James Fallows

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. More

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.

James Fallows: Huntsman

  • The Most Interesting Part of Jon Huntsman's 'Regrets'

    A defeated candidate agrees with many critics about a crucial moment when he made the wrong choice.

    (Please see update below.) Through the past year's evolution of the Huntsman 2012 campaign, my own reactions went through an altered version of the famous K‪ü‬bler-Ross cycle. I started with denial: how could a serving member of the Obama Administration possibly run for the nomination of the Tea Party-era GOP? I lurched into admiration (also here, here, and here). I ended with acceptance/regret. And along the way I had the stage of anger/grief.

    That stage came last August, because of Huntsman's on-the-fly decision to "raise his hand" and join all the other Republicans in promising to reject a budget deal skewed even 10-to-1 in favor of budget cuts over tax increases. In case you've forgotten, here it is:

    That moment was horrible. Right after the debate, my friend Hendrik Hertzberg* observed that Huntsman must have regretted his split-second choice: "This is pure speculation, of course, but I'm fairly sure that Huntsman was riven with regret in the aftermath of his humiliating surrender to fear.‬" At the time and later, other people said similar things: at a critical point of either standing up to, or joining in with, Tea Party anti-tax absolutism, Huntsman had unfortunately signed on.

    Thus it is fascinating to see Huntsman singling out that choice as one he wishes he had made differently, according to Zeke Miller's account in BuzzFeed:

     ‪Huntsman said he regrets his decision to oppose a 10-to-1 spending cuts to tax increase deal to cut the deficit at the Iowa debate lamenting: "if you can only do certain things over again in life."‬
    ‪"What went through my head was if I veer at all from my pledge not to raise any taxes...then I'm going to have to do a lot of explaining," he explained. "What was going through my mind was 'don't I just want to get through this?'"‬
    ‪That decision, Huntsman said, "has caused me a lot of heartburn."‬

    At the moment there is no point in "what-if"ism about that moment, because so many other things were working against Huntsman in this year's field. And after we see how this year's presidential race turns out, we'll have lots of time to consider whether the post-2012 GOP is likely to morph in a direction more favorable to Huntsman or whether he has permanently estranged himself from it. For now, it's a further credit to Huntsman's "call me crazy" sanity that he recognizes and admits what went wrong that day.

    Update A reader adds:

    ‪And what will be even more interesting is when Romney announces that he also regrets putting his hand up as he continues his march to the middle.‬

    * Routine disclosure: Rick Hertzberg was my colleague in the White House speechwriting mill during the first two years of the Carter administration and my successor as its director in the two years after that. Both before and after his time in politics he has of course been with the New Yorker.

  • Finale on Huntsman 2016 (Until 2016 or So)

    Huntsman is very well positioned for 2016 -- or else he's not

    To wrap this up, and because I lack the stomach to write about the latest South Carolina GOP debate*, here are some final items looking backward-and-forward on the Jon Huntsman campaign. Final, that is, until three or four years from now.

    abc_jon_huntsman_nt_120116_wmain.jpgFirst, from a reader who differs with the dismissive estimate I quoted yesterday:

    I have to disagree with Joseph Britt's analysis of Huntsman's future prospects. Compare where Romney was after dropping out in 08 compared to where Huntsman is now. What did Romney do between now and then? Run his PAC, write a book, and build his infrastructure. Why couldn't Huntsman do all the same things? His family's wealth is more than sufficient to fund the skeleton staff Our Destiny would need to stay on the radar. And as for a book - no doubt he has some interesting things to say about China, an issue which is going to become more pertinent over the next four years. Romney became the voice of the "money wing" of the party by doing these things. I don't see why Huntsman couldn't do the same.
    Huntsman has four years to learn how to be a decent politician and carve out a sizeable-enough niche for himself in the party. He's the only defeated candidate for nominee who has enough credibility to be viable in 2016. I wouldn't underestimate a smart, handsome, sometimes-charming Governor just because he faces a few obstacles.

    Now, from a reader who likes Huntsman -- and that's the problem:

    To me Huntsman represented a sort of sane economic conservatism which I disagree with but can respect matched with a social tolerance that seems about on par with most Democrats. He wasn't necessarily my guy (although his China experience and general world savvy might have put him over the top in a match up with Obama, especially if I was willing to bet on him dragging his party ahead) but I certainly would have approved of him as a candidate and not been heartbroken or terrified if he won. Of course he has no future in Republican primaries.


    The GOP, as is, couldn't imagine supporting JH.  If he had entered the race with his eye firmly on '16, so that 4 years hence he's be remembered as the sane, non-pandering one, it would have been a strategy with a chance for a payoff.
    Without that clear eye, he was sane for a bit, and then pandered for a bit--essentially wrecking his "sane" brand for the future.  Taking up the "class war" tag as his farewell address, he's pretty totally fouled his own nest.  He doesn't seem to have any upward route anymore.

    Finally, from my friend CO:

    One other (I think large) problem Huntsman will have if he wants to run again is that if Romney is the nominee and loses, there is awfully little chance that four years from now the party is going to think, "hey, maybe this time we should nominate a rich but ideologically suspect Mormon ex-governor." (And if Romney wins the election, then 2016 is obviously off the table.)

    It is worth re-emphasizing that any Huntsman 2016 scenario depends on the assumption of this year's GOP nominee, presumably Romney, losing.

    For now, that is all.
    * Debate Dog Whistle #1, Rick Perry: "South Carolina is at war with this federal government." You know, South Carolina is not really the best place to use this metaphor.

    Dog Whistle #2, Newt: Obama is the "food stamp President."

    Jesus. But when I remember that during my lifetime I have seen "white" and "colored" signs on bathrooms and drinking fountains, maybe we have come some distance. But still. A coincidence that the GOP's stronghold is the old Confederacy? I have begun to think not.

  • The Case Against Huntsman '16

    An argument that the 'sane' candidate didn't do enough to challenge his party's extremists

    Jon Huntsman's "suspending my campaign" speech just now would have been more in keeping with his pleas for conciliation and American unity if it had not included the moronic  claim that Obama -- who appointed Huntsman and whom he was loyally serving just ten months ago -- was destroying the economy through "class war."

    Still, what about the argument that Huntsman, whose positioning was never right for this year's GOP race, overall helped rather than hurt his long-term prospects by introducing himself to the country this way? Especially to the 0.5% of the country's population that lives in New Hampshire? Obviously we're getting way ahead of ourselves here. But last night I guessed that on balance it probably helps him. Joseph Britt of Wisconsin, who has worked for a Republican US Senator, writes in to disagree:

     Here's my problem with the 2016 argument:  Huntsman, were he to run again in four years, wouldn't be building on anything.  It's true that Robert Dole got the nomination in 1996 after running in 1988; he led the Senate Republicans in the meantime.  Romney, and Ron Paul, are running this year after running four years ago; Romney is clearly the spokesman for the money wing of the party, and Paul in his first race built a base of ideology-driven followers.

    Huntsman doesn't have any of that going for him -- no responsible position to keep himself in the public eye, and no constituency within the party.  Right now he's the favorite Republican of people least likely to vote Republican.  John McCain, who was better at that role, thought so little of it he became a Bush Republican by the time he ran in 2008.  Why would Huntsman do any better?

    The reality is probably even worse than that.  Dole and McCain both lost the election after they were nominated.  Paul won't get nominated; Romney, assuming he wins the nomination, is likely to lose the general election.  The fact is that only a spectacularly unlikely combination of circumstances in 2000 enabled the election of the only Republican President who did not inherit the Presidency directly from Ronald Reagan; in the meantime, the general electorate and the Republican Party have been moving in opposite directions.  

    Huntsman might have been able to stake a claim for the 2016 race if he had used this year's campaign to try to change the GOP.  He didn't.  He ran essentially as a Bush Republican who didn't fully sign on to Paul's libertarian ideology, Michele Bachman's conspiracy theories, Rick Santorum's social crusading or whatever Newt Gingrich's last ten big ideas have been.  I don't see what impression Huntsman's campaign this year left on the Republican Party.  Do you?...

    I don't think Huntsman's a bad guy.  He's just one of the many Republicans who has never come to grips with the idea that the GOP's problem isn't really the people on the fringe.  It's the record of the people in the mainstream.  This includes the leadership of the last Republican administration and of the Republicans in Congress.

    Another reader writes:

    I don't know how much I am looking forward to his this-is-totally-for-reals run in 2016, and all the probably more cynical stances he'll take.  I'm hearing echoes of McCain 2008 and Romney 2012 (although it can't be as bad as McCain 2008, can it?).  Its easy to take the high-road if you're setting up for four years down the road.  Its much harder to be noble when you're running a campaign that took four years to establish.

    Sorry for the wear-and-tear on the Huntsman family, and a happy recovery to them. He will be a trouper for the party and for its presumptive nominee now, as he has shown he could do before, which is fine and part of politics. Here is one man's hope that he go easy on the "class war" line and heavier on optimistic "better, stronger" America themes. But mainly, he and his team  all deserve a little time off.

  • Jon Huntsman Out: RIP his 2012 Campaign

    The end of what was always a long-shot campaign

    I am sorry to hear the news that Jon Huntsman is dropping out of the 2012 campaign. Sorry for him, sorry for his family and for everyone who has put time, heart, and money into his cause.

    One year ago, when my wife and I were headed back for several months in China and I had just heard the first rumblings that Huntsman, then still the serving ambassador in Beijing, might resign to run against Obama, I argued that the reports were hard to believe. The center of his party was moving away from the kind of "modern" positions he represented on evolution, environmentalism, and other social/cultural issues. Moreover, I thought, he would have a hard time running within the party against the very president who had appointed him and with whom he had worked very well.

    Thumbnail image for Huntsman2.jpg

    Obviously those rumblings were correct, my initial skepticism was wrong -- but the obstacles to Huntsman within the party were at least as formidable as they seemed then.

    Huntsman has made some obvious missteps along the way, which there is no point in dwelling on now. The question I've long wondered about -- based on my assumption that he wouldn't / couldn't win this time, and that the odds are still in Obama's favor this fall -- is whether having run, and lost, in 2012 will make him better or worse positioned for the run I had always assumed he had in mind, in 2016.

    We can't tell anything about politics in real time, but my guess at the moment is that the run will have left him somewhat better off, bruised and rejected as he and his (attractive) family and staff must be feeling now. He has trivially embarrassed himself in a way he'll easily be able to make fun of next time, with his Tourette's-style interjection of Mandarin one-liners at debates and on the stump. This will be the equivalent of Bill Clinton making fun of his embarrassment at the 1988 Democratic convention, where he was mocked and practically hooted off the stage for an interminable speech nominating Michael Dukakis. Huntsman embarrassed himself with another split-second decision he'll have time to reflect upon and learn from. That was when he raised his hand, along with everyone else, in saying that he, too, would reject a budget deal skewed even 10-to-1 for budget cuts rather than tax increases.

    But he also had a flash he can build on, when he dressed down Mitt Romney in the last New Hampshire debate for derogating Huntsman's "service to country" as ambassador to China. And he had many more moments when he seemed to be making high-road (if occasionally wacky) appeals than showing anger, bitterness, a willingness to pander, or other traits that will grate and make people dread the sound of his name four years from now. To illustrate the contrast: who, except the Democrats, would truly relish the prospect of Newt 2016? Or Cain?

    So, sympathies to Team Huntsman on a race that was a long shot and that didn't work out, but which he managed with a lot of dignity. [On the other hand: please see this update.]

  • Mandarin Smackdown! Stewart vs. Huntsman vs. Xiao Li

    Two Americans named Jon, and one Chinese named Xiao Li, grapple with the world's most widely spoken language

    What do Messrs. Stewart and Huntsman have in common, apart from spelling their first name Jon? Apparently an interest in Asian language. Stewart puts the needle effectively in Huntsman for using Mandarin on the campaign trail, starting at time 5:00 of this clip. (Take-home message: If you're running in a political primary, don't speak in a language most of your audience can't understand.) Then at the end of the segment Stewart does a surprisingly creditable job of a Mandarin riff himself.

    Now, a clip of Huntsman in various Chinese-language interviews, including some shown in an over-the-top previous attack ad.

    When you live in a "hard-language" environment, it can get really tedious hearing the fine-distinctions preening among foreigners about who has better command of the local language than someone else. This is despite the fact that they all may be quite good in it -- and that any ordinary person in that "hard" language country grows up with native linguistic command and no one gets excited by that achievement.

    I will avoid such disputes in the case of Huntsman by saying (a) he can speak Chinese way better than I ever will and (b) I can understand him, in Chinese, much more easily than I can understand a normal Chinese person, in keeping with the theme I explored at length last year. That theme was: for non-native speakers of a language, why it's so much easier to understand other non-natives than people who grew up speaking the language. In the part I understand of the clip above, Huntsman is explaining how he learned Chinese during his years in Taiwan, and after a while he felt 不错 at it, bu cuo, "not bad." (Plus how he was the only US governor to speak Chinese, and what it was like to go with Reagan to China etc.)

    Now, if you would like to see something truly surreal, have a look at the language lessons taught on the YouTube channel 'I Am Xiao Li.' She really does her best to convey tones and so forth. And the slow, exaggeratedly clear repetition resembles the way babies are exposed to their first language. But boy is this weird. It's kind of the Rosetta Stone approach, as imagined during a 105-degree delirium-fever. Watch at least long enough to see the Chinese-speaking panda.

    The lesson is about how to say "She is my friend." Here is a more recent one, with a different approach. Or this. I will confess that after these I do remember how to say "I am lost" in Chinese. But...

  • The Case for (and Against) a Huntsman Moment

    Really sane -- or, merely sane-ish, grading on the curve?

    You have to love the Huntsman campaign's response to the Onionesque idea of a debate moderated by Donald Trump: "Lol. We look forward to watching Mitt and Newt suck-up to The Donald with a big bowl of popcorn," according to a spokesman. I also marvel at the increasingly obvious joy with which Huntsman is digging into his longtime homestate rival Romney.

    I leave it to "the 1%" to choose among the candidates, by which I mean the Republican electorate in the early primary states. For now, a few reader responses to the claim that Huntsman has managed to run a surprisingly sane campaign.

    A reader begs to differ:

    Huntsman is only comparatively more sane. I was a supporter of his until two things happened: (1) he started responding to questions about eliminating subsides for companies that ship jobs over seas with a "hey, lets eliminate all subsides!" and (2) he came out for Congressional term limits. As a Floridian, I can think of few things that have done more damage to this state than term limits -- lobbyists pretty much do everything now because, as soon as a lawmaker develops enough institutional knowledge to get something done, the lawmaker are always term limited out.
    Huntsman may not be batshit crazy like Newt, Cain, or Bachmann but that doesn't man he is a truly serious candidate.

    A 20-something, liberal, ex-Obama voter has a more positive view:

    After seeing the email from the "dedicated lefty" you received I thought I might share my own liberal take on Huntsman.
    Obama's 2008 victory was the first presidential election I was old enough to vote in as well drink to (A case of William Penn's Colonial Style Lager...not the best, but certainly the most fitting way to celebrate my home state's going blue.)
    But those jubilant memories feel like part of another life as I become more disillusioned and disappointed in the President with each passing year.  He has continued to assert executive authority, degrade civil liberties, and maintain overseas occupations (as well as engage in new hostilities in places like Libya, Yemen, and Somalia), to a degree that makes the previous Bush administration appear humble and judicious by comparison.
    In addition, though through no obvious fault of his own, this President has excited such reactionary passion, and elicited such toxic vitriol from the right to make accomplishing true compromise on almost any issue nearly inconceivable....
    In the most pragmatic sense, moving away from this utterly conservative status quo, from the host of policies that have exacerbated structural economic inequities, to a set of right of center compromises would be real progress.  Maybe not the kind that liberals like I would hope for, but certainly the kind that is needed, and much more desirable than the repeated legislative gridlock we currently see which is itself a form of far right policy to the degree that it fails to reform the conservative achievements of the past couple decades.
    If it means sacrificing a President with liberal sentiments but who is heavy handed in his use of executive power and bullish on foreign intervention, in exchange for actual progress toward a better domestic economy with more equitable opportunity for its citizens, I'd gladly make that trade. [JF: Over the years, I have grown skeptical of such 'Not a dime's worth of difference' reasoning, eg in the 2000 campaign. Just FYI.]
    And in such a scenario Hunstman has so far proven himself to be the ideal replacement (at least from the current field of contenders).  While I have no fantasies about him being a closet Keynsian when it comes to the economy, after all he has demonstrated quite convincingly in both his record and rhetoric that he is a true conservative, he seems interested at least in supporting the kinds of investments that are important if a country is to stay competitive with rising dynamos like China and India.  And while he's for deficit reduction through 100% cuts, and would like to see tax reform cut rates across the board, my instinct is that he's an economic Hayekian without the more destructive virtues of a full blown supply-sider.
    Most importantly, he has demonstrated a willingness, even while debating his more conservative opponents, to stand firm on dialing down the militaristic side of our foreign policy, something that the current President has show little willingness to do, and instead continuously gives into pressure from his generals and his right flank too, in so many words, "stay the course."  Perhaps I may be incorrect in this assumption, but where as President Obama has escalated the "global war on terror," more than doubled our presence in Afghanistan, and has even lobbied the Iraq government to allow U.S. forces to continue there as well, my intuition is that a President Hunstman would have the resolve to de-escalate in all of these areas.  At the very least I doubt he would do worse. [JF: See caveat above.]...
    If I were living in one of the earlier primary states I would have signed up already to work on Hunstman's campaign.  Alas, the un-inclusiveness of the primary schedule has me hoping that by early spring, Hunstman will still be in it.

    And, finally for now:

    As a center-right independent who supported Obama in '08 I've been following Huntsman for awhile.  Short of a major debacle by Romney he has no shot this year, but as the far-right wackos continue to fall, I think he could still make a strong, late run and position himself well for 2016 the same way Romney handled his '08 loss to McCain.  He'll look like a reasonable, responsible conservative who can spend the next four years laying his foundation in Iowa/NH/SC.  And it will give the right and far-right a few more years to get over the whole Mormon thing.

    As your liberal reader said though, it sure would be nice to watch Huntsman and Obama have an honest, respectable debate about the responsibility of government.  Would it be a first in American history to have two intelligent, reasonable people as the final two presidential candidates?

    New Hampshirites, over to you.

    UPDATE. After the jump, more on the "he only looks sane by comparison" front.

    More »

  • Huntsman Update: The Good News and ...

    The only other 'adult in the room' finds himself dealing with a tantrum

    While Mitt Romney was avoiding taking any position at all on the debt-ceiling controversy, and most of his Republicans competitors were unanimous in denouncing it -- as Romney eventually did too, once he saw how things were trending -- the exception was of course Jon Huntsman. As a reader wrote yesterday:

    >>Buried deep in the news was a statement that Huntsman was the only Republican candidate (for president) approving the debt-ceiling agreement.  I see it as extremely plausible that he will be the Republican nominee and will have a good chance of winning the election.  Of course, much can change in the next year.<<

    That is, you could imagine a presidential contest next year between a Republican and a Democrat, Huntsman and Obama, who both wanted to position themselves as "the only adult(s) in the room."

    I've mentioned several times that, like most other people who dealt with him in China during his time as Obama's ambassador there, I'm biased in favor of Jon Huntsman. And while I didn't think he would run this time, I hope things go well for him and so on.

    On the other hand:

    This astonishing account today by Jonathan Martin in Politico has sobering implications for the Huntsman 2012 prospects, to put it mildly. Every reporter knows the secret glee of having someone show up who has the inside goods -- tapes, emails, photos, diaries -- and for reasons of fury, or score-settling, or "duty to history," or whatever is determined to use every bit of the inside dirt to get back at his tormentors. In the reporter's role, you try to keep a straight face as you soberly say, "Oh, yes, the public deserves to know about this," while meanwhile you are thinking to yourself, "I can't believe it! Please don't let me start chuckling or break out in a huge grin before this guy turns over the goods!"

    Martin has had one of these moments, courtesy of a "concerned friend" of Huntsman's, one David Fischer, who has been squeezed out of the campaign and wants to explain how he was wronged. Read it, jaw agape. If the Huntsman campaign can indeed survive this kind of fratricide, that will be an additionally impressive bit of evidence about the candidate's resilience and ability to rise above strife. Good luck to all.
    UPDATE, from a reader in Florida:

    >>I knew something was fundamentally flawed with the Huntsman campaign last month.  I emailed the campaign and expressed my interest in volunteering for the campaign and included all of my contact information .  Naturally, I received a standard, auto-reply letter from Susan Wiles.   Then, just over a week later, I read in the local news that Huntsman had  visited my hometown (Tampa) the previous day and spoke to a nearly empty crowd.  I was infuriated that I had emailed my contact information to his campaign, which I know they've received, and nobody bothered to call or send me an email informing me that he would be just down the road from me, speaking to a group of people who had no idea who he was!!

    I donated money to Obama very early in the campaign process.  I instantly began receiving emails from numerous people in his campaign (still do) and frequently got phone calls from local volunteers (also, still do).  My guess is that the Clinton and GWB machines were also well-organized.  To this day, I've not received one email or phone call from Huntsman's people.  He may have been in Tampa yesterday and I would have had no idea--and my guess is neither would the local media.<<


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming



From This Author

Just In