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By Frank Bruni
Frank Bruni is a contributing Opinion writer who was on the staff of The Times for more than 25 years.
Josh Stein, the attorney general of North Carolina, has plenty of detractors, but if you ask knowledgeable Democrats in the state to name their party’s most likely nominee for governor in 2024, they’ll probably say Stein. Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat in his second term, can’t run for a third consecutive term, and no one in his party is better positioned to succeed him than Stein.
If you ask those same Democrats to name the greatest threats to North Carolina’s economic and political health, Mark Robinson will almost certainly come up. A far-right Republican popular with the MAGA crowd, he’s the state’s lieutenant governor and he’s presumed to be angling, like Stein, for the governor’s mansion. If he won his party’s nomination and faced a wounded and diminished Democrat, he just might get there.
Why, then, is a prominent Democratic prosecutor who does not seem to have her own immediate ambitions to become governor so intent on wounding and diminishing Stein? It’s the great mystery of current North Carolina politics, an act of Democrat-on-Democrat sabotage that’s as alarming as it is inscrutable.
The office of Lorrin Freeman, the Wake County district attorney, is going after Stein on the basis of an obscure state libel statute from 1931. The crime he allegedly committed: disparaging a candidate for public office in a manner that’s false or shows reckless disregard for the truth. His supposed victim is Jim O’Neill, who was his Republican challenger when he ran successfully for re-election as attorney general in 2020.
I care about truth, and I ardently wish that campaigns were conducted on a more honorable level than many of them are. But prosecuting a politician for smears is like prosecuting a bagel vendor for schmears. Certain trades have certain trademarks.
And was Stein’s smear even out of bounds?
Several years ago, when he was in his first term as attorney general, it became clear that North Carolina had an unusually large backlog of untested rape kits, about which there was considerable public consternation. O’Neill, then the Forsyth County district attorney, sought to use that to his advantage. He falsely accused Stein of ignoring the backlog.
Stein fired back with a television ad that said that O’Neill, as district attorney, “left 1,500 rape kits sitting on a shelf, leaving rapists on the streets.” The O’Neill campaign then filed a formal complaint with the North Carolina State Board of Elections, calling the ad “a direct lie” in violation of the 1931 statute because it implied that O’Neill controlled those kits when law enforcement agencies, not prosecutors, do. Stein stood by the ad, asserting that O’Neill could have assisted or put pressure on those agencies.
The state board recommended that the whole matter be dropped. And rightly so: Leaving something on a shelf is a figurative term, with a range of defensible interpretations. O’Neill had arguably besmirched Stein at least as recklessly as Stein had besmirched him. If such campaign salvos became criminal cases, we’d have to build new courthouses to accommodate the prosecutions. And there would be a meaningful threat to free speech and robust political discourse.
So why did Freeman’s office nonetheless bring Stein’s case to a grand jury, seeking an indictment that remains a possibility? An impressively reported article by Jeffrey Billman in The Assembly, a North Carolina publication, didn’t come to a definitive conclusion, and the Democratic officials with whom I’ve spoken in recent weeks are baffled. They’re also deeply concerned. No matter what happens to the case going forward, the actions of Freeman’s office to this point mean that a Republican running against Stein for governor would probably produce ads branding Stein a liar of criminal magnitude.
Freeman has said that she recused herself from decisions about an indictment of Stein to eliminate any impression that it was driven by a personal connection to him or O’Neill. Another prosecutor in her office, David Saacks, is officially in charge of the case. But Freeman has publicly defended it, and she answered several questions from me in an email exchange this week.
“Having reviewed the State Board of Elections investigation, Mr. Saacks determined that due diligence required a more thorough investigation,” she wrote. She added: “As prosecutors, our responsibility is to evaluate the evidence and follow the law. While this matter is pending, we cannot comment on the facts of the case or on the weight of the evidence.”
At issue, she wrote, is “whether a candidate or his or her campaign has a constitutional right to lie to the public.”
For now, the Fourth District Court of Appeals has issued a temporary injunction against any indictment of Stein until it can hear arguments about the constitutionality of the 1931 statute itself. Those arguments are months away.
When I spoke with Stein on Wednesday, he called the prosecution “an unfortunate abuse of power and resources.”
It’s all the more curious in light of what a gift it is to Republicans and to Robinson — and in light of the stakes. Many Republican officials are demonstrating a dangerous contempt for democratic processes and institutions, which their ascendance could jeopardize.
Robinson’s own contempt extends to homosexuality, which he has called “an abominable sin.” To transgenderism, which he has labeled “demonic behavior.” To Michelle Obama (“anti-American”). To the movie “Black Panther” (“made in the dominion of the devil” by an “agnostic Jew”). An article that Billman wrote for Indy Week in 2020 presented a jaw-dropping compendium of these gems.
Robinson’s kinder words are reserved for firearms. Days after the massacre of schoolchildren in Uvalde, Texas, he traveled to Houston to deliver an impassioned pro-gun speech at a convention of the National Rifle Association.
The old Republican establishment in North Carolina regards him almost as warily as Democrats do. But that establishment’s say and sway have diminished significantly during this Trumpian time. Robinson could very well wind up carrying his party’s banner two years from now. But you wouldn’t know that from the persecution — er, prosecution — of Josh Stein.
For the Love of Sentences
There were too many fun sentences in the Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank’s takedown of Mike Lindell, the MyPillow founder and election conspiracist, to reproduce here, just as there were too many of you who nominated bits of the column to mention and thank. My apologies to those left out.
Here’s just one of Milbank’s mischievously bedding-allusive passages: “Only in this land of opportunists could the greatest sham of all be perpetrated by a guy who literally sells shams (‘as low as $48.99 w/promo code’).” (Patricia Valiton of San Diego and Jeanette Clonan of Greenwich, Conn., among others, nominated this.)
Milbank also imagined the incarceration of Americans trying to corrupt the democratic process and a new market for “quality bedding in prison.” “Lindell will need a full line of pillows for election deniers — for back liars, side liars and stomach liars alike,” Milbank wrote. (Peter Segal, Chicago, and Judy Cazalas, Summerfield, Fla.)
“It is the sleeper issue of our time,” he added. (Peggy Sweeney, Sarasota, Fla., and Marjorie Ivey, St. Louis)
Also in The Post, Olivier Knox wrote: “President Biden is off today to New York and the annual diplomatic cacophony that is the United Nations General Assembly — call it the UNGA din.” (Conrad Macina, Landing, N.J.)
In The Minneapolis Star Tribune, the columnist James Lileks explained the impetus for a recent drive around the state: “Summer felt like a coupon that expires tomorrow, and I wanted to cash it in.” (Rudy Brynolfson, Minneapolis)
In Politico, Teresa Wiltz described growing up as a Black girl where just about everybody else was white as being “a lone raisin in a sea of oatmeal.” (Mark White, Shoreline, Wash.)
In The Adirondack Explorer, Tim Rowland recalled his mental bedlam upon taking the wrong turn during a hike: “These thoughts idly clacked off of each other like wayward billiard balls, but none dropped into the right pocket.” (Bill Callen, Selkirk, N.Y.)
The Times was the source of most of your nominations, several of which recognized what reliable geysers of great writing our book-focused critics and writers are. Here’s Dwight Garner on “Life’s Work,” by the screenwriter David Milch: “Writing dialogue as sharply as he does, his book suggests, requires a heroin habit straight out of a Denis Johnson short story, a ruinous gambling addiction, an ability to stretch deadlines to their dissolving point, an ego that can shatter buffet platters at 30 feet, and a knack for making others love you and want you poisoned at the same time.” (Marisa Caggiano Marsey, Virginia Beach, Va., and Ginny Matish, Chesapeake, Va.)
Molly Young’s recent appraisal of “Lessons,” a new novel by Ian McEwan, is also a keeper. “One of McEwan’s talents is to mingle the lovely with the nasty,” she incisively observed, adding that he “can make a reader feel as though she has bent forward to sniff a rose and received instead the odor of old sewage.” (John Jacoby, Cambridge, Mass.) Also, taking stock of the novel’s protagonist, Molly notes that in “the absence of much physical description it’s easy to picture Roland as a mythical hybrid of man and shopping cart: a wheeled receptacle shoved by unseen hands across the asphalt of life.” (Beverly Jones, Washington, D.C., and Beth Topinka, Indian River Shores, Fla.)
And Elisabeth Egan recalled the importance of “Goodnight Moon” to the rearing of her children, including a son who “arrived in the world like a comet breaking the sound barrier, or Kramer skidding into Jerry’s apartment” and “rattled the slats of his crib like an unruly inmate demanding a call to his lawyer.” (Mary Jo Williams, Anderson, Ind., and Maura Harway, Manhattan, among others)
In the Opinion section, Margaret Renkl reflected on Tennessee summers and climate change, and began: “Then, just like that, the light changed, taking on the autumnal slant that turns dust motes into flecks of fire and deepens the color of songbirds’ feathers.” (Anthony Compagnone, Milton, Mass., and Eugene Hunt, North Andover, Mass.)
She also noted: “Often it is still summer here deep into October, even November. Sometimes there is no fall at all — we go directly from roasting to freezing, and the leaves drop from the trees without ever pausing to blush.” (Jinx McCombs, Point Arena, Calif.)
To nominate favorite bits of recent writing from The Times or other publications to be mentioned in “For the Love of Sentences,” please email me here, and please include your name and place of residence.
On a Personal Note
When I was in my midteens, I didn’t imagine that I’d become a doctor who healed the sick or a lawyer who redeemed the innocent or an astronaut who explored the cosmos or a novelist who plumbed the soul.
I dreamed of going into advertising.
That wasn’t because I knew anybody in advertising. It wasn’t because I had any cultural connection to advertising — I hadn’t become a fan of some movie or television show that was set in the world of advertising and had a protagonist whose professional genius and physical perfection represented some ideal that I equated with advertising.
I just loved the pithiness and cleverness of the best advertising copy. I especially loved the pithiness and cleverness of the copy on the best movie ads.
I was 13 in the summer of 1978, when “Jaws 2” was released, and while I didn’t see it, I did see — and linger over — the tag line that someone had written for it: “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water”
I was 14 in the spring of 1979, when “Alien” was released. I did see it — twice then and additional times over the decades to come — and while I replayed many of its scariest scenes over and over in my memory, I just as frequently revisited the brilliant words on the ads and posters for it: “In space, no one can hear you scream.”
I happened to mention that recently to a Duke University colleague and friend of mine, Jennifer Siegel, who astounded me with the news that a friend of hers, Christopher Fowler, once wrote movie tag lines for a living and came up with that one. She put me in touch with him.
In an email exchange, he told me that over time, many people claimed authorship of “space/scream,” which could indeed have had multiple authors. It was one of scores of what he called “straplines” that he suggested for “Alien,” whose makers and distributors gave him almost no information about its plot. “All I had was a teaser image of a glowing egg,” he said.
I asked him for his favorites among the straplines he’d written over the years. “Sleep all day. Party all night. It’s fun to be a vampire,” he said. That was for “The Lost Boys” (and was one of a few versions). He said he was also fond of a strapline for a rerelease of the movie “My Fair Lady.” “The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain. Again,” he wrote. The studio declined to use it.
I put the question to you: What movie tag lines or straplines do you most fondly recall? Please email me here, put “Movies” in the subject line and provide your full name and place of residence, so I can give you proper credit.
I’ll include some of your nominations in the next edition of this newsletter, which is what I have in place of that fantasized advertising career. I’m definitely not complaining.
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