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Beneath Joe Biden’s Folksy Demeanor, a Short Fuse and an Obsession With Details

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Beneath Joe Biden’s Folksy Demeanor, a Short Fuse and an Obsession With Details


WASHINGTON — The commander in chief was taking his time, as usual.

It was late March, and President Biden was under increasing pressure to penalize President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia for election interference and the biggest cyberattack ever on American government and industry. “I have to do it relatively soon,” he said to Jake Sullivan, his national security adviser.

Mr. Biden had already spent the first two months of his presidency debating how to respond to Mr. Putin, and despite his acknowledgment in March that he needed to act quickly, his deliberations were far from over. He convened another meeting in the Situation Room that stretched for two and a half hours, and called yet another session there a week later.

“He has a kind of mantra: ‘You can never give me too much detail,’” Mr. Sullivan said.

Quick decision-making is not Mr. Biden’s style. His reputation as a plain-speaking politician hides a more complicated truth. Before making up his mind, the president demands hours of detail-laden debate from scores of policy experts, taking everyone around him on what some in the West Wing refer to as his Socratic “journey” before arriving at a conclusion.

Those trips are often difficult for his advisers, who are peppered with sometimes obscure questions. Avoiding Mr. Biden’s ire during one of his decision-making seminars means not only going beyond the vague talking points that he will reject, but also steering clear of responses laced with acronyms or too much policy minutiae, which will prompt an outburst of frustration, often laced with profanity.

Let’s talk plain English here, he will often snap.

Interviews with more than two dozen current and former Biden associates provide an early look into how Mr. Biden operates as president — how he deliberates, whom he consults for advice and what drives his decisions as he settles into the office he has chased for more than three decades.

What emerges is a portrait of a president with a short fuse, who is obsessed with getting the details right — sometimes to a fault, including when he angered allies and adversaries alike by repeatedly delaying a decision on whether to allow more refugees into the United States.

On policy issues, Mr. Biden, 78, takes days or weeks to make up his mind as he examines and second-guesses himself and others. It is a method of governing that can feel at odds with the urgency of a country still reeling from a pandemic and an economy struggling to recover. The president is also faced with a slim majority in Congress that could evaporate next year, giving him only months to enact a lasting legacy.

Those closest to him say Mr. Biden is unwilling, or unable, to skip the routine. As a longtime adviser put it: He needs time to process the material so that he feels comfortable selling it to the public. But the approach has its risks, as President Barack Obama found out when his own, sometimes lengthy policy debates led to infighting and extended lobbying, and made his White House feel process driven.

Mr. Biden could fall victim to the same fate, though he has far more experience governing than Mr. Obama did in 2009. So far, the Biden administration has moved quickly to confront the nation’s challenges even as Mr. Biden’s own deliberations can linger, often prompting calls as late as 10:30 or 11 p.m. as he gets ready for the next morning.

The president arrives in the Oval Office for a series of scheduled meetings around 9:30 a.m., after exercising and making the short stroll from the residence, often flanked by his German shepherds, Champ and Major.

In March, as the decision loomed to impose sanctions on Russia for its election interference and its SolarWinds cyberattack, Mr. Biden was true to form, repeatedly insisting on hearing directly from his experts.

At one point, Mr. Biden lectured a group of veteran Foreign Service officers and policy advisers on the nuances of Mr. Putin’s personality and tried to channel the Russian leader’s thinking. His conclusion: Mr. Putin wants his rivals to be blunt with him.

In the end, Mr. Biden called Mr. Putin directly and then delivered a public statement on Russia sanctions that lasted only five minutes and 49 seconds. For as much as Mr. Biden projects an aura of ease — with his frequent backslapping, references to Irish poetry and liberal use of the phrase “c’mon, man” — his aides say it takes a lot of behind-the-scenes work to prepare him to project an assured demeanor.

Mr. Biden is gripped by a sense of urgency that leaves him prone to flares of impatience, according to numerous people who regularly interact with him. The president has said he expects to run for a second term, but aides say he understands the effect on his ability to advance his agenda if Republicans regain power in Congress next year.

He never erupts into fits of rage the way President Donald J. Trump did. And the current president rarely exhibits the smoldering anger or sense of deep disappointment that advisers to Mr. Obama became familiar with.

But several people familiar with the president’s decision-making style said Mr. Biden was quick to cut off conversations. Three people who work closely with him said he even occasionally hangs up the phone on someone who he thinks is wasting his time. Most described Mr. Biden as having little patience for advisers who cannot field his many questions.

“You become so hyperprepared,” said Dylan Loewe, a former speechwriter for Mr. Biden. “‘I’ve got to answer every conceivable question he can come up with.’”

Some advisers who are new to Mr. Biden’s orbit have been on the receiving end of his anger in recent weeks. During a meeting on March 30 in the Oval Office, the president lashed out at Xavier Becerra, the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, for failing to have answers to his questions about the agency’s ability to take care of migrant children, according to two people familiar with the exchange.

“He hates blandishing fast-talk that sounds like double speak,” said Chris Jennings, a former health policy aide who engaged frequently with Mr. Biden when he was vice president. “Doesn’t trust it, and he’s certain voters loathe it.”

Earlier in March, the president’s top immigration advisers gathered to brief him on the growing problems at the southwestern border, where thousands of children from Central America were crossing without adults. After a drawn-out conversation, Mr. Biden asked members of the group whether any of them had been to the border in recent days.

He was met with silence, which prompted the predictable reaction: frustration. Four days later, the advisers — including the secretary of homeland security, Alejandro N. Mayorkas, and Susan Rice, the director of Mr. Biden’s Domestic Policy Council — arrived at the border to assess the situation.

While aides say Mr. Biden is quick to demonstrate his displeasure, he is also prone to displays of unexpected warmth. After a grueling briefing for his phone call with Mr. Putin on Jan. 26, Eric Green, the senior Russia director at the National Security Council, mentioned that Mr. Biden had met his daughter, then about 3 years old, on a visit to Moscow a decade earlier.

Moments later, the president was on the phone to say hello to Mr. Green’s daughter, now 13 and attending school from home because of coronavirus restrictions.

As a senator for 36 years and as vice president for eight years, Mr. Biden has assembled a tight circle of friends, family and advisers from which he draws personal support and counsel.

In addition to his wife, Jill Biden, their grandchildren — described as the center of the first couple’s world — are often at the White House, spending long weekends or parts of their week there. They have been known to show their grandfather apps like TikTok. One adviser said he had sent the grandchildren money using Venmo.

The president’s evenings include regular calls with his grandchildren, who serve as his lifeline to popular culture and consumer technology. If one of them does not pick up, Mr. Biden — whom they call “Pop” — leaves a voice mail message.

“If you get a chance, call me,” Mr. Biden said in a message that his granddaughter Naomi Biden, 27, posted online during the 2020 presidential campaign.

For political advice and policy direction, he turns to the group one White House aide called the “Biden historians” — Ron Klain, the chief of staff and longtime aide; Bruce Reed, a top policy adviser who sometimes ran his vice president’s office; Mike Donilon, his political counselor and alter-ego; and Steve Ricchetti, his legislative guru and longtime friend.

Outside of that core group, Mr. Biden draws on a sprawling constellation of the administration’s in-house experts, including, among others, Ms. Rice and Brian Deese, the director of the National Economic Council.

On a Zoom call on a Sunday in December, Mr. Biden, then president-elect, asked for a debate about the wisdom of deploying active-duty troops to battle the pandemic. He had long said his aides should consider themselves on a wartime footing against the virus. But exactly what did that mean?

He grilled his newly appointed coronavirus task force adviser, Jeffrey D. Zients, with questions: How would Americans react to active-duty personnel being deployed onto the streets? Had anything like it been done before? How big was the scale of the effort, and how fast could it be scaled up?

Mr. Biden did not want to be spared any incremental detail. After the president took office, his defense secretary deployed 1,100 troops in five teams of nurses, vaccinators and other medical staff. He eventually deployed 4,000 more.

On Jan. 21, Mr. Biden’s first full day in office, he met with his coronavirus team again, including Dr. Anthony S. Fauci and Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, in the State Room, where the group presented him with what it called the “comprehensive plan.”

After the meeting, he pulled Mr. Zients aside and gave him a set of instructions: “Bring me the news, good, bad and ugly. It’s going to have big moments and not so good moments, and I want to know about every one of them,” the president said. “I want the details.”

That instinct has not always been helpful.

After vowing during his campaign to reverse Trump-era limits on refugee admissions to the United States, Mr. Biden deliberated for weeks about whether to quickly make good on that promise. Meetings with his administration’s top refugee experts led the president to doubt the government’s capacity to accept refugees even as it struggled to deal with a surge of migrants at the southwestern border.

His announcement that he was sticking with his predecessor’s limits on refugee admissions infuriated Democrats and activists alike, and won him unwanted praise from Mr. Trump’s top immigration officials. It took only hours before his spokeswoman backed away from the decision. Two weeks later, Mr. Biden formally reversed himself, significantly raising the number of refugees who could come to the United States this year.

Several aides said the episode was an example of Mr. Biden losing sight of the bigger picture — in this case, the signal he was sending by breaking his campaign promise.

Still, his attention to detail will often extend to the people behind the policies.

On the morning of March 31, Mr. Biden was in the Oval Office with Gina McCarthy, his climate czar, and Ali Zaidi, her deputy, to talk about methane emissions and the effort to reclaim mines. The aides wanted to talk about the global effect of policies that they believed he should enact.

He had different kinds of questions.

During a lengthy discussion, Mr. Biden quizzed them on how his climate policy would influence specific workers in Pennsylvania, his home state. How would all of this affect earth-moving workers, fabricators, those pouring concrete, derrick operators, plumbers and pipe fitters, and licensed truckers, he asked.

“We walked through each of those specific occupations, those specific tasks that people do,” Mr. Zaidi said. “And he probed on, you know, ‘And how much do these folks make?’ and ‘How many of them are there in southwestern Pennsylvania?’ and ‘OK, you told me about this geothermal resource, but does this geothermal resource exist in West Virginia?’”

Over time, the president’s staff has learned the routine. They have padded his schedule with 15-minute breaks because they know he will not finish on time. He is allowed 30 minutes for lunch — a rotation of salad, soup and sandwiches — and because of the pandemic, rarely eats with people other than Vice President Kamala Harris, with whom he has a weekly lunch.

One item not on the daily agenda?

Watching hours of cable news. The television that Mr. Trump installed in the dining room next to the Oval Office is still there, but aides say it is rarely on during the day.

Mr. Biden is usually back in the residence by 7 p.m. for dinner with the first lady. The president likes pasta with red sauce, while the first lady prefers grilled chicken or fish.

Christopher Freeman, a caterer who worked for them as much as three times a week when the Bidens lived in the vice president’s residence, said that Mr. Biden “eschews alcohol,” but that Dr. Biden was “an oenophile of the first degree.”

In the vice president’s residence, the staff was instructed to keep the kitchen stocked with vanilla chocolate chip Haagen-Dazs ice cream, Special K cereal, one bunch of red grapes, sliced cheese, six eggs, sliced bread, one tomato from the garden, and at least two apples on hand at all times, according to a preference sheet they kept at the home. Mr. Biden’s drink of choice: Orange Gatorade.

The staff was told not to serve leafy greens at events because Mr. Biden did not want to be photographed with any leaves in his teeth, Mr. Freeman said.

After dinner, the president sometimes continues his deliberations on the phone with a circle of senior aides that has expanded over time to include Kate Bedingfield, his communications chief; Anita Dunn, a veteran Obama-era adviser; Jen Psaki, his press secretary; Cedric Richmond, the public engagement chief; and Jen O’Malley Dillon, the operations guru.

But most evenings, Mr. Biden is in regular contact with the so-called historians, who have been by his side for decades: Mr. Donilon, Mr. Klain, Mr. Reed and Mr. Ricchetti.

In a White House that is more diverse than any before it, aides say those four white men are the ones the president goes to for a final gut-check before making a decision.

Mr. Donilon, who polishes Mr. Biden’s speeches and is the “keeper of the flame” when it comes to determining the president’s overall message, is less involved in the day-to-day West Wing operations than David Axelrod, who performed a similar role for Mr. Obama. But he remains an influential force, often prodding Mr. Biden toward a conclusion. He tends to stay mostly silent until the very end of a discussion, at which point Mr. Biden often embraces whatever point he has made.

“I agree with Mike” signals the end of the meeting, according to people who have witnessed exchanges between the two men.

Mr. Klain has the most regular contact with the president, with a standing daily Oval Office meeting and a mandate to keep Mr. Biden’s agenda moving forward. He has been a constant in the president’s meetings with his coronavirus team as he maps out the administration’s operational response. He is also the lone Twitter obsessive in Mr. Biden’s inner circle, amplifying reporters when he agrees with them, and questioning them when he does not.

Mr. Reed weighs in sporadically with treatises on the issues he believes voters most care about — his ideas, aides say, shape the arc of Mr. Biden’s most important speeches.

And Mr. Ricchetti, who led Mr. Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign and has deep connections to Capitol Hill, is the designated optimist in the group. He is the president’s golfing buddy and the person most often described as a genuine “F.O.P.,” or friend of the president. Last month in Wilmington, Del., Mr. Biden’s first round of golf as president was with Mr. Ricchetti and the father-in-law to Mr. Biden’s son Beau Biden.

Mr. Ricchetti is also in charge of helping the president sort out another consequential decision: which of his allies will receive ambassadorships that are crucial to preserving the interests of the United States. Initially, the White House said that Mr. Biden would be making his first round of decisions in mid-April.

The president is already well past that deadline. On May 4, Ms. Psaki told reporters that the president would be evaluating nominees “soon.” Asked to define “soon” — Days? Months? Weeks? — Ms. Psaki said out loud what many of the president’s aides were no doubt thinking.

“Well,” she said, “I think it depends on when the president makes some decisions.”



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‘Zombie’ Urchins Are Destroying Kelp Forests. Can’t We Just Eat Them?

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‘Zombie’ Urchins Are Destroying Kelp Forests. Can’t We Just Eat Them?


ALBION, Calif. — A decade ago, when Gary Trumper used to dive for sea urchins, the docks here were packed with commercial fishing vessels. Mr. Trumper and his diving partner, Byron Koehler, would steer through masses of tangled kelp and return after a few hours of work with what Mr. Koehler described as enough red urchin to sink their 26-foot boat.

No longer. Today, more than 95 percent of California’s coastal kelp are gone, devoured by a population explosion of purple sea urchins in the past seven years. This proliferation has led to dead zones known as “urchin barrens,” where carpets of urchins can be seen for miles. One such barren encompasses 400 miles of coastline from Marin County to the Oregon border.

“This bay should be choked off with kelp,” Mr. Trumper said as he gestured over the side of his boat.

The problem has reverberated throughout the international seafood market and created an environmental crisis along the California coast. Fishermen, state officials and now some entrepreneurs are scrambling to slow and even reverse the damage. Among the wide-ranging solutions that have been proposed are aggressive aquaculture programs and the deployment of robotic predators — a sort of Roomba for urchins.

Uni, the delicate meat inside an urchin’s spiny shell, is a pricey delicacy. So it might seem that a surplus of urchins would be good business for commercial divers, but Mr. Trumper explained that the opposite is true. The purple urchins off the California coast are mostly inedible because they contain little to no uni. Having overgrazed the coastal kelp and devastated the red urchin population, the purple urchins are now starving. Worse still, they can exist in this state of starvation for decades, lying in wait to gobble up any kelp spores that appear, which prevents kelp forests from growing back.

Mr. Trumper, who is now in his 50s, has been diving since he was 10 with his father, the founder of the commercial fishery Pacific Rim Seafood. “We had so many markets we lost because we couldn’t supply them with product,” he said. Now, he is at a loss for what to do: “It’s the only job I ever had.” Mr. Trumper’s own son, like many other urchin divers in the area, seeks mostly nonfishing work.

This shortage of edible urchins has affected restaurants as well, just as Americans were developing a palate for the delicacy. Uni has long been a staple of Japanese and Italian cuisine, but can be found on plates in places as far-flung as Chile and is increasingly making its way into Californian fare.

Nico Pe​​ña, the chef de cuisine at Octavia, a fine-dining restaurant in San Francisco, says that the urchin available off California’s North Coast “has a beautiful umami flavor with an ocean salinity,” adding that “the texture is super luscious.” He serves it in its dramatic spiny urchin shell with a side of cultured butter and brioche toast.

He first encountered uni while working at the pasta station at Quince, a three-Michelin-starred restaurant across town, where it was cooked down and used to thicken a cream sauce. Uni is incredibly delicate — its melt-in-your-mouth texture is part of its appeal — so less picturesque pieces that have lost their form can be turned into uni butter and used on pasta dishes. Mr. Pe​​ña says he jumps at the chance to add uni to Octavia’s menu because it sells so well and fits with his culinary philosophy of leaning on locally sourced ingredients.

But since July, he’s struggled to source it. “I noticed that there is a lot less than what I was able to get before,” he said, adding that other chefs have had to eliminate uni dishes altogether.

The urchin trouble began in 2014 with “a perfect storm of bad things for kelp,” according to Laura Rogers-Bennett, a research associate at the University of California, Davis and a scientist at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. There was a major marine heat wave from 2014 to 2016, which was driven by climate change and El Niño weather events.

Simultaneously, sea urchins’ main predator, sunflower sea stars, were wiped out by a sea star wasting syndrome. This created what fishermen and scientists call a “purple carpet,” where the urchins wait in a starving “zombie” state for any sprouts of kelp to grow, thus turning the area into a lifeless urchin barren. And without any uni meat, the urchins are unattractive to other predators like sea otters.

Uni divers like Mr. Trumper and Mr. Koehler were among the first to notice the problem. “They took over the shallows and spread like wildfire,” Mr. Trumper said.

During the 2015 survey season, Ms. Rogers-Bennett said she recalled thinking, “​​Oh my god, there are purple urchins everywhere, and there’s no kelp canopy.”

Kelp forests, commonly referred to by marine biologists as “the lungs of the ocean” because of how they sequester carbon, are essential for a healthy ocean ecosystem. The decline of the California kelp forests sent other marine populations, including red abalone, into such a death spiral that the California Fish and Game Commission closed that abalone fishery in 2017 and announced it would not reopen until at least 2026.

Ms. Rogers-Bennett explained that tackling the problem now, while even a marginal amount of kelp remains, is of the utmost urgency. “If we go down to zero kelps, then trying to restore them is a huge amount of work,” she said. But outcry has been limited mostly to those in the food and conservation sectors. “If 90 percent of the trees in California disappeared,” Ms. Rogers-Bennett said, “then I think people would be much more concerned about the problem.”

The problem has resulted in unlikely partnerships between business interests and conservationists. On a misty morning in late August, Mr. Trumper and Mr. Koehler are not diving for the commercial seafood industry; they’re working for Reef Check, a nonprofit that has partnered with the state government to tackle the problem.

Mr. Trumper and Mr. Koehler are being paid a day rate to pluck every urchin they can from designated zones. The urchins are then brought to Reef Check’s lab where they are analyzed and then used for compost, paving or other purposes. Mr. Trumper explained that these days, working for conservation organizations is the only way they can make a reliable income, but he said even with that, he was earning “just enough money to keep the lights on.” At the end of the day, they collect hundreds of wriggling spiny purple urchins from a designated area smaller than an Olympic-size swimming pool. Their haul fills two large industrial trash cans.

Morgan Murphy-Cannella, a kelp-restoration coordinator at Reef Check who works with Mr. Trumper and Mr. Koehler, said that working with commercial divers is important not just for curtailing the devastating impact on local industries, but also because they know the sea best. “They have thousands of underwater hours,” she said. “They know the reef really well. They’re able to notice patterns.”

So far, their efforts appear to be helping. Mr. Trumper says that kelp is regrowing in the areas where they have pulled urchin. Ms. Murphy-Cannella added that a similar project in Noyo Bay in Mendocino County showed promising results. “This type of restoration works,” she said. But she is far from optimistic. “How do we use this over the bigger scale?” she said. “It’s impossible to clear an entire coastline of urchin.”

Last year, Ms. Rogers-Bennett’s team at U.C. Davis collaborated with a company called Urchinomics, which had been working on similar problems in Norway and Japan. Together, along with the Nature Conservancy, they worked to determine whether their technologies were transferable to California.

They embarked on a yearlong study to see if they could take the starving urchin and make them commercially viable. Urchinomics hired divers to take the starving urchins from the barrens and bring them to aquaculture tanks on land, where they were fed pellets made from scraps of discarded seaweed. Urchinomics’ chief executive, Brian Tsuyoshi Takeda, explained that the choice of feed is incredibly important. “If an urchin is sitting on a dead herring, it will taste like that herring,” he said. “An urchin that’s eating umami-rich kelp essentially tastes like a lot of umami.”

At the end of 12 weeks on this diet, when the urchin shells were cracked in half, there was plump, deep yellow uni inside. The company has begun doing test sales in the United States and is selling to a larger market in Japan. While the commercial aspect appears to be working, Ms. Rogers-Bennett was enthusiastic about the ecological implications. “This is actually better than sustainable,” she said, “because the more you fish it, the better off the kelp forest will be. This is a restorative seafood product.”

When asked what his company would do if they are successful in clearing out barrens off the Southern California coast where they are currently operating, Mr. Tsuyoshi Takeda said that he anticipated no shortage of work. First, they would move up the coast, clearing out the barrens in Northern California and Oregon. And there are urchin barrens all over the world.

Another company, Marauder Robotics, is in the process of developing artificially intelligent underwater predator robots that collect urchins from the seafloor. It is currently conducting experiments in Southern California. In 2018, Dennis Yancey, the company’s chief executive, estimated that one robot could do the work of 75 commercial divers.

Though these kinds of efforts undoubtedly make a dent in the problem, Ms. Murphy-Cannella of Reef Check suggests that “the solution is going to be multiple avenues working together.”

“We can’t eat our way out,” she said.



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Syria Accuses Israel of Assassinating Official Near Golan Heights

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Syria Accuses Israel of Assassinating Official Near Golan Heights


The Syrian government on Saturday accused Israel of assassinating a high-ranking Syrian official who spent 12 years in an Israeli prison on terrorism charges before serving decades in the Syrian government.

The official, Midhat Saleh, who was responsible for overseeing the strategic Golan Heights boundary, was shot and killed by an apparent sniper while inside Syria near the shared border between the two countries.

In a statement announcing his death, Syria’s Presidency of the Council of Ministers said Mr. Saleh was “targeted by the Israeli enemy with bursts of treacherous bullets while returning to his home.”

Mr. Saleh, a member of the Druse religious minority, served 12 years in an Israeli prison on charges of using mines and explosives with the intention of killing Israeli civilians and soldiers

Credit…Syrian Arab News Agency

In 1997, after his release, he went to Syria, where he was elected to Parliament.

A senior Israeli defense official, who would not address Israel’s involvement in any killing, said Mr. Saleh was working with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard to establish the military infrastructure along the border necessary for an attack against Israel.

Israel has been operating aggressively against Iran in Syria soon after the country’s civil began and has attacked Iranian or Iranian-related targets in the country hundreds of times, if not more, as well as carried out a series of assassinations. The fighting between Israel and Iran inside Syria effectively constitutes a shadow war, as regional powers test their opponents’ abilities amid the carnage of the Syrian civil war.

Israel has long maintained that Iran represents a threat to its existence and has targeted the Islamic Republic’s agents both outside and inside Iran, stymying its nuclear weapons program and killing its top scientists and operatives.

The Israelis are sensitive to Iran’s presence in Syria. The assassination was the fourth attack this week against Iranian forces in Syria attributed to Israel.

Mr. Saleh, 54, was killed in Ein al-Tina, Syria, according to SANA, the Syrian state news agency. The town is directly across the border from Majdal Shams, Israel, the Druse village in which he was born.

The year of his birth, 1967, coincided with Israel’s defeat of a coalition of Arab countries and the occupation of the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau that spans the border.

He was arrested by Israeli intelligence agents in 1985, along with other Druse from the occupied Golan villages, and convicted of terrorism.

“I’m not saying we will kill the Jews or drive them away,” he said in a 2007 interview with The Guardian. “I just want to live on my land.”

After representing the Golan in Syria’s Parliament, he was appointed head of the country’s Golan Office and an adviser to President Bashar al-Assad.

Mr. Saleh was praised by officials in Mr. Assad’s government, a regime that has brutalized its own people, including gas attacks, for much of the past decade.

Hussein Arnous, Syria’s prime minister, described Mr. Saleh’s assassination as a cowardly act. Hussam Edin Aala, the country’s United Nations representative, called him “a man who devoted his life to defending the rights of his people in the occupied Syrian Golan.”



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Penn Badgley Flexes New Dance Moves

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Penn Badgley Flexes New Dance Moves


“It feels good,” the actor Penn Badgley said on a recent Friday morning, in an echoing studio at the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn. “I’m clumsy as hell. But it feels good.”

Mr. Badgley, 34, who played lonely boy Dan on the original “Gossip Girl” and now stars on the Netflix thriller “You,” hadn’t visited a gym in two years. He hadn’t taken a dance class in far longer.

But at a fashion shoot a month before, he had found himself moving in tandem with the photographer and missing dance acutely. So he reached out to André Zachery, his gyrotonics instructor and the artistic director of Renegade Performance Group, a contemporary dance company in Brooklyn. Mr. Zachery was willing to put him through his paces.

In the yawning dance studio, mirrors lined one wall. Ice-white tube lights glared overhead. Mr. Badgley had dressed for class in a villain-black T-shirt and shorts. A luxurious dad beard and a corona of mink-brown hair framed his face.

They began with a warm-up: stretches, lunges, isolations of the neck, shoulders, chest and hips. Roy Ayers’s “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” set the groove; Mr. Badgley, his brooding face etched into a frown, inhaled and exhaled in time, rolling his spine down and up.

Mr. Zachery integrated the stretches into a simple routine, and Mr. Badgley lumbering and somewhat stiff, like a bear who hadn’t fully shaken off hibernation, danced his way through the initial eight count, then repeated the steps again.

“All right, not bad,” Mr. Zachery said encouragingly. “You want to go a little faster?”

Mr. Badgley paused to tie his hair back with a blue-and-white bandanna. He asked to take it slow again. “As much as I love to move and I love to dance, it’s not a language that I speak regularly at all,” he said. “So even just getting into this feels great. But it also feels very clumsy.”

Mr. Zachery reassured him, gently countering Mr. Badgley’s perfectionism. “Be imperfect with this,” he said.

As Mr. Zachery prepared the next combination, the track switched to Donny Hathaway’s “The Ghetto,” and Mr. Badgley’s face stern face split into a smile. “This is one of my kid’s favorite songs,” Mr. Badgley said. “He loves classic soul.”

Last summer, Mr. Badgley and his wife, Domino Kirke, welcomed a son. (They also share custody of Ms. Kirke’s son from an earlier relationship.) On “You,” Mr. Badgley plays Joe, the sociopath next door. Joe has also had a son with his wife, Love (Victoria Pedretti), who has a body count of her very own.

In the third season, which premieres on Oct. 15, Joe muses about his new life in a Bay Area suburb. “Me, a boy and his mom, who is usually great, but occasionally murders people with her bare hands,” Joe says. “What could go wrong?” A lot, it turns out.

Mr. Badgley has some experience playing characters with dark motives. The final episodes of “Gossip Girl” revealed that Dan, the Deuxmoi of his day, had surveilled his friends and lovers, uploading their secrets to the pre-Instagram internet.

Making the show was, as Mr. Badgley described it, “an existential endurance test.” As a 20-something, he struggled with the glitzy ethos of the series. Fans’ failure to differentiate between him and Dan nagged at him, too. “I wouldn’t recommend fame to anybody,” he said. “It just doesn’t make anything better or help it make more sense. It doesn’t help you as a person.”

When “Gossip Girl” ended in 2012, he spent half of a decade shooting indie movies and touring with his band, MOTHXR. He wasn’t sure he wanted to return to mainstream TV and he had further doubts about Joe, a character who imprisons, tortures and kills women (and the occasional interfering man), all in the name of true love. Boy gets girl? Absolutely.

Still, he thought that “You” had something to say about the tropes of romantic love and the queasy nexus of desire, power and abuse. Many viewers responded a lot more swoonily and for a while Mr. Badgley took time to razz fans asking to be kidnapped. (“No thx,” he replied.) Now he tries to focus on the work itself, which he likens to a dance, “a torturous and ugly dance.”

Back in the studio, Mr. Badgley was trying to dance more beautifully. He can become overwhelmed by his own thoughts, he said, so Mr. Zachery introduced a guided meditation, occupying Mr. Badgley’s mind so that his body could move more freely.

As Robert Glasper’s cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” played, he had Mr. Badgley imagine himself at the beach, his body buoyed by the waves. They also played a game of avant-garde Twister, in which had Mr. Badgley had to keep either both hands and one foot on the floor, or both feet and one hand.

“Yo, man,” Mr. Zachery said approvingly. “You’re actually more in your body than you think.”

Finally, at a suggestion from Mr. Badgley, he switched the music to “Promises,” a mellow album from Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra. The two men began to move across the floor together, limbs slowly cartwheeling as they improvised. Politely, Mr. Badgley asked to turn the music up.

“Now we’re dancing,” he said, back arched, head tipped back, arms like wings. “It feels so good.”



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