James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne.
James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.
Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.
Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
Rebecca Frankel is an editor at Foreign Policy, a friend of our family, and the author of a great new book called War Dogs. Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post, a man who does not lightly distribute praise, gave it a very positive review in the Post this past Sunday ("exceptionally interesting and surprisingly moving"). The NYTBR wrote about the book here, and you can hear her on the Diane Rehm show here.
This evening at 7, I'll be leading a discussion with Rebecca Frankel at the Sixth and I Synagogue in downtown Washington. Tickets are $12, but you get two free tickets with the purchase of one of her books for $26. More details here. I am looking forward to talking with her, and I hope to see you there.
Signatory page from report on the importance of negotiation with Iran (
The Iran Project )
"Of no party or clique" was the founding motto of our magazine, 157 years ago next month. In practice this mainly means that we should aspire to present each article or argument on its merits, and not as expressions of some other agenda. (Though of course we all have our larger worldviews, blind spots, favorites, etc.) Sometimes it means there are disagreements in the arguments presented in our pages or on this site.
For the record I want to note two recent disagreements, one about a journalistic tone and one about a diplomatic goal.
1) Gary Hart. Last week I wrote that I found Matt Bai's All the Truth Is Out to be valuable and worth reading in full, perhaps especially if you'd read the interesting but not-quite-representative excerpt in the NYT Magazine. The book as a whole considers the real career, achievements, and, yes, "character" of former senator and presidential candidate Gary Hart, including his original and decades-long work as a defense reformer—and it contrasts that with the smirking shorthand of press references to Hart as a man forced out of politics because of Monkey Business.
Yesterday The Atlantic ran a short news item about Hart that demonstrated the smirking shorthand tone. Indeed, I thought the item had little point except as an occasion to mention Hart this way—that is, it probably wouldn't have been written if some other former senator was going on a diplomatic mission. It began:
But less than a month after a new book thrust him back into the news, Hart has a new job, and it comes courtesy of a fellow member of the semi-exclusive club of presidential losers, John Kerry.
This is just too easy, and there's just too much of it in political media. I'm sorry that we added to the supply. Before you ask, I have discussed this with the item's author, Russell Berman, and I know that he never meant to leave the impression I am talking about. But that's all the more reason to note it in public, as an illustration of the tone we often take by reflex, without meaning to or thinking about it—and because we are talking about real people.*
My view all along has been more or less the opposite: that the greatest opportunity for the United States is re-integrating Iran into normal international relations, and the greatest risks for American interests and the world would come from Iran's continued isolation under extremist leaders. For background: Ten years ago I argued in a cover story that a military "solution" to Iran's nuclear ambitions was a fantasy. It hasn't gotten any more realistic since then. Last year I wrote about the ways in which re-integrating Iran resembles and differs from the Nixon-era accommodation with China. Because it's relevant to the Iran question, I should also mention that David Frum is generally credited with having come up with the line calling Iraq, Iran, and North Korea the "axis of evil" in George W. Bush's State of the Union Speech in 2002. On the 10th anniversary of the speech, Frum wrote that the phrase stood up well.
By all means read these latest pieces by Frum. Then please consider this detailed report by "The Iran Project," which argues (as I would) that the risk/reward calculation of long-term dealings with Iran favors more active attempts at engagement.
The people running The Iran Project are about as august a group of experts as you could find, largely former ambassadors or security advisors from both Republican and Democratic administrations. The image at the top is a screen-grab of a signature page showing some of their names. One member of the panel, longtime CIA official Paul Pillar, has explained its implications this way:
A premise of the report is that a successful nuclear agreement, by resolving the issue that has so heavily dominated for years the U.S.-Iranian relationship in particular, is likely to have other repercussions in the Middle East. This is partly because it would open up opportunities in the U.S.-Iranian relationship itself to address other problems of mutual concern. It is also because, given the importance of the United States to many states in the region, there are apt to be secondary effects involving the relations of those states with Iran.
Robert Hunter, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO (and a colleague and friend of mine back in the Carter administration days), made a similar case as negotiations neared a deadline this summer, in "The Hopes and Fears of an Agreement With Iran."
Read them all, decide for yourself, and remember the big-tent spirit we aspire to here.
* For some reason, this old standard comes to mind: "Though boys throw stones at frogs in sport, yet the frogs do not die in sport but in earnest."
I give the "by friends" disclosure just for the record. I mention these books because, whether or not I'd known their authors, I would think they deserved attention. And I'll mention each as tersely as I can, both so you can discover their virtues for yourself and because if I waited to do "real" writeups I'd probably never get around to it.
1) All Our Yesterdays, by Erik Tarloff. Erik and his wife Laura D'Andrea Tyson were friends of ours when my wife and I lived for a while in their home town of Berkeley, and when they lived for a while in our current home town of DC. Erik has been a successful screenwriter and novelist, plus a correspondent here. Two of my favorites from his oeuvre are Face-Time and The Man Who Wrote the Book.
His newest book is a love story, heartbreak story, mystery story, cultural portrait, and character study set in Berkeley from the late 1960s through the present. It is carried by its dialogue, which I mean as a compliment, and every few pages I marked a sharp observation or witticism I wanted to remember. You will enjoy it.
2) The Dog, by Jack Livings. I don't know this author, but I do have friends involved with the book at its publisher, FSG. The book is a collection of short stories set in contemporary China, featuring people very different from those who usually come to foreign attention. You can get an idea by reading the title short story as published in the Paris Review nine years ago.
I am wary of harping too often on the gulf between the varied, chaotic, contradictory, simultaneously horrible-and-uplifting, vividly human on-scene realities of China, and the simplified view of either an economic juggernaut or a buttoned-up central-control state that necessarily comes through many media filters. But I'll harp on it again, because one of the rewards of this book is the range of vividly human experience its presents. Plus, Jack Livings is a very gifted story-teller.
3) China's Super Consumers: What 1 Billion Customers Want and How to Sell It to Them, by Michael Zakkour. I do know and like Zakkour, whom I met with while in China. His book is worth reading alongside The Dog, because it depicts what seems to be an entirely different universe from the one of Jack Livings's stories, but which in fact coexists within the same national borders.
For all the problems the "Chinese model" is now encountering, for all of the doubt about when the supposedly reformist president Xi Jinping will switch from merely cracking down on dissenters and enemies and start loosening up, hundreds of millions of people inside China are moving onto a different economic plane. This is a business-minded book about some of the ramifications of that change.
4) The Tinderbox Way, by Mark Bernstein. This is an odd entry, in that the book is not new, and my occasion for mentioning is a podcast rather than a physical or electronic book.
Mark Bernstein is the creator of intriguing idea-organizing Mac software called Tinderbox, which I've mentioned over the years. I have never met him but have often corresponded; three years ago, he was a guest blogger here. This week, in a podcast interview for the Sources and Methods site, he talks not so much about his software but about the larger question of how thinking interacts with the tools of the electronic age. If you find the podcast provocative, you might well be interested in the book The Tinderbox Way, which is equal parts guide to Bernstein's Tinderbox program and meditation on the right and wrong approach to "information farming." As you'll gather from the podcast and see in the book, the kind of farming he has in mind is nothing like mega-scale factory farming and very much like an artisanal plot.
Bonus! 5) Also on the "works by friends" theme, please see John Tierney's latest American Futures dispatch, on the surprising new growth industry of, yes, meaderies in an industrial area of Pennsylvania.
I recognize that the social-intellectual ecology of blogging is different from what it was even three or four years ago. Back then—ah, the lost Golden Age of the Blog!—it was easy to assume, or imagine, an ongoing, incremental process of working out concepts in public and exploring evidence as it emerged. This was the era and the mood that Andrew Sullivan captured in his "Why I Blog" cover story for The Atlantic in November, 2008.
The autumn of 2008 is "only" six years in the past, but it seems a different universe. George W. Bush was still the president. At least for supporters, Barack Obama was most strongly identified with the word Hope. The world economy, rather than being "troubled" as it is now, was in full-fledged panic. (Worth remembering for perspective on today's "volatile" stock markets: The Dow Jones average went from the 14,000s to the 6,000s within a little more than a year.)
Twitter was just a glimmer; Facebook had barely one-tenth as many users as it does today. And online discourse, because of the relative "calm" of that era, seems in retrospect something from the days of Emerson and Melville, of Addison and Steele. Our magazine, The Atlantic, had Andrew Sullivan and a handful of other online "Voices." Collectively we put up a relative handful of items per day.
It's the age of superabundance now in all things digital: opinions, outlets, connections, sources of insight and misinformation and distraction. That makes the thinking-in-public process more complex than it seemed six years ago, since it's harder to assume that any reader has had the time to follow a discussion. There's a greater risk that a single comment will be taken out of context—and a vastly greater likelihood that it won't be seen at all. On the other hand, this may return the thinking-out-loud process to something like its normal, pre-Golden-Age-of-Blogs condition, in which you think mainly to yourself and with a small group of onlookers and every so often try to get broader attention for the results.
The maglev train in Shanghai briefly reaches a speed of more than 250 mph, on its very short demonstration route. (
Shanghai maglev authority )
Three more installments to go! This is No. 13 in a series, started back in July, on the biggest infrastructure project underway in America, and either the most important one (if you're a supporter) or most misguided (if you are not). That's the proposal for a north-south California High-Speed Rail (HSR) system, which Governor Jerry Brown has embraced as his legacy project and is selling hard in his re-election campaign. For previous episodes see No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, No. 6, No. 7, No. 8, No. 9, No. 10, No. 11, and No. 12.
Today, mail from some readers who say that California needs a better land-transportation system, just not this specific HSR proposal. Their alternative suggestions come in two main categories: taking seriously the possibility of self-driving cars, and changing from a conventional wheels-on-rails railroad system to the maglev systems, for "magnetic levitation," now in use in some other parts of the world. I also get mail in a third category, involving Elon Musk's "Hyperloop" transport vision, but that one is still hypothetical enough that I'll leave it for another time.
Before you point it out: Yes, I'm aware that responding to any proposal by saying, "I like the idea, I'm just not sure of the execution" often has the same effect as "Actually, I don't like the idea." That's for later. My purpose for the moment is to let advocates of these systems lay out the main points in their cases. The grand unification theory is still to come.
We're on the road again, right now in the not-exactly-small city of Pittsburgh. Here we're asking about some of its celebrated successes in downtown revitalization, technology-hub development, and other indicators of civic health, and the lessons they may offer for other parts of the country. More on that anon.
For now, I direct your attention to two new reports from Columbus, Ohio. One, by Deb Fallows, is on the unusual approach that the Cristo Rey religious schools are taking for students from poor backgrounds. The other, by John Tierney, is about how the often-empty buzzword of "collaboration" has real effects for a variety of startup businesses.
Fast typing is just one of the skills a modern reporter should possess. (
Herewith an item from the email inbox. The sender is someone I don't know, and the country he is discussing is one I have never been to or written about.
Most reporters get lots of PR pitches each day. This one seemed worth sharing as a little glimpse into today's news ecology.
We’ve never actually worked together, but I’m hoping to build a stronger relationship between my practice and The Atlantic.
I recently accepted a position in [a big PR firm's] Foreign Governments practice, and will be representing a number of foreign entities that you’ve covered in the past. I’d love to take you out for a drink or a cup of coffee to figure out what topics you’re interested in and discuss how I can connect you with the appropriate foreign officials.
On another note, next week, two human rights experts from [a country sometimes in the news for human rights issues] will be in Washington, DC to discuss the report they’ve just published that directly challenges the United Nations Human Rights Council’s (UNHRC) methodologies in investigating human rights violations. Using [their country] as a case study, their research reveals evidence that raises serious questions about the UNHRC’s impartiality and its ability to be an effective oversight body investigating human rights violations.
Given the heightened activity level of the UNHRC right now and some of the serious charges raised in this report, this is going to be a topic US and foreign policymakers are talking about in the coming months. They have a number of meetings lined up next week, but given your knowledge on the subject, I’d appreciate the opportunity to introduce them to you.
The two experts who are visiting are both [Country X]-based international affairs experts.
[ ... Extensive details on the two experts ... ]
I would be happy to provide you with copies of the report in advance and make both available to you during their visit to Washington.
I will call you later this week to inquire about a possible meeting, but in the meantime, I may be reached by replying to this email or calling 202-xxx-xxxx.
Looking forward to connecting,
For previous installments in the "glamorous life" series, you can start here or here or here or get a big collection here.
The photo above does not include any products of America's largest and best known craft brewery, the Boston Beer Company that produces Sam Adams. But it's a useful reference for several craft-beer-related points.
Today John Tierney has a new item on the Beer Economy of Pennsylvania and the role it plays in the identity and economy of the region. I know this seems like a running gag, but quite seriously we've come to think that the locally based, strongly locally branded food-and-beverage outfits we've seen from Maine to Mississippi to South Dakota, are significant business operations and signs of civic health. John Tierney explains more about their role in the historic brewing stronghold of the Lehigh Valley.
Here are two recent books that make important points about politics, history, culture, and human nature via fast-moving vivid narratives.
1) The Cynic, by Alec MacGillis. Everyone in politics-world knows that Mitch McConnell matters. If he holds on through his current reelection race in Kentucky, and if enough of the other likely-Republican Senate races go in the expected way, then McConnell will end up as Senate majority leader early next year.
Not as many people have a clear idea of who McConnell is, or how he evolved, or why he does the things he does—notably including his conversion of the Senate from a majority-rule body with occasional filibusters to a paralyzed system in which a 60-vote "supermajority" is required to get even routine chores done.
This is the story Alec MacGillis tell in his concise, fast-moving ebook about McConnell, The Cynic. It's full of things I hadn't known, for instance that McConnell began his career as a decidedly moderate Republican, initially keeping arm's length from Ronald Reagan and his conservatives, supporting abortion rights, and styling himself in the inclusive, bridge-building tradition of Kentucky's great mid-20th century senator John Sherman Cooper.*
Mitch McConnell's reputation now amounts to more or less the opposite of John Sherman Cooper's, and MacGillis tells how and why McConnell changed course. He also helps explain how someone without the obvious political gifts of speech-making or glad-handing has stayed in national office for 30 years and is favored to be there at least six years more. And if you'd like even more first-hand evidence of what has happened to the Senate, you'll find it here—all in less than two hours' reading time.
2) All the Truth Is Out, by Matt Bai. If you read the highly publicized NYT Mag excerpt from this book last month, you probably think you know what the whole book is about. That is: the myth and reality of what Bai calls "the week politics went tabloid," the time in 1987 when reporters from The Miami Herald, The Washington Post, and elsewhere turned Gary Hart's presidential campaign into a lurid inquest into the nature of his relationship with Donna Rice and potentially other women.
That's what I assumed too, before I read the book (in preparation for a recent talk with Hart) and learned that I was wrong. The book's ambition is broader than I assumed, and it tells a more important story than that excerpt might suggest.
Bai mentions several time the great Moby Dick-like work of modern political reportage, What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer. And while All the Truth doesn't aspire to the same scale—Richard Ben Cramer told the life stories of six candidates through almost the whole sweep of the 1988 campaign; Matt Bai gives us just one—it is clearly informed by Cramer's determination to present the candidates as real people.
That is: real people as opposed to larger-than-life world historical figures, which was the tone Theodore White's seminal Making of the President books often took. But also, real people as opposed to crooks, villains, and liars, in the way Hunter S. Thompson popularized and that is the default approach in much of today's political journalism. To paraphrase a point Bai makes in the book: Modern reporters start out knowing that politicians are guilty of something. They just have to figure out what. Richard Ben Cramer gave a critical but sympathetic view of how the world looked through the eyes of Bob Dole or Joe Biden or Dick Gephardt or George W. Bush in 1988, and Matt Bai does that with Gary Hart.
This book will tell you a lot about what politics asks of and takes out of people, and about the highly imperfect ways in which we now assess "character" and "substance" when choosing our leaders. It probably will, and certainly should, make you think more highly of Gary Hart as a figure of consequence in our politics.
And among other questions it raises this one: Bill Clinton (who once worked for Hart during the 1972 McGovern campaign) is known to have committed sexual indiscretions far grosser than anything even alleged about Hart. Yet Clinton is now America's beloved grandfather/neighbor/explainer/philanthropist/first-gentleman-in-waiting, while Hart has been consigned to public-policy limbo. Life, as they say, is not fair.
But you should give these books, and their arguments, and their authors a fair shake by buying and reading both of them.
* In an email exchange about the idea behind his book, MacGillis wrote:
At bottom, [the book] is an attempt to understand, through this one very consequential and representative yet oddly under-scrutinized figure, how we've arrived at the point we have. I've never been really satisfied by the explanation that things have gotten the way they have in Washington because the Republican Party has changed; I wanted to get a better grasp of why and how it changed, and taking a closer look at McConnell seemed a good way to go about doing so.
I was pretty startled to find just how far he has traveled over the years—I found women's-rights activists in Kentucky praising him to the skies for his pro-choice conniving in Louisville government, an aide who recalled sending McConnell bowling with the local AFL-CIO chieftain to get his endorsement (after promising to back public-employee unions), and plenty other flashes of long-lost moderation. Most amusing might be the pro-moderation letter he fired off to a Ripon Society leader after reading his essay in Playboy. (If there's anyone who read Playboy for the articles ...)
In next month's election, Jerry Brown is seeking a fourth term as California's governor and public support for his plan for a north-south bullet train to transform travel in a car-dependent state. Here is more of what's at stake.
Trains, oranges, mountains: three aspects of timeless California charm (Wikimedia Commons)
After a few weeks' pause for reflection—and for article-writing, and for involvement with news from Scotland, Hong Kong, the Middle East, Pennsylvania, and Ohio—it's time once more to dig into California's ambitious and controversial plan to build a north-south High-Speed Rail (HSR) system.
If you're joining us late, this is No. 12 in a series that began in July. For previous installments see No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, No. 6, No. 7, No. 8, No. 9, No. 10, and No. 11. The HSR proposal is important, as the largest infrastructure project now being considered in our infrastructure-deficient land. It's timely, since Governor Jerry Brown has made it a central part of his legacy and platform as he runs for an unprecedented fourth term, with the election just three weeks away. And I think it deserves attention from the country as a whole, as a real-time test case for the way we make big, expensive decisions whose full costs and benefits can't fully be known when the choice is made.
"Rising up from The Bottoms": scenes from the Franklinton neighborhood of Columbus (
Jessica Phelps )
Last week John Tierney reported on the ambitious effort that the generally thriving city of Columbus, Ohio, is undertaking to remake its long-depressed Franklinton neighborhood. That's one of Jessica Phelps's powerful photographs of Franklinton above; you can see many more here. The local slang term for this district has been "The Bottoms," and her collection is called "Rising up from The Bottoms."
Now John has the second installment in his Franklinton/Columbus chapter of the American Futures saga. It is called "How to Attract Artists to a Down-and-Out Neighborhood," and it's about the thinking behind, and the practical steps toward, using creative artists, and arts-related businesses and activities, as a tool of civic renewal. Detroit's version of this approach, including an offer of free houses for artists and writers, has been highly publicized. We've seen a range of related ideas in cities as small as Eastport, Maine and as big as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Greenville, South Carolina, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The Columbus approach is an interestingly broad and thorough one. Please check out John Tierney's report for more, including the background on this scene from Land-Grant Brewing, below.
On the evening of October 11, 2001, thirteen years ago today, a federal prosecutor named Tom Wales was shot and killed while he sat at a desk in the basement-office of his home in Seattle. Wales was 49 years old at the time and had been a federal prosecutor for 18 years.
I have mentioned the case a number of times through the years (eg here and here) partly for personal reasons. I had met and liked Wales while my wife and I were living in Seattle during the two years before his death. I have come to know his children slightly, and one of his in-laws, Eric Redman of Seattle, is a longtime very close friend. But the Tom Wales case has deserved and received continuing national attention because of two of its unusual and disturbing aspects.
One is that Tom Wales is believed to be the only federal prosecutor ever killed in the line of duty—that is, murdered or assassinated because of the work he was doing rather than as the object of a "normal" crime. The other is that local law-enforcement officials very quickly settled on a person they thought had unique means, motive, and opportunity to have been the murderer. But for complex reasons neither this person nor anyone else has been charged.
The best summary of the motives, tangles, and tragedies of the case is Jeffrey Toobin's "An Unsolved Killing" in The New Yorker seven years ago. (Toobin himself is a former federal prosecutor.) I highly recommend that you read that story—and also the note I've just received from Michael Jay.
Jay, a writer and author of a memoir Dog Water Free, was Tom Wales's roommate when they were undergraduates at Harvard. The main purpose of his note, apart from remembering his friend, is to underscore the ongoing search for leads and tips, and the substantial reward that is being amassed for help in the case. I turn it over to him:
A PERFECT MURDER?
THE FBI IS STILL SEEKING CLUES AS REWARD GROWS
By: Michael Jay
The National Association of Former United States Attorneys Foundation is engaged in a pledge campaign to match an existing $1Million Reward from the US Department of Justice for information leading to arrest and conviction of persons responsible for the murder of Assistant US Attorney Tom Wales, a career Federal Prosecutor who lost his life to the bullets of an assassin in Seattle, thirty days after 9/11.
The campaign will run until December 31, 2014
It is being piloted by NAFUSA Foundation Past-President Mike McKay, US Attorney for The Western District of Washington from 1989 – 1993.
More than $400,000 has so far been pledged by prominent firms like Williams & Connolly, Perkins Coie, DLA Piper, as well as several NAFUSA board members.
As most media have reported, “Wales's murder is believed to have been in retaliation for his work as an Assistant US Attorney and was perpetrated or arranged by the target of a criminal investigation,” according to the NAFUSA website.
Be that the case, Tom Wales would be the only Federal Prosecutor in US history to be killed in the line of duty.
“It’s a perfect murder, said one investigator. “The only physical evidence are shell casings and spent bullets…Unless someone steps up and talks, this case will never be prosecuted.”
October 11, 2001
Seattle Police Chief, Gil Kerlikowske, who worked the scene at 108 Hayes Street in the quiet neighborhood of Queen Anne on that night, proclaimed the death of Tom Wales an assassination.
Avoiding motion detectors that would have set off flood lights in the back of Wales’ home, the killer must have known the circumstances at the scene, as well as his habit of spending time in his home office late into the evening.
At work on his computer at 10:40 pm when shots rang out, Wales managed to dial 911 before losing consciousness.
According to public FBI reports, he was shot multiple times through a window of his basement office.
The weapon was a Makarov 9mm semi-automatic handgun, equipped with a shiny, stainless steel aftermarket barrel, believed to have been threaded for a silencer.
Public FBI reports state that Soviet Bloc countries manufactured the Makarov through approximately 1968 and U.S. sales of barrels of this type are rare, which gives investigators reason for hope.
The aftermarket barrels are rifled with six lands and grooves with a left twist.
Corporate and Individual Pledges can be made at firstname.lastname@example.org attn: Mike McKay.
Tips can be made at 1-800-CALL-FBI.
On behalf of a courageous family that longs for closure, thank you.
Through the 1970s and 1980s, when American tennis was strong and players like Chris Evert, Jimmy Connors, and John McEnroe were the American face of the sport on court, Vic Braden was (with Bud Collins) the face of American tennis in TV commentary. Collins called the matches; Braden popped up everywhere to give tips on how to play the game.
Tennis has receded enough in popularity that no current figure quite matches his role. The closest sports-world counterparts would be some leading basketball (Phil Jackson?) or football (John Madden?) coach.
Vic Braden appeared on late-night talk shows and even on network news shows. He wrote a popular series of books and produced instructional videos. His name and always-smiling face were familiar in ads and on the airwaves, in a way that seemed appropriate for the de-country-club-ization of tennis that, with their respective styles, Connors, McEnroe, Bobby Riggs, and Billie Jean King were bringing about.
What I hadn't realized, until I had a chance to meet him in the 1990s, is that beneath this court-jester exterior Vic Braden was a deep and serious person, and a good one.
Twenty years ago, when I had finished a very long book writing stint (for Looking at the Sun), I somehow talked my wife and kids into letting me go through detox via immersions in two tennis camps. First, Nick Bolletieri's, in Sarasota, Florida; then Vic Braden's, in Coto de Caza, California.
About Bolletieri's I'll simply say: you can find someone else to tell you that he is a great guy. My stint there toughened and toned me up. Plus, I got to see a newly arrived little blond-ponytailed girl from Russia who was walloping the ball, and who I have always assumed/ wanted to believe was the just-off-the-boat Maria Sharapova.
About Vic Braden I will say that he seemed to be a born teacher and evangelist, and was someone I wanted to stay in touch with over the years. In the September, 1994 issue of this magazine, I wrote about going to both camps. I can't give you a link to the article, since it's from that twilight zone before our articles were on line (yet is not yet far enough into the recesses of history to put online for antiquarian purposes). In that piece I said that while Bollettieri's operation was devoted to prodigies and couldn't quite conceal its disdain for adult plodders like me, Vic Braden—who, in contrast to Bollettieri, was a huge, in-person presence at his camp—seemed excited by the idea of dealing with mediocre players, because there was so much more he could teach us.
An article I wrote two years later, called "Throwing Like a Girl," is online and talks about Vic Braden's concept of the "kinetic chain" as the key to many successful athletic movements, from golf or baseball swings to tennis strokes to throwing any kind of ball. I got the feeling around him that he loved teaching tennis as a subset of his love for teaching in general, which in turn was a subset of his fascination with looking into how people could make the most of their opportunities and potential.
As you will have guessed by this point, I am saying all this because I have just heard that Vic Braden died two days ago, at the age of 85. He was a genuinely accomplished, deep, influential, loving and loved man, who deserves to be noted by people who were not around during his media heyday, and to be taken more seriously by people who are aware only of his corny on-air routines. You can read some tennis-world appreciations of him here, here, and here. Although I haven't found any of his 1970s-80s TV appearances on line, these instructional videos give a feel for his style. The third is about his approach as applied more broadly than just to tennis technique.
On the low volley:
On the forehand backswing:
On changing the backhand, but really about change in general:
And, why not, a surreal moment from a Davis Cup match in Ecuador featuring Arthur Ashe:
My sympathies to his family, and my gratitude for having known him.
An earlier era's vision of the idealized Scout, outside BSA headquarters in Texas (Tim Sharp/Reuters)
Yesterday I mentioned one of the ongoing and heartening aspects of our American Futures visits: the ways towns small and large are re-knitting the informal social fabric whose presence creates "community" and whose absence means atomized, mutually suspicious existence. Yesterday's example was the expanding role of libraries, with an example from Columbus, Ohio.
Today's installment: the Boy Scout movement, and the ways it has adapted willingly and otherwise to a changing America. John Tierney has a very interesting report from Allentown, Pennsylvania, which puts the evolving Scouting organization there in the larger context of academic analyses of cities that do and do not maintain viable social-connection networks. If any of these themes is relevant to you, or if you did (like me) or did not (like John, as he explains) spend some portion of your life as a Boy or Girl Scout, please check it out.