New York Times Columnists Gail Collins and Bret Stephens: Just a Few Top Secrets Among Friends

From a conversation between New York Times columnists Gail Collins and Bret Stephens headlined “Just a Few Top Secrets Among Friends”:

Bret Stephens: Bob Kerrey, the former Nebraska governor and senator, emailed me a letter he was considering putting in the mail. He gave me permission to share it with our readers:

Dear Federal Government,

When a 21-year-old National Guardsman gets access to top secret briefings, my first conclusion is: You guys left the keys in the car and that’s why it was “stolen.” And when journalists find out who committed the crime before you do, my conclusion is that you folks are overpaid.


Bret: Your thoughts on this latest intelligence debacle and the possibility that the suspect’s motive was to try to impress his little community of teenage gamers?

Gail Collins: Yeah, Bret, the bottom line here is the fact that a teenage doofus was able to join the National Guard and quickly work his way up to its cyber-transport system, while apparently spending his spare time with his online pals playing video games, sharing racist memes and revealing government secrets.

Bret: It’s enough to make me nostalgic for Alger Hiss.

Gail: Said doofus is certainly in need of punishment, but he’s really not the main problem here. You think a lot about national security issues — what’s your solution?

Bret: We certainly owe the suspect the presumption of innocence. But my first-pass answer is that when everything is a secret, nothing is a secret — in other words, a government that stamps “confidential” or “top secret” on too many documents loses sight of the information that really needs to be kept a secret.

This is one area that’s really ripe for bipartisan legislation — a bill that requires the government to declassify more documents more quickly, while building taller and better fences around the information that truly needs to be kept secret.

Gail: We really do agree.

I have to check your presidential prospect temperature. You kinda liked Ron DeSantis and then made a fierce turnaround, which I presume has been nailed in even further by his no-abortions agenda.

Bret: It’s awful politics. It’s awful, period.

Florida’s ban on abortion after six weeks of pregnancy means that many women will not even know they are pregnant before they are unable to obtain an abortion. It makes Mississippi’s 15-week ban look relatively moderate in comparison, which is like praising Khrushchev because he wasn’t as bad as Stalin. And it signals to every independent voter that DeSantis is an anti-abortion extremist who should never be trusted with presidential power.

Gail: Down with DeSantis. So what about the new guy, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, who would like to be our second Black president? He hasn’t officially announced, but he’s certainly doing that dance.

Bret: In theory, he has a lot going for him. He exudes personal authenticity and optimism about America, as well as a sense of aspiration — attractive qualities in any politician. He’s sort of a standard-issue conservative on most policy issues and supports a 20-week national abortion ban, which is middle-of-the-road for most Americans and almost liberal for today’s Republican Party. He has the potential to win over some minority voters who have been trending conservative in recent years, while neutralizing potential Democratic attacks on racial issues.

But how he fares with voters outside of his home base remains to be seen. A lot of these presidential aspirants fall apart the moment they come into contact with audiences who ask difficult questions.

Gail: Recent interviews with Scott do seem to suggest there might be a problem there. On CBS, he said he was “100 percent pro-life.” When asked if that meant he supported Lindsey Graham’s proposed 15-week abortion ban, he replied “That’s not what I said.” Ummm …

Bret: But we keep talking about Republicans. Are you still 100 percent convinced Joe Biden is gonna run for re-election? Because … I’m not.

Gail: No way I’m going 100 percent. Biden’s current evasiveness could certainly be an attempt to time his big announcement for when everybody’s back from summer vacation and all geared up for presidential politics. Or he could just want to string out his current status as long as possible because he knows once he announces he’s not running, he’ll practically disappear from the national political discussion.

But I have trouble imagining that he doesn’t dream about knocking Donald Trump off the wall one more time. Why are you so doubtful?

Bret: I know Biden is supposed to be following some kind of “Rose Garden strategy” of signing bills while his opponents tear themselves to pieces. But, to me, he just seems tired. I know that 90 is supposed to be the new 60, as you put it last week. I just don’t think that’s true of him. His 80 looks like the old 80 to me. Also, rank-and-file Democrats seem to be about as enthusiastic for his next run as they are for their next colonoscopy.

I keep hoping he has the wisdom to know that he should cede the field as a one-term president who accomplished big things for his party rather than risk encountering senility in a second term.

Gail: It’s important to stand up for the durability of so many 90-somethings. But age is certainly an issue in a lot of politics these days. I’m troubled right now about Senator Dianne Feinstein, who’s 89 and ailing. The Democrats need her vote to get anything much done in the Senate, particularly on judicial nominations.

Bret: She’s a good argument for the point I was making about Biden.

Gail: Very different cases — Biden is in great shape at 80; Feinstein is 89 and clearly failing. She’s already announced this year that she’s not running for re-election, but she really ought to step down instantly. A short-term governor-appointed successor could give the Democrats a much-needed vote, at least on some issues. But he or she shouldn’t be one of the possible candidates to succeed her. Maybe somebody who would just cheer us up for a while. How about Brad Pitt?

Bret: Well, he’s definitely a Democrat, like most everyone else in Hollywood except Jon Voight. But my money is on Representative Adam Schiff succeeding Feinstein.

Gail: Not a bad idea long term, although I’m hoping for another woman.

OK, now it’s really time to talk about that Biden budget. Protect Medicare, expand some good programs like family leave and free community college for the poor. Balance it all out with a hike in the minimum income tax for billionaires.

Are you surprised to hear that works for me?

Bret: Expected nothing less. Basically I look at Biden’s budget not as a serious proposal but as a political ad for Democrats in 2024. In reality I expect we’ll get roughly the same budget as this year, only with much higher defense spending to account for threats from Russia and China.

But the proposed tax on billionaires really bothers me, because it’s partially a tax on unrealized gains — that is, money people don’t actually have. If it were to pass, it could eventually apply to lots of people who are very far from being billionaires. It’s just like the alternative minimum tax, which was originally devised in the late 1960s to hit a tiny handful of very rich people who weren’t paying their taxes but wound up becoming another tax wallop to people of lesser means.

Gail: The very rich tend to organize their finances around legal tax avoidance. So they hold on to their often rapidly appreciating assets and just borrow against them.

Bret: The problem remains that we’re talking about a tax on income that includes much more than income.

Gail: It’s certainly important that what’s billed as a tax on the very rich not be applied to the middle class. But the complaints about Biden’s plan really are claims that it won’t just hit billionaires — it’ll make the hundred-millionaires suffer. Not feeling this is a problem.

Bret: Fortunately it won’t pass this House or pass muster with this Supreme Court.

On another note, Gail, an article in The Wall Street Journal reminds me that this month is the 50th anniversary of the first cellphone call — back when cellphones were the size of a shoe.

Gail: It’s thrilling the way cellphones allow parents to keep track of where their kids are and friends to stay in contact when they’re out of town. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched old movies when the heroine or the hero was in crisis and thought, “Oh, God, if you could just call somebody.”

But all this good news is connected to the technical and cultural changes that encourage people to communicate without having to take responsibility for what they say. Obviously, there are problems and we’ve got to figure out ways to make it work.

Do you have a plan?

Bret: We can’t escape the fact that new technologies are almost always both liberating and enslaving, and almost always unavoidable. Cellphones freed us from being attached to a physical location in order to be in touch — while putting us all on call no matter where we were. Smartphones put the world in our back pockets but also addicted us to tiny screens. If, God forbid, ChatGPT ever takes over this conversation, then, well, hmm … the two of us are going to spend a lot more time drinking good wine on your patio. There are worse fates.

Gail Collins is an Opinion columnist, is a former member of the editorial board and was the first woman to serve as the Times editorial page editor, from 2001 to 2007.

Bret Stephens has been an Opinion columnist with The Times since April 2017. He won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary at The Wall Street Journal in 2013 and was previously editor in chief of The Jerusalem Post.

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