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.
  • As House of Cards Resumes

    The sun never sets on the empire of British political drama/satire

    Kevin Spacey in the season-opening episode, via Netflix.

    I've seen only Episode One of Season Two of the U.S. version. So no spoilers from me about that first hour, and I'll try to avoid them from others about the 12 hours still to come. I will say that the beginning of this new season underscores my earlier tip that it's worth checking out the original 1990 version from the BBC.

    Two followups for now. First, about the well-known Gray Poupon mustard ad which, as mentioned earlier, features the same Ian Richardson who portrays the Iago/Richard III-like Francis Urquhart of the BBC series. Many readers wrote to fill in part of the background I hadn't been aware of. For instance:

    I remember the Grey Poupon commercial but was struck watching the embed in your column that this was actually an encounter between two quite celebrated fictional PM's - Francis Urquhart meets Jim Hacker of Yes, Prime Minister fame (Paul Eddington).

    Now if only there were some way for the two of them to have an encounter with that other great PM, Harry Perkins (the incomparable Ray McAnally in A Very British Coup).  [below] Mind you, he was a committed socialist, so probably no fancy cars, but that encounter would be something to relish!
     

    If you haven't seen A Very British Coup, see if you can find it - I think it's a brilliant take on British politics. A bit dated today (it's from 1988) but  well worth watching. It's based on a novel of the same name which is also worth reading, though (quasi-spoiler) the book and the TV versions end very differently.  And if you happen to be a Downton Abbey fan, then you'll enjoy seeing the butler, Mr. Carson, playing one of the cabinet ministers.) 

    Here is another Gray Poupon ad, with the two as-seen-on-TV PMs:

    Similarly:

    You didn't mention that the other actor in the Grey Poupon ad is Paul Eddington, who played Jim Hacker in the classic comedy series Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister -- another terrific British take on the political process.

    BTW, most Grey Poupon ads portray a brotherhood of the one percent ("but of course"), but these two former pretend PMs talk right past each other. 

    And just for completeness, here is Eddington in a well-known Yes, Prime Minister clip:

    The other followup is about the political content of the UK and US versions of House of Cards. A reader makes this astute point:

    I heartily endorse your comments on the original House of Cards. Here's one more belated thought...
     
    I think another big difference is the political context. It's a decade or so since I watched it, so take this with a grain of salt, but as I recall the original FU was a Thatcherite careerist, and the policies he forced through were all typical of that (privatizing public resources, cutting off aid to poor people, that sort of thing). My impression was that this was essential to the satire: FU was, in a sense, a personification of post-Thatcher conservatism--sociopathic policy represented as an individual sociopath. (As I said, it's been a long time; I could well be overstating or even imagining this point.)
     
    While I enjoy the American version, it seems kind of toothless to me, because it's untethered from any broader political commentary. The bills Kevin Spacey is pushing may be fatally compromised, and he may be pushing them purely to reinforce & expand his own power base, but they aren't really *malignant*. Spacey's character happens to be a Democrat, but he isn't presented as a commentary on his party or his politics; his party is just kind of an arbitrary part of the plot.
     
    IMO, they could have made a much more interesting series by focusing on someone more like Ted Cruz, whose personal nihilism matched the nihilism of his politics. But that's not generally how American mass media approach politics (false equivalence isn't just the province of the press corps). Seems to me the British are much less reluctant to take sides in their fictional depictions of politics. (For another excellent example of this, see A Very British Coup.)

    I hadn't even known of A Very British Coup, but it moves up on the to-view list. 

    Previous post                                             Next post

  • American Futures Update, Nanook Edition

    The climate is getting warmer, the local weather is getting colder, and we're waiting for the thaw

    Happy Valentine's Day!
    Inside Marriage Special Report bug
    Reinvention and resilience across the nation
    Read more

    Our rediscover-America caravan was set to be back in the Carolinas and Georgia this past week. But they are still snowbound, and so are we, and so is the airplane. Instead we are rediscovering the winter-sports potential of our neighborhood in DC. That is Deb Fallows, inspired by Olympic coverage and preparing for her Slopestyle run down our street. Myself, I'm a traditionalist and will stick to the luge.

    Eventually the thaw will come, our host cities will have dug out, and we'll be en route again. Meanwhile, Happy Valentine's Day, starting with the little winter Olympian you see above.

     

    Previous post                                              Next post

  • George Wilson

    A military reporter for whom combat was never an abstraction

    George Wilson

    I was sorry to learn today that George C. Wilson, a longtime and highly respected reporter on defense matters, had died at age 86. I knew him slightly, mainly during the years he worked at our sister publication National Journal, but I always admired the honesty, realism, and irrepressible and irreverent humor with which he covered questions of war-and-peace. He was also tremendously generous as a person and, to use a term you don't hear about a lot of writers, self-effacing—in the good sense, not wanting his personality to get in the way of the truths he was trying to tell.

    Our mutual friend Chuck Spinney has written a wonderful appreciation of George Wilson, which I hope you will read. It captures this side of his character. For instance:

    George Wilson was one of the great reporters and a friend...His call sign when phoning, at least among my group of friends in the Pentagon, was Captain Black.

    Captain Black always identified with the troops and low rankers at the pointy end of the spear, either on the battlefield or in the bowels of the Pentagon.  And he always did it with humor, modesty, and grace ... and occasionally indignation, especially when the troops were being hosed, but never with any sense of self - importance.  Captain Black did some great reporting on some really big serious issues, and he was at home in the General's offices and on Capital Hill.  But he also loved to walk the halls of Pentagon and pop in unannounced to shoot the bull and gossip -- always laughingly -- about the lunacy in the Pentagon.   It was this unprepossessing humor coupled with Captain Black's ability to skewer the high rollers that I remember the most.

    George Wilson spent most of his career with the Washington Post, which has run an extended and very good obituary by Martin Weil. It includes a photo of George Wilson in Vietnam that I would love to use but to which we don't have the rights. Check it out. 

    Also check out this story by George Wilson in the National Journal, about a Republican congressman from North Carolina who voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq. He later felt that the war, and his vote, had been terrible mistakes and wondered how he could "atone" (the Congressman's own word). As Chuck Spinney points out, George Wilson -- who had served in the Navy and been a combat reporter in Vietnam -- always, always converted discussion of military policy to what that would mean for people on the battlefield. This is a rarer and rarer trait in a political/media world in which people blithely talk about "kinetic options" and "surgical strikes," and it is one of many reasons to note George Wilson's passing and highlight the example that he set.

    Previous post                                                           Next post

  • Snow Day Update on Original House of Cards

    What Grey Poupon mustard, Richard III, and Prince Charles have in common

    February 13, 2014, Washington DC.

    As I mentioned yesterday, you really do want to see Ian Richardson's rendering of Francis Urquhart, in the vintage-1990 original BBC version of House of Cards, before Kevin Spacey shows us what he has in store for Season Two tomorrow. Both are on Netflix. And for many people in the Eastern part of the country, external circumstances favor snow-day viewing (that's our back yard just now).

    Bonus points:

    1) As many people have written in to note, the original four-episode BBC series was only the first part of a trilogy.  Part two is To Play the King, and three is The Final Cut; details here. I haven't yet seen them but have them queued up.

    2) From a reader who skipped the Kevin Spacey edition:

    Have not watched the U.S. version because I was convinced there was no way to improve upon the UK BBC version. Have sent my copy to friends deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan so they can enjoy a great DVD you don't find in the normal collections.

    You might point out that Richardson's Francis is much better known as "the Grey Poupon mustard commercial aristocrat in the limo."
     

    The ad is shown below. Which is a segue to the next note.

    In the ad, Ian Richardson, the one without the mustard, comes across as a feckless Lord Grantham-style twit. As Francis Urquhart he leaves a very different impression. Reader #3 points out:

    In the US version, I come away somewhat bemused and amused at how they always manage to take Frank Underwood [Spacey] 2 or 3 steps farther into his intrigues than my imagination can project.  He is a master at manipulation, something that I would never be able to master, even if I tried.  

    In the British version, I came away feeling queasy.  Urquhart is pure evil. 

    4) I mentioned the continuity between F.U., as he is known in the original, and other figures from the British literary imagination: Iago, Uriah Heep, "Lucky Jim" Dixon. Recently James Cappio, at the Blogging Shakespeare site, made the more obvious connection: the drama is Shakespearean, and FU is Richard III (with certain grace notes to Lady Macbeth). Eg:

    Any resemblance to a certain crookback King is strictly intentional. The first episode opens, like Richard III, with an extended address to the viewer; drawing us into complicity with his villainy, Urquhart’s soliloquies become a signature element of the series.

    Very much like Richard, Urquhart so thoroughly seduces us that we root for him in spite of ourselves. That is largely due to Ian Richardson’s indelible performance. Richardson, one of the great Shakespeareans of his generation, had just played Richard III for the Royal Shakespeare Company before taking the role of Urquhart; by letting Richard influence him, he created one of the most iconic characters in all of British television. Urquhart’s signature phrase—“You may think that. I couldn’t possibly comment”—is still widely recognized in Britain even today.

    5) Confirming Cappio's final point, this note from a reader:

    I was visiting London a little over a week ago and heard the following on the BBC News TV Channel:

    ‘You might very well think that – I couldn’t possibly comment.’

    What was Francis Urquhart doing on the news?

    It turned out it was Prince Charles during a visit to a flooded area of the country blowing off a question asking him to comment on the government's actions.

    Sure enough, if you watch the BBC video here (not embeddable, and with a long pre-roll ad), Prince Charles rattles off that famous line at time 0:15, entirely deadpan. Either he has absorbed this part of popular culture without realizing its origin or he is a more hip character than we think.

    6) And, on the broader question of whether some irreducible American core of optimism and a kind of memento mori / reveling in decline on the UK side accounts for a gulf in satire, standup comedy, political rhetoric, and so on separating the Old and New Worlds, a reader I assume to be a Brit writes:

    I was reminded somewhat of Stephen Fry on the difference between
    American and British Comedy [below].

    As a data point I'd also say that a lot of Brits actually found Ricky
    Gervais' character a lot more sympathetic than Steve Carell's
    precisely because he ended up as such a tragic figure, whereas
    Carrell's figure just came across as very annoying after a while.

    Thanks to all. That's it on this theme from me, until I see more of the old UK trilogy or the new US production.

    Previous post                                                       Next post

  • Before You Watch the New House of Cards, Do Yourself a Favor and See the Original

    In which I (reluctantly) acknowledge the superiority of the British style of satire.

    Ian Richardson, the one person Kevin Spacey should fear in head-to-head matchups. ( From British Cinema Greats )

    I'll watch anything Kevin Spacey is in, so I'll be among the early downloaders of the second installment of House of Cards, which will be out via Netflix touchingly on Valentine's Day. 

    But now I've done something I should have done earlier, and that will put Spacey-style House of Cards 2, 3, any others in a completely different light. Recently I watched the four-episode original BBC House of Cards series from 1990. It's on Netflix too, and, seriously, if you are interested in either  politics or satire, this is not to be missed.

    June Thomas of Slate, originally a Brit, made this point a year ago, and our own nonpareil Christopher Orr plans to write about it at length some time soon. But let me make the point right now: Kevin Spacey is great, but the late Ian Richardson, as Parliamentary Chief Whip Francis Urquhart, is doing something else altogether. It's like a Judd Apatow movie vs. the bottomless bleakness of Evelyn Waugh (eg A Handful of Dust). Here's how the whole saga of revenge and plotting begins:

    The comparison between the U.S. and U.K. versions of this program shows something about why I feel so profoundly American (rather than British), but also why the Brits excel at just this kind of thing. There are lots of tough breaks in Kevin Spacey's House of Cards, but in the end there is a jauntiness to it. People kill themselves; politicians lie and traduce; no one can be trusted -- and still, somewhere deep it has a kind of American optimism. That's us (and me). USA! USA!

    It's different in the UK version. Richardson's Francis Urquhart reminds us that his is the nation whose imagination produced Iago, and Uriah Heep, and Kingsley Amis's "Lucky Jim" Dixon. This comedy here is truly cruel -- and, one layer down, even bleaker and more squalid than it seems at first. It's like the contrast between Ricky Gervais in the original UK version of The Office and Steve Carell in the knock-off role. Steve Carell is ultimately lovable; Gervais, not. Michael Dobbs, whose novel was the inspiration for both the U.K. and the U.S. House of Cards series, has told the BBC that the U.S. version was "much darker" than the British original. He is wrong -- or cynically sarcastic, like Urquhart himself.

    I could go on, but I will leave that to Chris Orr when he does the full-length version. For now, do yourself a favor and check this out.


    Explanation for the sub-head on this item: I am not a subscriber to the "Oh, the Brits do it all so much more suavely" school. But in this case I tip my hat.

    Previous post                                                                  Next post

  • So, Where Do You Live? What Do You Do?

    By Deborah Fallows

    By Deborah Fallows

    When we were in Greenville SC recently, I was surprised to learn that a very common follow-up to the greeting of “How do you do?” or “Nice to meet you,” is the question “Where do you go to church?” I wrote about it here.

    Inside Marriage Special Report bug
    Reinvention and resilience across the nation
    Read more

    Lots of you wrote in about this question,  “Where do you go to church?” Some of you considered the question to be intrusive and even offensive. From a reader in Washington DC: "If someone asked me 'Where do you go to church?' I'd be flummoxed at least and offended at worst." Others were not at all flummoxed, and wondered why I would be surprised. And on a web forum at city-data.com discussing just this question, writers from places as distinct as rural Maine and Kentucky said this expression is commonly heard.

    Many more of you reported other queries that you would be likely to say or hear in your own hometowns. So far, I would say that your suggestions fall into 3 different categories: social orientation, work, and neutral territory. (And to be clear here, I’m ruling out pickup lines; that’s another topic. I am referring to general conversation openers that aim for a sweet spot between impersonal and too personal, between vapid and too pungent.)

    Image via this blogspot

    Social orientation:  The two women I met in Greenville SC, interpreted the real meaning of “Where do you go to church?” as something to orient you socially, like “Who are your people?” or “Where do you fit in?” A New Yorker who posted on the city-data forum echoed this and suggested the socially orienting analogy there might be pizza: “It's just like someone asking you what grocery store you go to or what pizzeria (New Yorkers love pizza) you go to,” she wrote.

    Readers far afield have other candidates. One reader from Hawaii writes that among those who grew up on Oahu, the question is: "Where did you go to high school?" Same from a reader from New Orleans. “Where’d you go to school?” he clarified, means high school, not college. (This plucky reader also said a close second is, “Who’s your mama?” but I think he was pulling my leg.)

    In Boston, a reader says “Where do you live?” elicits a single name from the 351 towns around Boston. “If you live in Somerville, you say Somerville; you would never say 'near Cambridge.'” I’m guessing that in Boston, people are fishing for the same kind of information as in my hometown of Washington DC. Sometimes we look for geography, but more often, I think, our mental maps outline the culture and lifestyle of suburbs or neighborhoods.

    Image from here

    Work: “So, what do you do?” wrote another reader from Washington DC. I heartily agree that in Washington DC, this is the default question. Everyone here knows that it is a not-so-veiled way of assessing power and connections, the currency of the town.

    Interestingly, in Burlington VT, people said this same question actually means “What do you do for hobbies?

    A bi-coastal resident writes that in the Bay area as well as Manhattan, the version of the work question is a fill-in-the-blank: "And you’re with… ?"  And lest you misinterpret, she writes, “this refers not to the person who brought you to the gathering, still less to your spouse or companion, but to your work affiliation.”

    Image from here

    Neutral-ground: There is the totally tame: “How ‘bout this weather!” Or the slightly more risky: “How ’bout that game!” A version from the small-town south: “How you getting along?” And from a larger town, where everyone doesn’t know everyone: "So how do you know [the host]?" One big-city reader suggests this question is not so innocent, but can actually be a useful probe: “We're a networking city and even small events are often big.”

    A resident of VT explained a Burlington-specific question, “How did you get here?” This isn’t meant to be prying, she said, it’s rather that so many people have a back story of how they finally landed in Burlington. But it’s also a little tricky, a question you would warm up to, instead of one you ask right off the bat. Interestingly, when we were in Alaska last year, people told us that you never ask that question, since the backstory could be sketchy.

    Finally, one weary-sounding man who has lived all over the south, southwest, and even the east wrote in:  "It never occurred to me … that Hello/How Do You Do might have any formulaic follow-up.  So, to answer the question, in my experience the answer is 'Nothing.'"

    We’d like to hear from you, to help fill in the grid of who says what where. Please email me, with your geographic coordinates, at Debfallows at gmail.

    Previous post                                                              Next post

  • 2 Reasons to Have Watched the Pre-Opening Night Sochi Broadcast

    "For Russians, if our hockey team wins, nothing else will matter. And if they lose, nothing else will matter."

    I never think I'll end up watching these oddball winter events, and yet... The payoff last night:

    1) Jun Miyake. If you watched, you know that American figure skating champion Jeremy Abbott had a rough night. It was the more painful because, when not falling, he is so obviously elegant in carriage and movement. Silver lining of his heartbreak: if you watched, you heard him skate to this music, "Lillies of the Valley," from Jun Miyake, which was new at least to me. The video below is a different kind of elegance, more David Lynch-hypnotic, but the music is the same.

     

    2) Vladimir Pozner! Here is the only thing that's been missing in Reagan-era verisimilitude, from the otherwise delectable FX series The Americans: No cameos of Vladimir Pozner. For those who weren't around in the 1980s, it is difficult to convey how weird it seemed to have this urbane character smoothly laying out official Soviet agitprop on Nightline and other programs -- and sounding as if he'd grown up in New York City, because in fact he had. The picture below is how he looked back in the day. (You can see him, circa 2000, talking with a surprising young-ish and less tedious Rush Limbaugh, here.)

    I tell myself that native-sounding accents shouldn't really matter in our assessment of people; that it's all about the accident of where you happened to be during those crucial phoneme-developing elementary-school years; and that actors, if they're good enough, can pass themselves off as almost native. (Hugh Laurie of House, Dominic West of The Wire, both Brits passing as Americans; Meryl Streep passing as anything.) Still, listening to Pozner during the Cold War was truly strange.

    And now, thanks to the Sochi Olympics, he is back! Apparently in Russia he's never gone away. But last night he was on NBC, in an improbable segment with David Remnick (yes) and Bob Costas, on Russia, sport, resentment, and more. Among other things, Pozner let us know that for the host country, it was all about the national hockey team. "If we win, nothing else [that goes wrong in Sochi] will matter. And if we lose, nothing else will matter." On homophobia: "I would say that 85% of Russians are homophobic, not just in disapproval but to the point of physical violence. This is a very homophobic country."

    I'll be watching for him, and will be disappointed if the next season of The Americans doesn't work him in.

    Olympic bonus point #3, following on Pozner's observation: yesterday's Google Doodle. Understated in design but unmistakable in its stand.

    And the logo on the Google Chrome search box:

    Let the games begin.

    Previous post                                                         Next post

  • In Honor of the Olympics, Let's Talk Filibuster

    What's the word I was looking for—the one that starts with "F" and applies when a bill gets 59 votes? Oh, yes, now it comes back to me: "Fail."

    Stop me if you've heard this one before:

    A large majority of the U.S. Senate votes in favor of a measure—in this case, senators representing nearly 70 percent of the U.S. population*. A minority threatens a filibuster to stop it. The majority falls just short of the supermajority needed to get its way. And our leading journalistic institutions tell us that ... the measure "failed."

    Yes, you have heard this before. But for the record, come on New York Times (source of the breaking-news flash above, and the story below, and which did get the word "filibuster" into the end of the second paragraph):

    And come on CNN (which did not manage to include the word filibuster):

    And come on Boston Globe—which in its defense was using the NYT story, though it presumably could write its own headlines:

     

    On the other hand, nicely done, Reuters!

    And welcome Politico!

     

    __

    *Fun fact for the day: By my ballpark count, the 59 senators who voted for the bill represented states with just less than 70 percent of the U.S. population. The 41 who voted no represented just more than 30 percent of the population. With only 70 percent support, no wonder the bill "failed."


    The nightmare of article-writing nears the end of its cycle, at least for this issue. Coming soon, more reports from up-and-coming parts of America, plus what I learned by watching the pre-opening night of the Winter Olympics.

    Previous post                                                                                      Next post

  • As We Switch From Superbowl to Sochi ...

    When in doubt, try French.

    For several days I am holed up finishing an "American Futures" article for the next issue of the magazine. Later this week, more web dispatches will be coming about The Upstate of South Carolina. In the meantime, don't miss Deb Fallows's two very popular reports about innovative public schools in Greenville: the Elementary School for Engineers, and the Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities. And, among many other great recent items on our site, Ta-Nehisi Coates's essay on "The Champion Barack Obama" and Derek Thompson's on Philip Seymour Hoffman

    Now two transition notes. First, about over-correction in language. A reader writes:

    I read with great interest your articles on the "Frenchified" pronunciation of Beijing as Beizhing during the 2012 Olympics. A similar phenomenon appears to be affecting announcers talking about Sochi this year. I've heard several referring to "Soshi", the latest being the ATC TV critic Eric Deggans just this evening (just a little after 5pm EST). [JF note: didn't hear it the first time through, but link is here and embedded below. In the intro you hear the host, I believe NPR's Audie Cornish, say Sochi. Then about a minute in we get Soshi.]

    Does the softer fricative just sound more "foreign"? In the case of Sochi, there can be no confusion based on spelling! 

    Here is the NPR player:

    I think there is something to the theory that when in doubt, Americans instinctively class up a foreign word by making it sound "French." I am no expert in the Slavic world, but through the magic of this delightful site I will assert that сочи, the name of the Olympic home city, is pronounced with what sounds to English speakers like more a ch- than a sh- sound. Listen for yourself. It's on the Internet, so it must be true.

    Second, and on an entirely different scale, an update about Robert Gates. Last week, as part of an Iran-sanctions reader, I linked to Mike Lofgren's criticism of Gates's tenure at DOD and his book. A professor at Texas A&M, where Gates was president for four years before he came back to DC to succeed Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, writes in to disagree. This note comes from John Nielsen-Gammon, who is the Regents Professor at A&M and also the Texas State Climatologist; I've quoted his scientific views before. Since he is criticizing Lofgren by name, and Lofgren was directly criticizing Gates, it seem fair to use Nielsen-Gammon's name too (as he agreed). Here goes:

    Been busy and just now saw your reference to Mike Lofgren's piece on Robert Gates.  I followed the link and was reading the piece with a combination of alarm and skepticism, unsure of how much I should take Lofgren's words at face value (having not read Gates' side of it yet), when I came to this paragraph:

    [Lofgren writes:] "In between the two Bush presidencies, Gates became – quelle surprise! – dean of the newly-minted George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. Later he was president of that university. This is not the place to exhaustively examine the subject, but Gates's tenure at Texas A&M is another example of the corrosive effect of the revolving door between political operatives in government and the American university system. While these persons' fundraising prowess based on their extensive network of rich contacts as well as their ability to wangle federal education grants may benefit the university in the short run, the intellectually corrupting influence of such operatives, along with the growing dependence of universities on a cadre of politically motivated government elites, poses a long-term threat to the academic independence of higher education. One need only look at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, the bleaching tub of the self-perpetuating American political oligarchy, to see the danger."

    [Back to Nielsen-Gammon:]   At last something of which I have personal knowledge, with which I could gauge Lofgren's credibility.  I've been on the faculty of Texas A&M University since before Gates arrived.

    Gates was surely designated the first Dean of the Bush School (no "George") of Government and Public Service because he was both a friend of the George Bush family and a veteran of governmental affairs.  His appointment was met with understandable concern among the faculty there, who saw the political appointment of a man with no higher education experience.  

    However, in his  two years as Dean, he showed himself to be a fine academic administrator and one of the best Deans in the University at working with faculty to further the academic mission of the School.  

    Robert Gates, Aggies, "senior boots." C/o Aggie Insurgency.

    When it was time to hire a new President in 2001, it came down to two men.  The overwhelming preference on campus was for Robert Gates, based on his track record at the Bush School.  However, many on the governor-appointed Board of Regents were in favor of sidestepping the search committee's recommendation in favor of sitting Sen. Phil Gramm, a former economics professor at Texas A&M.  In this instance, Gramm would have represented "the revolving door between political operatives in government and the American university system".  Eventually, in a split vote, Gates was chosen to be President, and the campus breathed a collective sigh of relief that we had avoided having the office of President of the University become politicized.

    As President, Gates inherited a broad but ambitious plan to move the University forward into the top ten of public universities by the year 2020.  He chose to focus on four key objectives, including "elevating the faculty", and was responsible for expanding the size of the faculty by over 400 members at a time when public spending for higher education in Texas was becoming a hard sell in a conservative state.  He oversaw the beginning of construction of the campus's first building dedicated to liberal arts amid outside suspicion of what "liberal arts" stood for.  His continued focus on the quality of the education Texas A&M provides its students and his strength of character to fend off harmful political interference, contribute to him being widely regarded as one of the greatest presidents in the history of Texas A&M University. 

    Offered for the record. Also on the subject of Texans in the news, congratulations to my friend and one-time employer* Rep. Lloyd Doggett. He is a Democrat who was elected from Austin in 1994 (after losing a U.S. Senate race to the same Phil Gramm and being elected to the Texas Supreme Court) and has survived a series of hostile gerrymanders since then. Now he is leading a House effort against the poison-pill Iran sanctions bill. Greg Sargent has the story here. Good for Rep. Doggett and those working with him.


    * Back in the mid-70s, when the 20-something Lloyd Doggett had just won a seat in the Texas State Senate, and my wife had just begun linguistics graduate school at the University of Texas in Austin, I worked as an aide/gofer on Lloyd's legislative staff. I wasn't there long, before joining the then-startup Texas Monthly, but nonetheless I take credit for, or at least pleasure in, his subsequent attainments.

  • Now This Is Team Spirit

    What the Wright Brothers have wrought. 

    I am taking no sides in The Big Game this weekend. I don't care.* 

    But I have to admire the combination of team spirit, precision flight planning, and disregard for practicality shown by the group at Boeing that produced this flight yesterday in solidarity with the Seahawks' "Twelfth Man" concept. Here is the radar record of the flight track, via Flight Aware.

     If you'd like to replicate the route, here are the waypoints, also courtesy of Flight Aware:

    SEA SEA146051 KS06G 4625N 12000W 4625N 11945W 4725N 11945W 4725N 12000W 4743N 12000W 4800N 11945W 4800N 11925W 4625N 11925W 4625N 11910W 4600N 11910W 4600N 11850W 4653N 11850W 4712N 11830W 4712N 11800W 4737N 11800W 4737N 11825W 4725N 11825W 4725N 11850W 4743N 11850W 4800N 11830W 4800N 11753W 4743N 11733W 4707N 11733W 4649N 11753W 4649N 11825W 4625N 11825W 4625N 11800W 4635N 11800W 4635N 11730W 4600N 11730W 4600N 11850W 4600N 11910W KS06G SUMMA SEA 

    It's up to you to find your own 747 to match** what Boeing flew.

    Update Here's the plane itself! Thanks to many readers in the Hawks diaspora who pointed me to stories about it (and this company photo).

    Update-update A reader who examined the Flight Aware charts adds this:

    Check the detailed flight data. They flew the 747 at 15,000 ft at 200 kts. In a way, that impresses me even more. Imagine flying your SR-22 at 1,500 ft and 80 kts for six hours straight.

    Yes, for an airliner this is quite low and slow -- comparable to early stages of an arrival/approach as an airliner is getting near an airport. For some other installment, what would be easier and harder about flying this way.


    * I grew up with the LA Rams: no más. My kids grew up with the DC NFL team: at this point, its continued flailing is not even interesting, the 15-year achievement of the league's worst ownership and management. So I decided that henceforth the community-owned Packers would be my team. For them, maybe next year.

    ** You'll probably also need to line up an RNP-style navigation system to plot out and follow this exact track, despite the powerful and variable jetstream winds blowing at those flight altitudes. I described the way some American-designed RNP systems were used for a different national-pride purpose, getting Chinese airliners into remote valley airports in Tibet, in China Airborne.  

  • Dreaming Big in South Carolina: A Public Boarding School for the Arts

    by Deborah Fallows

    Impromptu music practice session in a glassed-in walkway at the Governor's School

    By Deborah Fallows

    “One half dream; one half plan.” That’s how one student described his life at the Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities in Greenville, South Carolina.

    Dreaming big at the Governor’s School means Broadway, Hollywood, Carnegie Hall, Pulitzer, Pritzker. Planning big means half of every day in practice, rehearsal, studio, workshop, training, rewrite, instruction, all alongside standard high school academics.

    The 240+ South Carolina students are a natural match with this very specialized residential school. They steep in their identity and passion as young artists. (There are 5 arts tracks: dance, drama, visual arts, music, and creative writing.) “You’re a dancer from the minute you get up in the morning,” is how the dance teacher describes her students. “This is how I think of myself. Dance is the place I go to work through my issues. I am comfortable here,” say the students about themselves. They are so mature and accomplished that it is easy to forget they are teen-agers, until they start talking about prom, or offer their alternate self-description as “quirky”, or mention how they really, really miss the puppy at home.

    The Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities

    The Governor’s School was founded as a summer program in 1980, by musician, teacher, and reputed force of nature Virginia Uldrick. Her vision was to create a non-traditional arts conservatory. The county and city of Greenville won the derby for permanent home for the expanded, school-year campus. They donated more than 8 beautiful acres, the former site of the Furman University men’s campus, which overlook the now bucolic Falls Park and Reedy River. The 27 million dollar campus, which is named for Uldrick, opened in the fall of 1999 to its first class of juniors. You can reach the school by road, or much more fun, by the Swamp Rabbit Trail along the river and leading up to a (locked) gate at the bottom of the campus hill. It’s a five-minute walk to the Peace Arts Center, Spill the Beans (Coffee! Ice cream!), and all the other offerings of Greenville’s revitalized Main Street. The school’s first encore is already underway—a major capital campaign for a new visitors center, which will include a gallery and gardens.

    Inside Marriage Special Report bug
    Reinvention and resilience across the nation
    Read more

    The students, juniors and seniors (and sophomores, if they are dancers), are admitted from all around the state, from tiny towns like Little River, population 9000, to larger ones like Greenville and Columbia.  Some arrive with impressive portfolios or experience in the Governor’s School summer programs. Others are “discovered” in the old-fashioned way through the deep digging and travel by admissions outreach. I asked the veteran teachers about changes in the students that they have seen over the course of their own careers. Now, they said, they are finding fewer kids with experience and their own sense that they have artistic talent. This means that recruiters today have to look more for the potential and less for the proven. The reason? Budget cuts, they said, which means less of the arts in schools and less exposure for the kids. Chilling.

    The woodworking shop

    A tour around the school is an experience. There are multiple dance studios, a performance hall, art spaces for silversmithing, ceramics, a brass foundry, studios for drawing, music practice rooms, a computer lab for graphic design, a gorgeous library, ad lib practice areas.  I’m sure I have forgotten others.

    Seeing the spaces in use is another experience. In the stage theater, a student violinist was playing for her peers and a guest artist (one of a guest artist series, who was visiting the campus and was performing himself that evening), who was critiquing her performance. We tiptoed into an art room, where a 70-something male model, clad only in running shorts and with astonishing musculature that you had to wonder how he could be for real, stood statue-still while students drew. We stopped in at a practice session preparing drama students for upcoming auditions in Chicago. One young woman was performing her piece of Desdemona for the drama teacher and fellow students. The teacher was tough on her, describing the changes he was looking for, and instructing her to “try it again” at least 3 times before we slipped out.  She was tough right back, which convinced me that what another student described as the tough love approach of their instructors was true. “They break you down and build you back up,” he said.

    Critique session in drama class

    You have to wonder about the stress level in such an intense living environment for high school kids. Lots of talented or accomplished kids have an awakening when they get to college that they’re no longer top-dog, or “everything and a bag of chips” as a writing teacher here described it. For these kids, the realization comes earlier, and it is accompanied by the rigors of their pre-professional endeavors. I saw and heard a few things about their reactions.

    Original copper work by a student

    Several kids talked about synergy, rather than competition. They described how they’re all driven toward the same goal, and they can feed off that sentiment. ”You feel it in the air,” one described, “to do something great.”

    I can’t pretend to know if this is actually pervasively true, and I would guess that the reality is more complicated. Theirs is a tough competitive environment where comparisons are unavoidable and at least some of the rewards are part of a zero-sum calculation. And the kids are, of course, unique. One says she thrives on stress and does well living on the edge. Another says the stress is intense and she has to find a way to keep her balance.

    Student art work

    I asked about another sign of stress, eating disorders. The topic is out in the open, was the answer, and it has to be in a school with lots of ballerinas and actresses. Addressing this begins preventatively, with teaching awareness of a healthy lifestyle. That is accompanied by a watchful eagle eye, and backed up by a confidential  “honor system” so friends can bring up concerns about friends to the counselors and advisors. “Of course it happens,” the administrators told me, and they need a strong support system around it.

    There are two more interesting data points about the make up of student body and the challenges of the admissions work, which are food for thought.

    From the 2012 annual school report card for the Governor's School for the Arts found here

    First, gender differences: some 63% of the students at the Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities are girls.  The gender ratio imbalance is most remarkable in dance and least remarkable in drama. The school reports that it seeks to build a balanced class in as many respects as they can, but a reality sets in. “If you need a bassoon player,” one told me, “you hope you find a boy, but it will probably be a girl.”

    By contrast, at the South Carolina Governor’s School for Science and Math, established in 1988 in Hartsville, South Carolina, the student population is now evenly divided between boys and girls.

    The A.J. Whittenberg Elementary School for Engineering, the public school in inner city Greenville, which I wrote about here, is 57%  boys and 43% girls.

    And second, socioeconomics: about one third of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, an accepted proxy for poverty status. I was told that the school attracts mostly lower and middle class students. The school is a harder sell to kids from wealthier families, they said, who don’t want to give up their rooms, cars, and TVs.

    So where does this all lead? A reminder, the school graduated its first class a dozen years ago. But already, the recognition is flooding in. National Merit finalists, Presidential Scholars in the Arts, 100% acceptance to colleges or professional schools, including RISD, Juilliard, Guthrie, Eastman, Peabody Conservatory, award of all sorts. Interestingly, several students and teachers alike told me that there really is no pressure on the students to make a life in the arts. If you want to be a rocket scientist after all, that is fine. Last year 109 students earned 26.5 million dollars in scholarship offers, which breaks down to an average of a $243,000 offer per student.

    Besides dreams in progress, there are already dreams realized. Patina Miller, a graduate in 2002, won a Tony for Best Actress in a Musical for her role in  Pippin on Broadway. Danielle Brooks plays Taystee in Orange is the New Black. Liza Bennett is an actress in 12 Years a Slave.

    And other dramatic wins fall within in a less celebrated spotlight. I heard a poignant story of one Govvie, as students are called, a young clarinetist who couldn’t afford his own instrument. When a local patron, fond of the school, heard of the need, he dug from his attic a beautiful clarinet, which he gave to the young man.

    Perhaps the biggest accolade so far is returned to the school: one young woman told me effusively, “I love my school so much. I love the challenges. I feel at home while I’m here.”


    To contact the author, write DebFallows at gmail.com.  Photos by Deborah and James Fallows.

  • Hunger Games? Tommy Atkins? Apocalypse Now? What's the Right Allusion for Today's Warrior Homage?

    "But it's 'Saviour of 'is country' when the guns begin to shoot;"

    Wikimedia Commons

    Two nights ago, President Obama ended his State of the Union address with a prolonged tribute to Army Sergeant Cory Remsburg, gravely injured in Afghanistan on his tenth deployment. For three previous items on what is right about this young man, but wrong about the spectacle, see #1, #2, and #3

    In those items, I said that during this part of the speech, I couldn't stop thinking about Ben Fountain's novel Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, about just such a tribute (at a NFL game). Readers suggest other comparisons.

    1) David McCullough on Harry Truman. From a lawyer in Los Angeles:

    I’m sure there has been plenty of commentary about Cory, and I think that’s a good thing.  About what you said about remembering and moving on … I’m reminded of the story told in David McCullogh’s biography of Harry Truman, when he discusses the famous incident regarding the bad review of Truman’s daughter singing. 

    Truman of course wrote an angry letter to the Post’s music critic, for which Truman was widely lambasted.  Apparently one of the critical letters that arrived at the White House was from a couple whose son lost his legs in the Korean War.  That couple wrote to Truman saying in effect “Gosh, how lucky you are that your biggest problem with your kids is the bad reviews your daughter gets for her singing.  Meanwhile, our son just came back from Korea without his legs and we’ll spend our old age helping him cope”.  They even sent him the son’s purple heart.

    Truman apparently kept that letter (with the purple heart) on his desk for the remainder of his presidency. 

    2) Apocalypse Now. From a reader in New York:

    A common piece of writing advice is 'show, don't tell'. I'm not sure Remsburg would have liked to be used to explicitly illustrate the points you wish were made about our wars, much as I agree with those points.

    That said, I think Remsburg did illustrate those points (wittingly or unwittingly, I don't know which) to all who would be receptive to them, and I'm 3/4 convinced that he was brought there for that very purpose (as well as to honor him). They didn't have to choose someone with 10 deployments or someone so damaged. They could have chosen someone who did something extraordinarily brave and escaped unscathed if they just wanted us to marvel at the bravery of soldiers.

    I agree that the spectacle of oblivious war supporters applauding and completely missing the point is disconcerting. War lovers also applauded at the 'I love the smell of napalm in the morning' part of Apocalypse Now, but that doesn't make the movie a less powerful antiwar statement.

    3) The Memoirs of Robert Gates. From another reader:

    We should be so lucky to count the response to Lone Survivor as the worst cultural offender in the mixing up of doer and deed. My vote for worst purveyor of this attitude is Robert Gates, whose trashing of the President and other cabinet members seems to hinge entirely on their refusal to pretend that Afghanistan and Iraq were great success stories.

    Of course those doomed adventures can't actually be defended on their merits, so instead Gates attacks his colleagues for their failure to keep faith with the troops. Doubting our purpose in Afghanistan is no longer the rational response to what is obviously a quagmire...instead, it's an inexcusable abandonment of the men and women serving there. 

    I found the ovation for Remsburg perverse, for the same reasons you did, and I have no interest in defending congress. But can we really expect the people in that chamber to adopt a different attitude when Secretary Gates is loosed on the public as he has been?

    The critics of Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly those like you who were critical from the beginning, are letting the military fetishists get away with something. Underneath the grotesque "love" of the troops (a love that always seems to involve more of those troops getting blown to bits, oddly enough) is a deep desire to rewrite recent history, and pretend that there was something of value gained in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    Gates should have been publicly flayed by the press for defending two wars that we had all agreed--until rather recently--were debacles. Instead, he was met by gossip columnists and a shrug from everyone else. That's one more blow against a future of rational foreign policy.

    4) "Tommy Atkins." This one is almost too obvious. As a reader put it, "I don't want to harp on this either, but this hundred-year-old poem is to the point." I won't quote Rudyard Kipling's entire poem, but the refrain is familiar and apt:

    For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Chuck him out, the brute!"
    But it's "Saviour of 'is country" when the guns begin to shoot;
    An' it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' anything you please;
    An' Tommy ain't a bloomin' fool -- you bet that Tommy sees!

    5) "Toy Soldiers." Paula Craft, an artist in Bigfork, Montana, writes:

    I want to second your notion that Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is extraordinary war writing.  I was so inspired by it I scratched a planned photography show to mount one called 'Toy Soldiers' the theme of which was our casual use of these soldiers as props.  I've attached a photo [below].

    Between the book and my growing disgust at our University of Montana football games odd worship of wounded soldiers, I can hardly stand to see men singled out as the president did in is SOTU.  I do believe that much the way we feel shame for the treatment some soldiers returning from Vietnam recieved, we will at some later date be shamed by our callous use of these brave, damaged souls to make ourselves feel better about wars we don't feel very good about.

    6) Echoes of Vietnam. A veteran writes:

    The practice of picking people out of the gallery during the SOTU has always struck me as basically a pretty cheap political tactic.  With Remsburg my feelings were much more complicated.  

    That he has been through an enormous ordeal is obvious.  To gaze upon him is uncomfortable as it should be.  As a two tour Vietnam combat vet, it tears me up to see guys like that and see them I do at the Palo Alto VA hospital where I go for some of my healthcare.  I am very aware of the ease with which politicians consign other, usually younger, people to die in their political gambits.

    The other thought I had is that Cory is the tip of the iceberg.  There are thousands of veterans in similar shape with grievous physical and psychological damage resulting from a war that was truly a waste of thousands of lives (American and others) and completely avoidable; totally unnecessary.  When do they get their standing ovation?  

    7) Katniss Everdeen. One last allusion:

    Can there be any doubt about the right comparison? This is our Hunger Games.

  • A Serving Soldier, on Cory Remsburg

    "Why was he deployed 10 times? Who the hell cares! What matters is that he was brave, and he volunteered his service, and his sacrifice was noble." Or so the Congress seemed to be thinking.

    Cory Remsburg, from 9Line.

    I won't drag this out indefinitely. (On the other hand, think about it: You may be saying to yourself, Okay, enough already, let this topic go, it's getting tedious. Meanwhile, Sgt. Remsburg and tens of thousands of other people will wake up every single morning for the rest of their lives and cope with the consequences of our open-ended wars.) Previously here and here.

    But here is another message from a person now in uniform: 

    Thanks for writing about Cory Remsburg. I had no idea that it had happened until I had read your article, so I popped over to YouTube to see what I had missed. I'm an active duty service member who, thankfully, has only had to deploy once (so far), and my reaction to it pretty much mirrors yours and probably most of your readers. I won't go into detail how frustrating it was to watch, but I think it put on display a larger cultural problem.
     
    At some point, during the last 12 years and some change the United States has been doing combat deployments, the people who deploy and the reasons for deploying them have become inseparable. People who deploy are undoubtedly brave (well, usually) and have to do absolutely shitty things to varying degrees, and deserve accolades for that. 

    The reasons behind the deployment are not always so praise-worthy, but to criticize the mission is seen as criticizing the *people*, taking away from what they gave up. I think the best recent example for this is Lone Survivor, where people saw that the movie maybe was critical of Operation Red Wings and lashed out against it, insisting that the *reason* behind the mission didn't matter, what mattered was how brave the SOCOM troops were. To criticize the reason why they were, and why multiple operators lost their lives, is to take away from their sacrifice.
     
    That's what happened when SFC Remsburg was introduced. Why was he deployed ten times? Who the hell cares! What matters is that he was brave, and he volunteered his service, and his sacrifice was noble. To question why he was sent, if it really was necessary for him to get blown up, is to question his sacrifice, which can not be tolerated.
     
    I'm a young guy, and can't really say if there's precedence for this sort of mentality in previous conflicts, but the best I can hope for is that when the conflict is over people will look back on it and say, "Yea, that was kind of screwed up."

    And one more reader note about the same Congress that so earnestly applauded Remsburg:

    The Cory Remsburg story seems like one more instance where we have lost our collective spirit to solve problems and take care of each other. As a previous emailer pointed out—10 tours of duty? It is no wonder these young men and women are returning home with serious problems.  

    I am the parent of 2 children in their 20's that have been spared this horror, and I know it is patently unfair, and in the long term, detrimental to who we are as a country. The recent passage of the Farm Bill which cut food stamps to millions is another example of disregarding our responsibilities to our fellow Americans.  

    To round it out and put it in context, a trenchant article by a Marine Corps adviser in Afghanistan on why our entire effort there is likely to come to nothing. 

  • Why the Cory Remsburg Tribute Will Be Seen as a Sign of Our Times, and a Bad One, Many Years From Now

    Taking The Long View of events one day in the past

    Barack Obama has always been said to take The Long View. It's a point he made several times in last night's speech, most explicitly here:

    Climate change is a fact. And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.

    If you saw the speech, you should read
    this book. 

    That's the answer the president "wants" to give his grandchildren; it's not the answer I "expect" any of us to be able to give. But at least he raised the question and expressed a hope.

    There was another moment in the speech that I think will look worse in the long view. It was the emotionally charged ending, the tribute to the obviously courageous and grievously wounded Sergeant Cory Remsburg.

    The moment was powerful human and political drama; it reflected deserved credit and gratitude on Remsburg and his family; and as I wrote earlier today, I think it was entirely sincere on the president's part, as a similar tribute would have been from his predecessor George W. Bush. With the significant difference that Bush initiated the wars these men and women have fought in, and Obama has been winding them down. And so the most favorable reading of the moment, as John Cassidy has argued, is that the president was trying to dramatize to the rest of the government the human cost of the open-ended wars many of them have egged on.

    But I don't think that's how it came across to most of the Congress, or was processed by the commentariat. This was not presented as a "never again" moment; it was a "this is America's finest!" moment—which Cory Remsburg himself, and with his family, certainly is. (Also see Peter Beinart on this point.) For America as a whole, the episode did not show us at our finest. In the earlier item, I tried to explain why these few minutes will reflect badly on us and our times when our children's children view them years from now. Since the explanation was buried at the end of a long post, I repeat it at the end of this one.

    Here is a reader note that makes the point more directly. A soldier in an earlier war writes:

    When I was a draftee in the Army (1967-69) it was unusual to meet a soldier who'd served two tours in Vietnam and almost unheard of to meet one who'd served three tours. That's why I consider it almost unimaginable cruelty the sacrifices our politicians have forced on our troops in the past 12 years.  

    Ten tours! Good Lord, how much is a soldier—and his or her family—supposed to take in order to save a chickenhawk politician the odious task of voting for a draft to supply enough manpower for all the wars he wants others to fight? 

    A Congress that by default is pressuring the country toward war, most recently with Iran, and that would not dream of enacting either a special tax or any kind of enforced or shared service to sustain these wars, gives a prolonged, deserved ovation for a person who has dedicated his all to the country. Tears well up in many eyes; the cheering persists; the admiration for this young man is profound. Then everyone moves right on.

    Years from now, people can play this clip and see something about the culture of our times. It's a moment of which only the Remsburg family will be proud. 

    Update: Another note that just came in:

    I read about the reference to Cory Remsburg and pulled up the SOTU video to see what I had missed. Watching Mr. Remsburg wave his poorly functioning right hand with the help of his father, tears began to slowly well up.

    But as the applause continued and the camera panned over the collection of privileged white men, I started to feel angry and frustrated. It was difficult to hear the President speak about sacrifice while knowing that few of the clapping members of Congress will put any of their children in similar harm’s way.

    It was difficult to hear the President speak about Cory Remsburg as a case of an American fighting and pushing through adversity and life’s hard knocks, as if he was an entrepreneur who opened a business, went bankrupt, and is now working hard to rebuild a new business and provide for his family. This is a man who took 10 deployments overseas for reasons that members of Congress would struggle to explain in lucid and clear terms. I found it tasteless because it seemed that the President, as head of state and Chief in Command, wasn’t acknowledging his role in the adversity that Cory Remsburg and his family deal with every day.

    I don’t mean to blame the President directly, but I would like the plight of people like Cory Remsburg publicly framed as a time of reflection and accountability for members of both the legislative and the executive rather than an opening for a 90 second clapping routine.


    From earlier today, after seven other items about the speech.

    8) Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg. About the service and sacrifice of this brave man and other men and women like him, we cannot say enough. As Obama emphasized, Sgt. Remsburg's grave injury came on his tenth deployment. I do not doubt that Obama, like his wartime predecessors, is genuinely seized by both anguish and admiration about the people he has sent into harm's way. Even when, and perhaps more so when, like Obama he has been trying to withdraw those troops.

    And no one can doubt the drama and power of the speech's closing minutes.

    But while that moment reflected limitless credit on Sgt. Remsburg, his family, and others similarly situated; and while I believe it was genuinely respectful on the president's part, I don't think the sustained ovation reflected well on the America of 2014. It was a good and honorable moment for him and his family. But I think the spectacle should make most Americans uneasy.

    The vast majority of us play no part whatsoever in these prolonged overseas campaigns; people like Sgt. Remsburg go out on 10 deployments; we rousingly cheer their courage and will; and then we move on. Last month I mentioned that the most memorable book I read in 2013 was Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain. It's about a group of U.S. soldiers who barely survive a terrible encounter in Iraq, and then are paraded around in a halftime tribute at a big Dallas Cowboys game. The crowd at Cowboys Stadium cheers in very much the way the Capitol audience did last night—then they get back to watching the game.

  • SOTU in 8 Thought Drops

    The first seven are in different ways encouraging; number eight, less so.

    Ronald Reagan, back in the days of yore. Read on to discover why I am using this photo. (Courtesy Ronald Reagan Library)

    Not doing an annotated version this year, for mainly technical reasons. Thus this bullet-point version. (Plus, discussed the speech this morning on the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC, and last night right after the event on Charlie Rose.)

    1) Theme: it had one. The curse/burden of writing State of the Union messages, and the challenge in listening to them, is that their entire point is to be encyclopedic. It's the president's main shot at listing all the things he's hoping to do. Thus their standard "Turning now to foreign affairs ... " creaky-transition structure, and thus the difficulty of discerning any main theme.

    But this one had a theme, and a narrative-argumentative structure. That theme was: things are getting better -- and so, my colleagues in government, let's stop screwing them up. The positive part of the theme allowed Obama to make his version of a morning-in-America presentation: manufacturing up, energy imports and carbon emissions down, health coverage expanding. It also allowed him to make the must-do-more part: inequality and uneven opportunity are the main challenges to doing better. So let's deal with them.

    2) Bearing: Obama's mattered. The news of the past few months has all been of a diminished, aloof, estranged, premature-lame-duck Obama. If the man we'd seen last night had resembled the beaten-seeming Obama of the first 2012 Romney-Obama debate, the out-of-it verdict would have solidified. That wouldn't have moved him into permanent figurehead status, because "expert" judgments about politicians are notoriously fickle. (Bill Clinton is now viewed on all sides as a kind of sun king of political dexterity. After the defeat of his medical-care bill, a crushed-seeming President Clinton had to mewl at a press conference that he was "still relevant.") But it would have made things that much harder.

    So, all judgments are fluid. But—as he has time and again with "big" speeches—Obama improved his standing by seeming sunny, confident, relaxed, and engaged.

    You could say, "Reaganesque," by which I mean: seeming sunnily confident himself, seeming similarly confident about the country, and seeming (most of the time) amused and unflustered by the realities of political division, rather than embittered or scolding about them. 

    3) American Futures—the speech. It was considerate of the president to begin with a litany of local manufacturing start-ups and community public-private development efforts very much like the ones we've been chronicling in recent months. If he ever tires of Air Force One, there is a seat for him in our Cirrus.

    4) Inequality—the shrewd way he positioned it. The news before the speech was that Obama was going to dwell on the worst economic reality of the times, in the United States and virtually all other countries: things are getting better overall, but not for all or even most people. And his opponents were gearing up for a "we are shocked, just shocked by this descent into 'class war' " lament. 

    So when he talked about strictly economic issues, Obama kept carefully to a "growing pie" tone. It's great that rich people have done so well. Let's help everyone prosper. And when he worked the class-war beat, it was on a front where the Republicans dared not (sanely) oppose him: arguing that today's economy is unfair to women. I.e., to most Americans.

    5) Nicest deviation from prepared text—the missing "er." The official text of the speech had this passage about symbols of American opportunity:

    Here in America, our success should depend not on accident of birth, but the strength of our work ethic and the scope of our dreams.  That’s what drew our forebears here.  It’s how the daughter of a factory worker is CEO of America’s largest automaker; how the son of a barkeeper is Speaker of the House; how the son of a single mom can be President of the greatest nation on Earth. 

    What Obama actually said about John Boehner was, "the son of a barkeep." A tiny difference that was ineffably charming. Boehner himself was manifestly charmed. And the sequence of examples here—first female head of General Motors (which, nudge-nudge, the government helped rescue); the son of a barkeep sitting here behind me; and only then the son of a single mother standing at the podium—put Obama's own story, which is (of course) tremendously important but which (of course) we all already know, in a broader "all in this together" frame.  

    Son of a barkeep acknowledges son of a single mother. Son of a used-car salesman applauds. Via Washington Post.

    6) Back to vintage-2008 Obama. On the substance, sentences I was very glad to hear: 

    So, even as we aggressively pursue terrorist networks—through more targeted efforts and by building the capacity of our foreign partners—America must move off a permanent war footing .... And with the Afghan war ending, this needs to be the year Congress lifts the remaining restrictions on detainee transfers and we close the prison at Guantanamo Bay—because we counter terrorism not just through intelligence and military action, but by  

    7) Laying down the law, in the right way—about Iran. Also very glad to hear these lines:

    Let me be clear: if this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it.  For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed...  If Iran’s leaders do seize the chance, then Iran could take an important step to rejoin the community of nations, and we will have resolved one of the leading security challenges of our time without the risks of war.

    And:

    If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.

    Exactly. For later discussion, the way effective (finding bin Laden) and excessive (drone/surveillance) aspects of Obama's records should insulate him from the need to "prove" his toughness.

    8) Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg. About the service and sacrifice of this brave man and other men and women like him, we cannot say enough. As Obama emphasized, Sgt. Remsburg's grave injury came on his tenth deployment. I do not doubt that Obama, like his wartime predecessors, is genuinely seized by both anguish and admiration about the people he has sent into harm's way. Even when, and perhaps more so when, like Obama he has been trying to withdraw those troops.

    And no one can doubt the drama and power of the speech's closing minutes.

    But while that moment reflected limitless credit on Sgt. Remsburg, his family, and others similarly situated; and while I believe it was genuinely respectful on the president's part, I don't think the sustained ovation reflected well on the America of 2014. It was a good and honorable moment for him and his family. But I think the spectacle should make most Americans uneasy.

    The vast majority of us play no part whatsoever in these prolonged overseas campaigns; people like Sgt. Remsburg go out on 10 deployments; we rousingly cheer their courage and will; and then we move on. Last month I mentioned that the most memorable book I read in 2013 was Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain. It's about a group of U.S. soldiers who barely survive a terrible encounter in Iraq, and then are paraded around in a halftime tribute at a big Dallas Cowboys game. The crowd at Cowboys Stadium cheers in very much the way the Capitol audience did last night—then they get back to watching the game.

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

From This Author