3rd-and-3, that the No. 2 receiver just motioned in and back out, which means the play is “double follow” and that the primary flat route is about to cross your face?
As long as he can he walk, Sherman says, he will be out there reading the field and teaching his teammates to do the same. And there will be no QB, no offense, this 49ers defense cannot handle.
It’s not just the homeless. Sherman wants to help anyone who needs it. When he hears that kids who cannot afford a regular lunch at school are being shamed and racking up debt, he acts. It pisses him off that students who pay for a regular lunch are placed in one line, with those who cannot placed in another—”and all they give them are like cheese and bread.” So he cuts a $7,500 check in California and a $17,500 check in Washington to pay off lunch debts. He knows he can’t stop.
Unprompted, Sherman brings the conversation to his Grade 2 MCL sprain from three years ago. He relives that brutal injury that keeps most players out six to eight weeks, and he does it with a kick of grandfather-at-the-campfire nostalgia. Like he almost enjoyed it.
Against the Bills, in Week 9 of the 2016 season, Sherman remembers taking a blindside block from receiver Walter Powell. “I got the s–t kicked out of me!” he says with a spirit that explains why his co-workers over there in Levi’s Stadium call him Uncle Sherm. Later that night, of course, Sherman got his own licks in. He took out Powell on a play announcers couldn’t believe didn’t get flagged—but one Sherman knew was legal because the quarterback had left the pocket.
After the game, the Seahawks training staff told Sherman his season was over. He politely told them no and asked for anti-inflammatories. The Seahawks said that, well, he’d at least need to wear a brace, and Sherman politely said noagain because Tom Brady was up next and no way was he trying to stop Brady with a bulky brace on his knee.
He gave trainer David Stricklin no choice. So there Stricklin was, patching Sherman together every week like some bionic man.
“He basically taped an MCL together,” Sherman says. “Because an MCL, the way your knee moves in the socket, the MCL and ACL hold it in place. So if you stabilize it, you can do whatever you want. When you lose your MCL, you lose your stability. If you do too much, you’ll snap your leg that way.
“Most people wouldn’t even play through the injury. They IR and call it a day.”
But nobody said a peep. Nobody outside the organization had a clue Sherman was hurt. The NFL almost punished Seattle for hiding this all.
Sherman made the Pro Bowl. Again. Seattle witnessed Sherman do the impossible. Again.
A year later, no creative tape job could save him.
Sherman says now that he could feel the torn Achilles coming on. “One-hundred percent,” he admits. His mind, for a while, tricked his body into not putting too much pressure on that right heel. Barely able to walk, limping with every step he took, Sherman finally asked the Seahawks for shots of Toradol, but they refused because of the drug’s side effects. Instead, they gave him lidocaine patches, which (sort of) numbed the pain.
By then, he had “no juice” in his foot at all. The patch only worked skin deep, relieving just enough pain for Sherman to play. Just enough to trick his body into thinking it could push off that foot fully during a Thursday night game against the Cardinals.
In Cover 2, Sherman saw a receiver run a dig, noticed the hook defender wasn’t close, tried jumping it and…snap. He hit the canvas. He writhed in pain. He told the team doctor he’d torn his Achilles. “Get up!” teammates yelled. “Get up!” That was Legion of Boom protocol, to rip one another for being soft, for staying sprawled on the grass. So Sherman got up. And even though the doctor told him there’s no chance he’d be able to walk off if the tendon was indeed torn, Sherman began limping to the sideline under his own power.
The doctor tried to stop him, and he shoved him away.
How is walking even possible when the back of your foot’s disconnected? Sherman flops his forearm on the table four times, with his hand loosely dangling like his foot. Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud! That’s how. The heel, just like this, dropped again. And again. And again.
That night, Nov. 9, 2017, the Legion of Boom died.
Many assumed Sherman’s career would die too.
As he walked off with head bowed, teammates tapping his back, Sherman’s career could’ve, probably should’ve, flashed before his eyes.
But it didn’t.
In the hours after his Achilles snapped, Sherman was not depressed, not mad, not sad. No. The emotion he felt? Relief. Beautiful relief. After playing so recklessly through so much pain at such intensity, he welcomed a torn Achilles. Heck, it felt wonderful. Liberating. Which may sound ludicrous, but that’s how Sherman attacks adversity. Above the shoulders.
To him, it’s simple: “How you think manifests the outcome.”
“If you think of things pessimistically, it’s going to go bad,” Sherman says. “You’re setting it up for it to go bad. And then when it goes bad, it’s like, ‘Yep, I knew it was going to come.‘ But if you expect it to go great—and even when it doesn’t go great—you hold out hope and faith that, ‘Oh, it’s going to turn around,‘ then you approach the next steps differently.”
So he told himself an injury that’s nuked the careers of other greats, like that of his pal Kobe Bryant, would be nothing but a hangnail. He told himself he needed a break, needed more time with his kids, and that it was an absolute certainty he’d reclaim the throne as the game’s best cornerback whenever he was 100 percent again.
That’s the way he thought, the way he rehabbed, and if anybody should’ve known Sherman would manifest this outcome, it was the Seahawks, the team that drafted him 154th overall, that saw what he’s built of 24/7/365 and that, still, inexplicably let Sherman walk right out the door to a division rival.
Each holiday season, Sherman and his wife, Ashley Moss, “adopt” families. They receive wish lists, and the contents always bring him to tears. Blankets. Pillows. Soap. Toothpaste. Some just want a roof over their head for a fleeting moment, like a young girl who went to school with Sherman’s niece and nephew in Redmond, Washington. Her family was living out of a car. Mom was working as many jobs as she could jam into a 24-hour day. But it wasn’t enough. Sherman helped as much as he could. He always does, especially around Christmas.
There was no middleman, thus no room for misinterpretation. Serving as his own agent, Sherman heard it straight from coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider.
They isn’t so ambiguous here.
“They felt,” Sherman says, “like they had seen enough and went in a different direction.”
On the eve of free agency in 2018, the Seahawks told Sherman they weren’t sure what they were going to do with him yet. He still had a year left on his contract.
“They were like, ‘Well, we want to see how some guys look in free agency,’ and I was like: ‘If you’re talking to me like that, then just let me go. Because you’re disrespecting me in a way I’d prefer not to be disrespected,'” Sherman says. “They were like, ‘We wanted to see if we could sign a guy, and if we couldn’t sign a guy, then we’d ask you to take a pay cut.’ Because they told people they asked me to take a pay cut. They never asked me to take anything.
“I was like, ‘You’re talking to me like I’m some Joe Schmo from down the road.'”
Sherman would be no team’s Plan M, N, O, P at cornerback. He told the Seahawks he would prefer to be released.
Adds Sherman: “They were like, ‘Well, you’re injured.’ It’s like, ‘Just let me go. It doesn’t matter. I’ll go into free agency. People value me more than you all value me right now.'”
The 49ers, Lions and Raiders called right away. After one dinner with the 49ers, he was sold. He signed. His diplomatic line on repeat? “Everything worked out how it was supposed to.” He knew the scheme. Coordinator Robert Saleh was a quality control coach in Seattle. And Sherman believed in the personnel—could tell there was talent when he watched film from the previous few years, even though the defense operated in “awful schemes.” (“I don’t know what the f–k they were running when [Jim] Tomsula was there,” he says wide-eyed.)
Facing Seattle twice per year, of course, helped too. Sherman gets it. It’s a business. He notes the Seahawks did the same thing with Earl Thomas and Michael Bennett. The reaction among fans irked him, though. How can the same people who rip players who ask for a new deal rip a player who refuses to have his contract shredded to take a pay cut? “Interesting,” he says.
Sherman promised his new general manager, John Lynch, that he’d dominate once again, inked an incentive-laden contract that was universally lampooned and then gritted through the 2018 season with metal sutures lodged in his other foot. Sherman had a bone spur shaved off his left heel to prevent thatAchilles from tearing. All season, he could hardly move in the morning. He needed help just getting out of bed and walking around the house.
Now in year two, he can make that $13 million with All-Pro and Pro Bowl nods.
Now in year two, he is Richard Sherman again.
Sherman believes he is still the best corner in football, and advanced stats sayhe’s right there. “The tape. The resume. You can’t argue opinions.” Seattle giving up on him brought back that feeling from draft day, when he was the 34th DB taken in 2011. The rawest of raw doubts.
Doubts from the Seahawks front office. Doubts about the injuries. Doubts about his age.
Nobody in the league weaponizes it all like Sherman.
And how about doubt—still, in 2019, after all the picks and wins and intimidation—from an opposing quarterback?
The night before San Francisco’s game against Carolina this season, so the story goes, 49ers receiver Dante Pettis shared dinner with his friend, Kyle Allen, the Panthers QB. At this dinner, per Sherman, Allen spelled his own demise with these fatal words: “My plan is to go at your boy Sherm.”
Pettis told Sherman.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, make sure he does that!'” Sherman says. “Like, ‘Please, please. I’ve fed my family for a long time with people making decisions like that.'”
The 49ers won 51-13, and Sherman had one of three picks off Allen.
Sherman still hunts for these “moments.” Feeds off them. You know, like Baker Mayfield not shaking his hand when, uh, Mayfield actually did shake his hand before the game in Week 5. Sherman apologized but now snipes: “I don’t care, Cleveland. You guys have had it pretty rough. So get your anger out.” The 49ers won the game 31-3.
Slights and theys, real or perceived, keep Sherman’s fuel tank full.
But then he is very quick to note this counterpoint: He has evolved, has changed. He knows there are 51 sets of eyes on him every day in his new locker room.
“Because now…now the wave will follow you,” Sherman says. “When I was in Seattle, we were all young and we were all alphas. I’d go off and they’d hold me back! But if I go off right now, then the wave will follow. Like, if I go off and get it going, it’s a riot.
“You have to play the middleman. Calm everybody down. Like, ‘Hey, no dumb penalties.’ So you have to lead differently.”
And what’s pissing him off most this day has nothing to do with anyone’s doubts about him. Rather, his quarterback. Granted, five months ago, Sherman wasn’t so sold himself. He needed to see Jimmy Garoppolo taste his own blood, like other QBs. Now that he has, he raises his voice and defends Garoppolo like he is blood.
“Mistruths piss me off,” Sherman says. “When I feel like there’s almost like a vendetta, like people are being vindictive about it, then I feel an obligation to say something. It’s almost like they’re nitpicking. When he has a great game, you find an excuse for why it wasn’t a great game.”
He keeps going. (“Treat him like you treat everybody else!”) And going. (“He’s such a good person. He’s so down to earth. If you went into a bar with our team, I don’t think you’d point out our quarterbacks.”) And going. (“Everybody’s looking at each other eye level, whether you’re scout team, whether you’re the star player, whether you’re freakin’ the maintenance guy.”) And going. Garoppolo has read Sherman plays from Kyle Shanahan’s playbook. It blows his mind. (“I’m like, ‘Bro, you just said a paragraph. And that’s one play?!'”)
Real harmony exists between the offense and defense on this team, and that, Sherman says, “100 percent matters.”
That lavish praise could all be interpreted as an indictment of his former team, where there was a very public schism between these two sides.
But given the opportunity to prosecute this case, to rip his former employer and stoke the flames of this rivalry, what does Sherman do? He avoids the wave, the riot, and says he’s already spoken his piece. After all, San Francisco and Seattle play each other with the NFC West title on the line in Week 17. A few weeks later, a trip to the Super Bowl could be up for grabs.
And after all, he has sincerely moved on, and outright resentment is not part of his makeup.
Within seconds, his focus shifts.
When Leesa Mattress endorsed him, Sherman told the company he wanted 25 beds to disperse to families in need. The boxed beds, composed of tempurpedic material, went to his adopted families. The mere sight of the beds, he recalls, brought tears to their eyes. One parent said through quivering lips, “I haven’t slept in a bed for years,” while many of the shocked kids had literally never slept in a bed in their lives. Rather, cars, streets, alleys. “Wherever,” Sherman says, somberly.
When you look at the world, Sherman is asked, what would you change?
As he ponders the question, you can sense his mind shifting, from job to passion, slights to duty, legacy to legacy.
He recounts all those memories of interacting with the homeless, and his words crawl and crackle because these are the memories that truly define him. He says football is a microscopic part of who he is and what he will be, and he means it. He backs it up.
“You’re here to make the world a better place,” Sherman says. “Whether that’s helping people financially, whether that’s helping with your voice, helping with your spirit, helping with your hands and your body, your physical, whether you’re a kid with no money but $20 and you see this person with no money and don’t feel like they’re going to get a meal today, what’s right is right.”
He saw how a $20 bill, how a half-gallon of spoiled milk, how one conversation brought others joy…and it moved him. Molded him. Compelled him to give everything he could. Be it 30 minutes of his time to a teammate who seems down. Be it thousands of dollars to kids racking up lunch debt. Be it meeting with kids serving time in unit B1 of the Santa Clara County Juvenile Hall, kids who are incarcerated for a very long time and losing hope. Be it giving everything from a bar of soap to a roof over someone’s head around Christmas. Sherman cannot, in good conscience, buy himself wants upon wants when millions out there have real needs. Life, to him, has a very clear purpose.
He doesn’t want to help; he needs to help.
“Just not enough people helping people,” Sherman says. “Especially in the social media age, everybody’s in a rush to criticize and put down, and it’s sending people into depression and making people feel terrible about themselves instead of just trying to help each other.
“Like, how far would it go if everybody just gave somebody a compliment? You don’t know if they’re going through something or not, but that compliment might send them to a better place, might pull them out of that place.
“Or having a conversation with somebody who’s been homeless.”
He’s trying to turn wrongs into rights wherever he can. He looks more disgusted talking about those two different lunch lines than anything that went down in Seattle. He could not stand for this. Or for the town’s food bank running dry in the holiday season back in Maple Valley, Washington. He and Ashley held a food-drive competition, and the community rallied. One person, he says, brought in a thousand pounds’ worth of food.
He’s still adopting families every Christmas.
Ashley has already found a homeless shelter for teens here in his new community where the Shermans restock supplies as much as possible—soap, shampoo, pens, pencils, computers.
He remembers seeing peers bullied through the Compton school hallways for wearing the same dirty shirt every day, for their circumstances, for factors out of their control. That’s what compelled Sherman to start his foundation to begin with.
“It hurts your heart,” Sherman says. “I was like, ‘If I am ever going to make enough money to help those people, I’m going to help the s–t out of them.'”
Whenever his voice speeds up with hope, that hope is soon choked by reality.
“You can try to do your part,” Sherman says. “My part is like a grain of sand in the grand scheme of things.”
Fixing homelessness on his own, he knows, is “impossible.” He knows there are other issues at the root of it too. Substance abuse, addiction. He’s seen it: money given to the homeless, only to go toward drugs. But, leaning in, he insists that so many families he meets with are one missed paycheck away from being homeless. From losing everything.
“And some of those people who went homeless just missed the check,” he says. “They got sick. They caught pneumonia. They missed those two weeks of work. They got laid off. They were a check away from making rent, and they didn’t make rent.”
Like that girl’s family the Shermans helped in Redmond.
That story hit Sherman. They always do.
“It feels like no matter how much you help,” says Sherman, losing his voice for a split second, “it’s not enough. … I try to treat people like I’d want people to treat me if I had ever fallen under those circumstances. That’s how I try to keep it in perspective, but it’s hard. We all fall short.”
His voice trails off. Again.
What’s scary to him is that this lack of kindness is an epidemic. It’s everywhere. The shaming he sees on the sidewalk is the same shaming he sees where the rest of us dwell: social media. Forget any team treating him like Joe Schmo. If he’s mad about that, he’s genuinely disappointed about this, this decay of kindness. Is the result as obvious as a man living on the street? No. But this decay can be just as devastating.
Tweet by tweet, he sees us becoming an increasingly vindictive species.
“If you say, ‘Man, I feel like I look nice today,’ someone will say you look ugly,” Sherman says. “Like, ‘Ooo, why do you have that shirt on?’ and ‘Ooo, why do you have those jeans?’ And then all of a sudden, you went from a 10 to an 8 to a 7 to a 6 to now you feel like a 2. Now, you feel like s–t.”
Sherman himself doesn’t “give a f–k” what anybody says about him because he’ll just hit the block button and go about his merry day. Please, fire away. But not everyone can deflect so easily. Sherman cites his ex-Seahawks teammate, Mike Davis, tweeting out regular “I’m feeling positive today”-themed messages, only to have others snipe back at him that he has no right to tell them how to feel.
Laments Sherman, “That’s a microcosm.”
Maybe nobody should’ve been surprised, then, when Sherman defended 49ers color commentator Tim Ryan for his comments on Lamar Jackson. His aim is civility. He believed he knew where Ryan was coming from and tried to dissipate that wave, that backlash.
On the surface, the point of view may seem to come from the most unlikely source imaginable—a diabolical killer between the lines. But what Sherman wants is very simple, a request requiring few calories: Be nice to someone today. On the sidewalk. On Twitter. Wherever.
He answers the question first posed.
“If I could change anything about the world,” he says, “it would be more people helping people.”
The children of 49ers dads are running all over the place. Among them is Sherman’s four-year-old son, Rayden, who notices that one of Tevin Coleman’s twins is feeling sick. And shy. And not particularly enjoying being chased all over the place. So Rayden walks up to her, grabs her hand and refuses to leave her side. He’s her guardian the rest of the play session. Dad beams with pride. This is the norm. If his son sees anyone down, ever, he steps in to help. Both of his kids see Mom and Dad giving back. Sherman hopes they, too, one day pass it on.
The most excruciating loss in Super Bowl history appeared to strike Sherman like a javelin through the heart. It did not. That immortalized meme of misery clouded the fact that, when Sherman rested his head at night, he manifested the outcome. He told himself, “I don’t give a damn about that game. I’m having a baby!”
And he moved on.
Four days after the Seahawks lost to the Patriots at the 1-yard line, the Shermans had Rayden. A year later, they had their daughter, Avery.
Sherman relives the first few weeks of fatherhood, here, the nights his babies cried and cried and cried, and he just wanted to shout, “What the f–k is going on!?” But that’s precisely when he learned to take a deep breath, pat his baby on the back and repeat, “You’re all right…you’re all right…” until that baby fell asleep.
People keep telling Sherman that he’s changed, and he knows that’s why. The patience. He is the same competitor taking everything they say and repurposing it into kindling. He, no doubt, cherishes his football legacy. Sherman wants to be known as the greatest cornerback of his era, right there in the line of Charles Woodson and Deion Sanders before that and Mel Blount before that. But the patience forged through those sleepless nights has given him further clarity on the real legacy he’ll leave.
Being a great father means far more to him than being a great cornerback.
“That’s my seed,” Sherman says. “I want to see the best in me be the best in whatever he chooses, whatever she chooses. And that’s something I’ve always wanted more than being a great player. That’s where my focus and concentration lies. Now, I still want to play the game at a high level, and I care about it, but at the end of the day, I’ll play this for 13, 14 years. Cool. A great time in my life. I’ll be a dad forever.”
That’s what brings Sherman the most joy.
Right now, Rayden loves soccer and monster trucks. Avery just made the transformation from tomboy to makeup and high heels and dressing up like a princess. “When did this transition happen?!'” Sherman asks aloud with a laugh. He tries to be stern at home but can’t help it. They’re just too adorable. He’s the softie letting things slide. And right now, the whole Sherman fam is in Christmas mode. His kids love drinking eggnog while watching all the classics: the original Grinch, Home Alone, Home Alone 2, the claymation version of Jack Frost and—above all—Rudolph.
No, Sherman isn’t of the ultra-woke Rudolph is terrible camp because, hey, when Santa tells the elves their singing wasn’t any good, he says, “That’s life!”
He’ll give his kids the best Christmas, the best life he can.
He’ll give (and give, and give) to everyone.
And he’ll do it all while still being that player composed of the s–t they don’t make anymore.
Three more seasons is the plan. And whenever Sherman does retire, he won’t disappear.
He’ll keep talking, keep helping and keep hoping others do the same.
Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.
At a certain age, or so we have come to believe, a singer loses her voice. Her vocal cords stiffen and slow. Her high notes dry up. But that is not what has happened to Judy Collins.
At 80, Collins sounds as clear as a spring wending through a field of wildflowers. The ethereal soprano that guided listeners through the 1960s — the “gentle voice amid the strife,” as Life magazine proclaimed on a May 1969 cover — still resonates in 2019. This has earned Collins an almost supernatural perspective. When audiences come to see her perform, which she does about one out of every three nights, they are transported. “They’re thinking about their youth,” Collins told me. “They’re thinking about their hopefulness. They’re thinking about their dreams, when they hear me.”
Your voice is like a time machine, I said.
“It’s a time machine,” she said. “Oh, very much. Very much.”
Collins was poised at the edge of the dining room table in her bewitching Upper West Side apartment, which she has occupied for almost 50 years. She wore a crushed velvet purple jacket and a sparkling necklace that said “Resist.” Her white hair tumbled down to her slim shoulders. The outline of a swallow was tattooed on her left hand. Just beneath it, “Clark” was etched into her wrist, for her son who killed himself in 1992. Collins drank sparkling water from a purple plastic-footed glass. She goes out onstage 120 nights a year, she told me, “because I make a living. I love it. And I’m getting better at it.” Then she bounded onto a small exercise trampoline and jumped off into a tour of her apartment, and her life.
Her home had the feel of an overstuffed time capsule, as if its curator kept lifting the lid to add important new artifacts. Thirteen umbrellas overflowed from the umbrella holder. Clinton administration ephemera dotted the space, which she called “the environment.” On the walls of the environment hung her Life magazine cover, and small photographs of Western landscapes and Walton Ford’s artfully disturbing paintings of birds. The environment was lit by dragonfly stained glass lamps and softened with pillows embroidered with messages like “Friends Are the Best Present” and “One Can Never Have Too Many Cats.”
Collins has three. They are Persian cats with luxurious coats and celestial orbs for eyes. At my request, she hunted them down, and when each was discovered — the tuxedoed Coco Chanel, the blue-gray Rachmaninoff and the all-white Tom Wolfe — Collins greeted the cat in a high, fluttering soprano. “Hellothere,” she said. “Do you want to say hello?”
The hunt led us into the bedroom of her husband, Louis Nelson, who was wearing a pair of funky yellow socks and contemplating a large rendering of a dog. “I design memorials,” he told me — he designed the Korean War Memorial on the National Mall — and now he was at work on a memorial for Samantha, a friend’s old dog, who would be laid to rest in a pet cemetery upstate. “It’s an extraordinary place,” Nelson said. Collins and Nelson have themselves outlived many pets, leaving them with an unwieldy collection of feline remains. “They’re in little pots and things around the house,” Collins said. “Sometimes I think, I should get rid of these. But I can’t.”
The cats stretched and scattered, and Collins zagged through a bathroom and into her own bedroom. A folded New York Times crossword lay unfulfilled on the bed. (Recently she spotted a friend in a Monday clue: “Jong who wrote ‘Fear of Flying.’”) Around the room’s perimeter, an array of leonine wigs was assembled. Collins’s voice is unchanged, but the hair is new. Two years ago, she had surgery on her hand, and when she awoke from the anesthesia, her hair fell out. “I had fabulous hair,” she said; silky hippie goddess hair. Collins was unimpressed with how it grew back, so now she has it all shaved off: “My hair was so good that there’s no comparison.”
It is here, in the environment, that Collins does the work of maintaining her time machine. “Most days, I do a number of things,” she said. “I practice. I sing a little. I write something. I do my crossword puzzle. I write in my journals. I try to do something exciting. I go to a funny movie. I get together with friends who are funny,” she said. Collins is always collecting jokes and stories and curious observations to fill out her sets. She used to stand onstage and close her eyes and just sing songs one after the other, but when she got sober, in 1978, she began to speak. “I found out that I had an awful lot to say, which I had not realized,” she said.
In 1965, when she was 26 years old, Collins did lose her voice. She was so hoarse that she could barely talk. She called up the vocal coach and activist Max Margulis, and once she convinced him that she was not a flighty folk singer but a serious person, they embarked on a 30-year course of study. His technique was not about the mechanics of Collins singing from her head or her lungs or her chest. It focused on the clarity and precision of her phrasing. It was about meaning what she sang.
“If you’re in the forest,” Collins explained, “and there’s a bear following you, and you want to alert your family, you raise your voice and say so, because if you don’t, your family might die from the bear.” Whether you’re in the woods of Colorado or the clubs of New York City, you must always be ready to use it. “The voice,” Collins said, “is actually meant to last forever.”
In the 1960s, when folk singer-songwriters were multiplying in the West Village, Collins was best known for singing other people’s songs. She sang “Both Sides Now,” by Joni Mitchell, and she made Joni Mitchell famous. She sang “Suzanne,” by Leonard Cohen, and made Leonard Cohen famous. She had an intriguing curatorial range. She sang old standards, and contemporary folk songs, and the Beatles, and Sondheim, and a medley based on the music of “Marat/Sade.” Collins encouraged Cohen to sing his own songs, and he encouraged her to write her own songs, which she approached the same way she did everyone else’s songs. You have to write them, she said, but “then you have to figure out how to sing them.”
The art of singing other people’s songs is not fully appreciated beyond the cabaret circuit, or maybe it’s a little bit lost. Folk singers used to be called “collectors” of songs, and Collins is a master collector. “I feel as though my voice is capable of doing anything,” she told Life in 1969. “I don’t question that I can make a sentence mean anything I want it to as long as I know what it is I want to say. I don’t know why I seem to be able to do it, but I do, and I think people are pleasured by it.”
This fall, the artist Justin Vivian Bond performed a tribute to Collins at Joe’s Pub, singing songs from writers that Collins had surfaced. Listening to her music as a child, Bond was struck by her interpretive skill, by “her sense of how to sing a song,” Bond said. “She’s a great actress, in that regard. And I think that’s how a great singer is a great singer — by acting the story of the song.”
Collins’s latest album, “Winter Stories,” out Nov. 29, is a collaboration with the Norwegian singer Jonas Fjeld and the bluegrass band Chatham County Line. It’s a hygge folk collection, perfect for curling up with three cats, but it also holds unexpected emotional power. On it Collins sings Mitchell’s “The River,” and her own “Mountain Girl,” and “Highwayman,” Jimmy Webb’s song about a man who is reincarnated as a thief, a sailor, a dam builder and a starship captain, which was later covered by Glen Campbell and then the country supergroup the Highwaymen. She had contemplated recording it for many years.
“I never really had the nerve,” she said. The song seemed to be owned by “the guys,” as she put it. “And then I thought, what the heck?” Collins’s version is unlike any other. In translating the masculine country anthem into her gossamer voice, she has dismantled and rebuilt the song into a testament to female resilience. After hearing it, the recordings by the other versions sound somehow muted. It’s Judy Collins’s song now.
Collins turned 80 this year. The news release in advance of the event read: “Judy Collins Celebrates 80th Birthday on May 1, Forecasts Another Prolific Year.” Her family assembled a fantasy dinner party of guests to fete her, including Gloria Steinem, Robert Caro and Joan Baez. “You have to see the jacket that Joan bought me for my birthday,” Collins said, disappearing into her closet and returning with a pink sequined number. “It’s hysterical,” she said. “She and I would never have worn this.” But a lot has changed since then.
Last year, Baez released what she said was likely to be her final album. “I asked my vocal coach many years ago when it would be time to stop,” she said, “and he said, ‘Your voice will tell you.’ And it has — it’s a muscle, and you have to work harder and harder to make it work.” Janis Joplin and Leonard Cohen are dead. Joni Mitchell rarely surfaces publicly, and she will not answer Judy Collins’s letters. A whole generation of artists has fallen silent, but Collins is still singing. She is transforming old songs through her voice, and through that process she doesn’t just revive them — she remakes them.
“I notice that in old cultures, when someone is ill, they say we have lost our song,” Steinem, who has known Collins since the ’60s, wrote in an email. “Judy’s magic is that she gives us back our songs.”
There is a tendency to cast older artists as shadows. We go to their performances and listen for an echo of the star in their prime. But Judy Collins is the thing itself. “I’m a better singer now,” she said. “A much better singer.” Recently she kicked off a stretch of shows at Joe’s Pub in New York City with Fjeld and Chatham County Line. She emerged onstage in a pink sequined top — she owns multiple pink sequined tops — and a warm, daffy persona. She introduced Fjeld, and then, as she coolly tuned her guitar, she asked him, “Where is Norway, exactly?”
When they launched into “Mountain Girl,” I noticed that the men onstage looked as if they were engaged in a strenuous form of exercise. But Collins was still. Her guitar appeared to be made of air. She chased the song’s highest high notes with the relaxed air of a woman, in her environment, summoning her cats. When Collins sang her “Highwayman” — “I am still around, and I’ll always be around, and around, and around” — I felt transported, not into the past, but into Judy Collins’s present.
Up at the castle, in front of the cameras, the puppets were eagerly preparing for a festival. Dwarfed beneath high rows of stage lights, in front of painted trees, they bopped happily along the pretend stone wall. But there was a buzz kill: King Friday XIII, the mighty ruler in his bright purple cape, decreed that the festival would be a bass-violin festival.
“But you’re the only one who plays the bass violin,” one of the neighbors pointed out.
“Oh, so I am,” the king replied. “Well, it looks like I’ll have a very large audience.”
Fred Rogers was on his knees behind the castle, dressed all in black, working the puppets, his posture straight as a soldier’s, lips pursed tight as he voiced the king. There were cushions strewn on the floor and blocks of foam rubber taped to the parts of the castle where he tended to bonk his head. In one swift movement he crouched, slipped off the king, slid on another puppet. He shot his arm up, returned to his knees, but this time he slouched, his face softening as he voiced the meek and bashful Daniel Striped Tiger.
And so the neighbors scrambled about trying to figure out a way to be part of the festival. Stumped, and on the sly, they began to invent bass-violin acts they might contribute. One dressed up her accordion to look like a bass violin, another practiced a dance with one, another tried to turn herself into one by wearing a big fat bass-violin suit. Another, a goat, recited a bass-violin poem in goat language. (“Mehh.”)
Was this O.K.? Would the king approve?
He did. In fact, he was delighted. It turned into a most rockin’ bass-violin festival, neighbors singing and twirling with pretend and real bass violins (including a puppet holding a bass-violin puppet), around balloons with little cardboard handles taped to them to look like bass violins, to rousing bass-violin/accordion polka tunes accompanying bass-violin-inspired goat poems.
“If you didn’t know what was going on,” one of the guys on the crew said, “this could be a very weird situation.”
I appreciated that. I worked for a different department in the building, at WQED in Pittsburgh, down the hall. They had microwave popcorn in the cafeteria. To get to the popcorn you had to walk by Studio A, and there was usually the blue castle parked outside it for storage. If the castle wasn’t there, you knew they were taping inside, and sometimes you heard music. It was fun to go in and watch, if only to take in the live music, usually jazz, and to marvel at the bizarro factor. Like Fellini for preschoolers. My brother-in-law Hugh Martin had worked as director and producer of the program for a couple of years. He was long gone, had moved to New York, but he credited Fred with starting his career. Fred loved Hugh — so by association people were nice to me. It helped. I was 26, just out of grad school.
I wanted to ask Fred how he came up with the idea for goat poems. Whose day allows them to sit around thinking about accordions dressing up like bass violins? The first time I talked to him in his office, one floor up from Studio A, I tried to get him to explain. He kept turning the focus on me. It took us a while to get past the deflection match. He asked me about grad school. I hardly wanted to think about that, about the dark cloud hovering over my feelings about my time there. I asked him what he was working on. Any new scripts or songs?
He put his eyebrows up. “It’s so hard, isn’t it?” he said. “I think there are many people who bring a whole lot of baggage from their past and a whole lot of anxiety about the future to the present moment. What’s so great is that people can be in relationship with each other for the now.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“If we can somehow rid ourselves of illusions,” he said. “The illusion that we are greater or lesser than we are. The illusion that we’re going to save the world. There are a lot of illusions that people walk around with. I would love to be able to be present in every moment I have.”
I distinctly remember having little more to offer than, “Yeah.”
His office was more like a living room. No desk, just his easy chair and a soft brown couch — plus a flowering peace plant, a piece of driftwood, a miniature sandbox and other random gifts people had brought him over the years, many of which he pointed out, then told stories about the people who gave them to him.
“I think the greatest thing about things is they remind you of people,” he said.
I supposed so. And more so as I thought about it.
“I want to tell you about my tie,” he said. He lifted it up and looked at it. “Do you know what this tartan is? This tartan is the clergy tartan. I suppose if somebody were Scottish, they would recognize it. But I don’t think most people know. I wear this tie more than any other. Maybe I just feel, you know, that it represents a big part of who I am.”
Muted lavender and light blue, the clergy tartan is one traditionally worn only by people involved in ministry. Fred said it was a gift from Bill Barker, one of his closest friends and the minister who gave the charge at Fred’s ordination in the United Presbyterian Church in 1963: “We charge you to shake us through a God who involves Himself in our world, into the world where He already is. … This world of TV cameras, of puppets, of children, of parents, of studios, of directors, of actors, this [too] is God’s world. … We, as the Church, charge that you speak to us to disturb us. … We charge you to speak to us to remind us that we too, through you, must be involved.”
“So the show is like your church?” I asked Fred.
He thought a moment. He said it was easier to say what it wasn’t. It was not a show. He used the word “program,” never “show.”
“An atmosphere,” he said. What he was trying to create with “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was “an atmosphere that allows people to be comfortable enough to be who they are.” He continued: “I really don’t want to superimpose anything on anybody. If people are comfortable in that atmosphere, they can grow from there, in their own way.
“A lot of this — all of this — is just tending soil.”
He fell silent, as if adding white space around that simple, stark remark.
When we were saying goodbye, I thanked him for all he had taught me.
“I think that it is very important to learn that you get that largely because of who you are,” he said. “I could be saying the same words and giving the same thoughts to somebody else who could be thinking something very different.”
I remember protesting. I was just trying to say thank you.
“It’s so very hard, receiving,” he said. “When you give something, you’re in much greater control. But when you receive something, you’re so vulnerable.
“I think the greatest gift you can ever give is an honest receiving of what a person has to offer.”
He was impossible to thank. I remember going home that day with goat poems swirling in my head.
Fred Rogers was a curious, lanky man, six feet tall and 143 pounds (exactly, he said, every day; he liked that each digit corresponded to the number of letters in the words “I love you”) and utterly devoid of pretense. He liked to pray, to play the piano, to swim and to write, and he somehow lived in a different world than I did. A hushed world of tiny things — the meager and the marginalized. A world of simple words and deceptively simple concepts, and a slowness that allowed for silence, focus and joy. We became friends for some 20 years, and I made lifelong friends with his wife, Joanne. I remember thinking that it seemed as if Fred had access to another realm, like the way pigeons have some special magnetic compass that helps them find home.
Fred died in 2003, somewhat quickly, of stomach cancer. He was 74. It was years after his death that he would, suddenly, go from a kind of lovable PBS novelty to an icon on the magnitude of the divine. It happened so fast that it was easy to gloss over his actual message. He gets reduced to a symbol. A conveyor of virtue! The god of kindness! Something like that, according to the memes.
“Just don’t make Fred into a saint.” That has become Joanne’s refrain. She’s 91 now, still a bundle of energy, lives alone in the same roomy apartment, in the university section of Pittsburgh, that she and Fred moved into after they raised their two boys. Mention her name to anyone around town who knows her, and you’ll very likely be rewarded with a fabulous grin. She’s funny. She laughs louder and bigger than just about anyone I know, to the point where it can go into a snort, which makes her go full-on guffaw. Throughout her 50-year marriage to Fred, she wasn’t the type to hang out on the set at WQED or attend production meetings. That was Fred’s thing. He had his career, and she had hers as a concert pianist. For decades she toured the country with her college classmate, Jeannine Morrison, as a piano duo; they didn’t retire the performance until 2008.
Joanne’s refrain has been adopted by people who spent their careers working with Fred in Studio A. “If you make him out to be a saint, nobody can get there,” said Hedda Sharapan, the person who worked with Fred the longest in various creative capacities over the years. “They’ll think he’s some otherworldly creature.”
“If you make him out to be a saint, people might not know how hard he worked,” Joanne said. Disciplined, focused, a perfectionist — an artist. That was the Fred she and the cast and crew knew. “I think people think of Fred as a child-development expert,” David Newell, the actor who played Mr. “Speedy Delivery” McFeely, told me recently. “As a moral example maybe. But as an artist? I don’t think they think of that.”
That was the Fred I came to know. Creating, the creative impulse and the creative process were our common interests. He wrote or co-wrote all the scripts for the program — all 33 years of it. He wrote the melodies. He wrote the lyrics. He structured a week of programming around a single theme, many of them difficult topics, like war, divorce or death.
I don’t know that he cared whether people saw him as an artist. He seemed more intent that people not see him at all. Over the years he would occasionally carry a small camera in his jacket pocket. He would whip it out without warning and just start snapping away at you. No explanation. Then about two weeks later you would get a card in the mail from Fred. The pictures. On the backs of some he wrote comments. “I like this one a lot” or “You sure look surprised here!” (He would not sign the card; he would often put his words on a Post-it so you could reuse it.) You were left in a most unusual and private moment, looking at pictures of yourself from the point of view of Fred.
The focus was always on you. Or children. Or the tiny things. It was hard to see Fred. I remember those first days in his office, learning about soil, illusions, giving and receiving, concepts that would go on to rattle through me like drumbeats. It would take me years to understand it all, to see how those blocks fit together, to recognize just how radical his message was.
“L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” That was Fred’s favorite quote. He had it framed and hanging on a wall in his office. “What is essential is invisible to the eyes,” from Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince.” “It’s not the honors and the prizes and the fancy outsides of life which ultimately nourish our souls,” he once said, expounding on the idea in a speech. “It’s the knowing that we can be trusted, that we never have to fear the truth, that the bedrock of our very being is good stuff. … What is essential about you that is invisible to the eyes?”
I like you just the way you are. One day he told me where that core message came from. His grandfather, Fred Brooks McFeely, who like the rest of the Rogers family lived in Latrobe, Pa., about 40 miles east of Pittsburgh. “He was a character,” he said. “Oh, a lot of me came from him.” He got excited talking about his grandfather, telling disjointed stories and family lore. “If I knew how to paint, I could paint you a picture of my grandfather’s house. … He had an old horse. It was so old nothing could have happened to you. Sally. … And he’d even let me send away to Sears for things!
“He was a real pioneer!” he went on. “The fascinating thing about him was that he loved to do things so much that every time he would get something started, a company started, he’d sell his entire interest in it to be able to start something else. So when he died, I think he had all of 25 or 30 dollars. After all that. He started something like four companies in Latrobe.” Fred’s father inherited the last one, the McFeely Brick Company. “But then my grandfather retired, and he went out to the country, and he always wanted some chickens, so he bought 5,000 chickens. Then he got rid of them because that was too much trouble, and he bought 150 head of cattle, and then he got rid of them and he bought a whole lot of pigs. And then he had a slaughterhouse, and they made sausage and they evidently didn’t make a penny. The last thing he bought was a little coal mine, and then he sold that when he went into a nursing home.”
His grandfather represented a life of risk and adventure, the very things Fred’s boyhood lacked. He was a lonely kid, an only child until he was 11, when his sister came. He was bullied. Here comes Fat Freddie! He was sickly. He had rheumatic fever. He had asthma. He was not allowed to play outside by himself. His parents and the family doctor pitched in together to buy what Fred loved to say was Latrobe’s first room air-conditioner to help with his breathing problems; they installed it in a neighbor’s window for Fred and Paul, another sick child. “We rarely left that room,” he told me. “We had our meals there. After that, we got an air-conditioner in our house.” They installed it in Fred’s bedroom. It was there that he spent much of his childhood.Puppets from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood:” Daniel Striped Tiger, King Friday XIII, X the Owl, Lady Elaine Fairchilde, Henrietta Pussycat, Queen Sara Saturday.
He had music, and he had puppets to keep himself amused. He didn’t need much. He was expected to fill his father’s shoes, become his business partner at the brick company. “My dad was pretty much Mr. Latrobe,” he told me. “He worked hard to accomplish all that he did, and I’ve always felt that that was way beyond me. And yet I’m so grateful that he didn’t push me to do the kinds of things that he did or to become a miniature version of him. It certainly would have been miniature.”
Fred wanted to be like his grandfather. He was allowed to leave the air-conditioned room to visit him. “He taught me all kinds of really neat stuff!” he told me. “I remember one day my grandmother and my mother were telling me to get down, or not to climb, and my grandfather said: ‘Let the kid climb on the wall! He’s got to learn to do things for himself!’ I heard that. I will never forget that. What a support that was. He had a lot of stone walls on his place.
“And you can understand my mother and grandmother. They didn’t want a scratched-up kid. They didn’t want somebody with broken bones. No. But he knew there was something beyond that. He knew there was something more important than scratches and bones. … I climbed that wall. And then I ran on it. I will never forget that day.”
Joanne came into Fred’s life in college. They were music majors together at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., and after graduation they lived in New York. Fred was hoping to work as a composer but had become intrigued by the nascent medium of television. He worked his way up to network floor manager at NBC before learning about a start-up, the nation’s first community-sponsored television station, WQED in Pittsburgh. Despite warnings from people at NBC who told him he was crazy — “That place isn’t even on the air yet!” — he moved to Pittsburgh in 1953, and he and Joanne bought a red-brick house.
He brought out his puppets. He found something important for them to say, thanks in large part to the person who would become his lifelong collaborator, Margaret McFarland, at the University of Pittsburgh. Along with her colleagues Benjamin Spock and Erik Erikson, McFarland revolutionized the study of childhood development. She helped Fred explore the emotional landscape of children. “Anything human is mentionable, and anything mentionable is manageable,” she would repeatedly tell him. She taught him the ways in which empathy and people’s own experiences of childhood could enable them to accept and help children accept themselves, not as an end, but as a starting place. She provided an intellectual framework for what Fred learned from his grandfather.
“I think it was when I was leaving one time to go home after our time together,” Fred told me, “that my grandfather said to me: ‘You know, you made this day a really special day. Just by being yourself. There’s only one person in the world like you. And I happen to like you just the way you are.’
“Well, talk about good stuff. That just went right into my heart. And it never budged. And I’ve been able to pass that on. And that’s a wonderful legacy. And I trust that he’s proud of that. I could have walked into some positions that were already set. I could have walked into an office that was already furnished for me. But I would much rather have done what I have done.”
It was cold in Studio A. I learned to bring a sweater. Usually I sat by the piano, with Johnny Costa, a well-known jazz musician at the time, admired by greats like Duke Ellington and Cannonball Adderley. He signed on to Fred’s program back in its earliest days. Costa was so cool. Wisecracking. He seemed way more Bugs Bunny than Mister Rogers. I marveled at the way he and Fred communicated through the piano, Costa following Fred’s movements during taping, matching his expressions with a riff or a sequence of chords, shoulders up, right hand in the air on the high notes. He was so into it. “Thank God I’m a genius,” he would say after a take.
He liked to talk about his unlikely friendship with Fred. “Me, I enjoy a good steak,” he told me. “Now Fred, he would never think of eating a steak. And I’ll enjoy a glass of wine. Fred doesn’t drink. Fred, he would never swear. Me, I would swear. You follow me?” He said he and Fred liked to talk about Heaven, about meeting Beethoven up there. Costa worried he would miss out. He was “afraid about some of my sins, you know, throughout my life.” Costa said, “I’d tell him I’m more bad than good sometimes.”
Fred told him, “Remember how you give this great comfort to people through your music.”
That was the vibe in Studio A. Fred was intentional about the atmosphere he created on the program as well as on the set. If you could provide an environment that allowed people to be comfortable enough to be, simply, who they are, what would happen? Who would they become?
“When I first started doing this,” Costa told me, “I wasn’t so sure I wanted to do kids’ music, you know?” Fred gave Costa his songs. Costa interpreted them, added the great Johnny Costa to them. “I played what I always played,” he said. “You know, I played jazz. And Fred liked it. And so it stayed. And so I stayed.
“Fred knows that I have something to give that’s important. And he lets me give it, and I give it freely, and then I’m part of it, a part of his creation.” He said pretty much everyone felt that way. “That’s what makes us so tight. It’s because Fred lets us give. And what a thing that is, huh?”“Neighborhood of Make-Believe” book, 1995. Mister Rogers showed this book in his television house.Photographs by Henry Leutwyler
This idea of accepting a person, a child or anyone as is was a novel concept to me. I had spent a lifetime in a Catholic household where adhering to dogma, rather than self-discovery, was the thing. The church supplied you with a better way to act, to think, to behave. In time I came to question if I had any of my own thoughts at all. I went to grad school. No Catholics anywhere as far as I could tell. It was exhilarating! Critical thinking was the thing. It was at first a mind-expanding drug. Deconstruct your thoughts. Doubt yourself. Doubt everything. Attack your thoughts. Attack everyone’s. Skepticism became the badge of honor. But for me it all led to a kind of sourness, a distrust of anything soft, of beauty, silence, love.
And here was Fred. Accept yourself. Accept others. As is. In Fred’s world I found my own thoughts, and quite literally my own voice, as a writer. I even wrote about him over the years, without much success. Some of the conversations and moments recalled here are from those early attempts to understand — puzzle pieces I continue to play with, all these years later, at random intervals in my day.
Fred and I commiserated about the creative process. We would often sit and talk about confronting the blank page, the blank canvas, the blank song sheet. That place of vast possibility and bottomless terror. “Why is it so scary?” he would say. “It’s so hard.” He told me he would sometimes freeze before being able to jot down a word. He had a writing room, away from the office, away from home, where he showed up on writing days no matter what. Take it on. Enter it. Sometimes in Studio A he would show me how he worked out his doubts about himself and his emotions at the piano. Banging out anything angry or anything glad. He said it helped. I told him my outlet might be something more like shopping or maybe napping. He said either of those could work.
Fred saw creating as a divine act. Inspiration happened in everyday moments. “I remember one time,” Newell told me, “Fred and I were in Ligonier, Pa., in the mountains, and we were filming a nighttime sequence. And we were driving home. And as I pulled onto the turnpike there was somebody, a soldier or sailor hitchhiking. This was like 12 at night maybe. And Fred said, ‘Look at him, he looks so lonely there.’ I said, ‘Fred, we have no room.’ We had a full car of equipment. He let it go. Or, well, I guess he didn’t. A couple of weeks later, he wrote a song.”
Hello there Are you lonely Are you a lonely neighbor Alone tonight Hello there If you are lonely Then you need only say Hello there I’m lonely Hello there Just say hello
That was the place where Fred and I connected, and it was also the place where he lived. This place of creating, of making stuff, and I know for him it was vital, a lifeline. He said he thought it was for me, too. In fact, he thought it was true for everybody. Fred believed that the creative process was a fundamental function at the core of every human being.
“I think that the need to create has to do with a gap,” he said. “A gap between what is and what might be. Or what you’d like to be. I think that the need to create is the need to bridge that gap. And I do believe it’s a universal need. Unless there is somebody out there who feels that what is, is also what might be.
“I don’t know anybody who has complete satisfaction with everything. Do you?”
On the beach in Nantucket, he was wearing a tattered windbreaker, loosefitting chinos and the famous blue sneakers. It was the summer of 1992, almost a decade into our friendship. He was struggling to carry all the stuff he had gathered: a ratty old beach chair, a towel, a ball cap. Joanne and I were not exactly helping. These things were filthy, random junk having washed up on the shoreline at various stops along our walk. At one point he put them down and charged toward something else that had caught his eye. It was a sheet. A dirty old sheet. “Now, what size is our bed?” he called to Joanne as he began spreading it out on the sand.
“Uh, Rog,” Joanne said, as we drew near. “I don’t think — ”
She looped her arm around mine.
He looked at us, seemed to genuinely calculate the sincerity of our disapproval, then glanced back down at the sheet.
“It’s disgusting, Fred,” I said.
He put it down, gathered up the other stuff, and we toddled back to the house without comment. By this point, I was pretty used to Fred’s quirks. He was definitely a guy drawn to junk. To the world’s discard pile. He liked flea markets. On Nantucket, where he and Joanne spent summers in the small cottage they called the Crooked House (it leaned), he liked to stop by the town dump just to browse. That weekend he had rescued a cement deer from the dump, a lawn ornament or something. It was missing an ear. He had it perched on the porch railing at the house, and he kept calling our attention to it. “Yup, nice deer, Fred.”
The tiny things. The meager and the marginalized. This emphasis was ever-present in Fred’s life — in everyday exchanges at home, in speeches, in scripts and in songs. He embodied a kind of simple/fancy dichotomy. Simple was a virtue. Fancy was suspect. Simple was pure. Fancy was exhausting and vapid. What is essential is invisible to the eyes.
That year I went with Fred to something that was anything but simple. It was a fund-raiser for George H.W. Bush’s 1992 re-election campaign. The decision to attend was out of character. Fred did not endorse politicians, ever. He was a pacifist and was vehemently opposed to Bush’s war in the Persian Gulf. But somehow he had agreed to do this favor for friends involved in arranging the event. Newell, who doubled as the program’s public-relations guy, went with him, and so did Bill Isler, president of Family Communications, the company that produced the show. (It would later change its name, after Fred’s death, to Fred Rogers Productions.) I remember that Isler was nervous, and Newell was rattled, and Fred was trying to pretend he wasn’t angry or, at least, miserable.
We arrived late, skipping the cocktails, and entered a ballroom at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Fred was scanning the room as if expecting ghosts to pop out.
“You O.K. there, Fred?” I asked.
“I just don’t know what to expect,” he said. “You know, that’s why I sing that song, ‘Children Like to Be Told.’ ”
Just then Secret Service officials popped out. “Hello!” Fred said with a little hop, like when a balloon pops. They took us to a little room. They pulled back a blue curtain and there was the president of the United States, standing between two big potted plants. “Thank you for coming!” Bush said to Fred. “I am so sorry Barbara isn’t here. She is a real fan of yours.”
I don’t remember anything else about the small talk. I just remember Isler yanking Fred aside to provide commentary. “My God, you guys look like you’re part of a wax-museum exhibit.”
At the luncheon, Fred stood at the lectern between Bush and Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. He leaned in to the microphone.
He looked tiny.
“I know of a little girl who was drawing with crayons in school,” he said.
He kept looking tinier.
“The teachers asked her about her drawing,” he said. “And the little girl said, ‘Oh, I am making a picture of God.’ The teacher said, ‘But no one knows what God looks like.’ The little girl smiled and answered, ‘They will now.’ ”
With that he asked everyone to think of their own images of God, and he began praying. He talked about listening to the cries of despair in America and about turning those cries into rays of hope.
A hush fell over the room, and he wasn’t tiny anymore. He stepped away from the lectern and darted. He was always a darter, but this was extreme. “O.K., now where the hell is Fred?” Isler asked me. We darted. We combed the building and climbed stairs. The Secret Service guys had lost sight of him, too. “We’ve got to get out of here,” Newell said.
We found him outside, next to an oak tree, motionless and relaxed. “Fred!” Isler said, exasperated. Fred said he wanted to go back to the office.
“I wasn’t about to participate in any fund-raising or anything else,” he told me later. “But at the same time I don’t want to be an accuser. Other people may be accusers if they want to; that may be their job. I really want to be an advocate for whatever I find is healthy or good. I think people don’t change very much when all they have is a finger pointed at them. I think the only way people change is in relation to somebody who loves them.”“A Granddad for Daniel,” final score for the MRN opera.Photographs by Henry Leutwyler
Unity Cemetery is two miles outside Latrobe. There’s a little church on it, Unity Chapel, that Fred’s father helped organize a campaign to restore in the 1950s. Fred’s buried in the back, inside the family mausoleum. Four marble steps, four marble columns, a sharp-pitched roof, a brass door, gleaming stained glass. From that spot, the mountains stretch in all directions, green and blue and streaks of vermilion. I peeked inside and read the names on the marble walls. I said hi to his mom and his dad, as you do. I said, “Oh, Fred.” I did not look at the space reserved for Joanne. I turned around and took a long breath of the mountain air, and I remembered a bright green lawn. Fred barefoot. His first grandson, Alex, was 3. His toes. “This little piggy went to market.” Alex squealing with delight. Me and Fred lying in the grass. It’s probably the closest I ever felt to him. He wasn’t asking me questions about me. He wasn’t taking my picture. He wasn’t making my mind do back flips. He was just Grandpa on a fabulous spring day.
Recently someone asked me if I thought my friendship with Fred had any impact on my life now. I said that I probably think of him, or of something he taught me, every single day. I suppose that’s a weird thing to say about an old friend. But I know that anything worthwhile I do as a parent is rooted in Fred’s teaching about tending soil. The same goes for anything good I do as a teacher, at the same university, in the very same classrooms where the darkness once fell over me. I’ve been back awhile now, working to create an atmosphere that allows people to be comfortable enough to be who they are. I don’t want to superimpose anything on anybody. A lot of this — all of this — is just tending soil. It’s not the kind of thing you read in the pedagogy journals. It’s not really a thing at all.
But it’s all connected. The soil, the atmosphere, the fundamental human urge to create. It all goes to Fred’s notion of a gap between what is and what might be. For Fred, creating is an expression of optimism, an act of faith. Faith in progress, in invention, in some basic urge to constantly make life better. Perhaps the best way to understand just how radical his message would be is to think of what happens when soil isn’t tended. A barren landscape. A toxic soil. An atmosphere devoid of love and of acceptance, where a person’s internal wars go unnoticed and unattended. What sort of creations come out of those people, stuck in that place? A world war? Walls? Children in cages.
“I think that how we were first loved — or not — has a great deal to do with what we create and how,” Fred once told me.
He put it this way in a speech:
“There are those of us who have been deprived of human confidence. Those who have not been able to develop the conviction that they have anything of value within. Their gap is rather a chasm. And they most often despair of creating any bridges to the land of what might be. They were not accepted as little children. … They were never truly loved by any important human other. … And so it seems to me that the most essential element in the development of any creation, any art or science, must be love. A love that begins with the simple expressions of care for a little child.
“When people help us to feel good about who we are, they are really helping us to love the meaning of what we create.”
The speech was a commencement address at Carnegie Mellon University. After Fred delivered the last line, he began singing his song “It’s You I Like,” and hundreds of students joined in. Costa was there on the piano, going full-on rhapsodic.
It’s you I like. It’s not the things you wear It’s not the way you do your hair But it’s you I like.
The way you are right now The way down deep inside you Not the things that hide you Not your degrees They’re just beside you.
But it’s you I like. Every part of you Your skin, your eyes, your feelings Whether old or new. I hope that you’ll remember Even when you’re feeling blue That it’s you I like It’s you yourself It’s you — It’s you I like!
Fred told the crowd that he wrote that song “for the child in all of us — that part of us which longs to help in the creation of a new and better world.”
A local opera company in Pittsburgh recently decided to stage two one-act operas written by Fred. Over the course of his life, he wrote 13 of them. He would weave them into a week of programming. It didn’t matter that the puppets could barely sing; the point was the process of making an opera, not the performance. When I thought about the company’s putting this show together with actual opera singers, I thought, Huh, will these things hold up? I don’t think Fred intended for them to hold up. Joanne told me she was going, and she said she would save me a seat.
I entered the lobby, and it was like a Who’s Who of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” So many familiar faces, all of us a kind of saggy version of our former selves. Newell was there with his wife, Nan, and “Mrs. McFeely,” a.k.a. Betsy Seamans and her husband, Joe. Hedda was there, and props people came, and various support-staff members I recognized from the WQED cafeteria. Everyone seemed excited or maybe nervous. Fred never intended these things for an adult audience.
Joanne was wearing one of her signature pretty flower-print tops. She clutched her purse in front of her like a demure, dainty lady, wearing her white curls like a dainty lady; she is always sporting this same demure, dainty-lady look that does not prepare you for her giant laugh, her occasional potty mouth and her fierce intelligence.
She and I found our seats in the middle of the theater, and we sat there staring at the watercolor Fred on the cover of the program.
“I don’t think I’ve seen this one,” she said.
“It’s a good likeness,” I said.
“I think it’s one of those photos they blur up to make it look like a watercolor,” she said, holding it up and peering over her glasses.
Just then the house lights went down. A thundering piano rolled into, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood,” invoking the spirit of Costa, who died more than two decades ago.
Joanne smiled broadly, and she reached out and held my hand. True to form, she led the audience with her booming laugh as the first opera, “Spoon Mountain,” went crazily on. Purple Twirling Kitty twirled her silver spoon and sang of her fear of Wicked Knife and Fork. “This is so ridiculous!” she cried out. “Oh, my goodness, Fred!” Then as soon as Wicked Knife and Fork finished her aria in which she revealed the source of her darkness — “A spoon! All I ever wanted was a spoon! A spoon! A spoon!” — Joanne clapped feverishly shouting: “Brava! Brava! Brava!”
At intermission I ran into Newell. He asked me what I thought of Spoon Mountain, and I said that I got lost in parts. He told me that the next opera, “Windstorm in Bubbleland,” was originally produced and directed by my brother-in-law Hugh. “So if you thought ‘Spoon Mountain’ was wild,” he said, “now you’ll see Fred’s imagination really let loose.” He said Hugh encouraged Fred to fly. I said that was funny because I always thought it was the other way around.
Then Newell told me something else I never knew. He said one thing Fred talked to him about was the idea of one day writing a stage musical. A real musical for an adult audience. It was a lifelong dream. He said Fred talked about getting started on it. But then came the cancer. “And he was gone so quick.”
That hit me. The idea that Fred believed he had another act. That he had more creating to do. Maybe a lot more. People often wonder what Fred would think of the world today, which can seem so far removed from his vision of bridges, love, a healthy atmosphere. Maybe he would have despaired and given up on it, people say. I don’t think so. Just the opposite. I think right now, Fred would be feverishly creating bridges and bridges and bridges.
I kept thinking about it as I sat in the dark next to Joanne and we all went to Bubbleland. “There’s never, ever any trouble in Bubbleland,” the TV anchor sang. Except there was. It had to do with a windstorm coming and a bad guy promising to spray sweaters on bubbles, and there was a hummingbird named Hildegard trying to warn everybody, and it felt as if we were tumbling through the looking glass into one man’s imagination that knew no bounds, all of us in that theater laughing and shaking our heads and nudging each other. What? Spray sweaters? And Joanne with her best guffaw. I felt as if we all got to visit Fred where he lived most fully. An artist of goat poems and wicked knives and forks fearlessly embracing the absurd, singing with abandon.
Jeanne Marie Laskas is a contributing writer for the magazine whose last article was the basis for her most recent book, “To Obama: With Love, Joy, Anger and Hope.”
On Sept. 1, with a Category 5 hurricane off the Atlantic coast, an angry wind was issuing from the direction of President Trump’s Twitter account. The apparent emergency: Debra Messing, the co-star of “Will & Grace,” had tweeted that “the public has a right to know” who is attending a Beverly Hills fund-raiser for Mr. Trump’s re-election.
“I have not forgotten that when it was announced that I was going to do The Apprentice, and when it then became a big hit, Helping NBC’s failed lineup greatly, @DebraMessing came up to me at an Upfront & profusely thanked me, even calling me ‘Sir,’ ” wrote the 45th president of the United States.
It was a classic Trumpian ragetweet: aggrieved over a minor slight, possibly prompted by a Fox News segment, unverifiable — he has a long history of questionable tales involving someone calling him “Sir”— and nostalgic for his primetime-TV heyday. (By Thursday he was lashing Ms. Messing again, as Hurricane Dorian was lashing the Carolinas.)
[James Poniewozik will answer questions about this essay on Monday at 1 p.m. Eastern on Twitter: @poniewozik]
Sign Up for Debatable
Get the big debates, distilled. This comprehensive guide will put in context what people are saying about the pressing issues of the week.
This sort of outburst, almost three years into his presidency, has kept people puzzling over who the “real” Mr. Trump is and how he actually thinks. Should we take him, to quote the famous precept of Trumpology, literally or seriously? Are his attacks impulsive tantrums or strategic distractions from his other woes? Is he playing 3-D chess or Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots?
This is a futile effort. Try to understand Donald Trump as a person with psychology and strategy and motivation, and you will inevitably spiral into confusion and covfefe. The key is to remember that Donald Trump is not a person. He’s a TV character.
I mean, O.K., there is an actual person named Donald John Trump, with a human body and a childhood and formative experiences that theoretically a biographer or therapist might usefully delve into someday. (We can only speculate about the latter; Mr. Trump has boasted on Twitter of never having seen a psychiatrist, preferring the therapeutic effects of “hit[ting] ‘sleazebags’ back.”)
But that Donald Trump is of limited significance to America and the world. The “Donald Trump” who got elected president, who has strutted and fretted across the small screen since the 1980s, is a decades-long media performance. To understand him, you need to approach him less like a psychologist and more like a TV critic.
He was born in 1946, at the same time that American broadcast TV was being born. He grew up with it. His father, Fred, had one of the first color TV sets in Jamaica Estates. In “The Art of the Deal” Donald Trump recalls his mother, Mary Anne, spending a day in front of the tube, enraptured by the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953. (“For Christ’s sake, Mary,” he remembers his father saying, “Enough is enough, turn it off. They’re all a bunch of con artists.”)
TV was his soul mate. It was like him. It was packed with the razzle-dazzle and action and violence that captivated him. He dreamed of going to Hollywood, then he shelved those dreams in favor of his father’s business and vowed, according to the book “TrumpNation” by Timothy O’Brien, to “put show business into real estate.”
As TV evolved from the homogeneous three-network mass medium of the mid-20th century to the polarized zillion-channel era of cable-news fisticuffs and reality shocker-tainment, he evolved with it. In the 1980s, he built a media profile as an insouciant, high-living apex predator. In 1990, he described his yacht and gilded buildings to Playboy as “Props for the show … The show is ‘Trump’ and it is sold-out performances everywhere.”
He syndicated that show to Oprah, Letterman, NBC, WrestleMania and Fox News. Everything he achieved, he achieved by using TV as a magnifying glass, to make himself appear bigger than he was.
He was able to do this because he thought like a TV camera. He knew what TV wanted, what stimulated its nerve endings. In his campaign rallies, he would tell The Washington Post, he knew just what to say “to keep the red light on”: that is, the light on a TV camera that showed that it was running, that you mattered. Bomb the [redacted] out of them! I’d like to punch him in the face! The red light radiated its approval. Cable news aired the rallies start to finish. For all practical purposes, he and the camera shared the same brain.
Even when he adopted social media, he used it like TV. First, he used it like a celebrity, to broadcast himself, his first tweet in 2009 promoting a “Late Show With David Letterman” appearance. Then he used it like an instigator, tweeting his birther conspiracies before he would talk about them on Fox News, road-testing his call for a border wall during the cable-news fueled Ebola and border panics of the 2014 midterms.
When he was a candidate, and especially when he was president, his tweets programmed TV and were amplified by it. On CNBC, a “BREAKING NEWS: TRUMP TWEET” graphic would spin out onscreen as soon as the words left his thumbs. He would watch Fox News, or Lou Dobbs, or CNN or “Morning Joe” or “Saturday Night Live” (“I don’t watch”), and get mad, and tweet. Then the tweets would become TV, and he would watch it, and tweet again.
If you want to understand what President Trump will do in any situation, then, it’s more helpful to ask: What would TV do? What does TV want?
It wants conflict. It wants excitement. If there is something that can blow up, it should blow up. It wants a fight. It wants more. It is always eating and never full.
Some presidential figure-outers, trying to understand the celebrity president through a template that they were already familiar with, have compared him with Ronald Reagan: a “master showman” cannily playing a “role.”
The comparison is understandable, but it’s wrong. Presidents Reagan and Trump were both entertainers who applied their acts to politics. But there’s a crucial difference between what “playing a character” means in the movies and what it means on reality TV.
Ronald Reagan was an actor. Actors need to believe deeply in the authenticity and interiority of people besides themselves — so deeply that they can subordinate their personalities to “people” who are merely lines on a script. Acting, Reagan told his biographer Lou Cannon, had taught him “to understand the feelings and motivations of others.”
Being a reality star, on the other hand, as Donald Trump was on “The Apprentice,” is also a kind of performance, but one that’s antithetical to movie acting. Playing a character on reality TV means being yourself, but bigger and louder.
Reality TV, writ broadly, goes back to Allen Funt’s “Candid Camera,” the PBS documentary “An American Family,” and MTV’s “The Real World.” But the first mass-market reality TV star was Richard Hatch, the winner of the first season of “Survivor” — produced by Mark Burnett, the eventual impresario of “The Apprentice”— in the summer of 2000.
Mr. Hatch won that first season in much the way that Mr. Trump would run his 2016 campaign. He realized that the only rules were that there were no rules. He lied and backstabbed and took advantage of loopholes, and he argued — with a telegenic brashness — that this made him smart. This was a crooked game in a crooked world, he argued to a final jury of players he’d betrayed and deceived. But, hey: At least he was open about it!
While shooting that first season, the show’s crew was rooting for Rudy Boesch, a 72-year-old former Navy SEAL and model of hard work and fair play. “The only outcome nobody wanted was Richard Hatch winning,” the host, Jeff Probst, would say later. It “would be a disaster.” After all, decades of TV cop shows had taught executives the iron rule that the viewers needed the good guy to win.
But they didn’t. “Survivor” was addictively entertaining, and audiences loved-to-hate the wryly devious Richard the way they did Tony Soprano and, before him, J.R. Ewing. More than 50 million people watched the first-season finale, and “Survivor” has been on the air nearly two decades.
From Richard Hatch, we got a steady stream of Real Housewives, Kardashians, nasty judges, dating-show contestants who “didn’t come here to make friends” and, of course, Donald Trump.
Reality TV has often gotten a raw deal from critics. (Full disclosure: I still watch “Survivor.”) Its audiences, often dismissed as dupes, are just as capable of watching with a critical eye as the fans of prestige cable dramas. But when you apply its mind-set — the law of the TV jungle — to public life, things get ugly.
In reality TV — at least competition reality shows like “The Apprentice” — you do not attempt to understand other people, except as obstacles or objects. To try to imagine what it is like to be a person other than yourself (what, in ordinary, off-camera life, we call “empathy”) is a liability. It’s a distraction that you have to tune out in order to project your fullest you.
Reality TV instead encourages “getting real.” On MTV’s progressive, diverse “Real World,” the phrase implied that people in the show were more authentic than characters on scripted TV — or even than real people in your own life, who were socially conditioned to “be polite.” But “getting real” would also resonate with a rising conservative notion: that political correctness kept people from saying what was really on their minds.
Being real is not the same thing as being honest. To be real is to be the most entertaining, provocative form of yourself. It is to say what you want, without caring whether your words are kind or responsible — or true — but only whether you want to say them. It is to foreground the parts of your personality (aggression, cockiness, prejudice) that will focus the red light on you, and unleash them like weapons.
Maybe the best definition of being real came from the former “Apprentice” contestant and White House aide Omarosa Manigault Newman in her memoir, “Unhinged.” Mr. Trump, she said, encouraged people in his entourage to “exaggerate the unique part of themselves.” When you’re being real, there is no difference between impulse and strategy, because the “strategy” is to do what feels good.
This is why it misses a key point to ask, as Vanity Fair recently did after Mr. Trump’s assault on Representative Elijah E. Cummings and the city of Baltimore in July, “Is the president a racist, or does he just play one on TV?” In reality TV, if you are a racist — and reality TV has had many racists, like Katie Hopkins, the far-right British “Apprentice” star the president frequently retweets — then you are a racist and you play one on TV.
So if you actually want a glimpse into the mind of Donald J. Trump, don’t look for a White House tell-all or some secret childhood heartbreak. Go to the streaming service Tubi, where his 14 seasons of “The Apprentice” recently became accessible to the public.
You can fast-forward past the team challenges and the stagey visits to Trump-branded properties. They’re useful in their own way, as a picture of how Mr. Burnett buttressed the future president’s Potemkin-zillionaire image. But the unadulterated, 200-proof Donald Trump is found in the boardroom segments, at the end of each episode, in which he “fires” one contestant.
In theory, the boardroom is where the best performers in the week’s challenges are rewarded and the screw-ups punished. In reality, the boardroom is a new game, the real game, a free-for-all in which contestants compete to throw one another under the bus and beg Mr. Trump for mercy.
There is no morality in the boardroom. There is no fair and unfair in the boardroom. There is only the individual, trying to impress Mr. Trump, to flatter Mr. Trump, to commune with his mind and anticipate his whims and fits of pique. Candidates are fired for giving up advantages (stupid), for being too nice to their adversaries (weak), for giving credit to their teammates, for interrupting him. The host’s decisions were often so mercurial, producers have said, that they would have to go back and edit the episodes to impose some appearance of logic on them.
What saves you in the boardroom? Fighting. Boardroom Trump loves to see people fight each other. He perks up at it like a cat hearing a can opener. He loves to watch people scrap for his favor (as they eventually would in his White House). He loves asking contestants to rat out their teammates and watching them squirm with conflict. The unity of the team gives way to disunity, which in the Trumpian worldview is the most productive state of being.
And America loved boardroom Trump — for a while. He delivered his catchphrase in TV cameos and slapped it on a reissue of his 1980s Monopoly knockoff Trump: The Game. (“I’m back and you’re fired!”) But after the first season, the ratings dropped; by season four they were nearly half what they were in season one.
He reacted to his declining numbers by ratcheting up what worked before: becoming a louder, more extreme, more abrasive version of himself. He gets more insulting in the boardroom — “You hang out with losers and you become a loser”— and executes double and quadruplefirings.
It’s a pattern that we see as he advances toward his re-election campaign, with an eye not on the Nielsen ratings but on the polls: The only solution for any given problem was a Trumpier Trump.
Did it work for “The Apprentice”? Yes and no. His show hung on to a loyal base through 14 seasons, including the increasingly farcical celebrity version. But it never dominated its competition again, losing out, despite his denials, to the likes of the sitcom “Mike & Molly.”
Donald Trump’s “Apprentice” boardroom closed for business on Feb. 16, 2015, precisely four months before he announced his successful campaign for president. And also, it never closed. It expanded. It broke the fourth wall. We live inside it now.
Now, Mr. Trump re-creates the boardroom’s helter-skelter atmosphere every time he opens his mouth or his Twitter app. In place of the essentially dead White House press briefing, he walks out to the lawn in the morning and reporters gaggle around him like “Apprentice” contestants awaiting the day’s task. He rails and complains and establishes the plot points for that day’s episode: Greenland! Jews! “I am the chosen one!”
Then cable news spends morning to midnight happily masticating the fresh batch of outrages before memory-wiping itself to prepare for tomorrow’s episode. Maybe this sounds like a TV critic’s overextended metaphor, but it’s also the president’s: As The Times has reported, before taking office, he told aides to think of every day as “an episode in a television show in which he vanquishes rivals.”
Mr. Trump has been playing himself instinctually as a character since the 1980s; it’s allowed him to maintain a profile even through bankruptcies and humiliations. But it’s also why, on the rare occasions he’s had to publicly attempt a role contrary to his nature — calling for healing from a script after a mass shooting, for instance — he sounds as stagey and inauthentic as an unrehearsed amateur doing a sitcom cameo.
His character shorthand is “Donald Trump, Fighter Guy Who Wins.” Plop him in front of a camera with an infant orphaned in a mass murder, and he does not have it in his performer’s tool kit to do anything other than smile unnervingly and give a fat thumbs-up.
This is what was lost on commentators who kept hoping wanly that this State of the Union or that tragedy would be the moment he finally became “presidential.” It was lost on journalists who felt obligated to act as though every modulated speech from a teleprompter might, this time, be sincere.
The institution of the office is not changing Donald Trump, because he is already in the sway of another institution. He is governed not by the truisms of past politics but by the imperative of reality TV: Never de-escalate and never turn the volume down.
This conveniently echoes the mantra he learned from his early mentor, Roy Cohn: Always attack and never apologize. He serves up one “most shocking episode ever” after another, mining uglier pieces of his core each time: progressing from profanity about Haiti and Africa in private to publicly telling four minority American congresswomen, only one of whom was born outside the United States, to “go back” to the countries they came from.
The taunting. The insults. The dog whistles. The dog bullhorns. The “Lock her up” and “Send her back.” All of it follows reality-TV rules. Every season has to top the last. Every fight is necessary, be it against Ilhan Omar or Debra Messing. Every twist must be more shocking, every conflict more vicious, lest the red light grow bored and wink off. The only difference: Now there’s no Mark Burnett to impose retroactive logic on the chaos, only press secretaries, pundits and Mike Pence.
To ask whether any of this is “instinct” or “strategy” is a parlor game. If you think like a TV camera — if thinking in those reflexive microbursts of adrenaline and testosterone has served you your whole life — then the instinct is the strategy.
And to ask who the “real” Donald Trump is, is to ignore the obvious. You already know who Donald Trump is. All the evidence you need is right there on your screen. He’s half-man, half-TV, with a camera for an eye that is constantly focused on itself. The red light is pulsing, 24/7, and it does not appear to have an off switch.
One is on the policy: Would the best insurance system be one fully funded by the federal government? The Democrats who support Sen. Bernie Sanders’s Medicare-for-all bill are saying it is, while other candidates prefer to build more gradually on the public-private system we have now or openly running against the idea of single-payer.
The other debate is over strategy: Even if Democrats are lucky enough to win full control of the government in 2020, which is by no means guaranteed, should they try to enact another major health care overhaul? Or should they use their time, energy, attention, and political capital for other pursuits?
The delineations on policy are obvious as candidates come forward with their plans. The divisions on strategy are a little more speculative: Sanders’s supporters on the left have recently been suggesting Elizabeth Warren’s more circumspect approach on the timeline for Medicare-for-all, which she supports, means she isn’t as progressive as their favored candidate.
As the first debate approaches, the candidates are being delicate on health care, trying to signal their support for aspirational and broad goals like universal coverage. Most of them would rather not get bogged down in the devilish details — but as long as Sanders, an unreserved supporter for single-payer, is a major figure in the race, that will be difficult to do.
The actual policy disagreements Democrats have about health care reform
This month, House Democrats held a health care hearing about “paths to universal health coverage.” This is the story Democratic leadership wants to tell: The party agrees America should cover more people with public programs or subsidized private health insurance (or both). They are just looking for the best path forward.
“We all agree we need a stronger health care plan that covers everyone, universal coverage. We want everyone to have it,” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer told Vox earlier this year. “We’ll figure out the best way to get there. … Different people have different views, we don’t attack each other. I think it’s great.”
But there are meaningful differences between the current left-of-center proposals. This Venn diagram covers the bills in Congress, written into real legislative text, and ideas from two prominent DC think tanks. On critical questions about whether the 150 million people who have employer-sponsored insurance should have access to a government plan, who else would be covered, and how much they would be asked to pay out of pocket for health care, the plans have notable differences. They do also have shared features.
Sanders wrote the single-payer bill in the Senate, which would move every American into one national insurance plan and would cover most medical services at zero cost when people go to the doctor or hospital. Warren and Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) signed onto his Medicare for All Act. The Sanders plan is the most maximalist overhaul in the field, a nationalizing of the health insurance industry.
The Medicare for America bill, based largely on the work of the Center for American Progress (CAP) and Yale professor Jacob Hacker, would maintain the employer-based system that covers half of Americans right now. It would also, however, allow almost any American move to a government plan if they wanted to. Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg have shown support for that idea. They like to say they support Medicare “for all who want it,” a halfway point between single-payer and more limited public options.
Joe Biden has said he supports allowing “every single American” having access to a public insurance plan, but his campaign has not yet released the details on his proposal. In his record already: He called the Affordable Care Act “a big fucking deal” right after President Barack Obama signed it.
The more limited public options and buy-ins, like legislation sponsored by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Michael Bennet (D-CO), would generally allow the 10 million people who buy private insurance on the Obamacare marketplaces to join a public plan instead if they pay a premium. People on company-funded plans would not be able to buy the public plan, limiting the size and impact of the program.
The health care debate is also a question of priorities and politics
But even Medicare-for-all-supporting candidates have sought out some wiggle room on the more difficult challenges presented by the single-payer plan. The Sanders bill would largely ban private health insurance. Yet Harris and Booker — both sponsors of it — have indicated at times on the campaign trail that they do see a role for private coverage.
The second question on this great New York Times survey of most of the 2020 candidates revealed some telling differences: Would your focus be improving the Affordable Care Act or replacing it with single-payer? Sanders took an absolutist tone.
“Clearly we need to replace it with a popular system, and that is Medicare, and expand Medicare to all,” Sanders said.
But another Medicare-for-all sponsor, Booker, pledged to pursue a public option first as president.
“I’m going to fight to try to expand access through things like creating a more vibrant, robust public option,” Booker said.
Warren gave a more guarded answer, not dissimilar from Harris’s general line on health care: Medicare-for-all should be the goal, but it’s something the country may have to build toward.
“There are a lot of different ways to get there,” Warren told the New York Times. “‘Medicare for all’ has a lot of different paths.”
Warren has an Obamacare improvement bill that, while not campaign stump speech material, would expand the federal subsidies available through Obamacare and extend them to more people. That plan would be one possible next step for her administration.
The activist and ideological left, for whom Sanders is such an important figure, have seized on Warren’s equivocation, contrasting it with her cultivated image as the bold “plan” candidate on other issues. From Tim Higginbotham’s essay in the socialist journal Jacobin, bearing the title “Elizabeth Warren Has a Plan for Everything — Except Health Care”:
Taking this answer at face value, it seems Warren sees herself pursuing an incremental approach that expands public coverage while preserving the private insurance industry should she be elected president. This would likely surprise many of her supporters, who might view her cosponsorship of Sanders’s Medicare for All bill as an endorsement of single-payer health care.
It’s fair to ask why Warren, who supports bold, progressive policies on a number of major issues, is avoiding the most important issue to voters. It could be a reluctance to attach herself to a rival candidate’s signature policy, or it could be a way to avoid conflict with the powerful health care corporations in her home state of Massachusetts.
As Vox’s Tara Golshan explained, Sanders and Warren are sometimes seen as so similar on policy that some people apparently have trouble telling them apart. Sanders’s side clearly sees health care as an opening to contrast them because their candidate says he is invested in passing Medicare-for-all as soon as possible.
Candidates have other plans they want to prioritize. Warren told Vox’s Ezra Kleinthe best place for her agenda to start is with an anti-corruption reform package. She’s been one of 2020’s trendsetting candidates on taxing the rich and expanding workers rights.
Harris, the next highest-polling Medicare-for-all sponsor, says she aspires to Medicare-for-all but has left room for leaving some kind of private insurance or incremental reforms. Her campaign also told me earlier this year that Harris’s tax plan would be at the top of her to-do list.
How much will these differences matter in 2020 and beyond?
Among Democrats, a tug-of-war exists between governing and ideology. Some Democrats think single-payer is the only acceptable answer if health care is a human right. Others are chastened by the recent and fierce fights over more limited reforms and want to instead focus on what is politically possible. The left’s theory is that incrementalists are too timid about what is achievable with the right message and the right plan.
“Medicare for all” polls well and health care is a unique issue: Americans broadly accept a role for the government in making sure people have health insurance. There are a lot of Medicare-for-all supporters in the Democratic Party now and among the people who vote in primaries. A recent survey of likely Iowa caucus-goers found about half said a candidate’s support for single-payer would be a “must-have” for them in 2020. That’s quite a few voters in such a crowded field.
Other polling indicates a lot of voters are still fuzzy on the details of Medicare-for-all, like whether it would get rid of private coverage. Support for the proposal still seems fluid, with push polls finding attacks on single-payer do significantly drive down support. The “must-have” number from the Iowa survey — 48 percent — reveals a lot of Democratic voters who aren’t making single-payer a deciding factor. Joe Biden, doing well with and focusing on the party’s older and moderate voters, is building his candidacy with voters like that.
Polling from public-opinion researcher Michael Perry, not done for any outside group, found Democratic voters saying that they would focus on improving Obamacare over passing single-payer in the near term. The Sanders wing is now questioning Warren’s commitment to Medicare-for-all, but so far, the 2020 polls show Warren and Sanders splitting voters who identify as progressive or liberal.
Still, health care reform has been politically challenging and historically an electoral loser, as Democrats and Republicans saw in 2010 and 2018, respectively. And whether Medicare-for-all can actually pass — or whether a more incremental option is the only thing that could clear a narrowly Democratic Senate with a solid cohort of centrist members — is a very different question. Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, for starters, don’t sound onboard with single-payer right now. They just got elected for a barely-started six-year term.
A Sanders administration would also need a Democratic Senate to change the Senate’s procedural rules, which currently set a 60-vote threshold for most bills, to pass the best version of Medicare-for-all — and on that subject, eliminating the Senate filibuster, Sanders is actually more wary than Warren.
But there’s also a large chance this could all be moot. Democrats will need to be a little lucky to win the Senate at all. If they don’t, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell relishes the chance to block progressive — he’d call it “socialist” — legislation, as we’ve seen with a Democratic House. President Donald Trump has already called out “socialist” single-payer in his 2020 reelection launch speech.
It might seem strange for Democrats like Sanders and Warren who sponsor the same plan to be “debating” an issue. In this crowded field with a lot of policy overlap, campaigns are looking for every opening to stick out to voters.
But the party broadly does still has real differences not only on the best political path, but the right policy. Center-left Democrats really want to preserve a big role for private insurance. The candidates are asking elemental questions among themselves about the free market and the role it should have in providing health care to Americans.