James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne.
James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.
Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.
Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
Three more installments to go! This is No. 13 in a series, started back in July, on the biggest infrastructure project underway in America, and either the most important one (if you're a supporter) or most misguided (if you are not). That's the proposal for a north-south California High-Speed Rail (HSR) system, which Governor Jerry Brown has embraced as his legacy project and is selling hard in his re-election campaign. For previous episodes see No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, No. 6, No. 7, No. 8, No. 9, No. 10, No. 11, and No. 12.
Today, mail from some readers who say that California needs a better land-transportation system, just not this specific HSR proposal. Their alternative suggestions come in two main categories: taking seriously the possibility of self-driving cars, and changing from a conventional wheels-on-rails railroad system to the maglev systems, for "magnetic levitation," now in use in some other parts of the world. I also get mail in a third category, involving Elon Musk's "Hyperloop" transport vision, but that one is still hypothetical enough that I'll leave it for another time.
Before you point it out: Yes, I'm aware that responding to any proposal by saying, "I like the idea, I'm just not sure of the execution" often has the same effect as "Actually, I don't like the idea." That's for later. My purpose for the moment is to let advocates of these systems lay out the main points in their cases. The grand unification theory is still to come.
We're on the road again, right now in the not-exactly-small city of Pittsburgh. Here we're asking about some of its celebrated successes in downtown revitalization, technology-hub development, and other indicators of civic health, and the lessons they may offer for other parts of the country. More on that anon.
For now, I direct your attention to two new reports from Columbus, Ohio. One, by Deb Fallows, is on the unusual approach that the Cristo Rey religious schools are taking for students from poor backgrounds. The other, by John Tierney, is about how the often-empty buzzword of "collaboration" has real effects for a variety of startup businesses.
Herewith an item from the email inbox. The sender is someone I don't know, and the country he is discussing is one I have never been to or written about.
Most reporters get lots of PR pitches each day. This one seemed worth sharing as a little glimpse into today's news ecology.
We’ve never actually worked together, but I’m hoping to build a stronger relationship between my practice and The Atlantic.
I recently accepted a position in [a big PR firm's] Foreign Governments practice, and will be representing a number of foreign entities that you’ve covered in the past. I’d love to take you out for a drink or a cup of coffee to figure out what topics you’re interested in and discuss how I can connect you with the appropriate foreign officials.
On another note, next week, two human rights experts from [a country sometimes in the news for human rights issues] will be in Washington, DC to discuss the report they’ve just published that directly challenges the United Nations Human Rights Council’s (UNHRC) methodologies in investigating human rights violations. Using [their country] as a case study, their research reveals evidence that raises serious questions about the UNHRC’s impartiality and its ability to be an effective oversight body investigating human rights violations.
Given the heightened activity level of the UNHRC right now and some of the serious charges raised in this report, this is going to be a topic US and foreign policymakers are talking about in the coming months. They have a number of meetings lined up next week, but given your knowledge on the subject, I’d appreciate the opportunity to introduce them to you.
The two experts who are visiting are both [Country X]-based international affairs experts.
[ ... Extensive details on the two experts ... ]
I would be happy to provide you with copies of the report in advance and make both available to you during their visit to Washington.
I will call you later this week to inquire about a possible meeting, but in the meantime, I may be reached by replying to this email or calling 202-xxx-xxxx.
Looking forward to connecting,
For previous installments in the "glamorous life" series, you can start here or here or here or get a big collection here.
The photo above does not include any products of America's largest and best known craft brewery, the Boston Beer Company that produces Sam Adams. But it's a useful reference for several craft-beer-related points.
Today John Tierney has a new item on the Beer Economy of Pennsylvania and the role it plays in the identity and economy of the region. I know this seems like a running gag, but quite seriously we've come to think that the locally based, strongly locally branded food-and-beverage outfits we've seen from Maine to Mississippi to South Dakota, are significant business operations and signs of civic health. John Tierney explains more about their role in the historic brewing stronghold of the Lehigh Valley.
Here are two recent books that make important points about politics, history, culture, and human nature via fast-moving vivid narratives.
1) The Cynic, by Alec MacGillis. Everyone in politics-world knows that Mitch McConnell matters. If he holds on through his current reelection race in Kentucky, and if enough of the other likely-Republican Senate races go in the expected way, then McConnell will end up as Senate majority leader early next year.
Not as many people have a clear idea of who McConnell is, or how he evolved, or why he does the things he does—notably including his conversion of the Senate from a majority-rule body with occasional filibusters to a paralyzed system in which a 60-vote "supermajority" is required to get even routine chores done.
This is the story Alec MacGillis tell in his concise, fast-moving ebook about McConnell, The Cynic. It's full of things I hadn't known, for instance that McConnell began his career as a decidedly moderate Republican, initially keeping arm's length from Ronald Reagan and his conservatives, supporting abortion rights, and styling himself in the inclusive, bridge-building tradition of Kentucky's great mid-20th century senator John Sherman Cooper.*
Mitch McConnell's reputation now amounts to more or less the opposite of John Sherman Cooper's, and MacGillis tells how and why McConnell changed course. He also helps explain how someone without the obvious political gifts of speech-making or glad-handing has stayed in national office for 30 years and is favored to be there at least six years more. And if you'd like even more first-hand evidence of what has happened to the Senate, you'll find it here—all in less than two hours' reading time.
2) All the Truth Is Out, by Matt Bai. If you read the highly publicized NYT Mag excerpt from this book last month, you probably think you know what the whole book is about. That is: the myth and reality of what Bai calls "the week politics went tabloid," the time in 1987 when reporters from The Miami Herald, The Washington Post, and elsewhere turned Gary Hart's presidential campaign into a lurid inquest into the nature of his relationship with Donna Rice and potentially other women.
That's what I assumed too, before I read the book (in preparation for a recent talk with Hart) and learned that I was wrong. The book's ambition is broader than I assumed, and it tells a more important story than that excerpt might suggest.
Bai mentions several time the great Moby Dick-like work of modern political reportage, What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer. And while All the Truth doesn't aspire to the same scale—Richard Ben Cramer told the life stories of six candidates through almost the whole sweep of the 1988 campaign; Matt Bai gives us just one—it is clearly informed by Cramer's determination to present the candidates as real people.
That is: real people as opposed to larger-than-life world historical figures, which was the tone Theodore White's seminal Making of the President books often took. But also, real people as opposed to crooks, villains, and liars, in the way Hunter S. Thompson popularized and that is the default approach in much of today's political journalism. To paraphrase a point Bai makes in the book: Modern reporters start out knowing that politicians are guilty of something. They just have to figure out what. Richard Ben Cramer gave a critical but sympathetic view of how the world looked through the eyes of Bob Dole or Joe Biden or Dick Gephardt or George W. Bush in 1988, and Matt Bai does that with Gary Hart.
This book will tell you a lot about what politics asks of and takes out of people, and about the highly imperfect ways in which we now assess "character" and "substance" when choosing our leaders. It probably will, and certainly should, make you think more highly of Gary Hart as a figure of consequence in our politics.
And among other questions it raises this one: Bill Clinton (who once worked for Hart during the 1972 McGovern campaign) is known to have committed sexual indiscretions far grosser than anything even alleged about Hart. Yet Clinton is now America's beloved grandfather/neighbor/explainer/philanthropist/first-gentleman-in-waiting, while Hart has been consigned to public-policy limbo. Life, as they say, is not fair.
But you should give these books, and their arguments, and their authors a fair shake by buying and reading both of them.
* In an email exchange about the idea behind his book, MacGillis wrote:
At bottom, [the book] is an attempt to understand, through this one very consequential and representative yet oddly under-scrutinized figure, how we've arrived at the point we have. I've never been really satisfied by the explanation that things have gotten the way they have in Washington because the Republican Party has changed; I wanted to get a better grasp of why and how it changed, and taking a closer look at McConnell seemed a good way to go about doing so.
I was pretty startled to find just how far he has traveled over the years—I found women's-rights activists in Kentucky praising him to the skies for his pro-choice conniving in Louisville government, an aide who recalled sending McConnell bowling with the local AFL-CIO chieftain to get his endorsement (after promising to back public-employee unions), and plenty other flashes of long-lost moderation. Most amusing might be the pro-moderation letter he fired off to a Ripon Society leader after reading his essay in Playboy. (If there's anyone who read Playboy for the articles ...)
In next month's election, Jerry Brown is seeking a fourth term as California's governor and public support for his plan for a north-south bullet train to transform travel in a car-dependent state. Here is more of what's at stake.
After a few weeks' pause for reflection—and for article-writing, and for involvement with news from Scotland, Hong Kong, the Middle East, Pennsylvania, and Ohio—it's time once more to dig into California's ambitious and controversial plan to build a north-south High-Speed Rail (HSR) system.
If you're joining us late, this is No. 12 in a series that began in July. For previous installments see No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, No. 6, No. 7, No. 8, No. 9, No. 10, and No. 11. The HSR proposal is important, as the largest infrastructure project now being considered in our infrastructure-deficient land. It's timely, since Governor Jerry Brown has made it a central part of his legacy and platform as he runs for an unprecedented fourth term, with the election just three weeks away. And I think it deserves attention from the country as a whole, as a real-time test case for the way we make big, expensive decisions whose full costs and benefits can't fully be known when the choice is made.
Last week John Tierney reported on the ambitious effort that the generally thriving city of Columbus, Ohio, is undertaking to remake its long-depressed Franklinton neighborhood. That's one of Jessica Phelps's powerful photographs of Franklinton above; you can see many more here. The local slang term for this district has been "The Bottoms," and her collection is called "Rising up from The Bottoms."
Now John has the second installment in his Franklinton/Columbus chapter of the American Futures saga. It is called "How to Attract Artists to a Down-and-Out Neighborhood," and it's about the thinking behind, and the practical steps toward, using creative artists, and arts-related businesses and activities, as a tool of civic renewal. Detroit's version of this approach, including an offer of free houses for artists and writers, has been highly publicized. We've seen a range of related ideas in cities as small as Eastport, Maine and as big as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Greenville, South Carolina, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The Columbus approach is an interestingly broad and thorough one. Please check out John Tierney's report for more, including the background on this scene from Land-Grant Brewing, below.
On the evening of October 11, 2001, thirteen years ago today, a federal prosecutor named Tom Wales was shot and killed while he sat at a desk in the basement-office of his home in Seattle. Wales was 49 years old at the time and had been a federal prosecutor for 18 years.
I have mentioned the case a number of times through the years (eg here and here) partly for personal reasons. I had met and liked Wales while my wife and I were living in Seattle during the two years before his death. I have come to know his children slightly, and one of his in-laws, Eric Redman of Seattle, is a longtime very close friend. But the Tom Wales case has deserved and received continuing national attention because of two of its unusual and disturbing aspects.
One is that Tom Wales is believed to be the only federal prosecutor ever killed in the line of duty—that is, murdered or assassinated because of the work he was doing rather than as the object of a "normal" crime. The other is that local law-enforcement officials very quickly settled on a person they thought had unique means, motive, and opportunity to have been the murderer. But for complex reasons neither this person nor anyone else has been charged.
The best summary of the motives, tangles, and tragedies of the case is Jeffrey Toobin's "An Unsolved Killing" in The New Yorker seven years ago. (Toobin himself is a former federal prosecutor.) I highly recommend that you read that story—and also the note I've just received from Michael Jay.
Jay, a writer and author of a memoir Dog Water Free, was Tom Wales's roommate when they were undergraduates at Harvard. The main purpose of his note, apart from remembering his friend, is to underscore the ongoing search for leads and tips, and the substantial reward that is being amassed for help in the case. I turn it over to him:
A PERFECT MURDER?
THE FBI IS STILL SEEKING CLUES AS REWARD GROWS
By: Michael Jay
The National Association of Former United States Attorneys Foundation is engaged in a pledge campaign to match an existing $1Million Reward from the US Department of Justice for information leading to arrest and conviction of persons responsible for the murder of Assistant US Attorney Tom Wales, a career Federal Prosecutor who lost his life to the bullets of an assassin in Seattle, thirty days after 9/11.
The campaign will run until December 31, 2014
It is being piloted by NAFUSA Foundation Past-President Mike McKay, US Attorney for The Western District of Washington from 1989 – 1993.
More than $400,000 has so far been pledged by prominent firms like Williams & Connolly, Perkins Coie, DLA Piper, as well as several NAFUSA board members.
As most media have reported, “Wales's murder is believed to have been in retaliation for his work as an Assistant US Attorney and was perpetrated or arranged by the target of a criminal investigation,” according to the NAFUSA website.
Be that the case, Tom Wales would be the only Federal Prosecutor in US history to be killed in the line of duty.
“It’s a perfect murder, said one investigator. “The only physical evidence are shell casings and spent bullets…Unless someone steps up and talks, this case will never be prosecuted.”
October 11, 2001
Seattle Police Chief, Gil Kerlikowske, who worked the scene at 108 Hayes Street in the quiet neighborhood of Queen Anne on that night, proclaimed the death of Tom Wales an assassination.
Avoiding motion detectors that would have set off flood lights in the back of Wales’ home, the killer must have known the circumstances at the scene, as well as his habit of spending time in his home office late into the evening.
At work on his computer at 10:40 pm when shots rang out, Wales managed to dial 911 before losing consciousness.
According to public FBI reports, he was shot multiple times through a window of his basement office.
The weapon was a Makarov 9mm semi-automatic handgun, equipped with a shiny, stainless steel aftermarket barrel, believed to have been threaded for a silencer.
Public FBI reports state that Soviet Bloc countries manufactured the Makarov through approximately 1968 and U.S. sales of barrels of this type are rare, which gives investigators reason for hope.
The aftermarket barrels are rifled with six lands and grooves with a left twist.
Corporate and Individual Pledges can be made at firstname.lastname@example.org attn: Mike McKay.
Tips can be made at 1-800-CALL-FBI.
On behalf of a courageous family that longs for closure, thank you.
Through the 1970s and 1980s, when American tennis was strong and players like Chris Evert, Jimmy Connors, and John McEnroe were the American face of the sport on court, Vic Braden was (with Bud Collins) the face of American tennis in TV commentary. Collins called the matches; Braden popped up everywhere to give tips on how to play the game.
Tennis has receded enough in popularity that no current figure quite matches his role. The closest sports-world counterparts would be some leading basketball (Phil Jackson?) or football (John Madden?) coach.
Vic Braden appeared on late-night talk shows and even on network news shows. He wrote a popular series of books and produced instructional videos. His name and always-smiling face were familiar in ads and on the airwaves, in a way that seemed appropriate for the de-country-club-ization of tennis that, with their respective styles, Connors, McEnroe, Bobby Riggs, and Billie Jean King were bringing about.
What I hadn't realized, until I had a chance to meet him in the 1990s, is that beneath this court-jester exterior Vic Braden was a deep and serious person, and a good one.
Twenty years ago, when I had finished a very long book writing stint (for Looking at the Sun), I somehow talked my wife and kids into letting me go through detox via immersions in two tennis camps. First, Nick Bolletieri's, in Sarasota, Florida; then Vic Braden's, in Coto de Caza, California.
About Bolletieri's I'll simply say: you can find someone else to tell you that he is a great guy. My stint there toughened and toned me up. Plus, I got to see a newly arrived little blond-ponytailed girl from Russia who was walloping the ball, and who I have always assumed/ wanted to believe was the just-off-the-boat Maria Sharapova.
About Vic Braden I will say that he seemed to be a born teacher and evangelist, and was someone I wanted to stay in touch with over the years. In the September, 1994 issue of this magazine, I wrote about going to both camps. I can't give you a link to the article, since it's from that twilight zone before our articles were on line (yet is not yet far enough into the recesses of history to put online for antiquarian purposes). In that piece I said that while Bollettieri's operation was devoted to prodigies and couldn't quite conceal its disdain for adult plodders like me, Vic Braden—who, in contrast to Bollettieri, was a huge, in-person presence at his camp—seemed excited by the idea of dealing with mediocre players, because there was so much more he could teach us.
An article I wrote two years later, called "Throwing Like a Girl," is online and talks about Vic Braden's concept of the "kinetic chain" as the key to many successful athletic movements, from golf or baseball swings to tennis strokes to throwing any kind of ball. I got the feeling around him that he loved teaching tennis as a subset of his love for teaching in general, which in turn was a subset of his fascination with looking into how people could make the most of their opportunities and potential.
As you will have guessed by this point, I am saying all this because I have just heard that Vic Braden died two days ago, at the age of 85. He was a genuinely accomplished, deep, influential, loving and loved man, who deserves to be noted by people who were not around during his media heyday, and to be taken more seriously by people who are aware only of his corny on-air routines. You can read some tennis-world appreciations of him here, here, and here. Although I haven't found any of his 1970s-80s TV appearances on line, these instructional videos give a feel for his style. The third is about his approach as applied more broadly than just to tennis technique.
On the low volley:
On the forehand backswing:
On changing the backhand, but really about change in general:
And, why not, a surreal moment from a Davis Cup match in Ecuador featuring Arthur Ashe:
My sympathies to his family, and my gratitude for having known him.
Yesterday I mentioned one of the ongoing and heartening aspects of our American Futures visits: the ways towns small and large are re-knitting the informal social fabric whose presence creates "community" and whose absence means atomized, mutually suspicious existence. Yesterday's example was the expanding role of libraries, with an example from Columbus, Ohio.
Today's installment: the Boy Scout movement, and the ways it has adapted willingly and otherwise to a changing America. John Tierney has a very interesting report from Allentown, Pennsylvania, which puts the evolving Scouting organization there in the larger context of academic analyses of cities that do and do not maintain viable social-connection networks. If any of these themes is relevant to you, or if you did (like me) or did not (like John, as he explains) spend some portion of your life as a Boy or Girl Scout, please check it out.
The more we travel to different parts of the country in our American Futures project, the more we're impressed both by local idiosyncrasies and by broad emerging patterns we hadn't fully anticipated. In the second category would be developments like these, among others:
During this past week, while I have been head-down on a long magazine story, John Tierney has done two very interesting posts in our American Futures series about similar-but-different revitalization efforts in two older cities in two adjoining states, Ohio and Pennsylvania.*
(I am sure it shows something embarrassing about what a lifetime's interest in politics has done to my brain, but the most obvious bracket I can think of that contains Ohio and Pennsylvania is "swing states," so I'll go with that.)
Following this item last night, three more useful things to read about the drama unfolding in Hong Kong:
1) "Why Obama should keep quiet about the Hong Kong protests," by Benjamin Carlson in Global Post. Ben Carlson—who is a much-missed former Atlantic staffer, and in recent years a resident of Hong Kong and Beijing—underscores this crucial point. What is happening in Hong Kong is not about foreign "interference" or meddling in China. But that is exactly how the government in Beijing would love to be able to portray it, and for them comments from an American president would be an absolute godsend.
Why does this matter? Because I am already anticipating the wave of op-ed columns and grumblings on the weekend talk shows about this latest case of Obama's "weakness" or "passivity" or reliance on "leading from behind." Anyone who encourages him to get in the middle of this reveals both ignorance of China and indifference to the consequences there.
My friend Hai Zhang, who is originally from Kunming and whose writings and photos you can see more about here, sends this picture just now from across the Shenzhen River that separates Guangdong Province, in mainland China, from Hong Kong. He writes:
On the other side of the Shenzhen River, I feel shamed, I cry and cry. I think you know what I am crying for and what I am shamed of.
For now, as the National Day Holiday dawns in Hong Kong and across China, three reading suggestions:
1) "Against My Fear, I See That You Hope," a message from a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong to her students who have taken to the streets in protest. This post, by Denise Ho, conveys how unusual it is for this movement to arise in Hong Kong, and the mixture of admiration and foreboding in many people's minds:
As I listened to you, I was and am fearful. During the rally on Monday my eyes followed one of you, my own student, as he spoke on the stage. Was it less than two years ago that he was one of the silent ones in class? When had he grown so tall, so articulate? And where had that beard come from? As I watched you tremble with the rightness of your words, with the fury of the wronged—when you shouted that you would make the Chinese state come to its knees—something clutched my heart with fear. At that moment I suddenly felt old, in a way that wrinkles and grey hair have not chilled me. When I was young, I too had many dreams.
I am afraid for you, and as I told my friends on Saturday it is less a fear for your arrest, or bodily injury—although events since Sunday have shown that perhaps I should fear this too. More than this, I am afraid of what happens if and when the world you hope to create does not come to be.
2) "China Strikes Back," by Orville Schell for the New York Review and China File, gives more reason for the foreboding. Orville Schell is a longtime close friend, and he has known more about China, for a longer time, than I ever will. (He and John Delury also recently wrote a very good book about China's rise, Wealth and Power, which is newly relevant.) His conclusion is darker than I'm willing fully to embrace now. But this article is important background to what you see unfolding in Hong Kong.
3) Henry Farrell on the limits of "explanatory" journalism, on Monday in The Washington Post. I'm all for explanatory journalism, which is part of what The Atlantic has always been for. But in its latest incarnation it's both highly valuable, when writers can add new data—or reporting-based interpretations—and suspect, when writers feel the need to "explain" events in which they're mainly working at second-hand remove. It's an adjustment each wave of journalistic improvement goes through.
All the more reason to pay attention to those explaining, from on the scene. Including Gady Epstein in The Economist, Emily Rauhala in Time, the WSJ'sReal Time Blog, the NYT and WaPo on-scene coverage, and more.
I'm not on-scene, but an observation from having been there over the years:
It would be wonderful to think that the PRC leadership would take the soft-power, high-road route out of this confrontation. It could recognize the maturity and responsibility of the newly politically aware Hong Kong populace. It could cannily assess the advantages to China of "controlling" Hong Kong while letting it continue to operate with rule of law, uncensored Internet, untrammeled media, free universities, transparent financial markets, and all the other attributes of a first-world center. With a light hand, the PRC government could have it both ways.
But that's not likely. Any more than it's likely that the current leaders will throw the doors to China open to the world's journalists—which would be the best way to advance the country's image, given that more interesting/good is underway there than depressing/bad—or that they'll uncensor the Internet or realize that they're magnifying their problems in the long run by jailing, for life, a moderate, intellectual leader of the Uighur cause. This is why it is hard to imagine a pleasant ending to the currently inspiring movement in Hong Kong.
I could say that the Chinese leadership is on a self-destructive course—but, hell, I have said that about America at countless stages. For now, thanks to Hai Zhang; consider reading these items; and most sincere admiration and best wishes to the people of Hong Kong.