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: Inauguration

  • Interesting extra twist on "censoring" Obama in China

    As noted several times earlier (here and here), the CCTV authorities in charge of the live broadcast of Barack Obama's inaugural address apparently got flustered when they started hearing him talk about "dissent" and "confronting communism," and cut away from live coverage.

    Now (thanks to several friends who have pointed this out), the official People's Daily has carried a Chinese translation of the speech that includes even the "sensitive" parts. Chinese version here.

    I am not capable of judging the refinement of this translation. But I can see that it carries the two passages that caused problems for the broadcasters. Details after the jump.

    Moral? First, as mentioned so many times before here and in the Atlantic, the uncertainty about what will be allowed or forbidden is itself an important control tool. If you never know when you might be crossing the line, you end up being extra-careful (which may have been the mentality of the people inside CCTV).  Second, and also familiar to readers here, this is a reminder that China itself and even the ruling Chinese Communist Party is full of countless contradictory views, factional and ideological differences, individuals who see things their own way, etc.

    And, finally, something about the difficulties this kind of ruling system has in making decisions quickly, before checking what the "proper" response is supposed to be. I won't bother with a long list of similar examples, but I'm struck that while Chinese business and many Chinese individuals are amazing fast-reacting and adaptable, the political structure is much less so.

    Explication de texte below.

    More »

  • Marker for later comment: Chinese censorship of Obama's speech

    During 48+ hours on US soil during this visit, I've had several flashes of the realization that I have been more affected by the preceding 2.5 years in China than I thought. For instance: if I were still sitting watching CCTV in Beijing, I would have taken it for granted if certain live dispatches from the US or Europe suddenly disappeared from the screen, because an interviewee had unexpectedly made a "sensitive" point.

    But from within the US on this trip, I realize that it's actually quite incredible that Chinese broadcast authorities-- representing the world's most populous nation, the one whose relations with the U.S. will make a huge difference to the entire world's future, the country that presented itself to all other countries as a full, major, mature power with its Olympic games -- would pull the plug on live coverage of Barack Obama's inaugural address just because Obama began talking about the virtues of dissent.

    Obama apparently also erred by mentioning America's struggle against communism -- sensitive because, even though much of China seems more openly market-minded than the United States, it is still officially ruled by the Chinese Communist Party.

    Account from Danwei.org here. My first reaction is, Jeeesh!! Can a big country really act in this tinhorn way? And my second reaction is the depressing realization that I would barely have noticed if I were still on scene.

    More on the nuances of this shortly. In the meantime, this is connected to the phenomenon I discussed here. Also, read the comments on that Danwei site. (Plus this.) They bring it all back!

  • Update on the "smoothly functioning" inauguration

    On his site, here, Brian Beutler* has a detailed and vivid description of the crowd-control "challenges" I mentioned recently. The story he tells is not funny at all -- and he and I would probably agree that it wasn't typical of the experience of most of the attendees, and that the mood of the throngs was overwhelmingly positive and cooperative. But I admit that I laughed at this part:

    When I arrived at the entrance for silver-ticket holders, there was a "line" but it wasn't a line. There were no chains demarcating the line. When people arrived late, they often walked to the front of it. At times, this created huge problems for overwhelmed guards, who let packs of people into the screening area, many of whom hadn't waited, some of whom, I'm sure, had no tickets at all.

    If I'd been there, I would have felt right at home. This is how all lines operate in China! Sometime I plan to do a detailed analysis of that seemingly-contradictory but nonetheless omnipresent Chinese phenomenon, the "wedge-shaped line." (Yes, I know this occurs in other cultures too.) If my wife, who after the years in Shanghai and Beijing has 101% gone native in line-management behavior, had been there, should could have steered all of us right up onto the swearing-in stand.
    * Of Redlands, Ca; we stick together.

  • One other thing you missed by not being there yesterday:

    First-hand knowledge that widespread newspaper claims (like this one) that crowd-control and logistics for the enormous inaugural event went "smoothly" or "well" were incomplete, to say the least.

    As I mentioned yesterday, people headed for the vast "no ticket" zones on much of the Mall got in with relatively little trouble (and no security checks, which made sense given how far away they/we were from the Capitol itself). But getting out was a different matter -- and could have been quite dangerous were it not for the good humor and cooperation of nearly everyone in the crowd. People in my zone pushed by the thousands toward what they thought would be exits but in fact were absolute dead-ends, closed off by newly-erected cyclone fences guarded by police and National Guardsmen on the other side.

    Probably those temporary fences would have given way before the people piling into them were literally crushed, but it was a bad situation for which there was absolutely no -- zero -- supervision or guidance from police, park attendants, volunteers, etc. (Comments from police boiled down to "Do not enter! Do not cross this line!" etc. In fairness, they probably had no idea of what was happening and where we were supposed to go.)

    I was taller than most people in the crowd so could generally see around me rather than having that terrifying feeling of blind drift. But I did have the unhappy feeling of being carried along by simple crowd movement in directions I didn't intend. As reported yesterday, people like the one below, who climbed into trees or atop Porta-Potties to see where the exits were, eased what could have been a nasty situation. Bear in mind that there were limitless thousands of people behind me as I took this shot, all pushing forward toward what no one realized was a fenced-off barrier. The guy on the Porta-Potty is discovering that there's no way out in the direction people are heading. He and others turned and started shouting that to people -- and the tide moved, eventually, off to the left.


    People who did have tickets often ran into the opposite problem -- simply never getting anywhere near the action. Michael Tomasky's comment in the Guardian sums up the situation very well.  (He also did a great instant-analysis of  the speech.)

    So: it was a great and historic occasion; a very strong speech, as I'll eventually elaborate;  a reverent and caring and fellow-citizens feeling among the throngs; and all of that. But flawlessly planned and handled it was not. The Obama campaign appears to have been a marvel of foresight and organization. So, on the whole, has the transition been. Let's hope that the Obama Administration is more like its campaign than like its inaugural day.

  • Very late night inauguration points

    Still early for the First Family, who have several more inaugural balls to go, but late for a mere citizen after his quota of evening events -- capped by the pleasure of seeing a Metro car jammed at 1:00am with people in every station of life and mode of dress, from tuxedos and evening gowns to greasy night-shift overalls.

    1) More on the speech itself tomorrow, but here is a point to bear in mind. Several of Barack Obama's big rhetorical performances have been recognized as hits from the minute he stepped off the stage. His 2004 Democratic convention speech is one example. His Philadelphia speech on race, which quelled the Rev. Wright controversy last spring, is another.

    In many other cases, especially late in the campaign, the red-hots among his supporters thought he had "underperformed" or been "just so-so" immediately after an event, only to see the days-later and weeks-later reaction to the performance turn much more positive. The clearest example was his first debate with John McCain, where supporters thought he had missed chances to go in for the kill -- but over time it was clear that he had established his steady, gravitas-worthy persona.

    I think his inaugural speech will be in this second category. Now that I have a chance to look at some blog-world commentary, I see that some is underwhelmed, as after the first debate. I think that the speech was in fact very well-pitched to this moment in history and the messages Obama wants and needs to send. That is, both artful and useful. More detail tomorrow.

    2) As I may have mentioned from time to time, I view the Reagan-onward tic of closing all presidential speeches with "God bless America" as just a tic. That is,  a substitute for doing what FDR, TR, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and all pre-Reagan American presidents had done: namely, find a "real" way to end a speech. Here is interesting proof that it is a tic. The prepared version of Obama's inaugural address - here, among other sources -- does not include those words at the end. But the transcription of what he actually said -- here -- confirms what we all heard, that he tacked them on at the end.

    When he had time to think about the shape of the speech, Obama, as a writer and thinker, realized that he had a strong close without those cliched words. In real time, he threw them in, as any of us (including me) might throw in "you know" or "I mean" when answering a question.  Let me say that again: when he had time to think about it, Obama the literary craftsman thought better of it.

    3) In keeping with earlier testimony to the basic good will of the crowd -- as I witnessed it as one of the 2 million or so (my crowd here) -- the "boos" when George Bush or Dick Cheney appeared on the screen seemed almost perfunctory. People felt they had to do it, but their hearts weren't in it. To me, the most spontaneous-sounding and surprising cheers were for (a) Colin Powell, and (b) Jimmy Carter, and the most spontaneous surplus-hostility boos were for ... Joe Lieberman.  Just reporting on my part of the crowd.

    4) I gather that my experience with inauguration security -- easy to get in, tough to get out -- was not the same for people who, unlike me, had real tickets to the inauguration and weren't just standing among the hordes on the mall. (Eg here and here.) More on this later too.

  • More evidence of changing times

    Left: the Washington Metro card design that had been used for years and years, from a fare card I still had in my wallet from when we left DC in the summer of 2006. Right: the card being sold by Metro ticket machines now.

    Surprising similarity between Beijing and Washington, which I had a chance to reflect on while gritting my teeth in long lines in front of the ticket machines yesterday: in neither capital do out of towners have a clue about how to buy tickets from the machine.This was a big nuisance for Beijing during the Olympics and a big nuisance for DC right now. But each city will survive.

    PS for DC-ites: Why does the new farecard have the odd starting value of $5.45? Because I had an old card to trade in with 45 cents on it, and the only US bill I had handy at the trade-in machine was a $5. 

    PPS for Beijing-ites: Draw no worrisome conclusion from the displacement of the pandas. Everyone still loves them.

  • What did you miss by not being there?

    For another time, after I thaw out, actual thoughts about the speech and other surprises. (Chief Justice Roberts's bobble of the oath; the incredible body-chemistry among the former presidents, with Bill Clinton embracing George H.W. Bush and then barely acknowledging Jimmy Carter as he passed by -- or so it looked on the Jumbotron; the inevitably forlorn sight of the presidential helicopter -- usually called Marine One, but maybe not in this case since it was carrying former President George W. Bush -- as it circled the Mall on the way out to Andrews Air Force Base for the trip home; the very strange stress patterns in parts of Pastor Rick Warren's invocation, especially involving the names of the Obama daughters; the fact that planes kept taking off from National Airport throughout the ceremonies; etc. )

    For now, a few illustrations of what you would have seen if, along with me and my friends the Fabrikants and Schells, and a million or two other people, you were out among the masses on the Mall.

    Inauguration Days seem always to be extremely cold. Just before Jimmy Carter's inauguration, I remember seeing National Guardsmen using jackhammers and flamethrowers to get ice sheets off the sidewalks. It was just above freezing today, and not too windy. But obviously it has been cold recently in DC:


    Early word was to go easy on the hydration because of a potential Porta-Potty shortage. No problem! You could have guzzled gallons before showing up (shot below around 9:30am -- all those little blue and white structures are what you think they are).


    Crowd listening to the speech, in front of the Washington Monument (click for detail). What you don't see in background of this shot is the planes taking off from National Airport.

    Logistics better than expected getting into the event; surprisingly bad on the way out. A potentially nasty moment occurred here, with many tens of thousands of people pushing toward what they thought was an exit, but which was in fact barricaded on three sides. Crowd pressure has just pushed down one section of cyclone fence in the shot below. Hundreds of people storm through before very much non-amused policemen stop the flow and repair the fence. Then those who thought they'd reached freedom were trapped in a forbidden zone (where those buses are).

    Part of the crowd whose body pressure was pushing toward that fence.

    American ingenuity and spontaneous self-organization to solve the problem: some crowd members climbed on top of the Porta-Potties to see where the exit point was. It turned out to be many hundreds of yards away, but they steered their fellow citizens toward safety and redirected the crowd flow. (No policemen or other volunteers offering any guidance on where to head.) But the buoyant mood of the day prevailed and, apart from the one fence-breach, an amazingly harmonious event.

    http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_6147A.jpg http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_6148.jpg

    And finally: I give up. http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_6164B.jpg

  • Reading assignment before Obama's speech

    Full text of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech from 1963 (here and many other places). Everyone knows how that speech ends. Not that many have ever read, or now remember, the first two thirds of the speech that built up to the famous close. Here's a guess that it might be an important complement to hearing Barack Obama's inaugural address three hours from now. And even if not, it's too impressive a piece of thought and rhetoric not to revisit every so often.

    More after the event, plus compare-and-contrast reports on this past 24 hours in DC (after the PEK-IAD longhaul) versus other inaugural ceremonies I've seen here over the years -- just about all of them, by the way, in colder weather than today's.

  • Keep hope alive

    Good news travels fast around the world. A few minutes ago a woman watching US TV called my sister-in-law in Rome, who quickly emailed the information to me here on the wee-hours watch in Beijing:

    My friend Helen just called to tell me that "God Bless America" has been substituted out!  She was watching Obama starting on his train ride to DC, and he gave a nice inspired speech. And at the end, using the same [august] intonation, he said instead, " I love you guys" !!

    Conceivably over time we would grow tired of this phrase, too -- though you can imagine Obama delivering it with a twinkle in his eye, rather than with the super-earnestness that typically encases the cliched "God Bless America" rhetorical close. But any presidential speech that ends with any words other than GBA is a step toward mental and linguistic freedom. Perhaps Obama really is aiming for greatness.

    In conclusion I have only this to say: I love you guys too.

  • Refining the point about GW Bush's final press conference

    I mentioned a few minutes ago, while GW Bush's final press conference was underway, that the president seemed unusually "self-aware."

    That's not quite right. On matters of policy, he revealed himself to be as isolated and out of touch as his critics (including me) would have assumed all along. Two illustrations: he hotly challenged the premise of one question that his policies had made America less prestigious and respected around the world, saying that was just the view of some "elites" and other pantywaists in part of Europe. Go to China! he said. They still respect us there. Yes, sort of. As I've written many times in the Atlantic, China does not seem in any deep way "anti-American," and they generally think US-China relations are good. But no thinking person has the slightest doubt that the Iraq, Guantanamo, and Abu Ghraib policies, in particular, have hurt America's image badly here as they have in most other places. To say what the President did indicates how carefully he has been protected from any unfiltered feedback from the real world.

    So too with his wistful, regretful-sounding comments about the "harsh tone" in Washington DC. He was completely believable in saying that he hoped things would go better for Barack Obama. But does he recall the name Karl Rove? Does he remember which Vice President told a U.S. Senator from the other party to fuck off, on the Senate floor?  There is no point refighting these wars. I'm simply saying: the very sincerity of the President's comments indicated how isolated he has been, or what he has chosen to forget.

    Nonetheless: I think even people who oppose the Bush Administrations policies would find it somewhat harder to dislike him viscerally after this performance -- rather than getting angrier the more they see him, as with most of his appearances over these last eight years. The self-awareness I mentioned was purely on a personal level. Even though he defended his tax cuts and his other policies and even the execution of the Katrina response, everything in his posture, expression, and body language -- even his emphasis on the word defeat in talking about the 2008 results -- indicated that he has taken in the fact that things have not gone well.

    It is true, he can hardly express himself in anything resembling sentences. But he displayed none of the little moue of pride when he got out a tricky name or a big word, a tic very familiar from his past speeches. To me, he helped rather than hurt himself with this last performance. And to recognize what an achievement this is: think how it would be to hear a valedictory hour's worth of Dick Cheney.


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