The Morning Jolt


Elon Musk on the Brink

(Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty)

In the last Jolt of the week: Elon Musk is a genius but is he pushing himself too hard?; remembering Aretha Franklin; and two takes on John Brennan’s security clearance.

Can a Silicon Valley Titan Spread Himself Too Thin?

Elon Musk is one of the most interesting people of our age. The South African–born inventor, investor, and business tycoon is a modern-day combination of Leonardo da Vinci and Andrew Carnegie (who may also have a touch of Howard Hughes in him). Musk has had a hand in some of the most innovative companies of the 21st century: PayPal, SpaceX, the Boring Company, and Tesla.

But on August 7, seemingly out of the blue, Musk tweeted a breathtaking announcement in the middle of Wall Street trading day:

Within hours, Tesla’s stock had shot up 7 percent, the Nasdaq stock exchange halted trading on the stock, and the company was scrambling to explain the situation.

Many speculated that Musk had been approached by the Saudi sovereign-wealth fund with a proposal to take the company private. It wasn’t that simple, however, because the Saudis had apparently never made a solid offer. There were even rumors that Musk’s $420-per-share price was a reference to cannabis. Musk denies this, though he has admitted to the use of recreational drugs in the past. So why did Musk tweet something so explosive and potentially put himself at risk for government action?

According to the New York Times:

[On August 8], investigators in the San Francisco office of the Securities and Exchange Commission asked Tesla for explanations. Ordinarily, such material information about a public company’s plans is laid out in detail after extensive internal preparation and issued through official channels. Board members, blindsided by the chief executive’s market-moving statement, were angry that they had not been briefed, two people familiar with the matter said. They scrambled to cobble together a public statement trying to defuse a mounting uproar over the seemingly haphazard communication. . . .

The S.E.C. investigation appears to be intensifying rapidly. Just days after the agency’s request for information, Tesla’s board and Mr. Musk received S.E.C. subpoenas, according to a person familiar with the matter. Board members and Mr. Musk are preparing to meet with S.E.C. officials as soon as next week, the person said.

In an interview with the Times, it’s clear that Musk is struggling under the pressure of running his several companies to the exacting, perfectionist, and secretive standards that he is accustomed to.

Mr. Musk alternated between laughter and tears.

He said he had been working up to 120 hours a week recently — echoing the reason he cited in a recent public apology to an analyst whom he had berated. In the interview, Mr. Musk said he had not taken time off of more than a week since 2001, when he was bedridden with malaria.

“There were times when I didn’t leave the factory for three or four days — days when I didn’t go outside,” he said. “This has really come at the expense of seeing my kids. And seeing friends.”

Mr. Musk stopped talking, seemingly overcome by emotion.

He turned 47 on June 28, and he said he spent the full 24 hours of his birthday at work. “All night — no friends, nothing,” he said, struggling to get the words out.

In the past, Tesla has periodically searched for a No. 2 executive that could take some of the load off of Musk — Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s name has even been floated. Musk is one of the best and brightest in America — let’s hope he gets some help before his star flames out:

Asked if the exhaustion was taking a toll on his physical health, Mr. Musk answered: “It’s not been great, actually. I’ve had friends come by who are really concerned.”

Aretha Franklin, RIP

Dan McLaughlin remembers the Queen of Soul:

Maybe the biggest thing Aretha changed was bringing the full, vigorous sound of the black church to mainstream popular music. She wasn’t the first popular music star with a gospel background, but singers such as Ray Charles and Billie Holliday were much more steeped in the secular R&B and blues sound, while traditional pop singers such as Ella Fitzgerald performed in a more restrained genre. Aretha was always firmly rooted in gospel and took you to church whenever she took the microphone. Her 1972 Amazing Grace album, a double-LP live recording of gospel standards, is one of the definitive records of her career. Like her country contemporary Johnny Cash, she was never shy about mingling songs of Christian faith with songs about the blues of life in the here and now.

Aretha was feminist in a way that was very unlike the white “women’s lib” of her time. She was a lover of men, not a hater: She followed in the footsteps of her famous preacher father, had a series of lovers including two husbands, and raised four sons. But men, and life, gave her plenty of blues to sing: Her mother (already separated from her father) died when she was 10, she got pregnant for the first time when she was only 12, and her first husband was physically abusive. She was, of course, not just a woman but a black woman in and of her time, with a childhood that took her from Memphis to Detroit, and a career that started in Jim Crow America and spanned performances at Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral in 1968 and Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. Her appearance at the latter was a kind of benediction, a powerful symbol of how far African-Americans had come in one lifetime.

I’ll second Dan’s assessment; it’s all true. But as for me, I’ll never forget Aretha’s performance in one of my favorite movies, The Blues Brothers:

You better think (think!)
Think about what you’re trying to do to me
Think (think! Think!)
Let your mind go, let yourself be free

Was Trump Justified in Rescinding John Brennan’s Security Clearance?

Victor Davis Hanson:

When one collates Brennan’s politicized and often incoherent explanations on a number of key intelligence matters in various capacities between 2009 and 2016 (on the circumstances surrounding Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a.k.a. the “underwear bomber,” his confusing and changing narratives surrounding the bin Laden raid, and his bizarre and careerist-inspired description of jihad: “Nor do we describe our enemy as ‘jihadists’ or ‘Islamists’ because jihad is a holy struggle, a legitimate tenet of Islam, meaning to purify oneself or one’s community”), the portrait of a political contortionist rather than a professional and disinterested intelligence officer is confirmed.

All that can be said in condolence to John Brennan about losing his security clearance might be something along the lines of, “Try not to lie repeatedly to the U.S. Congress. Please do not allege that the current president of the United States is a traitor. And do not hire yourself out to partisans to issue near daily unproven invective, supposedly sanctified and monetized by your past tenure and present access to the highest level of covert U.S. intelligence.”

That was not too much to ask.

David French:

Generations of precedent suggest that the president does not possess entirely : authority over the substance of security-clearance determinations. Though he does enjoy broad discretion, it’s clearly bounded by limits, even if they haven’t yet been fully defined by the courts. One of those limits should be that presidents cannot dispense or revoke the security clearances of private citizens (such as contractors or former government employees) in retaliation for the exercise of constitutionally protected political expression, short of evidence of disloyalty to the United States, instability, or vulnerability to improper influence. A security clearance is not a reward for good political behavior, and treating it as such has negative consequences for American national security. Does anyone doubt that John Brennan would still have his security clearance if his Twitter comments were just as frothy and erratic, but were instead aimed at the so-called witch hunt rather than the Trump administration?

Read both takes in full.

ADDENDA: Thanks to all our Jolt readers for bearing with me today, and with Teddy, who pinch-hit Monday through Thursday this week. Jim will be back from vacation on Monday. It’s two weeks until the start of the college-football season. So always remember: Oklahoma invented championships.

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